Behind the Blue Door: Kiarostami's WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE?

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Abbas Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's House? were written by Zachary Zahos, UW-Cinematheque Project Assistant and PhD Student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The first film in Kiarostami's "Koker" Trilogy, Where is the Friend's House? will screen in a newly restored DCP on Friday, September 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The second and third films in the trilogy, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, will screen October 4 and 11, respectively.

By Zachary Zahos

When he died in 2016, Abbas Kiarostami left a body of cinema unique for its beauty, insight, and profound cohesion. His wonderful “Koker Trilogy,” consisting of the films that first won him laurels at European film festivals and launched his reputation among Western film critics, best exemplifies the artistic progression and omni-directional ballast of his oeuvre. The first film in this informal trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House? (Khane-ye doust kodjast?), tells the story of an eight-year-old boy, Ahmad, trying to return the notebook that belongs to his beleaguered friend from school. The second film, And Life Goes On (Zendegi va digar hich), casts a Kiarostami-like director returning to Koker, a town in northwestern Iran, to search for the first film’s child actors, following a real-life, devastating 1990 earthquake. The third film, Through the Olive Trees (Zire darakhatan zeyton), builds a gentle romantic comedy plot around two actors playing newlyweds on the set of And Life Goes On. The geographic unity and reflexive games between these three films have led critics to group them as a trilogy, though Kiarostami himself drew a line around the latter two films and his 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass). However you split them, Kiarostami’s films speak to one another on levels of subject, form, and theme, not merely referring back to earlier films but seemingly anticipating future projects and signaling lifelong preoccupations.

To further illustrate his filmography’s backwards-and-forwards integrity, Kiarostami paired Where Is the Friend’s House? with his 1989 documentary Homework, having said the following: “In Homework the children talk about what is then seen in Where Is the Friend’s House?; and Where Is the Friend’s House? shows that what the children say in Homework is true.” What the schoolchildren discuss in Homework is, as one might guess, the burden of homework, even if the on-screen subjects in that film are conditioned to never voice their displeasure. The causes for that conditioning are on full display throughout Where Is the Friend’s House?, which features emotionally fragile children, the threat of corporal punishment both at school and at home, and an authoritarian schoolteacher straight out of a Louis Althusser case study. Developing ideas introduced in his first two films, The Bread and Alley (1970) and Breaktime (1972), Kiarostami thrusts the young protagonist Ahmad into a frightening world of negligent adults, labyrinthine architecture, and threatening impasses.

Thankfully, like his early short films and the rest of the Koker Trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House? builds to an optimistic, if still ironic and suggestive, end. The specifics of the film’s ending aside, which I will not spoil, the overarching narrative charts the development of Ahmad’s intellect and moral sense—his dawning of conscience. The plot, again, follows Ahmad (Babek Ahmadpour)  as he seeks to return a notebook to his peer, Mohammad Reza (Ahmad Ahmadpour, Babek’s brother), who lives in the nearby village of Poshteh, though where specifically Ahmad does not know. Between his family’s village of Koker and Poshteh, Ahmad encounters a series of adults, who fail to help him whether due to ignorance, overwork, or loneliness. Kiarostami focuses on Ahmad’s lived experience during this trial through an empathetic approach to scene coverage. Here, Kiarostami punctuates long shots of Ahmad darting up and down stairs and across landscapes with shallow focus close-ups of Ahmad’s restive glances and pleas. The tight shots of Ahmad processing the world around him often lop off the heads of adults around him, filmed or angled as they are to the boy’s height.

While the symbolic dimension of Kiarostami’s work can be overstated, doors and doorways serve as thematic linchpins and even animate characters in Where Is the Friend’s House?. Two male adults Ahmad encounters on his journey craft doors as part of their trade, surely not a coincidence. The first is a brusque middle-aged salesman who hard-sells iron doors; the second, meanwhile, is an older man who likes to hear himself talk, droning on to Ahmad about his traditional, artisinal wooden doors. The disparity between the two indicates modernizing forces at work in rural Iran, and two narcissistic modes of masculinity for Ahmad to avoid.

As far as doors ‘behaving’ like characters, the first shot of the film consists of opening titles over a blue door, which flaps noisily for about a minute and 20 seconds. The yells of children off-screen indicate that this door just barely seals off a classroom, and the brisk swinging-open of the door after the credits announces the teacher’s arrival. The film’s climax similarly entrusts a door with an eerie sense of agency. While I will again refrain from disclosing the choice Ahmad makes here, the scene’s striking mise-en-scène positions a doorway at the center of the frame. In a long shot, a gust of wind flies the door wide open before Ahmad, who soon becomes transfixed on the doorway and the billowing sheets his mother placed on the clothesline beyond it. A fondness for aperture framing runs through Kiarostami’s career, up to his posthumous film 24 Frames (2017), as does the use of doors and windows to subdivide space and lend graphic impact, typified in his masterful Certified Copy (2010). The climax of Where Is the Friend’s House? and the final shot a few minutes later both showcase Kiarostami’s lifelong genius for transforming everyday objects (a door and a notebook, respectively) into reflective indices of his protagonist’s inner life. The heady, electric charge one feels leaving this film affirms the miracle, and just-dawning immortality, of Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema.


