A BOY AND HIS DOG: We Don't Need Another Hero

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on L.Q. Jones' apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog (1975) were written by Ben Donahue, programmer for WUD Film. A newly restored DCP of A Boy and His Dog from the UCLA Film & Television Archive screeens this Saturday, February 8 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, in the UCLA Festival of Preservation on Tour. 

By Ben Donahue

“I gotta get back in the dirt so I can feel clean" (Vic, A Boy and His Dog).

A boy and his dog walk alone through a barren desert. They stand where Phoenix, Arizona once stood. Nothing remains. As far as the eye can see exists nothing more than wasteland. The boy, an 18 year old named Vic, provides food for himself and his dog. In return, the dog, an inexplicably telepathic canine named Blood, sniffs out women for Vic. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. They need each other to survive or remain sane, or at least as sane as one can remain once the whole world has gone mad.

Images of a man wandering alone through a desert wasteland might immediately evoke memories of George Miller’s 1979 classic, Mad Max. The author of the 1969 novella, A Boy and His Dog, Harlan Ellison, even reports a conversation where George Miller phoned him and said that Mad Max was a “rip-off” of the novella and the 1975 film. In fact, many wasteland-roaming post-apocalyptic novels, films, and video game franchises can have their lineage traced back to L. Q. Jones’ film. From its decayed and rough aesthetic, its sardonic tone, to its lack of conventional ‘good guys,’ A Boy and His Dog proved to be an important development in science-fiction. Before directing a number of low-budget films, L. Q. Jones was an actor who appeared in small parts in a large number of films, but Jones’ most important and long-running roles were his frequent collaborations with the gruesome and innovative filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Appearing in a number of Peckinpah’s pictures including Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch, Jones seems to have learned a thing or two from him.

While Harlan Ellison may have written the original story, Jones wrote virtually everything past the opening 10 minutes of the film, as Ellison struggled to convert his novella into a script. The resulting film is arguably equal parts Ellison and Jones. Ellison’s contributions come in the form of the sci-fi elements in the film: the nuclear fallout following not World War III but World War IV; the radioactive mutants known as Screamers that glow green and roam the surface; and the massive underground utopia referred to as Topeka amongst many other ideas. What Jones brought to the table was what he learned from his time working with Peckinpah. The hyper-clean sci-fi aesthetic that was popular in previous years is nowhere to be seen here. The breakdown of society and the degradation of humanity is visually represented with ramshackle towns constructed out of spare parts and hungry packs of animalistic scavengers wearing trash as their armor. The fights are scrappy and the landscape is desolate. The future is dirty.

The marriage of sci-fi and gritty, revisionist western isn’t solely an aesthetic leap. The tone of the movie is quite unlike most movies of the time and helps explain the cult reputation the film has enjoyed since. Consider the ingredients—a healthy helping of the grittiness that defined so many films of the late 60s and 70s, a dash of Cold War anxiety, some broad strokes about humanity's tenuous relationship with civility, and a few truly potent sprinkles of unbelievably dark humor—and the film’s staying power immediately becomes apparent. The film’s most striking moments are dripping with a venomous nihilism, but they are also the most comedic moments. For example, the relationship between Vic and Blood is an immediate clue-in to the film’s view on humanity. Don Johnson plays Vic with an irreverent worldview and a borderline feral fixation on women, as women have become a coveted resource more akin to food and water than they are to human beings. Vic is dumb and impulsive and not a good guy by any liberal stretch of the imagination. Tim McIntire voices Blood with an arrogant and intellectual tone—always talking down on everyone, but is similarly despicable in his morals. The satirical assertion that the dog is closer to humanity than the boy doesn’t bode well for our species.

Another example of the films comedy comes in the underground utopia of Topeka: a slice of All-American pie grossly oversaturated in ’50s Americana that resembles a circus more so than anything else. And the cherry on top of the pie is Jason Robards dryly playing the not-so-charismatic leader of the cult-like commune, all while wearing what is ostensibly clown makeup. But for what is hands-down the most potent moment of dark humor, you have to watch all the way till the very end, to the very last line of the film in fact. It’s a joke, but it’s not funny. At least not in the civilized sense of the word. It’s the type of joke that sucker-punches you right in the gut, catching you off-guard. In the moment, you don’t know whether to laugh out of surprise or gasp in disgust. But you’ll have to watch all the way through to hear it.

