LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: The Consummate - and Consuming - Movie Musical

Monday, October 9th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Little Shop of Horrors were written by Samantha Janes, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. Frank Oz' Director's Cut of Little Shop of Horrors will screen as part of the 1980s Fan Favorites series on Saturday, October 14 in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Samantha Janes

If you take a trip down to Little Shop of Horror’s Skid Row, you are bound to find a wandering Greek chorus that looks suspiciously like a Phil Spector girl group, a bespectacled exotic plant collector, and one mean green plant from outer space. Frank Oz's journey to bring Little Shop to the big screen began in 1985 when he signed on to direct a movie version of the hit off-Broadway musical of the same name. However, Oz was not the first choice to direct the movie, which was released at the end of 1986. Though he was well-known for performing several beloved characters on The Muppet Show and various Muppet films and for puppeteering the scene-stealing Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it was only after a series of stalls in pre-production that producer David Geffen began to woo Oz to the project. For Oz, it would be his first project as a director without his frequent collaborator Jim Henson, and with fourteen songs, a 1960s setting, and a rapidly evolving man-eating plant, it would make for a complex and ambitious feature debut. Thankfully, Oz, with the help of Howard Ashman, the writer of the book and lyrics for the 1982 off-Broadway production, was able to craft a script that would translate stage-bound theatrical elements from the musical onto the screen in a more cinematic manner.

The film presents the simple story of Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), a young exotic plant enthusiast in love with his coworker Audrey (Ellen Green). After a “total eclipse of the sun,” Seymour finds a strange plant that eventually becomes a more consuming project than he could have ever imagined. Audrey II, the bloodthirsty, man-eating plant that grows to tremendous size over the course of the film, became of particular importance to Oz, who wanted to create the creature practically and without the aid of blue screen or other optical effects. Oz brought all his knowledge and experience of puppetry to bear for the plant’s design, employing extensive animatronics operated by a crew of puppeteers he knew from his previous Henson days. With a new song written by Menken for the film called “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” Oz and the crew were tasked with creating a perfect lip-sync for the gigantic creature. Since the largest version of Audrey II required 20 to 30 people to operate, Oz realized that by shooting the plant’s scenes in a slower frame rate—12 or 16 frames per second, depending on the scene—he could speed it up in post-production without the crew needing to match the speed of the song. The resulting effect is essentially seamless.

Despite Oz’s achievements in bringing the film’s most famous creation to life, the film’s complex production was clouded by legal battles, budget concerns, and drastic revisions that cost the film its originally planned summer release date. The cinematic version of Little Shop of Horrors eventually made its way to theaters in December of 1986, making a modest profit before becoming a lucrative success on home video. However, the director’s cut of the film, one that included the original ending of the off-Broadway show, would remain lost to the world until 2012.

The history of the director’s cut of Little Shop of Horrors dates back to 1960 and the work of director  Roger Corman. Corman, known for his low budget genre films with American International Pictures (AIP) such as It Conquered the World (1956) and House of Usher (1960), worked with screenwriter Charles B. Griffith on developing The Passionate People Eater, later renamed The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The Little Shop of Horrors was shot during the last week of 1959 with mostly stock actors, including a pre-fame Jack Nicholson as the masochistic dental patient. Shot on a budget of $30,000, the film was re-released numerous times over the next few years to increasing success. But it was twenty years after the Corman film's original release that the story of Seymour and Audrey II would be revived into a production that would take off-Broadway by storm.

In 1982, writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken premiered their musical version off-off-Broadway (that’s two ‘offs’) to wondrous success. The stage production changed the story’s location from Los Angeles to New York, omitted certain characters, and created the trio of girls modeled and named after 1960s girl groups to act as the show’s Greek chorus. The biggest change was to the original film’s ending. In Corman’s film, Audrey II is ultimately defeated, though it costs Seymour his life. Without spoiling for those who haven’t seen it, the stage show and director’s cut of the film instead end on a note of apocalyptic cataclysm. While the ending was well received on stage, the use of the ending in Oz’s film adaptation would become a major bone of contention between Oz and his producer David Geffen.

While Oz had the support of Ashman in keeping the musical’s ending, Geffen warned Oz against leaving the audience on such a down note. As the film was in its final stages of production in spring of 1986, a test screening in San Jose cast a deep shadow of doubt of the film’s projected success. The original ending flopped with audiences and the negative response was enough to cause an upheaval in filming. Despite extravagant special effects that brought the show’s ending to life in ways impossible on stage, test audiences were still unhappy with the conclusion to Seymour and Audrey’s story. With the production already an expensive investment for Warner Bros., the final scenes were reshot to include a more traditional happy ending pairing off Seymour and Audrey in a vision of domestic bliss, as Audrey’s earlier song envisions, in a tract house that they share somewhere that’s green. For decades, Oz’s original ending was only the stuff of cinematic legend, briefly appearing in unfinished black and white form as a special feature on a 1998 DVD release, before being recalled from shelves at the request of producer David Geffen. In 2012, Warner Brothers finally released the original cut of the film, with the ending restored from the original color negatives and abiding by Frank Oz’s original production notes. While there is still debate among the Little Shop faithful over which cut of the film is superior, new and old fans alike can now experience the film in both of its permutations and decide for themselves how Frank Oz’s weird and wild sci-fi musical should have ended.

The Enduring Popularity of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

Monday, October 9th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China were written by Lori Lopez, Professor of Communication Arts and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at UW-Madison. Big Trouble in Little China screened at the Cinematheque on October 7 as part of the 1980s Fan Favorites Series and the 2023 Asian American Media Spotlight.

By Lori Lopez

John Carpenter’s 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China takes us into the mysterious underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown for a wild ride of martial arts action, fantasy adventure, and self-aware comedy. Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a loud-mouthed white truck driver who ends up embroiled in a zany quest to help his Chinese American friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his betrothed (Suzee Pai) from Chinatown villains before they can deplete her life force in exchange for immortality. It marked the fourth collaboration between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, following the TV movie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982). While Big Trouble was originally seen as a commercial flop, grossing only $11 million off a $19 million budget, it has since become celebrated as a cult classic, beloved for its campy tone, exaggerated characters, snappy one-liners, and hybrid genre sensibilities.

