Cinematalk Podcast #2: Schawn Belston

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

On March 20, 2019, 20th Century Fox ceased to exist when the Walt Disney Co. completed its acquisition of what was once one of Hollywood’s six major studios. Although their catalogue stretches back more than 100 years, 20th Century Fox was officially formed in 1935 with the merging of two smaller studios, Fox Film Corporation and 20th Century Pictures.

To commemorate this significant moment in cinema history, we invited back a regular Cinematheque guest, film archivist and preservationist Schawn Belston, to speak to our audiences and chat with us here on Cinematalk.

In a career at Fox that spanned more than 25 years at Fox, Schawn’s work in film preservation began with the 1997 re-issues of the original STAR WARS TRILOGY. He eventually became Executive Vice President of Media and Library Services at Twentieth Century Fox, oversseing all archival and preservation work of the studio’s extensive library. Today, Schawn is a Senior Vice-President at the Walt Disney Company where he still looks after the Fox library, in addition to the Disney Studio’s catalogue.

Schawn joined us on November 8 and 9 to present a special clip-filled history of 20th Century Fox called FOX: AN APPRECIATION, and an archival print of John M. Stahl’s great melodrama, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.

The Cinematheque’s series tribute to Fox continues on Friday, December 6 with a double feature of two pre-code titles from the Fox Film Corporation, 1932’s QUICK MILLIONS starring Spencer Tracy, and 1933’s BLOOD MONEY, with George Bancroft, Judith Anderson and Frances Dee. Both films were directed by the talented and mysterious Rowland Brown. Then, on December 15, the Cinematheque’s 2019 programming will conclude with a contemporary classic from 20th Century Fox, the original 1988 DIE HARD, showing in a 35mm print from the collection of the Chicago Film Society.

Notes on Kurosawa and SEVEN SAMURAI

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Akira Kurosawa's career and Seven Samurai 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 the complete Japanese release version of Seven Samurai will screen on Saturday, December 7, at 7 p.m. in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is Free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Akira Kurosawa started his career as a scriptwriter and assistant at Toho studios, where he got the chance in 1943 to direct his first feature: the martial arts fantasy Sanshiro Sugata (1943). Already showing an exceptionally keen eye for the kinetic power of ‘jidai-geki’ (period films), Kurosawa made two more films during the war years, showing his maturation as a director in the emotionally powerful The Most Beautiful (1944), a predecessor to his later humanistic masterpieces Ikiru (1952) and Red Beard (1965).

In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s surrender, the country’s film industry was placed under strict control by SCAP (Supreme Command of Allied Powers). SCAP’s film division saw to it that no movie was released that could in any way glorify Japanese military power or stir jingoistic sentiments, while at the same time assuring that the modernization of the national cinema did not yield to many ‘leftist’ ideas. Because of its samurai-themed subject, Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) was banned, but the post-war years saw the young director’s career generally blossoming. Working with producer Masaichi Nagata – who wanted to export Japanese films to the West and successfully did so – Kurosawa delivered Rashōmon (1950) to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. Its daring narrative structure (a film that looks at the truth from different vantage points is still said today to have a Rashōmon structure), the director’s subtle use of lighting and his incredible flair for staging and composition propelled Kurosawa to the status of one of the world’s most famous directors on the international festival scene. He held on to that position until the early 1970s, when a suicide attempt following the scathing reviews and commercial failure of Dodes’ka-den (1970) all but destroyed his career, only to be revived by American directors of the ‘movie brat generation.’ Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola ensured financial backing for new work by a filmmaker they all greatly admired; George Lucas famously stated that there would be no Star Wars (1977) without Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Kurosawa—who claimed Orson Welles and John Ford had enormous influence on his style—often dealt with protagonists “who curbed selfish desires and worked for the good of others,” as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson point out in Film History. The director himself acknowledged that much in interviews, stating that “Humanity starts when our instinctive selfishness ends and we open up to others.” That is certainly the case in Seven Samurai, a story about a group of swordfighters who come to the aid of a beleaguered village and are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the inhabitants from a band of merciless bandits.

