Ode to the Ambitionless: I VITELLONI

Tuesday, August 1st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 4K DCP of I Vitelloni will screen on Wednesday, August 2 at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission to the screening is free!

By John Bennett

By 1953, Italy was on the mend. After the better part of a decade, the deep wounds left in the country by World War II and fascist leadership had started to heal. In 1946, the Italian electorate peacefully scrapped their monarchy through a nationwide referendum. The election—one of the first in which Italian women could legally vote—established Italy as a key Western democracy. The Marshall plan, meanwhile, was pumping vast sums of money into Italy, helping the country repair and modernize its war-ravaged infrastructure. Construction was on the rise, and employment opportunities flourished in Northern urban centers. This is the transforming society in which the driftless protagonists of Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni find themselves.

 In 1939, Fellini moved to Rome—the center of the Italian entertainment industry—from the coastal town of Rimini where he had spent his middle-class childhood. And it is Rimini that furnished the inspiration for Fellini’s sophomore feature (his second solo project after the release of The White Sheik the previous year). Literally denoting a young steer, I vitelloni is an idiomatic term in Italian for a loafer or a layabout. According to Fellini, Rimini abounded with these ambitionless young men, for whom life was “inert, provincial, opaque, dull, without cultural stimulation of any kind.” For such men, Fellini once said, “every night was the same night.” Drawing from these memories of Rimini, I vitelloni follows the mundane misadventures of a small gang of friends in an equally small coastal town. At the head of the group is Fausto (Fausto Moretti), whose marriage into a respectable family does not quell his strong and often brazen appetite for womanizing. Alberto (Alberto Sordi) is the clown of the group who nevertheless must confront turbulence within his family born of the constricting nature of the small town. Leopoldo, the bespectacled intellectual of the gang, aspires to become a great writer, even if paths to that ideal remain closed off to him in his provincial surroundings. Riccardo (Ricardo Fellini, the director’s brother) serves as both confidant and enabler for his caddish coterie. Quietly observing the ennui and mischief of his friends is Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the thoughtful young man who may ultimately harbor a strong desire to extricate himself from the monotony of his friends’ lives.

As it falls toward the earliest part of his career, I vitelloni reflects Fellini’s early adherence to traditional film style. Still, some stylistic flourishes hint at the lavishness that would characterize the director’s style in the years to come. In one windy evening scene, a piazza and its narrow tributaries buzz with dancing light as streetlamps are jostled by strong gusts.  Present, too, are some traces of the grotesquerie that abounds in later films like Satyricon (1969) or Casanova (1976). During the last drunken throes of a Carnival celebration, leering clown heads loom over a drunken Alberto. Later in the film, when Leopoldo goes on a nocturnal stroll with a prominent theater actor who has expressed interest in Leopoldo’s play, a pointedly eerie expression spreads across the face of the actor as he subtly makes his less-than-lofty desires clear to the young writer. Most haunting, however, are the beautiful wide compositions that dwarf the aimless characters in the midst of lonely vistas. Fellini—along with cinematographers Carlo Carlini, Luciano Trasatti and Otello Martelli (the latter of whom also collaborated with Fellini on La strada and La dolce vita)—isolate the film’s characters from afar in the corners of empty piazzas, dusty roads, and unadorned train stations. Such shots infuse the film with pictorial beauty while underscoring barrenness of the characters’ lives in the small town from which they can’t seem to escape.

The thematic preoccupations of I vitelloni reflect larger trends of Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s in two ways. First, the film explores a crisis of identity among a young postwar generation; second, it probes the growing sense of provincialism felt among the residents of small regional towns in the face of the bustling postwar ascendancy of cities like Rome and Milan. Throughout I vitelloni, the protagonists struggle to find meaning and excitement in their daily lives, and they remain acutely aware of the erosion of their youth. To counter the tedium of his job selling religious bric-a-brac, Fausto embarks on a disastrous attempt to seduce his boss’s wife. At one point, Moraldo befriends a young railroad worker who, one could presume, is doomed to cultivate the same aimless lifestyle as the film’s principal characters. Frequent were the explorations of the aimlessness of younger generations in the dozen or so years that followed I vitelloni: Antonioni’s Le amiche (1955), Zurlini’s La ragazza con valigia (1961), Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962), and Pietrangeli’s La parmigiana (1963) all follow in I vitelloni’s wake in their depiction of youthful crises of identity. With The Basilisks (1963), Fellini protégé Lina Wertmüller virtually remade I vitelloni ten years after its release. Accompanying this treatment of wayward and vanishing youth is the film’s interest in the town’s provincialism compared to the excitement and opportunity of Italy’s growing urban centers. Alberto looks on helplessly as his sister, stifled by life in the small town, tearfully abandons her family for life in the city. Fausto’s brief sojourn away from the town after his hasty marriage is looked upon by his friends with mild wonder. The stark divide between the city and the country, the north and the south would appear again as a major theme in films like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Olmi’s Il posto (1961), Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962), and Pasolini’s Love Meetings (1964) among others. In this sense, I vitelloni proved to be a key precursor in Italian cinema’s subsequent interest in the psychology and sociology of its characters.

I vitelloni was Fellini’s first true commercial and critical success. After the anemic releases of 1950’s Variety Lights (codirected with Alberto Lattuada) and 1952’s The White Shiek, I vitelloni resonated with Italian critics and audiences alike. The film won the Silver Lion at the 1953 edition of the Venice Film Festival (in a year when no Golden Lion was awarded) and became Fellini’s first film to receive theatrical distribution in the United States. A suite of remarkable international successes would follow: 1954’s La strada, 1957’s Nights of Cabria and (especially) 1960’s La dolce vita would cement Fellini’s reputation as a world-class cineaste. Fellini would go on to revisit his memories of Rimini twenty years later with Amarcord (1973)—though this time those memories would be filtered through the uninhibited dreaminess that pervades every Fellini film after 1963’s 8 ½. A testament to I vitelloni’s extensive influence can be found in another 1973 release: George Lucas drew inspiration from Fellini’s film in crafting American Graffiti. Though La strada, La dolce vita, 8 ½, and Amarcord may currently enjoy loftier positions in the canon of world cinema, I vitelloni remains one of Fellini’s most influential works.

