The Syzygies of A DIM VALLEY

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Zachary Zahos

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

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

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

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

Cinematalk Podcast: A DIM VALLEY with Brandon Colvin

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Zachary Zahos

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

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

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

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

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

DEAR EVAN HANSEN Sneak Preview Screening Added to Fall 2020 Lineup

Monday, September 13th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a free screening of the new Broadway adaptation Dear Evan Hansen to our Fall 2020 lineup. The special sneak preview showing will take place on Sunday, September 19, 7 p.m., at our regular venue: 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. The pre-release screening comes courtesy of Universal Pictures, who will be releasing Dear Evan Hansen in theaters on September 24.

Admission is free, masks are required.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN (USA | 2021 | DCP | 137 min.,  Director: Stephen Chbosky Cast: Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams)

In this adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Tony winner Ben Platt reprises his role as Evan Hansen, an anxious, isolated high schooler aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social-media age. Featuring music and lyrics by the songwriting team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (La La LandThe Greatest Showman), Dear Evan Hansen is one of this year's most-anticipated movies. Join us at the Cinematheque for this free, pre-release screening courtesy of Universal Pictures. Dear Evan Hansen opens in theaters on September 24.

Sunday, September 19, 7 p.m., UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706

Cinematalk Podcast: FROM NOON TILL THREE with Dan Gilroy

Monday, July 26th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

Coinciding with the Cinematheque's Charles Bronson series and our 35mm presentation of From Noon Till Three on July 30, this episode of Cinematalk features the Cinematheque's Jim Healy in conversation with the Academy Award nominated screenwriter and director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq.), son of From Noon Till Three's writer and director, Frank D. Gilroy. Dan was present for the making of From Noon Till Three and he discusses the film's production, its peculiar and unpredictable screenplay, and his father's work on other Western movies and television shows. 

From Noon Till Three spoilers abound in our discussion, so we recommend viewing the movie first before listening.

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

Cinematalk Presents 70 Movies We Saw in the 70s: WHERE'S POPPA?

Friday, July 2nd, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

In conjunction with the Cinematheque's 35mm presentation of Where's Poppa? on July 2, we have repackaged an episode of 70 Movies We Saw in the '70s podcast on our own Cinematalk podcast.

On this episode, originally released about a year ago, the Cinematheque's Ben Reiser and the late, great Mike McPadden discuss Carl Reiner's very dark comedy with writer and film historian Kat Ellinger. Listen below or subscribe to Cinematalk wherever you get your podcasts.

UW Cinematheque Returns! Summer Screening Series Begins June 30 at 4070 Vilas

Friday, June 11th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

After a nearly 16-month hiatus, big screen movies are making their comeback at the UW Cinematheque’s regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall! Beginning Wednesday June 30, the Cinematheque will commence six weeks of free screenings beginning with Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, a classic tearjerker that was originally scheduled for April 2020. The summer lineup includes canonized comedies, action blockbusters, international thrillers, contemporary gems from Asia, the complete American works of French superstar Jean Gabin, a three-film salute to Charles Bronson in honor of his centennial, and more! 

Summer programming will take place on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings and all feature films will be screened from original or archival 35mm prints. Admission, as always, is free and open to the public. Seating will be limited and socially distanced according to current UW-Madison policies. When possible, additional showtimes have been added to accommodate more viewers. 

You can view the entire summer calendar here.

See you at the Cinematheque!

Cinematalk Podcast #36: Emir Cakaroz

Thursday, April 29th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

In conjunction with the Cinematheque's presentation of Emir Cakaroz' "Paths to Home" trilogy, this episode of our Cinematalk podcast features Cakaroz in a talk with the Cinematheque's Ben Reiser about the trilogy and exploring one’s roots through the art of cinema.

