Wednesday, November 10th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Ken Kwapis’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants were written by Ashton Leach, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sisterhood will be screening on Thursday, November 11, at the Marquee Theater at Union South. After the screening, director Ken Kwapis will join us in person to answer audience questions. This screening is a collaboration between the UW Cinematheque and WUD Film.

By Ashton Leach

Tears, laughter, love. These are the key components of Ken Kwapis' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Based on the 2001 Ann Brashares book by the same name, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants revels in the complexities of teenage girlhood, intertwining comedy and drama seamlessly as the narrative follows four girls during their first summer apart as they spread out across the world. The sixteen-year-olds that comprise the Sisterhood of the title question the importance of love, especially as they approach it in a way they have never done before. Carmen (America Ferrera) seeks affection from her father as cultural differences leave her feeling othered in his new WASP family in South Carolina. Lena (Alexis Bledel) finds a boyfriend who is seen as a family enemy by the relatives she's visiting in Greece. After the death of her mother, Bridget (Blake Lively) confronts her feelings of depression, loss, and shame while at soccer camp in Mexico. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) makes new friends with a younger girl while working through the summer in Maryland.

Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his contributions to sitcoms, including Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and most notably, The Office. Kwapis' film offers a look at the connection friendship creates beyond the differences of size, class, and distance and the director excels at crafting spaces that leave the four protagonists vulnerable while also showing their fortitude. Sisterhood remains a cornerstone of late-night sleepovers, and as America Ferrera, Blake Lively, Amber Tamblyn, and Alexis Bledel continue to dominate both small and large screens, Sisterhood stays in conversation as an important achievement in their early careers.

The way Kwapis represents the intensity of change on the screen leaves the viewer reflecting on the changes that cause the character shifts in the four protagonists. From Greece to South Carolina, from Mexico to Maryland, the girls send the pants to each other seemingly when they need them most. The pants come to represent the confidence that is gained through companionship, giving each of the girls the encouragement to take the risks in new places where their friends aren't. The pants, in actuality, get little screen time, and aren't a particularly memorable aspect of the movie. This just goes to show that the pants, which also represent the affection between the four friends, were never really important, and the cost of shipping the jeans all over the world is well worth the price for friendship.

Four girls, four vastly different backgrounds, one hip-hugging pair of denim jeans that represent much more than a fashion trend of 2005. Sisterhood digs into the difficulty of change: each girl realizes that what they wanted is much more complicated than they ever expected and the characters offer so much more beyond the usual trite depiction of bland and vapid teenagers. Kwapis' film instead focuses on the struggles that many girls will have to face during this sensitive time of immense metamorphosis. The dramatic actions taken by each of the girls might seem cliched on the surface, but the film sensitively reveals the emotional turmoil that lead them to their actions, giving weight to their experiences and pain. That is why Sisterhood remains a staple in the library of teenage girlhood cinema.

Sisterhood provides an honest portrayal of finding oneself with a little help from your friends, even when they are not physically there. The familiarity of Sisterhood is moving, painfully relatable, and guaranteed to elicit a plethora of emotions. Though the girls are not stereotypes, the performances and writing make it possible for anyone watching the film to sympathize with the girls. Sisterhood leaves the audience reflecting upon the pressures of teenagerhood and acts as a reminder that chosen family is just as valuable as any blood relation. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants will undoubtedly live on in the pantheon of teenage girlhood films, but it leaves all its viewers, regardless of age, knowing that perhaps “being happy isn't having everything in your life be perfect. Maybe it's about stringing together all the little things, like wearing these pants.”

Cinematalk Podcast: J.J. Murphy on THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Wednesday, November 10th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

On Saturday, November 13th, the Cinematheque will present a 35mm print of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Our free screening coincides with the publication of J.J. Murphy’s revelatory new monograph on the film’s production from University of Texas press.

On this new episode of our Cinematalk podcast, our special guest is  J.J. Murphy, author, filmmaker and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught film production and studies courses for many years. His films include the avant-garde classics Print Generation and Sky Blue Water Light Sign, which have been restored by the Academy Film Archive. His two most recently published books are Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama and the Screenplay, and The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol.

Listen to Cinematalk below or subscribe through Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Nasty Business of POSSESSION

Thursday, November 4th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Possession will screen on Friday, November 5, at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free.

