Thursday, April 28th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Raising Arizona were written by Lance St. Laurent, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Raising Arizona will screen as part of our "Age of Cage" series on Friday, April 29 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free.

By Lance St. Laurent

The opening sequence of Raising Arizona (1987) remains one of the most audacious rebukes of the sophomore slump ever committed to film. After the success of Blood Simple (1984), the two-headed director known as the Coen brothers could have carved out an entire career of stylish crime thrillers, becoming a somewhat quirky alternative to the likes of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann. Indeed, they have at times made films in this mold, films like Miller’s Crossing (1990) or their Best Picture winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men (2007). It was Raising Arizona, though, and, in particular, its locomotive of an opening sequence, that really told the world who the Coen brothers were as filmmakers. If Blood Simple announced the pair as a duo of uncommon talent, it was Raising Arizona that showed their formal ambition in full bloom and revealed their love of the manic and eccentric.

Over the course of an eleven-minute expository montage, we are introduced to two-bit criminal H.I.—pronounced “Hi”— McDonough (Nicolas Cage), a compulsive recidivist whose romanticized voice-over narration reveals the soul of a poet, and his unlikely paramour Ed (Holly Hunter), a police officer whose prickly exterior barely conceals a soft, sensitive heart. After a courtship that plays out of over the course of several arrests, H.I. and Ed marry and start trying to “have themselves a critter” as H.I. puts it, only to find that “biology and the prejudices of others” prevent them from doing so. Desperate and inspired by the story of a well-off local family birthing quintuplets (“They’ve got more than they can handle!”), H.I. and Ed set out to steal themselves a baby and start the family of their dreams no matter what it takes. It’s only after this furious flurry of set-up that Carter Burwell’s iconic yodel-infused score swells and we get a title card that lasts just long enough for us to catch our breath.

In a filmography defined by oddball characters over their heads, there still may be no Coen protagonist as instantly compelling as H.I., and in Nicolas Cage the Coens found the ultimate vessel for this bundle of contradictions. Like the bird tattoo on his arm (a tattoo shared by this writer), he is a cartoon made flesh, constantly running, screaming, and flailing with an energy that is matched by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s (later a director of some note himself) playfully mobile camerawork. And yet, Cage balances H.I.’s propensity for Looney Tunes-style antics with a genuine sense of pathos and a palpable love for his new bride, and even as the film crescendos with ever more ludicrous antics, Cage never loses sight of H.I.’s fundamental humanity. This was not Cage’s first lead performance, but this was certainly one of the first in which his singular eccentricity was harnessed by filmmakers whose vision was as off-beat as his own.

Furthermore, Cage is matched by Holly Hunter—improbably giving this incredible performance the same year as her Oscar-nominated role in Broadcast News (James L. Brooks)—who similarly grants Ed a rich sense of interiority to accompany her single-minded pursuit of a child and her occasional violent crying fits. Though Hunter has played variations of the feisty Southern spitfire dozens of times throughout her career, few other performances have leveraged her forceful energy, tiny frame, and unmistakable voice to such hilarious ends. Despite her intensity, though, Ed’s relentless desire for a child never feels pathetic or delusional. She is foolhardy and obsessed but also recognizably, even painfully, human.

Since the release of Raising Arizona, the films of the Coens have often drifted into the realms of the absurd and the silly, and several of their later films, such as The Big Lebowski (1998) and Burn After Reading (2008), have returned to a purely comic mode. For me, though, it is always Raising Arizona that I return to. It is pound for pound their funniest film, and indeed one of the finest American comedies ever made. The Coens are renowned for their formal inventiveness and their razor-sharp wit, and Raising Arizona has both in spades, but its humanism and genuine warmth is somewhat unique in the oft-unforgiving universes the brothers’ devise. It is sweet but never saccharine and silly without feeling slight, a perfect ode to the scruffy charms of unruly underdogs made by a pair of filmmakers who were still unruly underdogs themselves. The Coen brothers have arguably made more technically accomplished and thematically rich films since Raising Arizona, but to me none are more imprinted with the irrepressible and unkempt spirit of youthful enthusiasm, both in front of and behind the camera.

STAVISKY: Crafting a Con Man

Thursday, April 21st, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Alain Resnais' Stavisky were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque's series tribute to the late Jean-Paul Belmondo concludes with a screening of Stavisky on Saturday, April 23 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By John Bennett

France, 1934: fiercely unhappy with the left-of-center government, a group of right-wing organizations riot in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, creating the biggest political crisis of the French Third Republic outside of World War I. With fascism firmly established in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany and on the rise in a politically unstable Spain, the riots took on a particularly sinister quality. The cause of the riots? In part, France’s slow recovery from the global depression. But a more immediate cause was the grand scandale of the Stavisky Affair, the intrigue of which makes up the story of Alain Resnais’ 1974 period piece, Stavisky. Starring popular French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and overflowing with glamorous architecture and objets d’art, Stavisky charts the exploits of Serge Alexandre Stavisky, the Ukraine-born embezzler who charmed his way into the bosom of France’s political and cultural elite. With the help of powerful friends, Stavisky maintained ill-begotten business ventures in banks, stables, theaters, newspapers, etc., none of which turned much of a profit while the title character spends lavish sums on his wife and loses fistfuls of francs at the baccarat tables of Biarritz. Hounding his trail is Inspecteur Bonny, a man who comes to realize that if he brings down Stavisky, he can bring down high profile aristocrats, politicians, and police chiefs along with him. Stavisky intertwines this story with a subplot about another immigrant under police scrutiny living in France: Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Dense with political intrigue, Stavisky manages to simultaneously charm and unsettle an audience just as its eponymous protagonist charmed–before unsettling–swaths of France.

