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,, 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.

BIG BROWN EYES: Grant & Bennett On the Road to Stardom

Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Raoul Walsh's Big Brown Eyes (1936) were written by Samantha Janes, PhD student in film in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Big Brown Eyes will screen as part of an early Cary Grant double feature on Saturday, February 4 at 6 p.m., followed by Hot Saturday (1932) at 7:30 p.m. The double feature screens at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Samantha Janes

Who wants to get their nails done and solve some crimes? If you say yes, then you’ll join nearly the entire cast of Raoul Walsh’s 1936 crime comedy film Big Brown Eyes. While the salon that doubles for a makeshift police bullpen is full of criminals and beauticians, the plot lies in the hands of the young Cary Grant, who emerges as the charming detective on the hunt for killer jewel thieves, and Joan Bennett, his manicurist girlfriend who polishes up her investigation skills to become a reporter. Though Cary Grant’s charming personality shines through this film and offers a glimpse of his future stardom in Hollywood, Grant was not the one the studios wanted in the lead role. Walsh noted in an interview that Grant was “in the doghouse” and that Joan Bennett, along with the studio wanted someone like Fred MacMurray to play Danny. After a string of praised performances in unsuccessful films, Grant was in a slump. Bennett, on the other hand, was gaining ground after beginning in silent movies. 1936 was one of her years as a blonde before a drastic change to brunette altered her career’s trajectory with roles in films such as The House Across the Bay (1940) and The Woman in the Window (1944). Though Big Brown Eyes ultimately did little to further Grant and Bennett's careers, it did provide space for both to demonstrate their fast-talking comedy skills while also indicating their ability to adapt to more serious thematic elements.

This snappy seventy-six-minute film from Paramount came during the middle of Walsh’s illustrious career that spanned from 1913 to 1964. Walsh was not only an actor in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Sadie Thompson (1928), but directed large scale projects such as The Big Trail (1930), Klondike Annie (1936), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and High Sierra (1941). Even after losing an eye while working on In Old Arizona (1928), Walsh had a knack for spotting and nurturing new on-screen talent. While the films he directed ranged drastically in genre and settings, when asked in an interview with Patrick McGilligan what makes a film a “Walsh film,” the director answered, “the tempo, breaking it up, and hustling it along.”

Balancing the tempo, breaking the story up, and hustling it along is exactly what allows the plot of Big Brown Eyes to successfully capture and keep the audience’s attention. The beginning of the film presents Grant’s character, Danny Barr, as an up-and-coming police detective who is investigating a string of jewelry thefts that involve wealthy older women. The most recent victim, Mrs. Cole, involves not only the police but also Richard Morey, a deceitful private insurance investigator. This introduction of Morey, played by Walter Pidgeon, begins the arrival of numerous other ne’er-do-wells played by character actors Lloyd Nolan, Alan Baxter, and Douglas Fowley.

While Danny is on the case of the jewelry thieves, Bennett’s character Eve Fallon become Danny’s eyes and ears within the confines of her work place, the salon. The purposeful editing throughout the salon scenes showcases the space where the community gathers to exchange gossip. Though the film does not have an intricate plot or intense cinematography, there are plenty of subtle key elements that liven up the film and force the audience to focus on the information being exchanged.

Although the film is a comedy, the stakes of the crimes increase when an unexpected murder occurs and the investigation is thrown into disarray. As Danny’s job now becomes a ticking clock to catch the murderers, Eve’s career takes a turn from manicurist to reporter when her talents become recognized by a local lead journalist. With both main character’s involvement in the hunt for the criminals, an audience might expect some suspense in finding the identity of the killers, but this film quickly reveals the one responsible for the murder and explores the injustice of the legal system when the killers go free. When Danny and Eve are foiled during their investigation, they both go through personal and relationship struggles as a result of their newfound cynicism. Eventually the pair manage to uncover the truth and bring about a happier ending to the story, but the unexpected darkness to the plot lingers even after the pair share their final kiss. 