In some ways, it’s an exercise in showcasing several of the most offensive tropes in Asian American representational history. Big baddie David Lo Pan (James Hong, in one of his most iconic roles) is the living embodiment of Orientalism and Yellow Peril, a Fu Manchu-type ready to dominate the universe with his mystical evil powers. The Asian men are preternaturally gifted at martial arts, and while co-lead Wang Chi is superior in fighting, he keeps turning for assistance to the bigger, brawnier white protagonist Jack Burton. The only prominent Asian woman is a beautiful China doll with almost no lines of dialogue, a damsel in distress who must be saved from her own culture so she can finally get married and live happily ever after in America. Then there’s the titular Chinatown itself, presented here as a seething den of iniquity, full of exotic secrets, bizarre creatures, and excessive violence.

While these stereotypes are undeniable, it would be a mistake to ignore the winking fun that the film is striving for. Russell’s Jack Burton may look like the physical embodiment of the 1980s action star but watching him bluster his way through Chinatown, it’s clear his bravado and self-assurance are wildly unearned. He’s completely useless in a fight, makes hilarious blunders that endanger his team, and even ends up knocking himself unconscious just as the final showdown begins. Burton’s outsider status is nothing but a detriment, and his incompetence ends up positioning his “sidekick” Wang as the true hero of the story. It only makes sense that as the film closes, Burton drives off alone in his truck without so much as a goodbye kiss from his love interest (Kim Cattrall), while Wang ends up with the girl of his dreams.

Moreover, Asian American audiences have long held a deep affection for the film. In 2015, the Asian American media arts organization Visual Communications hosted a reunion screening of the film in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. In addition to screenwriter Gary Goldman and star James Hong, 10 cast members including Al Leong, Peter Kwong, Gerald Okamura, Jeff Imada, and Lia Chang joined a panel in fondly reminiscing about their work on the film. They reflected on how the film had premiered just after Michael Cimino’s controversial Year of the Dragon (1985), which Asian American advocacy organizations had protested as racist and anti-Asian for its stereotypical portrayals of Chinatown crime. In contrast, the Asian American cast and crew of Big Trouble genuinely seemed to believe that, despite the stereotypes, their film was all in good fun, and that they felt pride and ownership in their portrayals. Years later, they were still excited to celebrate the primarily Asian-cast film as the jumping off point for many Asian American careers in Hollywood, and as one of the highlights of the storied career of the legendary James Hong.

While today’s audiences are welcome to make up their own minds about just how well Big Trouble in Little China ultimately straddles the line between troubling and transgressive, its enduring popularity and cultural impact are a testament to the talents of not only the film’s director, but also of its primarily Asian American cast.

WAITING FOR THE LIGHT TO CHANGE: A Quiet Meditation on Young Adulthood and Stasis

Monday, October 2nd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Linh Tran's Waiting for the Light to Change were written by Nick Sansone, PhD Student in Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. Waiting for the Light to Change will screen as part of the Cinematheque's Fall Premieres series and the 2023 Asian American Media Spotlight, co-presented by Asian American Studies at UW Madison. Linh Tran will appear in person on Thursday, October 5 and discuss her work after the screening. The 7 p.m. screening will take place at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Nick Sansone

There is a moment late in the runtime of writer/director Linh Tran’s debut feature film Waiting for the Light to Change that no doubt evokes many different coming-of-age films that came before. Near the end of a long weekend spent at an isolated house on the coast of Lake Michigan in the cold gray of early March, five friends (the only five characters in the entire film) climb up onto a nearby lighthouse overlooking the lake and unleash a series of cathartic screams. While the obvious comparison that comes to mind is a similar scene that takes place in a quarry in Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004), one of the many aspects of Waiting for the Light to Change that separates it from both Garden State and the slate of other films dealing with so-called “quarter-life crises” is the deliberately quiet and contemplative building of internal tension. Rather than relying on quirky and distracting visual storytelling techniques or histrionic melodrama, what Linh Tran does here is allow her characters (and, by association, the audience) to meditate on the feelings of stasis that are often experienced by someone in their mid-20s, and the various quiet, subtle ways in which those feelings manifest themselves when spending time with old friends.

Of the five friends that constitute the film’s ensemble, the three that form the emotional core of the film are Amy (Jin Park), her estranged friend Kim (Joyce Ha), and Kim’s boyfriend Jay (Sam Straley). Amy’s plans for a long weekend getaway in Michigan are supposed to be a chance to reconnect with Kim, who left for graduate school and with whom Amy had not spoken since. However, tensions arise quickly. First, Kim’s decision to bring along her boyfriend Jay, also Amy’s old flame, immediately re-opens old wounds and insecurities for Amy that reverberate throughout their time together. Perhaps more unexpected is the tension caused by Amy’s dramatic weight loss that has occurred during their separation. While Amy initially attempts to dismiss the significance of this change when Kim brings it up, the way it hangs over the film serves as a stark reminder of the mental and emotional insecurities that linger even after a dramatic physical change, something that both Amy and Kim have to reckon with in their own ways.

Linh Tran’s modest but lovely debut film finds its origins in a micro-budget production studio developed as a part of DePaul University’s MFA Directing program. As Linh Tran herself tells it, a completely different project was originally slated as her debut, but restrictions at the outset of the COVID pandemic made her micro-budget plans untenable. This setback compelled her to write a new screenplay in collaboration with two co-writers (Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag) that Tran described as an encapsulation of “what [they] know right now as 25, 26-year-olds.” The resulting script was approved at a budget of $20,000—including $10,000 just to accommodate COVID guidelines—and was filmed at a Michigan lake house owned by the family of one of the film’s producers. While principal photography only lasted 14 days, Tran was on-location with her cast and crew for 30 days, as they were forced to accommodate for snow days. This ultimately allowed for more rehearsal time, an experience that Tran described as “basically living the movie while making it.”

The resulting sense of authenticity has been noted by numerous critics since the film screened at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Brian Tallerico, writing for, described how “the slow rhythm allows the performers to inhabit the characters in a way that feels real. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a reunion instead of watching a manufactured one.” C.J. Prince of The Film Stage similarly commended Tran for “creat[ing] a strong sense of naturalism without compromising specificity. You can see how much thought Tran, her cast, and crew put into this work, an assuredness that commands attention.” Some have even favorably compared Tran’s style to that of Hong Sang-soo, Jim Jarmusch, or Éric Rohmer, filmmakers united by a proclivity for quiet, low-key stories with a heavy emphasis on naturalism. In fact, Tran herself has specifically cited the “slowness and rhythm” of Hong’s film as a key influence, saying that in his work “you can really feel it as if it’s unfolding in front of your eyes.” Despite its humble origins and shoestring budget, Tran’s assured and formally precise debut film elegantly dramatizes the particular malaise of twentysomething stasis and the pangs that come with a fading friendship.

