Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

With regret The UW Cinematheque announces the cancelation of remaining spring 2020 screenings through May 3. The screenings have been canceled out of concern for the safety of our community due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. This action is consistent with public health guidance to limit non-essential large gatherings.

The Cinematheque Programming staff is currently investigating the possibility of re-scheduling some of these screenings on future Cinematheque calendars. We value your support for the Cinematheque and we look forward to being able to watch movies with you in the near future.

This announcement affects the following previously scheduled screenings:

FRI., 3/27, 7 p.m.


SAT, 3/28, 7 p.m.


SUN., 3/29, 2 p.m., Chazen


FRI., 4/10, 7 p.m.


SAT., 4/11, 7 p.m.


SAT., 4/11, 8:30 p.m.


SUN., 4/12, 2 p.m., Chazen


FRI., 4/17, 7 p.m.


SAT., 4/18, 7 p.m.


SUN., 4/19, 2 p.m., Chazen


FRI., 4/24, 7 p.m.


SAT., 4/25, 7 p.m.


SUN, 4/26, 2 p.m., Chazen


FRI., 5/1, 7 p.m.


SAT., 5/2, 7 p.m., Marquee Theater


SUN., 5/3, 2 p.m., Chazen


The Stylistic Experimentation of VIVRE SA VIE

Monday, March 9th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie (1962) were written by Dillon Mitchell, Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Vivre sa vie was originally scheduled to screen as a tribute to the late Anna Karina (1940-2019) on Sunday, March 15 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art. In compliance with UW Madison’s policies enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 this screening has been canceled along with all previously announced UW Cinematheque screenings through April 12. The Cinematheque Programming staff is currently investigating the possibility of re-scheduling some of these screenings on future Cinematheque calendars.

By Dillon Mitchell

Few films have challenged the language of cinematic narrative to the point that they necessitate new tools for understanding: Vivre sa vie is one of them. The third feature from French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, Vivre sa vie was released only two years after Godard’s now-canonized breakout hit, Breathless (1960). In many ways, it has become a more accurate signal of things to come for the filmmaker. Dense and challenging, Vivre sa vie presages the gleeful rejection of filmmaking conventions that will come to define much of Godard’s later work.

Despite its roots in the art cinema movement of the French New Wave, film scholar David Bordwell argues that Vivre sa vie – and Godard’s work at large – defies easy categorization as art cinema. Though commonly thought of as lacking universal governing principles, Bordwell identifies commonalities across art cinema as it positions itself against classical cinema: characteristics like a denial of causal relationships and narrative finality, overt commentary on the construction of narration, and a focus on filmic realism are examples of art cinema norms that he details. Gordard’s work is different, then, because it employs and ignores norms as it sees fit, sometimes changing its relationship to them on a scene-to-scene basis.

The defining feature of Vivre sa vie is its organization into 12 “tableaus,” chapters in the life of the central character Nana (played by late, iconic French actress Anna Karina, who was married to Godard at the time of filming and acted in eight of his films during the 1960s). This self-conscious structuring device offers audiences entry points into a narrative that is otherwise unconcerned with their comprehension of events. Bordwell writes that “the narration [of a Godard film] can be completely uncommunicative, leaving many permanent gaps,” citing the indeterminate time that passes between the tableaus of Vivre sa Vie as an example.

Style differs across the tableaus, each one distinct, marginally or substantially, from the others. Techniques may be present across multiple sections, but their execution and effect vary: shot-reverse shot sequences, for example, become an arena for Godard’s stylistic experimentation. From the very beginning of the first tableau, he circumvents traditional logic for filming these scenes by framing his subjects from behind – instead of seeing their facial expressions for an emotionally charged exchange, we’re denied access, made to grasp onto Nana’s out-of-focus mirror reflection in the background as a kind of anchor. Throughout, Godard finds new ways to obscure conversations and frustrate expectation. Another device that extends across tableaus is Nana’s point-of-view. The brief point-of-view shots shown in the fifth tableau are markedly different from the floating camera movement of Nana’s perspective in the ninth tableau’s mesmerizing dance sequence. Despite their shared technique, both moments capture Nana’s subjectivity with different means to different ends.

It is Nana, whose struggles for agency punctuate the tableaus, that bind this obtuse, fragmented narrative and stylistic system. Vivre sa vie opens with a quote from French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: “Il faut se préter aux autres et se donner a soi-même,” roughly translated in the English subtitles to, “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Across the 12 tableaus, Nana’s increasing inability to balance that interpersonal dynamic in patriarchal society defines her trajectory; the film’s style, despite its lack of internal unity, frequently coheres around this idea.