Stavisky marks something of a middle period in the careers of both Resnais and Belmondo. Both initially rose to prominence in 1959/1960, the headiest years of the French New Wave. Resnais’ bold and experimental direction in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Belmondo’s brash and charismatic performance in Godard’s Breathless (1960) both typified the youthful experimentation that characterized many New Wave films. Fifteen years later, Stavisky typified the legacy of New Wave filmmaking in a new way. Resnais’ film, with its depiction of a historical megalomaniac, belongs to a cycle of mid-career films by New Wave cinéastes that treat the political turmoil of the 30s and 40s with deep cynicism. Films like Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969), Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976), and Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) all feature characters who navigate a Nazi-menaced France with a measure of cold opportunism. These films, made by New Wave directors or starring New Wave actors, eschew grand narratives of heroism to explore how extreme circumstances place complicated constraints on protagonists. They also invite a certain degree of social commentary; at a climactic point in Resnais’ film, attention is gravely drawn to Stavisky’s Jewish identity, underscoring the rampant antisemitism of European high society of the 1930s.

Stavisky was Resnais’ sixth feature, after Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963), The War is Over (1966), and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). All of these films feature a thematic preoccupation with the nature of memory and a stylistic preoccupation with disorienting editing that scrambles time and space. Stavisky squarely continues these trends. The film’s loving attention to the look and feel of France’s interwar years reveals a fascination with historical memory, and memory as a psychological process is reflected in some of the film’s flashback sequences (such as the one detailing Stavisky’s first arrest in the middle of a dinner party). Though the film’s story is largely linear, Resnais subtly plays with spatial and temporal editing. Some cuts throughout the film briefly and disorientingly flash forward to depict peripheral characters testifying against Stavisky at a Parliamentary hearing. These shots, consistently executed in medium close ups, deny the viewer clear access to the time and place in which they occur until late in the film. Another flashforward late in the film curiously reveals Stavisky’s fate in five sweeping shots a full twenty minutes before the exact dramatic context of those shots is fully revealed. Stavisky may tell a more direct story than, say, Marienbad, but it is nevertheless replete with the experimental touches for which Resnais was renowned.

But despite its continuance of some of Resnais’ storytelling preoccupations, Stavisky also represents new directions for the director. Whereas Hiroshima and Marienbad presented ambiguous characters with ambiguous experiences and motives, Stavisky fleshes out a psychologically complete and consistent main character. Through his own actions and the dialogue of other characters, we understand the grandiose tragedy of Stavisky’s unstable approach to his ersatz endeavors. These new directions extend to the look of the film as well. The opulence of Jacques Saulnier’s production design recalls the stately splendor of his work on Marienbad. Yet Stavisky enlivens the ghostly, frozen qualities of Marienbad’s set ornamentation with a riot of color and light. The impossibly deep reds of roses and carnations or berries embedded in creme fraiche burn languorously in Resnais’ compositions amid the glamor of the late Third Republic architecture. In one beautiful shot, a small drop of blood adds a stunning dash of red on a blazing white background. One scene set in a restaurant is bathed in deep red as refracted light dances across characters’ faces. Throughout the film, pinpoints of light winkingly glint off the corners of polished dinnerware, glimmering jewels, and vintage cars. In this sense, Stavisky’s narrative coherence and playful visual liveliness contrast sharply from the haunted stillness of Hiroshima and Marienbad as well as the studied drabness of Muriel.

In crafting his story, Resnais had help from some legendary collaborators. In the leading role, Jean-Paul Belmondo (who passed away in 2021) deploys his customary caddish charisma. Playing the affable and ignorant Baron Raoul, legendary French actor Charles Boyer (in his penultimate screen performance) steals nearly every scene he appears in by dint of his palpable, debonair joie de vivre. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny makes the film’s images glow and twinkle warmly, offering an ironic counterpoint to the mounting chaos that consumes Stavisky’s life. And of course, the film boasts the contributions of a legendary musical talent: Steven Sondheim (whom we also lost in 2021). Like Resnais, Sondheim often explored the dark nature of memory, as he did in musicals like Follies and Sweeney Todd (some deleted songs written for Follies were resuscitated for the Stavisky score). A master of historical pastiche, Sondheim’s score replicates the breeziness of Charles Trenet’s easy, bouncy popular music of the 30s and 40s while often furnishing agitato undertones that betray the untenability of Stavisky’s elaborate lifestyle. At other times, Sondheim’s score swells and crescendos at dramatic moments with an auditory lushness that pairs perfectly with extravagantly adorned mise-en-scène. All of these contributions help Resnais tell the story of the Stavisky Affair with supreme elegance and assurance.

