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.

Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW: Perspective is Everything

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Akira Kurosawa's High and Low were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of High and Low will screen on Saturday, March 23 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free! The screening is presented with the support of the Center for East Asian Studies at UW Madison.

By Josh Martin

Near the midpoint of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1962), the viewer experiences a pronounced change in perspective. For the first hour of the film, the drama is almost exclusively confined to the interior of a magnificent home, perched high above the Japanese city of Yokohama. This beautiful domicile, an oasis that remains insulated from the harsh chaos of the city, belongs to pitiless shoe executive Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune). Kurosawa aligns the spectator with this elevated position, restricting us to the high-class space that Gondo and his family enjoy. However, the god-like visibility afforded by this home is also what makes this space so vulnerable, so easy to be despised from those below. As the film’s second half commences, Kurosawa presents the exterior of the home from a lower angle—from the perspective of the city’s inhabitants. The house suddenly feels alien and removed, an outlandish beacon of wealth and superiority. Two cops walk through the city below, with one remarking: “The kidnapper’s right. That house gets on your nerves.” Moments later, we meet that very same kidnapper (Tsumotu Yamazaki): a young man in a ramshackle apartment, which features an unobstructed view of this perfect, pristine house. A house that looms over him and the millions of impoverished people throughout Yokohama.

Perspective is everything in High and Low; this is a film that toys with the viewer’s allegiances—with our own moral and ethical positions. The film’s legacy as one of Kurosawa’s most enduring achievements (so enduring, in fact, that Spike Lee will soon direct a remake with Denzel Washington) arises partially from this play with perspective, which allows it to proceed from kidnapping drama to scrupulous procedural to suspense thriller with ease. Based loosely on an American novel by Ed McBain, the film begins with Gondo plotting a hostile takeover of National Shoes Corporation, his longtime employer. He has leveraged everything on this gamble, borrowing against his accumulated capital to usurp his rivals; if the deal falls through, he will lose even “the clothes on [his] back.” On the fringes of this corporate drama, Gondo’s son Jun (Toshio Egi) and Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu), the son of his loyal chauffeur Aoki (Yutaka Sada), run around the home, playing cowboys and outlaws with a popgun.

Just as Gondo prepares to send his deputy to Osaka to close the deal, he receives a call informing him that his son has been kidnapped. An ultimatum is given: pay an enormous ransom or Jun dies. Only Jun is not in danger: the kidnapper mistakenly took Aoki’s son instead. Thus, a moral dilemma ensues for Gondo. His son is no longer at risk, but another young boy—the only son of his beloved employee—remains in peril. Aoki has no chance of paying the large sum, yet if Gondo pays, his deal will collapse. Everything he built will evaporate in front of his eyes. 

One cannot discuss any Kurosawa film—especially one shot in the luscious widescreen canvas of TohoScope—without emphasizing the meticulous nature of his compositions. High and Low’s first act is contained to spacious rooms, yet the organization and placement of figures within the frame tells the viewer everything about the emotional register of the action. Close-ups of faces huddled around the telephone communicate the urgency of the moment; a long shot of Gondo and Aoki, with a gulf of negative space between them, centers the distance between the positions of these men. Power is revealed through one’s location in the frame – a character’s foregrounding or their placement on the periphery is essential. The fluidity of Kurosawa’s blocking – his control of cinematic space – is nearly indescribable, yet Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie’s on-set account of these practices gives one a sense of his precision. As Richie writes, “extreme care is blended with extreme patience” in a Kurosawa film. For High and Low, Mifune, Nakadai, and their colleagues rehearsed extensively while Kurosawa crafted the camera movements; Richie’s essay chronicles the director correcting subtle discrepancies by each camera operator, aiming for his ideal compositions.

Of course, such stylistic concerns are carefully intertwined with Kurosawa’s thematic preoccupations. When asked by Richie about the message of his picture, Kurosawa responded: “If I could just say it, there wouldn’t be any need to show it.” Questions of social class in Japan—binaries of rich and poor, heaven and hell (the film’s international title), high and low—are all expressed in purely cinematic terms. Following the resolution of the initial crisis, Kurosawa swaps protagonists: Gondo recedes to a supporting role, with Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his colleagues taking center stage as they pursue the kidnapper. Working in the tradition of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and other tales of observant police on the hunt, High and Low morphs into a cat-and-mouse thriller, defined by a process-oriented approach. “The criminal must be in these details,” Tokura emphasizes to the throngs of policemen, solidifying the necessity of their painstaking consideration of each clue.