AVANTI! Billy Wilder's Charming Defiance of New Hollywood

Friday, April 28th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Avanti! were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant, and a Programmer for the Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival. A 35mm print of Avanti! will screen on Saturday, April 29, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By John Bennett

In conceiving of the totality of Billy Wilder’s directing career, we can roughly segment it into four phases. In the first, he was a successful young hotshot at Paramount, experimenting in genres and narrative techniques. This period begins with The Major and the Minor (1942), culminates with Sunset Boulevard (1950) and collapses with the commercial failure of Ace in the Hole (1951). The second period covers much of the 1950s, during which Wilder somewhat conservatively stuck to adapting successful stage plays (Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955)). The third phase came about with his initial collaborations with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond; following the smash back-to-back successes of Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), the two made a string of thinking-man’s sex comedies dripping (in varying degrees) with the director’s trademark cynicism (One, Two, Three (1961), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966)). The films of the fourth and final phase (beginning with 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) are a bit more reflexive and elegiac. The Front Page (1974) saw Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon revive the classic Hecht-MacArthur play from 1928 and Fedora (1978) is an operatic funhouse-mirror distortion of Sunset Boulevard. But the gem of this final period is no doubt Avanti!, perhaps the most sweet-tempered, life-affirming work of the director’s career.

Avanti! opens with businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) huffily making his way through an airport in Baltimore to catch the plane that will whisk him to the Italian island of Ischia. Though Ischia is known for its rejuvenating spas, its continental luxury hotels, and its sun-dappled scenery, Armbruster finds himself at the island’s Hotel Excelsior under sad and stressful circumstances. His father, the CEO of a powerful manufacturing company, has perished in a car accident on the picturesque island, and Armbruster is obliged to hack through a jungle of international red tape to ship the body back to Baltimore in time for a high-profile funeral (to be attended by Henry Kissinger and leaders of the AFL-CIO alike). The bureaucracy is enough of a headache for this impatient industrial heir apparent, but he soon finds he also must beat back a scandal—his father was not alone when his car careened off a cliff into a local vineyard, but rather in the company of a woman with whom he had been carrying on a secret affair for ten years. The woman’s daughter, Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), has also made her way to sunny Ischia from cloudy London to grieve a parent. Armbruster, burdened by bureaucracy and scandalized by the secret life of his deceased father, initially meets Pamela’s eccentricities with irritation. Yet as Avanti! unfolds, Armbruster and Pamela dance a charming pas de deux of incipient romance of their own as they reckon with the idyllic extramarital contentment experienced by their deceased parents amid easy rhythms of the Ischian dolce vita.

Avanti! was not particularly successful at the box office, losing about $700,000 according to biographer Ed Sikov. By 1972, Wilder was working in a profoundly transformed film industry. The 1960s had been relatively kind to Wilder: The Apartment won Oscars for best screenplay, direction, and picture for 1960, and 1963’s Irma la Douce was one of the director’s biggest box-office successes. But if the decade opened with celebrations of films like The Apartment, it closed with an embrace of radically modern films like Midnight Cowboy, which won the best picture Oscar for 1969. Indeed, the gentleness of Avanti! ran counter not only to the cynical bite of many of Wilder’s films, but also to the youthful sexual frankness being explored by filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, Mike Nichols or Dennis Hopper. The film also has a certain quaintness compared to the deluge of foreign films flooding American screens at the time. Wilder himself was acutely aware of this after the film disappointed at the box office. “Audiences nowadays want something juicier. Today, when there are movies like Brando’s Last Tango in Paris, it’s obviously not perverted enough,” he lamented to an interviewer.

Yet though the liberalizing of sexual mores in global cinema produced many vital explorations of eroticism, too much perversion would have curdled Avanti!’s refreshingly life-affirming breeziness. Several aspects of the film contribute to this anomalous tone. First, Avanti! is one of the director’s longer films. At two hours and twenty-seven minutes, Avanti! is surpassed in runtime only by Irma la Douce, which is three minutes longer. But where Irma la Douce becomes somewhat bogged down by its various running gags and subplots, Avanti! uses its longer running time to open up and decant like a fine wine that might be served by the Hotel Excelsior. Slowing down to savor life is one of the film’s major thematic preoccupations, and the longer running time endows the film with an unhurried pace, conveying a sense of leisure so championed by Pamela Piggott. With Pamela Piggott, Wilder allows a sincere tenderness (so strongly suggested by previous characters of his like Phoebe Frost in A Foreign Affair or Sugar Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot) to burst forth. Her joie-de-vivre, so sweetly brought to life by the wide-eyed candor of Juliet Mills’ performance, serves as the moral compass of the film (even if the prominent storyline of her “weight problem” seems slightly ridiculous fifty years later). Also adding to the warmth of the film is Luigi Kuveiller’s gleaming cinematography. Wilder occasionally used color photography in his films, but he clung to black-and-white images as late as 1966 with The Fortune Cookie—years after the Hawkses and the Hitchcocks of the studio era permanently switched to color. Despite Wilder’s general predilection for the monochrome, Avanti! is drenched in hot sunlight that glimmers on the waters of the Mediterranean just as it floods Armbruster’s spacious hotel suite; the film’s images are as warm as its sentiments. Actor Clive Revill contributes to this tone in his amiable supporting turn as Carlo Carlucci, the industrious and discreet manager of the Hotel Excelsior. Ultimately, though, the hominess of Avanti! may be a result of the fact that Wilder was quite at home with two of his most trusty collaborators. The film marked the director’s fifth collaboration (out of seven) with Jack Lemmon. The two were quite close: they were friends and neighbors in Los Angeles, and Lemmon could strike a balance between neuroticism and heart that meshed well with Wilder’s romantic farces. Wilder was also quite at home with his co-screenwriter, I.A.L. Diamond. The two first joined forces on the screenplay for Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon in 1957 and worked together on every one of Wilder’s films after Some Like It Hot. With its relaxed pacing, its affable performances, its comfortable collaborations, and its general celebration of life, Avanti! feels like a refreshing breath of warm Mediterranean sea air.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR: Billy Wilder Returns to Berlin

Friday, April 21st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, were written by John Bennett, a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison, the Cinematheque's Project Assistant, and a Programmer for the Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival. A 35mm print of A Foreign Affair will screen in the Cinematheque's regular space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, on Saturday, April 22 at 7 p.m. Admission is Free!