Max Rockatansky doesn’t have the cleanest conscience, but we can confidently say that he is the hero of Mad Max. Vic and Blood are the protagonists in A Boy and His Dog, but the film would scold you for being as naive as to think that heroes still exist in the future. That’s what separates this movie from its peers. Everyone is simply trying to survive. Everyone thinks solely of themselves. Everyone is bad. In spite of all this, and despite the fact that society has cannibalized itself, and that the future looks to be an especially dark shade of bleak, the film finds a weird sort of cathartic comfort in knowing that the first bond mankind ever made, a bond that predates the birth of civilization, still exists. It’s nice to know that, even in the apocalypse, dogs will always remain man’s best friend.

ALIBI: A Groundbreaking Early Talkie

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Roland West's Alibi (1929) were written by Megan Boyd, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored DCP of Alibi from the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen as part of UCLA's Festival of Preservation on Tour on Saturday, February 8 at 2 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. This screening is the first of four in the UCLA series this weekend. Arthur Ripley's Voice in the Wind will also screen on Saturday, February 8 at 3:45, followed by L.Q. Jones' apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog at 7 p.m. Then, on Sunday, February 9 at 2 p.m., a 35mm print of the 30s musical fantasy My Lips Betray screens at the Chazen Museum of Art. All screenings are free and open to the public.

By Megan Boyd

When United Artists released Alibi (1929), Motion Picture News declared enthusiastically, “the ultimate in talking picture production has been achieved.” Critics also granted the film the praise of being “by far the best crook picture ever made.” The film impressed reviewers by proving that sound could enhance a straight drama as opposed to enlivening musical numbers in popular films like The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros., 1927) or The Broadway Melody (MGM, 1929). Though The Broadway Melody would become the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Alibi also received a nomination for Best Picture that year, along with nominations for Best Actor (Chester Morris) and Best Art Direction (William Cameron Menzies). The film served as a key precedent for influential gangster films of the early 1930s, such as The Public Enemy (Warner Bros., 1931) or Scarface (United Artists, 1932).

Why did critics see Alibi as such an important step forward for proving sound’s value to narrative cinema? Coverage of the film pointed to two qualities: the use of sound to enhance the story’s atmosphere and the ability to incorporate sound without losing visual interest. The film opens with a striking credit sequence in which a police officer hits a wall with his baton while prisoners’ feet march in coordinated rhythm. Some commentators compared these rhythms to the “staccato sound quality of a machine gun.” Rhythms repeat throughout the film, as chorus girls stepping in line often mirror the opening’s marching and other sounds. The film continually goes beyond pure dialogue recording to consider ambient noise and sound effects. Watch for the playful use of a bird’s chirping in the home of Joan and her father. The bird chirps until her father places a sheet over the cage, at which point the bird’s chirping stops. He then lifts the sheet again and the noise resumes. The move does not forward the narrative, but adds to the dynamism of the sound landscape.

The second observation, that the film sustains visual interest despite incorporating dialogue, is also apparent in contemporary viewing. Director Roland West uses multiple tracking shots at the beginning of scenes, allowing the audience to explore the space before conversations begin in earnest. The set design also rightfully won William Cameron Menzies a nomination for its art deco patterns and expansive depth, with shadows painted onto the set to create dramatic contrast. Menzies was one of the most influential directors of production design in the 1920s and 30s, eventually winning an honorary Oscar for incorporating ‘color for dramatic effect’ in Gone With the Wind (MGM, 1939). The screenplay of Alibi also avoids excessive ‘talking.’ C. Gardner Sullivan, a prominent screenwriter for Thomas Ince in the silent era, worked to ‘pare the dialogue down to the bone’ in order to let the audience make inferences. In Alibi, characters often do not announce their relationships through dialogue, and this helps to avoid stagy, over-exposition.

