Oliver Stone's JFK: A Controversial Filmmaker at His Peak

Monday, November 13th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Oliver Stone's JFK were written by Lance St. Laurent, Project Assistant for the Cinematheque and PhD candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of the original theatrical release version of JFK will screen as the final film in our "Cinema in the Shadow of the JFK Assassination" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, November 19 at 2 p.m. The Chazen is located at 750 University Ave, and admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

No Hollywood film should be held to the standard of an objective historical text, so it’s no knock on the quality of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy epic JFK to say that one should not approach it as a work that unearths great historical secrets or conclusively blows the lid off the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Historians and journalists were quick to criticize Stone’s film even before its release, and one can easily find a litany of rebuttals, denials, and officially sanctioned counter-narratives to most, if not all the bold claims that Stone’s film makes over its dizzying three hour run time. Stone, never one to shy away from self-aggrandizement, went as far as to claim, “Never before in the history of movies has a film been attacked in first draft screenplay form. All the established media seem to be terrified of my movie.” Stone may overstate his case somewhat, but he has a point. Hollywood has always played fast and loose with history, so why did this film warrant Newsweek to preemptively assuage its readers with the headline “Why Oliver Stone’s New Film Can’t Be Trusted?” Is it because of the film’s perceived lack of historical rigor, or because it touched on something deeper? Newsweek was right to say that JFK can’t be trusted, not because of its historical inaccuracies, but because it weaponizes the language of Hollywood into a truly destabilizing work of A-list agitprop that dared to ask the average American viewer to glimpse behind the veil of American power.

By the 1990s, Oliver Stone had already established himself as one of the most successful and politically charged filmmakers of his generation. Stone had managed to parlay his career as an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for 1979’s Midnight Express) into an even more successful one as a director, fictionalizing his own experiences as a Vietnam War veteran into the Best Picture winning Platoon (1986). Platoon was not Stone’s debut, but it—along with his other film released the same year, Salvador (1986)—established him as a filmmaker specializing in melodrama with an edge of left-wing agitation. His run of hits in the 1980s further cemented this reputation, with films like Wall Street (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) garnering both mainstream success and critical plaudits while challenging prevailing cultural trends and social mores of 1980s America.

It was during Stone’s successful run in the late 1980s that Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of Assassins was first published, and Stone quickly secured the rights. Like many in his generation, Stone saw the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent investigation surrounding it as formative events in his own political development, a primal scene of Baby Boomer disillusionment. In adapting Garrison’s book, Stone also purchased the rights to another JFK assassination book, Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, hoping to do justice to not only the story of Jim Garrison’s quest for the truth but also to the larger, more insidious machinations that, in Stone’s telling, suppressed the truth about the assassination. Despite its controversial subject matter, Stone’s reputation helped secure him a $20 million budget from Warner Brothers and a massive cast of recognizable stars.

Stone had made political films before, and he had made films that were logistically complex, but JFK was something different. Stone’s initial draft of the screenplay suggested a 4½ hour film budgeted at $40 million, twice what WB had promised. While Stone was able to pare down the screenplay to a more acceptable runtime and secure outside financing for his expanding budget, JFK represented a huge step up for the filmmaker, not just in terms of scope, but also narrative and stylistic ambition. What begins as an almost Capra-esque slice of American domesticity quickly spirals into a swirling gyre of conspiracy—a barrage of names, locations, events, connections, varying film stocks, and alternate angles (both literal and metaphorical), all somehow wrangled into a legible form by the film’s two editors, Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia.

Guiding us through this descent into madness is New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner at his most wholesome. As characterized by Stone, Garrison is an idealized figure of American innocence, a man of unwavering moral fortitude and belief in the American system of justice and governance. That moral core never falters, but his belief in the American system—like the beliefs of so many of Stone’s protagonists—is shaken to the core by the magnitude of what he uncovers, and by the depths of its depravity.

There’s an animating tension at the heart of JFK; it feels as if it’s being pulled in multiple directions at once, seemingly by design. It’s a sprawling epic of national disillusionment that somehow also functions as a rousing, old-fashioned man against the system story. It’s both romanticized and deeply cynical, as if Stone himself can’t fully decide if the fundamental decency of the American people can overcome the sins of its corrupt systems. And try as he might, Stone himself can never fully reconcile these conflicting visions; they collide and conflict but never coalesce into a fully coherent point-of-view. There’s a sense that something has been achieved by the film’s end, but it’s never entirely clear what that is. Jim Garrison has his day in court, but all these years later, the Warren Commission’s single bullet theory remains the official story of the JFK assassination.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the firestorm of controversy surrounding JFK, the film proved to have strong box-office legs after a soft opening, ultimately grossing over $200 million worldwide. The film was also a major player at that year’s Oscars, earning 8 Oscar nominations and winning 2 for Cinematography and Editing. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of the end for Stone’s career as an A-list director. The rest of the 90s would see him attempt to hit the same highs as JFK, either through similar style and subject matter of earlier work—as in the Vietnam drama Heaven & Earth or 1995’s underrated Nixon—or through outright provocations—such as 1994’s exhausting Natural Born Killers. His 2000s were plagued by a string of high-profile films that failed to capture the attention of critics or audiences. By 2021, the release of his documentary JFK Revisited felt less like the victory lap of an acclaimed auteur than a desperate bid to relive the glory days.

Still, Stone’s influence on contemporary filmmaking is readily apparent. One can see resonances with Jim Garrison’s quixotic quest for justice in a film like David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), which similarly follows a wholesome protagonist through a disillusioning years-long obsession with an unsolved crime. More recently, several critics cited the influence of JFK’s frenzied, elliptical structure on Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, another star-filled epic of American innocence lost. Culturally, JFK’s influence is even more palpable. Conspiratorial thought has become the norm, with every harebrained theory imaginable little more than a click away for anyone who desires them. In an era where the very definition of truth is up for debate, the public pearl-clutching and outrage surrounding JFK seem almost quaint. Removed from controversy, all that remains is the film itself, and on that front, Stone ultimately prevails. Even today, JFK retains the power to grip audiences and pull them through the looking glass, dazzling with its narrative ambition and formal complexity long after the shock of infamy has worn off.

Terry Zwigoff Presents WICKED WOMAN!

