Fassbinder's Spin on Sirk: ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL

Thursday, September 13th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf, 1973) was written by John Bennett, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Fear Eats the Soul will screen at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 16 in the Chazen Museum of Art as part of our Fassbinder series and also as the middle film in an unofficial trilogy beginning with Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (screening September 15) and concluding with Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven (screening September 21).

By John Bennett

The blunt, philosophical statements that abound in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder might lead one to believe that the German director could have been the world’s most humorously pessimistic fortune cookie writer. Among the titles that sound like sad advice—Love Is Colder Than Death, Beware of a Holy Whore, etc.—Ali: Fear Eats the Soul stands out as one of the most notable. As if “fear eats the soul” might be misconstrued as too cheery, Fassbinder begins his 1974 film with another melancholy admonishment that could have easily served as a title of another one of his wonderfully bonkers feel-bad movies: “happiness is not always fun.” With these two simple, sad statements, Fassbinder begins his simple, sad film about Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), an older cleaning lady from Munich who begins a deeply emotional affair with Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a strapping migrant laborer from Morocco. As the two initiate their passionate affair, they must face the adversarial forces of Ali’s demanding and demeaning job, Emmi’s selfish children, and, most stingingly, the unconcealed racism and condescension of Emmi’s neighbors and coworkers.

In both story and style, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul owes a great deal to the excessive melodramas of Douglas Sirk—specifically Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955), in which an older woman begins an affair with a younger man in an uptight and gossipy American town. Fassbinder more or less grafted this plot template onto Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, making the heroine older, the hero a foreigner, the neighbors nastier, and the children lazier and stupider. Fassbinder drew not only from the story of Sirk’s film, but also its mise-en-scène. In a 1971 article extolling the virtues of Sirk’s films, Fassbinder wrote that Sirk made films “with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, with all these crazy things that make it worthwhile.” Fassbinder populates his frames with similarly ostentatious imagery. Brightly colored costumes with elaborate designs burst at the neckline with severe collars, not unlike the costumes Dorothy Malone wore in Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1957). Like Sirk, Fassbinder lights his actors in a bright, confrontational way that leaves no flicker of affect unobserved and in a way that casts shadows of stair railings and window grates in large decorative patterns on walls.

Yet Fassbinder takes care to put his own spin on this style of mise-en-scène as well. Where Sirk uses movement of both camera and subject, Fassbinder seems to value stillness. Emmi’s gossipy neighbors or lunching coworkers adorn stairways and halls with the frozenness of statues. A similar stillness pervades long shots that observe and frame characters through doorways. The film’s close-ups linger on expressions, frozen with emotion, for several seconds before a character begins to speak. Sirk gave full stylistic voice to his characters emotional lives. In Ali, Fassbinder gives his images and story a Sirkian intensity, but arrests the fluidity of Sirk’s style, making the passions of the film simmer in a frustrated slow burn.

In addition to being an intellectual melodrama, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a film that is interested in both the immigrant experience in Germany as well as German xenophobia. This was not the first time Fassbinder had addressed this issue on the screen. In his second feature, Katzelmacher (1969), the director stepped in front of the lens to play a Greek migrant worker who faces harassment at the hands of young, listless Münchner. As is baldly apparent in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, many German characters openly harbor viciously racist attitudes towards African immigrants. The film also doesn’t shy away from the systemic disadvantages that immigrants face. When Ali is rushed to the hospital with a stomach ulcer, a doctor with the bedside manner of an undertaker informs Emmi that many migrant workers develop them due to the stress of their working conditions and that Ali will be back in the hospital before long.

These moments of xenophobia are plainly expressed by the film, but a closer look forces us to ask a more uncomfortable question: just how enlightened is Emmi? Though it is alluring to accept a somewhat pat interpretation of the film in which Emmi is a simple yet benevolent older woman, her statements about the Nazi regime deserve more scrutiny. During her first meeting with Ali, Emmi alludes to her own stint as a member of the Nazi party. Though she does make the membership sound as if it were compulsory, she nevertheless talks about the time with not a small hint of nostalgia. Later, she takes Ali to a restaurant whose sole virtue for her seems to be that it was a place where Hitler used to go to eat. More blatantly, Emmi begins bossing Ali around and showing him off as a physical specimen once she regains favor with her coworkers who had previously shunned her over the romance. These details should be taken into consideration along with Emmi’s apparent comfort around Ali and his friends in our ultimate estimation of the character.

On the macrocosmic level, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul deals with the social world of Germany in the 1970s. On a more intimate level, the social world of Fassbinder and his stable of skilled actors bleeds into the film as well. As Fassbinder said in a 1974 interview about the film: “at some point films have to stop being films.” Brigitte Mira had, in real life, been in a relationship with a much younger man during the making of the film. Fassbinder himself had a fairly tumultuous relationship with El Hedi ben Salem. The director shows up in the film as the beer-swilling louse husband of Krista, Emmi’s daughter—a role played by the versatile Irm Hermann, with whom Fassbinder had lived for a period of time. If so much of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul feels true to life despite its florid, stilted stylization, it may be because the film is true to life on scales both vast and intimate.

A Cinema of Beautiful Devastation: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS

Thursday, September 13th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) was written by Erica Moulton, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of All That Heaven Allows will screen at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 15 at 7 p.m. Sirk's film screens as a prelude to two additional screenings of movies directly inspired by All That Heaven Allows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (screening September 16) and Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven (screening September 21).