Some of the film’s most affecting moments come when the form serves to highlight Karina’s performance. An early tableau features a short interrogation of Nana by a police office. Godard shoots her in medium close-up and close-up shots, her face oriented directly toward the camera in a straight angle. As she recounts her story, however, her eyes are fixed on the ground, her gaze only rising to meet the camera sporadically. In those moments, Nana’s façade threatens to break: Karina’s eyes run wild while her face remains still, and Godard never pulls away to show the officer’s reaction while she speaks – only to ask her more questions when she is silent. The tableau ends when Nana eventually doesn’t have an answer for the question posed. She looks off-screen, desperate for an escape that the claustrophobic framing does not offer.

A lack of formal consistency across the film does not necessarily amount to meaningless style. Though Godard may be popularly known for his love of “style for style’s sake,” the range to be found in Vivre sa vie does make for powerful moments united around Nana. Vivre sa vie is a film that rewards repeat viewing, not because it is meant to be solved, but because it offers so many details to pore over and appreciate each time. There are moments of familiarity, elements recognizable from both the art cinema and classical cinema traditions, but it presents an experience wholly unlike another single film.


63 UP: Shaping Ordinary Lives

Monday, February 17th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Michael Apted's 63 Up were written by Matt St. John, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque will present the only area theatrical screenings of 63 Up on Friday, February 21 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, February 22 at 2 p.m., in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free for both screenings!

By Matt St. John

Across the nine installments of Michael Apted’s Up series, Tony, an affable East Ender and aspiring jockey-turned-taxi driver, has offered countless jokes and anecdotes, but the most memorable of all might be the story of his chance encounter with the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In 56 Up, Tony describes a day when he happened to pick up Aldrin in his cab, and a passerby asked for an autograph. Tony conveyed the request to Aldrin, but he was shocked when the fan clarified that they wanted an autograph from the documentary participant, not his astronaut passenger.

Tony and the other subjects of the Up films may not have walked on the moon, but they are widely recognized after first entering the public eye in 1964’s Seven Up! and returning for updates (in most cases) every seven years since. If you’re new to the series, it may seem like a lot to catch up on. Fortunately, Apted and Kim Horton, who has edited the films since the fourth entry 28 Up, integrate archival footage from previous films into each interview segment, refreshing familiar audiences on the participants’ stories and bringing new ones up to speed.

Granada Television’s initial film Seven Up! profiles fourteen British children who are seven years old. The film includes interviews about their plans and goals, as well as observational footage when they spend a day visiting a zoo and a playground. Inspired by the Jesuit proverb “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” Seven Up! posits a central question of whether the children’s class backgrounds will determine the trajectories of their lives, but the scope of the series has expanded from this limited frame of the class system. Michael Apted, a researcher on the first film and the director of the other eight films, has returned every seven years to profile the participants, although they do not always agree to appear (of the fourteen original children, Charles has not been in any of the films since 21 Up, and four others have declined to participate at least once). Apted’s questions still touch on class often, but the focus has gradually broadened, resulting in a documentary series about the choices and changes that have shaped a set of ordinary lives, from the significant to the seemingly mundane.

Over the years, Apted and his subjects have discussed innumerable topics related to their lives. Conversations have covered local theater, libraries, home remodels, Bulgarian charity work, arthritis, divorce, and death. Sometimes Apted and Horton must disregard the recommendations of newer producers in order to include the elements of daily life that have defined the texture of the series. In a 2019 New York Times Magazine profile, they recalled their frustration at a note that Sue’s dog should be cut from the film. With so many subjects and their wide range of hobbies, interests, and experiences, it’s no surprise that fans of the series have favorite “characters.” The trials and accomplishments of Neil’s life have created a compelling dramatic narrative for audiences to catch up on every seven years, and Nick is certainly a local favorite, a professor who lives in Madison and has been interviewed here for every film since 28 Up. The cast has expanded over time, with the wives, husbands, kids, friends, and pets of the original participants appearing across installments, often taking part in the interviews themselves.

Apted’s questions and the taxing nature of the project in general strain his relationships with the subjects at some points. In multiple films, Jackie has understandably confronted him about the portrayal of her and the other working-class women. John will no longer speak with Apted and is instead interviewed by producer Claire Lewis, who has worked on the series since 28 Up. Like any long-lasting relationships, Apted and his subjects have their ups and downs, but most of them display a warmth and familiarity in their convervations with him, even when they fight, and especially as they have grown older.

Aging appears as a major concern of the reflective interviews in 56 Up, but that theme becomes more central in 63 Up. This film finds the participants facing their own mortality, not just that of their parents or loved ones (a trauma that’s weighed on the series since 28 Up and 35 Up, when multiple participants experienced the death of a parent). It’s a new and necessary direction for the films. Mortality seems an inevitable theme, as the series continues into the later adulthood of its participants, but the shift is still a shock. Apted and his subjects confront this change with sadness and candor, maintaining the intimate interview style that has marked the series for over five decades. While 63 Up remains extremely personal, it also addresses national problems and politics more directly than most of the films. The uncertainty of Brexit is a thread throughout the film, as well as concerns about opportunities for future generations, like Sue’s comments about the struggling National Health Service.