JOHNNY GUITAR: No Stranger to Subversion

Thursday, April 14th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Johnny Guitar were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Johnny Guitar will screen on Friday, April 15, 7 p.m., at the Cinemtheque's regular space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By Tim Brayton

“I’m a stranger here myself,” demurs Sterling Hayden at one point in his performance as the title character (though not, we must quickly clarify, the protagonist) of the 1954 Johnny Guitar, a revisionist Western from before they were called revisionist Westerns. It’s a line that resonated strongly with the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, five years and nine features into his legendary career: according to rumor, it was his personal motto and the working title for a great many of his projects, and in 1975 it was used as the title for a documentary about the director. And it perfectly describes the content of so many of his best known and most beloved films: Ray’s movies are full of outcasts, misfits, and oddballs, people who are figuratively as well as literally strangers in the places they find themselves, from the thrill-seeking lovers of his 1948 crime thriller debut They Live By Night to the teenage lost souls of the 1955 juvenile delinquency classic Rebel Without a Cause – even his 1961 “life of Jesus” epic King of Kings.

But Johnny Guitar might just have the oddest oddballs and loneliest outcasts of them all. Like so many Westerns of every era, it’s focused in large part on the tensions between the frontier and the “civilization” it borders. Vienna, the saloonkeeper played by Joan Crawford in one of the greatest, most multilayered performances of her legendary career, is the typical all-American frontier libertarian, looking to set her own rules for how to live in the little autonomous society of outlaws and ruffians she’s built for herself, no matter what the hypocritical townsfolk and cattle ranchers have to say about it. The story (adapted by Philip Yordan from Roy Chanslor’s novel) kicks off when the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a friend (and then some!) of Vienna’s, is accused of killing the brother of local moral scold Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), and the stage is set for a showdown between the self-appointed “Nice People” and the people who are actually good, as we’ve seen so many times in this genre.

But those offbeat touches are already making themselves clear: most obviously, our tough man’s man of a frontier entrepreneur this time around is a woman, and Johnny Guitar is going to play that gender-bending scenario for everything it’s worth. The film has no use for subtext: practically the first thing we ever learn about Vienna is that her masculine affect discomforts the men of the region, and our first glimpse of Crawford in the rather severe trousers crafted for her by costume designer Sheila O’Brien leaves very little doubt that Johnny Guitar will be complicated and outright contradicting gender norms at every turn. That’s part of the story, of course: Vienna’s grip on her frontier kingdom is all the more tenuous because of how defiantly, proudly antisocial she must be simply to have risen to such heights as a woman. But it’s a big part of what makes the film itself so shocking: for a film made in the heart of the 1950s to be this interested in positively depicting masculinized women and, in Hayden’s Johnny, femininized men, goes against every expectation we might have about that buttoned-up period of filmmaking, where this kind of transgression typically had to be smuggled in below the surface. Heck, in sketching out the emotional currents driving the unreasonably hostile relationship between Vienna and Emma (given extra charge by the open warfare on set between Crawford and McCambridge; pretty much everybody hated everybody on this production, especially the notoriously volatile Hayden and Crawford), Johnny Guitar comes astonishingly close to presenting an explicitly homoerotic tension, making Vienna, with her well-stocked supply of ex-boyfriends, perhaps the closest thing we get to an openly bisexual female character in ‘50s American cinema.

Its shockingly casual subversion of gender and sexuality norms is just one of the ways that Johnny Guitar creates that characteristically Ray-esque feeling of being locked outside of society, and maybe even preferring it that way. Take Johnny Guitar himself; not so aggressive a character as Vienna, but there are plenty of ways in which he goes against the grain of what we expect from the lonely hero of a Western, not least of which is that he isn’t really the hero, as it turns out. We have here something of a parody of the figure of the lone gunslinger: you can probably guess from the character’s sobriquet what instrument Hayden carries strapped behind him in place of the more familiar six shooters. Part of this is just to make him an appropriate counterpart to the masculine Vienna, but even before we’ve met her, the sheer oddness that the character of Johnny strikes visually tells us plenty about this offbeat man, who stands outside of the society he moves through (“I’m a stranger here myself”), and who stands as well outside all of our expectations for the title character of a Western, a stranger come to a frontier town with a crisis on its hands.

Another key example of the film’s portrayal of life outside of norms and conventions is Vienna’s saloon itself, surely one of the very strangest locations in all of Western cinema. It’s not obvious right from the start, but this is a singularly impossible space: half Old West cliché with the bar and the chandeliers and the swinging doors and all, half naked bare rock cavern, as though Vienna’s place is so perfectly positioned on the line between civilization and wilderness that the division occurs right there in the middle of her building. It’s an image almost as bold and striking as Vienna’s outfits, and does just as much to give Johnny Guitar that wonderfully odd feeling. Even something as basic as the film stock gives the film a sense of being “off” in some way: this was shot in Trucolor, the color film process favored by Republic and generally disregarded by everybody else, considering its muddy green hues to give a poor rendering of anything close to reality (or being visually appealing in its own right). Watching Johnny Guitar, you’ll probably find that Trucolor’s notorious reputation is earned, but no film ever turned that limitation to greater advantage than this: it’s just one more way that Ray and his cast and crew give us a film that seems to exist purely to spite “the right way” of doing things. The result is one of the strangest Westerns you’re ever apt to see, but all the more exciting and bracing because of it; it’s an underseen triumph of its genre and a real contender for being the very best film of Ray’s outstanding career.