By John Bennett

By 1945, Billy Wilder had three very different successes to his credit as a writer/director. He débuted with The Major and the Minor (1942), a mistaken identity farce, which he followed up with Five Graves to Cairo (1943), a cloak-and-dagger war film set in the Sahara. In 1944, he scored his biggest success yet with Double Indemnity, a steamy cause célèbre of passion and murder. The following year, barely before the VE Day confetti could be swept from the streets of jubilant cities, Wilder found himself in Europe at the behest of Elmer Davis, director of the Office of War Information. Wilder was tasked with helping to oversee the denazification of the German film industry in Berlin—a city to which he was no stranger. He had arrived in the glittering Weimar-era metropolis from Vienna as a young journalist in 1926, found his first work as a writer in the German film industry in 1929, and had fled for Paris by 1933 not long after Hitler came to power. Returning to Berlin, Wilder found a surreal atmosphere. Decimated buildings provided scant shelter for a war-harrowed population, and seedy black markets thrived in the shadows of singed architectural landmarks—and yet parties whose debauchery matched that of the bustling Berlin of the Weimar era raged on under the occupation of the armies of the Allies. This is the singular atmosphere that pervades 1948’s A Foreign Affair, one of the legendary writer/director’s most exquisite comedies.

After returning from Germany, Wilder notched yet another success. His drama on alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, swept the ’46 Academy Awards—Wilder took home Oscars for screenplay and direction, and the film won Best Picture. Riding this career high, Wilder (along with Charles Brackett, his screenwriting partner at Paramount) dove into A Foreign Affair. The film (like The Major and the Minor before it and Kiss Me, Stupid after it) bears all the trademarks of a tightly constructed romantic farce. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (representing Iowa’s fictional ninth congressional district) arrives in Berlin as part of a congressional delegation tasked with investigating the morality of the military stationed in the city. Hardly after the plane lands, she delivers a chocolate cake to Captain Pringle, a war hero who is one of Congresswoman Frost’s Iowan constituents—as well as one of the occupying army’s most decorated degenerates. When not feigning regimental propriety, Captain Pringle spends his time cavorting with Erika von Schleutow in her half-destroyed apartment. Erika enjoys a reputation in Berlin as a popular and alluring cabaret singer. Her reputation in the eyes of the U.S. authorities in Berlin is less glowing: she is suspected of having been the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi official who may still be alive and in hiding in the defeated city. In her quest to purge the army of immorality, Congresswoman Frost makes it her personal mission to track down the military figure suspected of supporting Erika and protecting her from military scrutiny. But this quest is complicated when Phoebe finds herself falling for Captain Pringle, who begins to romance the congresswoman to throw her off the scent of his postwar tryst.

These three character archetypes (the prig, the rake, the harlot) make for a classic sex farce. But Wilder and Brackett nuance these broad types by giving each the breathing room to plead the case for his or her behavior. If Congresswoman Frost is a prude, it’s because duty and professionalism keep profound loneliness at bay. If Captain Pringle is a cad, it’s because years of warfare have shown him a manic excitement that sudden peacetime cannot wholly replicate. If Erika is promiscuous, it’s because survival in a maddened world has necessitated it. The three lead actors give performances that help enrich the farcical archetypes. Jean Arthur, in her penultimate film role, lends the Congresswoman a rectitude that slips to reveal a heartbreaking tenderness. John Lund impresses both the smarm and charm of Captain Pringle (and his frequent slips of the tongue when lying to the Congresswoman are executed with great comedic subtlety). Marlene Dietrich delivers the quintessence of her trademark Teutonic sultriness; yet the smoky elegance of her superb cabaret numbers (written by Friedrich Hollander) belies a hardened sense of tragedy vis-à-vis her hollowed-out city. Within the framework of farce, each actor finds ways to convey the grimly serious, be it personal or political.

Indeed, A Foreign Affair’s brilliance lies in its careful balancing act of tones. The film is certainly a bona fide farce. But, like other American films made in the immediate postwar period (notably William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives), it conveys the lingering trepidations of a world catching its breath, of a world still not completely unmenaced by Nazism and political instability. The film revels in bawdy comedy, such as when two GIs mistake Phoebe for a Tirolese Fräulein and whisk her away to a sordid nightclub. Yet there are other sequences, such as Col. Plummer’s congressional tour of bombed-out Berlin, that are handled with striking sobriety. Later in the film, Phoebe’s heartbreak is depicted with aching compassion. At other times, the serious and the comedic converge in surprising ways. In one scene—as funny as it is unsettling—a young boy, still under the sway of Hitlerjugen propaganda, idly draws swastikas on any surface he can in Captain Pringle’s office as Pringle recommends denazification recreation clubs to the boy’s nervous father. Such jokes may seem like blasé treatments of horrible situations, but Wilder was in a unique position to make them. The rise of Nazism impacted him profoundly. As a Jewish journalist and writer, Wilder was forced to live the arduous existence of a refugee after 1933 in Paris and, briefly, Mexico before he was granted entry to the United States. More tragically, Wilder learned after the war that his mother, grandmother, and stepfather were all victims of the Holocaust. Yet despite this profound personal upheaval and loss, Wilder never abandoned his unwavering wit.

A Foreign Affair’s quality was widely recognized by the film community. Bosley Crowther, the influential New York Times film critic, lauded the film’s sophistication, and the Academy granted Wilder and Brackett a nomination for Best Screenplay (Charles Lang was also nominated for the film’s cinematography). A Foreign Affair was not met with uniformly glowing reviews in the wider world, however. According to Ed Sikov’s biography of the director, the Production Code office fretted over the film’s brazen lewdness. The Defense Department felt obliged to state that moral turpitude did not afflict the armed forces as much as the film would have audiences believe. The film was banned outright in Germany. Nevertheless, A Foreign Affair remains one of the best distillations of Billy Wilder’s sensibility: it meets the harshness of the world with a wry smile, a broken heart, and a dirty joke.