By Tim Brayton

The fourth film directed Andrzej Żuławski, 1981’s Possession, has had a difficult history in the English-speaking world. The film (itself shot in English, the director’s only film in that language) was heavily cut down for its 1983 United States release: fully one-third of the film was carved away to bring it down to an incoherent 81 minutes, received with hostility by critics and ignored by audiences. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was initially released uncut in the United Kingdom, but then fell under a bizarre form of notoriety, when it was targeted as one of the 72 “Video Nasties,” the 1983 list of films that the Director Public Prosecutions sought to ban on obscenity grounds.

The Video Nasties list came about due to concerns, in the wake of the first wave of slasher films reaching the new medium of VHS tapes, that young people were being exposed to too much violence and other depraved content. In this context, the presence of Possession is especially bizarre, given that it is, uniquely among those 72 titles, a politically-laden art film, not any kind of exploitation film, and certainly not one that impressionable children would likely have encountered in the first place. Nor, if they had, would they be likely to have understood some of the most challenging and unsettling material in the film. Since its initial European release, critics have struggled to describe Possession: is it horror? Is it a character drama, the symbolic expression of Żuławski’s misery at his acrimonious 1976 divorce from Małgorzata Braunek? Is it a metaphor for Cold War Europe trying desperately to maintain a sense of cohesion even as it is split between two irreconcilable political blocs?

The simple answer is that it’s horror because it’s the other things. Look to Possession in the hope of finding a collection of gory jump scares, and you will look in vain (there is a monster, though: a tremendously convincing and uncomfortably organic-looking one co-created by the great make-up and effects designer Carlo Rambaldi, who went directly from this to the title character of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). But its portrayal of psychological despair is its own kind of bone-deep horror. Viewed as a study of life in West Berlin, right in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, it achieves a surreal, alien quality: Żuławski wanted to suggest the fundamentally anti-human character of the space around the wall, using a Steadicam, then still a fairly novel cinematography tool, to create a weightless, frictionless feeling. It’s part of the film’s overall visual strategy of creating an eerily clean, lifeless vision of Berlin, one that feels like the ghost of a city rather than a place that people go about their days (another part of the filmmakers’ strategy was to use the “wrong” color lights for their film stock, deliberately creating a sickly blue sheen over the whole film).

More still than that, the film’s horror resides in its utter despair with which it presents the collapse of an unhealthy marriage. Żuławski reveals perhaps more than he intended, and perhaps more than we should be comfortable with, of his anger at women in this film’s reality-bending depiction of sexual desire gone wrong. Surely, it’s the film’s visceral portrayal of bodies, human and otherwise, that earned it a spot among the Video Nasties; those were the elements foregrounded in the butchery that transformed the American cut into a bit of gross-out exploitation. Like David Cronenberg’s The Brood, two years earlier, another work of body horror in which an unhappily divorced man worked out his feelings towards his ex-wife and his own failures as a man, Possession finds something fundamentally terrifying in the female sex drive and incomprehensible in female psychology. But here, the restored material filling in the marriage between Mark and Anna moves past body horror into the realm of psychological thriller. The real focus of the film is not on the cephalopod-like thing that Anna is apparently having an affair with, but the sense of comprehensible reality fracturing for Mark and Anna alike as their inner lives shatter.

This focus on the psychological disintegration of two people, fueled by their incompatibility as marriage partners, and Mark’s desperate failed attempts to understand anything about Anna’s mind, is the real source of Possession’s deepest horrors. Isabelle Adjani (who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her work in this film and Quartet) and Sam Neill, playing the central couple, have both reported in later interviews that the experience of filming the movie nearly broke them psychologically. The extremes they are pushed to, physically and expressively, are raw and shocking – especially for Adjani, whose work verges into genuine incoherence as she pushes herself all the way into a portrait of unpredictable frenzy. We are watching actors trying to drive themselves to insanity right in front of our eyes, and the results are as gripping as they are disturbing and disorienting.

Possession isn’t an easy film to sit through, in other words. Both in its portrait of the world at large and in its attitude towards the two broken figures who make up its central marriage. It is nihilistic, angry, and unstinting in its attempt to match their mental collapse in the aggressive visual style and frequently unclear narrative. The film’s cult status is well-earned: it holds nothing back emotionally or physically, resulting in a depiction of mental uncertainty and instability that’s like very little else that has ever been made. It’s not an experience for every viewer, but for anyone looking to take a disquieting, disturbing trip through some dark corners of the human mind, Possession lives up to every bit of its nasty reputation.