Wednesday, August 28th, 2019
Posted by Zachary Zahos

These notes on Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) were written by Ben Donahue, Associate Director of Alternative Cinema at WUD Film. A 35mm print of this film will open our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series for the Fall 2019 semester, "Chicago Film Society Presents!" this Sunday, September 1, at 2 p.m in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium. Free admission!

“I can’t tell if you want to be like me, or if you want to be me.” — Jesse James, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Most often, genres are not defined by the location in which the story unfolds but by a series of recognizable narrative and stylistic elements. It’s this small detail about genre that makes the western so unique. Relegated entirely to one region, the western transforms the vast landscape of the American frontier into a character just as vital to the genre as the ones John Wayne portrayed. The character of the frontier is instantly recognizable for its rough, empty, and unforgiving landscapes. This void demands to be filled by larger than life characters, outlaws and rangers alike elevated into mythical figures. Perhaps the most infamous of all the idols that ever occupied the sprawling expanse of the western frontier is Jesse Woodson James.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not concerned with the sensational crimes or daring robberies of Jesse and the James gang. Andrew Domink’s quiet western epic from 2007 focuses on the man at the center of the myth. Brad Pitt gives a career best performance as the enigmatic but cautious outlaw. The film operates almost as a behind-the-scenes look at a rock star on tour. From the perspective of the audience, the life of a touring pop icon is glamorous, but we only see what’s on stage and never what’s off of it. Watching this movie, we fit comfortably into the shoes of Robert Ford, who is portrayed by a perfectly wide-eyed and awkward Casey Affleck. In the same way that moviegoers idolized John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, or Clint Eastwood for decades, Robert Ford idolizes Jesse James; he is more demigod than he is human to Robert. It’s easy for us to understand how excited Robert is to meet Jesse, but almost easier to relate the feeling of being let down when he learns his idol is human after all.

Westerns were always about brave and strong heroes of the story, but The Assassination of Jesse James changes the focus from idols to the act of idolatry itself. The film isn’t focused on one man, but instead on the relationship between two men: one infatuated with the other and one wary of the other. Robert’s obsession turns him into a shy puppy dog staring, following, and doing everything that Jesse does. When Robert tries to take Jesse James’s place, by killing him, he makes the mistake of assuming that his feet could possibly fill Jesse’s larger-than-life boots. Jesse James was a villain to some, a folk hero to others, but a legend to all. Robert may have assassinated the man known as Jesse James, but in doing so, he only bolstered the vitality of Jesse’s legend. Being unable to replace or become Jesse James, Robert is forced to repeatedly live out his role as the man who killed him. Robert now realizes the true loneliness Jesse lived in, and he becomes a mere footnote at the end of Jesse’s saga. Jesse and Robert’s relationship of idol and worshipper reveals something quietly sad about the western genre. Even at their most solemn and dirty, westerns share the idea of grand men who could fill the emptiness of the frontier. Dominik’s film is a humbling and humanizing film that strips back the legend of the Wild Wild West and reveals the lonely reality in which people lived.

Just as it tweaks well-established western themes, this film also builds on the aesthetic tradition of other westerns. Gorgeously shot on film by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James is truly a sight to behold. The open deserts and dusty hills of The Searchers have been replaced with rolling grassy plains right out of Days of Heaven and frozen tundra reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. With the same reverence for nature that can be seen in all westerns, Deakins incorporates a stunning degree of natural light and darkness. With warm and dreamy sunshine and night that actually looks pitch black, Deacons lends the film an oneiric quality. This is best exemplified in the now famous nighttime train robbery scene early on in the film. By performing a bleach bypass on the film’s negatives, Deakins achieves a pitch black color that allows the bright light mounted on the train to cut through the forest and smoke with extreme contrast. Every shot in the movie is impressively realized, pitching men against the environment as well as each other through a powerful mix of light, color, and composition. The potent beauty and dreaminess of the visuals help to reinforce the rose-tinted glasses through which we and Robert view legends of the west like Jesse James.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the quintessential modern western. Evoking the stylistic elements of the classics while simultaneously proposing a more nuanced perspective, this film is not just about the characters in the story, but about the nature of the western genre itself. It interrogates the old and builds off it, increasing our appreciation for previous westerns and the part they played in defining the American frontier.


Wednesday, August 28th, 2019
Posted by Zachary Zahos

These notes on Norman Z. McLeod's Horse Feathers (1932) were written by John Bennett, PhD student in UW-Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored DCP of Horse Feathers will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, August 31, at 7 p.m. Free admission!

Late August has arrived, that period of the year in which we struggle to squeeze in last minute summer activities and reading as the days grow noticeably shorter and cooler, knowing damn well that the daily grind of the school year lurks, in all its terrible banality, just around the corner. For those of you plagued by end-of-summer ennui, you will no doubt find 68 minutes worth of respite in watching the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers, a perfect collegiate comedy to ease you, chortling and guffawing, into the last semester of this dizzy decade.