DRUNKEN MASTER II: Staggering Toward Immortality

Friday, April 21st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Drunken Master II (1994) were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new 4K DCP restoration of Drunken Master II will screen on Friday, April 21 at 7 p.m. The screening takes place at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

Jackie Chan triumphantly returned to the role of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung in 1994’s Drunken Master II—a follow-up to the early Jackie hit Drunken Master (1978)—but its road to American movie screens is a misadventure in itself. For the sequel, venerable martial arts filmmaker Lau Kar-leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) steps in for the original Drunken Master director Yuen Woo-Ping in his first and only collaboration with Chan. The pairing of these legends proved as rollicking, death-defying, and balletically buffoonish as one could ever hope, despite reports that Chan (an accomplished director in his own right) and Lau clashed on set. The 40-year-old Chan was about to make his official move to the United States, so Drunken Master II was something of a hometown swan song for the star. As we can see in the film (including the traditional end credits bloopers comprised of botched stunts), Chan made the most of this final bow, perfecting the combat and physical comedy of the first film and expanding the scale with his then-signature Keaton-esque feats of derring-do. The results are nothing short of extraordinary, a merging of two artists at the zenith of their powers, at once elegantly classical in its filmmaking and jaw-dropping in its physical complexity.

The film sees Chan’s bumbling Wong pitted against British imperialists in early 20th century China, fighting an ever-growing number of goons and soldiers to keep Chinese relics out of the hands of the empire. Much to the chagrin of his father, Wong’s fighting prowess is fueled by his drinking, giving a comic literalism to the “drunken boxing” style of kung-fu. Fighting across a number of dangerous locales (including under a moving train) and against various fighting styles, Chan chugs and slugs his way through an array of mind-blowing, body-breaking set pieces all leading to an extended, go-for-broke finale that stands as one of the most spectacular in either Chan's or Leung’s careers. As a work of comedy, of action, and of cinematic spectacle, it is almost peerless, not just in Hong Kong.

American audiences, however, did not get to experience Chan and Lau’s opus for years after its original release, despite Chan’s international stardom and rapturous reviews from overseas. Furthermore, the version of the film released stateside and later circulated on DVD represents a compromised vision, one that has only recently been restored to its proper glory. In 1994, the film saw an extremely limited release in the states, playing only in a few small markets with overwhelmingly immigrant filmgoing audiences. There was no proper American distributor and no home video release to speak of. After the success of 1998’s Rush Hour catapulted Chan to a new level of American fame, the film was finally picked up for distribution by Miramax and Dimension films in 2000. Miramax at this time was fronted by the Weinstein brothers, and Harvey in particular had developed a notorious reputation in his handling of foreign films. The Weinsteins were savvy observers of the independent and international film marketplace, and their stable of projects and awards throughout the nineties bears out this reputation. However, such projects were also subject to the demands of “Harvey Scissorhands”, who would cut films with little or no input from the original filmmakers in order to conform to more mainstream sensibilities. Drunken Master II was one such film. The film’s original (admittedly off-color) ending is the one major cut, but the original American release version of the film also features a new musical score, new sound effects, an English-language dub, and most notably, a completely different title: The Legend of the Drunken Master. As the plot of the sequel has no direct connections to the original, this final move was a practical one to attract a wider audience with no familiarity with the original film. As for the rest of the changes, they can hardly be said to have ruined the film, but the compromised version’s mere existence kept the original version completely inaccessible for decades. Only in 2021 did Warner Bros. make available the original, untouched Drunken Master II, over 20 years after its American theatrical bow, and over 25 years since since its original release.

ÉL: A Forgotten Buñuel Gem Returns

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Luis Buñuel's Él were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison and project assistant for the UW Cinematheque. A new restoration of Él from the Cineteca di Bologna will screen as part of our current series highlighting the best of last summer's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, on Saturday, March 18, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By John Bennett

With the opening images of Él, famed surrealist auteur Luis Buñuel immediately draws us into his unique brand of irreverence and perversity. A priest leads a religious ritual in which parishioners’ feet are washed. As the camera tracks into a close-up, we see the priest gingerly kiss a foot he has just finished washing (an image that echoes actress Lya Lys kissing a statue’s toe in L’Age d’or, Buñuel’s first surreal bacchanalian feature). One parishioner’s roving eye wanders to a pew filled with women. As he appraises their high-heeled shoes, Buñuel subtly profanes imagery that had glowed with religious sanctity just moments before. The leering churchgoer is Francisco Galván de Montemayor (Arturo de Córdova), a suave, patrician man who becomes enamored with a woman named Gloria (Delia Garcés). Gloria, in turn, quickly comes to find Francisco’s suave confidence—as well as his prominent social position—alluring. The two hastily wed soon after their first meeting. On the very first night of their marriage, however, Francisco reveals his horrible flaw: he is possessed by a jealousy so monstrous that it makes Othello seem saintly by comparison. Gloria soon realizes that this outsized jealousy manifests itself in increasingly ludicrous ways. A stranger laughing with a waiter at a hotel restaurant is enough of a stimulus to throw Francisco into a petulant rage. As Él plays out, Gloria desperately tries to find ways to escape her husband’s chronic paranoia.

Buñuel is best remembered as one of world cinema’s most playful and puckish surrealists. In his early period, his filmic surrealism sprung from the world of visual art. His first scandalous short, Un chien andalou (1929), was co-written by Salvador Dalí, and L’Age d’or (1930) elaborated the short’s disorienting techniques and shocking imagery into a feature length work. His late period, best represented by dramas like Belle de Jour (1966) or comedies like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), deployed a dreaminess that followed in the wake of the oneiric arthouse classics by filmmakers like Fellini and Bergman. Él, however, falls squarely in the director’s middle period, during which he made films for the Mexican film industry after fleeing his native Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Here, Buñuel remained ever the surrealist, but industry demands forced his flights of fancy to be more clearly integrated into his films’ narratives. Such is the case with Él, whose strange set pieces are intelligibly embedded within the film’s story world. In one particularly wacky sequence, a frenzied Francisco wanders into a church; here, shots depicting churchgoers sitting piously in their pews are intercut with sudden shots of those same parishioners laughing wildly at Francisco as an echoing cacophony of laughter rings out on the soundtrack. Here, unlike Buñuel’s first and final films, the surrealism is motivated by the narrative: we take these strange jump cuts as expressions of Francisco’s all-consuming paranoia and deteriorating mental state.