The cast and crew also proved appropriate for ‘crime pictures.’ Chester Morris, a theatrical juvenile, became an instant star through his acclaimed performance. Though ending with a conventional moral, Morris’ charisma dominates much of the film. His scene stealing paved the way for anti-heroes of later gangster classics. Part of this energy stemmed from Morris’ sex appeal, which proved difficult for the film’s police heroes to counter. One fan magazine observed, “Morris can express more sex appeal simply by bending his head in a girl’s direction…than most heroes can in a hundred feet of amorous contortions.”  Morris himself attributed his successful transition from stage to film to the timing of his facial expressions. He observed that most actors in early talkies spoke first and then began to perform an emotion in the midst of their lines. Morris claimed he “first set my face in reaction to the other character’s lines before I begin to speak. I communicate my response visually before I convey it verbally.” Watch for Morris’ subtle changes in expression before he physically delivers each line. This process often adds fluidity to his performance. Morris did not receive roles as ‘meaty’ as his lead in Alibi for most of his career, but he did appear as a convict in the sound classic The Big House (MGM, 1930) and later as a reformed convict heading the ‘Boston Blackie’ detective series of the 1940s. The director, Roland West, explored crime and suspense in other films as well, such as his silent adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat (United Artists, 1926). He would unfortunately become more famously associated with crime as an offscreen suspect in the possible murder of his lover, comedic actress Thelma Todd.

With wonderful restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive, correcting images based on stills from production files at Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, this version of Alibi allows us to understand what so impressed audiences at the time of the film’s release. We can share in their wonder at one of the earliest and most successful straight dramas with complete sound on cinema screens. Even without projecting ourselves into the past, however, Alibi remains an enjoyable and suspenseful film in the present.

The Cosmic and Human Vision of SÁTÁNTANGÓ

Thursday, January 30th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new 4K restoration of Sátántangó from Arbelos films will show in its complete, uncut version at the Cinematheque on Saturday, February 1 beginning at 1 p.m. Our screening will be shown with one short intermission and a 90-minute dinner break starting at 5:30 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

The reputation of director Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó undoubtedly precedes it. If there’s one single fact you likely already know about the film, it’s the extraordinary length of the thing: seven and a half hours, jam-packed with as many long takes and scenes of human suffering as you could hope to find in a Hungarian art film. And you are certainly meant to feel the weight of those hours: unlike most of the extraordinary long films out in the world, such as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1 (1971) or Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour Shoah (1985), Sátántangó was designed to be screened in one uninterrupted sitting (fear not – Cinematheque is following the common practice of splitting it into three parts, including a 90-minute dinner break. Your stomach and your posterior are welcome).

It’s certainly a film to approach with all due trepidation, but the rewards for braving Tarr’s dance with the devil are considerable. Almost from the moment of its premiere, it has been an object of great critical adoration. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader has written about the film several times, praising its sarcastic wit and declaring at least once that it was “in many ways, my favorite film of the 1990s.” In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised the “beautiful framing and richly gradated black-and-white tones to find beauty in every miserable and mundane corner.” The film tied for #35 on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of critics to find the best films ever made, making it the highest-ranked film of the 1990s on that list, and it enjoys a 100% fresh score on the website Rotten Tomatoes. As daunting as the film is, it offers aesthetic pleasures fully equal to the work it demands of its viewer.

The film was adapted by Tarr and László Krasznahorkai from a novel the latter published in 1985 (they had previously collaborated on the screenplay for the director’s Damnation, from 1988). It preserves the novel’s unique structure, twelve chapters that overlap each other and proceed in only a ragged chronological flow. The chapters are divided into two halves, six steps forward followed by six steps back, copying the shape of a tango. This pattern unfolds slowly, over the course of a small number of extraordinarily long takes (several of them reaching to nearly eleven minutes, the maximum length of a single reel of film), each of them seeming to slow time down to a standstill.

And yet, the film never drags. It trains us how to watch it right from its first shot, a seven-minute tracking shot of cows gathering in the muddy streets of a small town. Eventually, they start to walk off to the left, and the camera rotates exactly 90° counterclockwise, at which point it starts to track left while the cattle meander through the street; frequently, buildings obscure the cows from our view, and at one point, a cow that came up right alongside us moos irritably as it hustles down an alley on the Z-axis, to rejoin its fellows. As the shot progresses, it somehow becomes impossibly thrilling: the disorientation of losing sight of the cows and the relief of finding them again; the sudden pile-up of details in Gábor Medvigy’s detailed grey-scale cinematography, teasing out variable textures in every object and surface, daring us to absorb them all. Everything in the next seven hours of the viewer’s life is packed into this first shot: the sharp geometrical precision of the pans, the tactility, the camera as a conscious being moving through environments. Most importantly, it introduces us to the unique magic of slow cinema, the transformation by which lingering stillness exaggerates and intensifies our response to any change that comes into view. The smallest details become magnified in their impact, making every one of those long takes paradoxically gripping.