As the Up series has progressed, the popularity of the documentary project and its participants has also been mentioned more frequently in the films. The 2019 premiere of 63 Up on British television was even accompanied by a new promotional special titled 7 Up & Me, which observes a number of celebrities, including Richard E. Grant and Michael Sheen, watching and responding to clips from the program. The series enjoys a popularity usually unreached by fairly sober documentaries, and it has long been highly acclaimed, with Roger Ebert once calling it the “noblest project in cinema history.” In a move familiar to long-time viewers of the series, which often sees participants amending their comments from past films, Ebert later referenced that statement in his review of 56 Up: “I am older now and might refrain from such hyperbole. But we are all older now, and this series proves it in a most deeply moving way.”

Journalists have repeatedly asked Apted about the possibility of more Up films, and his responses have been mostly hopeful, although he has referenced his own age, now 79. In an interview with Slant Magazine, he said, “I’d like to go on for as long as I am above ground.” As for the participants, they regularly express ambivalence or even disdain toward the series, but most of them keep returning. Regardless of where the series goes from 63 Up, if indeed it does go anywhere, Apted’s films stand as a uniquely ambitious project. The films are remarkable for their scope and their unmatched attention to ordinary lives –– lives that have been bravely (if sometimes hesitantly) shared, ever since fourteen children happened to be selected by their teachers and a television crew.

An Intimate Slice of Beatlemania: THE HOURS AND TIMES

Thursday, February 13th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Christ Munch's The Hours and Times (1992) were written by Leah Steuer, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored 35mm print of The Hours and Times from the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen in our UCLA Festival of Preservation on Tour series on Saturday, February 15 at 7 p.m., followed by Gay U.S.A. at 8:15 p.m. Both screenings will be held in our regular Cinematheque venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission!

By Leah Steuer

There’s nothing fast, euphoric, dirty, or sweet about Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times. Made on an astonishingly low budget and clocking in at just under an hour, it’s a quiet and contemplative little indie feature that barely belongs to the motley collection of films made about The Beatles over the past six decades; indeed, what makes The Hours and Times so remarkable is that it shares so little DNA with its larger-than-life references. Staged sparsely, as a series of black-and-white vignettes, Munch’s film quietly speculates on what might have happened during John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s (David Angus) 1963 holiday to Spain - a real event which took place right between the band’s transition from fleeting pop sensation to international stardom, between the spark and the flame. It’s a brave portrait of homosocial intimacy fractured by pride, fame, and trauma; many contemporary reviews described Hours as a challenging meditation on “friendship,” though the word barely encapsulates Lennon and Epstein’s sexually charged cat-and-mouse connection.

Though the film clearly takes creative liberties with history and with its two central characters, it doesn’t really have to stretch far to queer this corner of the Beatles narrative. Indeed, shortly before his death in 1980, Lennon told Playboy that “it was almost a love affair [between me and Brian], but not quite. It was never consummated. But we did have a pretty intense relationship.” Rumors around the nature of their closeness persisted through the height of The Beatles’ fame and for years after, between interviews and biographies. Though Epstein achieved monumental success with his diamonds-in-the-rough from Liverpool, he struggled with reconciling his gay identity and public image and died tragically from a drug overdose at age 32. Both he and Lennon were gifted, highly damaged men with rivaling appetites for self-destruction; in this film, Munch expertly weaves what is known, unknown, and imagined about them into a portrait of queer longing that is in no way exploitative. Though the two men often find their way into flirtation - and sometimes overt eroticism, as with the sequence in the hotel bath - Hours sidesteps the sensationalism of it all to create something small, painful, and special.

Side characters step in and out of the Lennon/Epstein bubble, supplying temptations, distractions, and moments of clarity as the men reckon with their complex entanglement over a short series of days. We always return, however, to the anchoring, shy incandescence of Hart and Angus at the center of it all. Epstein’s sad desperation for human touch becomes clear during his brief encounter with a young bellhop; the dashing but closeted guest Quinones proves a handy pawn for he and Lennon to test one another’s “type.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s the women closest to the two that provide the most fascinating and useful insights into these characters. There is a particularly affecting contrast between their phone conversations: Epstein is meek and tender with his mother, while Lennon is studiedly detached while checking in with his new wife Cynthia. Blandly hot flight attendant Marianne represents the kind of easy sin available to an artist like Lennon, who seems to yearn for something deeper and more dangerous with Epstein while also firmly keeping him at arm’s length (“I get the feeling I'm supposed to bring it up and then I’m damned for doing so,” observes Epstein). Angus delivers lines like these beautifully, with a grave sense of resignation; surprisingly, Hours was one of only a handful of Angus' film appearances. Hart is excellent as a young Lennon, dry and impish and electric. In fact, he proved himself so well in this role that he would go on to play a slightly meaner but equally queer-leaning Lennon again in Backbeat (1994).