Also of a piece with Buñuel’s larger filmography is the obsessiveness of Él’s protagonist. Across the many phases of his career, Buñuel seemed to revel in the foolishness of male characters driven to passionate extremes by desire or hate. Francisco, in all his manic jealousy, bears a strong resemblance to the frantic characters played by Fernando Rey in notable Buñuel titles such as 1961’s Viridiana (in which a man becomes infatuated with his niece—who happens to be a nun), 1970’s Tristana (in which a Spanish nobleman becomes enamored with a young orphaned woman in his charge), or 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire (wherein a man obsesses over a young woman surreally portrayed by two different actresses). With this character type, Buñuel manages to create men who are both repulsive and, in their own buffoonish way, humorous. The reprehensible Francisco frequently behaves with brutish roughness toward his wife, and, in one harrowing sequence, worse violence is hinted to be taking place off screen. This moral turpitude takes on a grimly humorous hue when, by the film’s ironic coda, we realize how stubbornly, idiotically inflexible Francisco’s paranoid convictions are. Like so many men in Buñuel’s subsequent films, Francisco is a villain to be scorned as much as he is a clown to be derided.

Given Buñuel’s status as a globetrotting, visionary filmmaker (he worked in France, Mexico and Spain, and he even lived for a period in the United States), one may be tempted to see Él as an anomalous entry in Mexican cinema. But the film, with its emotional extremes and its imperiled heroine, can be considered of a piece with the melodramas that the Mexican film industry produced regularly at the height of its economic power in the 1950s. Él is barely more extreme than, say, Alberto Gout’s wildly over-the-top The Adventuress (1950). Yet even if it was in keeping with certain Mexican filmmaking traditions, the film flopped at home and abroad. In My Last Sigh, his autobiography, Buñuel notes that Él played theatrically for less than a month in Mexico. On the festival circuit, the film received a chilly reception at Cannes. In a moment of absurdism worthy of a Buñuel film, Él was met with an unappreciative audience at a special screening for French veterans of foreign wars, and Jean Cocteau—Buñuel’s surrealist-in-arms—was vocally hostile toward the film. Nevertheless, its reputation has enjoyed a rehabilitation over the decades, with the film now considered to be—alongside The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) and The Exterminating Angel (1962)—one of the best films of Buñuel’s Mexican period.

Remembering Walter Mirisch

Monday, February 27th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque

The Cinematheque joins the rest of the international community of cineastes and cinephiles in remembering the accomplishments of legendary Hollywood producer Walter Mirisch, who passed away on February 24, 2023, at the age of 101.

Mirisch, who visited the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2000 for a career-spanning tribute, left a deposit of his papers with the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research (WCFTR) that covers some of his best and least known productions made for the Mirisch Company, as well as his decade as a producer and studio head for Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists. A look back at the dozens of movies that Mirisch shepherded into production, either as a hands-on producer or as the head of a production company, reveals a shrewd movie businessman with fine taste in actors and directors.

Through a donation to UW-Madison, Mirisch's alma mater (class of 1942), the Department of Communication Arts was able to renovate a seminar and meeting room situated within the Department's Instructional Media Center: Vilas Hall 3155, now known as the Mirisch Room. In addition to this memorial space on the UW campus and the WCFTR collection, Mirisch's cinematic legacy includes a number of Oscar-winning and canonized classics, but also a number of other terrific entertainments that might not be as celebrated as Mirisch Company milestones like West Side Story, The Magnificent Seven, and In the Heat of the Night, posters for which adorn the walls of the Mirisch Room.

At Monogram, one of the more established of Poverty Row studios, Mirisch earned his first credits as producer on two very low budget crime thrillers, movies that we appreciate today as film noir. With a combined running time that is just a little over two hours, Fall Guy, released in 1947 when Mirisch was only 25 years-old, and I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948), are definitive B movies, cheap programmers meant to fill out the bottom half of a double bill. Neither movie had an especially significant director at the helm, nor superstar talent in front of the camera (unless you count character actors and noir fan favorites Regis Toomey and Elisha Cook, Jr.), but Mirisch had the good fortune in using stories by noir mainstay Cornell Woolrich (Phantom Lady, Rear Window) as the source material for Fall Guy and I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes. Unseen for decades and thought for a while to be a lost film, Shoes was restored in 2021 and released on blu-ray, and noir fans got to discover a true gem that was worthy of comparisons to other noir cheapies like Detour.

It was the Bomba the Jungle Boy serials at Monogram that were Mirisch's first money-making successes, and they led to his being promoted, at the age of 29, to head of production at Allied Artists studios. At Allied Artists, Mirisch oversaw the creation and release of a number of memorable movies with budgets that were still small, but larger than the typical Monogram movie. These included ground breakers like the prison movie, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and the sci-fi gem Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both of which were directed by Don Siegel and produced by another notable UW-Madison alum, Walter Wanger. Other significant Allied Artists releases that Mirisch contributed to: director and production designer William Cameron Menzies' deliriously weird 3-D haunted house movie, The Maze, Joseph H. Lewis' film noir masterpiece The Big Combo (1955), and Jacques Tourneur's Wichita, a Wyatt Earp Western that Mirisch personally produced. The multiple Oscar nominations for William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion (1956), one of the last Allied Artists releases overseen by Mirisch, was a taste of things to come. Mirisch founded the Mirisch Company in 1957 with his producer brothers Walter and Harold, ultimately releasing 68 independently produced feature films that were all released through United Artists.

The Mirisch Company focused on Westerns for the first couple of years, including two major efforts by masters of the genre entering the last decade of their careers, John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958). Producer-writer-director Billy Wilder, whose Love in the Afternoon (1957) was also an Allied Artists project late in Mirisch's tenure there, had all of his feature films financed by the Mirisch Company starting with Some Like it Hot (1959) and ending with Avanti! (1970), which will screen at the Cinematheque on Saturday, April 29. Wilder's The Apartment (1960) was the first of three Mirisch Company features in the 1960s that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Though Mirisch made no creative contributions to the Wilder productions, he did take more participation in Mirisch Company movies directed by John Sturges, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960), a box office smash that led to three Mirisch Company sequels. The Mirisch-Sturges partnership yielded another smash Steve McQueen movie, The Great Escape (1963), the melodramatic potboiler By Love Possessed (1961), and The Satan Bug (1965), a prescient thriller that warned about the dangers of developing deadly viruses in laboratories.

Another big hit for Mirisch, Blake Edwards' 1963 caper comedy The Pink Panther, led to a sequel (A Shot in the Dark ) released just six months later that also starred Peter Sellers as his most popular big screen persona, Inspector Clouseau. In 1968, Edwards, Sellers, and Mirisch teamed again for a movie that some fans consider funnier than any of the Clouseau pictures, the Tati-esque The Party (1968). The Pink Panther also launched a long-running series of Mirisch Company animated shorts that were produced by David DePatie and Friz Freleng.