Wednesday, November 8th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

We asked filmmaker Terry Zwigoff to select a favorite film to screen alongside his own work as he visits the Cinematheque this weekend. Given that his movies frequently examine the dark side of American life, we were not surprised that he selected a terrific film noir, Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman (1954). Rouse's marvelous social drama, The Well (1951), co-directed by Leo Popkin, screened at the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival. Wicked Woman is a movie ripe for rediscovery, and we are delighted to present an excellent 35mm print. This screening of Wicked Woman will be followed by a discussion with Terry Zwigoff.

The following notes on Wicked Woman were written by Mattie Jacobs, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison.

By Mattie Jacobs

Billie Nash (Beverly Michaels) is too much for this world. Too tall, too seductive, too full of dreams for any town to hold her. She steps off a bus at the start of Russell Rouse’s Wicked Woman and every head turns, following her down the sidewalk in the small California town where she’s washed up. Michaels dominates the screen with physicality, warping and slowing time around her as she moves. She dresses only in white, and the camera follows her with an irresistible pull. Rouse showcases her intimidating presence, framing her to barely fit in small rooms, like the run-down boarding house she lands in, and stages her against the small men she finds in the small town.

As the door of her shabby apartment closes behind her, she switches from a slinking seductress to a tired, angry woman, fed up with the leers and gropes of the men that use and abuse her. She throws her weight around in the visually lived-in, almost documentary-realistic spaces she inhabits, knocking furniture and tossing clothes around. Noir is often embodied, sweaty, and manifesting physical presence, but rarely does the genre showcase a woman’s sensuality beyond her sexual effect on men. Here Billie’s “wickedness” comes out behind closed doors as she takes an evening shot, puts a song on repeat, and indulges in dreaming of another place.

Wicked Woman avoids many of the patterns familiar to the noir by 1953, foregrounding Michaels’s character as a femme fatale but also as a woman with desires and agency of her own. She’s desperate to get somewhere far away where she can “dance and make love and be serenaded. And lay out in the sun all day.” Instead of resting in sun-soaked Acapulco, though, she’s the protagonist of a grim, pulp tale: a complicated wicked woman who uses sex appeal to seduce the handsome, granite-faced, and frustrated bartender she works for, Matt Banister (Richard Egan). Still, she’s human and there’s little shock when she also immediately falls in love with him, even as she plays friends with his wife Dora (Evelyn Scott), the bar’s alcoholic co-owner who hired her in the first place. A sympathetic woman who knows the wariness their world requires, Dora warns her of customers: “Be nice to 'em, but not too nice.” But Billie’s seemingly been here before; she can handle a crowd of easily shrugged-off men and says so. While the last girl may have quit after a day, Billie is confident: “I'm not the last girl.”

The Strip Mall Wasteland of GHOST WORLD

Tuesday, November 7th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Ghost World were written by Sarah Mae Fleming, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Ghost World will be screened at the Cinematheque on Saturday, November 11, presented in person by Director and Co-Screenwriter Terry Zwigoff. A discussion with Mr. Zwigoff will follow the screening. The screening is at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Sarah Mae Fleming.

“It was held together by hair and spit,” remembers Daniel Clowes, on co-writing the screenplay for 2001’s Ghost World with director Terry Zwigoff. Clowes, a cartoonist and illustrator, wrote the anthology comic book series Eightball, which spawned the comics (and later graphic novel) Ghost World. When Clowes and Zwigoff were able to work together on a film adaptation, Clowes began by transcribing the comic into the screenwriting software Final Draft before realizing that adaptations don’t quite work that way. Zwigoff, too, was a Hollywood outsider. Born in rural Wisconsin before transplanting to Chicago at a young age, he fell into filmmaking to tell a story no one else wanted to tell. Both Clowes and Zwigoff, untethered by Hollywood conventions, have an interest in shining a light on society’s underbelly–characters that don’t fit in and don’t want to--until they do. Ghost World, a hybrid of a teen girl coming-of-age story and a quirky indie comic adaptation, fits neatly in neither category. Instead, Clowes and Zwigoff give genuine voice to adolescent malaise–snarky and suffocating under American monoculture.

Zwigoff became a film director somewhat unintentionally. His filmmaking origin spawned from blues musician Howard Armstrong, who Zwigoff profiled for a magazine. After spending two days with him and reaching out to uninterested filmmakers about producing a documentary, Zwigoff did it himself resulting in 1985’s Louie Bluie. Ten years later, Zwigoff’s next documentary, Crumb (1995), was released, and this time the subject famous underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his dysfunctional family. Crumb was met with critical raves but was snubbed at the Academy Awards, resulting in a media frenzy that pressured the Academy to alter the documentary nomination process that had previously been controlled by distributors. Zwigoff was then approached by Jean Doumanian, Woody Allen’s former producing partner, to make his third film: a documentary about Allen’s jazz band on tour in Europe. Zwigoff passed on that opportunity, instead opting to direct his first fiction film–Ghost World.

Ghost World stars Thora Birch as Enid Coleslaw and Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca Doppelmeyer, with Steve Buscemi taking on the role of Seymour–a character created solely for the film whose misanthropic personality and collection of rare 78s suggest a stand-in for Zwigoff himself. Others have also pointed to Enid Coleslaw (whose name is an anagram for Daniel Clowes) as a stand-in for the author. However, rather than suggesting that these characters act as mere ambassadors for Zwigoff’s and Clowes’ thoughts about America, consumerism, and faux-retro diners, the characters of Ghost World are lived-in and true to the world they inhabit. Clowes and Zwigoff faced resistance from producers who argued that teenage girls would never speak the way Enid and Rebecca do. The experience of talking to a teenage girl (or being one) begs to differ.

“Look at all these creeps,” Enid loudly sneers in an adult video store. “Some people are okay, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody,” Rebecca states flatly at her barista gig. Enid doesn’t allow the conformity of her strip-mall saturated hometown to smother her quietly, while Rebecca’s monotone suggests that she allows her ennui to wash over her. This crucial difference in outlook is what drives the two best friends apart. Rebecca starts to want a small slice of the American Dream–namely an apartment to call her own. Enid can’t hold down a job or sell her belongings (e.g., a hat from her “little old lady phase”) to make enough money for one. And she’d rather spend her time with social outcast Seymour, anyway. While Rebecca finds joy in the wall-mounted ironing board in her new place, Enid dreams of disappearing.