The introduction of new and better zoom lenses in the 1950s saw increased use of the device towards the end of the decade (most famously by Roberto Rossellini for Vanina Vanini [1961], shot almost entirely with the SOM-Berthiot zoom), but no director had ever used the zoom lens the way Kurosawa did for Seven Samurai. Using several cameras to shoot the action sequences, the director had his technical crew (under the supervision of the brilliant DOP and longtime collaborator Asakazu Nakai) film the climactic fight sequences in the rain, using the most extreme range of the zoom lenses. The result is a ‘flattening’ of the image plane that experimented on a never seen before scale with the formal language of the action film and that lends the images of brutally stylized violence a radical form of abstraction. These sequences still offer an astonishing aesthetic experience and cemented the director’s reputation as one of the all-time great masters.

Although heavily cut upon its American release in 1956 down to 158 minutes (the UW-Cinematheque is showing the fully restored 207-minute version), the film still was met with rave reviews. Bosley Crowther, critic for The New York Times and an absolute voice of authority on the subject of foreign film releases in the US (as Tino Balio mentions in his 2010 book The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, Crowther could “make or break” a foreign film’s reputation) called Seven Samurai “an extraordinary film that matches Rashōmon in cinema brillance.” The running time and poor marketing made for lowly box-office returns in the US, but the film’s (rightful) reputation as a masterpiece yielded a Hollywood remake by John Sturges as The Magnificent Seven (1960). The remake honor was bestowed on Kurosawa again in 1964 when another of his great samurai films featuring Toshirô Mifune, Yojimbo (1961), was transferred to a desolate setting by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) starring Clint Eastwood in the first of a famous string of “Spaghetti Westerns”. An equally powerful remake was headed by the underrated genre specialist Walter Hill, who adapted Yojimbo into a gangster/western hybrid starring Bruce Willis called Last Man Standing (1996).

Please Give to the UW Cinematheque

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

As we close the curtains on our 2019 programming calendar, let us reflect back on what has been another remarkable year at UW Cinematheque.

Our Spring 2019 slate opened with a Premiere Showcase screening of the bold, immersive experimental film, PROTOTYPE 3D; a deep dive into the work of influential French filmmaker Jacques Becker; an exploration of and visit from mumblecore master, Andrew Bujalski; a celebration of professor JJ Murphy’s new book, Rewriting Indie Cinema; and two John Stahl classics (BACK STREET and SEED) helped round out an exciting and eclectic semester of cinematic treats.

Summer heated up with a double dose of Claire Denis (HIGH LIFE and L’INTRUS); a spirited review of poverty row films including such down and dirty delights as THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE SIN OF NORA MORAN; and of course, our all-inclusive tour of the post-apocalyptic universe of MAD MAX concluding with a packed house 3D screening of MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD.

Fall 2019 has seen a cavalcade of special guests including Stephane Vieyra, son of pioneering African filmmaker Paulin Vieyra, 3-D Historian Bob Furmanek, New York Times Co-Chief Film Critic Manohla Dargis, and just this month, Oscar-nominated documentarian extraordinaire, Julia Reichert! Our Sunday series at the Chazen Museum of Art has been a delightfully diverse survey of 35mm prints from the Chicago Film Society archive; we also had the pleasure of screening Kiarostami’s KOKER TRILOGY plus HOMEWORK and a tasty selection of Kiarostami’s short films; New restorations of a number of classics and hard to see films including A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) and OLIVIA (1950) showcased our state of the art sound and projection in our home venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, and we’re not done! Yet to come before the end of the year: Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI and the modern holiday classic – DIE HARD.

By the end of this year, the Cinematheque will have presented 126 screenings and programs (with a current total attendance of 9,007 and counting) all for free, in our regular venues at 4070 Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, and the Marquee Theater at Union South.

We have already begun planning an exciting year for you in 2020, with more screenings, more guests, more 3D, and coming soon: Cinematalk, the official Cinematheque podcast.

Of course, Cinematheque screenings will continue to be free and open to the public, while your donations allow us to maintain the most exciting and diverse year-round film programming in the region.

Please consider a year-end donation of any amount to the Cinematheque's Friends of Film fund. You can donate directly through the UW Foundation website here.

Happy Holidays! See you at the Cinematheque!

