LA GUERRE EST FINIE: A Political Movie in Popular Form

Wednesday, November 9th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

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

By Pate Duncan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Added!: WOMEN TALKING Sneak Preview Screening

Friday, October 28th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

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


USA | 2022 | DCP | 104 min.

Director: Sarah Polley

Cast: Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy

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

The Unsettling Audacity of SEVEN BEAUTIES

Thursday, October 27th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze ) were written by John Bennett, UW Cinematheque Project Assistant and Programmer, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A restored DCP of Seven Beauties will screen on Friday, October 28 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By John Bennett

Seven Beauties, the 1975 chef d’oeuvre of Italian auteur Lina Wertmüller, opens with a montage of World War II archival footage. The very first image of the film depicts Mussolini beaming as he warmly shakes hands with Hitler. The montage goes on to intercut images of the former strutting about his famous balcony and the later screaming into a microphone like a monstrous baby. Interspersed between them are images of plane crashes, building collapses, and fiery explosions. On the soundtrack, such images are not accompanied by, say, Barber’s Adagio for Strings or the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or other such compositions that we have grown accustomed to hear as portentous anthems of the memory of war. Instead, we hear on the soundtrack the alt-rock strains of Enzo Jannacci’s “Quelli che…”, a song that is by turns mischievously playful, politically ambiguous, and strangely sad. There could be no better opening for Seven Beauties, a film that miraculously blends rebellious humor and ghastly horror to show one man’s frantic attempts to survive in a Europe torn apart by fascism and war.

This man is Pasqualino (brilliantly played by Giancarlo Giannini, Wertmüller’s expressive muse), a small time Neapolitan thug. When we first meet Pasqualino, he wanders though a dark and foggy German forest after having deserted the Italian army. He muses on a murder he committed in Naples—the victim being the man who coerced his older sister into prostitution—before he is apprehended by the German authorities. In the hell of a Nazi POW camp, Pasqualino determines that his best odds for survival involve seducing the icy, cruel female Commandant of the camp (Shirley Stoler, best known for her star turn in the cult classic The Honeymoon Killers (1970)) even as one fellow prisoner (Fernando Rey, fresh off several Buñuel collaborations as well as his villainous turn in The French Connection (1971)) whispers demoralizing aphorisms in his ear. Alternating back and forth in time, Seven Beauties charts Pasqualino’s prewar and postwar tribulations, relaying his desperate bids for survival in a milieu where human life is unspeakably cheap.

The major achievement of Seven Beauties is its ability to nimbly balance tones that are both exaggeratedly cartoonish and devastatingly grim. Wertmüller’s chief means of achieving this effect is through seesawing back and forth in time, intercutting two lines of action. In one, Pasqualino reckons with his crime and his sisters’ honor in the light and color of Naples; in the other, he games out how to best seduce the Commandant amid the unrelenting violence of the dim German camp. The presentation of two tonally disparate lines of action allows Wertmüller to cut from the prison scenes just as their darkness threatens to engulf the film, just as she can cut away from the Naples sequences right as they teeter on falling into farce.

Subtle stylistic choices help to enhance the incongruence of these tones. Wertmüller revels in the supreme expressiveness of eyes shot in close up. In the Naples sequences, Pasqualino’s eyes glimmer with lively fantasies of revenge against the man who compromised his family’s honor. The scene depicting his trial is remarkably devoid of dialogue; ardent looks of longing and regret shot in extreme close up propel the narrative better than sound could. In the POW camp, conversely, the extreme close ups reveal eyes in the throes of fatigue and fear, or, in the case of the Commandant, eyes betraying a terrible, indifferent cruelty. Wertmüller even makes Naples and Germany sound different: note how the film’s sound design gives Pasqualino’s shoes a comic squeak in Naples, a sound that is replaced by somber, echoing footsteps in the German prison. Similarly, the energetic chatter of Pasqualino’s sisters that dominates many of the Naples sequences yields to the repeated, mournful knell of a distant whistle somewhere outside of the infernal camp.

These two tones converge in the pivotal seduction scene between Pasqualino and the monstrous Commandant. The hot red lighting of a Naples cabaret and the steely gray of Germany converge into a sickly green light that washes over the office and cruel countenance of the Commandant. Pasqualino’s frantic movements as he desperately attempts to romance the Commandant have all the frenetic fleetness of his swaggering pre-war attitude and all the wide-eyed existential panic he experiences once thrust into the war. Indeed, this scene—dense with both humor and horror—serves as the keystone of this intricately architected film, synthesizing as it does Wertmüller’s preoccupation with honor, sex, power, and survival.

