THE GOOD BOSS: An Elegant Tragicomedy

Monday, January 23rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

This review of Fernando León de Aranoa's El Buen Patrón/ The Good Boss was written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. The Good Boss will have its Madison theatrical premiere on Friday, January 27, the first screening in our annual series supported by UW-Madison's Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS). The screening begins at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Fernando León de Aranoa already had a flourishing career working for Spanish television before he decided to helm his first feature film as a bona fide director. His directorial efforts – among them Amador, A Perfect Day and Loving Pablo - went largely unnoticed, until in 2022, his El Buen Patrón/ The Good Boss, suddenly received award upon award at several film festivals around the world. Rightfully so, one might add, because this intriguing film that starts deceivingly lighthearted and playful, gradually transforms into an elegant mature tragicomedy that benevolently chuckles at the mostly self-inflicted tragedies of modern life this flawed but bizarre species called ‘humans’ faces on a daily basis.

The Good Boss is buttressed by a remarkably inspired performance by De Aranoa’s compatriot Javier Bardem (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men among countless others) who clearly is having a blast portraying Blanco, owner and CEO of a small local Spanish factory. Blanco – we never learn his first name – is the type of man who seemingly has full control over his life: he took over his father’s small business – producing scales of various kinds – and turned it into a true success story. And while we hear Blanco in the opening scene mundanely delivering a speech for the occasion of his business being up for a prestigious price, we do feel he has a heart for his employees when we see him altruistically making a call to his high-paid lawyer when one of his workers’ sons has gotten himself into some trouble with the law. Even Blanco’s marriage is still functional, a bit lacking in passionate affection maybe, but – fitting for someone in the business of selling scales – utterly balanced, and most certainly free of any financial woes.

Appearances quickly turn out to be deceptive, however, as we slowly realize that things are not entirely as they seem. However perfect business life may be, it sometimes requires little annoyances like firing people. And isn’t it annoyingly inconvenient that just when an inspection is to be held at the plant, a former disgruntled employee decides to stage a protest in front of the company’s main gate? Equally annoying is the fact that your childhood friend and company right-hand man Miralles seems to have lost his touch when it comes to taking care of daily management. And not so much annoying but rather a bit awkward is that charming new young female intern flashing her smile at you just a tiny bit too much for comfort. Obviously, these pesky details should be of no concern to a man used to always making the right decisions at the right time, no? Not so much, as we will quickly learn.

The Good Boss looks at how we create our own personal narratives and personae, and become incredibly well-versed in convincing ourselves that every step we take and every decision we make is justified within our own personal framework. Weaving comedy around that idea could easily have ventured into the domain of predictable and questionable humor, but the jokes are peppered liberally, never oppressively throughout the film, and everything is elevated by the director’s unmistakable sense of visual flair. Instead of aiming for rather obvious humorous situations and quick laughs, De Aranoa chooses to let things play out slowly, while the camera unobtrusively observes and allows the viewer to be detached and distant, wryly smiling at so much ‘condition humaine’. The distance between viewer and action is often palpable in a literal sense, with repeated use of ‘long shots’ that let us witness a situation, without necessarily allowing us to hear what characters are saying. This approach requires the spectator to pay attention to salient little details – both visual and narratively – and the film contains a considerable amount of neatly orchestrated little surprises that are undergirded by the well-crafted visual language.

The blending of drama and sometimes stingy, but always heartfelt comedy, manages to unmask several painful universal truths, without having to resort to moralizing or the kind of emphatic rhetorical formulas that lesser films tend to apply. Many contemporary problems and discussion points are touched upon in The Good Boss, but the film leaves it to the viewer to discern them and never insults the audience’s intelligence by spelling out what we are supposed to take away from a given situation.

Comedies that are both well-scripted and visually interesting are – alas – a progressively rare breed in today’s cinema (American or elsewhere). The Good Boss isn’t the kind of film you are likely to find on any critic’s ‘best-of-the-year’ list. Its low profile and genre keep it from being perceived as ‘high brow award fare’. However, in the way the film manages to combine keen visual craftmanship with social critique, while still functioning as an engaging comedy, it is a perfect alternative for both the run-of-the-mill comedic blockbuster and the more sophisticated comedies we tend to associate with arthouse fare.

Favorites of 2022: John Bennett

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023
Posted by Jim Healy

John Bennett is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison, the Cinematheque's Project Assistant, and a Programmer for the Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival.