Cinematalk Podcast #1: Manohla Dargis

Monday, November 25th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

For our maiden voyage on Cinematalk, we are pleased to bring you a conversation with Manohla Dargis, co-chief Film Critic of the New York Times and one of the most widely read film journalists in the country. Prior to her current position, she wrote film criticism for The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, and The Los Angeles Times.

On October 31, Manohla Dargis visited our Communication Arts Department to speak with Graduate Students and to present a Cinematheque program that she personally curated, highlighting the works of pioneering women filmmakers from the silent era, a subject she’s been dedicated to celebrating in her New York Times columns.

She also took the time to sit down and chat with Ben Reiser. They spoke about her time spent at SUNY Purchase, her moviegoing childhood, how she became a film writer, the joys of second-run cinemas, and much more. Here’s their conversation:

TROPICAL MALADY: The Multivalent Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts and Project Assistant for the UW-Cinematheque. A 35mm print of Tropical Malady, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive​, will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, November 22 at 7 p.m. Admission is free!

By Zachary Zahos

Last month, October 2019, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s production company Kick the Machine wrapped shooting for his upcoming film Memoria. Production began late August in Colombia, with an international cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar (The Duchess of Langeais), and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Zama). Just two weeks ago at the 2019 American Film Market (AFM), film distributor Neon acquired North American rights for Weerasethakul’s latest, ahead of its expected 2020 European film festival (likely Cannes) debut. As it happens, Neon’s deal echoes its strategy for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which it acquired at last year’s AFM months before its premiere at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or.

All this amounts to a number of firsts for Weerasethakul, or “Joe,” as Anglophone cinephiles like to call him: the first time he has filmed outside of his native Thailand; the first time he has worked with a star like Swinton; the first time a specialty distributor with a track record of commercial success (Parasite’s $14.5 million domestic haul as of this writing) has jumped on one of his films. In addition, the five years between Cemetery of Splendor (2015) and Memoria will be the longest gap between features since Weerasethakul opened his career with Mysterious Object of Noon in 2000. On paper, these factors might prompt one to ask: Will Memoria usher in a new, more mainstream phase of Weerasethakul’s career? Has Joe changed?

We must patiently wait for Memoria’s release to answer this question, of course, but anyone familiar with Weerasethakul’s work has reason to believe commercial viability is neither his aim nor strong suit. Thailand’s most famous auteur practices an undivided kind of art cinema, one characterized by its languid pace, dense soundscapes, supernatural subject matter, and a disjunctive mix of tropical and urban-modern Thai settings. He has amassed his wealth in Western cultural capital, earning his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and winning three major prizes from Cannes: the 2002 Un Certain Regard Award for Blissfully Yours, the 2004 Jury Prize for Tropical Malady, and the 2010 Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. More than most art film auteurs, Weerasethakul has also developed a reputation as a gallery artist, having made video installations and over 30 short films. His reputation reaches around the globe, from New York to Berlin to Japan to the U.A.E., though his films have received restricted releases in Thailand and are reportedly not well-received in Bangkok. 

So, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is neither a commercial filmmaker nor one officially championed by his homeland. Faced with such a gap, critics have charged Weerasethakul of catering to “Western sensibilities” and of being insufficiently Thai—analogous to the treatment of Abbas Kiarostami by some Iranian intellectuals and Western critics throughout his career.

This line of critique withers when confronted with a film like Tropical Malady. On a narrative level alone, Weerasethakul filters Thai political history and animist folktales through his own queer perspective. This film tells the story of soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and village boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), who fall in love in the relatively straightforward opening hour. The cryptic second hour seemingly resets the narrative, as Keng plods through the jungle in search of a tiger spirit, or werecat. This spirit, it turns out, takes multiple appearances, the human one looking like Tong. During the contemplative climax, Keng confronts Tong’s tiger form, and Weerasethakul visualizes this meeting via a traditional-style Thai painting, which depicts a tiger extending its serpentine tongue toward a man kneeled in prayer. The power of the film’s ending hinges on a metaphysical conceit, as Keng weighs his love for Tong. This inner struggle is conveyed through a remarkable shot reverse shot sequence of close-ups between Keng, who registers a whole gamut of emotion before emptying to a Bressonian blankness, and Tong, who is literally a living, panting tiger. Gilles Deleuze once said close-ups reveal “the nudity of the face much greater than that of the body, an inhumanity much greater than that of animals,” and that sentence made no sense until I saw the ending of Tropical Malady.