Audiences may be struck that Pasqualino lacks the traces of heroism or gallantry that we’re accustomed to seeing in war film protagonists. In fact, he often behaves nearly as violently and cruelly as his eventual German captors. From the outset of the film, Wertmüller takes pains to convey Pasqualino’s wily, less-than-honorable opportunism when we learn that he has pilfered bandages from a dead man in order to fake a war injury. He does little to redeem himself from there. In Naples, he violently manhandles his sister, Concettina (played by Wertmüller favorite Elena Fiore) and has no scruples about his mob connections. Later in the film, he professes a casual, unstudied admiration for Mussolini’s authoritarianism. Most disturbingly, he proves to be all too ready to commit sexual assault when he is held in an asylum after pleading insanity to lighten his sentence. With Pasqualino, Wertmüller and Giannini don’t attempt to present a sympathetic hero on whom we can pin our hope for humanity in times of crisis. Instead, they flesh out a psychologically complete character, however despicable he may be, in order to show how war profoundly transforms even the least noble among us. In Pasqualino’s final, weary gaze into the camera, we can see how a world of horrors wore down his wide-eyed, scrappy, rough-hewn swagger into something more unfathomably sad. Horrible people, Seven Beauties seems to argue, are not immune or inured to horrible events.

Seven Beauties is a rich, bold work in and of itself, but it also occupies a unique position in film history. Throughout the early 70s, Wertmüller had a hot streak with The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), and Swept Away (1974)—films whose sex-as-power narratives appealed to a movie-hungry intelligentsia with the tenets of second-wave feminism ringing in their ears. Her films were by no means met without controversy, but this very controversy helped to make her films buzzy theatrical events. By the time Seven Beauties was released internationally, Wertmüller was at the peak of her popularity; she earned the remarkable distinction of becoming the first female director to be nominated for a directing Oscar for Seven Beauties. In a testament to how large Wertmüller loomed in the 70s film scene, Laraine Newman even donned a pair of the director’s trademark white-framed glasses to parody her exuberant, exaggerated manner on an episode of Saturday Night Live. Nearly half a century later, Wertmüller’s work may not be as canonized as that of, say, Agnès Varda or Chantal Akerman, but that should not take away from her singularly playful, libidinous, unsettling, and audacious contributions to the art form.

SUSPIRIA: A Sublime Symphony of Light and Color

Wednesday, October 26th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Dario Argento's Suspiria  were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A recently restored 4K DCP of Suspiria will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue (4070 Vilas Hall, 821 UniversityAve) on Saturday, October 29, at 7 p.m. Admission is Free!

By David Vanden Bossche

When asked about the names of horror ‘auteurs’ – the director as ‘auteur’ obviously being derived from texts in Les Cahiers du Cinéma and the channeling of the same ideas into American film criticism by Andrew Sarris – many a horror fan will passionately disagree with critics or scholars, which means that the list of names that most anyone can agree on is rather short. Jacques Tourneur would be there for sure and so would Sam Raimi. One name that would pop up on everyone’s shortlist would definitely be that of Italian horror maestro ‘par excellence’ Dario Argento. If you were to follow up with a question about which of Argento’s films people hold in highest regard, there’s little doubt that Suspiria (1977) would win out. Forget the truly dismal recent remake by Luca Guadagnino – a film that tried so hard to infuse the source material with some kind of misguided ‘gravitas’ that it completely destroyed what makes this original so great – and grab a chance to see on the big screen why Suspiria still packs quite a punch, almost half a century after its initial release.

Dario Argento started his directing career in 1970 with L’Ucello dalle Piume di Cristallo/The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, one of the key early films in a genre that would become known as ‘Giallo’ films. The literal translation of that term is ‘Yellow’ and it referred to the color of the pages used for printing sensationalist crime stories in Italy at the time. While many different directors would shape the ‘Giallo’ genre in the seventies, Argento remained one of the most prolific amongst them with such titles as Il Gatto a Nove Code/The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) and Tenebre/Unsane (1982). With Suspiria, Argento started a very different project that was conceptualized as a series of films that would deal with ‘the three mothers’ - three modern-day witches. Inferno from 1980 was the second part of this triptych, but it would take the Italian filmmaker 27 years to finally complete the trilogy in 2007 with La Terza Madre/The Third Mother. Of these three films, Suspiria is without any doubt the best and still remains one of the towering achievements of the European horror scene of its decade.