  1. TÁR (Todd Field, 2022)
  2. ARMAGEDDON TIME (James Gray, 2022)
  3. BENEDICTION (Terence Davies, 2021)
  4. APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD (Richard Linklater, 2022)
  5. PETROV'S FLU (Kirill Serebrennikov, 2021)
  6. COW (Andrea Arnold, 2021)
  7. THE FABELMANS (Steven Spielberg, 2022)
  8. ONE FINE MORNING (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2022)
  9. IL BUCO (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2021)
  10. TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (Ruben Östlund, 2022)
  11. INCREDIBLE BUT TRUE (Quentin Dupieux, 2022)
  12. LINGUI (Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, 2021)
  13. BABYLON (Damien Chazelle, 2022)
  14. KIMI (Steven Soderbergh, 2022) 
  15. BONES AND ALL (Luca Guadagnino, 2022)

Favorites of 2022: Ben Reiser

Saturday, December 31st, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is Director of Operations for the Wisconsin Film Festival and a Programmer for the Cinematheque.

Ben Reiser’s Fourteen Favorite Movies Seen in Movie Theaters in 2022

In alphabetical order

AFTERSUN (2022, Charlotte Wells) – A sense memory piece that miraculously balances precise details with a fathomless sense of the unknown. Somehow both achingly sad and filled with dread yet beautiful and strangely comforting.

AMSTERDAM (2022, David O Russell) – I’ve rarely connected with a movie so quickly and so completely. I was sold within the first thirty seconds, and after two viewings, I’m ready for a third. Featuring terrific, effervescent turns not only from Christian Bale, Margot Robie and John David Washington, but also by actors I don’t normally enjoy, including Rami Malek and Mike Meyers.

ARMAGEDDON TIME (2022, James Gray) – Like an atom bomb dropped directly on my adolescence, James Gray’s fearlessly honest and clear-eyed account of a Jewish family living in 1980s Queens features another late-career highlight from Anthony Hopkins that left me in tears.

BABYLON (2022, Damien Chazelle) – A swing for the fences that ultimately gets caught at the warning track, but man is it ever fun to watch it’s long slow descent down to earth.

BARBARIAN (2022, Zach Cregger) I had a lot of luck this year with films I’d heard negative things about in advance, but this one lived up to all the positive hype and then some. Barbarian weaponizes our knowledge of horror movie tropes against us in all the best ways.

BONES AND ALL (2022, Luca Guadagnino) – Guadagnino, like James Gray, is a director whose work I’ve admired more than loved, but I was completely hypnotized by this YA tale that somehow taps into the emotionally devastating vibe of George A. Romero’s Martin and milks it for all its worth.

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022, David Cronenberg) – I love David Cronenberg and this is my favorite film of his since Existenz.

THE FABELMANS (2022, Steven Spielberg) – How amazing that we got both Armageddon Time and this in the same year? My favorite Spielberg since A.I..

FUNNY PAGES (2022 Owen Kline) – I haven’t laughed this long and hard since our Cinematheque screening of What’s Up Doc?, and that is rarified air.

HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE (2022, Daniel Goldhaber) An urgent political tract dressed up as a big, dumb, ridiculously entertaining action movie. Oceans 11 written by Abbie Hoffman.

LUXEMBOURG, LUXEMBOURG (2022, Antonio Lukich) – This Ukranian comedy about two brothers – one a cop, the other, a ne’er-do-well - is consistently funny and surprising, and ultimately, quite moving.

PETER VON KANT (2022, François Ozon) – Is it heresy to admit I prefer this funny, lighthearted remake to Fassbender’s original, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant? Well, I’m on record.

RIMINI (2022, Ulrich Seidl) – Ulrich Seidl’s latest is a typically disturbing, funny, sad, brilliantly observed character piece. It’s almost a remake of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but better.

A WOUNDED FAWN (2022, Travis Stevens) – This giallo meets The Evil Dead mashup has a first half that might be even more terrifying than the first act of Barbarian. And then it gets freaky.