The plot of Horse Feathers is advanced in the tiniest pauses of the film’s general cascade of vaudeville shtick. You will be laughing too hard at any given gag to catch these fleeting moments of narrative orientation, so I will do you the kindness of summarizing what little plot the film has. Groucho Marx plays Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the newly appointed president of Huxley College. As Wagstaff’s son, Frank, Zeppo Marx pitches woo to Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the young college widow (incidentally, you will be forgiven for having no idea what a “college widow” is or does). As college president, Wagstaff takes up the noble, time-honored academic tradition of devoting a disproportionate amount of time and attention to the university football team, for which Frank plays. As Huxley College’s football team lacks enough quality players to beat their rival, Groucho ventures to a speakeasy (Horse Feathers was released in the waning days of Prohibition) to recruit a couple strapping players. But wouldn’t you know it, the actual football players elude Wagstaff, and he mistakenly recruits Baravelli (Chico Marx), the foreigner who speaks almost exclusively in malaprops, and Pinky (Harpo Marx), who does not speak at all. Once united, the three brothers cause general pandemonium in the Huxley community up to and throughout the big game—even if some characters, like the college widow, try to thwart them in the process. Everyone remaining true to type, Groucho wisecracks circles around vexed stuffed shirts, Chico misunderstands every statement put to him and bungles every statement he must make, and Harpo gleefully unleashes a torrent of mute, truly chaotic physical comedy. The latter two find opportunities to showcase their virtuosic musical talent along the way.

The Marx Brothers’ cinematic career can be divided into two periods: Paramount and post-Paramount. In the five films they made at Paramount Studios between 1929 and 1933, the brothers’ surreal mayhem—mayhem that they could kick up as naturally as they could breathe—was not especially constrained by the exigencies of coherent storytelling. In later Marx Brothers’ films, the brothers become more goal oriented, and romantic subplots take up greater portions of running time. Horse Feathers, released in 1932, is a Paramount Marx Brothers’ film through and through. Yes, we do get traces of the kind of syrupy romance that, in the later films, stops the cartoon chaos dead in its tracks. But in Horse Feathers, such moments go by quickly, allowing the brothers to resume the madness for which they are known and loved. At one point, Zeppo (the straight man of the four, who left the act when the brothers left Paramount) serenades Connie with the lightly silly song “Everyone Says I Love You.” The gooeyness of this moment quickly subsides, however, as we cut to Harpo cheerfully whistling the same tune. But then things get weird. Harpo proceeds bemusedly to eat flowers and horse feed while sitting on the side of the road. The sound of horns gradually mounts, and we realize that the dogcatcher wagon he drives is holding up a great deal of traffic as he idly enjoys his inedible snacks. He briefly confounds a cop before the sequence dissolves into a cacophonous and surreal traffic jam that rivals the famous sequence of Godard’s Weekend. If you suddenly find yourself bored by a moment of peace in Horse Feathers, don’t worry—it won’t last long.

There is one absence in Horse Feathers of which the Marx Brothers’ most ardent fans will be acutely aware. Horse Feathers lacks the presence of Margaret Dumont, the matronly character actor who often served as the befuddled eye of the Marx’s (especially Groucho’s) category five hurricane. Yet Horse Feathers is graced with a performance by another skilled comedienne: Thelma Todd. Todd, like Dumont, serves as an excellent foil for the brothers’ whirlwind. A wide-eyed starlet of the pre-code era, Todd plays the college widow with a sense of flirtatiousness and duplicity that complements the Brothers’ own lechery and perfidy much better than, say, the milquetoast virtuousness of Kitty Carlisle as the romantic heroine of A Night at the Opera, which the Brothers made at MGM three years after Horse Feathers.

Watching a Marx Brothers film, one can’t help but see the quartet (or trio after 1933) as the principle authorial voice of their work. In his landmark book The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris dedicates some time to the Marx family in what is otherwise a strict taxonomy of directors. Still, we should make space for a word or two about the film’s director, Norman Z. McLeod. McLeod is noteworthy for his direction of vehicles for many of Hollywood’s most famous comedic actors of the 30s and 40s. Indeed, it is hard to think of another studio era director who worked with as many clowns and cut-ups as McLeod. Two years after Horse Feathers, he directed W.C. Fields in It’s a Gift. In the screwball heyday of the late 30s, McLeod directed both Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, the former of which starred Cary Grant. In the 40s, he directed films starring Red Skelton (Panama Hattie) and Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). After helming Road to Rio, the fifth installment of the popular Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road to… series, McLeod worked regularly on Bob Hope comedies, most notably directing 1948’s The Paleface. McLeod’s filming style lacks any obvious flourishes, but one can’t help but imagine that the experience of directing Groucho, Harpo, and Chico was valuable in forming McLeod’s ability to foreground different kinds of comedic performances.

Naturally, the big set piece in Horse Feathers is the climactic football game. Of course, the brothers’ ostensible goal is to win the big football game for Huxley College. But the game itself serves as an excuse for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to repeatedly, baldly cheat in creative ways that would put the Harlem Globetrotters to shame. As we marvel at the sheer mischievous invention of the innumerable gags of this climax, we may once again be reminded of the upcoming school year. Though going back to school can be a drag, we can at least watch Horse Feathers and be grateful that our teachers and students could not possibly bamboozle us as thoroughly, as devastatingly, or as deftly as the Marx brothers are able—much to our delight—to bamboozle any force of authority or normalcy up there on the screen.