Employing a slightly over-saturated palette, Ghost World’s cinematographer Affonso Beato studied Clowes’ comic books to create the visuals of a consumerist world. The heightened colors of Enid’s hair, or Rebecca’s clothes, invoke the constant hovering of strip-mall signage that floats around the characters. The film emphasizes emptiness and aimlessness, and often, background players wearing legible clothing wander zombie-like, seemingly serving little purpose in this world other than as walking billboards or as consumers of “delicious yellow chemical sludge” and other junk foods. In other sequences, the lack of extras is palpable, and instead of humanity, Ghost World’s backdrop is filled with storefronts. Alienated by the world and then by each other, Enid and Rebecca drift and search for something to hold on to. For Enid, Seymour becomes the object of her fascination. The dynamic between Seymour and Enid may provoke apprehension from some viewers, but as journalist Hayley Campbell puts it, “to call Seymour and Enid’s friendship ‘problematic’ is to be reductive and unimaginative about who or what teenage girls might find interesting.”

Zwigoff is drawn to characters–real and imagined–who intentionally exist on the margins. Clowes and Zwigoff found creative success by operating against the grain of convention. While this approach may have challenged the sensibilities of Hollywood studios and executives, it perfectly suits the angst and listlessness experienced not just by moody teenage girls, but by anyone who has felt the weight of modern isolation–a loneliness that grows heavier with every purchase with which we surround ourselves. Ghost World remains an achievement of resilient filmmaking, as well as a monument to the search for meaning–through friendships, records, traditional jazz or maybe ragtime, or through waiting for the bus. 

IN THE LINE OF FIRE and In the Shadow of the JFK Assassination

Monday, November 6th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on In the Line of Fire were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of In the Line of Fire screens on Sunday, November 13 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, part of our "Cinema in the Shadow of the JFK Assassination" series. The Chazen is located at 750 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Garrett Strpko

In a particularly poignant moment before the climax of Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993), Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) reflects on his failure to save President Kennedy in November 1963. “You know,” he says, “for years now I've listened to all these idiots on barstools, with their pet theories on Dallas—how it was the Cubans, or the CIA, or the white supremacists, or the Mob; whether there was one weapon, or whether there was five.” Perhaps surprisingly, he confesses, “None of that's meant too much to me.”  What haunts Eastwood’s character is not the who or the why of the Kennedy assassination. It is simply that he failed to stop it, to fulfill his duty and put his life on the line for the sake of the President.

This theme of duty and self-sacrifice which forms the heart of the film is also what separates it from the others featured in our Cinema in the Shadow of the JFK Assassination program. In the Line of Fire offers no conspiracy theories or shadow organizations, it mentions little of lost national futures or the need for transparent governance. When taunted over the phone about his failure to prevent JFK’s killing, Frank replies “What’s done is done.” The assassination is not a mystery to be solved, but a failure to be dutifully atoned for.

In keeping with this emphasis on duty, the film does remarkably little to mystify or elevate the presidency or the President (Jim Curley), who remains conspicuously unnamed and is barely seen or heard in any detail, ironically remaining something of a background figure. Unlike the assassinated senators of The Parallax View (1974) or President Marshall (Harrison Ford) in Petersen’s later Air Force One (1997), we are never given any indication that he uniquely challenges the status quo by standing independently of the two parties as a representative of ‘the People.’ The most we know of him comes through heated meetings with his Chief of Staff Harry Sargent (Fred Thompson), who continually insists against Secret Service safety recommendations on the grounds that they would interfere with the president’s chances for reelection. If anything, the president comes across as shallow and uninterested in the “Big Issues”. For Frank, at least, the president is not necessarily worth protecting because of what he represents, but because it’s his job, no matter who is filling the role.

If duty is the name of the game, Eastwood is the man for the job. On the one hand, the film does have much in common with political action thrillers of the 1990s: rogue disavowed agents seeking revenge, frustrating miscommunication between intelligence branches, rooftop chases and daring disguises. Yet fans of Eastwood will notice right away how heavily the film and Frank’s character build upon the Dirty Harry mythos. Like Eastwood’s Inspector Callahan, Frank is foul-mouthed, misogynistic, quick to pull the trigger, and most importantly, willing to take the heat from his know-nothing superiors if it means fulfilling his duty his way. The opening of In the Line of Fire even plays like that of a Dirty Harry movie. Frank, paired with a new and younger partner, Al (played excellently by Dylan McDermott), goes undercover to expose a fraudulent currency ring. When Al is discovered and tied up by the leader and his two thugs for being a Secret Service agent, Frank attempts to arrest them at gunpoint before dispatching them with his signature magnum revolver. Yet, if Eastwood brings the gravitas, ethos, and mannerisms of Harry Callahan to the role of Frank Horrigan, he also brings a compelling sense of being haunted just beneath the surface, which uniquely defines the character.

The specter of the JFK assassination is first raised by Mitch Leary, played, in a career-defining and academy award-nominated performance, by John Malkovich. An ex-CIA “wet boy” (read: assassin), Leary vows to kill the president for reasons that are never made fully clear. At times, he claims to be seeking revenge against the government that turned him into the psychopathic killer he is. Yet to Frank, he confides that it may have more to do with a nihilistic or existential desire: “to punctuate the dreariness.” Whatever his reason, Leary develops an obsession with Frank. Many of the film’s most compelling scenes are the phone calls Leary places to Frank to taunt and challenge him. “The game,” as Leary calls it, is just as much about him and Frank as it is about fulfilling his goal of assassination. Our introduction to Leary is methodical and piecemeal. As Vincent Canby put it in his review of the film, “First he's a voice on the telephone, then an eye, a nose, a face seen in a pore-tight close-up. When finally seen in full figure, he appears to be both maniacal and utterly ordinary.”

Working alongside Frank to protect the president and track down Leary is Agent Lilly Rains (Rene Russo). Despite Frank’s frequent misogynistic comments (he refers to her early on as ‘window dressing’), Lilly proves essential to the investigation of Leary and protection of the president. However improbably, the two even develop a romantic relationship which (although offensive to modern sensibilities) is nevertheless a source of much of the film’s humor and more emotionally salient moments. Lilly forms a bulwark against the seeds of self-doubt planted in Frank by Leary. She also sets Frank straight when those seeds of doubt interfere with his sense of duty, which she reminds him is not just to protect the president’s life, but his dignity.