Blue Moon: Stanwyck and MacMurray Reconnect in Sirk’s Heartbreaking THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW

Monday, September 25th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Douglas Sirk's 1956 version of There’s Always Tomorrow were written by Josh Martin, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A double feature of both the 1934 and 1956 versions of There's Always Tomorroweach adapted from the same novel by Ursula Parrott, will screen at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 30, beginning at 6 p.m. Each version will be introduced by Marsha Gordon, author of Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life & Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott. Admission is free for both screenings. Copies of Marsha Gordon's book will be made available for sale and signing before each screening, courtesy Leopold's Books Bar Caffè.

By Josh Martin

Douglas Sirk’s 1956 adaptation of There’s Always Tomorrow begins with a title card fit for a contemporary fairy tale – “Once upon a time, in Sunny California” – suggesting that fantastical dreams will be made reality in the land of bright lights and sunshine. With his trademark taste for irony, Sirk cuts immediately from this card to the streets of Los Angeles blanketed by pouring rain, establishing the gloomy mood that will define this story of lost love and domestic discontent. Amid his legendary run of Technicolor collaborations with cinematographer Russell Metty, including masterworks such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Written on the Wind (1956), Sirk offers an equally astonishing cornucopia of black-and-white images in There’s Always Tomorrow, dominated by hard, low-key lighting. Though critic Christopher Sharrett notes that Sirk originally hoped to shoot in color, it is impossible to imagine the film without its ominous, noir-like ambience, even if the end result is far more pointedly devastating than outwardly sensational.

Sirk’s film is a reinterpretation of Ursula Parrott’s novel of the same name, previously adapted by Edward Sloman for Universal Pictures in 1934. Working from a script by noir specialist and regular TV scribe Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Sirk creates a film of reunions in multiple ways. The picture was Sirk’s second with Stanwyck, following 1953’s All I Desire, a film that critic Tom Ryan links thematically and stylistically with this follow-up collaboration. More crucially for a spectator well-versed in classic Hollywood, There’s Always Tomorrow reunites stars Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. While the two actors were last seen in Roy Rowland’s 1953 3-D western The Moonlighter, Stanwyck and MacMurray are better known for their collaborations in Mitchell Leisen’s tender holiday romance Remember the Night (1940) and, most famously, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), a vicious, bitter noir yarn.

Clifford Groves and Norma Vale could not be more distinct from Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, the doomed amoral sociopaths in Wilder’s hard-boiled classic. Nonetheless, There’s Always Tomorrow plays off the viewer’s metatextual knowledge of the Stanwyck/MacMurray couple – their respective star images, their on-screen romances, and the pathos of seeing them together once again, a little older and a bit wearier. MacMurray stars as Cliff Groves, the patriarch of an all-American family and a local toy distributor. Groves lives a picturesque life in a Los Angeles suburb, but there are hints of uneasiness in his hustle-and-bustle-filled routine. At home, his three children effectively rule the roost: eldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds) and daughter Ellen (Gigi Perreau) dominate the phone lines, while youngest child Frankie (Judy Nugent) is the object of her mother’s obsessive, doting attention.

Viewers are introduced to the third member of the film’s love triangle, the perpetually busy Marion Groves (Joan Bennett), in the thick of this domestic chaos. Clifford has planned an elaborate evening in celebration of his wife’s birthday, but she declines: Frankie’s ballet recital takes the ultimate priority. As Ryan’s analysis astutely points out, “interruptions abound” in Sirk’s film, leaving desire and genuine emotional connection thwarted and disrupted. Enter Stanwyck’s Norma Miller Vale, a ghost from Cliff’s past who arrives on his doorstep on this fateful night, seemingly clearing the rain with her presence.

In large part due to a reclamation by scholars in the 1970s, Sirk’s melodramas are renowned for their withering criticisms of the racial, social, and sexual politics of American life during the postwar boom. From the taboo romance of All That Heaven Allows to the interrogation of racial identity in Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk’s excesses are always in service of a rigorously critical project. In There’s Always Tomorrow, Sirk places his characters in environments defined by artifice and the veneer of perfection. As a toy manufacturer and fashion designer, respectively, Cliff and Norma are merchants of fantasies – yet those same fantasies become suffocating symptoms of their own discontent. In one of the film’s most evocative images, Sirk’s mise-en-scène symbolically links Cliff with his prized toy design, Rex the walking-talking robot. As Cliff walks to a window, crushed by the dual weight of his rediscovered love and his mechanized, mundane life, the robot slowly waltzes out of the frame, doubling for our adrift protagonist and reflecting his notion that he’s “becoming like one of [his] own toys.” Norma, alternately, speaks of a desire for a more conventional life, away from the dollhouse world of high fashion. As a guest at Cliff’s home, she pointedly says “I’d trade every New York celebrity for a family just like this.”

The film presents spaces of regeneration that temporarily alleviate this displeasure. Removed from the stasis, frustration, and rain-soaked skies of suburban Los Angeles, Norma and Cliff reunite again in the fictionalized vacation oasis of Palm Valley, California. Cliff’s desert soiree becomes a fantasy space for the reclamation of his own virility and masculinity, a vision of a different life removed from the “rut” he claims to have slipped into. Yet all roads return to Cliff’s home – and no environment in Sirk’s film is more restrictive than the domestic sphere. What used to be “such a happy home” becomes a space of mistrust and suspicion. In a striking shot late in the film, Cliff calls Norma from his living room, visually bracketed by the columns of his staircase – columns that, at this moment, feel like prison bars.

Contemporary reviews of the film naturally seemed to miss much of the broader critique of Sirk’s ironic melodrama. Bosley Crowther, The New York Times’ longtime critic, reduced the film to a simple message: “Have mercy on Dad.” While the film’s suggestion of an emptiness at the heart of post-war masculinity is indeed critical, There’s Always Tomorrow speaks to a broader cultural malaise. The film diagnoses an intense exhaustion with everyday life, one shared by Cliff, Norma, and even Marion. The necessity of life’s divergent paths is a crushing weight on the shoulders of these characters, made worse by the stale reality of American domesticity. 

