New Cinematalk Episode!

Wednesday, June 19th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

On an all-new episode of our Cinematalk podcast, Cinematheque programmers Jim Healy & Ben Reiser discuss the free screenings on offer during June and July!

THE SMALL BACK ROOM: Life During Wartime

Friday, June 14th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on The Small Back Room were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of The Small Back Room will screen on Friday, July 5, 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free.

By Josh Martin

In the London war offices depicted in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Black Room (1949), an assortment of background signs provide a grim insistence on nightly wartime rules: “Don’t forget the blackout!” Set in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, the anxious, gloomy atmosphere engendered by the mandated preventative blackout enhances the viewer’s experience of this cinematic nocturne. As the preeminent mid-century British filmmakers, Powell and Pressburger (known collectively as The Archers) are still best known today for their elaborate use of Technicolor. Whether in service of the lavish, fantastical ballet of The Red Shoes (1948), the feverish desires of Black Narcissus (1947), or even the floral gardens of A Matter of Life and Death (1944), the legacy of the Archers is inseparable from their probing of cinematic color’s emotional and affective possibilities. However, the Archers were no strangers to the affordances of black-and-white, demonstrated by collaborations such as I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and The Small Back Room, a film that draws on moody shadows and expressionistic style to craft a tale of British despondence, resilience, and redemption.

Based on a 1943 novel by Nigel Balchin, Powell and Pressburger’s film introduces viewers to a cramped, chaotic space in the London offices of the British army, where a compendium of misfit scientists experiment with the latest in weapons technology to serve in the fight against the Germans. Operating like a disorganized, miniature Los Alamos, the “back room boys” attempt to marry their knowledge of statistics with the “feel” of weaponry as experienced by the everyday soldiers. Sammy Rice (played by David Farrar, a favorite of the Archers) is a specialist in munitions and bombs working out of this back room, but he is struggling with a disability: the loss of his foot in action. Left in endless, excruciating pain, Sammy alternates between popping pills and failing to stay away from any whiskey he can get his hands on, doing whatever it takes to mitigate the misery of his prosthetic foot. Despite the support of his love interest, war office assistant Susan (Kathleen Byron, another member of the Archers’ stock company), Sammy spends most of his time stuck in a cycle of discontent and snarky self-loathing, cynically lamenting his lot. However, Sammy finds a chance at a purpose when approached by Captain Dick Stuart (Michael Gough), who informs him of the existence of a dangerous new German bomb that the military has thus far struggled to successfully disable.

The Small Back Room arrived at a transition point in the career of the Archers. As described by Powell in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, a rift had formed between the filmmakers and J. Arthur Rank. The superproducer, who shepherded many of the Archers’ most notable triumphs of the 1940s, was profoundly unhappy with the prospects of The Red Shoes. As the Archers grew more frustrated with Rank and his lack of confidence, the independent filmmakers were also being wooed by Alexander Korda, the head of British Lion Productions. Powell approached Korda with the idea of adapting The Small Back Room, which, from his vantage point, “had a great suspense sequence” at its climax and an “ideal” role for Black Narcissus star Farrar. Korda, unfamiliar with the book, agreed to buy the rights if Powell and Pressburger were interested in adapting it for the screen. Rank ultimately decided, along with his associate John Davis, to dump The Red Shoes into theaters with little fanfare and no premiere. This decision sparked, in Powell’s words, the conclusion of “one of the greatest partnerships in the history of British films.” The Archers agreed to a five picture deal with Korda, the first of which would be The Small Back Room.

Powell and Pressburger were familiar with dramatizing British perspectives on World War II. The catastrophic conflict – and the decades leading up to it, as presented in 1943’s epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – had been a central subject for the directors throughout the 1940s. Far from a retread, The Small Back Room offers a distinct approach that expands on the Archers’ previous explorations of World War II-era Britain, placing an emphasis on the London home front – on the bureaucratic politics and behind-the-scenes machinations that shaped the war effort. This national portrait works in careful conjunction with the film’s more penetrating character study of Sammy Rice, whose endurance and recovery from his shattering, alcoholic despair mirrors Britain’s own comeback and ultimate victory in the war.

Though triumph is on the horizon by the film’s end, our subject matter is stark – and starkly reflected by the non-naturalistic shadows and sinister ambience of the film’s black-and-white world. Powell admitted to incorporating his love of the great German expressionist films into The Small Back Room, and we see the fruits of this influence in the surfeit of canted angles, in the cavernous, twisted spaces inside the war office – all united by the low visibility and limited illumination provided by cinematographer Chris Challis’ black-and-white compositions. Most prominently, such influence is visible in the noteworthy sequence criticized upon release by Britain’s Monthly Film Bulletin as a “lapse… into surrealistic camerawork.” One must forgive the Bulletin for its own “lapse” of judgment, as the scene in question is one of the most astonishing in the Archers’ filmography.

Resembling the Salvador Dalí-designed interlude in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) or, perhaps more aptly, the drunken dreams of grandeur by Emil Jannings’ lowly porter in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), Powell and Pressburger present an assortment of nightmarish sounds and images that represent the inner turmoil of Sammy, now at his lowest point in the film. As a clock ticks loudly in the soundscape, the camera lingers on Sammy’s gaze, fixated on a whiskey bottle. The clock grows louder, with the film alternating between images of the clock’s inner workings and striking close-ups of a pained look on Sammy’s face. Eventually, the scene itself morphs into an abstract and distorted space, inundating Sammy and the spectator with strange visual reminders of his addictions, failings, and overwhelming fears. The whiskey bottle grows larger, the alarm clock becomes louder, and our tortured protagonist finds himself one step closer to his breaking point.

This commitment to formal innovation is evident throughout The Small Back Room, from the exchange of intimate close-ups on Farrar and Byron’s expressive faces to the meticulous tension of the climactic bomb disposal, a quiet exercise in stillness and unease. Down on his luck and in dire pain, facing a high likelihood of death, Sammy still approaches the bomb hoping for some insight that could help beat the Germans. “Are you sure you can manage?” the captain asks. With a typically British stiff upper lip, Sammy can only chuckle and smile, responding: “Suppose I’ll have to.” In a resurgent moment for the Archers in contemporary film culture, highlighted by the North American tour of the British Film Institute’s “Cinema Unbound” retrospective and the forthcoming release of the Martin Scorsese-produced Powell/Pressburger documentary Made in England, The Small Back Room is a prime candidate for rediscovery and further appreciation. Among their many canonized classics, the film remains a key chapter in their oeuvre, a visually accomplished character study that doubles as an essential work of postwar British self-mythologizing.