WHAT'S UP, DOC? at 50

Thursday, March 10th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? were written by Samantha Herndon, a former graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of What's Up, Doc? will screen on Friday, March 11, in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free.

By Samantha Herndon

Inspired by screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s, by the French New Wave, and by Bugs Bunny himself, What's Up, Doc? is a New Hollywood take on the witty romantic comedy. Ryan O'Neal plays Howard Bannister, an uptight musicologist arriving at an important conference with his plainful fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn), only to be knocked off his feet by a series of encounters with the freewheeling, beautiful Judy Maxwell, played by Barbra Streisand in one of her funniest performances. What's Up, Doc? stands out among films of the early '70s, with its focus on farcical situational comedy, romance that shuns the old-fashioned for the modern, and a star-powered cast that doesn't hesitate to make fun of themselves. 50 years after its original release, the film maintains both commercial and critical appeal, and was among the highest-grossing films at the 1972 box offices, competing with The Poseidon Adventure and The Godfather.

Director Peter Bogdanovich and production designer and producer Polly Platt had a working relationship that resulted in some of the most iconic films of the New Hollywood era that ran from 1967-1981 and both challenged and reinvigorated older styles of filmmaking. What's Up, Doc? is one of the finest of the Bogdanovich-Platt collaborations, which include Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), and Paper Moon (1973). Theirs was a dynamic collaboration that progressed from their work in summer stock theater in New York through their move to LA, tutelage by Orson Welles and John Ford, and lasted longer than their marriage. It was Platt's idea to set What's Up, Doc? in San Francisco, and the hilly streets, urbane '70s style, and distinctive architecture became a memorable backdrop for the film's slapstick comedy and unlikely romance.

Platt designed the sets of What's Up, Doc? to maximize the physical humor, using extra-wide doorways, a posh apartment where worlds collide, and a Rube Goldberg machine of a gift shop as the setting for the meet-cute. Platt took visual inspiration from Ernst Lubitsch and German Expressionism for the design elements. Her work on What's Up, Doc? and the Oscar favorite Last Picture Show earned her place as the first woman admitted into the Art Directors Guild.

Bogdanovich, who passed away in January of this year, was an actor's director, experienced in performance himself, and adept at bringing out different sides of the actors he worked with. Many of the cast and crew from Bogdanovich and Platt's earlier films worked on What's Up, Doc?, and their tight unit helped to create a comedic environment on set that was conducive to camaraderie and high jinks. Streisand plays against type, and her character's journey includes scaling the walls of the hotel and sinking into the Port of San Francisco. O'Neal is game to up the ante of the farce, playing a straight man turned sideways, willing to appear in bowtie and skivvies to sell the joke. In promoting What's Up, Doc?, Bogdanovich was effusive in his praise for Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 picture directed by Howard Hawks and scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Bogdanovich who, along with Platt, had connected with many of the previous generation of filmmakers upon moving to Hollywood, wanted to give credit to Hawks, and even consulted with him on the making of What's Up, Doc? "Just don't let them be cute," Hawks told Bogdanovich about his lead actors.

What's Up, Doc?'s script by Buck Henry, Robert Benton, and David Newman (who had worked together on Bonnie and Clyde) creates taught, daffy, rapid-fire dialogue that brings Howard closer and closer to Judy, and farther from Eunice, who shines as a "dangerously unbalanced woman." Buck Henry said of the scripting, "What's Up, Doc? is a farce, which generally means it's about nothing except itself. We wanted a G-rated comedy with no redeeming social values. It’s wacky farce, like Hollywood used to do in the thirties – very rare nowadays."

While Judy's keen interest in disrupting Howard's life in every way possible seems highly implausible, the film works best when you just give in to its conceits and roll with it through the hills of San Francisco. Cinematography by the always-great Laszlo Kovacs highlights the city's movement, culture, and stunning backdrops. The slow-burning chemistry between Streisand and O'Neal, who had dated prior to the production, infuses a sense of true romance amidst the laughter, particularly in the duo's piano rendition of "As Time Goes By."

If you're not familiar with the screwball comedy genre, there are many to enjoy, and What's Up, Doc? is a fun vehicle by which to enter the fray. The British Film Institute writes of the style, "Emerging in the 1930s, screwball comedies were a wild new strain of fast-talking farces involving battles of the sexes and a world forever on the brink of chaos." What's Up, Doc? exemplifies the genre, with an emphasis on the chaos.

In light of Peter Bogdanovich's recent death, we can look back on his fourth feature film and appreciate its playful humor, artful direction of memorable performances, and homage to earlier eras that mark Bogdanovich and company's best work.

SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW: Twist, Roll, Spin, Turn

Thursday, March 3rd, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Snake in the Eagle's Shadow were written by Mattie Jacobs, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave, on Saturday, March 5, at 4 p.m., part of our weekend of screenings celebrating the release of the book These Fists Break Bricks!. Authors Chris Poggiali and Grady Hendrix will be in attendance! Admission is Free!

By Mattie Jacobs

Sixteen years after his first role as a child actor, and in his sixth film as a leading man, Jackie Chan became a breakout international star with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). A decade of stunt work and action choreography, persistent roles as either a martial arts student or second-string thug, and an attempt to become the next Bruce Lee in New Fists of Fury (1976, where Chan first took his Chinese stage name: Sing Lung) all eventually led to Eagle’s Shadow. Shadow is a model for what would become the quintessential Jackie Chan film, an action- comedy that blends elaborate stunts and slapstick, always relying on both Jackie’s wit and his ability to take untold amounts of physical abuse - from teachers and enemies alike.