PINA: A Dance Elegy in 3D

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019
Posted by Zachary Zahos

These notes on Wim Wenders' Pina were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW-Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 3D DCP of Pina will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. Free admission for this semester's final 3D screening!

Before he ever recorded the first shot of his 3D documentary Pina, New German Cinema auteur Wim Wenders had been planning a collaborative film project with German choreographer Pina Bausch for more than two decades. Her striking, dramatic choreography immediately appealed to him when he attended a retrospective in 1985. The filmmaker and the choreographer soon began discussing the possibility of a film together, but Wenders hesitated to produce the project until he felt film technology could adequately capture her art on camera. This long delay in production tragically caused Pina to become an elegy, instead of just a collaboration.

Bausch passed away just two days before a final rehearsal shoot for the film in June 2009, after a period of substantial, detailed preparation with Wenders for the film’s 3D production. The director realized the potential of the format when he saw a screening of U2: 3D at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In an interview with Collider’s Sheila Roberts, Wenders recalled expecting to see a gimmick, but instead finding the solution to his decades-old obstacle to making a dance film: “I saw the answer to 20 years of hesitation and 20 years of not knowing what to do... There was a tool that allowed me to be with Pina’s dancers and to be in the water swimming with the fish and not just looking from outside at the aquarium.” After this unexpected inspiration, Wenders and Bausch planned their 3D film for two years, selecting four of her works that would be performed in a single season by her dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal and filmed for the documentary. He worked with technical experts to troubleshoot the complication of filming real locations and live actors in 3D, with the persistent problem of jerky motion that had to be overcome before they could begin filming a documentary about dance.

After Bausch’s passing, Wenders canceled the film’s production until her dancers convinced him to continue. They shot the four performances as planned, but their bulky equipment required Wenders and his crew to film the dancers and stage for a few days outside of the public performances. To produce the effect of being in the performance, Wenders hoped to capture shots from almost any position on stage without disrupting the dancers, so his crew used an enormous crane with a remote-control camera. The crane blocked the view of over half the auditorium, creating a need for their private shoots. The cumbersome equipment does enable surprising perspectives in even brief moments, like the early low-angle shot that causes a red cloth to fill the foreground during Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring,” and the crane memorably makes the 3D even more vivid in the performance of “Full Moon,” capturing falling, splashing water from all over the stage.

Even with the 3D technology and full access to the stage, Wenders was not content to include only the four performances. In the Criterion commentary for Pina, Wenders explains that it was no longer a film made with Pina, but now for Pina, and he wanted to collaborate with the dancers to honor her work and explore its impact on them. Wenders intersperses the four stage performances with portraits of the dancers and vignettes of other pieces by Bausch. For these new selections, Wenders tried to replicate her singular artistic process. In rehearsals, Bausch would ask her dancers questions, but they could only answer with movement, instead of words. Wenders recounted his adaptation of this method in the Collider interview, saying, “I started asking the dancers questions, like Pina in the rehearsal room, and they all gave me lots of answers about Pina, about how Pina had seen them, how they had seen Pina’s eyes on them, how Pina had seen something in them that they didn’t even know themselves, and each of them answered very personally…” But Wenders added a rule: the dancers could not improvise. Instead, they were only allowed to answer with movements they had created with Bausch. Wenders and the dancers transfer these movement-answers to locations all over Wuppertal, the city that is home to Bausch’s company. The dancers take her work to tram cars, busy streets, open fields, and creeks, opening up an array of rich spaces for Wenders’ 3D recording, and they perform with odd accessories, from a barking dog to a leaf blower. Both puzzling and powerful, the vignettes are loosely grounded by intermittent portrait shots of the dancers, with brief voiceovers about the directions they received from Bausch.

After Wenders, his crew, and the dancers faced challenges and complexities throughout the film’s production, Pina was praised for its impressive execution. This film arrived during a spate of poorly shot or converted 3D films, following Avatar’s success in 2009, and critics welcomed a thoughtful use of the format. In her Variety review, Lisa Felperin appreciated “proof that the latest 3D technology is good for a lot more than just lunging knives and fantastical storylines.” Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum writes, “So this is what 3-D is capable of when used for art rather than the commerce of hiking ticket prices and repurposing cartoons… Wenders uses this old/new, interesting/gimmicky technology to play with the human perception of dimensionality as something subtle and profound, and not just a snazzy trick.” Even Roger Ebert, who frequently disparaged 3D as superfluous, acknowledged the quality of the technology in this film, writing that Wenders “only uses it when he knows why and how it should be employed.”

The technology in Pina is remarkable, but the film is also powerful because of its elegiac, collaborative form. Pina Bausch was frequently quoted as saying, “I’m not so interested in how people move as in what moves them.” In Pina, Wenders is interested in both. The 3D cinematography surveys even the most understated movements of Bausch’s dancers, and the performances allow the dancers to mourn Bausch, by translating her work to new contexts and a new medium.

DANGEROUS GAME: Madonna Looks Into the Mother of Mirrors

Thursday, April 25th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game were written by Leah Steuer, PhD student in the Media & Cultural Studies division of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dangerous Game will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a discussion with J.J. Murphy, UW Professor of Film and author of Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay. Free admission.