Dripping with irony yet painfully touching, Sirk’s romantic reunion between Stanwyck and MacMurray paints a world with glimmers of hope and connection amidst the despair. But there is no escape. Cliff and Norma must accept their choices; they cannot go back to reclaim their youth. Their fantasies of escape and regeneration can never come to fruition. The bustling routine of the home returns. To borrow a grim turn of phrase from Sirk’s interview with FilmKritik, they are now “imprisoned animals in a zoo.” Like mechanized toys and models, they resume their roles, trapped inside the quintessentially American lives they have created for themselves.

ONE FINE MORNING: An Intimate Self-Portrait

Sunday, September 24th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Mia Hansen-Løve's One Fine Morning were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. One Fine Morning screened as part of the Cinematheque's Fall Premieres series on September 21.

By Pate Duncan

Mia Hansen-Løve is at this point synonymous with intimate dramas. From 2016’s devastating Isabelle Huppert vehicle Things to Come to her more recent Bergman Island (2021), the French writer-director has made a name for herself by alchemically turning quiet heartache into cathartic relief. Her latest feature, 2022’s One Fine Morning (Un beau matin), manages to strike an even more resonant chord for Hansen-Løve, who described it as among her most personal works to date: “All my films, in one way or another, use autobiographical elements. Or I should say biographical, because the majority are not inspired by my own story but those of people dear to me. But this one is probably the closest to a self-portrait.” Premiering at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, the film marks Hansen-Løve’s return to French-language filmmaking, her first film completely in her native tongue since 2016.

One Fine Morning follows French cinema powerhouse Léa Seydoux as Sandra Kienzler, a widowed mother and translator working in Paris, as she struggles with her father Georg’s (Pascal Greggory) declining health. Georg suffers from Benson’s syndrome, a rare form of dementia affecting visual processing and cognition; Hansen-Løve’s father suffered and eventually passed from the same disease while she wrote the film. All the more tragic is Georg’s earlier life as a philosophy professor (like both of the filmmaker’s parents), his disease robbing him of the life of the mind so integral to his work and personality. Rounding out his caretakers is his ex-wife, Sandra’s mother Françoise (Nicole Garcia, known for her films with Nouvelle Vague darlings Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais), who prompts Sandra to consider putting Georg in a nursing home, and Leïla (Fejria Deliba), Georg’s girlfriend.

Sandra balances her work, motherhood, and caretaking alongside a new set of romantic difficulties after reconnecting with her late husband’s friend Clément (Melvil Poupaud, star of the great Éric Rohmer’s late masterpiece A Summer’s Tale). Moved by his affectionate company in such a difficult time, Sandra and Clément begin a relationship despite his own marriage. The film sees Sandra negotiating the uneasy romance alongside the obligations thrust upon her as a single mother and caring daughter, all while her father’s health begins to decline rapidly.

While suffering mothers, debilitating illness, and illicit affairs have historically been the stuff of the campiest melodrama or, at the other extreme, the theatrical melancholy of Hansen-Løve’s avowed influence Ingmar Bergman, such content becomes gentle and thoughtful in her handling. The direction is distanced, favoring medium close-ups, emphasizing a gently percolating atmosphere, and suggesting interiority through gestures and movement on top of the film’s sparkling script. Hansen-Løve constructs a cozy, erudite mise-en-scène too, one populated with ample bookcases and plush sweaters, sitting squarely between the effortless lifestyle porn of Rohmer’s Paris and Woody Allen’s ‘80s New York apartments. The books are more than mere set decoration, though: as Georg’s mind falters, Sandra remarks how his library is perhaps more true to who her father is than the man for whom she’s currently caring. The influence of literary works extends beyond the film’s visuals, though, and is in fact what gives the film its title, borrowing from a poem by renowned French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

Impressive still is Hansen-Løve’s script and her cast’s performances, both of which carry an understated naturalism and unpretentious humanity. This directorial clarity, intentionally attempting to stay true to life, is particularly evident in the performances of Seydoux and Greggory, with a kind of feminism in mind for the former and autobiographical resemblance to her father in the later. Hansen-Løve wrote the script with Seydoux in mind, saying “I aimed to portray Léa as more real and raw, so we could see deep inside her, beneath her exterior. So she wore casual clothes and had short hair. At first, she’s a very regular person, then when she falls in love and starts this passionate relationship, we rediscover her femininity. I enjoyed the idea of a mature sensuality as she rediscovers her own body.” Seydoux’s sex appeal has been exploited in more conventional ways for her roles in films like the James Bond thrillers Spectre (2015) and No Time to Die (2021), so her down-to-earth role here occasions a more three-dimensional performance from the internationally renowned actress. For Pascal Greggory’s part, the actor was chosen in part because he resembled Hansen-Løve’s late father, and the director even played recordings of him to Greggory to help him get into character: “[Greggory] truly seemed to understand his personality—including the way he stayed polite, even when he was losing his mind. I always found that overwhelming about my father. The last thing that he managed to preserve was his politeness. Pascal captured the feeling of who my father was. It’s an extraordinary interpretation.”

Cinephiles with a taste for French cinema and cultural production may note One Fine Morning as falling in line with recent French cultural conversations on aging, particularly with regard to assisted suicide and euthanasia. Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour, Michel Houellebecq’s 2019 novel Serotonin and his more recent op-eds, and Gaspar Noé’s 2021 film Vortex all tackle the question of aging and mortality with a fairly grim outlook. One Fine Morning continues this inquiry, though with much lighter touch and, given the autobiographical content, arguably more personal investment.

The result of this careful observation is one of the decade’s most remarkable dramas, a small film that enshrines the mundane with the kind of importance most other films reserve for the exceptional. Mia Hansen-Løve turns a devastating loss in her own life into a generous work of art, assisted in this effort by world-class collaborators. It is more than likely that anyone watching this film—in its native France or here in the U.S.—has been affected by caring for or losing a loved one after a battle with neurological diseases due to aging; Hansen-Løve offers up a sensitive, cathartic work recognizing the difficulties taken on by caregivers while honoring the life and memory of those for whom they care.

No Magic, Only Sickness: Romero's MARTIN

Sunday, September 24th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on George A. Romero's Martin are written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Martin screened at the Cinematheque as part of an in-person visit from filmmaker Tony Buba on Saturday, September 23.