Life Could Be a Dream: MULHOLLAND DR.

Thursday, November 4th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., were written by Joseph Shin, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication ArtsA 35mm print of Mulholland Dr. will screen on Saturday, November 6 in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Joseph Shin

There is a certain stratum of film that occupies such rarefied space and achieves such transcendent qualities that when asked to proffer the reasons for its perceived greatness, one can find oneself at a loss for words. Some films’ raison d’etre are far easier to pinpoint: impeccable performances, a perfect script, an infallible audiovisual aesthetic. Mulholland Dr. contains all of these elements and more, but to explain its personal significance seems almost futile. And in this way, the film becomes analogous to a dream one has woken up from and cannot quite place, an abundantly appropriate metaphor for those who have seen the film or are familiar with David Lynch’s work. 

Mulholland Dr. began its journey as the pilot for a television series, continuing the complex negotiation Lynch’s career has had between the dual worlds of film and television. His first dalliance with television, of course, began in the ‘90s with what became perhaps his most widely beloved work, Twin Peaks, a show that Lynch relaunched on Showtime in 2017 to great acclaim. Indeed, the genesis of Mulholland Dr. was as a spin-off of Twin Peaks, centering on Audrey Horne as she moves from the Pacific Northwest to sunny Los Angeles in an attempt to become a star on the silver screen. 

The spinoff idea morphed into an original property, though still one imbued through and through with Lynch’s artistic DNA. Mulholland Dr. retained this basic core of “Hollywood as Dream Factory" and the film ostensibly follows Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress seeking to make it big in Tinseltown, and her entanglement with Rita (Laura Harring) who at film’s beginning suffers a car crash on the titular Mulholland Drive that spurs a case of amnesia. The mystery of who “Rita” is becomes the narrative drive of the bulk of the film, but it is not the story proper that accounts for Mulholland Dr.’s significance. Rather, it is Lynch’s treatment of such tried-and-true material that makes up its singularity. 

Mulholland Dr. forms an interesting case within Lynch’s greater oeuvre. At once, it marks many continuities. From its very title, we can surmise its fascination with one of Lynch’s favorite motifs, that of the road. In Blue Velvet, we can think of the car rides with Frank Booth that transport us from idyllic suburbia to the seedy underbelly it conceals. Wild at Heart was a surreal road movie that made phantasmagoria out of Americana. Lost Highway, probably the closest aesthetic and thematic precursor to Mulholland Dr. in Lynch’s filmography, used the road as a psychoanalytic bridge between characters’ constantly shifting identity. Two years before the release of Mulholland Drive, Lynch would rework the road film in his most obviously humanist work, The Straight Story.   

In Mulholland Dr., the titular road provides a sense of locality. Lynch marks the territory of Los Angeles as his area of play. In an early scene, we are afforded not only a glimpse of the Mulholland Drive street sign, but that of another famous Hollywood signifier, that of Sunset Boulevard. Here begins the highly cinematically reflexive and self-referential quality of the film that extends to the naming of characters (Rita takes on her name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth in Gilda), the narrative focus on filmmaking as focalized through Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), the deliberate nods to classical Hollywood noir (there is a particular debt to Otto Preminger’s Laura), and perhaps best represented through one of the most astounding scenes in Lynch’s entire filmography, the Club Silencio sequence. 

The Club Silencio sequence marks an inflection point in the film where Betty and Rita find their greatest spiritual bond, one that is analytically broken down by each successive scene. They stumble upon a curious sort of performance where an emcee explains its inherent artificiality. Its closest analogue in art is the infamous René Magritte work The Treachery of Images. The famous phrase “ceci n’est pas une pipe” or in English “this is not a pipe” is echoed by Mulholland Dr.’s “no hay banda” or, in English, “there is no band.” The scene climaxes with a lip-sync performance of a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s song “Crying” (a callback to the use of Orbison’s “In Dreams” in a pivotal scene of Blue Velvet) that despite the constant intimations of its artifice and construction, become desperately moving to both the diegetic audience and the film viewer, as well, forming a potent metaphor for the art of filmmaking in the process. 