The Clockwork Precision of SPEED, 30 Years Later

Friday, June 14th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Speed were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Speed from the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research will be screened on Wednesday, July 3, at 7 p.m., in our series tribute to the late David Bordwell. Admission is free

By Josh Martin

Speed (1994) exemplifies the fairly well-crafted action picture. You can say it has three acts (bomb on elevator/on bus/on subway train), or Thompson’s four parts (with a midpoint stakes raiser, the death of an innocent bus passenger, proving that the bomber is willing to kill everyone). The running motifs do causal work. The bomber is watching a televised football game featuring the Arizona Wildcats, and in phone conversation with Jack, the cop on the lethal bus, he refers to Annie, the woman driving, as a ‘wildcat.’ Only later will Jack realize that the bomber can see Annie’s Arizona sweater, so there must be a video camera aboard. The ‘pop quiz’ line answered by Jack’s flippant ‘Shoot the hostage’ at the film’s start recurs at the end, but now Annie is the hostage, and Jack cannot follow his own maxim. Both motifs tie into a broader arc of Jack’s character. At the beginning he’s valiant but impetuous, and his mentor, Harry, warns him that he’s going to have to learn to think if he’s to survive. The bomber mocks Jack for the same reason: ‘Do not attempt to grow a brain.’ But when Jack concludes that the bomber is monitoring the bus, he devises a way to send looped video footage to the bomber while the passengers escape. At the Climax, Jack can use his recklessness strategically: with the subway train hurtling out of control, he realizes that he must accelerate. In the course of his adventure, Jack’s boldness gets tempered by wiliness and prudence. This is not a moral education worthy of Henry James, but it’s enough to bind the suspense and stunts into a reasonably well-contoured whole” (David Bordwell).

Bordwell’s analysis of Jan de Bont’s action classic Speed (1994) emerges in the context of a broader look at modern action cinema in his 2006 book, The Way Hollywood Tells It. Rejecting a cynical reading of action films in which “spectacle overrides narrative,” Bordwell instead sketches a vision of the genre contingent on “all the standard equipment of goals, conflicts, foreshadowing, restricted omniscience, motifs, rising action, and closure.” “Far from being a noisy free-for-all,” Bordwell writes, “the industry’s ideal action movie is as formally strict as a minuet.” De Bont’s film thus serves as an exemplar of how such “equipment” works in the modern action genre, producing a form that blends extravagant thrills with key narrational work.

What strikes the viewer about Speed, both from Bordwell’s assessment and one’s own engagement with the picture, is its impressive economy in fulfilling these classical norms. Here we have a film that rarely slows down, instead providing character depth and narrative information through action, often by employing clear and cogent cinematic grammar. The rather simple scenario is nonetheless handled with skill, intricacy, and precision, operating in tandem with a rapid pace and sense of energetic urgency. The film follows Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves, in prime form), a hotshot LAPD bomb squad member who recently succeeded in thwarting an elevator bombing by an aggrieved terrorist (an amped-up Dennis Hopper). As an act of revenge, Hopper’s bomber rigs a Santa Monica city bus to explode if his monetary demands are not met. If the bus accelerates over 50 miles per hour, the bomb will be activated. If the bus subsequently slows below this 50 mph threshold, it will explode. If the LAPD tries to remove the passengers from the bus, it will explode. These are the conditions in which Jack must save the lives of the ordinary Angelenos who happen to board this doomed vehicle.

One of Speed’s many strengths is its casual evocation of the day-to-day lives of the bus riders, succinctly crafting dynamic characters who exemplify the diversity of the city in microcosm. The nervous Helen (Beth Grant), who will later panic in the face of this dangerous endeavor, mentions that she started riding the bus due to stress: “I just couldn’t handle the freeways anymore. I got so tense.” Self-proclaimed “yokel” Stephens (Alan Ruck) is the quintessential LA tourist, confused by the airport and the city’s insufficient networks of transportation. Annie, played by Sandra Bullock in her breakout role, receives an especially snappy characterization. Aside from some small essential details – her revoked license, and her attendance at the University of Arizona – the film is ultimately uninterested in an elaborate backstory that would bog down the pace. The viewer meets her in a moment of high stress: chasing down the city bus, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other. From the smirking reaction of bus driver Sam (Hawthorne James), this is part of Annie’s everyday routine – it’s just another day on the LA bus lines.

Of course, such expertly staged metropolitan mundanity only carries any weight in contrast to the intensity of Speed, a picture that deliberately heightens its pace – and its performances – to match the playfully choreographed chaos. Dennis Hopper, eight years after David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), brings a similar villainous ferocity to his role as the bomber, whose boisterous bellowing and unpredictable fury provide a sublime foil to the stoic Jack Traven. Reeves, ice cold off his widely criticized performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1993), is a natural fit as the sharp, cool-as-a-cucumber Traven, further honing the action star persona he began crafting as early as Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991). Paired with the nascent everywoman charisma of Bullock, our three leads make for a formidable trio, helping to smoothly execute the narrative norms and beats that Bordwell emphasizes.

Far from just a showcase for its stars’ well-honed personalities, Speed is also one of the definitive Los Angeles movies, a city symphony that presents obstacles and details only possible in the smog-covered city of Angels. “LA is one large place,” Stephens quips at one point, and the film eagerly makes use of this sprawling landscape. Los Angeles is built upon a complex network of freeways, a web that enables high-speed pursuits and the omnipresent threat of stultifying traffic jams. De Bont, who served as the cinematographer for fellow LA actioner Die Hard (1988) before making his directorial debut here, uses the idiosyncrasies of the city to the fullest, exploiting the narrative challenges presented by construction hazards, the inescapable visibility of hovering local news cameras, and the threat of ravenous reporters. By the time Jack and Annie send a subway car crashing onto Hollywood Boulevard, landing in front of delighted tourists at the Chinese Theatre, the film’s portrait of everyday LA slyly gives way to an ending only possible in the movies. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.