Eagle’s Shadow still manages to feel fresh with a plot structure that’s been copied so often it barely needs explanation: a good-hearted young student, a hidden martial arts master, and a showdown of one kung fu style versus another. This recipe would lead to a string of successful movies for Chan, including both Drunken Master and Spiritual Kung Fu later that same year. Here, Chan plays the fresh-faced and somewhat dimwitted Chien Fu, an orphan janitor in a martial arts school who is often used as a punching bag for the training students and loafing teachers. The bulk of the narrative follows his friendship with and training by a wandering beggar, the last of the remaining practitioners of the “Snake Kung Fu,” being hunted down by the Eagle Claw school. All of Chan’s charm is on display in his hapless attempts to make right and learn to defend himself from a world of be-moled minor villains (you’ll understand when you see it).

In addition to launching Chan’s career as a star, the film is also the directorial debut of Yuen Woo-ping, who would become the most famous martial arts choreographer in the world over his long career. After working with the likes of Chan, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li during his decades in Hong Kong, Yuen was asked by the Wachowskis to work on The Matrix in 1999, propelling his career into Hollywood. His touch as a choreographer is everywhere in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, designing the animal forms of Snake and Eagle kung fu to look completely different than the standard, traditional, martial arts forms used in Hong Kong films up to that point, or as he said in an interview with the SCMP,” it was all different shapes, it was like a whole new different style of kung fu.”

The forms are brilliantly elaborated throughout, with the movements of the snake form detailed as Chan trains and fights. From “poisonous snake” to “finding the snake” (the latter will be painful for some to watch), the forms feel both fleshed out and appropriately ridiculous, with Chan’s snake hand movements always precise. The strangest part of the film, the “cat’s claw” form that eventually defeats the other two forms, is born out of a short segment of a cat fighting a cobra to the death as the young, recently defeated, fighter looks on to find inspiration. It’s a disturbing bit of animal acting, with a hissing soundtrack to match.

Even as a debut film from a director, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow feels like it knows what it’s doing right from the start. Each sequence is planned out to perfection, with many of the standards of the kung fu comedy film seeing some of their first iterations here, including Chan’s quasi-absurdist training montages - fingertip push-ups over a bed of burning incense and backbends on a set of poles. Yuen Woo-ping also experiments with new camera angles and movements throughout, attempting to better highlight both the fight acrobatics and Chan’s ability to hold an assortment of exaggerated pained expressions from each hit. Each blow is emphasized not just with sound effects, but with inserts of the damaged body parts (generally feet) and pauses for Jackie to moan and quickly recover - or not recover, as his autobiography recounts losing a tooth during filming from a kick to the face.

The last of its many highlights is the third person to achieve fame from the film, Yuen Siu-tien, in the role of the teacher-in-hiding. The actor is also the director’s father, and had been a Hong Kong cinema stalwart for decades; he’s better known now by the name of his famous role from Drunken Master (1978), Beggar So - and, for Wu-Tang reasons, even better known for his final role, as Ol’ Dirty. In Eagle’s Shadow, Yuen Siu-tien’s character Pai Chang-tien is functionally the “Beggar So” character that he would become known for: a kung fu master in hiding, mischievous, secretly warm-hearted, and a relentless taskmaster. Jackie Chan and Yuen Siu- tien together make Eagle’s Shadow something to remember with their screen chemistry, which feels like a combination of father and son, teacher and student, and as Pai maintains, friends - even as he whacks Chien Fu with his smoldering pipe all in the name of the Snake Kung Fu.

Frontlines and Heartlines: A Journey to the Past in THE DONUT DOLLIES

Thursday, February 24th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Norman Anderson’s The Donut Dollies were written by Samantha Janes, graduate student in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. The Donut Dollies will screen at the Cinematheque on Saturday, February 26 at 7 p.m., in conjunction with  with University Theatre’s production of Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, directed by Baron Kelly, with performances running March 3-11.

By Samantha Janes

During the First World War, the Salvation Army began to recruit female volunteers for various tasks that ranged from nursing to food administration. The “Donut Dollies,” as they were later nicknamed in the Second World War, were born from the work of women who held positions that focused on recreation and food. The idea of bringing a simple, easily distributed dessert from the United States to the frontlines of the war was meant to boost morale and remind the troops of home. This connection to home proved of so much value to the soldiers during their times overseas that when America entered the Second World War, the American Red Cross established the Clubmobile Services that included women serving donuts. This tradition continued throughout the Korean War, but in Vietnam, the Donut Dollies became a much more visible presence to American troops. Even with the long legacy of the Donut Dollies’ connection to the war efforts, their stories are seldom mentioned in the history books covering America’s wars.

Norman Anderson’s 2019 documentary film, The Donut Dollies works to rectify this gap and preserve Donut Dollies’ stories through the lens of his mother Dorset’s enlistment in the program and her journey back to Vietnam forty-six years later. Anderson, a producer, writer, and documentary filmmaker most known for his television work with National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, spent twenty years working on this first feature film. Through his combination of home videos, interviews, and archival footage, Anderson weaves his mother’s story of her time as a Donut Dollie with the memories of other women who served in the program, Vietnam veterans, and current citizens of cities such as Nha Trang and Củ Chi.