By Erica Moulton

The reevaluation and reappreciation of Douglas Sirk happened only a few years after the release of his run of melodramas in the 1950s that included Magnificent Obsession (1954), Written on the Wind (1956), and of course, All That Heaven Allows (1955). While American critics cast aspersions on the heightened emotions and expressionistic style of Sirk’s films with Universal, across the Atlantic the critics and filmmakers that would soon form the French New Wave glommed on Sirk’s eloquent and emotional cinema. Only four years after the release of All That Heaven Allows, Jean-Luc Godard was singing Sirk’s praises in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, writing that his 1958 film A Time to Love and a Time to Die had “set his cheeks on fire.” Sirk’s status as an auteur of the highest degree was solidified by a series of interviews he gave with the French cinema journal and a piece written by Jean-Luc Comolli in 1967. American critics and scholars caught on by the 1970s and now forty years later, Sirk’s films are universally acknowledged to be among the most impressive films to ever be produced within the Hollwood studio system.

The irony of Sirk’s critical reappraisal is that the facets of his filmmaking that were counted against him at the time of his films’ initial release—their status as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’, their use of artifice and stylization, their heightened emotions—are now the traits that are singled out for celebration. All That Heaven Allows exhibits the characteristic Sirkian touches, including its melodramatic plot: it follows a wealthy middle-aged widow played by Jane Wyman who forges a relationship with her gardener (Rock Hudson) and faces the scorn of her callous grown children (named Kay and Ned) and the country club denizens as a result. Wyman and Hudson worked with Sirk the year before in Magnificent Obsession and proved a popular enough onscreen pairing for Universal to greenlight a reunion right away. Both actors give sensitive, nuanced performances, but as with all of Sirk’s films, everything within the frame is given equal weight to what an actor may be doing in any given shot. In All That Heaven Allows, everything from the art direction to the lighting to the use of props is gorgeously calibrated to convey the inner life of Jane Wyman’s character, Cary Scott.

Film is a communicative artform, but Sirk is unique in how carefully he uses every inch of the frame, including the corners and the edges, to tell the story. As is his custom, reflective surfaces play an important role in conveying the psychological dispositions of characters. A standout moment from early in the film occurs when Cary stares into her vanity mirror as her children come into her bedroom. The camera pushes in and lingers on the reflected reunion as she goes to greet them, suggesting that her relationship with them is more of a façade than it initially seems. Reflected surfaces form a motif throughout All That Heaven Allows, culminating in one of the most devastating images ever produced in the history of cinema. I won’t spoil the moment for those who have not seen the film, but suffice to say, Sirk’s position on the rise of television is not left ambiguous.

The coordinated use of color palettes is also a treasured feature of the film. The saturated jewel tones of the country club set (Agnes Moorehead is introduced in a ravishing cobalt blue sweater set) are played against the earthen palette of Rock Hudson’s Ron and his eccentric, country-dwelling friends. The most expressionistic use of color and lighting comes when Cary is confronted by Ned and Kay about her plans to marry Ron. Each of her son’s verbal threats of abandonment register on Cary’s face, as the light sculpts its contours, highlighting her devastation. In the next scene, Kay weeps into Cary’s arms and begs her not to marry Ron while the kaleidoscopic light of a circular window throws unnatural oranges, pinks and greens over the two women. Sirk’s minute attention to detail makes for a thrilling viewing experience. In any given scene, you can be assured that he gave equal thought to the ice forming on the window panes behind Cary and Ron and to the words they are saying to each other. But to Sirk, both of those things are necessary and integral to communicating Cary’s emotional journey. 

There is a sense that audiences nowadays are too sophisticated for melodrama. Dedicating a level of artistic rigor to the seemingly small, intimate problems of everyday life, in this case the romantic affairs of a middle-aged woman, is nearly unheard of in the Hollwood of today. All That Heaven Allows is also steeped in the social mores of the Eisenhower era, rendering the impediments to Cary and Ron’s love (their age and class difference) absurd to contemporary viewers. Upon revisiting the film, however, I found that the situations it presented were especially relevant to modern life. As a society that experiences life mediated by reflected surfaces that constantly invite judgement, we could all probably use a dose of Ron’s brand of transcendentalist-inflected individualism.


THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: Lightness in the Face of Mortal Horrors

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) were written by Leah Steuer, PhD candidate in the Media & Cultural Studies division of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of The Little Shop of Horrors from the Jon Davison & Joe Dante Collection at the Academy Film Archive screened at the Cinematheque on September 8. The screening was presented in conjunction with University Theater's production of the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken musical Little Shop of Horrors, which returns on September 13.

By Leah Steuer

Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop is a desperate, straining sort of place, the kind of dying business that litters the bad part of town. It’s packed floor-to-ceiling with ragged blossoms, frumpy stalks, and signs that shrilly entreat the wandering bargain-hunter: “LOTS PLANTS CHEAP,” “We don’t LETTING YOU SPEND so much.” The same customers show up each week with the same complaints, from the aptly-named Mrs. Shiva (always in need of a funeral arrangement for an endless line of dying relatives) to local dentist Dr. Farb, who’s never above haggling for a cheap office plant. The frazzled proprietor Mushnik (Mel Welles) has only two employees holding the place together, and Audrey (Jackie Joseph) and Seymour (Jonathan Haze) are sweet enough kids but both a few blooms short of a bouquet. Life seems hopeless for all involved. That is, until Seymour brings in a shocking horticultural discovery that starts an uncontrollable flow of cash - and blood - all the way down Skid Row.