In a decade that produced a surplus of high-octane action filmmaking – from the continued reign of Die Hard’s John McTiernan to the emergence of Michael Bay’s signature mayhem – Speed remains a high point of the era. In the introduction to The Way Hollywood Tells It, Bordwell offers a defense of his study of classical norms, conventions, and “ordinary” films, writing that the interrogation of these norms allows us to “better appreciate skill, daring, and emotional power on those rare occasions when we meet them.” On its thirtieth anniversary, de Bont’s picture remains one such occasion: a beacon of classical Hollywood craftsmanship and its enduring ability to thrill the spectator.

DAYS OF HEAVEN: Magic Hour (and a Half)

Monday, April 29th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Days of Heaven were written by Will Quade, PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Days of Heaven screens on Friday, May 3, at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By Will Quade

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ spine-tingling classical piece “Aquarium” hovers like a ghost over the drama within Terrence Malick’s revered second feature Days of Heaven. The music is first placed over the film’s opening credits, where documentary photographs of people working, living, and playing in the 1910s dissolve into each other before Malick ends on one final image: a lone preteen girl, Linda (Linda Manz) – huddled over, knees scrunched to her chest – staring right at the viewer. It is this girl, and Manz’s remarkably vivid voiceover, who will anchor us throughout the film’s dreamy narrative.

The mix of overpowering music, small human drama, and rigorous historical grounding that made Days of Heaven an instantly formidable American film are, by now, part and parcel of what we know as the overall Malick style. While his first film, Badlands (1973), still utilized the trademark pastoral photography he would only become more renowned for, that movie’s conventional lovers-on-the-run premise seems shockingly clear in comparison to Days of Heaven’s almost anti-narrative ethos. Even during the film’s opening few minutes, one can’t help but ask themselves certain questions: where did this strange style come from? Who is responsible for this non-stop barrage of jaw-dropping images? What drove this filmmaker to tell this story this way?

Often discussed in almost cryptid-like terms, the notoriously private Malick was not originally a filmmaker. Graduating summa cum laude at Harvard in 1965, he became a Rhodes scholar in philosophy with a specialization in the works of Martin Heidegger. While never finishing his degree, his translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons was published by Northwestern University Press in 1969. A philosopher by trade, Malick’s attention was drawn to cinema. After receiving an MFA from the brand-new AFI Conservatory, he found steady work in the industry as a writer and the success of Badlands made Paramount anxious to work with him on a bigger project. What followed was the script for Days of Heaven. But what was originally a smaller, more manageable film about an impoverished con-artist couple trying to marry into the enormous wealth of a dying farmer soon snowballed into a tumultuous production process that rivaled other New Hollywood classics like Sorcerer, Apocalypse Now, and Heaven’s Gate.

Taking place in the Texas Panhandle but shot primarily in Canada, one of Days of Heaven’s most striking aspects is its use of “magic hour” photography to capture footage of the 15-20 mins of golden daylight remaining just before dawn or right after dusk. While this footage is clearly integral to the film’s dazzling imagery, the pain-staking process of shooting this resulted in a near-mutiny from the crew on set. As production languished, cinematographer Nestor Almendros was slowly becoming blind and eventually had to leave the project to lens another one, resulting in director of photography Haskell Wexler finishing what he started. The script was tossed mid-shoot to allow for maximum improvisation. This meant daily call sheets and shooting schedules were constantly changing, angering the crew further. The film ended up taking two full years to edit as Malick switched creative directions and enlisted Manz to provide a backbone of voiceover narration, effectively making her the central protagonist.

All the tumult in the years-long journey of making Days of Heaven still managed to yield instant accolades. Malick won the Best Director award at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival and from the National Society of Film Critics, and Ennio Morricone was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA Award for his score. Almendros won an Oscar for his cinematography but—true to the film’s acrimonious production—Wexler crusaded for a co-credit (and Oscar statuette) for his work after replacing him. The entire ordeal exhausted Malick. He retreated from Hollywood, dropped out of all public life, and moved to France. The mystique around Malick himself continued to grow in his absence, seemingly encouraged by Days of Heaven’s hazy and tender tone. The sensitivity of the film’s approach and its towering photography turned the director into a somewhat-deified “missing poet” of American cinema. While Malick did appear 20 years later in 1998 with his World War II epic The Thin Red Line and has continued to make films into his eighties, the elements that make him the director he is today are all present in the conception, production, and reception of Days of Heaven.

Malick has continued to craft productions that remain vague, discombobulate crews, disappoint actors, and make little money. The reception of his films from critics has only become more divided as his works have drifted closer to legitimately experimental film in his late career. But Days of Heaven remains his unimpeachable early career achievement if for no other reason than it serves as something of an origin story for one of the most iconic directors in the history of Hollywood cinema. However, its overall quality goes beyond just the craft and reputation of Malick himself.

Manz’s magnetic performance and perceptive voiceover showcase another dazzling light demanding the viewer’s attention along with its awe-inspiring vistas. As the character Linda matures over the course of the film, we feel Manz the actor doing the same. Her questioning, timeless descriptions reflect the philosophical interests of Malick, especially his interest in the sublime quality of nature. In the end, the young girl in the black-and-white photograph from the opening credits seems to be recounting to us her own days of heaven; not ones without hardship and strife, but still representative of a time that encompassed the most resplendent memories of her young life. The gob-smacking beauty of Linda’s story is both wondrous and terrifying, giving and damning. Watching Days of Heaven recalls critic Fernando F. Croce’s praise of Malick’s 2005 feature The New World: “It makes you view the world with virgin eyes again.”     

Message from The Visitor: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

Thursday, April 25th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on The Man Who Fell to Earth were written by Max Kaplan, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of The Man Who Fell to Earth will be the final screening in our Cinematic Messages from Our Planet series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, April 28 at 2 p.m. The Chazen is located at 750 University Avenue. Admission is free.

By Max Kaplan

For a man who went by many names as a musical artist, David Bowie assumed many more throughout his cinematic career. While his film credits notably spawned fantastical creations such as Jareth, The Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986) and the vampire cellist John Blaylock in The Hunger (1983), Bowie also stepped into other uniforms (and dimensions) as Major Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) and the enigmatic Agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Meanwhile, Hollywood’s fascination with Bowie’s star power led to him being cast in larger-than-life historical roles, such as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996), and Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006). Yet much of Bowie’s brilliance could be attributed to his capacity to juggle such eclectic roles alongside his already highly conceptual persona as a pop auteur. As Katherine Reed notes, “For many entertainers, such malleability of not only character but self would be seen as a liability. Bowie sought to capitalize upon it.” The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) marked Bowie’s foray into feature film stardom. Even more so than his filmic roles of the 80s and beyond, his appearance in Nicolas Roeg’s arthouse sci-fi classic felt strategically aligned with the otherworldly persona he’d spent the better half of a decade cultivating. Depending on how one looks at it, The Man Who Fell to Earth could even be regarded as the one true “David Bowie film.”