Throughout this section, Kurosawa aligns us with the single-minded modus operandi of the police, whose pursuit raises further ethical questions. As our agents of the state deceive, lie, and employ the press in their manipulations—all in hopes of pursuing the death penalty for the kidnapper, a young medical intern named Takeuchi—the film again aligns us with a challenging position.

Indeed, despite its status as a class-conscious thriller, echoed by more recent pictures such as Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019), High and Low’s politics are far from clear-cut. Critic and scholar Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto notes that Kurosawa claimed to have “made High and Low ‘to show how detestable a kidnapping is,’” an assertion that suggests our identification with wealth and power should perhaps be taken at face value. As such, Yoshimoto notes that many, including Noël Burch, see Kurosawa’s film as “ideologically reactionary,” a “conservative” picture about the virtues of the police and the rich. Yoshimoto rejects such a notion, instead suggesting that “the more a contrast between good and evil is emphasized [in Kurosawa’s cinema], the more a difference between the two becomes ambiguous.”

In a film that cycles through political positions, immersing its viewers in the sphere of wealthy power, determined cops, and desperate criminals, Kurosawa saves the most chilling encounter for last: a meeting between Gondo and Takeuchi in prison. In a series of images that zigzag across the barrier of the reflective prison glass, the two men share their perspectives. Gondo laments their antagonism; Takeuchi expresses no remorse, quipping that it is “amusing to make fortunate men taste the same misery as the unfortunate.” Such gleeful defiance does not preclude an outcry of despair: captured in a long take, Takeuchi lets out a piercing scream, gripping the barrier with an intense fervor. It is not a performative gesture, but, as critic Geoffrey O’Brien frames it, “a scream of pain,” an overflow of excruciating emotion that erupts from deep inside Takeuchi. It is here that we are reminded of Yoshimoto’s insistence: to look beyond Kurosawa’s stated intentions to view clearly what is on the screen. What is visible is a film that views this emotion with immense sympathy, recognizing the honesty of Takeuchi’s anger. For a film that takes such a prismatic approach to the perspective of its characters—in a world where neither Gondo nor Takeuchi truly come out as winners—it is fitting that we end with Takeuchi’s cry, a “scream of pain” that remains haunting today. 

Lumet/Fonda: 12 ANGRY MEN

Wednesday, March 13th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on 12 Angry Men were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A DCP of 12 Angry Men will show on Friday, March 15 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas, 821 University Ave. This is the first of three screenings in our Fonda/Lumet series. Admission is free!

By Garrett Strpko

It might surprise viewers to know that 12 Angry Men, long regarded as a classic American film (number 87 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies), actually began its life as a television program. Screenwriter and playwright Reginald Rose first penned the script as a teleplay for the CBS live broadcast anthology series Studio One in 1954, where its broadcast was met with acclaim. The story follows a panel of twelve jurists in what seems at first to be a cut-and-dry homicide case. The seemingly inevitable verdict is shaken when Juror #8, played in the film by Henry Fonda, questions the conclusions of the prosecution and seeks to persuade his fellow jurors that the defendant, a minor accused of killing his father, is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The ensuing debate reveals tensions between prejudice and righteousness, selfishness and altruism, fear and courage among and within the twelve individuals.

Perhaps because of its near-universally recognizable themes and characters, 12 Angry Men has proven to be a highly malleable work. Immediately following the television production’s success, Rose set out to continue producing the script in as many forms as possible, adapting it first for the stage and then pursuing a feature film version. Rose and the script eventually reached and interested Fonda, whose experience playing morally upright yet decidedly ordinary characters in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) made him an excellent fit for Juror #8. Fonda jumped on to the project as a producer—the first and only time he would receive such credit for a feature film. To direct the project, Rose and Fonda hired Sidney Lumet, himself a budding television and Off-Broadway director whose work in the latter particularly garnered Fonda’s attention. This would be the first of three collaborations between the actor and director which the Cinematheque is presenting this March.

In his interview for the PBS series American Masters, Lumet stated that he had no interest in critiquing the criminal justice system with 12 Angry Men. “Absolutely not,” he remarks. “I was interested in doing my first movie, and I was very impressed that Henry Fonda wanted me as the director because he had seen something I had done off Broadway.” According to film scholar Stephen E. Bowles in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, nearly half of Lumet’s films throughout his career had their origins in theater. 12 Angry Men’s affinities with the stage and with the related live teleplay format of the 1950s are clear. For one, the action takes place almost entirely (though not exclusively) within a single room. Furthermore, the action basically unfolds in ‘real time.’ That is, there is little to no use of editing devices such as dissolves, which would indicate a passage of time which we as the audience do not have access to. Rather, Lumet places us in the room to sit with these men and their frustration. We are there for the intense deliberations as well as the breaks, the heated discussion as well as awkward silences. Like your average play, the time experienced by the characters and by the audience is roughly the same.