By David Vanden Bossche

Pennsylvania-born George A. Romero, who started out filming commercials and even an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neigborhood, often has the epithet “father of the zombie movie” bestowed upon him. While that honor isn’t completely accurate—among others, 1945’s Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff, or Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie from 1943 come to mind—it is undeniable that Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead set the standard for what was to become the modern zombie movie. Romero also infused the genre with a potent subtext of social critique, another mainstay of the genre in subsequent decades. Dawn of the Dead (1978) expanded on his original cult classic with increased scope and explicit critiques of American consumerism. In 1985, Romero completed his original living dead trilogy with Day of the Dead, and in the decades since he has been canonized by fans as one of a very small class of so-called “masters of horror” alongside the likes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Dario Argento. Romero would continue to revisit the zombie genre a few more times throughout his career, and even one final zombie project, Twilight of the Dead, is currently set to be directed by The Machinist’s Brad Anderson from a screenplay treatment written by Romero before his death in 2017. His career-long association with the walking dead, however, tends to obfuscate the fact that Romero had quite a varied career as a horror filmmaker. He directed a solid Stephen King adaptation with The Dark Half (1993), the efficiently creepy Monkey Shines (1988), and even a bona fide action film with Knightriders in 1981.

Between the first and second chapters of his iconic zombie trilogy, Romero directed two low-budget thrillers that easily belong among his finest films. The first, The Crazies (1973), overcame poor initial office to become recognized as a cult classic and even inspire a remake in 2010. The second of these films, 1977’s Martin, has until recent years stood out as one of the director’s most underseen films, despite an ever-growing status among cinephiles and horror-hounds. As detailed in the recently restored home release of the film from Second Sight, Martin was shot on 16 mm reversal stock (producing an immediate positive image instead of a negative one for print purposes) in Braddock, Pennsylvania, for a mere $100,000. The film tells the story of the titular troubled teenager (played by theatre actor John Amplas, for whom Romero re-wrote the script to age down the character) who believes himself to be a vampire, although he does proclaim that “none of the magic is real, it’s only a sickness.” Martin has no fangs and as such cannot bite his victims, instead drugging them before slicing open their veins with a razor blade to drink their blood, a messy affair that we witness during the intense opening sequence (a scene that curiously was moved to a later point in the film for the European home video release).

When Martin goes to live with his cousin and uncle – a peculiar relative who truly thinks his nephew is a ‘Nosferatu’ – he must come to terms with the uninteresting life of a suburban teenager in the 1970s and all the angst that goes with it. In a way, Martin’s sickness is simply that of ‘being different’, of trying in vain (and in veins) to find some kind of connection with the world and the people around him. While there are gruesome murders—gruesome enough to even land the film on the infamous ‘video nasties’ list in the UK—they are all undergirded by a desperate longing for connection, something that is even reflected in Martin’s desire to be able to “do the sexy stuff…without the blood part.” Alas, not even a brief fling with a bored housewife fosters any true attachment, and in the end Martin’s only way of truly reaching out seems to be talking on the telephone to a patronizing late-night radio host (as in Night of the Living Dead, radio plays an important part here).

The film is also regularly interspersed with a look inside the young protagonist’s mind. In Martin’s troubled psyche, the myth of the vampire comes to life in hallucinatory black and white images reminiscent of 1930s and 40s horror movies. Sweet maidens invite ‘The Count’ (as Martin nicknames himself) to come in, and ghostly figures chase him as if in a scene from James Whale’s classic Frankenstein.

Screened in 1977 at the Cannes Market, the film initially failed to get a distributor, eventually landing a limited release only in 1978. Dario Argento later recut the film for European markets, adding a soundtrack by Italian prog rock band Goblin and retitling it Wampyr, a feat he would repeat for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, famously released in Italy in a shortened version titled Zombi. Not attracting much attention during its initial limited release, the film’s reputation has grown considerably over time, with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum later calling Martin “maybe Romero’s most accomplished work.”

In interviews, George Romero himself often confessed to a profound fondness for this often-overlooked little gem and the splendor of the new restoration is sure to put you in agreement with the late master’s appreciation of his own work.

One of Us: Rediscovering Browning's FREAKS

Thursday, September 14th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Tod Browning's Freaks were written by Ashton Leach, PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Freaks plays as the second half of a double-bill at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 16 at 7:45, preceded by a new restoration of Browning's The Unknown at 6 p.m. Both films screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Ashton Leach

“Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us,” is a short chant with a long history. Even if someone has never witnessed the iconic scene of sideshow performers gathered around a table, they recognize the menacing implications that exists beneath these words of acceptance. The nature of this chant—and of Tod Browning’s pre-Code horror film Freaks (1932), which made it iconic—is contentious and the subject of much debate, existing at once as a transgressive, problematic relic of a crueler time and as a cultural touchstone that represents a watershed moment in disability representation.

Tod Browning was hired to direct Universal’s 1931 film Dracula, and though there were interpersonal issues on set, the film was a critical and financial success, giving Browning the cachet to make a film that more closely related to his interests. Years before, MGM had purchased the rights to the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, which recounted a love-triangle between performers in a sideshow. In an instance of a cliché come to life, Tod Browning had run away from home as a child to join the circus, and his interest in the subject can be seen in earlier works such as The Unknown (1927). This personal connection made him an ideal fit to direct a film about the hidden world of “circus freaks”. In a still-controversial move, the cast of the film was populated with genuine sideshow performers, most of them suffering from physical or cognitive disabilities. Unlike Browning, who was familiar with this brand of performer, much of the MGM staff on set were horrified by the presence of disabled individuals, and to cope with their discomfort, a secondary tent was created specifically for performers with “unsightly” conditions.

Upon release, the film was met with a vehemently negative reception, as audiences and critics alike were repelled by its unsettling subject matter and the use of actual "freaks" in starring roles. Test audiences left “disgusted”, prompting walkouts and at least one threatened lawsuit from a woman who claimed the film caused her to miscarry. MGM acted quickly in attempts to salvage the project, shaving the runtime down from 94 minutes to a mere 64 minutes in the process. Despite these moves to make the film more appealing, audiences still were horrified, and Freaks flopped, with many citing its failure as the beginning of the end for Browning’s career as a major Hollywood director. Outside of the United States, the film did not fare any better. Even in the 1930s, the film was seen as exploitative and offensive by many, leading to censorship and outright bans in several countries, including the United Kingdom, which did not approve the film (with an X-rating, no less) until 1963, citing it as a “grotesque” and “disturbing”.