In 1976—and in typically cryptic Bowie fashion—Bowie proclaimed that he had “been making films on records for years now.” Before ‘high concept’ became a Hollywood buzzword, David Bowie was churning out conceptual, cinematic rock albums like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and Diamond Dogs (1974). With 1975’s Young Americans, Bowie ditched his British glam rock roots for the American soul idiom, trading the sci-fi gimmick for cocaine-fueled American hedonism—foretelling a critical dichotomy at play throughout The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie, in fact, began work on a soundtrack for the film, originally intended as his follow-up to Young Americans, but the album fell through due to reports of drug-induced fatigue and contractual disputes. What remained from the aborted sessions were several breakthroughs that would inflect Bowie’s later sonic endeavors: namely, an interest in creating atmospheric “mood music” as well as a first inkling of collaborating with the wizard of atmospherics himself, Brian Eno. But these artistic breakthroughs would not find full bloom until Bowie’s legendarily drugged-out recording sessions in Berlin.

Like Bowie, director Nicolas Roeg was an Englishman with a cosmopolitan impulse. Roeg began his career as a cinematographer, working second unit on films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) before graduating to director of photography for Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964). Following his leap to directing with the East London crime drama Performance (1970)—which starred Mick Jagger—Roeg traveled to Australia and Venice, respectively, to shoot Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973). With his first filmed-in-America  production, Roeg was seduced by the vastness of the western landscape that many New Hollywood auteurs (Malick, Altman, Bogdanovich, and others) had mined for cinematic gold. Yet for as many hallmarks of the New Hollywood style that Roeg conjures, The Man Who Fell to Earth feels more in tune with the alien perspective of an international production, feasting on the absurdity of American society from a position of other-worldly alterity.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is science fiction in name and scope, but in both sound and vision, it bears the idiosyncratic artistic trademarks of its times. Doing double duty on the soundtrack is John Phillips, of The Mamas & the Papas fame, and Stomu Yamashta, the Japanese experimental percussionist who previously created the eerie, pastoral soundscapes for Robert Altman’s Images (1972). In relieving soundtrack duty from Bowie himself, Phillips’ tunes run across the board, from the Bonnie & Clyde-esque “Bluegrass Breakdown” to the loungey jazz of “Alberto” to the space funk of “Windows.” Yamashta’s contributions inhabit the more abstract spaces of the film’s soundscape from the Western shrubland all the way to the barren terrain of Thomas Jerome Newton’s home planet, adding surreal textures to the protagonist’s disorientation. Visually, Tony Richmond’s cinematography captures the glimmering palette of boundless wealth, amusement, and alienation that subsume Newton entirely, making The Man Who Fell to Earth a film so thoroughly packed with iconic audiovisual moments. For a film that is often associated with its leading man, The Man Who Fell to Earth is an all-hands-on-deck offering of 70s auteur cinema in all its indulgent, off-kilter creativity.

Returning to Bowie, near the film’s end, we catch a brief glimpse of Bryce passing by Bowie’s Young Americans on display at a record store. However, as we soon learn, the album that attracts Bryce’s attention turns out to be a mysterious record called The Visitor, which appears to have been recorded by Newton himself. While Bowie’s music is conspicuously absent from the soundtrack, it has since become clear that the film bore a significant impact on Bowie’s musical trajectory. Fans will notice that his next two albums—Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977)—use stills from the film on their covers. Both albums now stand among Bowie’s most critically acclaimed and beloved by fans. Beyond that, Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, beginning with 1977’s Low, ultimately allowed Bowie to not only work with Eno, but also to produce the atmospheric mood music that he had conceptualized during the production of The Man Who Fell to Earth. But what really makes the film the ‘most Bowie’ in terms of his film roles lies in the character of Thomas Newton, who subsequently became subsumed in what Lisa Perrott calls the ‘loose continuity’ of Bowie’s iconography. Joining the ranks of Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, Pierrot and other Bowie characters that recur throughout his transmedial oeuvre, the specter of Newton leaves a hauntological trace throughout Bowie’s subsequent work, notably being referenced in later music videos for “Little Wonder” and “No Plan.”

Around the film’s midway point, Newton tells a baffled Bryce that yes, in fact, “there have always been visitors.” Following Bowie’s untimely death in 2016, admirers and critics alike have sought meaning in his otherworldly artistic vision, looking to his music, painting, stage, and film careers for glimpses of the man behind the many guises. The Man Who Fell to Earth offers no clear-cut answers, but through it, we can relish a cinematic vision that solidified Bowie’s multifaceted star persona and inspired a whole generation of visitors to explore new audiovisual realms.

A TOUCH OF ZEN: King Hu's Magnum Opus

Wednesday, April 24th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on A Touch of Zen were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of A Touch of Zen, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen at 7 p.m. on Sat, April 27, in the Cinematheque's regular screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Josh Martin

In his essay for the Criterion Collection, the late film scholar David Bordwell makes a crucial note about the narrative rhythms of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971). Contextualizing Hu’s film within the genre of the wuxia pian—the swordplay-driven, “martial chivalry” epic popularized throughout the 1960s and 70s in Chinese cinema—Bordwell observes that he “can’t think of another wuxia pian of the period that postpones its first combat for this long—nearly an hour.” Bordwell and fellow East Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns both foreground this languid, deliberate pace in their analyses of Hu’s epic. Indeed, this is an extraordinarily long film, running exactly three hours, and Hu uses that expansive canvas to the fullest. Far from a film singularly concerned with plot or narrative progress, A Touch of Zen is slow and patient, taking extensive time to sketch the atmospheric contours of its world. In the film’s opening shot, Hu presents a series of bugs caught in spider webs as mist engulfs the landscapes and immerses the viewer in this space. The sun rises over the foggy mountains, and the camera lingers on the realm of nature before approaching Jing Lu Fort, the film’s principal setting.