In this pivotal scene, which comes after Frank creates a false alarm during a presidential speech and is subsequently fired from the security detail, we get one of the few moments which suggests a deeper significance of the Kennedy assassination. Remembering an incident in which he lost a month’s pay to protect Kennedy’s dignity, Frank reflects, “He was different… I was different. The whole damn country was different. Everything would be different right now too if I’d been half as paranoid as I am today!” As haunted as Frank and the film are by the assassination, it also continually suggests that the lost futures it represents pale in comparison to how it motivates our actions and sense of duty in the present.

TAXI DRIVER: A Still-Controversial Cinematic Milestone

Tuesday, October 31st, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Taxi Driver were written by Nick Sansone, PhD Student, and Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A restored 4K DCP of Taxi Driver will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 4. Admission is free!

By Nick Sansone & Lance St. Laurent

There is a moment early in Martin Scorsese’s newest film Killers of the Flower Moon where Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is reading a children’s picture book telling the history of the Osage Nation and comes across an image of predators on the prowl with a caption that reads “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” For the most of his creative life, Martin Scorsese has dedicated himself to spotlighting the wolves that move among us, men who perceive themselves as prosperous providers or righteous protectors, but in reality, prey on the weak and vulnerable in our midst. In a similar vein, writer (and director) Paul Schrader has made such a prolific career out of dramatizing the lives of alienated, emotionally damaged men that they have become an archetype unto themselves, “God’s lonely man”.

Surely the most iconic troubled man of either Scorsese or Schrader’s career is Travis Bickle, the antihero protagonist of their 1976 film Taxi Driver, indelibly performed by Robert De Niro in one of his most famous roles. In some ways, Bickle has become bigger than the film itself within contemporary American popular culture, inspiring countless imitators—2019’s Joker springs to mind—and becoming a cultural shorthand for an archetypical disaffected and violent white male. The specter of Travis Bickle haunts contemporary life, evoked explicitly or implicitly by urban vigilantes like Bernard Goetz, by the seemingly endless cycle of school shooters, and even by the misogynistic online “incel” community. Most infamously, Bickle and Taxi Driver were cited as the primary inspiration for attempted Ronald Reagan assassin John Hinkley Jr., who was harboring delusions that such a violent act could attract the attention of Jodie Foster, the actress who portrays the 12-year-old sex worker Iris, who Travis violently “rescues” at the end of the film.

Travis Bickle may feel like a prescient peek into a future of disaffected American masculinity, but his primary inspiration actually came from a contemporary source. In 1972, Arthur Bremer attempted to assassinate right-wing Alabama Governor George Wallace, later publishing the diaries he kept in the months leading up to the shooting. In an interview with Film Comment, screenwriter Paul Schrader described hearing about Bremer’s assassination attempt on Wallace while in the hospital recovering from an ulcer. Schrader then used this event as a springboard, fusing it with his own disaffection as a miserable insomniac wandering the streets of New York and bringing in a mélange of cultural reference points—Robert Bresson, Sartre, and Harry Chapin’s “Taxi”, among others—to create a vivid portrait of a man teetering on the edge.

According to Schrader, To Kill a Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan was initially in talks to direct the film with Jeff Bridges as Travis Bickle. After Schrader’s script was optioned by producers Michael and Julia Phillips, several fortuitous developments helped get the project the backing of a studio, despite its pitch-black subject matter. First, the Phillips-produced film The Sting won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 1974 awards, granting the producing pair enough cachet to back more challenging projects. The next year, up-and-coming actor Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor portraying the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II and Ellen Burstyn won Best Actress for her performance in the Martin Scorsese film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Schrader himself was also becoming a hot commodity, having recently sold his screenplay The Yakuza to Warner Brothers for $300,000. After director Brian De Palma introduced Martin Scorsese to Paul Schrader, Scorsese became interested in directing his script for Taxi Driver, bringing along his Mean Streets collaborator De Niro, whom Scorsese had first met in 1959, as Bickle. The stars had aligned to make the project feasible, and in Schrader’s telling, “No studio wanted to make the film, but we were simply offering them too good a deal.” Columbia Pictures came on board and soon they had a budget of $1.9 million (roughly $10 million in 2023 dollars) for filming.

After a long summer shoot on location in New York City during a sanitation strike—imagine the smell if you dare—Taxi Driver was released in theaters in February 1976, and three months later screened at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Palme D’Or. The next year, it would go on to earn four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and a posthumous nomination for Bernard Herrmann’s haunting, saxophone-heavy score. However, prior to these plaudits, the film was booed by audiences at Cannes and condemned during a press conference by the president of that year’s jury, legendary playwright Tennessee Williams. Williams, no stranger to the darker side of humanity in his own work, called watching the film’s violent climax “a brutalizing experience for the spectator” and stated that “films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and in lingering on terrible cruelties as though one were at a Roman circus.” Outside of Cannes, some contemporary critics also took issue with the film’s ending, with the Monthly Film Bulletin’s Richard Combs characterizing it as “the macho movie cliché of the heroine who returns to the hero once his capacity for purgative violence has been revealed.”          

Despite what the histrionic outrage from some critics may claim, Scorsese and Schrader themselves have repeatedly refuted the notion that the ending of the film makes Travis Bickle a hero, with Schrader going as far as to say that “Travis cannot be tolerated. The film tries to make a hard distinction for many people to perceive: the difference between understanding someone and tolerating him. He is to be understood, but not tolerated.” Decades later, Roger Ebert offered his own reasoning for why Travis Bickle remains a compelling, even empathetic figure despite his alienating nature and capacity for brutal violence. “We have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are better at dealing with it.” Almost 50 years after its release, Taxi Driver remains as relevant today as it was in 1976, if not more so. Thankfully, we still have both Scorsese and Schrader, who just this year continued their lifelong obsessions with men of violence, first with Schrader’s A Master Gardener, then with Scorsese’s aforementioned Killers of the Flower Moon. However, the impact and influence of Taxi Driver goes far beyond the careers of its two major creators, as the decades since have seen an explosion of media that asks us to understand, even sympathize, with those that commit violence against their fellow man. Long before there was Patrick Bateman or Walter White, there was Travis Bickle. And as long as society continues to breed isolation and loneliness, there will always be Travis Bickle, haunting the darkest corners of the American consciousness and giving voice to the worst impulses of God’s lonely men.