By Leah Steuer

Is the power that a star radiates onscreen equivalent to a performance? How far does one need to step outside oneself in the act of acting? And how accurately does a camera capture The Work, turning a private human moment into movie magic for millions? Abel Ferrara’s twisted, troubled Dangerous Game (1993) is ruthless in its pursuit of these complex questions about what it means to be an artist. Game debuted to mixed reviews, vicious controversy and infighting among its creative personnel; lead (and producer) Madonna bitterly distanced herself from the project before the film hit theaters, while Ferrara continues to blame its bad publicity on her performance to this day. The turbulent history of its production is evident in Game’s every grainy, dark shot and bit of angry dialogue. It’s not a fun watch, but it’s a daring cinematographic experiment with oddly compelling performances at its center from Madonna, Harvey Keitel, and erstwhile 1990s bad boy James Russo. This movie-within-a-movie shows us the fallout of an unlikely collision between two artists - Ferrara and Madonna - with completely different auras and careers.

Game cuts close to the bone, thinly veiling Ferrara’s self-portrait through Keitel: sporting a ragged haircut and weird indoor sunglasses, Keitel’s Eddie Israel is a masochistic auteur who’s caught between the dull illusion of family life and the siren song of sex, film, and art. Though his look evokes parodic machismo a la Tommy Wiseau, there’s nothing funny about Keitel’s raw, furious performance of a man who’s bad, mad, and dangerous to know. He alternates between physically and emotionally abusing, then sexually coercing Sarah (Madonna), the lead of his marital drama Mother of Mirrors. Meanwhile, Israel struggles to elicit artistry from his other lead (Russo) while deflecting, and then eventually sabotaging his relationship with, wife Madlyn (played by the director’s real-life wife Nancy Ferrara). Both Mother of Mirrors and its host-film Game end up messy, unsuccessful, and fragmented, denying the audience closure for the trauma of bearing so much mutual abuse and suffering. Madonna bears the brunt of the brutal script, and it’s hard not to wince at the nature of Israel’s insults towards Sarah (“You commercial piece of sh*t!”). Critiquing her performance in 2002, Ferrara made clear his vitriol towards the kind of charisma that both Madonna and her character embody: “She has the confidence to get on stage and sing, but she ain't got...a different kind of confidence, that ability to look into the eye of the camera without looking at the camera.” His take was echoed by contemporary critics, but 25 years and a change in cultural perspective on femininity and stardom have encouraged fans to consider Madonna’s surprising range of improvisation, steeliness, and vulnerability in a difficult role.

Movies about making movies can go to dark and reflective places — look no further than the genre’s most iconic entry, Sunset Boulevard (1950). Meta-narratives like Dangerous Game’s require the audience’s attention to the unraveling of two simultaneous stories, and an abandonment of the pleasure that passive reception of a fiction can provide. There’s something bittersweet about seeing how the magic is made, even in fun and fleet-footed fare like Adaptation (2002) or Get Shorty (1995). But Ferrara’s Game uses this story layering to make even more nihilistic observations about human connections than he did with previous films like neo-noir King of New York (1990) or Bad Lieutenant (1992). By cutting quickly between film stock and video footage, by allowing the camera to shiver while actors dig dejectedly for lines they can’t remember, by allowing the lens to linger on actors-playing-actors-playing-directors, this film strips away the smooth and illusory quality of the cinema itself. For better or for worse, Game exposes the chaotic subconscious of both the movie-maker and the performer; the results are rarely pleasant, but consistently spellbinding.

BLACK BOOK: The Paradoxical Pleasures of the War Thriller

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006) were written by Luke Holmaas, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Black Book from the archives at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts will screen on Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Free admission.

By Luke Holmaas

In a variety of ways, Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 film Black Book (Zwartboek) functioned as a return of sorts for the famed Dutch filmmaker. It was the first film in nearly two decades made in his native country and language, following a lengthy sojourn in Hollywood as the simultaneously celebrated and reviled filmmaker of RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and more. Likewise, it also returned Verhoeven to the World War II setting of his 1977 Dutch masterpiece Soldier of Orange and reunited him with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven’s frequent collaborator in his early Dutch films (including Soldier of Orange).

Black Book works to highlight both sides of Verhoeven’s directorial persona: the acclaimed, internationally successful Dutch filmmaker as well as a Hollywood trash auteur. Beyond the reunion with Soeteman, Black Book also returns to the mixture of grand spectacle and uneasiness about Holland’s role in the war and Nazi occupation that animated much of Soldier of Orange, a mixture that is drawn from both Verhoeven’s own childhood memories of the war (which he once described as “like big special effects in the sky”) and his experiences of growing up in a postwar Holland rebuilding and coming to grips with (or perhaps failing to) its own wartime traumas. Verhoeven’s experience as a big-budget Hollywood filmmaker surely helped him on Black Book, which, at over $20 million, was the most expensive Dutch film ever made at the time, necessitating a labyrinthine network of financing and 23 separate producers to get it off the ground. The slick storytelling, full of twists and turns, not to mention the requisite Verhoeven trademark of gratuitous (or is it?) sex and violence, propels it forward through its nearly two and a half hour runtime.