The rhythm described by Bordwell and other scholars—luxurious, contemplative, maybe even indulgent—is essential to understanding both A Touch of Zen’s status as a stylistic achievement and the complexity of its marathon-length, near-disastrous production. The film’s story follows Gu Shen-tsai (played by Shih Chun), a young calligrapher and artist who lives in a rural village. Lambasted by his mother (Chang Ping-Yu) for his lack of ambition as a scholar, Gu seems content to be unmarried and modestly employed, maintaining his quaint letter writing shop in town. But Gu’s modest life is turned upside-down when he stumbles into a greater conspiracy upon the arrival of Ouyang Nian (Tian Peng), a mysterious stranger who commissions a portrait at his shop. Ouyang’s entrance leads to a greater disruption with the subsequent entrance of Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng), a beautiful young woman who soon becomes the object of Gu’s affections. However, there is an ominous reason for her sudden appearance in this village. Pursued by Ouyang and dangerous agents of the Eastern Depot, Yang finds herself in great peril from these powerful forces connected to the emperor. 

Hu adapted A Touch of Zen from Pu Song-ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, published in 1679 during the Ming dynasty. As Hu writes in his press notes from the 1975 Cannes Film Festival (where the film was awarded the Technical Grand Prize), he had long been fascinated by the supernatural tales of the scholar Pu, despite the difficulties presented in translating his work to the cinematic medium. Hu eventually focused on “The Heroic Maid,” writing that “[he] was struck by the thought that if it could be filmed with a touch of Zen, the result might be highly effective.”

A Touch of Zen arrives at a critical point in Hu’s illustrious career. As scholar Stephen Teo notes in his monograph, Hu was born in Beijing, worked primarily in Hong Kong, and eventually took his talents to Taiwan. Initially a director for the famed Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong, Hu departed prior to the release of Come Drink with Me (1966) following extensive conflicts with producer Run Run Shaw. This fracture led Hu to the Taiwanese distributor-turned-production studio Union Film Company, where Dragon Inn (1967) came to fruition as a massive, career-defining success.

Hu followed Dragon Inn with A Touch of Zen, the film now understood to be his magnum opus. Both film scholars and Hu himself have chronicled the arduous and challenging process of making this particular screen epic. Described by Teo as a decidedly “meticulous” filmmaker, Hu’s infamous attention to detail prompted clashes with the leaders at Union. To the eyes of producers, a seemingly excessive amount of time was spent preparing the film. Hu noted that it took six months for him to write the screenplay for Zen; another nine months were spent building the set for Jing Lu Fort. As the “struggle” continued between financiers and Hu – one that “left [him] completely drained” – A Touch of Zen ultimately took roughly two years to make. The clash between Union producers and Hu did not end with the film’s completion. Nearing release, producers were frustrated with the length of the film, and, in a move that Hu lamented, his expansive epic was split into two separate pictures following three additional months of editing.

Teo’s superlative chronicle of this troubled production offers even more dramatic twists than Hu’s account. The two parts were set to release in 1970 and 1971, respectively. Following the release of the first installment, Hu left Taiwan for Hong Kong. As tension simmered between Hu and Union, Golden Harvest studio head Raymond Chow took on the role of “intermediary” between the two parties, allowing the project to be completed. The film was an immediate commercial failure. Even a two-and-a-half hour-long single cut of Zen found little financial success in Hong Kong, with producer Sha Yung-fong later claiming that its failure led to Union’s eventual decay. However, A Touch of Zen’s reputation as a calamitous film maudit did not last long. The film received an almost instantaneous critical rehabilitation in Europe, enabled by its premiere at Cannes. Far from a hidden gem, Hu’s wuxia epic has since been canonized as a highly influential and definitive monument of East Asian cinema.

A Touch of Zen’s long-term legacy can be largely attributed to its status as a distinctly cinematic experience first and foremost. The plot is quasi-labyrinthine, with our central character—the virtuous yet relatively hapless Gu—thoroughly disoriented for much of the film, learning about this tangled web of danger along with the spectator. The real guiding agent of the narrative is Yang, described by Teo as a notable example of the xia nü (“female knight”), a talented sword fighter who battles for the nobility of her family’s legacy.

Yet even if the film offers complexity on the level of plot, Hu’s atmospheric approach emphasizes the primacy of spiritual, aesthetic, and sensory dimensions. Hu’s interest in the concept of zen comes with the key caveat that he was not a Buddhist, nor did he intend to be, in his own words, “didactic or evangelical in [his] approach.” Instead, Hu offers a detour into the phenomenological realm: “All I am interested in is presenting the flavor of a particular experience.” Such an aesthetic experience is precisely what Hu provides his audience. The film presents a range of diverse settings and spaces, from the ghostly ambience around Jing Lu Fort to the illuminated world of the forest, where streams of light and fragmented bamboo trees bifurcate the gravity-defying feats on the battlefield. These atmospheric sensations are given further potency by Hu’s form, highlighted by the percussive, steadily accelerating score, the rapid cuts and precise montage, and lush mise-en-scène throughout. As Bordwell emphasizes, it takes time to reach the action—Hu is never in a hurry, savoring the details of this world’s extravagant natural beauty. Yet it is exactly this deliberate method that makes the film such a rewarding journey. A Touch of Zen demands your attention and your patience, but the ultimate destination is pure ecstasy. 

STREETS OF FIRE: Another Time, Another Place

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Streets of Fire were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Streets of Fire will screen on Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

“My name’s John Ford, I make westerns” is a somewhat self-effacing quote from one of Hollywood’s great filmmakers, but the sentiment is equally true of Walter Hill, the underrated genre specialist behind such films as The Long Riders (1980), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Last Man Standing (1996) and the recent but mostly unseen Budd Boetticher homage Dead for a Dollar (2022). Hill, much like his progenitors Ford and Howard Hawks, has made several genuine westerns, but in a way every film Hill ever made is a western in some form or fashion. Films such as The Warriors (1979), Southern Comfort (1981), and Trespass (1992) wear their Western influence on their sleeve, but among the most interesting and most accomplished of Hill’s pseudo-Westerns is Streets of Fire, one of the great forgotten movies of the 1980s.

Coming off the success of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte buddy cop film 48 Hrs., Hill and screenwriter Larry Gross quickly set out to build on the momentum and get another production greenlit. Presented as a “Rock ‘n Roll Fable” the movie took its title from the Bruce Springsteen song featured on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album (negotiations with Springsteen failed and the song did not end up making it onto the soundtrack) and was set up from the start as an action movie/musical hybrid. Famed composer and frequent Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman stepped in to write a pair of songs that bookend the film and the rest of the soundtrack prominently features rock and blues material alongside an instrumental score by longtime Hill collaborator Ry Cooder.