Mirisch's endorsement of director Norman Jewison yielded several popular and award-winning movies like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Fiddler on the Roof (1971). The culmination of the Jewison-Mirisch collaboration was certainly In the Heat of the Night, which allowed Walter Mirisch, as the credited producer of the movie, to take home the Best Picture Academy Award. The great success of In the Heat of the Night spawned two sequels starring Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, and allowed for Heat's Oscar-winning editor, Hal Ashby, to be promoted to director beginning with the 1970 Jewison-Mirisch production, The Landlord (1970), the first of Ashby's acclaimed series of 1970s releases.

The mid 1970s saw the dissolution of the United Artists/Mirisch partnership, an the end of this era was marked by two small-scale UA releases, both directed by Richard Fleischer and personally produced by Walter Mirisch: The Spikes Gang, a fun, if downbeat anti-Western starring Lee Marvin and Ron Howard in his last movie before beginning Happy Days; and the Elmore Leonard-scripted Mr. Majestyk, a hit action vehicle for Charles Bronson. For the remainder of the 1970s, Walter Mirisch produced five movies for Universal Pictures, concluding with the 1979 version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella. After the mid-1980s, Walter Mirisch focused primarily on television productions and developing his intellectual properties, but we remember him today for his major achievements in cinema.

Repetition and Recusion: The Films of Larry Gottheim

Thursday, February 23rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on filmmaker Larry Gottheim and his films were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Larry Gottheim will appear in person at the Friday, February 24 screening of two of his most recent works, Entanglement and Chants and Dances for Hand . The program will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Zachary Zahos

Less than one week after screening a selection of Paolo Gioli short films, the UW Cinematheque provides another opportunity to experience the work of a singular, arguably underrated avant-garde master. Furthermore, we are fortunate that the artist in question, Larry Gottheim, will be present in 4070 Vilas Hall, to introduce and answer questions about two recent (or at least recently completed) films, Chants and Dances for Hand (1991-2017) and Entanglement (2022). Some in attendance may even be able to resume conversations that began in September 2019, when Gottheim last visited campus for a similarly themed Cinematheque retrospective. But Gottheim returns to Madison not just to soak in its film culture and weather; rather, he is also here to update his film and manuscript collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. This process began during his last visit, and since then, piles of material have been donated, processed, and made available to researchers looking to learn more about this essential figure in American experimental cinema.

Analyzing the films of Larry Gottheim is, to be honest, a bit intimidating, given that Gottheim himself is such an eloquent and insightful critic of his own work. After all, he did earn a PhD in Comparative Literature at Yale. You can find his writings at the nicely kept website, LarryGottheimFilms.com, as well as in a forthcoming memoir, The Red Thread, a draft of which Gottheim was kind enough to send me after our acquaintance in 2019. In that book’s distilled, imagistic prose, Gottheim weaves together reflections on his personal history, aesthetics, technology, physics, philosophy, James Joyce, the list goes on. The one, bright constant threaded through the text are his films, whose motivations and resonances Gottheim deconstructs with great care and humility. Reading Gottheim on Gottheim, one detects a life lived not in cinema, but through it; the relatively slim number of references to other films and filmmakers stands in stark contrast to the network of connections Gottheim draws between each of his own works. These intra-filmography connections are less about the particulars of film form, and much more about the accrued knowledge and life experience that led him to make a film like Blues (one long, silent, meditative take) in 1969, versus the radically different Knot/Not (a barrage of superimposed, cacophonous images and sounds) fifty years later.

One implication of this analysis so far is that it is difficult to neatly package the work of Larry Gottheim. His early films, at least, are often mentioned in the same breath as other “structural films” of the 1960s and 1970s, works, like Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) and Paul Sharits’s T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), designed around a formal, legible structure of change. In fact, as chair of what would become Binghamton University’s Cinema Department, Gottheim hired Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, and other like-minded filmmakers who would use their academic perch to experiment with the fundamentals of cinematic perception. Made during those heady Binghamton years, Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970) is a textbook example of structural film’s “gradual change” tendency. Over the course of one 400-foot, 11-minute roll of 16mm film, fog slowly lifts from a verdant clearing in upstate New York, revealing massive trees, power lines, and ghostly horses. Yet, as with any work of art that beckons repeat viewings, Fog Line does not simply employ a pre-fitted arc, from zero to full visibility. Near the end, the fog appears to encroach back into the clearing, or at least cease its withdrawal. Are we seeing a natural phenomenon, or is the film emulsion itself playing tricks with our eyes? Gottheim has referred to Fog Line as having “a capacity of not being exhaustible” — the ultimate state to which all of his films aspire.

On first blush, the two, newer films screening this week bear little in common with an early work like Fog Line. Entanglement and Chants and Dances for Hand both consist of rapidly cut, dense, impressionistic montages, replete with philosophical asides, musical interludes, and ethnographic observation. Though distinct in subject matter, these two films share with all of Gottheim’s work a transparent structural integrity, built on repetition and recursion. Entanglement pushes this to a notable extreme. This digital work cycles through an assemblage of pixelated film clips; instructional web videos; still photographs; CCTV footage from the 2022 massacre in Bucha, Ukraine; and original material by (and starring) Gottheim himself. Gottheim guides us through this thicket using act breaks, graphic match cuts, overlapping dialogue, and superimposition. Soon enough, we glean a set of ideas primarily concerning quantum mechanics (black holes, string theory, elementary particles, and “superposition” are all invoked). It is overwhelming to behold, which is perhaps why, at the halfway mark, the film restarts; that is to say, the first twelve minutes play again, with essentially no changes. This repeated structure allots one the time to unpack the film’s cerebral density. Fragmented musical cues, of French pianist Alfred Cortot and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung opera, also offer immediate pleasures.