Nostalgia forms a crucial component to Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s own nostalgic remembrances of signifiers of his cultural past (the opening dance party sequence, kitschy pop tunes like “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star”) become mediated through the imagined remembrances of who becomes revealed as the film’s “true” protagonist, Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts). In her dream-construction, Hollywood is a place where ingenues can become starlets. A place where through luck, grit, and determination, one can find themselves magically in the pictures. In this universe, one need not sacrifice love for career or vice versa. Rather, both can be consummated in one fell swoop. The revelation in the final sections of the film of Betty and Rita as dream-screens and how disparate the lives of these dream-surrogates and their “real-life” referents transform the film from a celebration of Tinseltown to a damning critique of Hollywood toxicity. As critic David Thomson puts it, Mulholland Dr. is not only “about itself and the dual process of dreaming and driving – it’s also one of the greatest films ever made about the cultural devastation caused by Hollywood.” Silencio. 

Cinematalk Presents 70 Movies We Sawn in the 70s: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

In conjunction with the Cinematheque's presentation of Tobe Hooper'sThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre on October 30, we have repackaged an episode of 70 Movies We Saw in the '70s podcast on our own Cinematalk podcast.

On this episode, the Cinematheque's Ben Reiser talks with his regular co-host Scott Lucas about the movie's production history, its influences on other horror movies, and their own personal histories with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Listen below or subscribe to Cinematalk here.

The Artistry and Humanity of Djibril Diop Mambéty

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Djibril Diop Mambéty's Le franc and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun was written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Le franc and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun will be screened in a program on Friday, October 29 at 7 p.m., at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By John Bennett

In the history of Senegalese cinema, two filmmakers stand out as the nation’s most prominent. The first, Ousmane Sembene, is known for his inventive yet direct moral parables (in films such as Mandabi, Xala, or Faat Kiné) that detail quandaries experienced by individuals in postcolonial Senegal. The second, Djibril Diop Mambéty, may be harder to neatly label. Unlike Sembene, Mambéty avoids overt didacticism (even if individual moments in his films do indeed appear to comment on the postcolonial moment during which he worked). And while Sembene’s films relay narratives with clear characterizations and causal narration, Mambéty’s films experiment extensively with both cinematic storytelling and style. Such experimentation is most boldly showcased in his 1973 masterpiece, Touki Bouki. But even if Mambéty toned down some of his more extreme experimental tendencies by the late 1990s, his virtues as a filmmaker are nevertheless on full display in his final two films: Le franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999).

Le franc and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun are part of a planned trilogy titled “histoires de petites gens” or “stories of little people”--a trilogy that Mambéty did not manage to complete before his untimely death in 1998. In both films, Mambéty presents slice-of-life narratives of ordinary Senegalese individuals navigating life in Dakar and its environs. In Le franc, a poor musician named Marigo discovers he has won the national lottery and treks across Dakar to claim his winnings. In The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, a young disabled girl named Sili becomes determined to sell copies of the newspaper called The Sun in Dakar to support both herself and her blind grandmother. But in both films, the stories are less straightforward than simple summaries might suggest. Of the two works, Le franc experiments the most with narrative design. After Marigo embarks on his quest to cash in his lottery ticket, the film largely abandons dialogue as a means of advancing the story. Instead, Marigo is presented in a series of locations whose spatial relationships to each other remain unclear. The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun may be Mambéty’s most classically constructed film; Sili has a goal to sell newspapers and encounters obstacles in the achievement of that goal. But narrative experimentation is nevertheless present in this work as well: Sili announces her goal to her unseen grandmother in voice-over as the image track shows a close up Sili’s stoic face (her lips unmoving despite her voice’s presence on the soundtrack) superimposed over a rapidly-moving printing press. Both films conclude ambiguously: Le franc ends with Marigo’s wild laughter at having recovered the ticket that he briefly thought lost. The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun concludes with Sili being carried into the distance by an older student without having recovered her crutch stolen by a gang of rival newspaper vendors. Though both films depict intelligible stories about believable characters, Mambety’s light narrative experimentation infuses both works with a dreamy atmosphere