Movies I wish I’d seen in a theater, but enjoyed quite a bit at home:

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022, Guillermo Del Toro, Mark Gustafson)

RRR (2022, S.S Rajamouli)

SPEAK NO EVIL (2022, Christian Tafdrup)

Favorites of 2022: Jim Healy

Friday, December 30th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

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

In 2022, I saw 443 feature films from throughout cinema history that were all new to me. These 10, presented in alphabetical order, were my top favorites:

ARMAGEDDON TIME (2022, James Gray)

BARBARIAN (2022, Zach Cregger)

DRIVE MY CAR (2021, Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

THE FABELMANS (2022, Steven Spielberg)

FUNNY PAGES (2022, Owen Kline)

HELLO, SISTER! (WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, 1933, Erich von Stroheim, Edwin Burke, Alfred Werker)

RRR (2022, S.S Rajamouli)

SCHLUSSAKKORD (1936, Detlef Sierck/Douglas Sirk)


VENGEANCE IS MINE (1984, Michael Roemer)


...and here are 21 more titles of films that I thought were outstanding:

BABYLON (2022, Damien Chazelle)


UN CONDE/THE COP (1970, Yves Boisset)

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022, David Cronenberg)

DOUBLE DOOR (1933, Charles Vidor)

EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022, John Patton Ford)

FALCON LAKE (2022, Charlotte Le Bon)

GOLDEN EIGHTIES (1986, Chantal Akerman)

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022, Guillermo Del Toro, Mark Gustafson)

THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE WORLD (2022, Teona Strugar Mitevska)

J’ACCUSE (2019, Roman Polanski)

MARY STEVENS, M.D. (1933, Lloyd Bacon)

THE NIGHT OF THE 12TH/LA NUIT DU 12 (2022, Dominik Moll)

NOPE (2022, Jordan Peele)

MOONAGE DAYDREAM (2022, Brett Morgen)


PUSS IN BOOTS THE LAST WISH (2022, Joel Crawford)


TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (2022, Ruben Ostlund)

SAINT OMER (2022, Alice Diop)

TAKE OUT (2004, Sean Baker, Shih Ching-Tsou)

VORTEX (2021, Gaspar Noe)

TONI: Jean Renoir's Painterly Masterwork

Wednesday, December 7th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jean Renoir's Toni (1935) were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A 4K restoration of Toni will screen in our series of recent French film restorations on Friday, December 9 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By David Vanden Bossche

Which ‘Renoir’ is the most influential: father Pierre-Auguste Renoir, impressionist painter known for masterpieces such as Dance at Bougival and The Umbrellas, or son Jean Renoir whose films Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu, 1939) and La Grande Illusion (1937) regularly feature on lists naming the greatest films of all time? It’s a question that remains up for debate, preferably over a good glass of French wine or absinthe.

Whatever the case, there’s no denying Jean Renoir’s standing as one of the most important French filmmakers of the twentieth century, his towering achievements as a director far outnumbering the limited amount of titles that found their way into the public cultural memory. Few directors can boast ever having made a film like La Bête Humaine (1938) let alone line that one up with the aforementioned classics and films like The River (1951), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), The Golden Coach (1952) or arguably his most famous film among casual movie viewers: A Day in the Country (Une Partie de Campagne, 1946).

Missing from that list – among many others – is Toni from 1935, another one of Jean Renoir’s master classes in filmmaking.

In his book Film History, Peter von Bagh labeled this rural drama as a direct predecessor to the Italian neo-realism that would revolutionize film art about a decade later. To a certain degree that is true – Renoir admitted that he wanted to convey a high degree of naturalism in Toni – but if we look at Italian neo-realism along the lines of Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of this being the moment when cinema drastically re-conceptualized the notion of ‘time’, then Toni is a different beast altogether. ‘Time’ and ‘Temps Mort/ Dead Time’ became the main element around which films like Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952) were centered – a notion recently powerfully reiterated in Jordan Schonig’s book The Shape of Motion – and this element is decidedly absent from Toni’s dramatic arc, which is much more akin’ to classic storytelling than anything that came out of Italian neo-realism. Much more than a predecessor to the Italian movement, Toni, with its penchant for heightened lyrical realism, is part of the ‘French Poetic Realism’ that would go on to dominate the next decade with such famous titles as Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (Quai des Brumes, 1938) and Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945).