Radiating an almost suffocating atmosphere of dread from its first images – the arrival of a young girl in Germany during an especially ominous stormy night – the film tells the story of Sarah, a ballerina (Jessica Harper) who comes to study at a renowned dancing academy located in the woods of Badem-Württemberg in Germany. The student she meets at the door – fleeing the school in terror and turning up brutally murdered mere hours later – is but the first sign that things are not all well at the prestigious ‘Tanz Akademie’. It isn’t before long that Sarah starts realizing that the school harbors very dark secrets that are related to an ancient convent of witches. Setting up a striking contrast between the seemingly perfectly organized world of the school and the festering evil lurking within its walls, Argento goes all out in the kind of extreme baroque imagery that would become his signature in years to come. The term ‘horror-opera’ comes to mind when watching some of the exuberant murder scenes in Suspiria, scenes that completely refuse to adhere to any kind of verisimilitude and instead stylize the happenings to a point that renders them as almost abstract uses of shape, color and light. The latter element is one of Suspiria’s most distinguishing features, making prominent use of colored filters and gels that bathe some of the movies’ most memorable moments – the unforgettable finale chief among them – in pools of colored light.

As Mark Cousins and Barry Salt point out, this tendency in European cinematography (the French coined as ‘le cinema du look’) would heavily influence Hollywood style in the next decade and in the work of Argento, it finds some of its most striking use. Dario Argento had already used colored lighting to great effect in his much-admired Profondo Rosso/Deep Red (1975) but the way in which he and director of photography Luciano Tovoli here use the light as a strictly formal element – the equivalent of striking patches of paint that shape the aesthetic of such artists as Francis Bacon or Barrett Newman – is breathtaking. Tovoli would later work with Michelangelo Antonioni and Maurice Pialat (and again with Argento) before moving on to a career in Hollywood that saw him lens films for the likes of Julie Taymor and Barbet Schroeder.

Nearly fifty years after it started building its reputation as one of the finest horror films to come out of its decade, Suspiria is still a film able to baffle its audience with the daring way in which it pushes the envelope of extreme stylization. Throughout the film, there is a true sense of dread and foreboding of doom, but in retrospect one sees that none of this comes from the use of (the now fashionable) jump scares or extreme use of gory imagery (in a way the actual killings are restrained in their execution, albeit imaginatively weird and baroque). The real feeling of unease and dread is derived from strictly visual elements that give the film its unique tone of voice and rethink the concept of a horror film from a purely aesthetic angle. A notion of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s take on ‘the sublime’ creeps in here in the way the use of aesthetic and beauty can harbor the truly awe-inspiring just as much as the frightening, mesmerizing the beholder. Schopenhauer never had the chance to test his ideas against the aesthetics of cinema, but Suspiria surely holds up as a vivid illustration of this idea and still stands as a masterpiece within its genre – or any genre.

DAGON: Gordon & Lovecraft Reunited

Thursday, October 20th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Stuart Gordon's Dagon were written by David Vanden Bossche, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dagon will screen in our ongoing Gordon retrospective at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, October 23 at 2 p.m. A 35mm print from the Stuart Gordon collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research will be shown.

By David Vanden Bossche

In the wake of horror’s promotion to a commercially viable blockbuster-genre with such titles as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), the seventies also witnessed the rise of more extreme genre fare that produced a sub-cycle of films aimed at more adventurous afficionados: The Texas Chainsaw Massacreor Last House on the Left are just two of the most famous incarnations of this trend. With the exponential growth of the home video market at the end of the decade leading to a wider distribution for these films (and infamously to the ‘video nasties’ law in the UK that banned certain titles from video stores) a slew of directors who had built their reputations within this niche, stepped forward and injected the commercially oriented horror market with new levels of gore and violence. Most prominent was Sam Raimi whose Evil Dead set the tone in 1981, but in his wake Wes Craven (director of The Hills Have Eyes who launched the Nightmare on Elm Street series), Tobe Hooper (Chainsaw’s director channeling his more extreme approach into ‘mainstream’ fare like the Steven Spielberg-produced Poltergeist) and George A. Romero (going from his seminal Night of the Living Dead trilogy to the likes of Creepshow in 1982) successfully worked their horror-sensitivities into films that attracted bigger audiences.

Somewhat of an outlier because he entered the scene relatively late, is UW Madison alumnus Stuart Gordon, who took the horror film world by storm when his 1985 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator won a critics’ award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Gordon would twice return to the work of Lovecraft, first in 1986 for From Beyond and again over a decade later for Dagon in 2001. The 1931 novella at the basis of Dagon – The Shadow over Innsmouth – is one of the famous author’s most enduring stories, even inspiring horror maestro Stephen King to write the homage Crouch End in his 1993 collection of short stories Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Curiously, the material failed to produce a Hollywood film adaptation, though there was a failed early 70’s attempt by famed producer Roger Corman. Gordon tried to bring the story to the screen a first time in 1991 but would have to wait another decade before he was able to secure Spanish funding for his long-gestating project.