The film is very much a curiosity, from its bold choice of subject to its depth of feeling in the face of an obviously humble budget. Hours won the Special Jury Recognition award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and compares quite favorably to Munch’s sparse oeuvre. The (unfortunately abysmal) Harry + Max, released in 2004, attempted to recreate this film’s tenuous magic but failed to approach the wit and the simple, aching, lovely sadness that pervades Hours.

As I noted at the outset, Hours is only glancingly touched by the powerful glow of Beatles mythology. But it is also, in a sense, part of an affective lineage: it has such pathos precisely because it is so vulnerable beneath the shadow of an enduring musical and social legacy. Compare Hours to the more classic biopic structure of Backbeat, set a few years earlier during the Beatles’ grungy beginnings as a touring band, or to the 2000 John/Paul portrait Two Of Us (which also features a kiss! Are we seeing a pattern here?). Nowhere Boy (2009) rewrote the story of four men in a fishbowl into a prequel, following lonely teenage boys joined by musical destiny. Still other filmmakers have interpreted The Beatles as lyrical poetics (Across the Universe), as a cultural touchstone (Yesterday), and as a fannish phenomenon (Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, I Wanna Hold Your Hand). These disparate films are each, unto themselves, an effort to make sense of the emotions wrought by popular artistry and of the stories we tell ourselves about how fame is formed. Hours, standing apart and lonely, occupies itself with something else: just a few strange days in the mortal lives of icons struggling to feel.

Joy and Anger: GAY U.S.A.

Thursday, February 13th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Arthur Bressan, Jr.'s Gay U.S.A. (1977) were written by Matt St. John, PhD Candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restoration of Gay U.S.A. from the UCLA Film & Television Archive will be shown on Saturday, February 15 at 8:15 p.m. in our UCLA Festival of Preservation on Tour series. Gay U.S.A. will be preceded by Christopher Munch's hour-long The Hours and Times at 7 p.m. Both screenings are free and will take place at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue.

By Matt St. John

Director Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. is best known for his 1985 AIDS drama Buddies, which his sister Roe Bressan presented at the Cinematheque in November 2018, but his films touch on many aspects of gay life in the 1970s and 1980s. In his earlier work, Bressan had already documented pride parades like those seen in 1977’s Gay U.S.A. His first film, the documentary short Coming Out, centers on the first annual San Francisco pride march in 1972. He also made numerous gay adult films, recognized for their formal qualities as well as their fusion of romantic narrative and pornography. For instance, Passing Strangers (1974) structures its story of a gay couple in two sections differentiated by black-and-white and color cinematography, with the shift to color occurring at the men’s first physical interaction. Gay U.S.A. lacks the hardcore content of Bressan’s films like Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters (1976), but it maintains an attention to physical contact, frequently showing gay couples passionately kissing or casually holding each other in public spaces, as it documents pride marches around the country.

Huge crowds, elaborate floats, and ornate costumes reveal the immense enthusiasm for pride events in Gay U.S.A., but the film’s opening titles are a solemn dedication to Robert Hillsborough, a San Francisco man who was stabbed to death in a homophobic attack on June 22, 1977. Just four days later, Bressan and his collaborators captured their footage of pride parades happening across the United States, in cities including San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The film records the crowds’ anger over recent high-profile events involving the gay community (the typical designation for the LGBTQ community at the time –– the film only briefly mentions bisexuality, and there is no discussion of trans people). Many of the participants discuss Anita Bryant’s homophobic campaign against Miami’s gay rights protections and violent incidents like Hillsborough’s murder, but the film also shows the marchers’ exhilaration over the massive public gatherings. Some of the pride attendees in the film are motivated by fighting anti-gay rhetoric as much as enjoying the energy and spectacle, and Bressan balances this joy and anger throughout the film.

While there is some observational footage, Gay U.S.A. primarily features interviews with people at the marches, as they discuss their thoughts on being gay, especially in relatively progressive large cities. The filmmakers also talk with straight people at the marches, with many showing support and a few just wanting to see what the fuss is about. Bressan compiles the interviews in a quickly paced series of topics, with various subjects providing a rough structure and sincere gay-themed folk songs often bookending the sections. These segments allow Bressan to recognize the numerous groups and perspectives represented at the events, instead of portraying the crowds as monolithic. Bressan knew that gay men already dominated most public acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community at this time, so he made a conscious effort to incorporate women throughout the film. Some sections focus on issues particularly related to women’s experiences, like questions of terminology for lesbians or the ratio of gender representation at pride marches. One sequence toward the end of the film includes interviews with multiple drag performers, intercut with women questioning the political vitality of drag. Most of the interviews are positive, as people discuss the opportunity to be gay in public at the marches and what it might mean for young people deciding whether they should come out, but Bressan leaves room to address the already forming factions and priorities within the community.