Yet 12 Angry Men excels, and is well-remembered, precisely because it is not simply a filmed play. Its canonical status rests in how Lumet uses filmic techniques within this narrow set of parameters. Keen viewers will notice the importance of camera placement and staging. On the one hand, Lumet often employs angles at, or very often above, the eye level of the characters. These high, wide angles not only provide us with a sense of the space but provide insight into the dynamic relationships between the twelve characters by how they are staged alongside each other. Whereas on the stage the actors must be positioned so these relationships are clear from every point of view in the audience, the single point-of-view of the camera allows for unique and especially potent staging configurations. The most notable of these occurs close to the end of the film, when one of the jurors holding out for a ‘guilty’ verdict, #10 (Ed Begley), launches into a what quickly devolves into a racist diatribe against the defendant. His fellow jurors, one-by-one, turn and look away in shame, removing themselves to the edges of the room. From the high, wide angle of the camera, they form a sort of horseshoe along the edges of the frame, leaving Juror #10 stranded in center of it as his words begin to falter and the motivations for his ‘guilty’ verdict become uncomfortably clear.

Lumet counters such masterful use of high-angle wide shots with eye-level and low-angle close ups that bring out the actors’ engaging performances and manage to succinctly display the personality and motivations of each individual juror. As the twelve angry men get angrier and angrier, close-ups fill the frame with the force of each’s emotions. Many critics have noted that the use of high-angle wide shots becomes gradually overtaken by these affective close-ups as the film progresses, fostering a sense of increasing tension.

Finding its way from television, to the stage, and then to film (and back to television once more with William Friedkin’s 1997 adaptation), 12 Angry Men has maintained its relevance not only because it is a masterclass in adapting a work to film, but in large part due to how it marshals these strategies into a story concerning fundamental issues of justice. While Lumet may not have been very interested in doing so at the time, 12 Angry Men raises key questions regarding the moral role of citizens in society. What responsibilities do I hold to my government? To my community? How do I balance these with my individual rights and desires with these responsibilities? Who should have the power to decide if someone lives or dies? Ultimately, Rose’s script, Lumet’s style, and the actors’ performances all attest to the force of these questions.

STRANGE DAYS: Virtues of a Would-be Sci-fi Blockbuster

Tuesday, March 5th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Strange Days were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Strange Days screens on Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m., at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and based on an idea developed and co-written by her ex-husband James Cameron, is a cyberthriller neo-noir whose central plot hinges on a futuristic contraption that allows people to record and share their full sensory experiences. This “S.Q.U.I.D.” device, as it’s known in the film, recalls a similar idea used in special effects guru Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 film Brainstorm, but in Bigelow and Cameron’s hands, it becomes a catalyst for a gritty tale of exploitation, corruption, and voyeurism in the information age.

Bigelow started out studying painting but followed it up by pursuing a master’s degree in film while she was living in New York, becoming part of an artistic scene that included the likes of Julian Schnabel, as well as UW alum and director Bette Gordon. She rose to prominence as a filmmaker with beloved cult classics like The Loveless (1981), Near Dark (1987), and Blue Steel (1990) but did not find her first commercial breakthrough until 1991’s surfers-turned-bank robbers action classic Point Break. Coming off her first hit, Bigelow was in search of a new project. Cameron presented Bigelow with an extensive treatment he had been developing since the mid-80s. Working with Cameron, Bigelow infused the premise with contemporary cultural relevance—there are many thinly veiled references to the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots throughout the movie—and, as she claimed in interviews, “upped the ante on the grittier parts.” This grittier approach is especially apparent in our protagonist, LAPD officer turned black-market S.Q.U.I.D. dealer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who sells the recorded experiences of sex, crime, and high-octane thrills for anyone willing to pay the right price. After Lenny comes into possession of a high-tech snuff film, he and his bodyguard/driver Mace (Angela Basset) are drawn into a web of conspiracy that threatens to tear the city of Los Angeles apart on the last night of the millennium.