Roger Corman’s surprise B-movie hit The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is zippier, zanier, juicier, and darker than it has a right to be; the film was reportedly shot in just two days and one night. Certainly, the production crumbles around the edges, with its jumpy transitions and endearingly home-made set pieces (particularly the carnivorous Venus Flytrap at the film’s center), but the spit, glue, and papier-mache of it all just adds to the fun. Corman had just finished his previous feature in record time, a satirical cheapie called A Bucket of Blood (1959) about a waiter who stumbles into artistic success by presenting his accidental murders as sculptures. Endeavoring to re-create the speedy production on a bet, writer Charles Griffith quickly re-wrote a new story onto the plot bones of Bucket, and most of the crew got right back to work shooting on an empty set left behind in the same building. Corners were cut at every turn, from the sitcom-like camera setups, to the limited rehearsals, to the hiring of local bums as production assistants.

Indeed, as one of the dirtiest and fastest efforts in Corman’s oeuvre, Little Shop finds extra charm in weirdness that never got a rewrite. Griffith’s florid, pulpy, off-the-wall writing shines throughout, beginning with a voice-over welcome to Skid Row, where “the tragedies are deeper, the ecstasies wilder, and the crime rate is considerably higher than anywhere else.” The bumbling, underdeveloped detectives Joe Finke and Frank Stoolie (satirizing Dragnet’s Joe Friday and Frank Smith) offer some of Little Shop’s funniest fake-noir dialogue. Nonsensical words and phrases become perfect character flourishes: “Isn’t it empirical?” squeaks Audrey, admiring the growing plant-monster, dubbed Audrey Jr. “It grows like a cold sore on the lip,” answers a pleased Mushnik.

The film’s most famous cameo comes from a young Jack Nicholson, chewing up the scenery as a masochist at the dentist’s office who eagerly greets the drill with an orgasmic cry of “Don’t stop now!” There’s bite and delight in every pitter-patter exchange amongst this menagerie of creeps, aided by gamely bizarre performances. Welles makes the most of his expressive face, delivering Mushnik’s barbs in a loud, powerful Turkish-Jewish accent. Haze’s weak, clumsy Seymour is exactly the kind of man who might be manipulated by a hungry plant. Griffith himself steps into several minor roles, including voicing Audrey Jr. itself with great nasal relish. And as in all Corman’s best B-flicks, the supporting characters often lend the best color and sharpen up the story. Take regular customer Fouch (played by Corman collaborator Dick Phillips), who munches on carnations for breakfast. “Oh! Such a thing, eating flowers!” exclaims Mrs. Shiva. “Hey, don’t knock it till you try it,” Fouch dryly replies—and in a nice twist of irony, it’s the plant-eating man who first encourages Seymour to nurture and display his man-eating plant. Indeed, many of Griffith’s puns gesture to the danger of the burgeoning blood-sucker so quickly that they’re easily missed; look no further than dimbulb Audrey’s love of “Caesarean salad.”

Though there’s fun and irony to be had amongst the mess, Little Shop carries some despair in it too (right down to its abrupt and gloomy ending). We often miss the heftier themes that undergird “light” film fare, from mid-century cheapies to teen movies to romantic comedies; these works too are built upon complex thematic cornerstones like ambition, moral ambiguity, and mortality. Indeed, it could be said that the success of the B-film lies in its immediate appeal to a more visceral place - a place where the audience swings wildly between fear, pleasure, sadness, and joy - and Little Shop occasionally pokes a sharp tendril into this place between its lighter moments. If Skid Row is all decay, Audrey Jr. represents growth: a chance for Seymour, Audrey, Mushnik, and the others to experience the beautiful, unexpected, and new. But Little Shop gradually reveals, particularly through Seymour’s tragic arc, that possibility always has a price. Raised by a hypochondriac mother, too shy to approach the girl of his dreams or escape his dead-end job, Seymour sees Audrey Jr. as a beacon of hope in a dark and grimy world. However, as he is coerced into providing blood to help it grow (and bring in money for Mushnik’s shop), Seymour finds himself repeatedly making the choice to kill. Others around him similarly find themselves torn between the glamor of the giant talking plant, and the terrible secret it holds in its roots and buds.

Though the 1982 stage musical adaptation of Little Shop and Frank Oz’s 1986 remake lean more heavily into these dark themes, they miss the magic Corman creates in nimbly dashing between these extremes; there’s something particularly delightful about the original Little Shop’s lightness in the face of mortal horrors. Though Audrey Jr.’s prop design leaves much to be desired, the image of its victims “growing” from its bulbs is particularly inspired and haunting. This lively, weird, and electric little movie snakes its vines around our ankles while we’re laughing, overcoming its modest resources to find surprising depths in its mad brand of black comedy.

The Swoon and Doom of DRAG ME TO HELL

Thursday, April 19th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell (2009) were written by WUD Film’s Kristen Johnson-Salazar. A 35mm print of Drag Me to Hell will be screened in 4070 Vilas Hall on Saturday, April 21 at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Drag Me to Hell's cinematographer and UW alum Peter Deming. Admission is free!

By Kristen Johnson-Salazar

There is something utterly fascinating about doomed characters who you, as the viewer, hope will defeat the evil presence looming over their heads, while also wanting to watch the horrible misfortunes that invade their lives. However, like the genre of horror-comedy itself, there must be a balance to the schadenfreude. Evil Dead II and The Cabin in the Woods exemplify this effect of watching horrid events transpire, while never forgetting their comically outlandish and goofy nature.