He also makes space for gay people to speak out against mainstream forces that they find oppressive, unjust, or simply annoying. Some of Gay U.S.A.’s most compelling moments see gay men and lesbians explaining the hypocrisy of a straight society that seeks to hide their affection and identity. One woman memorably castigates straight people who criticize the gay community for being “blatant,” as she offers a litany of ways in which “blatant heterosexuals are all over the place.” Bressan allows himself to express some rage of his own, in a striking portion of the film that recounts the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany and the recent appropriation of the pink triangle, which had been used as a mark of shame.

By documenting the massive pride marches across the United States, Bressan aimed for the film to have political impact. He said, “My naive dream was that if we all saw ourselves in our numbers we would never buy into the guilt trip again.” The film did have substantial reach upon its release, even being used as an educational tool in some contexts. It screened on local television in Wichita, Kansas, where gay rights activists hoped it might promote awareness and help them prevent legislation and campaigns like Anita Bryant’s in Florida. Bressan’s sister, Roe, has also recalled that the film was shown in schools, as an introduction to the reality of “gay life.”

Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. passed away in 1987, but Roe Bressan has worked to ensure her brother’s legacy in queer cinema. She has been a key figure in the preservation and continued distribution of his films, like the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s new restoration of Gay U.S.A. In a 2019 interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Roe described what her brother might hope for new audiences to take away from Gay U.S.A.: “He would want people to simultaneously remember where the fight started, but take the fight and continue moving it forward. He believed in young people. I think that he would want younger people to invest in knowing what happened before in order to prevent it from happening again, despite how far we’ve come.”

A BOY AND HIS DOG: We Don't Need Another Hero

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on L.Q. Jones' apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog (1975) were written by Ben Donahue, programmer for WUD Film. A newly restored DCP of A Boy and His Dog from the UCLA Film & Television Archive screeens this Saturday, February 8 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, in the UCLA Festival of Preservation on Tour. 

By Ben Donahue

“I gotta get back in the dirt so I can feel clean" (Vic, A Boy and His Dog).

A boy and his dog walk alone through a barren desert. They stand where Phoenix, Arizona once stood. Nothing remains. As far as the eye can see exists nothing more than wasteland. The boy, an 18 year old named Vic, provides food for himself and his dog. In return, the dog, an inexplicably telepathic canine named Blood, sniffs out women for Vic. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. They need each other to survive or remain sane, or at least as sane as one can remain once the whole world has gone mad.

Images of a man wandering alone through a desert wasteland might immediately evoke memories of George Miller’s 1979 classic, Mad Max. The author of the 1969 novella, A Boy and His Dog, Harlan Ellison, even reports a conversation where George Miller phoned him and said that Mad Max was a “rip-off” of the novella and the 1975 film. In fact, many wasteland-roaming post-apocalyptic novels, films, and video game franchises can have their lineage traced back to L. Q. Jones’ film. From its decayed and rough aesthetic, its sardonic tone, to its lack of conventional ‘good guys,’ A Boy and His Dog proved to be an important development in science-fiction. Before directing a number of low-budget films, L. Q. Jones was an actor who appeared in small parts in a large number of films, but Jones’ most important and long-running roles were his frequent collaborations with the gruesome and innovative filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Appearing in a number of Peckinpah’s pictures including Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch, Jones seems to have learned a thing or two from him.

While Harlan Ellison may have written the original story, Jones wrote virtually everything past the opening 10 minutes of the film, as Ellison struggled to convert his novella into a script. The resulting film is arguably equal parts Ellison and Jones. Ellison’s contributions come in the form of the sci-fi elements in the film: the nuclear fallout following not World War III but World War IV; the radioactive mutants known as Screamers that glow green and roam the surface; and the massive underground utopia referred to as Topeka amongst many other ideas. What Jones brought to the table was what he learned from his time working with Peckinpah. The hyper-clean sci-fi aesthetic that was popular in previous years is nowhere to be seen here. The breakdown of society and the degradation of humanity is visually represented with ramshackle towns constructed out of spare parts and hungry packs of animalistic scavengers wearing trash as their armor. The fights are scrappy and the landscape is desolate. The future is dirty.

The marriage of sci-fi and gritty, revisionist western isn’t solely an aesthetic leap. The tone of the movie is quite unlike most movies of the time and helps explain the cult reputation the film has enjoyed since. Consider the ingredients—a healthy helping of the grittiness that defined so many films of the late 60s and 70s, a dash of Cold War anxiety, some broad strokes about humanity's tenuous relationship with civility, and a few truly potent sprinkles of unbelievably dark humor—and the film’s staying power immediately becomes apparent. The film’s most striking moments are dripping with a venomous nihilism, but they are also the most comedic moments. For example, the relationship between Vic and Blood is an immediate clue-in to the film’s view on humanity. Don Johnson plays Vic with an irreverent worldview and a borderline feral fixation on women, as women have become a coveted resource more akin to food and water than they are to human beings. Vic is dumb and impulsive and not a good guy by any liberal stretch of the imagination. Tim McIntire voices Blood with an arrogant and intellectual tone—always talking down on everyone, but is similarly despicable in his morals. The satirical assertion that the dog is closer to humanity than the boy doesn’t bode well for our species.