The world that Bigelow and her versatile director of photography Matthew Leonetti created for Strange Days pushes the aesthetic of neo-noir expressionism to extremes and adds a creative use of point-of-view shots for the film’s S.Q.U.I.D. sequences. For these shots, Leonetti combined several different techniques, resulting in a visceral and direct approach to movement that tries to mimic the experiences of our characters as they view these recordings. Elsewhere, working with camera operator James Muro, the film combines fluid Steadicam shots—some of which, like a jump off a roof, demanded weeks of planning—with more frantic handheld work shot with a specially devised lightweight camera that was stripped of its ballast to for maximum mobility. According to an interview in American Cinematographer with Leonetti, almost sixty percent of the shoot employed Steadicam or another moving camera system. This meant that lighting the sets was incredibly demanding (mobile shots are notoriously unforgiving when it comes to hiding light fixtures) and made the already difficult task of matching footage between various camera rigs all the more complex. This results in a film that often consciously uses these jarring transitions in image quality and tactility—at times emphasized by color correcting on a video system and scanning the results back to film—a practice that perfectly aligns itself not only with the visual mannerisms that constitutes the core of noir cinema but also with the chaotic unfolding of events leading up to the film’s massive climax. Strange Days’s finale required massive resources on an extremely tight schedule. More than ten thousand people amassed for the scene, which required the supervision of fifty off-duty police officers and had to be completed in one night.

With a script co-written by mega-blockbuster maestro Cameron and a cast that included recent Oscar nominees Fiennes and Bassett along with up-and-coming young star Juliette Lewis, Strange Days seemed poised for a successful run at the box-office, but failed to deliver. After the dust had settled, the film had made a paltry $7.5 million domestically (roughly $19 million adjusted for inflation), earning back only a fraction of its $42 million dollar budget. The next decade of Bigelow’s career was defined by struggle. Her 2000 film The Weight of Water was roundly ignored, and her attempted return to blockbuster filmmaking, 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, proved even more costly than Strange Days. It wasn’t until 2008 that Bigelow, working on a minimal $15 million budget, came roaring back with The Hurt Locker, which both revived her flagging career and earned her a Best Director Oscar, the first ever awarded to a female filmmaker.

In hindsight, Strange Days can be seen as the capstone of the director’s early career, which focused more on experimenting with genre conventions and channeling Bigelow’s work as a visual artist. From The Loveless to Strange Days, Bigelow’s films are extremely expressive, often pushing the envelope when it comes to mobile shots (such as the famous Steadicam-shot chase scene in Point Break) or unconventional use of genre tropes (as in Near Dark and Blue Steel). The latter part of her career has seen a move towards a more classical style and more journalistic subject matter, though even in films like The Hurt Locker, we can see experimentation with POV and varying cameras. Revisiting Strange Days more than two decades after its initial release offers viewers an opportunity to rediscover Bigelow as both a master of genre thrills and an artist with a provocative political and social perspective. It’s no wonder that Bigelow is now rightfully regarded as one of the most influential and talented directors working in American cinema.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA: A New Era for the Marx Bros.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on A Night at the Opera 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 A Night at the Opera will screen on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. This screening is co-presented by the Cinematheque and Madison Opera. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

For scholars and critics, the films of the Marx Brothers represent the height of vaudevillian anarchy translated to movie screens. In their films at Paramount Studios, the brothers caused all manner of chaos and comic lunacy with almost no consideration for pesky things like plot or character. A Night at the Opera, the brothers’ 1935 classic and their first with MGM, represents a major turning point in their creative careers, and watching it in retrospect can be a somewhat bittersweet experience. It is one of the brothers’ most beloved and accomplished films, enshrined as a comedy landmark by both the AFI and the Library of Congress for its iconic comic set pieces and memorable songs—including “Alone”, a charting hit of 1936. However, it was also the beginning of the end for the esteemed funnymen, whose transition to a new studio home started with triumphant promise but was soon followed by a steady decline into formulaic and increasingly toothless comic trifles.

Real-life brothers Julius (Groucho), Adolph (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), and Herbert (Zeppo) Marx were born into a family of performers and Jewish immigrants, beginning their careers on the vaudeville stage from an early age. By the 1920s, the brothers had become a popular and highly regarded comedy troupe, well-known for their satirical and anarchic comedic sensibility that mocked the mores of upper-crust society. This was also where they each developed the comic personas for which they would become world famous screen icons. With the introduction of sound cinema in the late 1920s, the Marx Brothers were signed to a contract by Paramount Studios in hopes that their quick-witted comic repartee would translate to the talkies. The five films produced at Paramount successfully adapted the free-for-all absurdity of their stage shows into lean, loosely structured showcases for rapid-fire jokes, physical buffoonery, and goofy songs, only barely resembling traditional narratives. The last of these films, 1933’s political satire Duck Soup, was a box office flop which ended the Marx’s time at Paramount on a sour note and led to straight man Zeppo leaving the troupe, embarking on a lucrative career as a talent agent with fifth Marx brother Gummo.