Though the film could have been lost to history, a screening at Cannes Film Festival in 1962 fostered a newfound appreciation for its achievements. The film quickly gained status at a cult favorite among the counter-culture movement (many of whom adopted the term “freak” as a term of endearment) and has been since become regarded as a classic with wide-ranging influence. The film has served as a cultural touchstone for television shows such the HBO’s series Carnivale, the fourth season of Ryan Murphy’ American Horror Story (subtitled Freakshow), and The X-Files’ season 2 episode “Humbug.” Musicians, particularly those known for being unconventional and iconoclastic, have cited the influence of the film on their work, with the David Bowie referencing the film in his song “Diamond Dogs” and The Ramones citing Freaks as their inspiration for “Pinhead” off their album Leaving Home. Even non-horror films such as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2010) and Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) have explicitly invoked the “gooble gobble” chant to jarring comedic effect, keeping its reputation alive over 90 years on.

Filmmakers and film lovers have successfully rehabilitated the reputation of Freaks as a daring piece of genre cinema, but academics and critics have instead zeroed in on the element of the film that was once its main source of controversy: its use of genuinely disabled sideshow performers in its cast. In recent years, Freaks has been the subject of renewed scholarly interest as academics have explored the film in terms of representations of disability, class conflict during the Great Depression, and the lingering specter of eugenics. The film may ultimately use its sideshow cast to generate discomfort and fear, but it also depicts the carny experience in a setting in which they are the norm and takes seriously the bonds they share as outcasts. Many theorists argue that the film presents anti-eugenicist themes, a significant choice in a time in when eugenic theory had left American shores and was rising in popularity across Europe. This film urges the audience to see that these “freaks” are not monsters—they are people who still set the table and do the laundry and care for their children. They scratch out the only livings that society will allow them, and together they form something like an ersatz family. Rather the monsters of the film are those that attempt to infiltrate and take advantage of the freaks, regarding them as helpless, easy marks. It is the “normal” people, or rather the “beautiful” and “exceptional” people, who become monstrous—quite literally by the film’s shocking ending. Perhaps that is what so deeply unsettled audiences in 1932: realizing the self-reflective monstrous qualities they hold within themselves.

In 1994, Freaks was entered into the National Film Registry’s archives for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” solidifying its status as both a landmark of genre cinema and a canonical work of Hollywood’s unruly pre-Code period. Freaks is now considered a cult classic, regularly praised for its boldness, its long cultural influence, and, in its own way, its sensitivity. A great film is so rarely just one thing, and Freaks’ legacy is particularly multifaceted. It is transgressive. It is shocking. It is certainly problematic by contemporary standards. But it is also a groundbreaking piece of cinematic representation, a button-pushing howl for acceptance from a filmmaker who counted these performers among his very first coworkers in entertainment. For Browning, “gooble gobble, one of us” wasn’t so much a threat as it was an expression of solidarity from a particularly oppressed community.

CONTEMPT: Godard's Odyssey Into International Co-Productions

Thursday, September 14th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (Le mépris) were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly available 4K DCP restoration of Contempt will screen on Friday, September 15 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By Pate Duncan

Early in Contempt (Le mépris, 1963), nestled deep in a conspicuously barren rendering of the Italian cine-city Cinecittà, Fritz Lang offers up a few dailies of his adaptation of The Odyssey. A veritable god of the cinema in his own right, Lang’s inclusion in Jean-Luc Godard’s filmed-in-widescreen-and-color epic rounds out an already stacked cast, boasting Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, and Jack Palance. Considering these factors alongside the film’s status as an adaptation from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Il Disprezzo, one gets the impression that Godard had gone commercial.

But this is, of course, a film by Godard, the exacting formalist, critic, and radical. Though burdened by the recent flop of Les Carabiniers (1963), the enfant terrible of the Nouvelle Vague had just finished a string of some of his most fondly remembered features: Breathless (1960), A Woman is a Woman (1961), Vivre sa Vie (1962), and Le Petit Soldat (1963). Godard was a polarizing figure at this time, but was nevertheless significant as an exponent of the infamous Cahiers du Cinéma, serving as an interlocutor and aesthetic sparring partner with renowned New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Agnès Varda. However, Godard’s personal life was tumultuous; the filmmaker stole money from friends, family, and the Cahiers office to finance his films--though not just his; Jacques Rivette’s fine debut feature Paris Belongs to Us (1961) was made in part from Godard’s purloined production funds--not to mention his stormy relationship and later marriage to his early muse Anna Karina.

This is all to say that it would take far more than just production value to make Godard go commercial, though producers Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti certainly tried. Despite their demands for a more conventional product (the opening ogling of Bardot is the most infamous of these concessions, though Godard still manages to transform it into a tender moment between the central couple and an audacious display of the film’s color palette), Godard constructs a defiant work of auteur insurgency. Contempt centers around Piccoli and Bardot as Paul and Camille Javal, a writer and his wife who find themselves in Italy at the behest of Jeremy Prokosch (Palance), an American producer embodying all the worst of Hollywood’s excess and harboring a not-so-subtle interest in Camille. The couple, already on the rocks, negotiate profound personal wounds, professional ambition, and the endurance of art with Prokosch potentially underwriting it all.

What could play out as a tawdry love triangle on paper materializes on screen as somehow one of Godard’s most achingly sentimental and formally exacting works. While Paul and Camille exemplify the mid-century alienation of heterosexual screen couples so common in this period, Piccoli and Bardot make this pairing feel anything but typical; Godard made this gravity clear when he described the two leads as “castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity.” Paul’s penchant for cruelty is matched only by his passivity, while Bardot’s Camille subordinates the actress’s infamous sex appeal to an impressive display of menacing glares and vacant sadness. The lover’s quarrel takes on a far more personal dimension when Camille dons an oversized black wig, an overt nod to Anna Karina’s iconic bob that frames the character in no uncertain terms as taking some inspiration from Godard’s then wife. Years later, Karina would describe how Godard used words from their own real-life spats for dialogue in Contempt, saying “There are elements of my relationship with him throughout the movie. He created a scene in the bathroom where Bardot was upset and angry and uses lots of very bad words, she screams ‘merde, merde’— and, well, I used to do that when I was a little bit angry with him too—not aggressive, it was all quite playful really.”

What may frustrate viewers unfamiliar with Godard in general or Contempt in particular is the way Godard’s formal experimentation complicates the straightforward sentiment at work in the film. Even Georges Delerue’s devastating score (so affecting as to be repurposed by Martin Scorsese for the theme to his 1995 film Casino) isn’t spared from Godard’s tinkering, the strings cutting off before resolving or returning with little motivation. Godard’s play with visual style operates with completely different preoccupations, with David Bordwell noting Contempt’s preoccupation with the potential of CinemaScope aspect ratio throughout the film. Elsewhere, Bordwell compares Godard’s complicated formal devices, tonal registers, and deployment of norms of other modes of filmmaking to a palimpsest, a set of norms and devices constructed on top of each other. Put succinctly, Bordwell observes that “Godard does not synthesize norms; he makes them collide.”