While other documentaries such as Patrick and Cheryl Fries’ A Touch of Home: The Vietnam War’s Red Cross Girls (2007) explore the story of the American Red Cross’s Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO) program that made the young, college-educated women into Donut Dollies during the war, Anderson’s film thrives due to his special connection to the preservation of the Donut Dollies legacy. The personal footage of Anderson beginning his research on his mother’s work as a Donut Dollie dates back to 1998 and continues through 2015 when his mother and Mary Bowe, Dorset’s college roommate and another former Donut Dollie, travel back to Vietnam in an attempt to receive closure from their previous experiences while also honoring the memories that they hold dear.

The Donut Dollies does not glamorize the war nor the women’s experiences at different bases across the country. Through interviews, the former Donut Dollies confront their lack of preparation and understanding of the war until their arrival in combat zones. According to Dorset, this lack of knowledge around the war and its impact on the world was exactly what she was seeking clarity on when she signed up for the program. For some women, such as Mary Atkinson, who was in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, it was a hatred of the war that led her to enlist and “find the scoop” on the reasons behind the protest, draft card burnings, and brewing panic across the country. With mentions of the Tet Offensive and the nation-wide arguments over America’s involvement in the war, many Donut Dollies were clear in their interviews with Anderson that their reason for enlisting in the program was due to the fact that they recognized America’s involvement in the war was not going to stop and that they were best suited to join the war effort as “the morale for the enlisted man.”

This attempt to keep up morale for the soldiers led to many Donut Dollies suffering in silence through their physical, mental, and emotional turmoil during and after their time in the war. Dorset and Mary recall tragic experiences of some of the Donut Dollies, and many Donut Dollies mention they chose to remain silent on their experiences after returning home from Vietnam. Anderson carefully draws out the heartaches of these women while also balancing a focus on the effect of the war on veterans and the people of Vietnam.

As Dorset and Mary journey to Vietnam in 2015, they encounter veterans such as Bob, who serves as their first contact, and others they meet by happenstance during their travels. As the women make their way through the various cities and landmarks they recall from their previous experiences, Anderson utilizes archival footage to demonstrate the changes that occurred over the years following the war. The beauty of Vietnam and its people are never far from the minds of Dorset and Mary, even as they recall the tragedies they faced as a result of the war. Throughout their journey back to Vietnam, the impact of the war on the lives of the Donut Dollies, the veterans, and the citizens of Vietnam is poignantly recognizable through discussions of PTSD, Agent Orange, and emotional heartaches. However, the ability of Dorset and Mary to reflect on their experiences and reconcile with their current lives provides a sense of tentative catharsis that lingers long after the film is over. After twenty years of work and a successful Kickstarter campaign, Anderson’s The Donut Dollies comes to life on screen and ultimately provides the heartfelt histories of an often-forgotten group of women in a way that brings a new perspective to viewing the frontlines of the Vietnam War.

The Political and Aesthetic Significance of Ashby’s COMING HOME

Thursday, February 17th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Hal Ashby's Coming Home was written by Ashton Leach, graduate student at UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Coming Home will screen on Saturday, February 19 at 7:15 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission for this screening is free.

The screening is presented in conjunction with University Theatre’s production of Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart directed by Baron Kelly. Performances run March 3-11.

By Ashton Leach

The 1970s saw the rise of the auteur director—someone who seems to craft every element of the film as if they were authoring a book themselves. Because of this intense dedication and control, Hal Ashby’s eccentric films of the 1970s have gained a cult following that pushed his once-controversial pieces into the canon of the decade. He directed back-to-back hits starting in 1970 with a debut that is politically charged and funny throughout, The Landlord. In 1971 he shocked audiences with his romantically taboo-yet-lust-for-life-inducing film Harold and Maude, followed by the humorously profane sailor film The Last Detail in 1973. Next, the sexual, comedic, and politically puissant Shampoo was released in 1975, followed by the insightful 1976 biopic of musical folk hero Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory. In 1978, Ashby released his anti-war manifesto in the romance, Coming Home. He concluded his string of superb films with Being There in 1979.

Before becoming a director, Ashby was known for being a meticulous editor, working on films such as The Cincinnati Kid and In the Heat of the Night. Ashby would spend hours re-watching clips until he could craft the perfect transition, and it has been said that he would not leave the editing room for months at a time as he clipped and dissolved film reels to his level of perfection. Ashby stated, “Make your film so goddamned good that you see something in it all the time. Every sonofabitching time you sit down and thread up a goddamn reel and you punch a button and you start to look at it, you get a different idea. And whether you pursue it or not doesn’t matter. The film will tell you what to do.” Ashby moved from editing to direction in 1970 when his filmmaking partner, Norman Jewison, passed along a project Jewison was set to direct on race relations and the comedically ignorant white aristocrats in New York, The Landlord. The film took on the political ideologies that Ashby and Jewison had been wanting to delve into. Ashby’s manner of directing led to an indescribable intimacy between the audience and the characters. His films take on the feel of a documentary, utilizing raw but subtle emotion to complicate the personalities of his characters. He continued to use the wit, the poignant political themes, and the personable approach that he utilized in The Landlord throughout his filmography, and it is seen unobscured in Coming Home.