Altogether, the tone of the film teeters between the couple’s comedy and their brewing disillusionment with the law, and often leans more into the gloomier mystery elements. Like many films of the 1930s based on pre-existing material, Big Brown Eyes is adapted from two of James Edward Grant’s short stories, “Hahsit, Babe?” and “Big Brown Eyes,” both published in Liberty Magazine in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Both of these stories feature reporter Eve Whitney and Sgt. Daniel Howard, the original source versions of Grant and Bennett’s characters, who clash heads while they are investigating the same murders. Both stories exhibit that hard-boiled tone that the film draws from during the latter half. Though the adaptation allows for a fleshed-out version of Eve and Danny, the film keeps the joke that appears in “Big Brown Eyes” that alludes to Eve being an even better investigator than Danny (she can convince anyone to do anything with her big brown eyes). While this detective-comedy film is not one of the most well-known in film history, ultimately, it provides a wonderful glance into the budding stardom of its cast.

AFTERSUN: A Remarkable Debut Memory Film

Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Charlotte Wells's Aftersun were written by Nick Sansone, PhD student in film in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. The Cinematheque will present Aftersun in our Premieres series on Thursday, February 2 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Free admission!

By Nick Sansone

When looking back at the movie year 2022, one of the most significant trends was the increase of auteur-driven “memory films,” original writer-director projects deeply rooted in a filmmaker’s own memory of either their own childhood or the various goings-on around their growing-up. While filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón and Kenneth Branagh had engaged in these types of work with Roma and Belfast in previous years, 2022 brought such films as Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, James Gray’s Armageddon Time, and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, all of which served as cinematic reflections of a particular time during the filmmakers’ coming-of-age and were largely based in their own memories of the period. However, a very different sort of memory film opened in limited release alongside these other works last fall and quickly garnered a higher level of universal critical acclaim than the other aforementioned 2022 memory films.

But rather than the long-awaited memory film of a legendary Hollywood filmmaker, Aftersun is the debut feature of a largely-unknown Scottish filmmaker named Charlotte Wells. Having initially garnered attention with a trilogy of short films she directed as an MFA student at New York University, Wells collaborated on this first feature with Moonlight creators Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski, and the latter film’s artistic rendering of memory and youth coming-of-age amidst a broken family dynamic is very much reflected in how Wells approaches this story, albeit with a heightened sense of ambiguity and mystery that more than helps it stand on its own.

Aftersun’s unique approach is established almost immediately, as the film is framed as a flashback to the childhood of protagonist Sophie (played by Frankie Corio as a child and Celia Rowlson-Hall as an adult), and specifically a vacation she took as an eleven-year-old with her father Calum (Paul Mescal) to a Turkish resort in the mid-to-late-1990s. While on this vacation, she becomes forced to grapple with her father’s humanity, and the fact that he has pain and trauma and regret and all the things that every human faces in an amplified manner. And in the present-day, the adult Sophie watches a series of miniDV tapes of the aforementioned vacation in an attempt to understand the person that her father was when raising her.

Within its framework as a memory film, Aftersun seeks to capture the feeling of grappling with the humanity of a parent much later in life, when it is far too late to actually have a real conversation with them. Like many acclaimed art filmmakers (she specifically cites Chantal Akerman as a key influence), Wells constructs this film as a cryptic puzzle, slowly revealing information throughout while still keeping it vague enough that different viewers can come up with differing interpretations as to the nature of this specific father-daughter relationship and what exactly the adult Sophie is trying to understand about her father.

But despite the mysterious and cryptic nature of the film, there are strong undercurrents of clinical depression and repressed sexuality that run throughout its entirety. Specifically, the film’s portrayal of the former is communicated in the most subtle of ways, as Wells allows the viewer to pick up on various things such as books on a hotel room shelf, seemingly-throwaway lines of dialogue and understated gestures in order to construct the picture for themselves. And helping to serve as a guide throughout this is Paul Mescal, whose performance as Calum does much to allow his character to become three-dimensional outside of his daughter’s memories.

In addition, Wells makes careful use of certain pop music to evoke the film’s primary time period (i.e., 1996-97), re-contextualizing such songs as Los del Río’s “Macarena” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in order to both evoke nostalgia and establish a sense of distance that comes with reflecting from a new perspective. But it is in the third act of the film where Wells applies this re-contextualization to the song “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie in such a way that all but transforms it. This artistic choice then culminates in a final shot that furthers the abstract and ethereal nature of the entire enterprise, while keeping Sophie’s conflicting emotions front-and-center and never letting the form overwhelm those emotions.

As Hollywood is currently in the midst of an Oscar season that is largely dominated by such films as Everything Everywhere All At Once, The Fabelmans, The Banshees of Inisherin, and Tár (among others), it is very easy for smaller arthouse-oriented films like Aftersun to get lost in the shuffle, especially when they don’t carry big-name actors, directors, or awards-campaigning budgets, or when they require a particular patience and distraction-free environment in order to appreciate their many gifts. But the Cinematheque screening of Aftersun gives us the chance to allow this film to stand on its own theatrically in Madison and be seen communally on the big screen as a bold artistic statement from a first-time feature filmmaker with a promising career ahead of her.