Contempt, then, sees Godard shuttling back and forth to meet various imperatives: those of the producers giving him such a large budget, both classical Hollywood and European arthouse norms, his left-wing ideological commitments, his aesthetic preoccupations with film form, and his emotional investment in this story of a marriage made untenable. On top of all of that, Godard returns to The Odyssey. His abstract, primary-colored rendition of Homer’s epic—here presented via Lang as a willing mouthpiece—situates the contemporaneous concerns of the film’s production against the presumed endurance of antiquity.

Even if viewers have seen Contempt before, this will likely be the first time for many seeing it in a world without Jean-Luc Godard. The filmmaker continued working in increasingly radical and experimental spaces, embracing anti-auteurist collective filmmaking, the move to digital, and 3D. He even hopped on Instagram Live for a free masterclass during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, chomping on his usual cigar in between bits of advice to young filmmakers. Godard passed on September 13th, 2022, with UW Cinematheque screening Contempt just days after the year anniversary of his death. It’s hard not to imagine Godard like one of the statues in this film, at once timeless and defiantly modern, now immortalized in that forever separate realm of art. I’ll leave him the final word on Contempt, what he called “A simple little film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Le mépris proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live—and to make films.”

CONTEMPT - 4K Restoration Trailer from Rialto Pictures on Vimeo.

Always In the Mood: The Enduring Appeal of a Hong Kong Classic

Tuesday, September 5th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love were written by Sarah Mae Fleming, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. In the Mood for Love will screen in a 4K DCP on Friday, September 8 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Sarah Mae Fleming

“We are physically and financially exhausted,” lamented Wong Kar-wai in the press kit for In the Mood for Love’s 2000 Cannes premiere.  What Wong called the “most difficult experience” of his career stands today as a classic of twenty-first century cinema—most recently securing the number five spot on the 2022 Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Despite the film’s critical successes, Wong’s grievances weren’t unwarranted. Shooting for the film started in 1998, and the subtitles for its debut were still unfinished on the morning of its Cannes screening. Wong had a bit of a reputation for preferring improvisation on set rather than having a firm script. His previous film Happy Together (1997) started production with merely two characters and a city to put them in, but “nothing else,” according to Wong. In the Mood for Love followed a similar method, as Wong rejected a traditional script and, in the end, created a film significantly different than his original idea. “It was supposed to be a quick lunch,” Wong explains, “and then it became a big feast.”

Initially, Wong had intended this film, first titled Summer in Beijing, to be three different stories involving love, music, and food. Facing problems shooting in Beijing, and specifically in Tiananmen Square, Wong abandoned two out of the three narratives and focused on the one set in 1960s Hong Kong. Even after focusing in on one story, Wong still embraced a more spontaneous method of directing, preferring to shoot scenes repeatedly to figure out where the narrative was going. He asked stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung to try seemingly endless versions of scenes and line readings. Sometimes he would direct the actors to switch their characters’ lines or shoot the same exact scene in a different location just to see how it felt.  Shooting, which was scheduled for three months, ultimately became a fifteen-month process complete with four separate wrap parties. Every time Wong thought he was done, he felt like he needed more. If it sounds to you like Wong could have kept working on In the Mood for Love forever, he’d agree with you. In order to put an end to the infinite tweaking and perfecting, the filmmaker settled on Cannes as a deadline, and yet Wong asked for a little extra time, requesting that In the Mood for Love be the last film screened at the festival.

The film’s lengthy production history seems to curiously dovetail with the languorous pace of the relationship between Leung and Cheung’s characters. Shanghai expats Mr. Chow (Leung) and Mrs. Chan, née Su Li-zhen (Cheung), rent rooms in a shared apartment building in 1962 Hong Kong. Over time, and with a keen eye for handbags and neckties, they realize that their respective spouses are having an affair with each other. As they find themselves in the same boat, Chow and Su share dinners together and attempt to examine how their spouses’ affairs began. Soon, Chow invites Su to help work on his fiction, and they rehearse the emotional confrontations that they imagine having with their partners. Their affection for one another grows steadily, over bowls of noodles, in rainy alleyways, and down long, narrow halls. The blossoming romance is at times an agonizingly slow burn—one that builds so much tension that it may induce the sudden inability to breathe while watching one hand simply graze another in a taxi.

The faces of the adulterers are never shown. Instead, Wong fixates on Chow and Su’s quotidian routines, as they each go through the motions of their daily lives. Working with both trusted cinematographer Christopher Doyle as well as co-cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing, Wong thrusts us into a world he describes as one he can “smell”—coils of cigarette smoke swirling into the dark sky, the increasingly elaborate patterns of Su’s many cheongsams, and frames saturated with warm light, striking shadows, and notably, the color red. Chow and Su are often imprisoned in the frame by walking down tight alleys, or ensnared by doorways, windows, mirrors, and walls that separate our protagonists, portraying a world that seems to be closing in on them. In the Mood for Love ends in 1966, coinciding with the year of the Hong Kong or Star Ferry riots—a period marked by the arrest of 1,800 people who protested the British colonial government’s decision to raise the fare of the Star Ferry foot-passenger harbor by 25%. To end the film in such a specific time of unrest and turmoil only serves to emphasize the streams of discontent and malaise that run through In the Mood for Love and intensify the resonance of the film’s final act.

The heartbeat of In the Mood for Love continues to pulse in surprising ways. The Best Picture winner at the 94th Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), features a notable alleyway sequence that pays homage to not only Wong’s distinctive style and penchant for cigarette smoke, but also the themes of lost love that characterize In the Mood for Love. You might also feel like you’ve stepped into a Wong Kar-wai film if you find yourself in Mood Ring—a dark Brooklyn bar that bathes its clientele in sultry red lights and boasts a neon “happy together” sign on its walls. Kyle Chayka, writing for The New Yorker, also notes the film’s aesthetic influence on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, as users post images of a glamorous Su, a smoking Chow, or a moment of electricity that passes between them on the stairs. Chayka writes that “such is the film’s strength that any single image is synecdochic for its atmosphere.”