Coming Home, a staunchly anti-war film, came out after America had left Vietnam, but the war’s effects were still ravaging the world. The title of the film itself references the hardship faced by many of the soldiers who returned after their tour was complete. Most people would associate coming home with the feeling of comfort, knowing everything around us, and a sense of freedom, but Coming Home pushes back against that narrative of open arms and joyous reunions. Ashby’s film gives face to those who have returned from war but no do not experience that comfort. They are physically back, but their home is not the same, or rather they have changed in a way that makes “home” feel foreign.

The film opens with cigarette smoking and pool being played—balls ricocheting while we hear talking about “going back.” As the camera moves away, it is clear that the nameless men playing this game of billiards are physically disabled—sitting in wheelchairs or laying on beds while maneuvering around the table. “Going back” is going back to Vietnam or running away to Canada—these men are vets who served in Vietnam and have come home. The year is 1968, the war in Vietnam is at its height. Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is the perfect, friendly, doting wife to Bob (Bruce Dern), a Marine who is preparing to ship off for duty in Vietnam. Once he is gone, Sally’s time is free in a way she has not known. There are no more watchful eyes at country clubs and Bob is not around to tell her what to think. In dedication to her husband and to do her part for the war effort, Sally volunteers at the local veterans’ hospital. She gets a beach house and spends her time increasingly away, not only from Bob, but from the way of life they led before his departure. A meet-cute if there ever was one, Sally is run into by a patient who is lying face down on a bed, using a cane to move throughout the hospital. When they collide, his urine bag falls to the floor, and a familiar face from the opening scene reappears. His angry outburst defines a great deal of Luke Martin’s (played by Jon Voight) personality for the rest of the film, foiling Sally’s gentle demeanor. Upon further discussion, outside of the frequent anger-filled outbursts, Sally and Luke realize they went to high school together. Though they were never friends, it gives them the tiny connection to start something more than a caregiver and patient relationship.

The manner in which Ashby captures the relationship of Sally and Luke is astonishing, building chemistry between them in a sort of opposites attract theme while keeping them raw and real, but what Ashby does best in this film is the visual perspective he crafts for Luke. Luke has been paralyzed from the waist down after an injury in the war and when a shot is taking Luke’s perspective, Ashby keeps the camera at Luke’s eye level. There will be shots with disembodied people walking on the screen. It is jarring at first watching torsos move without the faces leading, but this method of capturing just one way in which Luke sees the world since coming home from Vietnam is substantial and poignant. Luke is seen both in a wheelchair and in a mobile bed, each of which takes on different heights and visual cues.

Ashby does not craft characters that are simply good or bad—Luke is hot-headed and violent at times, while Sally was naïve and did not tend to think critically about the world around her beyond what was told to her by her husband. This relationship changes them in ways that, depending on the character in the film, might be for the better or worse. Nothing feels clean cut or easy in this film, and that is how Ashby creates fathomable narratives that teach a lesson and push audiences to think about their perception of the world.

DRAGON INN : Wuxia Defined

Friday, February 11th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on King Hu’s Dragon Inn were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dragon Inn, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, on Sunday, February 13, at 2 p.m. On the same screen on week later, the Cinematheque will present Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Both screenings are co-presented by our friends at WUD Film. Admission is free for both screenings.

By Tim Brayton

Over the past few years, Cinematheque has showcased several of the wuxia epics of the great action director King Hu. But now we bring to you a truly special example of Hu’s art, the proverbial “one he’ll be remembered for”: Dragon Inn, a 1967 historical adventure that was a massive hit in its native Taiwan, and has gone on to become one of the most beloved examples of its cult-favorite genre. Its legacy extends beyond the legions of action epics mixing costume drama and violent exploitation cinema, to reach the arthouse: the film has been released on home video as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, in addition to inspiring the great slow cinema director Tsai Ming-Liang in the creation of his 2003 masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn (which is showing next week at Cinematheque).

Even King Hu himself ended up living in the film’s shadow: six years later, he’d direct The Fate of Lee Khan, which in some ways plays as an uncredited remake of Dragon Inn. But that’s perfectly understandable. Dragon Inn is a consummate work of action filmmaking, political storytelling, and good old-fashioned cinematic spectacle, parading its large cast in a rainbow of bright costumes across the great expanse of an anamorphic widescreen frame. It has a cast full of memorably larger-than-life characters, and a story that’s simultaneously a complicated web of political intrigue, and a pretty straightforward Wild West-style narrative about the need to defend a base of operations from an encroaching army.

Many of these elements are central to the wuxia film. If you’re not familiar with the genre by that name, wuxia is an exceedingly broad term that basically refers to any story built around gifted warriors in ancient China following a chivalric notion of heroism and defending the weak. Fantasy may be involved, as might swords, along with trampolines and wirework, or camera trickery designed to make the heroes and villains alike seem to possess superhero fighting abilities. You’ll see some of these elements in Dragon Inn and not others; wuxia is a generous genre, and as long as the basic setting and ethos are in place, it can withstand a great many different tones, plots, and styles.