Sam Raimi understands this balance. For many of the films he directs, he mixes horror and comedy to play with the audience’s expectations. Raimi has written and directed well-known cult classics, many of them synonymous with the horror-comedy genre. This is what makes Drag Me to Hell both a return to form as well as a contemporary Raimi shock, schlock, and fun film. The story was written right after 1993’s Army of Darkness; however, the idea was shelved while Raimi directed the Spider-Man films. Finally, when the third and final film in that franchise was released, Raimi dug up the screenplay titled The Curse, which would become Drag Me to Hell.

Drag Me to Hell is also a return for cinematographer Peter Deming, who previously worked with Raimi on 1987’s Evil Dead II. Since then, Deming continued working in a number of genres with other notable directors, including Wes Craven (Scream 2), David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees) and, most notably, David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.). In the last decade, Deming again reunited with Raimi for Oz the Great and Powerful and with Lynch for his revival of the Twin Peaks series. As a cinematographer, Deming builds lived-in worlds, even when those worlds are filled with supernatural and frightening beings. From all the films Deming has worked on, it is incredible to see his recognition of horror tropes and how he deconstructs and reorders them on screen. In Drag Me to Hell, Raimi and Deming play with our assumptions of a scene and explore why we care about characters like Christine (Alison Lohman), and why we want to see them overcome their doom. In his production notes, Deming writes, “From the beginning, Sam and I talked about being with her as much as we subjectively could throughout the film. We stayed right on Christine’s face a lot of the time. We covered scenes and gave her extra-tight close-ups, because we want the audience to be in her place.” This movie wouldn’t work without us caring about Christine.

Throughout the film, we, the audience, remain focused on Christine. It is almost inconceivable that her initially bright world edges into one of darkness and decay. Deming wanted realistic lighting to be used for this transformation. Even the scenes involving the garage or street lamps were never given corrected bulbs to add to this “heightened sense of realism.” This realistic lighting shifts to darkness as Christine descends into the world of the supernatural, often shown in canted angles and close-ups. Deming recounted that, “Sam loves B-movie stuff. He really embraces the wind out of nowhere and the camera shaking, and the inventive, interactive lighting. He eats that up.” These features can be seen during the séance, one of many moments when Christine tries to get her curse lifted. The séance scene is as fantastic as it is wild. It’s a visual and audio overload that calls back to bonkers scenes of Evil Dead II, when all things that could go wrong do, in comedic fashion, of course. 

Since it results from an everyday occurrence for any loan officer, the horror she suffers through seems hyperbolic, yet it fits perfectly within Raimi and Deming’s hell. Christine’s ordinary nature makes her trial of escape that much more impactful and heart wrenching. If you are familiar with Raimi’s work, you have noticed that he loves the everyday person who has to become extraordinary through the supernatural. Like Evil Dead’s Ash Williams and Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, Christine finds herself in unfortunate circumstances and must fight to get her life back to the status quo; however, once it’s changed, it will never be the same. This returns us to the idea of the doomed character. How do we care for Christine, while knowing that her doomed fate is all but sealed? She doesn’t give up and continues to do everything that is possible and at her disposal. To the audience’s dismay, her actions even become extreme, hoping to lift the curse. But is that even enough?

Drag Me to Hell, like much of Raimi and Deming’s work, is visually off the walls and bombastically hilarious. It is everything you expect and more from a Raimi movie with this title, and it never lets you forget it.

DESERT HEARTS: The Biggest Little Love Story in the World

Thursday, March 15th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts (1985) were written by Pauline Lampert, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored DCP of Desert Hearts, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Janus Films, will screen in our UCLA Festival of Preservation series on Saturday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The DCP has been digitally restored by The Criterion Collection/Janus Films and UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and Sundance Institute.

By Pauline Lampert

The legacy of Donna Deitch’s 1985 romantic drama, Desert Hearts, typically concerns its standing as the first American film to feature a lesbian couple in which neither partner dies, is institutionalized, or winds up in a heterosexual relationship. It is an unabashedly queer film, made on a shoestring budget and set in 1959 Eisenhower-era America, and it was released during the height of Reagan-era conservatism. A film of this subject matter is a purposeful affront to the social values of both the time in which it is set and the time in which it was released, and yet it managed to find a small but loyal fan base which has continued to flourish in the intervening years. This story of triumph mirrors the narrative of the film, in which its characters learn to rebuild their lives in a similarly unforgiving climate.

To those unused to the oppressive heat and parched soil of the desert, such a landscape may seem foreboding or even dangerous. It is not just hellscapes that are evoked in the terrain of sand-dunes and tumbleweeds, the desert also has a purgatorial connotation. It is a liminal space-- neither here nor there--a land where the displaced are left to wander for generations until they are deemed fit for polite society. However, despite what the cultural or biblical associations would have us believe, there are plenty of species that manage to survive in these areas despite the limited resources. The desert, it seems, is made for creatures who know scarcity and have learned to live without.

Desert Hearts’s co-protagonists, Vivian Bell and Cay Rivvers, are two such creatures of this sparsity. Helen Shaver plays Vivian, a high-strung Professor of English at Columbia University who has thrown her life into disarray by ending her marriage of over a decade and running off to Reno to begin divorce proceedings. Vivian’s sojourn to Nevada is in part a function of the state’s liberal divorce policies. From the 1930s through the 70s, Nevada was the go-to destination for a quickie divorce. This phenomenon became known as the “Reno Cure,” where women would establish residency by living in a hotel or dude ranch for six weeks, and eventually be granted license to rid themselves of their unhealthy marriages.