Another example of the films comedy comes in the underground utopia of Topeka: a slice of All-American pie grossly oversaturated in ’50s Americana that resembles a circus more so than anything else. And the cherry on top of the pie is Jason Robards dryly playing the not-so-charismatic leader of the cult-like commune, all while wearing what is ostensibly clown makeup. But for what is hands-down the most potent moment of dark humor, you have to watch all the way till the very end, to the very last line of the film in fact. It’s a joke, but it’s not funny. At least not in the civilized sense of the word. It’s the type of joke that sucker-punches you right in the gut, catching you off-guard. In the moment, you don’t know whether to laugh out of surprise or gasp in disgust. But you’ll have to watch all the way through to hear it.

Max Rockatansky doesn’t have the cleanest conscience, but we can confidently say that he is the hero of Mad Max. Vic and Blood are the protagonists in A Boy and His Dog, but the film would scold you for being as naive as to think that heroes still exist in the future. That’s what separates this movie from its peers. Everyone is simply trying to survive. Everyone thinks solely of themselves. Everyone is bad. In spite of all this, and despite the fact that society has cannibalized itself, and that the future looks to be an especially dark shade of bleak, the film finds a weird sort of cathartic comfort in knowing that the first bond mankind ever made, a bond that predates the birth of civilization, still exists. It’s nice to know that, even in the apocalypse, dogs will always remain man’s best friend.

ALIBI: A Groundbreaking Early Talkie

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Roland West's Alibi (1929) were written by Megan Boyd, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored DCP of Alibi from the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen as part of UCLA's Festival of Preservation on Tour on Saturday, February 8 at 2 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. This screening is the first of four in the UCLA series this weekend. Arthur Ripley's Voice in the Wind will also screen on Saturday, February 8 at 3:45, followed by L.Q. Jones' apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog at 7 p.m. Then, on Sunday, February 9 at 2 p.m., a 35mm print of the 30s musical fantasy My Lips Betray screens at the Chazen Museum of Art. All screenings are free and open to the public.

By Megan Boyd

When United Artists released Alibi (1929), Motion Picture News declared enthusiastically, “the ultimate in talking picture production has been achieved.” Critics also granted the film the praise of being “by far the best crook picture ever made.” The film impressed reviewers by proving that sound could enhance a straight drama as opposed to enlivening musical numbers in popular films like The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros., 1927) or The Broadway Melody (MGM, 1929). Though The Broadway Melody would become the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Alibi also received a nomination for Best Picture that year, along with nominations for Best Actor (Chester Morris) and Best Art Direction (William Cameron Menzies). The film served as a key precedent for influential gangster films of the early 1930s, such as The Public Enemy (Warner Bros., 1931) or Scarface (United Artists, 1932).

Why did critics see Alibi as such an important step forward for proving sound’s value to narrative cinema? Coverage of the film pointed to two qualities: the use of sound to enhance the story’s atmosphere and the ability to incorporate sound without losing visual interest. The film opens with a striking credit sequence in which a police officer hits a wall with his baton while prisoners’ feet march in coordinated rhythm. Some commentators compared these rhythms to the “staccato sound quality of a machine gun.” Rhythms repeat throughout the film, as chorus girls stepping in line often mirror the opening’s marching and other sounds. The film continually goes beyond pure dialogue recording to consider ambient noise and sound effects. Watch for the playful use of a bird’s chirping in the home of Joan and her father. The bird chirps until her father places a sheet over the cage, at which point the bird’s chirping stops. He then lifts the sheet again and the noise resumes. The move does not forward the narrative, but adds to the dynamism of the sound landscape.

The second observation, that the film sustains visual interest despite incorporating dialogue, is also apparent in contemporary viewing. Director Roland West uses multiple tracking shots at the beginning of scenes, allowing the audience to explore the space before conversations begin in earnest. The set design also rightfully won William Cameron Menzies a nomination for its art deco patterns and expansive depth, with shadows painted onto the set to create dramatic contrast. Menzies was one of the most influential directors of production design in the 1920s and 30s, eventually winning an honorary Oscar for incorporating ‘color for dramatic effect’ in Gone With the Wind (MGM, 1939). The screenplay of Alibi also avoids excessive ‘talking.’ C. Gardner Sullivan, a prominent screenwriter for Thomas Ince in the silent era, worked to ‘pare the dialogue down to the bone’ in order to let the audience make inferences. In Alibi, characters often do not announce their relationships through dialogue, and this helps to avoid stagy, over-exposition.