Following the travails of Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Dutch TV veteran and future Game of Thrones actress Carice van Houten) as she struggles to hide her identity and survive in 1944 occupied Holland, Black Book is rife with all of the narrow escapes, disguises, and double-crosses one would expect from a WWII resistance thriller. Perhaps more surprising, though, is the patina of moral ambiguity that permeates the film. Specifically, the film openly questions the mythology of the Dutch resistance to the Nazis, from Rachel’s central affair with SS officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), frequently a far more sympathetic character than the anti-Semitic resistance fighters who send her to spy on him, to the postwar humiliation she suffers at the hands of the very citizens she helped to free from the Nazis. Such moral ambiguity likewise served to divide critical response to the film, with Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter and the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane both roasting the film for treating its historical subject too lightly (Lane claiming it to be “trash pretending to serve the cause of history”) while the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman and the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum heaped praise on the film, the latter calling it “a bracing rebuke to Schindler’s List” in its willingness to engage with the moral complexities and uncertainties of history surrounding the war, local responses to Nazi occupation, and the Holocaust more broadly.

Of course, such a sharply divided reaction was nothing new for Verhoeven, who had both been accused of creating morally reprehensible trash and had been praised for producing smartly subversive satire throughout his career, from early works such as 1973’s Turkish Delight (itself something of a rebuke of the 1970 American smash Love Story) and, especially, in relation to his high-profile Hollywood work, notably Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. And while Black Book’s box office success was likewise mixed ($27 million worldwide on its $20+ million budget), its paradoxical pleasures continue to shine through. In particular, van Houten’s triumphant, bravura lead performance stands out against the excesses of the film’s more outré villain, as does the pulpy plot and prurient sexuality against moments of shocking violence. With the horrors of the Holocaust lurking in the shadows throughout, the film amounts to a darkly cynical vision.

In many ways, then, Black Book seems to sum up all of the myriad ambiguities and confusions we can (and perhaps should) have about the war-time thriller as a popular cinematic genre in general. Looking at it from this perspective, A.V. Club reviewer Noel Murray seems to put it best in his review of the film: “Black Book may be one of the most fun movies ever made about how people basically suck.”

Bringing THE ROAD BACK Back

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on James Whale's The Road Back were written by Lydia Rice, Exhibits and Data Manager at University of Wisconsin Press. A 35mm print of The Road Back, restored by the Library of Congress in association with UCLA Film & Television Archive, Universal Studios, and The Film Foundation, will screen in our "It's A Universal Picture" series on Sunday, April 14 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation and the Library of Congress at the Academy Film Archive.

By Lydia Rice

Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front was a critical and financial hit for Universal Studios in 1930, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. But its grimy and depressing portrayal of World War I, explicit pacifist message, and focus on dispirited and cynical German troops (traits it shared with its source novel by Erich Maria Remarque) did not endear it to the rising Nazi party when it first premiered, in slightly edited form, in Germany. Brownshirts greeted multiple screenings with rioting in and outside theaters, their tactics ranging from releasing mice and smoke bombs to attacking theater patrons. The chaos that resulted led to the film being pulled from circulation in Germany.

Despite its reception abroad, Universal held onto the rights of Remarque’s spiritual sequel, The Road Back, bought when it was just a title and an idea in 1929, two years before it was published. Beginning where its predecessor ended, in the trenches, The Road Back follows a group of young German soldiers from the closing days of the war, through their attempts to adjust to civilian life in a country that is economically, politically, and morally unstable.

In 1931, the project was given to director James Whale, who, like Remarque, was a World War I veteran. However, the estimated high production cost of The Road Back in the midst of the Great Depression and a year of losses for Universal caused the script to be shelved. In the meantime, Whale would go on to direct, among other films, By Candlelight (1933) and Show Boat (1936), both which were shown at the Cinematheque earlier this year.

The Road Back was dusted off in 1936, in the hope that it could be as financially and critically successful as its predecessor. By then, the Nazis were in power, and banned works that challenged their ideology and politics. At the time, few Hollywood films acknowledged the rise of fascism and militarism abroad, for fear of losing revenue in international markets.

The Road Back was moved into production with little difficulty; however, problems arose when filming started. For the opening scenes in the trenches, a large outdoor set was built, with an enormous matte backdrop and tracks for a camera crane. Soon after filming commenced, the cast and crew were at the mercy of rain and fog. Shooting was pushed back further when Whale got the flu and the original cinematographer was fired when his alcoholism interfered with the production. The most tragic event occurred during the setting up of the battle scene, when an extra died in a freak accident caused by an explosive. When filming wrapped, the movie was almost $200,000 over budget and 19 days over schedule.

But the biggest uproar connected to this ill-fated production originated outside the studio. Dr. Georg Gyssling, a Nazi official and German Consul in Los Ageless, sent letters to 60 cast members, warning that any future films of theirs would not be shown in Germany. A Nazi official threatening the cast of a Hollywood production was nothing to scoff at, and there was swift and vocal backlash from Hollywood, the Anti-Nazi League, and the State Department.