Such a daring and gorgeous study of Thailand’s land and history has, naturally, opened Weerasethakul to charges of exoticism. Among Anglophone critics, this line of attack has likely been assisted by his admirers, who have drawn comparisons between his work and orientalist or primitivist art. In Thailand, the response to Tropical Malady was more than diverse than might be presumed, with the hostility in fact concentrated in Bangkok, the country’s intellectual and political capital.

In a 2009 essay recently republished by Verso, the late Benedict Anderson studied the domestic Thai reception of Tropical Malady and found it to be cherished in multiple regions outside Bangkok. About an hour outside the capital, Anderson visited legitimate video stores and bootleg DVD kiosks selling Tropical Malady to appreciative customers, some who were queer and some who never before fathomed of gay love. According to Anderson, many “up-country” (khon baan nork) people, who spend more time by rainforests than their city counterparts, also have taken to the film. For all his global-metropolitan cachet today, Weerasethakul hails from Khon Kaen, a rural province of Isan. Bordering Laos, Isan is Thailand’s northeastern, “up-country” region, viewed as ethnically and culturally distinct from Bangkok.

In Bangkok, Anderson speculated that the bourgeois intellectual class (who are mainly children of Chinese and Sino-Thai) disapprove of Tropical Malady “because it presents a form of ‘Thai culture’ with ancient roots that is ‘below them’ as well as alien to their experience. To be able to dismiss it as ‘meant for Westerners’ is to show one’s own patriotic Thai credentials against the implicit threat that the film provides.” Anderson also claimed Thailand state censors hold dismissive and paternalistic views toward “up-country” people, an assertion backed by the state's notorious restriction of Weerasethakul’s 2006 film Syndromes and a Century. This leaves Tropical Malady in the awkward position of being too many things at once: too Western, too Isanese, too intellectual, too provincial, too slow, too queer. Everything but commercial! In other words, one of our young century’s essential films.  

JUST MERCY Screening Added to Fall Cinematheque Calendar!

Thursday, November 7th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a sneak preview screening of Just Mercy to our Premiere Showcase series, on Thursday, November 21.

The latest film from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), Just Mercy had its World Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September and will be released around the country starting December, 2019. The movie stars Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and Brie Larson.

A powerful and thought-provoking true story that also inspired a nonfiction bestseller by Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice.  After graduating from Harvard, Bryan had his pick of lucrative jobs.  Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson).  One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian (Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie.  In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds—and the system—stacked against them. 

The November 21 screening will begin at 7 p.m. at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free and limited seating is available on a first-come, first-seated basis.

UNION MAIDS: Visual Impact for Social Change

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Union Maids (1976), directed by Julia Reichert, Jim Klein, and Miles Mogulescu, was written by Matt St. John, Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Our series of works by Julia Reichert continues this Saturday, November 9 at 7 p.m., followed at 8 p.m. by Reichert's newest film, 9to5: The Story of a Movement . The screenings take place in 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free.

By Matt St. John

Over nearly fifty years of documentary filmmaking, Julia Reichert has repeatedly returned to the labor movement as a topic. Reichert and her partner Steven Bognar have directed two films about factories in Dayton, Ohio: a 2009 HBO documentary, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (screening as part of the Cinematheque’s Reichert/Bognar shorts block on November 23), and this year’s American Factory, which follows the complications and clashes when a Chinese company opens a factory with predominantly American workers. Reichert and Bognar’s second 2019 release, 9to5: The Story of a Movement, centers on the forgotten history of an influential women’s labor organization. The films document different situations, but they share Reichert’s attention to the lives of workers, especially as they intersect with issues of gender and race. Reichert first confronted this subject in Union Maids, the 1976 film she co-directed with Jim Klein and Miles Mogulescu.