If the tango of the title is the film’s structure, Satan is Irimiás (played by Tarr regular Mihály Víg, who also wrote the film’s moody, accordion-heavy score), who returns to the dying town where the action takes place after a long absence. He’s a darkly charismatic figure, who seduces the whole town into obeying his will; unsurprisingly, this does not go well for them. The story has been taken as symbolic of the death throes of Communism, or as a parable of people embracing authoritarianism as a means of giving some kind of shape, even a bleak and miserable one, to an aimless life. Throughout Sátántangó, we see characters struggle against their lack of power (particularly in the film’s most notorious scene, in which a young girl tortures a cat to death, the only creature in town more miserable and weaker than she is), or give into nihilistic hopelessness, seeing nothing in the world beyond an infinite plain of lifeless mud. The film’s conflict is a bleak one, offering a choice between an apocalyptic landscape or accepting the false hope of a Satanic figure. A happy ending is off the table from very early on.

Even so, Sátántangó is never an excuse for cynical art film misery. It’s a complex work of art cinema, intellectually stimulating in its elaborate system of narrative overlaps, and the visual elegance with which it depicts joyless, stalled lives creates a troubling, productive tension between beauty and suffering. It’s a challenging work, perhaps one of the most challenging films ever created. But the reward for facing those challenges head on is experiencing a cosmic and human vision that’s rewarding far beyond mere bragging rights.

Favorites of 2019: Mike King

Saturday, January 4th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is a Cinematheque Programmer and Senior Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival


Top ten new films to play Madison in 2019, in alphabetical order:


The Beach Bum (2019, Harmony Korine)


Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)


I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018, Radu Jude)


Our Time (2018, Carlos Reygadas)


Pain and Glory (2019, Pedro Almodóvar)


Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)


Ray & Liz (2018, Richard Billingham)


Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)


Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda)


Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)


Favorites of 2019: Zachary Zahos

Friday, January 3rd, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Zachary Zahos is a Programmer and Project Assistant for the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival. He is also a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison.

My favorite new films to play Madison in 2019 are as follows:

1. THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese)

2. STYX (Wolfgang Fischer)

3. THE IMAGE BOOK (Jean-Luc Godard)

4. UNCUT GEMS (Josh and Benny Safdie) 

5. OUR TIME (Carlos Reygadas)

6. KNOT/NOT (Larry Gottheim)

7. THE IMAGE YOU MISSED (Dónal Foreman)

8. US (Jordan Peele) 

9. PAIN AND GLORY (Pedro Almodóvar)

10. LOS REYES (Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut)

Honorary mention to Zia Anger’s MY FIRST FILM, performed at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on October 23, 2019.

Of the hundreds of older films I watched for the first time this year, these ten sit at the top of the pack:

1. BLACK IS … BLACK AIN'T (Marlon Riggs, 1994)

2. BARN RUSHES (Larry Gottheim, 1971)

3. THE GIRL IN THE RUMOR (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

4. WHEN TOMORROW COMES (John M. Stahl, 1939)

5. ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

6. THE HOUSE IS BLACK (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)

7. LA RELIGIEUSE (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

8. SNOW-WHITE (Dave Fleischer, 1933)

9. FORTINI/CANI (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1976)

10. LAUGHTER IN HELL (Edward L. Cahn, 1932)

Finally, my favorite cinema of the decade (2010-2019), with the caveat that there is so much I want to revisit and far more I have yet to see. The director of the decade is Hong Sang-soo, who made so many great films I am capping this at one title per director—lest this list be overwhelmed with Hong's output. I present this list of 30 titles alphabetically, with asterisks next to my five absolute favorites:

88:88 (Isiah Medina, 2015)

AT BERKELEY (Frederick Wiseman, 2013)*

AVATAR FLIGHT OF PASSAGE (Disney Imagineering, Lightstorm Entertainment, and Weta Digital, 2017)

BELMONTE (Federico Veiroj, 2018)

CERTIFIED COPY (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)*

COMPUTER CHESS (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

THE DAY HE ARRIVES (Hong Sang-soo, 2011)*

DEAD SOULS (Wang Bing, 2018)


HORSE MONEY (Pedro Costa, 2014)

THE HUMAN SURGE (Eduardo Williams, 2016)

THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese, 2019)

JAUJA (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (Claude Lanzmann, 2013)

LEVIATHAN (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012)

MARGARET (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

NO HOME MOVIE (Chantal Akerman, 2015)

O.J. MADE IN AMERICA (Ezra Edelman, 2016)

SIERANEVADA (Cristi Puiu, 2016)

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY (Catherine Breillat, 2010)*

STAYING VERTICAL (Alain Guiraudie, 2016)


TABU (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)

THE TRIAL (Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola, 2017)

TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (David Lynch, 2017)*

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT (Dan Sallitt, 2012)

WESTERN (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

Favorites of 2019: Ben Reiser

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer and administrator for both the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival.