The mid-length Chants and Dances for Hand is the one I expect to ponder the longest, in part because of its slippery symmetrical structure, but most of all due to its personal nature. Filmed in Haiti over the course of several years, the film bears superficial similarity to Maya Deren’s ethnographic documentary Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1954), as both feature Haitian vodou rituals at their center. Indeed, Chants demonstrates the trust Gottheim earned from this community; he is seen participating in religious customs, and his camera betrays close access to these rituals — fair warning that a goat, named Kabrit, is sacrificed on-screen. On this same note, Gottheim documents a tumultuous political uprising in Port-au-Prince, culminating in disturbing footage of a charred corpse and a dead boy. The actuality of death pervading this film is not simply the product of sensationalized gawking, but of familial concern. The “Hand” in the film’s title refers to Gottheim’s son, Hand, whose mother, Mitsou, is the Haitian woman seen playing the violin at the film’s beginning and end. Gottheim intersperses extremely candid, playful footage of Hand throughout this work. It is furthermore notable that the sound drops out completely, for about two minutes, as we see women and men, some as young as Hand, stand before these public corpses in fragile awe.

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13: High Tension on a Low Budget in John Carpenter’s Urban Western

Thursday, February 23rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new 4K DCP restoration of Assault from the American Genre Film Archice will screen on Saturday, February 23 at 7 p.m. The screening takes place at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

With apologies to his debut film Dark Star (1974), it’s really John Carpenter’s follow-up (on which he served as director, writer, editor and composer), the ruthlessly entertaining Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), that we really begin to see Carpenter’s bona fides as a genre auteur and a classical stylist take shape. If you want to get extremely specific, one might go as far as to say you can pinpoint the exact moment, roughly thirty minutes into Assault, when John Carpenter starts etching his name into genre history. It’s a moment so dramatic and so self-assured in its wanton cruelty that the entire movie changes instantly around it. I’ll spare the details for those unfamiliar, but keep an eye out for an adorable little girl and an ice cream truck, and leave your good taste at the door.

Inspired by western classic Rio Bravo—Carpenter’s editorial pseudonym, John T. Chance, is even named after John Wayne’s character from that film—and the low-budget achievements of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic siege scenario in the key of 1970s gang warfare, made on a budget of only $100,000. After a cold open depicting a street gang being ambushed and gunned down by a squad of heavily-armed LAPD officers, the living leaders of the gang swear a blood oath for revenge. Unbeknownst to either the gang or the poor souls trapped inside, however, is the fact that the gang’s attack takes place on the last night of duty for the decommissioned Precinct 13, leaving only a skeleton crew of officers, secretaries, and one in-transit prisoner to defend against the invading force.

Much like Romero’s Living Dead, the leader of this ragtag group of defenders is a black man, Lt. Ethan Bishop, played with uncommon gravitas in one of the only leading roles from character actor Austin Stoker. Despite this being uncommon casting for the period, Bishop’s race—like Duane Jones’ protagonist in Romero’s film—is largely unremarked upon and incidental to the story, instead enriching the subtextual character dynamics undergirding the film. His counterpoint is the exquisitely (and mysteriously) named Napoleon Wilson, played with a laconic, devil-may-care attitude by Darwin Joston. A prisoner on his way to death row who proves to be a cool head under pressure, Wilson is a source of some of the film’s best one-liners (“In my situation, days are like women - each one's so damn precious, but they all end up leaving you”).

Assault is a narratively stripped back sort of affair, limited locations and only a few major characters, but the dynamic between Bishop and Joston grounds the film’s drama and makes for a compelling pairing built on burgeoning respect instead of the macho posturing that defined so many later action films. This interracial dynamic is mirrored by the invading gang, a curiously diverse horde of black, white, and latino criminals brought together by a shared lust for violence and revenge. In the world of Assault on Precinct 13, violence may beget more violence, but it also serves as a unifying catalyst for breaking down existing social barriers, albeit in the names of vengeance and survival.

As with any John Carpenter film, though, the real star is the director himself. Assault is only Carpenter’s second feature film, and his first shot in CinemaScope, the aspect ratio (2.35.1) he would make his trademark. Working with cinematographer Douglas Knapp (who also shot Dark Star), Carpenter’s wide compositions and roving camera render the enclosed space of the besieged precinct as a place where death from outside can strike at any moment and tensions inside are slowly building to a boil. All of the skills Carpenter would bring to films like Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) are in their earliest bloom here, and the results, such as in the film’s sound design, are thrilling. The gang uses silenced rifles fired from a great distance to dispatch their prey, and the resulting attack first resembles less an explosive siege than the silent hand of death itself, reaching out to snatch life away from those unlucky enough to poke out their heads.

Throughout his career, John Carpenter has repeatedly shown himself to be a genre auteur whose technical craft is only matched by his keen sense of history. With Assault on Precinct 13, he placed himself in a long lineage of filmmakers who have reworked familiar genres over and over armed with little more than a barebones budget and a boundless sense of ingenuity. Filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and Don Siegel—whose Riot in Cell Block 11 gets a tip of the cap from Carpenter’s own pulpy title—set the template, but it was filmmakers of the 1970s and 80s like Walter Hill, Tobe Hooper, and Brian De Palma who carried on this tradition of genre craftsmanship on the cheap. Among his peers, John Carpenter is among the most illustrious and the most multifaceted, far more varied than his “Master of Horror” moniker might suggest. His stylistic elegance and elemental storytelling prowess were almost unmatched in his prime, and he has become a titanic influence for generations of genre filmmakers since, even as he himself has receded into a comfortable retirement. For fans of Carpenter, Assault on Precinct 13 should be an essential text: a training ground for a master in the making and a captivating exercise in squeezing out the most bang for the fewest bucks.

SAINT OMER: A Stylish Narrative Debut

Monday, February 13th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

This review of Alice Diop's Saint Omer was written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. Saint Omer will screen on Thursday, February 16, at 7 p.m., in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Alice Diop came to prominence as a filmmaker award-winning crafting documentaries like Nous and La Mort de Danton in which African identity and the African diaspora were central themes. That approach certainly hasn’t changed for her new feature Saint Omer but this is the first time Diop is working with a more structured narrative that undergirds her thematic ponderings. The resulting film won a slew of awards, among them the prize for Best Screenplay at the Chicago International Film Festival and the award for Best Film at the Ghent Film Festival last October.

As if to illustrate that there is not a clear line that divides documentary work and fiction, Saint Omer opens, after a short ten second prologue, with a university lecture about the way in which art sublimates reality, a scene that uses Hiroshima, Mon Amour to make its point. The story Diop subsequently uses to sublimate reality is a fascinating tale that mirrors two African-European women: on one side is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a writer working on a new version of Euripides’ Medea. Seeking inspiration, the project leads her to attend a trial in the town of Saint Omer. On trial is the second female protagonist of this drama: Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) who is being charged with the murder of her 15-month-old daughter, a case that has obvious parallels with Rama’s Greek tragedy of choice.