With their careers in transition, the remaining trio were approached by producer Irving Thalberg about signing with MGM, who reportedly asked if three brothers would cost less than four. Despite Groucho’s characteristically pointed retort—“Don’t be silly, without Zeppo we’re worth twice as much.”—Thalberg signed the brothers, though his vision for their films would not align with the take-no-prisoners approach of their films with Paramount. At Thalberg’s insistence, A Night at the Opera began to soften the brothers’ personas and introduce a more formal narrative structure to their work. (Note that Opera is over twenty minutes longer than Duck Soup.) No longer would the brothers be equal opportunity troublemakers. Instead, the Marxes would become forces for good, aiding in the coupling of romantic heroes and limiting their buffoonish buffaloing to clear-cut villains and stodgy high society figures (including a returning Margaret Dumont, the brothers’ favorite punching bag). Thalberg’s rationale was that more story-driven films with more sympathetic brothers could appeal to a wider audience, “twice the audience with half the laughs”, a logic that the brothers, still reeling from the failure of Duck Soup, embraced with gusto.

For A Night at the Opera, at least, the adjustments made to the Marx formula proved extremely lucrative. The film was a sizable box office hit and helped extend the brothers’ film careers well into the 1940s. Critics, too, praised the film upon release. The New York Evening Post wrote, “None of their previous films is as consistently and exhaustingly funny, or as rich in comic invention and satire.” Groucho Marx himself was particularly fond of A Night at the Opera, writing in his autobiography that, of the brothers’ films, “The best two were made by Thalberg.”

Subsequent Marx films made at MGM did not fare nearly as well. The brothers’ follow-up A Day at the Races (1937) found box office success but was met with relatively tepid notices from critics. Things only got worse from there, and by the end of the 1940s, after 13 feature films, the brothers disbanded. Most historical accounts tend to place the blame for the brothers’ decline squarely on Thalberg and the MGM formula, which domesticated the brothers’ comic chaos into a more palatable mold. A Night at the Opera, though, raises questions about this long-held assumption. Opera certainly lacks some of the unbridled madness of their Paramount work, and the film’s romance plot sometimes sits awkwardly alongside the lunatic capering of the brothers, but it still showcases some of their most inspired comic bits, including a sequence set inside a crowded stateroom that remains one of their most famous. If they could produce such inspired silliness even when reined in by Thalberg, why couldn’t they keep it going? Were they truly stifled by MGM, or did the brothers—like most comedy stars—simply run out of steam?

Even taking into account their decade of decline, the Marx Brothers left behind a body of work that would be enviable for any comic performers, and A Night at the Opera remains one of their greatest highlights, despite adjustments to the formula. As with all the best Marx Brothers films, it overflows with life, energy, and comic invention that thumbs its nose at polite society and waggles its eyebrows suggestively at good taste. To watch A Night at the Opera is to immerse oneself in a film world where—to paraphrase Groucho—joy is unconfined, a place with dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor. The opera house didn’t know what hit them.

A History of STARMAN

Thursday, February 22nd, 2024
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Starman were written by Madison Barnes-Nelson, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Starman will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, February 25, at 2 p.m. The screening is the first of three movies in the series "Cinematic Messages from Our Planet," all presented in conjunction with the currently-on-view Chazen exhibit, "Message from Our Planet."  The Chazen is located at 750 University Avenue. Admission to the exhibit and the Starman screening is free!

By Madison Barnes-Nelson

Part road movie, part romance, part melancholic science fiction, John Carpenter’s Starman is, at its core, a film about the search for hope and connection in the aftermath of tragedy. Jeff Bridges plays the titular Starman, an alien, who, after crash landing on Earth in rural Wisconsin, takes the bodily form of Scott, the late husband of grief-stricken widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). What follows is surprisingly sweet and sincere romantic drama from Carpenter, who is primarily known for his cynical, hard-edged genre films such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and Escape from New York (1981).