Before The Road Back’s New York premiere, Whale shot footage that moved the battle scene from before the signing of the Armistice to afterwards, and removed two scenes to shorten the runtime. But after a mostly tepid reviews and a downturn in sales, Universal president Robert Cochrane and executive vice-president Charles R. Rogers took advantage of Whale filming another movie at a different studio, and imposed their own alterations before The Road Back’s next release, in Los Angeles.  A different director was brought in to reshoot two key scenes. A more conventional love scene replaced a sorrowful one, where returned soldier Ernst (John ‘Dusty’ King) and his sweetheart Elsa (Jean Rouverol) confronted the gulf in their relationship caused by the war.

The other major alteration was the ending. Originally far more politically charged, it featured Ernst and his former comrade Ludwig (Richard Cromwell) sadly watching a group of young boys taking part in military exercises. This was the closest the movie came to referencing the rising militarization of Germany. It was replaced by an ending that was far more conventionally romantic. It still acknowledges and condemns the current armament, but it  doesn’t single out any particular country.

Though commonly assumed to be another last minute addition, the comedic scenes featuring Willy (Andy Devine) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville, the only actor to reprise his role in All Quiet on the Western Front) were part of Whale’s original cut. Other scenes were trimmed, or removed entirely, shortening the runtime from 105 to 100 minutes.

The Daily Variety claimed that, like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back had been reedited for German distribution. Universal did still have holdings in Germany, and perhaps they did hope they could distribute the film there. But the studio denied that the reedits were for that specific market; Cochrane claimed he felt the material could be improved with more love scenes. A comprehensible reaction from a producer, since this was a serious, down-beat anti-war movie that wouldn’t sell well in Europe, and wouldn’t be too appealing for Americans living through the Great Depression.

The Road Back did make some money, and got positive (if half-hearted) reviews, but it did not reach the commercial or critical heights of All Quiet on the Western Front, though like its predecessor, it was banned in Germany. It didn’t decimate Whale’s career, but it was the beginning of a decline in influence. For most of his subsequent films, Whale contended with less creative control, lower budgets, and fewer profits; he did not make another feature after 1941. In 1939, The Road Back was re-released, with added footage that made it more explicitly anti-Nazi, and included a montage featuring an actor playing Hitler. For a while, it was the only print in circulation. This restoration is similar to the studio-altered 1937 Los Angeles release, but it remains the closest approximation of Whale’s original intent.

Detours, Distractions...Life!: Andrew Bujalski's FUNNY HA HA

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha were written by Ben Donahue of WUD Film. A 35mm print of Funny Ha Ha will screen on Thursday, March 28 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Andrew Bujalski will be present to introduce the screening and participate in a post-film discussion. Bujalski will also be present for a screening of his movie Computer Chess on March 29 and a special showing of Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley on March 30. Admission is free for all screenings!

By Ben Donahue

“Film is, to me, just unimportant. But people are very important" (John Cassavetes).

It would probably be impossible, or at least morally reprehensible, to discuss the Mumblecore movement without mentioning what film pioneer John Cassavetes did for American independent cinema. His stories weren’t about death or violence, but about the lives of people—real people. And it is this sentiment that is perhaps the most important influence Cassavetes had on the artists who followed him. The Mumblecore movement is a direct descendent of the low-budget American style of cinéma vérité that Cassavetes pioneered, which can in turn be traced back to the French New Wave. Aesthetically, Mumblecore, French New Wave, and the works of Cassavetes all feature low-budgets, non-actors, seemingly improvised dialogue, and on location shooting. These similarities may link the different groupings of films on a surface level, but it’s the dedication to telling stories about real people simply living that truly unites them all.

Sometimes referred to as “Slackavetes,” Mumblecore incorporated Cassavetes’ commitment to telling purely human stories with the meandering and purposeless twentysomethings who loitered around in Richard Linklater’s 1990 film, Slacker. Twelve years after Slacker, a 27-year-old Bostonian by the name of Andrew Bujalski would release his film Funny Ha Ha, which was both Bujalski’s first feature-length film as well as arguably the first film in the Mumblecore genre.

Funny Ha Ha follows Marnie, a young twentysomething played by Kate Dollenmayer, as she tries to balance her relationships, her own self-improvement, and her search for a fulfilling career. The film’s languid and plodding storytelling mirrors Marnie’s own confusion and lack of direction. She wallows in self-pity and misreads just about every social cue that is thrown at her. Her character could have easily been a sardonic comment on post-college graduates in the beginning of the 21st century, unbearably awkward as she is. But as much as Marnie can be seen as self-destructive and at fault for all of her problems, Bujalski’s delicate writing and Dollenmayer’s entirely honest performance help us not only relate to but also empathize with Marnie.

Amidst a maze of detours and distractions, Marnie slowly but surely makes incremental progress. She ruptures relations with old friends and formulates new ones. Through a painful process of trial and error, it appears that Marnie might just be on the right track to discovering who she is, and what it is she wants out of life. Thanks to Dollenmayer’s performance, Marnie becomes a subtle heroine of the modern world. After all the awkward conversations, dead-end jobs, and failed relationships, Marnie emerges on the other side still standing. It’s admirable how much Bujalski makes us laugh with Marnie and her friends and not at them, and how he is able to relate the melancholic malaise of an entire generation to people both older and younger.