Aiding in the creation of this atmosphere are other stylistic devices with which Mambéty experiments. In both shorts, like Touki Bouki before them, Mambéty saturates his Dakar cityscapes with deep, warm colors. Marigo traverses Dakar in a deep red/orange garment that complements the rich yellows and blues painted on the side of the bus that serves as his transportation. After she has made a considerable sum on the sale of her newspapers, Sili dances down a street in a deep yellow dress. Subtler still are the rich soundscaes that abound in both works. Though dialogue disappears for much of the middle of Le franc, it is replaced on the soundtrack by dense waves of sounds that include calls to prayer; saxophone, guitar, and percussion solos; and the general hum and whir of the city. Sonorous, too, is the booming voice of Aminata Fall, the actress who plays Marigo’s landlady (Fall was also featured prominently in Touki Bouki). One of the more memorable elements of The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun is Sili’s calm, repeated mantra-like intonation of “Le soleil!” as she promotes her wares. (For more on sound in Mambéty’s films, see UW professor Vlad Dima’s book, Sonic Space in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Films). The confluence of narrative experimentation, saturated palettes, and dense and varied soundscapes make Le franc and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun pleasantly hypnotic and sensorial cinematic experiences.

Ambiguity is Mambéty’s modus operandi, but that doesn’t prevent his films from delivering moments of pointed political critique. As Yasmina Price points out in her recent essay on the restorations for New York’s Metrograph theater, Mambéty was strongly critical of the global economic forces that he felt worked against such “petites gens” as Marigo and Sili (such a criticism is particularly evident in his 1992 feature, Hyenas). In a Kafkaesque moment from Le franc that recalls several scenes from Sembene’s Mandabi, Marigo encounters difficulty in claiming his winnings when speaking to a government functionary. Le franc, like Mandabi before it, criticizes the inaccessibility of governmental institutions for those who are poor and uneducated. While speaking with the functionary, Marigo briefly recounts the story of Yaadikoone Ndiaye, a poster of whom adorns the door he has lugged from his small apartment across town. Ndiaye, explains Marigo, is the Senegalese Robin Hood--a man who protected the young and the weak. The same poster can be seen briefly on a wall in the police station to which Sili is taken on the suspicion of theft in The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun. Despite Maméty’s disorienting stylistic concoctions, his criticism of Senegal’s place within a neocolonial global economy can nevertheless be clearly discerned.

Beyond the unique political commentary of Le franc and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, the films are also notable social documents for their portrayal of disability. In both works, the audience witnesses disabled characters navigate crowded and occasionally inhospitable spaces. But in neither work is the representation of disability exploited for easy pathos. Yes, we are invited to sympathize with Sili when we see her harassment at the hands of the gang of rival newspaper peddlers. But more often, we are simply invited to witness the placid calm with which she interfaces with her quotidian world. As a viewer with a physical disability, I personally have found Sili’s ordinary management of her life (and Mambéty’s unfussy depiction thereof) to be one of world cinema’s finest depictions of what it means and what it is like to be disabled. This, along with his creative political rhetoric and novel exploitation of cinematic conventions, are sufficient grounds to rank Mambéty as a first-rate humanist and artist.


Monday, October 25th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Tobe Hooper's original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will screen in a restored 4K DCP on Saturday, October 30 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

It really all starts with the title. Rarely have a filmmaker and his film so boldly proclaimed their own identity with such ferocity as with Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It starts with Texas, a state that exists in the public imagination as the setting of countless Westerns, the rough and tumble wilderness where hard men lead lives of violence. On top of that, to audiences in 1974, Texas was also the state where only a decade prior a young president was shot dead in broad daylight.  Then there is “Chain Saw Massacre”, a ruthless and gruesome joining of terms that nonetheless approaches a sort of macabre poetry, or at least an aesthetic aural beauty. Even the misspelling of “Chain Saw”—a misspelling now enshrined in the Library of Congress—speaks to a work that has somehow slipped through the cracks, through the normal structures that are intended to keep something so raw, so unvarnished, away from the general viewing public. It’s a title that makes promises few films could actually keep, something outrageously horrific and grotesque, the stuff that only really exists in imagination or nightmares, not on American movie screens.

And yet, from the opening text crawl—narrated by a pre-Night Court John Larroquette—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre announces itself as not just a new vision of American horror cinema, but a horrifying vision of America itself. The fact that the true story claims were bogus—the film is *loosely* inspired by Wisconsin’s own Ed Gein, but almost entirely fictionalized—is beside the point. For a nation gripped with terror and fascination by the likes of the Manson family and the Zodiac killer, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre showed audiences something that may not have been real per se, but reminded them of something that was true, that there were still darkened corners of this nation where evil may lurk and the unspeakable may occur.