In this case, the setting is an inn on the edge of an unfathomable desert. Here, a group of heroes come together to prevent a treacherous warlord-eunuch from killing the surviving children of his dead political enemy. And there’s not much more to it than that, though in the moment of watching Dragon Inn, it can easily seem like the film is full to bursting with factional intrigues and the ever-present threat of ambush or betrayal. The eunuch himself, Cao Shao-qin (Pai Ying) barely appears until late in the film, and most of what happens before then is that we’re introduced to our band of heroes, more or less one at a time, the better to appreciate their skills. Hu refrains from making any of of them a clear-cut lead, though by virtue of being the first one to show off his talents, the lone swordsman Xiao, played by Chun Shih (a mainstay of Hu’s subsequent films, working with the director for the first time) perhaps makes the strongest impression. And one must also give a nod to Miss Zhu (Lingfeng Shangguan), an excellent swordswoman disguised as a man when we meet her; she’s the archetype for all of the highly competent, self-sufficient female warriors who would become a particular strength of Hu’s going forward.

The insistence on treating the protagonists as a collaborative group rather than individual fighters leads to one of Dragon Inn’s most celebrated elements, its extraordinary fight choreography captured within unusually elegant widescreen compositions. In treating his protagonists collectively, Hu is able to introduce some bold ideas into the action scenes, which unfold according to some very different rhythms than anything else out there in ‘67. This is most apparent in the film’s climax, when the heroes have greatly tired themselves out over a long stretch of fighting, and throw themselves into a five-against-one boss battle. Between the feeling of exhaustion that the film generates from the performers (not to mention the sheer momentum of how action-packed the second hour is; the viewer is likely to be more than a little worn out themselves), and the possibilities for choreography brought in by the arrangement of combatants, this brutal and abrupt final fight proves to be remarkably fresh and surprising, even with the film having spawned so many copycats through the years.

Of course, there’s still room for taciturn warriors showing off their individual skills in bravura setpieces. Xiao’s arrival at the inn is a particularly great example of this, with clever angles and some basic filmmaking trickery (running film backwards, speeding it up) setting him up as pragmatic and startlingly good at flinging around bowls full of food without spilling a drop. It’s a real virtuoso sequence, using some of the film’s most striking compositions to work through some of its most delightfully showy fight choreography.

Dragon Inn balances this spectacle with more grounded, muted human feelings: everybody might be an archetype, some of them pretty garish at that, but they also feel like distinctly worked-out people. The evocation of a fraught political struggle is tempered and cynical just enough to give the film a feeling of grown-up bite. It’s not a serious historical document, and it’s not trying to be, but there’s a perfect amount of depth in the characters and large-scale stakes in the conflict for Dragon Inn to feel like a more fully-realized story than a great many action scenes on either side of the Pacific. It has popcorn movie gravity, deep enough for it to feel consequential even while its main goal is to keep knocking you out with one creative fight scene, punchy joke (the play has an admirable amount of drily dark humor), or gorgeous tableau of human soldiers arranged against an undulating environment in crisp lines. It’s a truly special, ambitious film, in other words, more than worthy of being considered, even now, one of the defining examples of wuxia.

See Oscar-nominated WRITING WITH FIRE & Hear Cinematalk Podcast with Filmmakers

Tuesday, February 8th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Our ongoing series of new movies from India continues on Saturday, February 12 at 4 p.m. with Pebbles, India's official submission for Best International Feature at the 2022 Academy Awards. Then, at 7 p.m., the first area theatrical screening of Writing with Fire, which today was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar!

The screenings will be held at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free. Masks are required for entry. New Indian Cinema is presented with the support of UW Madison’s Center for South Asia. Special thanks to Sarah Beckham and Darshana Sreedhar Mini.

Writing with Fire screened virtually at the 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival. An episode of our Cinematalk podcast, recorded in May, 2021, features Writing with Fire co-directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas in conversation with Professor Darshana Sreedhar Mini of UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. You can listen to the podcast below, or you can subscribe to Cinematalk through Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podccasts.

Favorites of 2021: Pauline Lampert

Monday, January 10th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

Pauline Lampert is a Phd candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. She is also Project Assistant and Programmer for the Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Best of 2021

1. Power of the Dog (Campion)

2. West Side Story (Spielberg)

3. A Hero (Farhadi)

4. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Greenbaum)

5. The French Dispatch (Anderson)

6. Pretend It’s a City (Scorsese)

7. The Velvet Underground (Haynes)

8. The Lost Daughter (Gyllenhaal)

9. Flee (Poher Rasmussen)

10. Petite Maman (Sciamma)

2021 Honorable Mentions

The Worst Person in the World (Trier)

Parallel Mothers (Almodóvar)

Try Harder! (Lum)

Best first views of 2021 in alphabetical order:

1. Bell, Book and Candle (Quine, 1958)

2. Blue Hawaii (Taurog, 1961)

3. Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982)

4. Chess of the Wind (Reza Aslani, 1975)

5. Crossing Delancey (Micklin Silver,1988)

6. The End of the Track (Mou Tun-fei, 1970)

7. Ghost ( Zucker, 1990)

8. He Ran All the Way (Berry, 1951)

9. Hester Street (Micklin Silver, 1975)

10. Klute (Pakula, 1971)

11. The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Mambéty, 1999)

12. Miss Juneteenth (Godfrey Peoples, 2020)

13. She-Devil (Seidelman, 1989)

14. The Story of Temple Drake (Roberts, 1933)

15. West Indies (Hondo, 1979)