In a 2000 Sight and Sound interview with Tony Rayns, Wong describes the ambivalence he felt going into the Cannes premiere: “Everyone came out of the test screening shit-faced, nobody said anything much, and I went back to my room and told my wife I thought we’d have problems next day.” The exhausting, unplanned, and massive feast of In the Mood for Love defied the odds to be completed. Investors backed out, Maggie Cheung begrudgingly flew across continents several times, and Wong himself needed the luxury of time to decide how his movie should end. Through it all, In the Mood for Love remains a resplendent and transcendent cinematic achievement—the film’s bold aesthetics and languid love story permeating so many that have been touched by it decades on.

Rest in Peace Paul, Long Live Pee-Wee

Friday, August 25th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Pee-wee's Big Adventure were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque's Project Assistant and PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A DCP of Pee-wee's Big Adventure will screen as part of our 1980s Fan Favorites series on Friday, September 1 at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission to the screening is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

Although he was beloved the world over, Paul Reubens was never a household name. One might not have even noticed the recent announcement of his death were it not for his other moniker—Pee-wee Herman. Reubens may not have been well-known to the general public, but Pee-wee is iconic, a comedy creation on par with Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Tati’s M. Hulot in terms of specificity and recognizability. The slim, perfectly-fitted gray suit, the small red bow-tie, the rouge-covered cheeks framing an irrepressible, manic smile—every detail of Pee-wee’s look was impeccably designed to complement Reubens’ spirited, flailing performance. As Pee-wee, Reubens adeptly toed the lines between endearing and annoying, and between wholesome and just a bit creepy. He was an uncanny man-child, like a living Howdy Doody doll with boundless energy, yet undeniably lovable despite his hyperactive demeanor. Reubens’ spastic performance style recalled the work of Jerry Lewis and his aesthetic embrace of tacky American esoterica evoked transgressive artists like John Waters, but Pee-wee was a one-of-a-kind creation. Though the character began life on the stage in The Pee-Wee Herman Show (which was filmed and aired on HBO in 1981), Pee-wee was best known for two projects: Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the children’s program that ran on CBS from 1986 to 1990, and 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Reubens’ first feature film built around the Pee-wee character. Though Playhouse was a major achievement in its own right, it’s Big Adventure that stands as the purest distillation of the Pee-wee character’s enduring appeal and the greatest testament to Reubens’ gifts as a comic performer. More than that, though, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure represents an intersection of several artists on the rise—Reubens included—who over the next decades would separately make their marks on Hollywood after briefly coming together in service of some truly inspired silliness.

After the success of the Pee-wee HBO special, Warner Brothers hired Reubens to develop a script around the character. After abandoning his initial plans to remake Pollyanna with Pee-wee in the Haley Mills role, Reubens developed a script around Pee-wee’s chasing down his beloved bicycle, which he then revised and refined with screenwriter Michael Varhol and longtime writing partner Phil Hartman. Hartman had befriended Reubens as part of the Groundlings comedy troupe in the 1970s and had appeared as Pee-wee's pal Captain Carl (originally Kap'n Karl) in the 1981 HBO special. Pee-wee is synonymous with Paul Reubens, but he was created in collaboration with Hartman, who also co-wrote the original Pee-wee stage show with Reubens. Hartman’s cameo appearance as a reporter near the end of Big Adventure doesn’t make much of an impression, but he would make up for it with an illustrious—though tragically brief—comedy career in his own right on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and Newsradio.

Reubens looked beyond his normal pool of collaborators for a director, tapping a 26-year-old animator named Tim Burton whose off-kilter sensibility had led to his short films Vincent and Frankenweenie. Burton's work suggested a playful, highly-stylized aesthetic that was well-suited to the heightened reality of Pee-wee Herman. No one at that time could have predicted that the quiet, awkward Burton would become one of Hollywood’s most distinctive and commercially successful auteurs, but even in this debut film, the Burton sensibility is already readily apparent, especially in sequences incorporating more outsized and ornate design elements, such as Pee-wee’s Rube Goldberg breakfast machine, the claymation monstrosity of Large Marge, and, in particular, a neon-drenched nightmare sequence populated with evil clown surgeons.

Burton’s characteristic verve is further buoyed by another major collaborator for whom Big Adventure represents a major breakthrough. Danny Elfman was already well-known to new wave fans as the front man and primary songwriter of Oingo Boingo, but before Big Adventure, his experience scoring films was limited to writing music for his brother Richard’s cult film Forbidden Zone. Elfman’s carnivalesque score draws heavily from the work of Fellini composer Nino Rota and Hitchcock maestro Bernard Hermann, but its quirky cacophony also displays the maniacal playfulness and touch of subversive irony that had defined the music of Oingo Boingo. It’s an inspired match of music to material that properly kicked off Elfman’s composing career and started a decades-spanning collaboration with Burton that would come to include such memorable scores as Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Upon release, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a modest hit, grossing $40 million off a reported $7 million budget, and it has only grown in stature since. By the next year, Reubens was already hard at work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Hartman was a new featured player on Saturday Night Live, and Burton was in active development on a blockbuster adaptation of Batman for Warner Brothers, bringing Elfman along with him. Sadly, Pee-wee’s (and Reubens’) career as a lead in film and television was short-lived. Big Adventure’s Burton-less 1988 sequel Big Top Pee-wee grossed far less and received much worse reviews than its predecessor, and shortly after the end of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, an arrest and ensuing public controversy tarnished the image of Pee-wee Herman as a wholesome comic figure—effectively ending Reubens’ career and forcing him to retire the character for several years. Reubens worked throughout the 90s as a character actor in films such as Matilda, Mystery Men, and Blow, but Pee-wee would not reappear on TV again until 2007. Reubens eventually revived his original stage show in 2010, once again filming it for HBO, in hopes of raising interest in one last Pee-wee film. After years of development and false starts, Netflix finally released Pee-wee’s Big Holiday in 2016 to positive reviews from old and new fans alike.

In his final years, Reubens seemed to have finally shaken off the scandal that had so derailed his career, regarded by most in the comedy world as a legend of his generation and still best known and remembered worldwide as Pee-wee Herman. And it doesn’t seem like Reubens would have had it any other way. Throughout his career, Reubens shied away from the spotlight himself, rarely giving interviews out of character and even hosting Saturday Night Live in character as Pee-wee. Up until his final days, he embraced the Pee-wee persona wholeheartedly, frequently writing wholesomely goofy tweets to fans online while privately fighting cancer. Now that we’ve lost Paul Reubens, we thankfully still have Pee-wee and his Big Adventure to remind us of how lucky we were to have him.