That said, such high-minded cultural resonance would be moot if the film itself couldn’t rise to its moment. But rise to its moment, it did. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, even 46 year later, remains a remarkably powerful, upsetting, and thrilling piece of genre cinema. Even after numerous sequels and remakes—including one from Tobe Hooper himself in 1986—and countless slasher films that have pilfered its best ideas and images for cheap scares, it remains singular and unmatched in its ability to create a palpable, relentless sense of dread and horror. In time, its rough edges, indicative of its low-budget independent production, have only enhanced its ability to disquiet, giving the film a grimy texture akin to a snuff film, subtly suggesting that what we are seeing was not meant to see the light of day.

And yet there’s a real beauty to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s mayhem, a spirit of Grand Guignol filtered through an almost documentary-like verisimilitude. This is perhaps best exemplified by the film’s now iconic ending. Without getting too specific, the horrors that have befallen Sally (Marilyn Burns, in a performance that helped define the “final girl” trope) end only with a reprieve, not triumph and certainly not justice. Her pained, horrified expression remains unchanged; her wails are what we are left with, a lingering reminder that she will never truly escape the horrors she has witnessed. As for Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), he seems unfazed, undulating wildly against the blistering sun, an almost joyous dance of death. He lives to hunt another day.

Leatherface’s moment in the sun remains one of the most indelible images in horror cinema, and speaks to the ways that Texas Chain Saw Massacre works against the conventions that would come to define the burgeoning slasher genre. The sun rising on an escape would, in lesser films, represent the promise of freedom, a piercing light through the darkness of human degradation that Leatherface and his family represent, a triumph of the human spirit against soulless ghouls. In Chain Saw, though, it is merely a momentary reprieve. The horrors of Leatherface do not end when the sun comes up, nor does the light reveal him to be a creature that can only thrive in the shadows. Instead, in the light of day, the horrors that befall the victims of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remain as horrific as in the night, and the monsters behind them continue to hide in broad daylight, waiting for their moment to strike.

The Syzygies of A DIM VALLEY

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Brandon Colvin's A Dim Valley was written by Zachary Zahos, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Brandon Colvin will appear in person at the October 23 screening of A Dim Valley at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Zachary Zahos

For his third feature, Brandon Colvin has created, with his close-knit team of collaborators, a magnetic, moving, and above all, remarkably sui generis work. The major beats of the plot are clear and unchallenging to repeat: a professor and two graduate students encounter a trio of dryads, or wood nymphs, in the Kentucky wilderness, to lifechanging effect. But the road between cause and effect affords a multitude of bypaths, points of entry, and spots of stunning view. Promoted as “part hilarious stoner comedy and part transcendental meditation on mysticism and love,” A Dim Valley fulfills both of these functions and more, committed it is to genre play and tonal polyvalence, aimed most precisely to the body and, in it, the heart. A film of lingering, bespoke import, whose connotations become less easily identifiable the more you dwell on them, A Dim Valley is also, most immediately, a very funny and sensual viewing experience. Its on-screen action and off-screen meanings revolve around human connection — to one another, through our eyes, voices, and bodies; to the natural world, filled with lichens, singing cicadas, and lapping water; and to some higher power, whose presence in these characters’ lives is most synonymous with the aesthetic.

Filmed in and around Morehead, Kentucky, Colvin’s hometown, A Dim Valley achieves its dreamy effects in part through a novel synthesis of setting, cast, and scenario. Robert Longstreet stars as Clarence, a biology professor devoted to liquor as much as his beloved Appalachian mosses and butterflies at the film’s start. With him in a rural cabin, grad students Ian (Zach Weintraub) and Albert (Whitmer Thomas) collect samples while maintaining a willful distance — though it is clear that Ian has a crush on Albert when he eyes him changing, occasion for the first of several Whitmer Thomas butt shots. Three backpackers, Iris (Rosalie Lowe), Rose (Rachel McKeon), and Reed (Feathers Wise), appear before Albert one morning, and it is quickly, memorably established that they possess some supernatural power. The reason for their appearance is not even initially clear to the dryads, but as the film progresses, the connections, both temperamental and spiritual, between the three nymphs and the three men become more finely etched and gently consequential.