Toni’s plot is based on the writings of Jacques Levert (who plays a minor uncredited part), a retired French police commissioner from the Martigues region near Marseille – the same region where the film was shot – and tells the story of a tragedy that unfolds among the migrant populace in the south of France. This is primarily a love story, but the grim social reality and hostile environment in which the drama takes place is an integral part of the cinematic universe Renoir creates here. Anchored in a bleak view of humanity, Toni surely is one of Renoir’s most pessimistic films, offering little redemption for the characters, or the viewer for that matter. Focusing on the love story between an Italian migrant worker (Charles Blavette) and a local young girl (Celia Montalván), the film brings questions to the fore about race, class and economical hardship that certainly struck a chord with contemporaneous French audiences but also proved to have a universal appeal for 1930s audiences worldwide. In a 1956 issue of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, Renoir addressed this success by stating that ‘I would be happy if you could fathom just a little bit of my love for this Mediterranean community’. It seems he did more than that, as viewers anywhere were more than willing to sympathize with the tragic protagonist.

The black and white cinematography in Toni is by Claude Renoir, the director’s nephew who would subsequently work with him on a few more projects and become a prolific director of photography signing off on high-profile titles like The French Connection II (1975) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). The most remarkable name attached to this project, however, is Luchino Visconti’s , the future director of bona fide classics such as Rocco and his Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971), to name but a few. Visconti served as an uncredited assistant director on Toni and later never ceased to mention how much he had learned about cinema and directing from the great Jean Renoir.

Toni may not contain the ‘bravura’ shots that people have come to associate with Renoir based on La Grande Illusion or La Règle du Jeu, but the more timid register in which the director works here is just as interesting and visually overwhelming, drawing from more painterly influences that would remain a mainstay in Renoir’s oeuvre, through his ‘Hollywood’ period (1941's Swamp Water being a prime example) and later on in movies like The River, or his homage to his father’s work in 1959’s Picnic in the Grass (Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, 1959).

The film was splendidly restored in 4K at the‘L’Immagine Ritrovato laboratory in Bologna and premiered at the 2019 edition of the annual Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.

Stop the PLANET OF THE APES, I Want to Get Off!

Monday, December 5th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Planet of the Apes (1968) were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A double feature of Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes will conclude our series, "Damn You All to Hell: Charlton Heston and the End of the World," on Saturday, November 10 beginning at 6 p.m. Two 35mm prints will be shown! The screening takes place at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent.

“God damn you all to hell!” So ends one of Hollywood’s most unlikely franchise-starters. After decades of sequels, remakes, reboots, and endless parodies, it is easy to forget what a strange piece of work the original Planet of the Apes really is. A pitch-black piece of sci-fi nihilism released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s awe-inspiring 2001 and only a year before Apollo astronauts would touch down on the lunar surface, today Planet of the Apes is probably best remembered for its shattering twist ending. On the off chance anyone is going in fresh tonight, I won’t delve deeper other than to say it’s a masterclass in actorly histrionics from an actor who specialized in such displays. Charlton Heston, in one of his most iconic roles, stars as George Taylor, an astronaut hoping to escape the drudgery and petty squabbles of his own time (1972, we’re told) to seek possibility elsewhere, only to crash land on a foreign planet sometime in the late 3900s. Taylor is the exact opposite of the bright-eyed, clean-cut image of American astronauts. Heston’s clenched jaw and slightly stilted delivery here curdle into the sneer of a man driven by his cynicism and misanthropy, a belief that any planet out there has to be better than home. Of course, that misanthropy is immediately challenged by his new hostile world where, as the title suggests, apes have evolved into the dominant species of life and human beings have been rendered mute, animalistic, and subjugated. Although Heston’s Taylor would return briefly in the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes (also screening tonight), his final moments here remain the definitive statement from the character and of the long franchise it spawned.

Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai) and directed by journeyman filmmaker Franklin J. Schaffner (later of Patton and Papillon), Planet of the Apes perhaps best represents the sensibility of its co-screenwriter Rod Serling. Already well known for The Twilight Zone, it is Serling’s adaptation (rewritten by Michael Wilson) that gives the film its ironic punch, reworking the original text into a parable of man’s hubris. However, the film’s high-minded sci-fi ambitions never get in the way of its entertainment. Buoyed by groundbreaking makeup effects from John Chambers—who won an honorary Academy Award for his efforts and later worked in the CIA operation that inspired the film ArgoPlanet of the Apes presents a credible world turned upside down, one where the natural order has been upended but the small-minded pettiness of those in power still remains. 55 years on, the technological limitations of Chambers’ work are certainly more evident, but his designs remain iconic and surprisingly expressive, a high bar that the franchise has repeatedly tried to top, first with Tim Burton’s ill-begotten remake (though featuring terrific makeup from the master, Rick Baker), then through the technological wizardry of WETA’s performance capture technology in the recent reboot trilogy. Despite these advancements, though, none can quite match the charm and personality of Chambers’ original, even if one may let out a chuckle watching Zira and Cornelius’s stiff kissing.