While the practicality of Vivian’s sabbatical in Nevada is apparent, the reasoning behind the self-inflicted upheaval is more opaque. She has no concrete justification for getting this divorce, at least none that she is prepared to articulate. When her lawyer enquires about grounds for divorce, the only explanation she can offer is that her marriage was polite and professionally advantageous, but never full of love or happiness. She claims she wants out of this marriage so she can pursue “an honest life.”

And so Vivian casts herself out of her ill-fitting life amongst the New York City intelligentsia, and sets off for the no-man’s-land of the Parker Guest Ranch, in Reno, Nevada. It’s there where she meets the free-spirited ingénue, Cay Rivvers (played by Patricia Charbonneau). Cay provides the ideal romantic foil for Vivian. Cay is outgoing and open about her sexuality, whereas Vivian is shy and repressed. However, like Vivian, Cay’s life is missing something that she can’t quite identify, but has something to do with surviving in an existential limbo of working rotten waitressing jobs at the local casino and the lack of viable romantic partners. Though ten years Vivian’s junior, the pair share an immediate connection that transcends their age and background. It is established quickly that Cay is able to intuit what Vivian’s desire for “an honest life” really means without Vivian having to directly communicate her feelings.

One of the film’s great strengths is its judicious use of expository dialogue. While Natalie Cooper’s screenplay does have some overt declarations of love, as well as some pointed homophobic language, the script mostly provides scaffolding for the production design and the nuanced performances. The film’s director of photography, Robert Elswit, (who would go on to win an Oscar for shooting the similarly arid terrain of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2008 film There Will Be Blood) lends the film a dusty romanticism. Though the film is a period piece, the sets never feel overly manicured or yoked to a specific time. From the kitschy Ranch House to the dingy hotel rooms, all the locations are imbued with a well-worn familiarity and comfort.

The photography also highlights the small gestures of Shaver and Charbonneau’s central performances. Shaver’s role in shaping Vivian’s character arc deserves special attention, as she serves a dual function as both the object of, and the primary obstacle to, the love story. When Vivian first appears onscreen her posture and costuming recall the icy remove of a Hitchcock heroine--specifically Kim Novak in Vertigo--with her fastidiously fashioned spiraled hair and grey pencil skirt. Shaver’s performance is a masterclass in subtlety. Throughout the course of the film she slowly unmasks the reserves of anxiety that lie underneath Vivian’s chilly demeanor.

Watch for a scene in the first act when Cay takes Helen shopping for some more Nevada-appropriate attire. Shaver’s comportment slowly alters as Vivian becomes more comfortable in Cay’s presence. Her arched shoulders start to relax and the stoicism that marked her character at the beginning gives way to an endearing tenderness. 

Despite all of its formal and narrative triumphs, Desert Hearts was initially met with indifference by mainstream viewers. The reviews of the film were often dismissive, particularly Vincent Canby’s sneering take-down of the film’s earnestness and representation of female sexuality. However, the film found a small but vocal group of advocates. Deitch herself was among the most ardent champions of her film and helped cultivate and sustain the fan base. Eventually interest in the film became so strong that in 2017 Criterion saw fit to put out a beautifully restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-Ray. How fitting that a film that is in part about second chances and forging a circuitous path toward happiness should find itself the subject of renewed interest from critics and audiences. It is heartening to find that a film as good as this one can flourish even in the most unlikely of environments. It goes to show that although the landscape of quality lesbian filmmaking can often feel like a dustbowl, it can also be warm and full of life, especially when sharing it with fellow desert-dwelling film fans.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: The Beautiful Mess of Intelligent People

Friday, March 2nd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) were written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Trouble in Paradise will screen in our UCLA Film & Television Archive Festival of Preservation on Saturday, March 3 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Print courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation.

By Matthew Connolly

“It could have been marvelous,” sighs the man. “Divine,” laments the woman. “Wonderful,” responds the gentleman. The scene finds two lovers potentially parting forever, the air thick with regret over what could have been, were it not for the circumstances driving them asunder. Mind you, said circumstances are that the man has been conning the woman throughout their brief affair, masquerading as her loyal secretary in a plot to abscond several hundred thousand francs from her personal safe. (Did I mention that he’s doing so while involved with another woman, also a seasoned thief?) And yet, despite the knowledge of the con by both parties, their affection for one another is not a joke. A genuine affinity has formed between them—a shared sexual desire, yes, but also a sensibility that sees crime, passion, and longing as all mixed together in the same bracing cocktail of human experience.

By the time you get to this scene in Trouble in Paradise, such pirouettes between urbane wit and knowing pathos have become almost commonplace. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece exemplifies its director’s remarkable plays with mood, innuendo, humor, and emotion as succinctly as any film in his oeuvre and does so with an ease that belies its meticulous construction and pitch-perfect tonal control. Like its protagonist, it conceals its ever-whirring mind behind a veneer of effortless charm and sophistication.

That would be Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), an infamous thief whom we first meet after a successful robbery in Venice. He is greeted at his hotel room by Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a wily pickpocket masquerading as a wealthy socialite, for a dinner engagement. As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that both have figured out the other’s criminal identities, having successfully lifted multiple items off the other (money, jewelry, a garter belt) throughout the meal. The scene embodies the essence of the film’s approach to romance—an endless game between people whose affections are filtered through a private language of insinuation and playful one-upmanship.