THE GOOD BOSS: An Elegant Tragicomedy

Monday, January 23rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

This review of Fernando León de Aranoa's El Buen Patrón/ The Good Boss was written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. The Good Boss will have its Madison theatrical premiere on Friday, January 27, the first screening in our annual series supported by UW-Madison's Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS). The screening begins at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Fernando León de Aranoa already had a flourishing career working for Spanish television before he decided to helm his first feature film as a bona fide director. His directorial efforts – among them Amador, A Perfect Day and Loving Pablo - went largely unnoticed, until in 2022, his El Buen Patrón/ The Good Boss, suddenly received award upon award at several film festivals around the world. Rightfully so, one might add, because this intriguing film that starts deceivingly lighthearted and playful, gradually transforms into an elegant mature tragicomedy that benevolently chuckles at the mostly self-inflicted tragedies of modern life this flawed but bizarre species called ‘humans’ faces on a daily basis.

The Good Boss is buttressed by a remarkably inspired performance by De Aranoa’s compatriot Javier Bardem (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men among countless others) who clearly is having a blast portraying Blanco, owner and CEO of a small local Spanish factory. Blanco – we never learn his first name – is the type of man who seemingly has full control over his life: he took over his father’s small business – producing scales of various kinds – and turned it into a true success story. And while we hear Blanco in the opening scene mundanely delivering a speech for the occasion of his business being up for a prestigious price, we do feel he has a heart for his employees when we see him altruistically making a call to his high-paid lawyer when one of his workers’ sons has gotten himself into some trouble with the law. Even Blanco’s marriage is still functional, a bit lacking in passionate affection maybe, but – fitting for someone in the business of selling scales – utterly balanced, and most certainly free of any financial woes.

Appearances quickly turn out to be deceptive, however, as we slowly realize that things are not entirely as they seem. However perfect business life may be, it sometimes requires little annoyances like firing people. And isn’t it annoyingly inconvenient that just when an inspection is to be held at the plant, a former disgruntled employee decides to stage a protest in front of the company’s main gate? Equally annoying is the fact that your childhood friend and company right-hand man Miralles seems to have lost his touch when it comes to taking care of daily management. And not so much annoying but rather a bit awkward is that charming new young female intern flashing her smile at you just a tiny bit too much for comfort. Obviously, these pesky details should be of no concern to a man used to always making the right decisions at the right time, no? Not so much, as we will quickly learn.

The Good Boss looks at how we create our own personal narratives and personae, and become incredibly well-versed in convincing ourselves that every step we take and every decision we make is justified within our own personal framework. Weaving comedy around that idea could easily have ventured into the domain of predictable and questionable humor, but the jokes are peppered liberally, never oppressively throughout the film, and everything is elevated by the director’s unmistakable sense of visual flair. Instead of aiming for rather obvious humorous situations and quick laughs, De Aranoa chooses to let things play out slowly, while the camera unobtrusively observes and allows the viewer to be detached and distant, wryly smiling at so much ‘condition humaine’. The distance between viewer and action is often palpable in a literal sense, with repeated use of ‘long shots’ that let us witness a situation, without necessarily allowing us to hear what characters are saying. This approach requires the spectator to pay attention to salient little details – both visual and narratively – and the film contains a considerable amount of neatly orchestrated little surprises that are undergirded by the well-crafted visual language.

The blending of drama and sometimes stingy, but always heartfelt comedy, manages to unmask several painful universal truths, without having to resort to moralizing or the kind of emphatic rhetorical formulas that lesser films tend to apply. Many contemporary problems and discussion points are touched upon in The Good Boss, but the film leaves it to the viewer to discern them and never insults the audience’s intelligence by spelling out what we are supposed to take away from a given situation.

Comedies that are both well-scripted and visually interesting are – alas – a progressively rare breed in today’s cinema (American or elsewhere). The Good Boss isn’t the kind of film you are likely to find on any critic’s ‘best-of-the-year’ list. Its low profile and genre keep it from being perceived as ‘high brow award fare’. However, in the way the film manages to combine keen visual craftmanship with social critique, while still functioning as an engaging comedy, it is a perfect alternative for both the run-of-the-mill comedic blockbuster and the more sophisticated comedies we tend to associate with arthouse fare.