19 Favorites For 2019

  1. American Factory (2019, Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar)
  2. Climax (2018, Gaspar Noe)
  3. Crawl (2019, Alexandre Aja)
  4. Dragged Across Concrete (2018, S. Craig Zahler)
  5. Ford v Ferrari (2019, James Mangold)
  6. Give Me Liberty (2019, Kirill Mikhanovsky)
  7. The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)
  8. John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019, Chad Stahelski)
  9. Judy (2019, Rupert Goold)
  10. Knives Out (2019, Rian Johnson)
  11. Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)
  12. Monos (2019, Alejandro Landes)
  13. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)
  14. Our Time (2019, Carlos Reygadas)
  15. Parasite (2019, Bong Joon Ho)
  16. Shazam (2019, David Sandberg)
  17. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019, Joe Talbot)
  18. Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)
  19. Western Stars (2019, Bruce Springsteen & Thom Zimny

Five Favorites from the Land of Cinematic Long Form Storytelling on Television:

  1. MINDHUNTERS (2019, David Fincher and others)
  2. TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG (2019, Nicolas Winding Refn)
  3. UNBELIEVABLE (2019, Lisa Cholodenko and others)
  4. UNDONE (2019, Hisko Hulsing)
  5. WATCHMEN (2019, Nicole Kassell and others)

Favorites of 2019: Jim Healy

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is the Director of Programming for the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

2019 was a great year for movie watching. Of the 648 features that I saw and were new to me, my five favorites are, in alphabetical order:


THE IRISHMAN (2019, Martin Scorsese)

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

PARASITE (2019, Bong Joon Ho)

UNCUT GEMS (2019, Josh and Benny Safdie)

10 other movies that I thought were excellent, in alphabetical order:

ADDRESS UNKNOWN (1944, William Cameron Menzies)

AMAZING GRACE (2018, Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott)


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015, S. Craig Zahler)

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017, S. Craig Zahler)


LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES 1960 (1959, Roger Vadim)

PAIN AND GLORY (2019, Pedro Almodovar)

TOY STORY 4 (2019, Josh Cooley)

TURN THE KEY SOFTLY (1953, Jack Lee)

And here are 10 more that I enjoyed and recommend:

DIE KINDER DER TOTEN (2019, Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska)

FIRST GRADERS (1984, Abbas Kiarostami)

GIVE ME LIBERTY (2019, Kirill Mikhanovsky)

GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA (2019, Teona Strugar Mitevska)

THE LONG HAUL (1957, Ken Hughes)

MADAME X (1965, David Lowell Rich)

THE PAINTED BIRD (2019, Vaclav Marhoul)

SCREWBALL (2018, Billy Corben)

SWEETHEART (2019, J.D. Dillard)

THREE SUMMERS (2019, Sandra Kogut)


Cinematalk Podcast #3: James Runde

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

On Saturday, December 14th, at 7pm, UW Cinematheque will present the Communication Arts Showcase at the Marque Theater at Union South. Highlighting works produced in Communication Arts Media Production courses at UW Madison, this program is curated by the instructors of film, video and animation courses and gives new filmmakers the opportunity to present their films on screen for the first time.

We were recently joined in the studio by James Runde, a Madison, WI based filmmaker and graduate of the Communication Arts department here at the University of Wisconsin. James has had four films in as many years at the Wisconsin Film Festival, starting with a short film at the 2016 Festival called WHITE AND LAZY. In 2017 he brought his super short animated piece, PATTI, to the festival.  In 2018 the Festival premiered LESLIE, a section of PLAYED OUT, James's nearly feature length effort that showed at the 2019 Festival, where it won a prestigious Golden Badger Award for excellence in Wisconsin Filmmaking. Over the course of about an hour James and Ben Reiser discuss many things, from shooting on 16mm film to movies he loves, music he enjoys, the controversy surrounding the title of his WHITE AND LAZY film, and his thoughts on regional filmmaking.