Cronenberg's THE FLY: Tragic Love Story and Gorefest

Monday, October 23rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) were written by Lance St. Laurent, the Cinematheque’s Project Assistant and PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of The Fly, courtesy of the Chicago Film Society, will be screened on Saturday, October 28, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave, as the final screening in our selection of 1980s fan favorites. Admission is Free!

By Lance St. Laurent

1986’s The Fly was not David Cronenberg’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, but it would prove to be his most significant. Three years prior, the Canadian auteur had teamed with infamous producer Dino De Laurentiis on the well-received and modestly successful adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. However, that film was the rare Cronenberg project that he did not at least co-write, and it shows, with Cronenberg himself going so as far as to describe it as “certainly the least offensive film I’ve made”. It was instead Cronenberg’s follow-up, a remake of 1958’s The Fly, that would truly demonstrate the visceral horrors the filmmakers could conjure with a real Hollywood studio budget. The film saw Cronenberg taking his craft to disgusting new heights, but perhaps more surprising was the way in which the oft-cerebral filmmaker was able to adapt his distinct sensibilities to a form that was widely embraced by the moviegoing public, that of the tragic melodrama. For as much as the Oscar-winning makeup from Chris Walas may be what The Fly is best remembered for today, the doomed romance between scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his beloved Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis) is what gives the film its exposed beating heart.

After completing The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg was suddenly in demand, reading scripts and fielding offers to direct a number of mainstream studio films, including Witness—“I could never be a fan of the Amish”—and even Top Gun. Eventually, Dead Zone producer Dino DeLaurentiis lured him back to develop an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”. Cronenberg worked with DeLaurentiis for an entire year, producing twelve drafts of the script before departing the project due to creative differences. The eventual produced film, 1990’s Paul Verhoeven action spectacular Total Recall, would still contain contributions from Cronenberg’s time on the project, specifically the inclusion of disfigured mutant Martians and their conjoined telepathic leader Kuato.

With a year wasted and no new projects on the horizon, Cronenberg was approached by Brooksfilms, the production company owned by comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks, with a reimagining of The Fly scripted by Charles Edward Pogue. Much like he had done with David Lynch on The Elephant Man earlier in the decade, Brooks was looking for an up-and-coming filmmaker who could use support to bring their idiosyncratic visions to a wider audience. It was the rare script sent to Cronenberg that seemed tailor-made to his interests. “It was very body-oriented, very body-conscious,” according to Cronenberg, but there was one problem: “I thought the characters were awful, the dialogue trite, and the ending bad.” Cronenberg insisted on creative autonomy and would heavily rewrite Pogue’s screenplay, adhering to the reworking of the original Fly premise and many of the specific visceral details of his script, but rebuilding the characters from the ground up, reimagining the central couple as a newly blossoming romance rather than a stable marriage.

When writing Seth Brundle, Cronenberg describes his desire to create a character who was “eccentric enough to have a weird take on what’s happening to them.” For Cronenberg, it was Brundle’s ability to talk through his own deterioration that most fascinated him in the project. “[H]ow does this man deal with his disease: rationalize it, articulate it?” Mel Brooks suggested Pierce Brosnan for the role, a choice Cronenberg roundly dismissed. Contemporaneous reporting from Rolling Stone also indicates offers were made to both John Malkovich and Richard Dreyfuss, but the eccentric and loquacious Jeff Goldblum ultimately proved to be the ideal choice for the role as conceived by Cronenberg.

For the role of Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife, Cronenberg independently sought out Goldblum’s real-life girlfriend at the time, Geena Davis. Producer Stuart Cornfield was initially resistant to this idea, finding it to be too obvious and a potential source of on-set drama, but Cronenberg was persistent. “Jeff is a particular and eccentric screen presence. I wanted a woman who could match him for that. […] Geena is funny and sexy, and to me that is just the most diabolical combination.” It also didn’t hurt that the six-foot Davis could, quite literally, measure up to her co-star. “[I]t’s hard to line up the shots if one is much taller.”

The Fly may have been Cronenberg’s most expensive and ambitious project to date, but for the production itself, he kept things familiar and close to home. The film was shot entirely at Kleinburg Studio in Cronenberg’s native Toronto, and the crew was staffed with several frequent Cronenberg collaborators, including cinematographer Mark Irwin, production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. For a personal touch, Cronenberg even based the design of Brundle’s teleportation pods on the engine cylinder of his own Ducati motorcycle.

Though the film was only the 23rd highest grosser of 1986, at $40 million domestic, it was (and to date remains) David Cronenberg’s most financially successful film. The film was also met with critical raves, including from The Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr, who described it as “a film that is at once a pure, personal expression and a superbly successful commercial enterprise.” Most importantly for Cronenberg, the success of The Fly gave him the clout to pursue (though not without pushback) a story that had been stuck in his mind since even before The Dead Zone, the lurid true story of the Marcus brothers, twin gynecologists who both died under mysterious circumstances. The resulting film, 1988’s Dead Ringers, would end up as one of the most acclaimed of Cronenberg’s career.

Upon release, many critics interpreted The Fly as a star-crossed romance for the AIDS generation, a tragedy of lovers torn apart by a voracious, unstoppable disease. For his part, Cronenberg mostly rejects such specific cultural resonances, instead claiming inspiration from something far more primal. “To me the film is a metaphor for aging, a compression of any love affair that goes to the end of one of the lover’s life. […] Every love story must end tragically. One of the lovers dies, or both of them die together. That’s tragic. It’s the end.” Maybe this is why The Fly has endured far beyond any specific context that critics in the 80s may have applied to the film. For at its core, despite its spectacular displays of gloopy grotesquerie, The Fly is less about the inevitable decay of our human bodies than the emotional and psychological wreckage of the loved ones helpless to stop it.