Her other labor films focus on entire movements or factories, with a few key individuals appearing throughout, but Union Maids highlights the stories of three women in particular. With details of their personal experiences and anecdotes from the many workers they tried to help, Stella, Kate, and Sylvia look back at their time as union organizers in Chicago in the 1930s in interviews that Reichert shot over three days in 1974. In an interview for Alexandra Juhasz’s Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video, Reichert recalls that she and her co-directors did not research the topic in great detail before the interviews. In hopes of allowing their subjects some agency in the process, they relied on the women to tell their stories based on their own memories and insights, allowing for intimate conversations that function as engaging portraits as much as oral history. Reichert and Klein, also the film’s editors, later integrated the interviews with an expansive collection of archival photographs and documentary footage they gathered from various institutions, including labor organizations. This compilation style of documentary filmmaking also appears in Reichert’s first two films, Growing Up Female (1971) and Methadone: An American Way of Dealing (1974), although the trove of archival material is even more central here as the subjects in Union Maids tell stories that occurred decades ago.

After shooting her earlier films on 16mm, Reichert and her collaborators chose to shoot Union Maids on video, with the goal of maintaining a low budget. Transferring the video footage to film for distribution was an expensive process, so they ultimately did not save much money. But Reichert found video production liberating, as they could let the women speak extensively without concerns about the high cost of shooting on film. According to Reichert, shooting Union Maids on video also had the unintended effect of a rough, distinct visual style that critics, including Vincent Canby of The New York Times, appreciated in connection with the story’s roots in the left-wing movement.

Moments in Union Maids suggest Reichert’s increasing interest in filmmaking’s artistic possibilities. In the Juhasz interview, Reichert points to a kinetic series of shots that she edited for visual impact alone, rather than any connection with social change: as Sylvia discusses arriving in Chicago, trains run down tracks in different directions. Until this point, style was not a major concern for Reichert. She hesitated to accept the labels of artist or filmmaker, thinking of her films primarily as tools that could be used by progressive organizations. After hoping that Growing Up Female could help organizations start conversations about the oppression of women, she approached Union Maids as a tool that could bring together the women’s movement and the labor movement.

While the film was used by labor organizations, Reichert and her collaborators finally thought of themselves as filmmakers after Union Maids played theatrically in twelve cities across the United States. The film received critical acclaim for its woman-centered perspective on labor history, and it was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. Some contemporary leftist critics condemned the film for apparently neglecting the women’s involvement in the Communist Party, but Reichert says the filmmakers remained unaware of the connection until the night of the film’s premiere in Dayton. After hearing Stella, Kate, and Sylvia discuss their experiences as Communists, Julia Reichert and Jim Klein decided that their next film would tell the story of the party in the United States. That project became 1983’s Seeing Red, their second Academy Award-nominated feature, which will screen at Cinematheque on November 16 with Julia Reichert in attendance for a post-film discussion.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN: Technicolor Noir?

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven were written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Leave Her to Heaven will screen in our series tribute to 20th Century Fox on Saturday, November 9 at 2 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be preceded by an introduction from Schawn Belston, 20th Century Fox Film Archivist.

By Tim Brayton

The term film noir immediately brings with it several associations: high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, squalid city environments seen at the worst in the dead of night, hapless men being suckered into criminality by gorgeous, untrustworthy women. Almost none of these apply to the 1945 release Leave Her to Heaven: it’s a beautiful Technicolor spectacle (winning an Oscar for its cinematography), set in the Arizona desert and the forests of New England, seen in bright, soft light. There’s a hapless man, but he’s a novelist. The film has a femme fatale in the form of Gene Tierney’s magnificently sociopathic Ellen Berent, but she’s not looking to use a man and discard him; indeed, the plot hinges on how desperately she wants to stay with him. Despite all of this, many sources throughout the years have confidently described Leave Her to Heaven as a film noir. So what gives?