Ultimately, Funny Ha Ha isn’t a story about one girl. It isn’t a story about love or heartbreak. Funny Ha Ha is simply a story about people: about Marnie, about Marnie’s friend, and about every young college grad with no idea what to do next. The focus isn’t on these people’s struggles and their failures, but rather, it’s focused broadly on their lives: every victory and defeat, every up and down.

Funny Ha Ha was Bujalski’s first film, and it was the first film in what would soon become a major movement throughout independent American cinema. With his 2005 film, Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski solidified himself as a leading voice in Mumblecore, which would grow and influence many current filmmakers, including Greta Gerwig to cite one example. Mumblecore reflected very accurately the mundane, awkward, and sometimes painful nature of living, but if Funny Ha Ha has anything to say, it is that we have to be able to find the humor in our life. Laughter heals all wounds, especially when you’re laughing with someone else.

THE BLACK CAT: From Caligari to Hitler in One Lurid Package

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) were written by Luke Holmaas, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Black Cat will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "It's a Universal Picture" series on Sunday, March 3, at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Luke Holmaas

The Black Cat is a film that stands as a study in contrasts. Among other things, the film is notable today for being the first of eight pairings of horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and for Heinz Roemheld's influential, near-constant score. An anomalous foray into major studio production (albeit at the mini-major studio Universal) for legendary B-movie auteur Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat was also an anomaly within the context of Universal’s famed 1930s horror productions. Although made on a shorter shooting schedule (a mere fifteen days) and for a $91,000 budget that amounted to only one-third and one-quarter the amount allocated to the earlier Universal classics Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) respectively, The Black Cat was a major financial success for the studio. It wound up as Universal’s biggest box office hit of 1934 in spite of both its extremely tenuous connection to the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name (Ulmer confirms that the Poe connection was kept simply to draw interest to the film) and decidedly mixed reviews. The Hollywood Reporter characterized it as lacking thrills as Karloff and Lugosi “fight it out … for the mugging championship of the picture," while the San Francisco Examiner praised it as “the most cultured horror film” they had ever seen. Nevertheless, bad blood between studio head Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Ulmer developed over the film’s atypical use of music, and was soon to be exacerbated by Ulmer's affair with Shirley Alexander, the wife of Laemmle's beloved nephew Max. This meant that Ulmer would never receive a chance to follow up on the film's success at Universal, instead being “exiled” to the world of low-to-no budget Yiddish films and Poverty Row quickies for which he would later be best known.

While the idea of Ulmer continuing to work for major studios offers a tantalizing alternate history, what The Black Cat does provide us with is a singular film in its own right: a dreamlike, metaphysical, horror-thriller that blends early twentieth-century European avant-garde design with odd flourishes of campy humor, refined perversion, and unsettling brutality. The film’s story seems eerily like the plight of contemporaneous American audiences encountering the film for the first time: an American couple, Peter Alison (David Manners) and his new wife Joan (Julie Bishop), encounter war-scarred psychiatrist Dr. Werdegast (Lugosi), who is seeking revenge on Satan-worshiping war criminal Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) in his Hungarian castle. Drenched in continental European culture, from the Expressionist and Bauhaus-inspired designs within Poelzig’s castle to the strains of Brahms, Bach, Liszt, and Schubert (among others) on the soundtrack, The Black Cat also offers a rare glimpse of a Hollywood horror film deeply invested in the traumatic aftermath of World War I. The story, with the lingering traumatic effects on the lives of the war's survivors (both Werdegast and Poelzig) and the stark and striking production design (that looks back to the immediate postwar German avant-garde and also forward to the fascist architecture of World War II Germany) work together to keep the war’s legacy in our minds.

The film’s striking artistic achievement and unique atmosphere is due in no small part to the contributions of numerous European-inspired artists. From the Old World charms of the British Karloff and the Hungarian Lugosi to the contributions by British-born art director Charles D. Hall and the Milwaukee-born, but Berlin-educated, composer Heinz Roemheld, The Black Cat offers a perfect mixture of lurid American and refined European horror. And although contemporary reviewers were often more likely to dismiss the film as unsatisfying in the horror department (with Picture Play Magazine declaring the film to contain no terror, not even in the film’s climactic flaying scene), The Black Cat has continued to cast its uniquely unsettling mood for audiences in the decades since. The cable channel Bravo named the aforementioned flaying scene as one its “100 Scariest Movie Moments” in 2013 and film critic J. Hoberman made the memorable assertion that the film connects Germanic culture “from Caligari to Hitler in one lurid package" (a reference to Siegfried Kracauer's groundbreaking 1947 study of interwar German film and its impact on society). A beguiling fever dream of horror, war, and art, The Black Cat still manages to create a unique thrall for all those who fall under its spell.

Screenings Resume at 4070 Vilas

Thursday, February 21st, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Beginning Friday, February 22, UW Cinematheque screenings will resume at 4070 Vilas Hall with a new 4K restoration of I am Cuba. On Saturday, February 23, we will present a 35mm print of Jacques Becker's Casque D'or, also at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. The lecture from visiting scholar Steve Ryfle and screening of The Learning Tree on Thursday, February 21, as well as the Sunday, February 24 screening of Afraid to Talk, will both take place at the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Avenue, as originally announced.