Unlike most other American independent films of its budget or moment, A Dim Valley focuses intently on the ambivalence, beauty, and singularity of the human face. Over 90 minutes, Colvin and cinematographer Cody Duncum toss off countless immaculately lit, iconic close-ups, all of arresting impact. Three suspended, frontal close-ups announce the nocturnal advent of the dryads, each a perfect distillation of Lowe, McKeon, and Wise’s performances. Soon after, a beautiful, tight profile view of Clarence at a bar captures a complicated moment of disbelief and regret. Longstreet should prove a familiar face at this point in his career: he has supporting roles in so many films, from Sorry to Bother You (2018) to Aquaman (2018) to Halloween Kills (2021), and he is a favorite of Mike Flanagan, most recently in Doctor Sleep (2019) and Midnight Mass (2021). Longstreet led Colvin’s previous feature Sabbatical (2014), which explored his sculptural and even grotesque dimensions. A Dim Valley is in large part the story of Clarence’s transformation, and Longstreet channels a spectrum of human feeling to get us there. His mid-film monologue, in which he relates a painful childhood dream involving fairies, taps briefly and powerfully into a well of raw sensitivity, though if pressed to pick a favorite scene, I would choose his acoustic performance of “Bison,” a Neil Young-esque number Longstreet himself wrote. Clarence’s scenes with Ian are also subtle and poignant: both characters are gay and seemingly celibate, and through body language and glances, they skirt around some sort of mutual, mirrored understanding.

In a sweet, key scene involving Scrabble, Ian plays one of the supreme words, “syzygy,” flummoxing Iris. Syzygy refers to those fleeting celestial occurrences, whereby the sun, Earth, and moon align to create an eclipse — more generally, it can denote a meeting of corresponding or contrasting phenomena. The certifiably smart Colvin (UW-Madison, PhD, 2018) invokes the word with intention, for it summarizes the film’s plot, and irreducibility, in miniature. Stepping back, the word could also apply to A Dim Valley’s brief and meaningful production, with its necessary impermanence, clashing signifiers, and monumental results. In this instance, a cast and crew of 25 convened in the summer of 2018 in splendid eastern Kentucky, a region ignored by Hollywood cameras. Virtually everyone in the crew was a filmmaker in their own right, from producer and art director Nora Stone, to producers and editors Pisie Hochheim and Tony Oswald, who — as it happens — directed a fantastic short film, Great Light (2018, produced by Colvin), which was literally shot during a total solar eclipse. I’m tempted to look at all these correspondences and call A Dim Valley “the syzygy to end all syzygies,” but that wouldn’t sell any more copies, and thankfully, the planets keep on turning.

Cinematalk Podcast: A DIM VALLEY with Brandon Colvin

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

On a new episode of our Cinematalk podcast, the Cinematheque's Mike King is in conversation with Brandon Colvin, writer, director, and producer of A Dim Valley. Brandon Colvin will appear in person at the Cinematheque's screening of A Dim Valley on Saturday, October 23 at 7 p.m. at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. 

Currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama, Brandon Colvin earned his PhD at UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. His previous two features Frames (2012) and Sabbatical (2014) both screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Listen to Cinematalk below or subscribe through Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Meet the New Boss: Joan Micklin Silver's BETWEEN THE LINES

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines, were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A recently restored DCP of Between the Lines kicks off our series of Silver movies on Friday, September 24 at 7 p.m., in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

By Zachary Zahos

The Cinematheque’s sole directorial retrospective this semester celebrates Joan Micklin Silver, one of the most cherished American auteurs of her generation. She died on December 31, 2020, though news of her passing at 85 years old only reached the film community on New Year’s Day. Either way, it was met as a real blow: the cap to a terrible year, and a heartless start to the new one. Silver was a quiet hero to many, from women in the film industry, to Jewish American cinephiles, to lovers of the Lower East Side and other pockets of alternative urban culture. Born and raised in Omaha, Silver met her husband Raphael (Ray) D. Silver in New York while attending Sarah Lawrence College. She honed her craft making educational films, and only found entry to the world of features through Midwest Films, the independent production and distribution company she and Ray founded. Midwest raised finances for her 1975 debut Hester Street, which screens October 8, and Ray’s 1978 directorial effort On the Yard, screening October 1. Before Silver’s most renowned studio films, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979, United Artists) and Crossing Delancey (1988, Warner Bros., screening October 15), Midwest produced one more film, the 1977 workplace comedy Between the Lines.