To begin with, we need to remind ourselves that American filmmakers of the 1940s weren’t consciously making a thing called “film noir”: that label was applied by French critics years later. At the time Leave Her to Heaven was new, it was something much simpler: the latest prestigious literary adaptation released by 20th Century Fox, during a decade where that studio was having great success with such projects. In this case, the film’s origins in a book by Ben Ames Williams are foregrounded in the most literal way possible: the opening credits are styled as the first pages from a copy of the book itself. It’s a far cry from the ripped-from-the-headlines or pulp fiction origins of the era’s great hard-boiled crime thrillers, positioning the film securely in a cycle of respectable melodramas cropping up throughout Hollywood in the 1940s. Cementing the film’s level of prestige, it was fashioned as a vehicle for Tierney, who was becoming a major star for the studio thanks to 1943’s Heaven Can Wait and 1944’s Laura (the latter being a much more conventional example of film noir style and narrative concerns).

For the first half of the movie, you’d never suppose this was anything other than a romantic melodrama, as Tierney and Cornel Wilde’s Richard Harland meet on a train and embark on a swift, passionate love affair, despite her engagement to attorney Russell Quinton (played by Tierney’s Laura co-star Vincent Price, years before he became a horror movie icon). The only hints of the darkness to come are situated entirely in Tierney’s subtle performance, which netted her only nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Much of the pleasure of Leave Her to Heaven resides entirely in her inscrutable facial expressions, with doubt and mistrust flickering around her eyes and mouth: this is a film in which much of the drama comes simply from watching her staring off-camera. This pays off in a startlingly savage mid-film twist, where we discover how fully Ellen’s desire to possess Richard outweighs every other human concern. We’ve seen the hostility in her face and heard the chilliness in her voice, so we can’t claim to be entirely surprised by the narrative developments of the film’s second hour, though the overwhelming bleakness of much of the plot from this point forward is shocking for a Hollywood film of the 1940s.

Which brings us back to film noir. While the term originates in visual aesthetics (it refers to the heavy shadows of high-contrast, low-key lighting), it has long been used more to describe a sensibility of hopeless nihilism and the fear that human life and American culture have become meaningless in the wake of World War II. Leave Her to Heaven demonstrates this sensibility in spades. In the remarkable character of Ellen, a woman whose desire for freedom and autonomy have curdled into a propensity for cruelty that must be seen to be believed, we see the American dream corrupted into barbarity, and Tierney’s performance holds back nothing. Ellen is a legitimately terrifying figure, all the more so since she’s so easy to find empathetic and engaging in contrast to Wilde’s milquetoast Richard. She’s much more than a mere femme fatale, leading the hero to a bad end: she’s the most active figure in the movie, the character whose goals and desires are most clearly laid out. That her pursuit of those desires proves to be so completely destructive is what makes Leave Her to Heaven such a powerful articulation of the post-war despair that was creeping into so much of American pop culture at the time.

The film was directed by John M. Stahl, one of the final films of his impressive but undervalued career, and he proves to be nearly as crucial to its effect as Tierney. Stahl’s characteristic approach to filmmaking, as seen in such films as Seed and Back Street (both screened earlier in 2019 at the Cinematheque), is to leaven melodrama through understatement and a lack of sensationalism. This restraint is on display throughout Leave Her to Heaven, though it’s perhaps most powerful during the mid-film lake scene where the drama takes such a decisive turn. In the hands of a more exploitation-minded director, this could easily be turned into a moment of drawn-out tension. Instead, Stahl treats it as a moment of swift brutality, letting stillness and silence (it is a notably music-free sequence) do the work of letting us know that something awful is happening, and then pushing through that moment so succinctly that it’s over almost before we’ve entirely processed the enormity of what we’re watching. It’s one of the most upsetting moments in Hollywood films of the 1940s, still devastating after 74 years of ever-increasing screen violence.

Despite all its bitterness and bleakness, Leave Her to Heaven was a massive success. It was one of the highest-grossing films of 1946, the peak year for cinema attendance in the United States; it would end up as one of Fox’s biggest box-office hits of the decade. It’s easy to see why: as black-hearted as it might be, it’s a feast for the senses, and Tierney’s performance is one of the most complex and modern you’ll find in any ‘40s film. It hasn’t aged well in every respect, but it’s suffused with a feeling of danger and emotional intensity that remain electrifying all these generations later.