DIE HARD: Ode to Joyful Mayhem

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Die Hard (1988) were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and co-organizer of the Antwerp Summer Film School. A 35mm print of Die Hard will screen at 2 p.m. on December 15 at the Chazen Museum of Art, preceded by Tex Avery's short animation The Peachy Cobbler (1950). This program concludes our series of films from the collection of the Chicago Film Society, and our 2019 Cinematheque programming year.

By David Vanden Bossche

Broadly (and rightfully) considered to be one of the greatest achievements in action film history, John McTiernan’s Die Hard still lives up to its reputation after three decades and the 35mm print the Cinematheque screens December 15th will still “blow you through the back wall of the theatre,” as the 1988 tagline promised. Die Hard is the film equivalent of a perfectly oiled and streamlined machine: a film in which every shot, camera movement and bravura action sequence is pitched to absolute perfection. Few are the cinematic spectacles that offer the viewer this much sheer excitement and cinematographic refinement at the same time.

Much like composer Michael Kamen’s masterful score spins variations on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the "Ode to Joy", Die Hard’s plot is reduced to virtuosic variations on the absolute bare essentials. Its basic template: a group of terrorists locks down a Los Angeles high-rise on Christmas Eve, with one man spoiling their perfectly executed plan – a lone policeman who isn’t even supposed to be there and is forced into a deadly game of hide-and-seek as he tries to thwart the group’s scheme.

Portraying the stubborn NYC cop John McClane, Bruce Willis was propelled into instant superstardom with this 1988 outing, being until then mostly known for playing Cybill Shepherd’s partner and will-they-or-won’t-they lover on the hit series Moonlighting. While Willis undeniably carries the film, he is all but upstaged by a terrific performance by the late Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, the sardonic and charismatic leader of the gang of well-organized terrorists. True to the Alfred Hitchcock adage “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,” Gruber is a man who puts style above all else, though he never hesitates to switch from being deceivingly charming to absolutely ruthless when the situation calls for it. “It would be a pity to ruin that suit Mr. Takagi,” he tells the CEO of the Japanese company that has its offices in the building, seconds before shooting him in the head — obviously without so much as staining the said suit.

The true star of Die Hard, however, is director John McTiernan, who built his reputation on only two previous films – the taut little thriller Nomads (1986) and the tremendous Schwarzenegger-vehicle Predator (1987) – and delivered with Die Hard a film that would define its genre for years to come. Its enduring legacy is no more obvious than in the numerous high concept pitches that followed, referred to as “Die Hard on a plane” (Air Force One), “Die Hard on a bus” (Speed, directed by Die Hard’s cinematographer Jan De Bont), or any other new variation one could come up with.

The film’s greatest achievement is to be found in the way it integrates its high-rise setting into the action (something McTiernan had done before with the jungle setting in Predator). From the very start, this is a movie with a keen eye for the use of architecture: watch for a dazzling overhead shot when a police car circles the building’s courtyard. The overwhelming, powerfully composed wide-screen ‘tableaux’ manage to turn the shafts and corridors of the postmodern building into a veritable character itself. The director’s crafty use of wide-angle lenses and his incredible flair for cinematic staging are on full display in the brilliantly choreographed shot of the opening of the vault, which balances Rickman to the extreme left of the image and whiz-kid Theo (Clarence Gilyard) to the right as the doors open mid-frame to Kamen’s triumphant score. McTiernan lends to Die Hard a level of cinematic finesse that few contemporary action directors could match.

Patrick Duynslaegher, Belgian’s most prolific film critic for four decades and current artistic director for the Ghent Film Festival, called Die Hard in 1988 the “absolute ne plus ultra in high tech action cinema,” an endorsement I still wholeheartedly subscribe to for this riveting masterpiece.

I will conclude with a salient tidbit of Die Hard trivia: Ronald Reagan used to have an office in the L.A. building that was used for the Nakatomi Plaza – an ironic fact, as this lean and mean cop thriller became an icon of sorts for the Reagan-era action film.

QUICK MILLIONS: Brains & Brown

Friday, December 6th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Rowland Brown's Quick Millions were written by Casey Long, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored 4K DCP of Quick Millions will screen as part of a double feature of Brown's work at Fox Film Corporation on Friday, December 6 at 7 p.m. The double feature, part of our series tribute to Fox, will also include an 8:30 p.m. screening of Brown's notoriously racy pre-code masterpiece, Blood Money (1933). Both films screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Casey Long

Does “Bugs” Raymond have brains? This is the question that arises again and again throughout the 1931 Fox film, Quick Millions. It is what haunts our protagonist, played by Spencer Tracy, in his ascension from truck driver to mob boss; from rags to riches; from the city street to the top of the tower. Bugs seeks to prove that it is his ‘bean’ that has gained him success rather than illicit dealings and thuggish behavior. A secondary question inevitably stems from the first: does it even matter?