THE PARALLAX VIEW: Perfectly Paranoid

Monday, October 16th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on The Parallax View were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. The Parallax View will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, October 22 at 2 p.m., the first in a selection of movies that were each created "In the Shadow of the JFK Assassination." The Chazen is located at 750 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Josh Martin

As presidential candidate Charles Carroll proclaims that he is “too independent for [his] own good,” a gunshot rings out to interrupt his words, sending a bright burst of blood onto an interior window of the Seattle Space Needle. A film that begins with a vague air of suspicion erupts into shocking violence, killing the senator who remains a symbolic cipher to the spectator. A silent chase ensues across the Needle, concluding as the mysterious assassin plunges into the void below to his death. From here, we move to a room that exists in a functionally abstract space, where a committee of faceless, nameless bureaucrats directly inform the viewer of their findings regarding the Carroll assassination. As the camera pushes closer in, the committee chair says the shooter acted alone out of a “misguided sense of patriotism”; the man insists that there is “no evidence whatsoever” of a broader conspiracy. There will be no further questions at this time.

Welcome to 1974’s The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s second chapter in his thematically linked “Paranoia Trilogy”. Along with 1971’s Klute and the Watergate thriller All the President’s Men (1976), The Parallax View probes the inescapable and existential distrust of a decade marked by increasing disillusionment of the American people and a creeping cynicism about those in the upper echelons of power. Adapted by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and an uncredited Robert Towne from the book by Loren Singer, Pakula’s film is the quintessential “paranoid thriller,” as deemed by Time critic Richard Schickel (in an otherwise hilariously misguided review discussed later in this essay). Processing the devastation caused by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy in the 1960s, The Parallax View shapes the conspiratorial thinking of the American political climate into a tense, provocative, and distinctly cinematic nightmare. The sense that something is not quite right – that nefarious systemic forces greater than any one individual are at work – pervades every moment of Pakula’s picture.

Three years after the opening assassination, the viewer reunites with our surrogate for this journey into the heart of darkness: Joseph Frady, played by New Hollywood legend Warren Beatty. An industry iconoclast and a famed playboy, Beatty’s performance as Frady channels both his undeniable screen charisma and his prickly public image. Frady, a journalist for a local rag in the Pacific Northwest, is positioned as a thorn in the side of everyone he encounters – sarcastic, disheveled, and profoundly anti-authoritarian. Frady’s milieu is seedy and low rent, far removed from the high stakes and thrills of American politics. Compared to the space of click-clacking typewriters and frantic chatter in All the President’s Men, the newsroom here is still and empty, an eerie space occupied only by Frady and his aging editor.

The narrative kicks into motion with the sudden reappearance of Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a former friend/journalistic rival of Frady’s. Desperate for Joe’s help, she insists that a number of individuals who were present for Carroll’s assassination have since died under mysterious circumstances. Frady is dismissive, evocatively chalking it up to the paranoid mindset of the moment: “Every time you turned around, some nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country.” Despite Lee’s pleas, Beatty’s smarmy womanizer sees nothing of concern.

Smash cut to Lee’s body, dead in the morgue. If Frady didn’t sense something off before, he does now. Existing in a generic space somewhere between the noir procedural of Klute and the newsroom drama of All the President’s Men, The Parallax View follows Frady’s search for the truth – a search that is as ominous as it is futile. Shot by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, deemed the “Prince of Darkness” for his brilliant chiaroscuro compositions in films like The Godfather (1972), the film’s narrative tension plays out in predominantly visual (and sonic) terms. Static, empty spaces and extreme long shots work in coordination with unnerving silence, preempting the explosions of sudden violence that the film occasionally indulges. Faces are obscured by Willis’ harsh lighting: when Frady meets an agent of the Parallax Corporation, the mysterious entity that forms the film’s central enigma, he is almost completely invisible, shrouded in shadows. (Pakula would repeat this stylistic pattern in the first meet-up with “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men)

The centerpiece of the film is one of the most extraordinary sequences in the entire thriller genre. Frady visits the Parallax Corporation’s headquarters, and in a space not entirely dissimilar to a movie theater, he sits down to watch a six-minute montage of still images. The montage begins with simple associations: LOVE followed by images of the ideal heterosexual couple; MOTHER followed by photos of wizened, caring women. As the montage accelerates, the sequence becomes a jumble lacking clear definitions and categorizations, thrillingly modern in its execution of meaning’s collapse. Pakula and editor John W. Wheeler fuse images of violent cops, fascist violence, and major political figures like Kennedy and Nixon, all united by the reoccurrence of a comic book image of Thor. The suggestion of the sequence is that the montage can be used as a brainwashing device – a way of convincing vulnerable individuals that they are participants in the re-ordering of society through violent force. The concept that a film or photographic image is uniquely capable of transmitting this dangerous force forms the sequence’s most tantalizing implication.

Of the three films in Pakula’s trilogy, David Thomson notes that it is the only one “that missed commercial success, or an Academy Award nomination.” Thomson contends that this is a matter of the film’s lapses in coherence (and its overwhelming bleakness), but the lack of enthusiasm from reviews like Schickel’s may have also contributed. The Time critic called the film “ugly and dramatically unsatisfying,” scoffing at the far-fetched conspiracies that underpinned its narrative. While “ugly” is a word that few would associate with a Willis/Pakula collaboration, one could argue that the film is purposefully unsatisfying – as frustrating and unfulfilling as the Warren Report on the JFK assassination that Thomson evokes at length.

Indeed, The Parallax View’s finale is thoroughly despairing – no answers, no resolution, a continuation of a sinister cycle. After the dramatic events of the conclusion – which should remain unspoiled for the viewer – we merely return to the same abstract space that opened the film. Yet this time we begin in a close-up on the desk of authority, moving outward as the boilerplate speech is read by these anonymous figures, a statement the spectator knows is a lie. By the end of the shot, the figures are specks on the screen, barely legible to the viewer. We are even further from understanding the motives of the corporation or any hope of an exposure of the truth. But it does not matter: there will be no questions at this time.


Monday, October 16th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 will screen at 7 p.m. on Saturday, October 21 as part of our 1980s Fan Favorites series. The screening will take place at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

By David Vanden Bossche

Much like contemporary George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead (1968) invented the modern zombie film and inspired a generation of low-budget horror directors, the Texas-born Tobe Hooper stormed onto the horror scene with his very first film. 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre impacted the genre to such a degree that it became a landmark and set a standard that dozens of other filmmakers would try to achieve (or, barring that, copy wholesale). It was a dark, upsettingly visceral feature that used the sensationalistic tropes of grindhouse horror films like Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) and turned them into a grizzly nightmare that stripped away the thrill of violence and replaced it with a sense of palpable dread and nihilism. It was such a sickening descent into despair and depravity that even Paul Schrader, no stranger to the seedy underbelly of humanity in his own work, famously ran out of an early screening of the film. Audiences loved it though, earning it close to $30 million on a mere $140,000 budget (roughly equivalent to a $150 million box office adjusted for inflation). Still, it would take Tobe Hooper more than a decade to revisit the cannibalistic Sawyer family and the film that established his reputation.