Together, Gaston and Lily plot their next job: robbing Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the wealthy heiress to a perfume empire. Gaston steals and then returns Mariette’s handbag at the opera, ingratiating himself to the point that she hires him as her personal secretary. How personal Mariette intends the position to be soon becomes clear. Gaston finds himself not only torn between his plan to rob Mariette and his increasingly mutual feelings toward her, but also between Mariette and Lily, who grows increasingly suspicious of Gaston’s true feelings toward their mutual target.

Lubitsch is known as a master of the double entendre in classical Hollywood cinema, though it’s worth noting the immense contributions of writer Samson Raphaelson, a frequent Lubitsch collaborator who wrote the script based on a play by Aladar Laszlo. (The credits somewhat confusingly name Raphaelson as the film’s screenwriter while crediting Grover Jones as the “adapter” of Laszlo’s stage work.) The film contains an endless string of deliciously crafted bon mots. “She’s says he’s her secretary, and he says he’s her secretary” a party guest observes as she eyes Mariette and Gaston looking cozy together at a midday soiree. She pauses and shrugs: “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he is her secretary.” Such winking suggestion is delightful enough, but it’s Lubitsch’s handling of visual humor that marks Trouble in Paradise as a film whose winking eye is matched by a wise, beating heart. Lubitsch constructs a series of running gags around the adjacent locations of Mariette’s bedroom door and Gaston’s office door—who goes in, who comes out, who answers when butler Jacques (Robert Greig) knocks. It would be the stuff of slamming-door farce, except that doors are rarely slammed in Trouble in Paradise. They’re gingerly opened, or softly closed, or hovered near as someone tries (futilely) to untangle logical planning from erotic impulse.

The remarkable cast of Trouble in Paradise maneuver through these comic and romantic complications with otherworldly grace. Marshall, Francis, and Hopkins form an impeccable love triangle, with each performer giving off an expertly-calibrated mixture of urbane wit and poignant emotional confusion. You genuinely understand the connection between each one of them, making the final pairings at once inevitable and wistful. The film also showcases two of the great dolts of classical Hollywood comedy in Mariette’s two ineffectual suitors, played to boobish perfection by Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles.

So often when discussing Trouble in Paradise’s creator, we return to a valuable if shopworn phrase: “the Lubitsch touch.” Broadly, it connotes an affinity for double entendre, a relaxed attitude toward sexual mores, a general sophistication surrounding matters of the heart. No arguments here. And still, I feel that Trouble in Paradise reveals how Lubitsch’s cinema transcends the clever handling of a naughty joke or the shimmering elegance of an adroitly-filmed cocktail party. To borrow a title of another Lubitsch classic, his films provide a design for living—one that cherishes complexity, understands human foibles, and delights in the beautiful mess that the most intelligent people make when they fall in love. His cinema is one of arched eyebrows and forgiving hearts, and you can hardly separate the two at any given moment.

So many scenes in Trouble in Paradise embody this spirit of tender wordliness, but one always sticks with me. In a moment of regret, Gaston rings up a florist. He orders five-dozen roses to be delivered to Mariette, deep red like the lipstick color he insisted made her look her most beautiful. It’s a genuine token of remembrance for a romance he never expected. Gaston is about to hang up the phone when there’s one more question asked from the florist. We don’t hear what it is, and we don’t need to. “Oh,” Gaston responds. “Charge it to Madame Colet.”

THE GUILT OF JANET AMES: A Quintessential & Self-Reflexive "Psychological Picture"

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Janet Ames will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood on February 25 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Erica Moulton

The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947) is a film of its time, in every possible sense. It fits neatly into the tradition of the "psychological picture" that became so prevalent in late 1940s Hollywood. The psychological film could be considered an offshoot of the detective genre, with films like The Dark Mirror (1946), The Snake Pit (1948), and Whirlpool (1949) taking up the fractured psyches of women and enlisting male psychiatrists as brain sleuths, rummaging around in their heads for the origins of their neuroses. Perhaps the greatest stylistic and narrative influence on the film is Hitchcock's ode to Freud, Spellbound, released two years before The Guilt of Janet Ames, which inverts the male/female roles, but like Janet Ames, also espouses the power of psychoanalysis (or Hollywood's bastardized version of it) to rid people of their psychological woes. Spellbound featured Ingrid Bergman trying to cure Gregory Peck of his trauma-induced amnesia by analyzing his dreams (in a sequence designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali). In The Guilt of Janet Ames, we get Melvyn Douglas trying to cure Rosalind Russell of a guilt complex brought on by her husband's death in WWII.

While Ames faithfully adheres in many ways to schemas set up by previous psychological pictures, it is most notable for its unusual narrational strategies, which are enumerated in David Bordwell's new book Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. The film begins with something of a jolt, as Russell's titular character is introduced looking at a bar from across a busy city street, only to be struck by a car moments later. Douglas' character, Smitty, an alcoholic journalist, discovers that his name is on a list that Janet was carrying with her when she had her accident. He pieces together that she is the widow of a man in his unit during the war, who sacrificed himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Both Janet and Smitty are reeling from their guilt surrounding this past event, but rather than using flashbacks, a common device in the psycho-drama, the filmmakers hit upon a new device that even gets a name in the film: the word picture.