Joan Micklin Silver’s second feature reminds us of the renewed, fond attention her career received in the immediate years before her death. Between the Lines premiered on April 27, 1977, twenty-nine days before Star Wars. Based on anecdotal polling I have done of family and colleagues who attended movies then, it was a fondly remembered success — it sold a respectable 38,000 tickets in its first two weeks in Wisconsin alone. Unlike Star Wars, however, Between the Lines had been next-to-impossible to watch, in theaters or on legal home video, in the decades since. That thankfully changed in 2019, when Cohen Media Group restored the film and re-released it to considerable appreciation, including an appearance at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival. As much as any film under her name, Between the Lines exemplifies Silver’s full-hearted spirit and keen insights on human behavior, slyly weaving several digressive narrative strands into a prescient, end-of-an-era tale of corporate takeover.

Breezy and voluminous, Between the Lines follows the hijinks and intersecting personal lives of those working at the Back Bay Mainline, a floundering alt weekly in Boston. Promoted today for the high wattage of its cast, the film was then filled with relative unknowns, like John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsay Crouse, Bruno Kirby, Jill Eikenberry, Gwen Welles, and Joe Morton in a too-small role. As penniless rock critic Max Arloft, Goldblum chortles, swaggers, and smirks in a hot red jacket — an enduring star persona fully formed before he turned 25. A good chunk of the film is devoted to humorous character moments, like Max showing the meek classifieds salesman David (Kirby) the secret to his weed budget, by going to a record store and trading in all his mint, promotional LPs. In his quest to become a serious reporter, David gradually moves closer to the center of the film’s plot, yet Silver still finds ways to trace his arc toward legitimacy with bizarre, alienating tangents: At a party, David lurks around a source, quacking to catch his attention. Silver brilliantly stages the awkward pause that ensues, when the source (who is on a date) briefly gives David the time of day, and David somehow stammers himself into a follow-up meeting.

Screenwriter Fred Barron drew from his experience writing for alt weeklies Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper, while Silver’s time at The Village Voice and on planet Earth motivates the anthropological acuity with which the newspapermen’s arrogance and complexes are rendered. In a famous scene, photographer Abbie (Crouse) hits it off with an exotic dancer (Marilu Henner, in her first screen role), irritating journalist Harry Lucas (Heard), who came to the interview with canned, sexist questions. Naturally, Harry and Abbie soon become an item, and Silver charts their relationship with enough peaks and valleys to present it in unidealized terms. The same goes for the relationship between the self-effacing Laura (Welles) and Michael (Stephen Collins), a lapsed reporter with a book contract. Michael’s off-the-charts narcissism drives Laura, briefly, to Harry, yet Michael’s reaction to this turn is surprisingly subdued. As bad as the men are, Silver never overplays her hand by turning one into The Godfather’s Carlo, to pick an infamous 1970s example. It’s just that the women in the newsroom lead when the men fold; office manager Lynn (Eikenberry) embodies this ethic in a crucial, late-act confrontation with the new management.

If Between the Lines epitomizes the J.M.S. sensibility, it balances a behavioral realism, as captured through subtly modulated performance, with a knowing, aesthetic theatricality. Silver loved filming quiet character moments against a sequence of impassioned musical performance, as seen in the extended Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes party scene here, or the beautiful “Some Enchanted Evening” number, set in a Papaya King, from Crossing Delancey. But other scenes in the film, such as the first and last, also find ways to foreground the artificiality of performance without diegetic music. Michael J. Pollard, the baby-faced actor from Bonnie & Clyde, opens Between the Lines hawking the Mainline to commuters, and in one shot he looks directly into the camera lens, an inviting intermediary between audience and story world. The film closes with a satisfying punchline, where Max convinces a bar regular (played by National Lampoon’s now-mythic co-founder Douglas Kenney) to pay for his drink after grokking him a Mainline reader. The credits roll as they hit it off, and a zoom out reveals their shadows cast starkly against a back wall by an off-screen key light. In part the consequences of a low budget, these imperfections peel back the curtain just enough, loving moments uncontained.