This was Rowland Brown’s first film as a director. He was previously a newspaper reporter and contract writer for Fox. Rumors about his drinking and connections to real-world gangsters, coupled with his tendency to abandon films midway through production led to a lean but promising body of work. He would go on to direct only three more pictures: Hell’s Highway (1932), Blood Money (1933), and The Devil is a Sissy (1936). He would continue to write for film sporadically, most notably nominated by the Academy for Best Original Story on Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).

Brown’s direction reveals a keen eye for how to use light, framing and staging to allude to violence without explicitly showing the act on screen. These cinematographic decisions obscure the truly bad aspects of Bugs’ nature and instead encourage the viewer to see him as a man caught between two worlds. He is split between two women: devoted Daisy and wealthy Dorothy; and two organizations: his original street-gang and the industrialists at the top. Buildings explode, fires are set, people are shot; but Bugs manages to distance himself from the very acts that permit his lavish lifestyle. The viewer never sees Bugs commit an act of violence, only the results of his decision-making and orders to his henchmen. One low-angle shot of a troublesome newspaper reporter frames only his slippered feet as we hear the clacking of a typewriter. His assassin is similarly unseen, committing the act as a mere shadow on the wall. Brown leaves it to the viewer to make connections, draw conclusions, and fill in the gaps; in this way permitting his audience to gain a deeper sense of the seedy Depression Era underworld that included both streetwise racketeers and the corrupt ultra-rich.

According to Variety, Brown received a bonus of $1,000 for “continuity and cutting.” The story is told elliptically through quickly-cut vignettes that trace Bugs’ underworld career from 1925 to 1931. A lion’s share of these segments include short, snappy one-liners. A 1936 New York Times article on early sound films praises Quick Millions as contributing to a new cinematic style that cut down on dialogue: “The rapid rhythm of Quick Million ’s continuity was built up from short scenes; the dialogue was correspondingly laconic. Each scene quietly thrust home a point of character or plot—and stopped.” Brown economically highlights dialect and linguistic differences in nearly every scene. For example, Tracy’s character will routinely translate words for his lower-class crew members. At one point, he deciphers the word ‘prestige’ to his right-hand man, Jimmy.

BUGS: You know going around with her gives me a lot of prestige.

JIMMY: A lot of what?

BUGS: Front, you half-wit. Front.

Bugs is the gangster equivalent of the Western genre’s “man who knows Indians”—a conduit between two separate cultures; a tragic figure who understands both sides but cannot fully join either of them. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1900, Spencer Tracy was perfectly suited to the role of truck driver turned millionaire. Tracy’s mother, Caroline, was from a wealthy, Mid-western, Presbyterian family. His father was an Irish Catholic truck salesman.

While primarily maintaining a tight, elliptical story-telling style, Brown does take the opportunity to draw out one particularly salient moment in the plot—juxtaposing Bugs’ pseudo-philosophical monologue on crime and opportunism with his girlfriend Dorothy’s diegetic rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2. The bittersweet melody coupled with our protagonist’s unrequited love encapsulate Quick Millions’ mood and message. Bugs’ tragic position in society is permanent, no matter his smarts.

Quick Millions also includes two notable, stand-alone musical performances. The first is a dance sequence highlighting George Raft’s inimitable talents (as Jimmy). This was Raft’s first film. According to a New York Times article, Brown, “searching for a menace with sex appeal,” saw Raft in the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and put him in the film the next day. Raft’s career would span decades as he continued to portray gangsters in films like Scarface (1932), They Drive By Night (1940), and Some Like it Hot (1959). The second musical interlude is an uncredited folksong performed by an unknown singer. The musical style, while antithetical to the film’s gangster milieu, punctuates the narrative and includes lyrics that reinforce the protagonist’s philosophy:

When I was a boy/ I was the pride and joy/ Of my folks way down in Arkansas/ I left my old hometown/ Bad company I found/ I done some things/ That was against the law/ There’s one thing I’ve been taught/ You’re right ‘til you get caught/ As long as I’m free/ I’m gonna do just what I choose/ Wah wah, wah wah