Favorites of 2022: John Bennett

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

John Bennett is 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.

  1. TÁR (Todd Field, 2022)
  2. ARMAGEDDON TIME (James Gray, 2022)
  3. BENEDICTION (Terence Davies, 2021)
  4. APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD (Richard Linklater, 2022)
  5. PETROV'S FLU (Kirill Serebrennikov, 2021)
  6. COW (Andrea Arnold, 2021)
  7. THE FABELMANS (Steven Spielberg, 2022)
  8. ONE FINE MORNING (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2022)
  9. IL BUCO (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2021)
  10. TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (Ruben Östlund, 2022)
  11. INCREDIBLE BUT TRUE (Quentin Dupieux, 2022)
  12. LINGUI (Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, 2021)
  13. BABYLON (Damien Chazelle, 2022)
  14. KIMI (Steven Soderbergh, 2022) 
  15. BONES AND ALL (Luca Guadagnino, 2022)

Favorites of 2022: Ben Reiser

Saturday, December 31st, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is Director of Operations for the Wisconsin Film Festival and a Programmer for the Cinematheque.

Ben Reiser’s Fourteen Favorite Movies Seen in Movie Theaters in 2022

In alphabetical order

AFTERSUN (2022, Charlotte Wells) – A sense memory piece that miraculously balances precise details with a fathomless sense of the unknown. Somehow both achingly sad and filled with dread yet beautiful and strangely comforting.

AMSTERDAM (2022, David O Russell) – I’ve rarely connected with a movie so quickly and so completely. I was sold within the first thirty seconds, and after two viewings, I’m ready for a third. Featuring terrific, effervescent turns not only from Christian Bale, Margot Robie and John David Washington, but also by actors I don’t normally enjoy, including Rami Malek and Mike Meyers.

ARMAGEDDON TIME (2022, James Gray) – Like an atom bomb dropped directly on my adolescence, James Gray’s fearlessly honest and clear-eyed account of a Jewish family living in 1980s Queens features another late-career highlight from Anthony Hopkins that left me in tears.

BABYLON (2022, Damien Chazelle) – A swing for the fences that ultimately gets caught at the warning track, but man is it ever fun to watch it’s long slow descent down to earth.

BARBARIAN (2022, Zach Cregger) I had a lot of luck this year with films I’d heard negative things about in advance, but this one lived up to all the positive hype and then some. Barbarian weaponizes our knowledge of horror movie tropes against us in all the best ways.

BONES AND ALL (2022, Luca Guadagnino) – Guadagnino, like James Gray, is a director whose work I’ve admired more than loved, but I was completely hypnotized by this YA tale that somehow taps into the emotionally devastating vibe of George A. Romero’s Martin and milks it for all its worth.

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022, David Cronenberg) – I love David Cronenberg and this is my favorite film of his since Existenz.

THE FABELMANS (2022, Steven Spielberg) – How amazing that we got both Armageddon Time and this in the same year? My favorite Spielberg since A.I..

FUNNY PAGES (2022 Owen Kline) – I haven’t laughed this long and hard since our Cinematheque screening of What’s Up Doc?, and that is rarified air.

HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE (2022, Daniel Goldhaber) An urgent political tract dressed up as a big, dumb, ridiculously entertaining action movie. Oceans 11 written by Abbie Hoffman.

LUXEMBOURG, LUXEMBOURG (2022, Antonio Lukich) – This Ukranian comedy about two brothers – one a cop, the other, a ne’er-do-well - is consistently funny and surprising, and ultimately, quite moving.

PETER VON KANT (2022, François Ozon) – Is it heresy to admit I prefer this funny, lighthearted remake to Fassbender’s original, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant? Well, I’m on record.

RIMINI (2022, Ulrich Seidl) – Ulrich Seidl’s latest is a typically disturbing, funny, sad, brilliantly observed character piece. It’s almost a remake of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but better.

A WOUNDED FAWN (2022, Travis Stevens) – This giallo meets The Evil Dead mashup has a first half that might be even more terrifying than the first act of Barbarian. And then it gets freaky.

Movies I wish I’d seen in a theater, but enjoyed quite a bit at home:

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022, Guillermo Del Toro, Mark Gustafson)

RRR (2022, S.S Rajamouli)

SPEAK NO EVIL (2022, Christian Tafdrup)