Speaking of Drs. Zira and Cornelius, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell shine here as our primary ape protagonists, with Zira’s open-hearted pursuit of truth clashing well with Cornelius’s prickliness and caution. In a dystopian world of oppression, they are two bright lights of decency, love, and humanity (or whatever apes might call it). Hunter would return as Zira in the next two sequels, and beginning with the third film Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the series was reoriented around McDowell, first reprising his role as Cornelius before stepping into the role of Caesar, Zira and Cornelius’s son. Perhaps most memorable, though, is Shakespearean and Bewitched actor Maurice Evans as the vainglorious villain Dr. Zaius, a figure of unwavering close-mindedness and dogmatism whose stonewalling belies deep secrets about his world. Other notable cast members include Linda Harrison, making the most of the thankless role of Nova, mute human eye-candy meant to soften the troublesome Taylor, and legendary character actor James Whitmore, later of The Shawshank Redemption fame, as the obstinate President of the Ape Assembly.

As 20th Century Studios begins to prep yet another reboot of the Apes franchise, currently titled Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, it is worth asking why Planet of the Apes has so thoroughly endured as a cultural touchstone. It is more than just the ending, though that is a huge part of its appeal. Perhaps it’s the way the film’s fundamental premise toes the line so expertly between the uncanny and the absurd through strange images like fully dressed apes on horseback capturing primitive humans in nets. Perhaps it’s the world’s casual disregard for human life, or the way Taylor’s misanthropy gives way to a sense of pride in humanity before the ultimate rug-pull. Maybe it is simply studio persistence. Planet of the Apes stays with us because Fox and now Disney-owned 20th Century Studios keep making new ones, and the series remains largely sturdy, thoughtful entertainment, a rarity in the current franchise marketplace. As with any long-lived cultural phenomenon, the answer is ultimately complex and incapable of being fully unpacked here. What is certain is that the original film remains a startlingly nihilistic piece of popcorn entertainment, a dystopia of human bondage that proved to be fun for the whole family. For that alone, Planet of the Apes remains an essential text rife with contradictions, at once allegorizing the cultural tensions of its era while also retaining a timeless quality as both a work of challenging genre fiction and accessible studio entertainment. It’s a delicate balance that many have attempted to imitate (including within this very franchise), but few have been able to successfully replicate. It’s the apes’ planet, and we’re all just living on it.

Please Give to the Cinematheque

Tuesday, November 29th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Hello Movie Lovers,

In the ever-evolving landscape of movie culture in Madison, the Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin has maintained its status as the place to discover new works of international cinema and classics of film history. While corporate-run multiplexes are closing and more movies are demoted as “content” for home viewing on streaming platforms, the Cinematheque programming staff of knowledgeable cinephiles continues to curate excellent programs and series, all showcased in a proper cinematic setting, and presented without the price of admission.

The consistency of this quality programming requires the support of movie lovers like you. Beginning in September of 2022, the Cinematheque was able to extend its weekly programming to Thursday evenings, when we presented three months of regular premieres of exciting new films from around the globe, including popular titles such as Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, Owen Kline’s comedy Funny Pages, and the first Madison-area screening of Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave. The entire Premiere series was made possible through a donation from an anonymous cinephile.

In 2022, Cinematheque viewers saw the first Madison screenings of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-nominated Drive My Car and Sara Polley’s acclaimed Women Talking. Through the support of UW Madison’s Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies (LACIS), in February we brought you three features from the era of “La Movida Madrileña,” including Pedro Almodovar’s Dark Habits. In March, we played six kung-fu classics, each individually presented by Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali, authors of the book These Fists Break Bricks. Our popular “Age of Cage” series in April and May let audiences see three off-beat gems from the first decade of Nicolas Cage’s career, all screened on 35mm prints. The Cinematheque was only the second venue in the world (after NY’s Museum of Modern Art) to screen Peter Bogdanovich’s funny and star-filled final narrative feature, Squirrels to the Nuts, commencing our summer Bogdanovich series. In October, celebrated screenwriter and director Nicholas Meyer joined us in person to present three of his movies, including Time After Time; and we concluded the year with an action-packed series of apocalyptic adventures starring Charlton Heston.