Smitty proffers this psychoanalytic technique to Janet, inspired by the eponymous character from George du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson, who Smitty explains "refused to let a prison cell make him stay put." Bordwell observes that "this literary parallel motivates the premise that Janet in her wheelchair can mentally visit David's far-flung comrades. But the film also draws on a second aspect of du Maurier's tale: that a man and a woman could sustain their love by entering one another's dreams... it posits a shared fantasy [between Smitty and Janet]" (336). This shared fantasy is expressed in a series of mental projections, which Smitty calls "word pictures," that follow Janet as she confronts each of the five men on her list. This atypical narrational device is buoyed by distinctive stylistic choices: each "word picture" is expressed with a unique visual look designed to elicit a response from Janet as she begins to confront her marital problems.

Art director Stephen Goosón (who designed the infamous hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai in the same year as Ames) clearly drew inspiration from Spellbound for the first fantasy sequence that takes place in a cocktail lounge, with its shadowy corners and warped silhouetted patrons. The distinctive style of each "word picture" sequence peels the corners of Janet's psyche back a little farther until she has nothing left to hide. Unsurprisingly, in her vulnerable state, she begins to fall in love with Smitty, and at the film's end, she paints a "word picture" of their shared future together.

A final note about the film—in addition to its novel narrative techniques, the film is also striking for the last "word picture" sequence that features a young Sid Caesar as a comedian who mocks the "psychological picture." Performing with a thick Austrian accent, Caesar presents himself as a famous Viennese psychoanalyst who consults with Hollywood producers on how best to depict mental ailments onscreen. This scene of jarring reflexivity doesn't seem to be reflected in the rest of the film proper, but it is telling that the filmmakers were sure that audiences in 1947 would be familiar enough with the sub-genre that they would get the joke. And even more remarkable still that despite including an extended scene mocking the psycho-drama, they would make a film that hit every predictable beat of the psycho -drama, including the rather improbable romantic finale.

Damien Chazelle Events: Reminders

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Since we anticipate over-capacity attendance for our Damien Chazelle In Person events this Friday and Saturday, February 23 and 24, we have set up the following procedures:

  • Queues will begin forming 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. Friday screening of La La Land and the 12 noon Saturday screening of Chronicle of a Summer. Queues will start forming outside the 4th level northwest entrace of 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue.
  • Doors to 4070 Vilas Hall will open at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.
  • Seating is first-come, first-served. Place holding in line and seat saving inside the cinema will not be permitted.

Stretching Out the Suspense: SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sorry, Wrong Number, courtesy of the Library of Congress, will screen on Sunday, February 18 at 2 p.m. in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood.

Many unanswered questions remain when you finish listening to “Sorry, Wrong Number,” an episode of the CBS radio show Suspense written by Louise Fletcher in 1943. Who is this woman confined to her bed? Who is her husband and why is he not there? Who are the people on the other end of the wrong number? Why is she so rude so quickly to the poor telephone operators? I’m being suitably vague for the uninitiated among us. That being said, the modern concept of spoilers was a significant consideration for the writers of the film version of Sorry, Wrong Number released in 1948. At that point, the episode of Suspense was so popular that general audiences would know the storyline. Therefore the filmmakers had a question that was far more important than the ones listed above: How do you entertain an audience with a story centered around suspense when they already know the end?

David Bordwell answers this question in his book Reinventing Hollywood, explaining how you “stretch out the suspense and multiply mysteries without seeming to pad”. The key to this is what Bordwell refers to as “1940s character shading”. The film takes it upon itself to answer all of the unanswered questions from the radio broadcast, exposing the limits of that particular medium while on the other hand highlighting the radio format’s strengths. Limits do not necessarily mean weaknesses, and in many ways the two media have different goals. We have a significant list of unanswered questions at the end of the radio broadcast, but what is most important is the fact that we don’t care. The title of the show was called Suspense and “Sorry, Wrong Number” delivers. All we need to know is that a woman is confined to her bed, a murder is about to happen, and no one is going to help her. That is enough to fill a half hour of escalating frustration and fear, as Mrs. Stevenson encounters increasing levels of incompetence that render the phone, as a method of protection, mute.

With the extra hour to contend with, the filmmakers cannot follow through on the same strategy. Mrs. Stevenson has to be someone beyond a terrified invalid. Her situation has to have a reason for being so dire. What results is a sort of prequel, made up of the flashbacks Bordwell highlights in his book. Not only do these flashbacks create a drama that will make the whole situation almost plausible, it also creates characters out of placeholders. It speaks to the strengths of Agnes Moorehead as an actress that she takes the radio version of Mrs. Stevenson and elevates her beyond just a distressed voice on the phone, but once again, that characterization is not sustainable for a ninety-minute film. By recasting her with Barbara Stanwyck, the film adds a level of mystery that wasn’t there in the radio show. Stanwyck’s previous roles as a femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) and a hardened comedienne in Ball of Fire (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941) established her persona as woman who is not quite so innocent. Stanwyck’s casting allows the audience to doubt her as a narrator, which comes into play after her conversation with Dr. Alexander.

As Bordwell elaborates, the casting of Burt Lancaster as a partner for Stanwyck is the key element that makes this a feature-length narrative, rather than a setup that merely serves to give everyone a good jump. The two stars transform the story into a complex marriage plot beyond the drama with the phone. To elaborate further would give too much away, but in the end the casting and the flashbacks expand a rather excellent radio play, that expertly manipulates your emotions and gives you a memorable scare, into a complicated and entertaining mystery film centered not just on the phone, but the people on the end of the line.

