One of Us: Rediscovering Browning's FREAKS

Thursday, September 14th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Ashton Leach

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONTEMPT: Godard's Odyssey Into International Co-Productions

Thursday, September 14th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Pate Duncan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 5th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Sarah Mae Fleming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in Peace Paul, Long Live Pee-Wee

Friday, August 25th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Lance St. Laurent

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ode to the Ambitionless: I VITELLONI

Tuesday, August 1st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By John Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

AVANTI! Billy Wilder's Charming Defiance of New Hollywood

Friday, April 28th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By John Bennett

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

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

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

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

A FOREIGN AFFAIR: Billy Wilder Returns to Berlin

Friday, April 21st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By John Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

DRUNKEN MASTER II: Staggering Toward Immortality

Friday, April 21st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Lance St. Laurent

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

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

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

ÉL: A Forgotten Buñuel Gem Returns

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By John Bennett

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

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

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

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

Remembering Walter Mirisch

Monday, February 27th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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