Other 2022 highlights include CasablancaPoltergeist, and Om Shanti Om on 35mm; David Lynch’s Lost Highway and The Straight Story, the latter presented in person by co-writer, editor, and producer Mary Sweeney; and a double feature of early Jackie Chan spectaculars.

Our programming goes on hiatus mid-December as we prepare for an exciting 2023 Cinematheque season that will begin in late January, with a continuation of the Thursday night Premiere series! If you enjoy Cinematheque programming and would like to see it thrive and grow in the new year and beyond, please consider a donation today.  


Jim Healy

Director of Programming

UW Cinematheque


Science-Fact: Richard Fleischer's SOYLENT GREEN

Monday, November 28th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Soylent Green were written by film fan, film scholar, and film preservationist James Kenney, whose other reviews and essays can be found at James Kenney kicked off our summer 2022 season of Peter Bogdanovich movies on June 29 by presenting Squirrels to the Nuts, a movie he helped save from obscuritySoylent Green screens in our series entitled Damn You All to Hell: Charlton Heston and the End of the World on Saturday, December 3, 7 p.m., in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By James Kenney

The now-recognized-as-classic futuristic suspense thriller Soylent Green gets top marks for dystopian escapism. The world in 2022 (!) is rapidly approaching a totally poisonous atmosphere, and a detective sets out to track down the assassins of a wealthy and powerful member of the board of directors of Soylent, the company that supplies most of the nation’s now-synthetic food. The detective uncovers a secret so devastating that no man who knows it can live, except for the millions who love the film and its panic-stricken forewarning of a 2022 that isn’t exactly what they portended, but isn’t that far off, either...

Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotten, Paula Kelly, Brock Peters and Edward G. Robinson star in the 1973 MGM production directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Boston Strangler) and adapted by Stanley R. Greenberg (he also wrote Heston’s Skyjacked) from Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room, Make Room!. Soylent Green may not prove superior to Heston’s Planet of the Apes, but, in this writer's opinion, it beats Heston’s The Omega Man, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and other such competitors as Silent Running, Damnation Alley, and Logan’s Run as standard bearer for the period’s trendy, dystopian, and nihilistic sci-fi product.

Why do so many filmgoers relish this cinematic representation of the termination of mankind as we know it? Well, the outré metaphor Green provides, rebuking our contemporary decadent lifestyles, is seductive, and the richness and skill of the set design submerge us –provisionally—in pure misery without wholly crippling us in existential despair. Heston plays well against type here – his relentless manliness and grim-faced resilience are twisted in a knot by his having to play an “innocent” in Soylent Green – an archetypal “tough guy” who has no clue what came before and what comes ahead, whose protective love for his “book” (the researcher who helps him close cases played by the aged Edward G. Robinson), catapults Green into a hemisphere that the competing 1970s sci-fi yarns don’t approach. If Heston falls behind on his cases, he’ll lose his job and join the seething, starving masses sleeping in stairwells, church pews, and on the streets, yet he refuses to replace the ever more inefficient “book” Robinson. There are no elements of adolescent fantasy in Green’s depiction of their relationship, and the old hand filmmakers and actors recognized this and thankfully proved up to the challenge of fashioning this cinematic relationship in the face of Robinson’s own imminent demise (the studio couldn’t get insurance for him, and he passed away before the film was released).

Every Tuesday is Soylent Green day, and the teeming multitudes line up to receive a ration of the green wafer, which, other than the black-market food reserved for the very rich, is the only staple food available.  At the time of the film’s release, MGM focused publicity on the rising meat prices resulting in scientists looking more and more toward synthetic meats and other foodstuffs, with “at least 25 firms in the United States…producing artificial meat, mostly from soya-bean flour. Japan is reported to turn out 24,000 tons a year…In Britain, a major textile group has begun marketing a synthetic meat made from bean protein…in the film, the Soylent Corporation, manufacturers of the principal food supply for half the world, is purportedly making the film from high energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world.” Producer Walter Seltzer labeled Soylent Green as “science-fact.”