Starman spent five years in development at Columbia Pictures and was repeatedly delayed due to the studio’s commitment to a project called Night Skies, a quasi-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) from director Steven Spielberg and writer John Sayles. Night Skies was re-written by Melissa Mathison in 1981 as E.T. and Me, later re-titled as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Columbia rejected E.T., calling it a “kid’s picture,” and the film moved to Universal, later becoming the highest-grossing film in history at the time of its release in 1982. After fumbling E.T., Columbia re-focused attention to the more adult-themed Starman, with Michael Douglas serving as executive producer and star and famed 70s and 80s Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor Dean Riesner, known for his collaborations with Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, set to write the screenplay.

The film passed through many directors before landing in John Carpenter’s lap, including Adrian Lyne, Mark Rydell, John Badham, Tony Scott, and Peter Hyams. Riesner would end up writing a total of seven different drafts of the film, with an assist from screenwriting duo Edward Zwick and Diane Thomas (Romancing the Stone), who did uncredited rewrites on the final script. Eventually, Carpenter came on board, hoping for the chance to do a sci-fi film with elements of the screwball romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934), a major departure from his “thriller-exploitation image.” While working with Carpenter, Riesner shifted focus from the science fiction storyline, instead writing “a ‘Getting to Know You On the Run’ kind of picture, like The 39 Steps and The Defiant Ones, only now it was about a girl and an alien.” Somewhat bafflingly, the final screenplay is not credited to Riesner. Instead, The Writer’s Guild of America arbitrated that Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, who originated the story and wrote two early drafts, would receive sole writing credit. However, Carpenter himself has publicly acknowledged Riesner for developing the actual shooting script for the film and received a special dedication in the film’s credits.

After Michael Douglas dropped out the film (though retaining an executive producer credit), Kevin Bacon was briefly attached to play Starman/Scott. However, according to a making-of documentary, Jeff Bridges was John Carpenter’s and script supervisor Sandy King’s choice to play Starman, not only because of his charismatic, masculine persona he had built up in films such as The Last Picture Show (1972) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1975), but also after seeing his original, method-like approach to playing the title character. To create Starman, Bridges turned to real-life friends who he “always thought seemed like they came from outer space.” He was particularly inspired by friend and dancer Russell Clark, rehearsing extensively with him to nail down Starman’s strange bodily movements when he mimics a video of the deceased Scott. Bridges even studied his own newborn daughters, watching “their newness, and the way they would look at the world, their perception of things.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin highlighted the performance in her review, calling it “a fine showcase for the actor’s blend of grace, precision, and seemingly offhanded charm.”

Carpenter also sought out Karen Allen, who had broken out in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and later achieved international fame as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a performance that showcased both a hard-edged cynicism and a deep emotional vulnerability. While Bridges brings an incredible affability and physicality to the titular role, Allen’s performance as Jenny is really the tender heart of the film, demonstrating tremendous empathy for a grieving widow astounded at the chance to gaze once more upon her lost love’s face.

The film boasts an impressive roster of special effects creators, including Stan Winston (The Terminator), Rick Baker (Star Wars, An American Werewolf in London), and Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist), who were all hired to work on the film’s famously elaborate alien transformation, designing numerous puppets to depict Starman’s minute-long growth from infant to man. Additionally, Joe Alves (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws) was a visual consultant on the film and scouted shooting locations. Sadly, over the years, all four men have had harsh and disappointed words for their experience working on Starman and with Industrial Light & Magic, the supervising VFX production company. Special make-up effects artist Rick Baker said to The Chicago Tribune on creating the puppets and VFX, “They went out and got the best and most expensive people in the business, then made them work within ridiculous limitations…frankly, I never thought the sequence, as story-boarded, was that exciting to begin with.”

Starman was released on December 14th, 1984, the same day as David Lynch’s Dune, a similarly auteur-driven, somewhat underappreciated sci-fi film of the 1980s. Starman received positive reviews from critics, with The Chicago Sun Times’ Roger Ebert calling it one of the year’s “more touching love stories.” However, it underperformed at the box office, only grossing $2.8 million in its opening weekend and $23 million total in its original run. However, star Jeff Bridges was nominated for Best Actor at the 1985 Academy Awards, his third nomination and, shockingly, the only Oscar nomination for any John Carpenter film to date. Bridges would go on to lose Best Actor to F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus (1984), but he’s remained an Academy mainstay, receiving four subsequent nominations and winning Best Actor in 2010 for Crazy Heart (2009). Today, Starman can be seen as something of an anomaly in the career of a filmmaker best known as a “Master of Horror”, but the patient and emotionally attuned direction from Carpenter, warm performances by Bridges and Allen, and surprisingly gentle screwball-esque screenplay by Riesner make for a beautiful and earnest exploration of love and loss.