The storyline basically recycles a formula from several early westerns in which the hero must venture into hostile territory to rescue a kidnapped woman. In this case, the ‘damsel in distress’ is singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, in a portrayal clearly inspired by rocker Joan Jett), the ex-sweetheart of ex-soldier Tom Cody (Michael Paré). All we learn about Cody is a cryptic “went to war, liked the shooting, didn’t like the medals” but in true western ‘man with no name’ tradition, the real introduction comes when—in a clear nod to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)—Cody chases down and manhandles a gang of retrofuturistic greasers from his sister’s bar. Returning to his hometown for the first time in years, Cody enlists the help of a tough female companion (Amy Madigan) and Ellen’s boyfriend-manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis, playing against his normal nerd persona) to rescue his former love from the clutches of the villain Raven, played with maniacal glee by Willem Dafoe in one of his first major screen appearances.

A nostalgic fifties aesthetic accentuated with futuristic neon and dystopian fire defines the one-of-a-kind visual style. True to its opening line “Another Time, Another Place”, Streets of Fire presents a landscape and era that only exists in movies. Filmed in Los Angeles and Chicago, the film offers some recognizable geographic elements but unlike the gritty crime thrillers of the 1970s in which the location took center stage—films such as Dirty Harry and The French ConnectionStreets of Fire is part of the 80s trend that turned urban landscapes into ever more abstract and artificial entities, eschewing the more ‘anchored’ approach of the previous decade. Photographed by famed DP Andrew Laszlo, with whom Hill had previously worked on The Warriors and Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire is—as Belgian film critic Patrick Duynslaegher described it at the time—“a furious ballet of chases, cars, motorcycles, embraces in the photogenically pouring rain, fires in the night, sweaty torsos in torn T-shirts and symbols of the noir tradition.” With its daring use of colored filters and extreme contrasts making the most of the features and latitude of Eastman’s 250T 5293 stock that had been released only two years prior, Hill’s movie was part of what film historian Katrina Glitre called the “neon rainbow” cinematography of the 1980s. This trend brought back the extreme visual mannerism of 1940s ‘noir’ cinema, this time in color, thus heralding the advent of ‘neo-noir’ in films like Body Heat (1982) and Blade Runner (1982).

A final nod to the editing that Hill supervised with Freeman Davies, another longtime collaborator. Taking cues from the contemporaneous MTV music video style, the editing team on Streets of Fire delivered some razor-sharp, rhythmic cutting. If one scene stands out, it has to be the dreamy walk through abstractly lit neon-drenched streets cued to the music of Marylin Martin’s “Sorcerer,” a filmic moment that produces an almost hallucinogenic quality by interspersing the cuts with brief fades to black.

Alas, none of the film’s qualities translated into box office success. Despite a successful soundtrack and a theatrical run that included several 70mm engagements, the film barely made back half of its budget in its initial release. Luckily for Hill, the movie has had quite an afterlife on the home video market—including a recent 4K restoration from Shout! Factory—and has slowly grown into something of a cult classic. In reaction to my statement that Streets of Fire was my favorite among his movies, Hill himself disgruntledly asked “then where was everyone in 1984?” during an interview I had with the director in the 1990s. Where, indeed.

THE PIANIST: A Story of Survival

Tuesday, April 16th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on The Pianist were written by Nick Sansone, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A new 4K DCP of The Pianist will screen on Friday, April 19 at 7 p.m. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free.

By Nick Sansone

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist begins on a somber, even disorienting note. Instead of studio logos or opening credits, we open on archival footage of Warsaw, Poland in 1939, just before the Nazi invasion. The footage runs silently, accompanied by a lone piano playing Chopin’s “Nocturne in C-sharp Minor”, which we then see is being played by the nimble hands of Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody), our titular pianist, as part of a live radio performance. As the camera settles on Szpilman, the sound of an explosion is heard off-screen, and the serenity of the music from his hands cannot hide the consternation on his face. Then, another explosion, this one louder and obviously closer. Szpilman is rattled but his music continues. One more explosion, this one close enough to shatter a window in the recording booth. And yet, Szpilman’s performance continues—gently, beautifully, and defiantly unwavering even as rubble falls around him.

This opening scene represents Szpilman’s journey to come in microcosm, a story of an indomitable will to survive and of art ennobling one man’s (and mankind’s) spirit amidst its darkest days. Szpilman’s harrowing story of survival was published as a memoir titled The Pianist in 1946, one year after the end of the war, earning him the reputation as the most well-known of the so-called “Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw,” a title given to those who hid in the city’s ruins after the 1944 Uprising. After Szpilman’s death in 2000, the memoir attracted the attention of another Jewish survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland, film director Roman Polanski, an artist whose life had been marked by tragedy and controversy in equal measure.

Polanski was just six years old when the Nazis invaded his native Poland in 1939. After the invasion, he and his family were forced into the Kraków ghetto, where they spent a little over three years before its liquidation in 1943. Although Polanski was able to escape capture by the Nazis, his parents and his sister were detained and sent to concentration camps. While his father and sister managed to survive, his pregnant mother was killed in a gas chamber soon after arriving at Auschwitz. Surviving on his own as a child, Polanski found safe harbor with a series of different families, hiding his Jewish heritage and enduring the cruelty of the occupying Nazi army. Although he was able to reunite with his father following the Germans’ surrender, their relationship was forever strained by their shared trauma, and he began to take solace in the cinema, the art form that would finally give him meaning and purpose in his young life.

It would be almost six decades before Polanski would explicitly deal with this formative period of his life. In those sixty years, Polanski became a breakout international filmmaker before moving to Hollywood to direct such classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, films as beautiful as they are pitiless about the darkest depths of humanity. Polanski’s career as a Hollywood director ended abruptly, however, when he was arrested for drugging and raping 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. Despite accepting a plea bargain that would have dropped the most punitive of the charges, Polanski fled to Europe, settling in France, where he remains to this day.