In support of this, MGM’s press materials took the unusual step of bringing in “Technical Consultant,” Frank R. Bowerman, Director of Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California and President of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers to sound the alarms: “I am of the firm conviction that uncontrolled population expansion and its concomitant pollution of the air and the seas is the gravest problem facing mankind…inevitably it must foster a vast proliferation of riot, crime, murder, poverty and starvation….Unless steps are taken today, I see our cities teeming with masses of jobless, homeless citizens, existing on government subsidies…our sources of food are waning,…our seas are dying,...our air is being poisoned…our mineral resources are being exploited far beyond the national replacement process….While I share the dread most people have of a nuclear holocaust, I deplore the fact that the same people ignore the rapidly growing dangers of overpopulation. There is still time to reverse the trend. With action. The alternative is that ‘Soylent Green’ will be more than a warning. It could become the epitaph for mankind’s gravestone.”

The leads shared his existential despair, with Heston opining at the time in the film’s press materials “No one in the story is terribly upset about the human condition at the time. Edward G. Robinson plays a character that laments the lost civilization but everybody else has a sad sense of acceptance…lethargy…nothing takes on any importance except food and miserable shelter. It’s a lethargy we don’t need now to avoid it then, if you know what I mean…we live in an era when group responsibility is the thing. Group responsibility and group guilt. In such a situation, then, the individual doesn’t have to take any action to bring about a better world or take action to preserve the good things in the one we’ve got.” Robinson added “[it] takes place in New York City in the year 2022 when man has been inhumane to nature and the population explosion has 41,000,000 people living on Manhattan. I play an old codger named Sol Roth, who happens to be a hangover from a better day. He saw this terrible plight coming on and he feels a sense of guilt that he hadn’t tried hard enough or shouted loudly enough to help prevent it.”

As Fleischer recounts in his memoirs, “Heston was already committed to play the lead, and we all wanted Robinson to portray his mentor/sidekick. But there were difficulties. One of them was his health. It was fragile. He was eighty, and he had cancer. [Robinson] wanted more than Metro was willing to pay. They offered him a lower fee, with a deferment for the remainder. Eddie’s answer to that was, ‘At my age, I’m not sure I’d be around to collect it.’…Acting was his life. He was happiest on a sound stage. Soylent Green was his salvation. He loved the script. It was not only a wonderful role in an important film, but, as he kept telling his wife, Jane, it was about something. He knew he was dying and he knew this would be his last picture, and he was happy.”

Heston told Fleischer, regarding Robinson’s stirring euthanasia scene, “As we played it out, I rose to his performance. When we finished, I thought ‘OK…if they want it better than that, they have to get another fella.”  And as Heston added in his book The Actor’s Life “the film is very good, not least because of Eddie Robinson’s superb performance. He knew while we were shooting, though we did not, that he was terminally ill. He never missed an hour of work, nor was late to call…I’m still haunted, though, by the knowledge that the very last scene he played in the picture, which he knew was the last day’s acting he would ever do, was his death scene. I know now why I was so overwhelmingly moved playing it with him.”

LA GUERRE EST FINIE: A Political Movie in Popular Form

Wednesday, November 9th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Alain Resnais La guerre est finie were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A new 4K restoration of La guerre est finie will screen at the Cinematheque on Friday, November 11, at 7 p.m. as part of our New French Restorations series. Admission is Free!

By Pate Duncan

Alain Resnais’ 1966 cut-up political thriller La guerre est finie, heretofore lacking the wide availability and hallowed reputation of his earlier works in the New Wave-era, is as playfully complex in form and radically political as any of his more infamous films. Straddling the border between France and Francoist Spain, the film finds its unstable center in Communist militant Diego (answering also to the aliases Carlos or Domingo, but always played by the authoritative Yves Montand) who, after a run-in with Spanish authorities at the border, becomes caught in a tangled web of political intrigue, left-wing extremism, and slipping identities. Along for the ride is his wife Marianne (played by the formidable Ingrid Thulin, known for her devastating work in the films of Ingmar Bergman), strained by her husband’s precarious vocation, yet devoted to him all the same. Throughout the film, Diego meets Nadine (a coquettish Geneviève Bujold), the daughter of a sympathetic militant who lends out his passport to members of the group, and her own cohort of young, increasingly violent radicals whose ideals clash with his own.

Alain Resnais’ intensely varied filmography, aligned with Left Bank compatriots Agnès Varda and Chris Marker, is known for its meticulous attention to form and confrontational political content. From the critique of colonial appropriations of African art in Statues Also Die (1953), his early short film with Chris Marker, to the landmark 1955 film Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (a film censored by the French government for its acknowledgement of French complicity in concentration camps), to Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and its poignant exploration of the bombing of its titular city and the global implications thereafter, Resnais’ political commitments are well-documented.