INTERLUDE: Sirk Remakes Stahl

Monday, November 4th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Douglas Sirk's Interlude (1957) 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 Interlude from the collection of the Chicago Film Society will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series on November 10 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

When the young wolves of Cahiers du cinéma created an idiosyncratic canon of American studio era directors deemed worthy of the “auteur” label, Douglas Sirk was not among the names they put forward. It would take well into the 1970s before Sirk’s melodramas—or “weepies,” as they were pejoratively referred to—would gain critical attention.

A 1969 Cahiers du cinéma article by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni dealt with the way ideology functions in (mostly American) cinema. To Comolli and Narboni, a director like Sirk (they also singled out Roberto Rossellini and John Ford) was able to direct films that at first glance adhere to the dominant ideology, but in reality position themselves as critical of the dominant modes of representation. When Laura Mulvey and other feminist writers started to reclaim and recuperate the genre of the melodrama – focusing on representations of domestic spaces and repressed female sexual desire – Sirk’s reputation as one of the great auteurs of melodrama was further cemented.

The sudden critical and scholarly attention for such films as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959) obscured the fact that most of Sirk’s triumphs were actually remakes of older melodramas, usually from the 1930s. The late historical focus on Sirk’s films was in this way detrimental to the position of John M. Stahl within film history, as his earlier versions of Sirk movies like Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, and Interlude (1957) came to be completely overshadowed by the later incarnations. The 2018 book Call of the Heart by Bruce Babbington and Charles Barr and a retrospective at both the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and Il Cinema Ritrovato festivals finally restored the Stahl versions rightfully as great films in their own right.

Among the John M. Stahl titles that gathered more fame in the Sirk versions, Interlude is probably the least renowned and while discussions on the merits of both versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life are still ongoing, most will agree that Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes (1939) is definitely Interlude’s equal, if not a superior take on the same material. When Tomorrow Comes, which screened at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, is the only Stahl movie Sirk remade that has a bigger reputation than its 1950s counterpart. In the 1939 original, Stahl inserted some poignant social commentary and the real-life event of a 1938 storm in the New York area, resulting in one of Stahl’s most moving love stories. When Tomorrow Comes exemplifies both Stahl’s feeling for changing narrative trends (e.g., the bulk of the story is set during the course of a single night) and his remarkably consistent visual style.

Douglas Sirk’s take on the same story by James M. Cain (another adaptation was directed by Kevin Billington in 1968) is, as always, the work of a baroque stylist. The sumptuous Technicolor photography adds Sirk's typically heightened sense of color an extra element to convey meaning and emotion. Which by no means is to suggest that John M. Stahl’s stylistic approach is inferior (in this 2018 article for Photogénie, I dismissed the claim that Stahl had an “invisible style”), but that his approach definitely draws less attention to itself.

Sirk remains faithful to the 1939 screenplay. The story centers around a love triangle between a woman (Irene Dunne in the original, June Allyson here) and the married man she loves (Rossano Brazzi, filling Charles Boyer’s part), who can’t bring himself to leave his wife—an emotionally damaged person who depends on his love and affection. While the 1939 film was rich in its subtle observation of different relations, Sirk opts for broader dramatic touches, but through these he also adds a profound sense of loss to the doomed love triangle, an element that was missing in Stahl’s more subdued approach.

While not generally considered one of Sirk’s masterpieces, Interlude is still a vivid illustration of the German (he changed his name from Hans Detlev Sierk when he moved to the US) master’s virtuosic mastery of melodrama.

The Visible Hand: Lois Weber’s SHOES

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Lois Weber's Shoes (1916) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A recent restoration of Shoes will screen in a special program highlighting the work of pioneering women filmmakers that will also include short works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ida May Park, and Alice Guy Blaché. The program has been curated by The New York Times' film critic Manohla Dargis, who will present the program in person and lead a post-screening discussion on Thursday, October 31 at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Erica Moulton

When discussing the films of directors Lois Weber and Ida May Park, the phrase “socially conscious” typically comes up, as their films’ narratives frequently dealt with the tribulations of the impoverished and the downtrodden, treating cinema as a vehicle for social uplift and education. Throughout her twenty year-career as a director, screenwriter, actor, and editor, Weber spoke of cinema’s power to communicate messages to the public in ways that words never could, framing her films both in artistic terms but also as sociological projects akin to investigative reporting. The connections between filmmaking, ethnography, and documentary were further forged by Zora Neale Hurston, who took up a 16dmm camera in the late 1920s to capture portraits of everyday life for African Americans in the South. For her part, Alice Guy Blaché’s remarkable career as a filmmaker (she directed over a thousand films, with around 150 extant) spanned continents, multiple genres, and techniques that she was instrumental in developing—but her films, too, tended to foreground women. 