While a fugitive in France, Polanski remained an active filmmaker, though his output was met with a much more mixed reception, not to mention an air of controversy. About ten years prior to The Pianist, he turned down an offer from Steven Spielberg to direct Schindler’s List, in part due to a fear that he could not be objective in his depiction (one of its main sequences depicts the very liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto that Polanski himself survived). Nevertheless, in the year 2000 Polanski announced his adaptation of Szpilman’s memoir. When explaining what drew him to adapt Szpilman’s memoir, besides the obvious personal connections to his own life, Polanski said he appreciated that the book “breaks a lot of stereotypes, and is told without a desire for revenge,” and that, “though the subject matter is bleak, it’s treated objectively, which is what I like […] Szpilman’s book makes a very strong impression through the details. It has that peculiar brand of precision and distance that the survivor often carries with him.”

The Pianist premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002 and was immediately embraced as a major artistic comeback for Polanski, winning the Palme d’Or and becoming Polanski’s most acclaimed movie in nearly two decades. The film went on to a healthy box-office run in America and was awarded three Oscars at that year’s Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Adrien Brody (at 29, still the youngest winner of the award) and, controversially, Best Director for Polanski. Polanski, still a fugitive from justice, was not able to attend the ceremony, yet received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Kodak theater. It would be another fifteen years before Hollywood began seriously reckoning with its long history of minimizing sexual exploitation and its vocal support of Polanski (and many men like him). In the wake of the Me Too movement, Polanski has continued working, premiering his most recent film, The Palace, at Cannes in 2023, but he has finally been deemed persona non grata in Hollywood, and his most recent films have not found distribution in the States.

The controversy surrounding Polanski unfortunately colors the perception of all his work; it is impossible to fully separate the artist from the art, as masterful as that art may be. And make no mistake, The Pianist, like so many of Polanski’s films, is the work of a great artist. Even today, it stands as a towering depiction of both unspeakable inhumanity of the Holocaust and the indefatigable spirit of those who were able to survive, featuring some of the most profoundly impactful and technically impressive work of Polanski’s entire career. It’s also among Polanski’s most personal works, one survivor telling the story of another, two men bonded by a shared tragedy and a shared belief in the power of art to stir the human spirit. For a man who has been a victim, a perpetrator, and an artist exploring man’s inhumanity, The Pianist stands out as an uncommonly graceful, soulful story of survival, albeit one that is both elevated and marred by its own creator. 

FutureNoir: Godard's ALPHAVILLE

Thursday, March 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Alphaville will screen at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, following the Madison Premiere of Godard's final work: Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars, at 7 p.m. The screening is in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Garrett Strpko.

Even for a filmmaker whose films are known for their idiosyncrasy, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville remains one of his most fascinating and singular works. The film is in many ways a hybrid piece: at once a transmedia franchise genre picture and a puzzling work of European art cinema, a science fiction film and a hard-boiled pulp detective thriller, a canonical French film and a tribute to Hollywood. Now over a year after his passing, this new restoration of Alphaville attests to the director’s seemingly effortless ability to explode and reorient the limitations, labels, and rigidities so often imposed on the cinematic medium.

The film follows American agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who arrives from an interplanetary journey to Alphaville, a futuristic city controlled by Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon) and his creation, the artificial intelligence computer Alpha 60. Alpha 60 exercises complete control over the city and its citizens through the application and enforcement of cold logic and apathy. In Alphaville things like love, emotion, art, and poetry are strictly forbidden—and in many cases have been forgotten. Caution’s mission is to recover a missing fellow agent, Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), as well as assassinate or capture Von Braun. Joined by Von Braun’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina, in one of many collaborations with Godard), Caution eventually resolves to destroy Alpha 60 once and for all.

Importantly, Lemmy Caution was not an invention of Godard’s, but a well-known character in France and England, one who had already been portrayed by Constantine in no fewer than seven films since 1953. Caution was originally invented by British pulp author Peter Cheyney, who debuted the character in his first novel, This Man is Dangerous (1936). At first an FBI agent, and later a private investigator, Caution in many ways resembles the stereotypical hardboiled detective of American literature and film, from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. In the wake of pro-American sentiment in France following the Second World War, the character became a sensation, especially as portrayed by American expatriate Constantine, who likewise became synonymous with the role for most of his career.

Terminally interested in the film medium’s affinity for iconicity and genre, Godard and Constantine make full use of the character and his prototypical characterization as the hardboiled gumshoe. He shares much in common with his counterparts portrayed by actors like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum: he is no-nonsense, quick-witted, and quicker with a gun. He is almost always dressed in a trench coat and fedora. He speaks in cynical, jaded voiceover about the nature of life’s great mysteries (“Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night, you end it in death”).

However, in Alphaville, Caution and the detective figure are also parodied and complicated. Caution’s initial motivations and jurisdiction are deliberately mystified throughout. We know only that Caution is some sort of secret agent—we get little to no indication for exactly which agency he works for, who it is that has given him this mission. This self-conscious move (one of many in the film) creates an even stronger connection between Caution, Constantine, and the figure of the cinematic detective in general. It is almost as if Caution’s status and authority emerges from the film itself, from its genre identity as a Noir, rather than being justified by narrative detail. It is perhaps this vagueness surrounding Caution’s character—ultimately an outsider’s take on the American detective hero—that allows him to emerge as the Noir detective par excellence.

Nothing contributes more to this vagueness and iconic status, of course, than the fact that the contemporary Caution has inexplicably and without question been transplanted to the film’s futuristic, sci-fi setting from which the old-fashioned detective often stands out. As much as Alphaville pays tribute to film noir, it is also a science fiction film. It is a strange science fiction film in that rather than creating the complex sets, props, and special effects most viewers have come to expect from the genre to create the world, Godard relies entirely on existing locations and material. To suggest otherworldliness, Godard shot all the outdoor scenes at night, making it seem as though Alphaville is a city bathed in near-perpetual darkness. The high contrast of the black-and-white cinematography and accompanying brightness of light sources in the Paris night create a techno-dystopian atmosphere. Even the film’s many computers, including the ultra-advanced Alpha 60, are simply the wires and machines of their own day. The hard edges and blank/empty spaces of 1960s modernist architecture suggest all the futuristic setting one could need. By simply foregrounding and revealing the technological and futuristic aspects of our day-to-day world, Godard constructs a dynamic and potent ‘alien’ world in which to drop the old-fashioned and ‘naturalistic’ hero of American noir.