The cast and crew also proved appropriate for ‘crime pictures.’ Chester Morris, a theatrical juvenile, became an instant star through his acclaimed performance. Though ending with a conventional moral, Morris’ charisma dominates much of the film. His scene stealing paved the way for anti-heroes of later gangster classics. Part of this energy stemmed from Morris’ sex appeal, which proved difficult for the film’s police heroes to counter. One fan magazine observed, “Morris can express more sex appeal simply by bending his head in a girl’s direction…than most heroes can in a hundred feet of amorous contortions.”  Morris himself attributed his successful transition from stage to film to the timing of his facial expressions. He observed that most actors in early talkies spoke first and then began to perform an emotion in the midst of their lines. Morris claimed he “first set my face in reaction to the other character’s lines before I begin to speak. I communicate my response visually before I convey it verbally.” Watch for Morris’ subtle changes in expression before he physically delivers each line. This process often adds fluidity to his performance. Morris did not receive roles as ‘meaty’ as his lead in Alibi for most of his career, but he did appear as a convict in the sound classic The Big House (MGM, 1930) and later as a reformed convict heading the ‘Boston Blackie’ detective series of the 1940s. The director, Roland West, explored crime and suspense in other films as well, such as his silent adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat (United Artists, 1926). He would unfortunately become more famously associated with crime as an offscreen suspect in the possible murder of his lover, comedic actress Thelma Todd.

With wonderful restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive, correcting images based on stills from production files at Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, this version of Alibi allows us to understand what so impressed audiences at the time of the film’s release. We can share in their wonder at one of the earliest and most successful straight dramas with complete sound on cinema screens. Even without projecting ourselves into the past, however, Alibi remains an enjoyable and suspenseful film in the present.

The Cosmic and Human Vision of SÁTÁNTANGÓ

Thursday, January 30th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new 4K restoration of Sátántangó from Arbelos films will show in its complete, uncut version at the Cinematheque on Saturday, February 1 beginning at 1 p.m. Our screening will be shown with one short intermission and a 90-minute dinner break starting at 5:30 p.m.

By Tim Brayton

The reputation of director Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó undoubtedly precedes it. If there’s one single fact you likely already know about the film, it’s the extraordinary length of the thing: seven and a half hours, jam-packed with as many long takes and scenes of human suffering as you could hope to find in a Hungarian art film. And you are certainly meant to feel the weight of those hours: unlike most of the extraordinary long films out in the world, such as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1 (1971) or Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour Shoah (1985), Sátántangó was designed to be screened in one uninterrupted sitting (fear not – Cinematheque is following the common practice of splitting it into three parts, including a 90-minute dinner break. Your stomach and your posterior are welcome).

It’s certainly a film to approach with all due trepidation, but the rewards for braving Tarr’s dance with the devil are considerable. Almost from the moment of its premiere, it has been an object of great critical adoration. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader has written about the film several times, praising its sarcastic wit and declaring at least once that it was “in many ways, my favorite film of the 1990s.” In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised the “beautiful framing and richly gradated black-and-white tones to find beauty in every miserable and mundane corner.” The film tied for #35 on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of critics to find the best films ever made, making it the highest-ranked film of the 1990s on that list, and it enjoys a 100% fresh score on the website Rotten Tomatoes. As daunting as the film is, it offers aesthetic pleasures fully equal to the work it demands of its viewer.

The film was adapted by Tarr and László Krasznahorkai from a novel the latter published in 1985 (they had previously collaborated on the screenplay for the director’s Damnation, from 1988). It preserves the novel’s unique structure, twelve chapters that overlap each other and proceed in only a ragged chronological flow. The chapters are divided into two halves, six steps forward followed by six steps back, copying the shape of a tango. This pattern unfolds slowly, over the course of a small number of extraordinarily long takes (several of them reaching to nearly eleven minutes, the maximum length of a single reel of film), each of them seeming to slow time down to a standstill.

And yet, the film never drags. It trains us how to watch it right from its first shot, a seven-minute tracking shot of cows gathering in the muddy streets of a small town. Eventually, they start to walk off to the left, and the camera rotates exactly 90° counterclockwise, at which point it starts to track left while the cattle meander through the street; frequently, buildings obscure the cows from our view, and at one point, a cow that came up right alongside us moos irritably as it hustles down an alley on the Z-axis, to rejoin its fellows. As the shot progresses, it somehow becomes impossibly thrilling: the disorientation of losing sight of the cows and the relief of finding them again; the sudden pile-up of details in Gábor Medvigy’s detailed grey-scale cinematography, teasing out variable textures in every object and surface, daring us to absorb them all. Everything in the next seven hours of the viewer’s life is packed into this first shot: the sharp geometrical precision of the pans, the tactility, the camera as a conscious being moving through environments. Most importantly, it introduces us to the unique magic of slow cinema, the transformation by which lingering stillness exaggerates and intensifies our response to any change that comes into view. The smallest details become magnified in their impact, making every one of those long takes paradoxically gripping.