After a successful re-release of the original in 1981, Hooper signed a three-picture deal with Cannon films that included plans for a sequel. Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus— who had transformed Cannon from a small production company into a mini-major—expected Hooper to deliver a straight horror flick that would build off the first film’s style and reputation. That was, however, not what the director had in mind. Faced with the nigh-impossible task of topping the original’s shock value, Hooper wanted to find a new angle and – as he put it in a 1986 Entertainment Weekly interview – “be different from all the Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth sequels”. The answer, as it turned out, was to have The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 be as different from its infamous predecessor as possible. Hooper’s initial plans were simply to produce a loosely-connected continuation of his signature film—the working title was Beyond the Valley of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre—but after some tussles with the studio, Hooper himself landed back into the director’s chair.

The script was rewritten by uncredited hired guns, while Hooper kept insisting on a different tone, mostly getting his way. Combining explicit gore and dark humor—although Hooper himself once admitted that he was probably the only person on earth who saw the original as a dark comedy—TCM2 brings back the bloodthirsty Sawyer family from the first film, including the lumbering, Ed Gein-inspired brute Leatherface (though no longer played by the hulking Gunnar Hansen). Gone was the original film’s oppressive atmosphere of dread or the encroaching specter of the counterculture in decline. Instead, the supporting characters brought in as potential chainsaw fodder are more in line with the eighties teen movie (the advance poster famously parodied John Hughes’ 1985 hit The Breakfast Club) than with the scraggly young burnouts of the original.

The biggest change from the original was bringing a genuine star into the cast. Dennis Hopper’s career was still recovering from the critical and financial fiasco that was his 1971 film The Last Movie. Through supporting parts in Apocalypse Now (1979), Out of the Blue (1980) and Rumble Fish (1983), Hopper slowly worked his way back up the ladder, but was still struggling to find work when he was approached to star in the horror sequel. Ironically, Hopper was on the cusp of a full career rehabilitation with his role in Blue Velvet (1986), released a mere month after TCM 2. Hopper plays Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright, who, more than a decade after the slaughter of the first film, is still chasing the murderers responsible for killing his brother’s kids. He teams up with local radio host “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams, who carved out a career in horror sequels and threequels) to lure the carnivorous clan out of the comfortable anonymity they have cultivated as local butchers and chili connoisseurs. Meeting the enemy on their own terms, Lefty stacks up on chainsaws at a local department store, frightening the shop-owner out of his wits with a little demonstration of his skills in a hilarious early scene. His little shopping trip sets the stage for an outrageous, gore-filled climax that sees director Hooper pull out his entire bag of tricks and star Hopper reach new heights of unhinged performance in a parade of outlandish scenes that recall the similarly over-the-top ending Hooper concocted for The Funhouse earlier in the decade. Not content to let Hooper and Hopper have all the fun, Williams, too, gets a movie-stealing moment, freeing herself from Leatherface’s clutches through an impromptu seduction that makes explicit the phallic connotations of the killer’s signature chainsaw.

Hooper’s iconoclastic, tongue-in-cheek approach, combined with top-notch efforts from gore maestro Tom Savini, make for the rare sequel that has the audacity to subvert the audience’s expectations rather than simply rehash what made the original successful. Presented by the Cinematheque in its uncut form and on glorious 35mm, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is sure to delight and disgust anyone celebrating the Halloween season. Maybe just skip family chili night beforehand.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: The Consummate - and Consuming - Movie Musical

Monday, October 9th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Little Shop of Horrors were written by Samantha Janes, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. Frank Oz' Director's Cut of Little Shop of Horrors will screen as part of the 1980s Fan Favorites series on Saturday, October 14 in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Samantha Janes

If you take a trip down to Little Shop of Horror’s Skid Row, you are bound to find a wandering Greek chorus that looks suspiciously like a Phil Spector girl group, a bespectacled exotic plant collector, and one mean green plant from outer space. Frank Oz's journey to bring Little Shop to the big screen began in 1985 when he signed on to direct a movie version of the hit off-Broadway musical of the same name. However, Oz was not the first choice to direct the movie, which was released at the end of 1986. Though he was well-known for performing several beloved characters on The Muppet Show and various Muppet films and for puppeteering the scene-stealing Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it was only after a series of stalls in pre-production that producer David Geffen began to woo Oz to the project. For Oz, it would be his first project as a director without his frequent collaborator Jim Henson, and with fourteen songs, a 1960s setting, and a rapidly evolving man-eating plant, it would make for a complex and ambitious feature debut. Thankfully, Oz, with the help of Howard Ashman, the writer of the book and lyrics for the 1982 off-Broadway production, was able to craft a script that would translate stage-bound theatrical elements from the musical onto the screen in a more cinematic manner.

The film presents the simple story of Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), a young exotic plant enthusiast in love with his coworker Audrey (Ellen Green). After a “total eclipse of the sun,” Seymour finds a strange plant that eventually becomes a more consuming project than he could have ever imagined. Audrey II, the bloodthirsty, man-eating plant that grows to tremendous size over the course of the film, became of particular importance to Oz, who wanted to create the creature practically and without the aid of blue screen or other optical effects. Oz brought all his knowledge and experience of puppetry to bear for the plant’s design, employing extensive animatronics operated by a crew of puppeteers he knew from his previous Henson days. With a new song written by Menken for the film called “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” Oz and the crew were tasked with creating a perfect lip-sync for the gigantic creature. Since the largest version of Audrey II required 20 to 30 people to operate, Oz realized that by shooting the plant’s scenes in a slower frame rate—12 or 16 frames per second, depending on the scene—he could speed it up in post-production without the crew needing to match the speed of the song. The resulting effect is essentially seamless.

Despite Oz’s achievements in bringing the film’s most famous creation to life, the film’s complex production was clouded by legal battles, budget concerns, and drastic revisions that cost the film its originally planned summer release date. The cinematic version of Little Shop of Horrors eventually made its way to theaters in December of 1986, making a modest profit before becoming a lucrative success on home video. However, the director’s cut of the film, one that included the original ending of the off-Broadway show, would remain lost to the world until 2012.