One way of approaching Alphaville is as Godard’s experiment in exploring what is necessary for genre. On the one hand genres have icons and stock characters; on the other they have narratives and styles. Is a film still a detective thriller if we drop the iconic central character into this apparently alien environment and situation? Can it be science fiction if nearly all the world-specific technological and futuristic details emerge primarily from dialogue and narrative rather than the mise-en-scene? But the questions and insights, of course, do not stop there. With Alphaville, Godard is as interested as ever in expanding the possibilities of cinema. What can happen when these icons, styles, environments, themes, and narratives merge? Through this amalgamation, in which both stand in greater relief, one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers draws us back to what appeals about them—and the medium itself—the most.

Godard's PHONY WARS: A Cinematic Palimpsest

Thursday, March 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: “Phony Wars” were written by Pate Duncan, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Godard's final work, Phony Wars will be screened at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque on Saturday, March 30, just prior to a 7:30 p.m. screening of Godard's Alphaville, showing in a new 4K DCP restoration. The screenings will be held in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Pate Duncan

In his 1985 book Narration in the Fiction Film, the late film scholar David Bordwell described French iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard as having a “palimpsest” style. For Bordwell, Godard seemed to overwrite norms, conventions, and stylistic parameters on top of each other at different moments in the film’s production the way you or I might write out a grocery list on top of a receipt. It seems fitting, then, that Godard’s final film, Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars, released posthumously in 2023, is composed entirely of a series of static collages and palimpsests. The title itself pulls us in two directions, opening and foreclosing possibilities: it is both an anticipatory suggestion of what might be and an assurance of what will never come. Godard, famous in his early career for the prominent placement of consumerist French and American advertisements in his mise-en-scène, gives us one final advertisement—produced by French couturier Yves Saint Laurent, no less—with no accompanying product to buy.

Phony Wars is the last work in a diverse corpus of films, the likes of which we will never see again in cinema. Cinephiles will certainly recall Godard’s early period of films during the 1960s, a set of stylish, cool works like Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), and Alphaville (1965) that boast formal experimentation over the material of Hollywood genre filmmaking and 1960s French consumer culture. In line with his status as a member of the left-wing French intelligentsia and interested in Marxism and semiotics, Godard’s works gave way to more political films like La Chinoise (1967), Weekend (1967), and Le Gai savoir (1969) before Godard moved into his Maoist period. During this more militant time, Godard partnered with Jean-Pierre Gorin to organize the filmmaking collective Dziga Vertov Group, named after the pseudonymous Soviet filmmaker and theorist. The most famous collaboration between Godard and Gorin is Tout va bien (1972), a Jane Fonda and Yves Montand vehicle that pulls equally from Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1960) and Bertolt Brecht’s separation of elements to show the events surrounding a strike in a dollhouse-like abattoir.

Godard’s films become increasingly puzzling after the mid-1970s, perhaps in an attempt to stand out from the younger crop of arthouse auteurs coming up around the same time. Films like Numéro Deux (1975), Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), Prénom Carmen (1983), Hail Mary (1985), and King Lear (1985) see Godard jettison the radical polemics in the film’s material while moving ever forward with his project of parametric film style. This period stretches the viewer’s capacity for narrative comprehension and remains esoteric in comparison to his ‘60s works (though these films are no less enjoyable than their more populist counterparts, at least amongst connoisseurs of Godard). In the 90s, we see the beginning of an era that might be described as late-period Godard, an era that includes the eclectic Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), the fitful Film Socialisme (2010), the dizzying 3D Goodbye to Language (2014), and the revolutionary and hyper-saturated The Image Book (2018). The Godard of this period remained ruthlessly critical of the contemporary cultural and geopolitical order, impishly experimental in his film style, off-beat in his sense of humor, and iconoclastic to the last breath. These works alternatingly fascinate and frustrate even the most dyed-in-wool Godard fans, both Letterboxd hobbyists and tenured academics alike.

Late Godard is likely to confound viewers longing for the yé-yé needle drops, unexpected dance sequences, red-white-yellow-blue pop colors, and self-consciously cartoonish French sensibility of his ‘60s films. That is to Godard’s credit: unlike his peers of a certain prestige, Godard neither tried to return to his early appeal nor phoned these films in. Even minor works feel like something you’ve never seen before, challenge your viewing skills and patience in equal measure, and evince a deep love for what cinema can do at its extremes.

Phony Wars is the only of Godard’s films to be late style in both senses of the word: besides coming far into an illustrious career, it is his only posthumous release. We get a series of disparate still images, including an early image of red paint, tactile with impasto, scrawled over black. One is reminded of Godard’s famous quip that the excessive blood in his cinema is not blood, but red, that Godard’s excessive formal concerns should point us towards the graphic qualities of his works and not always or only to the real-life material they defamiliarize. It makes sense that Godard’s final moving images (in line with the fixations of his late style) are a series of photographs ordered in succession. We see mannered cursive handwriting spelling out quotes, witticisms, aphorisms, and even individual words struck through or covered over, often offset or accompanied by images of all stripes. We see paintings with artificially increased contrasts, Godard’s iPhone selfies, pictures of strangers and faces in such poor definition as to become uncanny. Fragments of sound are affixed to these curated collages, a few stingers of foreboding strings here, a few lines of speech there. Godard’s militant concerns rupture throughout, anchoring his aesthetic flights in a materialist sense of history. Under a repeat of the blood-red paint, we hear a politically prescient and timely line towards the end of the film: “Why Sarajevo? Because of Palestine, because I live in Tel Aviv. I want to see a place where reconciliation seems possible.” The extent to which Godard’s style or politics cohere into anything unified here is dubious, but to seek such coherence is to miss the point entirely: Godard, favoring process over product, prompts us towards politically engaged spectatorial experience, not a static or complete politics. Ekphrasis or visual description cannot do justice to the simultaneity of Phony Wars, cannot recreate verbally the complex push and pull that Godard’s palimpsestic style creates.

Kristin Thompson’s writing on Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) in her 1988 book Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis refers to a different film and a different context, but her description gives us a certain truism to Godard’s work that brings Phony Wars into a different light: “Few, if any, filmmakers have so resolutely refused to settle into one approach; Godard’s experimentation has continued throughout his career [...] There is no one familiar Godardian landscape, though each of us may have a favorite work; the appearance of a new Godard film consistently holds out the promise of taking us unto unknown country” (288). Phony Wars gives us a number of “unknown countr[ies]” to ponder, be it the film itself as a final formal novelty, the nonexistent film for which it serves as a trailer, or perhaps what Shakespeare called “the dread of something after death/The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns.” Whatever unknown Phony Wars conjures, it is undoubtedly a fitting swan song for one of the cinema’s finest artists.