Wilder in Wartime: FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO

Thursday, February 8th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Five Graves will screen in our "Reinventing Hollywood" series on Sunday, February 11 at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Tim Brayton

In his new book, Reinventing Hollywood, Madison's own David Bordwell singles out Five Graves to Cairo as an example of the kind of crisp, clear, straightforward narrative strategies that Hollywood screenwriters had become great at by the dawn of World War II. The film neatly introduces new conflicts and goals for the beleaguered British Cpl. John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) reliably at breaks between each of its four acts, while pairing his plot with a well-developed B-plot for French expatriate Mouche (Anne Baxter), that both complements and contrasts with his own. Complements, because both characters after all want the same thing: to beat the Germans in the form of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), who has at this point in the summer of 1942 enjoyed great success in his conquest of North Africa. Contrasts, because Bramble's strategic, patriotically-minded goal is incompatible with Mouche's more direct quest for personal vengeance.

There's certainly no denying the efficiency and clarity of the script by writing partners Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (the latter also directed, for just the second time in Hollywood). This should come as no surprise at all. By 1943, the duo had honed their skills on a full ten films, including comedy masterpieces like Ninotchka (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), Midnight, (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1939), and Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941). Five Graves to Cairo represents a major shift in tone, to be sure: prior to this, Brackett and Wilder had written only comedies or the occasional melodrama, never anything like the tense wartime thrills of this project. Still, the airtight plotting and timing demanded in comedy seems to have been an effective training ground for the very different generic requirements of this project.

Setting all that aside, as fine as the screenplay is for Five Graves to Cairo, we shouldn't allow our admiration for its narrative mechanics to get in the way of noticing that it's an equally strong representative of Hollywood filmmaking in other respects as well. The film received Oscar nominations for its cinematography, art direction, and editing, all of them well-deserved. John Seitz's black-and-white cinematography is a particular stand-out, effectively capturing the flat white expanse of the Mojave Desert (convincingly standing in for the Sahara) against the softer grey of the sky, an exaggerated contrast of shading and texture that suggests the isolating deadliness of the landscape to excellent effect.

The Oscars notwithstanding, the film's chief accomplishment, nearly 75 years after its premiere date, is probably its great strength as a thriller. Bordwell notes the skill with which Brackett and Wilder add complications and create ever-escalating trials for Bramble to overcome (first to survive the desert; next to outwit the Germans who think he's an undercover Nazi spy; then to solve the puzzle of the titular five graves, while the German Lt. Schwegler, played by Peter van Eyck, grows increasingly suspicious of his story). But it takes watching the film to appreciate how gracefully these complications are added, woven into the dialogue and character interactions so deftly that you only notice in retrospect that the film's conflict has completely shifted over the course of the last scene.

Above and beyond the film's narrative success as a thriller, we must also pay attention to the extraordinary skill with which Wilder the director executes the film's scenes of tension. We now know, with access to the subsequent 38 years of his career, what a remarkably uncharacteristic film this was for Wilder. It all but completely lacks the sardonic, satiric humor on full display in everything from unassailable classics like Sunset Blvd. (1950) to lesser known curiosities such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). It also stands out as the only pure thriller he ever directed. Despite this, the film is a strong example of its genre, from the very first moments of a seemingly abandoned tank chugging through the desert underneath the opening credits. Note the steady progression of opening images: first a wide angle of the tank in the middle of nowhere, which dissolves to a shot of the tank mostly filling the screen, allowing us to notice the body slumped out of the hatch. A second dissolve brings us right next to the body, firmly and morbidly answering the mystery posed in the first shot: what has happened to this tank? A hard cut next brings us inside, to where the dead man's hanging legs sway gently with the movement of the tank, over a floor littered with spent ammunition, providing further clarification of the violence that has befallen these dead soldiers. This wordless introduction, which ends by revealing the still-alive but delirious Bramble, is a miniature version of the strategy of this film, but also of the whole Hollywood approach to filmmaking: raise a question, answer it, answer it again with a different question. What's wrong with the tank? – whose body is that? – where did those shells come from? – we are quickly ushered into the ugly violence of war in just a few precise visuals. It's visual exposition at its finest.

The filmmakers' use of imagery to build a sense of danger remains constant throughout the film. In one early scene, Bramble hides behind a box with a decorative screen: Wilder and Seitz cover Tone in a crosshatch pattern of shadows that mimics his subsequent point-of-view shot as he looks through the screen to see Schwegler harassing hapless hotelier Farid (Akim Tamiroff), visually stressing Bramble's feeling of being confined with no place to run. A few shots later, Wilder exploits an ambiguous eyeline to make it seem that Shwegler has spotted Bramble – but instead, he was looking just above the concealed British soldier. The compositions and editing align perfectly to give us a momentary kick of dread that relaxes into a wary watchfulness; but we're always prepared for another kick, and it animates the film's tension throughout.

None of this is particularly special or artful, one might say, and that is of course exactly the point. Five Graves to Cairo matters not because it is an unmatched original, but because it so wholly embodies the strengths of 1940s filmmaking and screen storytelling. It is, no doubt, an atypically good version of 1940s filmmaking, but in most respects, this is exactly what 1940s Hollywood was capable of as a matter of course, and it's as an exemplar rather than as a one-off that the film remains worthy of study and admiration – and, no less, pure enjoyment.