The history of the director’s cut of Little Shop of Horrors dates back to 1960 and the work of director  Roger Corman. Corman, known for his low budget genre films with American International Pictures (AIP) such as It Conquered the World (1956) and House of Usher (1960), worked with screenwriter Charles B. Griffith on developing The Passionate People Eater, later renamed The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The Little Shop of Horrors was shot during the last week of 1959 with mostly stock actors, including a pre-fame Jack Nicholson as the masochistic dental patient. Shot on a budget of $30,000, the film was re-released numerous times over the next few years to increasing success. But it was twenty years after the Corman film's original release that the story of Seymour and Audrey II would be revived into a production that would take off-Broadway by storm.

In 1982, writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken premiered their musical version off-off-Broadway (that’s two ‘offs’) to wondrous success. The stage production changed the story’s location from Los Angeles to New York, omitted certain characters, and created the trio of girls modeled and named after 1960s girl groups to act as the show’s Greek chorus. The biggest change was to the original film’s ending. In Corman’s film, Audrey II is ultimately defeated, though it costs Seymour his life. Without spoiling for those who haven’t seen it, the stage show and director’s cut of the film instead end on a note of apocalyptic cataclysm. While the ending was well received on stage, the use of the ending in Oz’s film adaptation would become a major bone of contention between Oz and his producer David Geffen.

While Oz had the support of Ashman in keeping the musical’s ending, Geffen warned Oz against leaving the audience on such a down note. As the film was in its final stages of production in spring of 1986, a test screening in San Jose cast a deep shadow of doubt of the film’s projected success. The original ending flopped with audiences and the negative response was enough to cause an upheaval in filming. Despite extravagant special effects that brought the show’s ending to life in ways impossible on stage, test audiences were still unhappy with the conclusion to Seymour and Audrey’s story. With the production already an expensive investment for Warner Bros., the final scenes were reshot to include a more traditional happy ending pairing off Seymour and Audrey in a vision of domestic bliss, as Audrey’s earlier song envisions, in a tract house that they share somewhere that’s green. For decades, Oz’s original ending was only the stuff of cinematic legend, briefly appearing in unfinished black and white form as a special feature on a 1998 DVD release, before being recalled from shelves at the request of producer David Geffen. In 2012, Warner Brothers finally released the original cut of the film, with the ending restored from the original color negatives and abiding by Frank Oz’s original production notes. While there is still debate among the Little Shop faithful over which cut of the film is superior, new and old fans alike can now experience the film in both of its permutations and decide for themselves how Frank Oz’s weird and wild sci-fi musical should have ended.

The Enduring Popularity of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

Monday, October 9th, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China were written by Lori Lopez, Professor of Communication Arts and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at UW-Madison. Big Trouble in Little China screened at the Cinematheque on October 7 as part of the 1980s Fan Favorites Series and the 2023 Asian American Media Spotlight.

By Lori Lopez

John Carpenter’s 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China takes us into the mysterious underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown for a wild ride of martial arts action, fantasy adventure, and self-aware comedy. Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a loud-mouthed white truck driver who ends up embroiled in a zany quest to help his Chinese American friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his betrothed (Suzee Pai) from Chinatown villains before they can deplete her life force in exchange for immortality. It marked the fourth collaboration between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, following the TV movie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982). While Big Trouble was originally seen as a commercial flop, grossing only $11 million off a $19 million budget, it has since become celebrated as a cult classic, beloved for its campy tone, exaggerated characters, snappy one-liners, and hybrid genre sensibilities.

In some ways, it’s an exercise in showcasing several of the most offensive tropes in Asian American representational history. Big baddie David Lo Pan (James Hong, in one of his most iconic roles) is the living embodiment of Orientalism and Yellow Peril, a Fu Manchu-type ready to dominate the universe with his mystical evil powers. The Asian men are preternaturally gifted at martial arts, and while co-lead Wang Chi is superior in fighting, he keeps turning for assistance to the bigger, brawnier white protagonist Jack Burton. The only prominent Asian woman is a beautiful China doll with almost no lines of dialogue, a damsel in distress who must be saved from her own culture so she can finally get married and live happily ever after in America. Then there’s the titular Chinatown itself, presented here as a seething den of iniquity, full of exotic secrets, bizarre creatures, and excessive violence.

While these stereotypes are undeniable, it would be a mistake to ignore the winking fun that the film is striving for. Russell’s Jack Burton may look like the physical embodiment of the 1980s action star but watching him bluster his way through Chinatown, it’s clear his bravado and self-assurance are wildly unearned. He’s completely useless in a fight, makes hilarious blunders that endanger his team, and even ends up knocking himself unconscious just as the final showdown begins. Burton’s outsider status is nothing but a detriment, and his incompetence ends up positioning his “sidekick” Wang as the true hero of the story. It only makes sense that as the film closes, Burton drives off alone in his truck without so much as a goodbye kiss from his love interest (Kim Cattrall), while Wang ends up with the girl of his dreams.

Moreover, Asian American audiences have long held a deep affection for the film. In 2015, the Asian American media arts organization Visual Communications hosted a reunion screening of the film in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. In addition to screenwriter Gary Goldman and star James Hong, 10 cast members including Al Leong, Peter Kwong, Gerald Okamura, Jeff Imada, and Lia Chang joined a panel in fondly reminiscing about their work on the film. They reflected on how the film had premiered just after Michael Cimino’s controversial Year of the Dragon (1985), which Asian American advocacy organizations had protested as racist and anti-Asian for its stereotypical portrayals of Chinatown crime. In contrast, the Asian American cast and crew of Big Trouble genuinely seemed to believe that, despite the stereotypes, their film was all in good fun, and that they felt pride and ownership in their portrayals. Years later, they were still excited to celebrate the primarily Asian-cast film as the jumping off point for many Asian American careers in Hollywood, and as one of the highlights of the storied career of the legendary James Hong.

While today’s audiences are welcome to make up their own minds about just how well Big Trouble in Little China ultimately straddles the line between troubling and transgressive, its enduring popularity and cultural impact are a testament to the talents of not only the film’s director, but also of its primarily Asian American cast.