Less visible to audiences is his potential for levity and love for popular forms. Resnais, who almost always wore a signature red button-down shirt, had one of the largest private collections of comic books in France and, later in life, kept up a correspondence with Stan Lee (which nearly resulted in a collaborative film between the two about a monster made entirely of pollution). This persists in his filmmaking too; Le chant du styrene (1959) is a colorful documentary on the making of plastics, while Same Old Song (1997) is a jukebox musical in which actors incongruously burst into a few lines from popular French songs. Resnais’ political emphasis and formal exactitude do not negate his love for the popular, especially evident in the genre elements present in La guerre est finie.

From plot summary and a few individual scenes, La guerre est finie reads like many of the contemporaneous New Wave pictures that surround it. It has the nocturnal atmosphere of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), the group intrigue of Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1961), the topical political concerns of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (1963), and the analysis of leftist militancy seen in La Chinoise (1967), sharing with each of these a genuine engagement with genre film elements. What sets La guerre est finie apart from its counterparts, and indeed, from Resnais’ prior films, is its precise, dizzying form. Sharp attention to editing is a hallmark of all of Resnais’ films up to this period, but the radical intrusion of scene-disrupting editing in Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963) gives La guerre est finie its radical starting point.

The film opens on Diego’s driving along a bridge, a voiceover orienting the sequence somewhat obliquely, and then sees a montage of new, spatially distinct events before returning to the scene at hand. These radical intrusions persist throughout the film and, as David Bordwell points out, are cued neither as flashbacks nor as cross-cutting to simultaneous events, though later confirmed to be a series of anticipatory potential flashes forward in time. Disorientingly, these moments align the viewer with Diego’s imagining of how future events might unfold, creating a sense of canny game-playing and genuine suspense.

This lapidary construction is nothing new for Resnais, whose Last Year at Marienbad (1961) remains one of the great puzzle films of European art cinema. First-time viewers should not, however, mistake this formal complexity for a pretentious hostility towards spectators. You will get the hang of the editing structure, whose patterning never fully obscures the narrative at hand. Unlike Marienbad, this film grounds its flourishes in perhaps Resnais’s closest adherence to genre conventions up to this point, the espionage thrillers of Hitchcock feeling particularly instructive in Diego’s game of cat-and-mouse with authorities and growing unease with his own militant comrades. Following the New Wave tradition of Hollywood genre pastiche, Resnais’ masterful attention to form does not leave the viewer behind on its journey.

The film also includes a few audacious love scenes, developing off of Hiroshima Mon Amour’s similar attention to the human figure. One of these scenes diverts into complete abstraction, Diego and his lover enveloped in a blinding white light completely unmotivated by any realism in the scene. The other recalls Malle’s 1958 film The Lovers, whose frank sexuality made it the subject of the 1964 court case Jacobellis v. Ohio that gave us the famous adage, “I know it when I see it.” Though La guerre est finie never crosses borders into the obscene, its approach to sexuality is tasteful and contemplative in typical Resnais fashion.

La guerre est finie has, since its release, remained unfortunately relegated to minor status in Resnais’ filmography, depriving viewers of a rewarding experience and essential development in the auteur’s oeuvre. Fresh off of its appearance in the Cannes Classics section of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, the film is perfectly situated for a reappraisal among larger audiences, especially those looking for something both challenging and rewarding. Even for those new to Renais or art cinema, the film is still a treat, one of the filmmaker’s most accomplished works in a popular genre.

Just Added!: WOMEN TALKING Sneak Preview Screening

Friday, October 28th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

The Cinematheque has just added a special sneak preview screening of Sarah Polley's latest movie, Women Talking. The free screening will take place on Sunday, November 13, 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.


USA | 2022 | DCP | 104 min.

Director: Sarah Polley

Cast: Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy

Acclaimed by critics and audiences at this year's New York, Toronto, and Telluride Film Festivals, Women Talking is the latest feature from writer-director Sarah Polley. The story centers on several generations of women in an isolated religious colony, who have gathered in a hayloft to discuss their future after a series of sexual assaults. Grappling with their faith after confronting reality, the women must decide between leaving their community or staying and fighting. An adaptation of a novel by celebrated writer Miriam Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite family, Women Talking puts the spotlight on several of contemporary cinema's finest actors: Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, and Ben Whishaw. This special free sneak preview is presented courtesy of Orion Releasing and Allied Global Marketing.