If the tango of the title is the film’s structure, Satan is Irimiás (played by Tarr regular Mihály Víg, who also wrote the film’s moody, accordion-heavy score), who returns to the dying town where the action takes place after a long absence. He’s a darkly charismatic figure, who seduces the whole town into obeying his will; unsurprisingly, this does not go well for them. The story has been taken as symbolic of the death throes of Communism, or as a parable of people embracing authoritarianism as a means of giving some kind of shape, even a bleak and miserable one, to an aimless life. Throughout Sátántangó, we see characters struggle against their lack of power (particularly in the film’s most notorious scene, in which a young girl tortures a cat to death, the only creature in town more miserable and weaker than she is), or give into nihilistic hopelessness, seeing nothing in the world beyond an infinite plain of lifeless mud. The film’s conflict is a bleak one, offering a choice between an apocalyptic landscape or accepting the false hope of a Satanic figure. A happy ending is off the table from very early on.

Even so, Sátántangó is never an excuse for cynical art film misery. It’s a complex work of art cinema, intellectually stimulating in its elaborate system of narrative overlaps, and the visual elegance with which it depicts joyless, stalled lives creates a troubling, productive tension between beauty and suffering. It’s a challenging work, perhaps one of the most challenging films ever created. But the reward for facing those challenges head on is experiencing a cosmic and human vision that’s rewarding far beyond mere bragging rights.

Favorites of 2019: Mike King

Saturday, January 4th, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is a Cinematheque Programmer and Senior Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival


Top ten new films to play Madison in 2019, in alphabetical order:


The Beach Bum (2019, Harmony Korine)


Her Smell (2018, Alex Ross Perry)


I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018, Radu Jude)


Our Time (2018, Carlos Reygadas)


Pain and Glory (2019, Pedro Almodóvar)


Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)


Ray & Liz (2018, Richard Billingham)


Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)


Shoplifters (2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda)


Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie)


Favorites of 2019: Zachary Zahos

Friday, January 3rd, 2020
Posted by Jim Healy

Zachary Zahos is a Programmer and Project Assistant for the UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival. He is also a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison.

My favorite new films to play Madison in 2019 are as follows:

1. THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese)

2. STYX (Wolfgang Fischer)

3. THE IMAGE BOOK (Jean-Luc Godard)

4. UNCUT GEMS (Josh and Benny Safdie) 

5. OUR TIME (Carlos Reygadas)

6. KNOT/NOT (Larry Gottheim)

7. THE IMAGE YOU MISSED (Dónal Foreman)

8. US (Jordan Peele) 

9. PAIN AND GLORY (Pedro Almodóvar)

10. LOS REYES (Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut)

Honorary mention to Zia Anger’s MY FIRST FILM, performed at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on October 23, 2019.

Of the hundreds of older films I watched for the first time this year, these ten sit at the top of the pack:

1. BLACK IS … BLACK AIN'T (Marlon Riggs, 1994)

2. BARN RUSHES (Larry Gottheim, 1971)

3. THE GIRL IN THE RUMOR (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

4. WHEN TOMORROW COMES (John M. Stahl, 1939)

5. ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

6. THE HOUSE IS BLACK (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)

7. LA RELIGIEUSE (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

8. SNOW-WHITE (Dave Fleischer, 1933)

9. FORTINI/CANI (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1976)

10. LAUGHTER IN HELL (Edward L. Cahn, 1932)

Finally, my favorite cinema of the decade (2010-2019), with the caveat that there is so much I want to revisit and far more I have yet to see. The director of the decade is Hong Sang-soo, who made so many great films I am capping this at one title per director—lest this list be overwhelmed with Hong's output. I present this list of 30 titles alphabetically, with asterisks next to my five absolute favorites:

88:88 (Isiah Medina, 2015)

AT BERKELEY (Frederick Wiseman, 2013)*

AVATAR FLIGHT OF PASSAGE (Disney Imagineering, Lightstorm Entertainment, and Weta Digital, 2017)

BELMONTE (Federico Veiroj, 2018)

CERTIFIED COPY (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)*

COMPUTER CHESS (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

THE DAY HE ARRIVES (Hong Sang-soo, 2011)*

DEAD SOULS (Wang Bing, 2018)


HORSE MONEY (Pedro Costa, 2014)

THE HUMAN SURGE (Eduardo Williams, 2016)

THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese, 2019)

JAUJA (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (Claude Lanzmann, 2013)

LEVIATHAN (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012)

MARGARET (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

NO HOME MOVIE (Chantal Akerman, 2015)

O.J. MADE IN AMERICA (Ezra Edelman, 2016)

SIERANEVADA (Cristi Puiu, 2016)

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY (Catherine Breillat, 2010)*

STAYING VERTICAL (Alain Guiraudie, 2016)


TABU (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)

THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)

THE TRIAL (Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola, 2017)

TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (David Lynch, 2017)*

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT (Dan Sallitt, 2012)

WESTERN (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)