It takes a while before the movie reveals its full storyline to the viewer and even when it has done so, Diop opts for a pace that allows us to slowly take in all the complex elements of the unfolding trial. Using predominantly long takes, the camera explores the emotions on the characters’ faces but also lets the judicial details slowly unfurl themselves through testimonies. Out of these lengthy observations – a scarcely moving camera often keeps the image locked on a single face while we hear other voices contributing from offscreen – a richly textured account of complex and often perplexing events slowly develops. Diop opts for letting testimonies and interrogations play out mostly in real time, which means that the viewer is asked to adjust judgements and views along with the crowd in the courtroom.

Most striking as this trial unfolds is the way in which the directorial choices open up a second layer of meaning that finds its way to the surface through the reflective and contemplative style. Underneath what seems to be a simple formalist exercise in a time-tested format lies a much more poignant reflection on the warping of African traditions. In his book Moral Power: The Magic of Witchcraft, Professor Koen Stroeken addresses the way in which traditional African witchcraft has morphed into a violent hybrid with westernized conceptions of guilt and punishment. Without ever explicitly talking about Stroeken’s subject, Saint Omer still manages to make these changing traditions palpable to the viewer by subtly suggesting the shadow they cast over the trial proceedings.

The fact that the film succeeds in weaving these layers into the narrative is in no small way indebted to the superbly crafted screenplay that often smuggles small subtleties and telling details into lines of dialogue or seemingly redundant situations. In that way, scenes such as the one in which Laurence’s mother lectures Rama on what to eat and not to eat at lunch become much more important than they might initially seem and neatly tie into the undergirding themes.

The quality of the writing should not blind us though, to the splendidness equally displayed in the visual style of Saint Omer. Although never really vying for the viewer’s attention, the images shot by Diop and director of cinematography Claire Mathon are quietly powerful and overwhelming. Mathon has worked on films as different as Stranger by the Lake, Spencer, and two acclaimed collaborations with director Céline Sciamma: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite Maman. Once again, the cinematographer finds the perfect pictorial style – albeit a very different one than in previous work – to best suit the narrative needs of the film. Alice Diop, for her part, has already revealed herself as a remarkably mature filmmaker, even at the relatively young age of 43. This first foray into fictional work – although her films have always eluded such easy categorizations – certainly bodes well for future endeavors.

NO BEARS: A Reflective Tale About Images and Truth

Tuesday, February 7th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

This review of Jafar Panahi's No Bears was written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. No Bears will have its Madison theatrical premiere on Thursday, February 9, at 7 p.m., in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

After a 'New Wave' of Iranian Cinema in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jafar Panahi was part of the second ‘New Wave’ that gained prominence in the 1990s after the international success of films by the late Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, A Taste of Cherry). After winning several prizes in the film festival circuit for films like The White Balloon and The Mirror, Panahi’s career took a much darker turn in 2010 when the Iranian authorities convicted him of national security violations stemming from a documentary he was making chronicling the protests that followed the disputed reelection of Iran's then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even after being placed under house arrest, the director managed to keep working, sometimes smuggling his films out of the country to ensure overseas screenings at several renowned festivals. Since Panahi has not been allowed to leave Iran for more than a decade, No Bears was also filmed under circumstances that restricted the director’s freedom, but this time these restrictions became an integral part of the film’s concept. (Just prior to the No Bears premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize, Panahi was arrested in July 2022 in Tehran and ordered to serve a six-year prison sentence for "propaganda against the system" that had been suspended after he served two months in 2010. Two days after beginning a hunger strike last week, Panahi was released from prison.)

As in the movies directed by his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, the director himself often plays an important role and this alter ego often functions as a conscious presence within the fabric and stories of Panahi’s films. In No Bears, a conversation is created between the director’s own story and the narrative we watch unfolding onscreen. Panahi plays a thinly veiled version of himself: a director who oversees the shoot of a film from his laptop while he is spending time at a remote village near the Iranian-Turkish border. Panahi is shown wrestling with uncooperative technology and inquisitive villagers, while trying to work through the footage his assistant is sending him from Tehran. The film-within-the-film revolves around a couple trying to leave Iran with false documents, while the actors playing the couple are themselves wrapped up in a similar situation. Panahi's own situation of not being able to leave the country becomes another element in the tapestry of threads being woven together, as does a clandestine romance in the village that may or may not have been accidentally captured by Panahi’s camera. Bringing all of these premises together, the film creates an intricate network of meanings and metaphors that becomes more complex and interesting as the narrative unfolds.

In visualizing these ideas, Panahi, like Kiarostami, rarely changes camera positions. Panahi also provides a clear nod to the scene in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us when the protagonist is searching for the highest point in the village to try and get some reception on his cell-phone, but Panahi’s most daring interaction with the oeuvre of his mentor is the way in which – echoing Kiarostami’s Close-Up – the film constantly questions the relation between film and reality. The viewer witnesses the manipulation necessary to create images and meaning, and because we side with the protagonist/director, we also become accomplices in providing meaning to these images. The building blocks of cinema– color, movement, editing, sound – are foregrounded here in a reflective tale about images and truth. At the end of the film, it becomes clear that the references to The Wind Will Carry Us are not just playful or coincidental. Kiarostami's central theme, to paraphrase Professor Tom Paulus of Antwerp University, is that the lie of cinema uncovers the truth, and Panahi reworks that theme for a new, digital age. For Kiarostami, the poetic beauty and power of the ‘cinematic lie’ (the ‘illusion of art’ if you like) was necessary to uncover fundamental truths about life. For Panahi, then, this lie can no longer just lead to the utopian (platonic?) idea of truth and life that his predecessor believed in, there’s now a rude awakening and a call for the caution and responsibility that need to be the filmmaker’s – or rather ‘image maker’s’ – part when creating images and releasing them into the world.

It is this fascinating dialogue with the cinematic traditions that shaped him and guided him throughout his career, that make Jafar Panahi’s No Bears his most accomplished and richest film since his breakthrough over a quarter of a century ago with The White Balloon.