An interest in women’s shifting roles within society runs through many of the works of early female directors, unsurprising given the contentious times they were living through, with public debates around urbanization, poverty, labor, and voting rights raging in the national consciousness. For perspective, Weber’s Shoes (1916) was released four years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Despite the scant rights and opportunities that women had in most areas of American society, filmmaking in the first two decades of the 20th century offered a rare avenue for artistic expression and control. In addition to writing and directing, Weber and Guy-Blaché owned and oversaw their own film companies—Lois Weber Productions and Solax Studios, respectively. And yet, the 1920s ushered in corporatization and vertical integration that gave way to rigid studio hierarchies which largely excluded women from positions of leadership and creative roles, especially directing, cinematography, and producing.

Even at the height of her career, Weber’s artistic achievements were qualified in the press by highlighting her close working relationship with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Smalley and Weber did co-direct dozens of features and shorts, but Weber was clearly invested in staking her own place in the burgeoning film landscape, going so far as to open her 1916 feature Hypocrites with an image of herself under a superimposed signature “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber.” Her authorial hand is no less evident in Shoes, which takes its inspiration from a short story of the same name by Stella Wynne Herron and Jane Addams’s nonfictional treatise on prostitution, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912). The film follows young shopgirl Eva Meyer (Mary McLaren), who works long hours in a Five and Dime department store during the day, only to return home to hand over all her earnings to her harried mother each night. We learn that Eva’s job and her mother’s side-business bringing in laundry are the family’s only sources of income, as the father opts to sit and read novels in bed all day instead of looking for a job. Eva’s three younger sisters flit around the background of Weber’s shots of the Meyer kitchen, showing them struggling to meet their own needs (with one sister sneaking sugar into the watered-down milk that the mother serves her). 

Eva’s primary concern, as the film’s title announces, is her deteriorating pair of shoes, worn through from spending hours every day on her feet. In an early scene, when Eva walks up to a store window and gazes at the fine pair of leather boots on display, Weber cuts to a closer shot of the boots and Eva’s hand outstretched on the glass pane separating her from her object of desire. Shelley Stamp’s extensive writing on Weber’s career includes a 2004 essay on Shoes, which probes the role that consumerism plays in the articulation of female desire, especially given the commodity-filled department store that serves as a backdrop for much of the film. The daily business of buying and selling is linked to the unsavory transactions arranged at ‘Cabaret’ Charlie’s night club between men and women. Charlie takes a shine to Eva when he first sees her staring at the shoes, all but revealing his intentions to Eva’s morally dubious colleague Lil, who accepts the transactional nature of Charlie’s overtures. Eva carefully averts her eyes away from Charlie’s gaze, but her resolve is shaken as her shoes grow more and more tattered. With her incredible command of cinematic language, Weber elicits both the deep psychological hurt and anguish of Eva’s dilemma and the larger social causes underlying her suffering. For instance, as Eva sleeps one night, a hand with “poverty” scrawled on the skin is superimposed looming over her while she imagines what might happen to her family if she loses her job.

Shoes (1916) and many other films by female directors (including the ones featured in our Cinematheque program) remain to testify to the talent and vision of their creators. Although they were understudied for years, scholars including Shelley Stamp, Cari Beauchamp, Jane Gaines and Hilary A. Hallett have written books that fill in the historical lacunae of these filmmakers’ careers. While Weber died in 1939, she and Guy-Blaché, Hurston, and Park all lived to witness the remarkable rise of film as a commercial form of mass entertainment. Weber was alive to see the names of her contemporaries, Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, enshrined in the annals of Hollywood’s self-made mythology—and see herself erased. What better way to undo that injustice than to do what all of these directors wanted the public to do—watch their films!