Born and raised in Istanbul, Emir Cakaroz received his MFA in film from the UWM Peck School of the Arts, where is currently an Associate Lecturer in Film, Video, and Animation. In the "Paths to Home" trilogy, Cakaroz casts his gaze on his family, and in particular, his mother and father, approaching their stories – emigrating from Bulgaria to Turkey, being treated as outsiders, suffering with illness and loneliness, surviving and passing along traditions both sacred and domestic – from unique and intimate angles. Cakaroz wields a sly, deadpan sense of humor, and his trilogy paints a complicated, nuanced, and sometimes contradictory portrait of the family unit and his place within it. Though each of the three pieces vary wildly in form and tone, seen together they form a cohesive whole, an unforgettable deep dive into what makes Cakaroz the man and filmmaker that he is.

Listen below or subscribe to Cinematalk through Apple Podcasts.

See Milwaukee Filmmaker Emir Cakaroz' "Paths to Home" Trilogy for Free!

Thursday, April 29th, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

While our campus theatrical venues remain closed, the Cinematheque concludes our series of movies you can watch at home for free with a presentation of Emir Cakaroz’ “Paths to Home” trilogy.

The 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival (May 13-20) is just around the corner, and Milwaukee-based filmmaker Cakaroz has been a familiar presence at the Festival since 2011 where his short video, Oil Wrestling, had its world premiere. In the ensuing years, Cakaroz has been back many times, with screenings of One Money (WFF 2014), Riverwest Film & Video (WFF 2018) and a stint as a Golden Badger juror in 2019.

Born and raised in Istanbul, Cakaroz received his MFA in film from the UWM Peck School of the Arts, where he is currently an Associate Lecturer in Film, Video, and Animation. In the “Paths to Home” trilogy, Cakaroz casts his gaze on his family, and in particular, his mother and father. Cakaroz approaches the details of his parents’ lives – emigrating from Bulgaria to Turkey, being treated as outsiders, suffering with illness and loneliness, surviving, and passing along traditions both sacred and domestic – from unique and intimate angles. Cakaroz wields a sly, deadpan sense of humor, and his trilogy paints a complicated, nuanced, and sometimes contradictory portrait of the family unit and his place within it. Though each of the three pieces vary wildly in form and tone, seen together they form a cohesive whole, an unforgettable deep dive into what makes Cakaroz the man and filmmaker that he is. Wisconsin Film Festival has also hosted screenings of the three shorts that now comprise the “Paths to Home” trilogy: Two Photographs (WFF 2013), Revza (WFF 2016) and Dad’s Apple (WFF 2020) and we are delighted to share them with you now as one complete package.

TWO PHOTOGRAPHS (2012 | Turkey, USA | 8 min. | Director: Emir Cakaroz) Applying voiceover narration to the title objects, Two Photographs tells the story of the filmmaker’s parents and their emigration from Bulgaria to Turkey.

REVZA (2016 | USA | 47 min. | Director: Emir Cakaroz) Cakaroz returns to his native Turkey to spend some quality time with his mother. What emerges is a singularly intimate portrait of their relationship, as well as her life alone. Clear-eyed and moving, Revza is filled with sequences in which the mundane becomes mesmerizing.

DAD’S APPLE  (2019 | USA |16 min. | Director: Emir Cakaroz |Cast: Emir Cakaroz, Rafael Cakaroz) Emir Cakaroz completes his “family” trilogy with a stylistically bold memory piece in which Cakaroz portrays his father, and Cakaroz’s son, Rafael, plays young Emir.

For instructions on how to see all of the “Paths to Home” trilogy at home for free, send an email to and remember to include TRILOGY in the subject line. No further message is necessary.

Plus, on a new episode of our Cinematalk podcast, Emir Cakaroz talks with the Cinematheque's Ben Reiser about the trilogy and exploring one’s roots through the art of cinema. Listen below or subscribe to Cinematalk through Apple Podcasts. 

Stay healthy and safe. We value your support for the Cinematheque and we look forward to being able to watch movies with you soon in the proper cinematic settings of 4070 Vilas Hall and the Chazen Museum of Art.

Cinematalk Podcast #35: Frank V. Ross

Thursday, April 22nd, 2021
Posted by Jim Healy

As a supplement to the Cinematheque's free presentation of three features by independent filmmaker Frank V. Ross, this episode of our Cinematalk podcast features the Cinematheque's Mike King talking with Ross about his movies and career. Listen to this episode below or subscribe to Cinematalk through Apple Podcasts.