Even though the title refers to an earlier Lovecraft story from 1919, Dagon’s screenplay remains mostly faithful to The Shadow over Innsmouth, save of course for the change of scenery that now situates the strange village at the heart of the story somewhere along an anonymous Spanish coastline. Drawing from Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, Gordon’s Dagon tells the ominous tale of a young couple (played by Ezra Godden and Spain’s then-popular soap star Raquel Meroño) mysteriously shipwrecked near the fishing village of Imboca, where they not only find the inhabitants to be gruesomely frightening but also tied to their own heritage in ways they could scarcely imagine. Building a suffocating atmosphere of dread, Gordon and Carlos Suárez, his director of photography, forego any of the sun-drenched imagery we tend to associate with the Spanish coastal locale and dress the film in fog-imbued tones of murky greys and browns. That is, until the decidedly surreal dreamscapes that dominate the latter half of this grim nightmare take over and set up an almost operatic explosion of heightened color, rife with deceptively enchanting blues and of course lavish portions of red.

Most interesting, however, is the masterful production design by Llorenç Miquel, the art director who would subsequently work with Jaume Balagueró for 2002’s Darkness and with Brian Yuzna a year later for the ill-advised sequel Beyond Re-Animator. Teaming up with make-up artist Monte Boqueras and Catou Verdier, a regular Miquel collaborator and costume designer with whom he had worked on Jack Sholder’s Arachnid (2001), Miquel manages to breathe life into the daunting and hellish worlds that came out of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination. We can see the team’s superb non-CGI (computer generated imagery) craft at work in the wild fantasies brought to live in the baroque finale, but also ever so subtly in the early parts of the film in which slight bodily deformations and creepy features betray the non-human nature of the villagers and foreshadow the impending doom.

Director Stuart Gordon, for his part, is back to working his magic with horror movies after a few uncharacteristic departures from the genre like the sci-fi satire Space Truckers (1997) and the whimsical Ray Bradbury adaptation The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1999). While less playful and tongue-in-cheek than Gordon’s early features like Re-Animator and From BeyondDagon shares with these early films the filmmaker’s prolific visually imaginative work and his mastery of narrative rhythm. Dagon runs a scant 90 minutes not counting the end credits, but that running time is filled to the brim with swift action and horror, brought vividly to life by some excellent hand-held camerawork. From the get-go – a scene at sea that plunges us straight into the drama – this is a thrill-ride that submerges the viewer in a nightmare that never lets up.

As a final observation, it is worth noting that Dagon contains the final screen appearance of actor Francisco Rabal, whose eclectic career includes such legendary titles as Viridiana (1961), L,Eclisse (1962) and La Religieuse (1966), but also a long list of completely forgotten low-budget outings. Rabal died shortly after completing the film and Gordon dedicates Dagon to his memory just before the end credits roll. 

Stuart Gordon's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM - Action, Absurdity, and Gross-out Horror

Thursday, October 13th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Stuart Gordon's The Pit and the Pendulum were written by Faye Mitchell, who received her MA in Film from the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. A 35mm print of The Pit and the Pendulum will screen as part of the Cinematheque's ongoing series honoring the late, great filmmaker Gordon at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, October 16 at 2 p.m. The print comes from the Gordon collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research. Admission is Free.

By Faye Mitchell

Deep in a crypt, a coffin’s lid is removed for a gaggle of spectators. Agents of the Spanish Inquisition quibble and joke about carefully raising its decomposed inhabitant out of his tomb. Out comes a grotesque skeleton, made to face judgment for sins long and forgotten by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (Lance Henriksen), who declares the dead man to be a heretic. His descendants’ wealth is seized by the church and the skeleton receives exactly 20 lashes and not a single lash more. The camera cuts between the corpse, strung up on chains to receive his punishment, his distraught family that is made to watch, and the pale, ghoulish faces of the Inquisition, delighting in the barbaric act.

These opening moments of Stuart Gordon’s fifth feature, The Pit and the Pendulum, establish the tone that will predominate much of the film: gross and campy, but also comically absurd. In 1991, Gordon was best known for his low-budget horror films, adapting two of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, chosen partly because they were in the public domain and free to use, into Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Two years prior, he had co-written Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a wildly successful family film starring Rick Moranis, but he returned to the realm of public domain for The Pit. Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli – a frequent collaborator in the director’s early career – pick up the proto-Kafka narrative of the eponymous Edgar Allan Poe short story that the film is loosely adapting and run with it. The Inquisition is plain in its mission but arbitrary in its execution. It seeks confession through torture and rejects any confession offered without it. Once you are deemed guilty, there isn’t enough of either to prove your innocence or earn your freedom. The system is maddening but Paoli imbues the script with enough moments of levity to prevent it from suffocating Gordon’s characteristically goofy filmmaking.

At the center of it all is Torquemada. Henriksen, best known for his role as the android Bishop in Aliens (1986), delivers a powerhouse performance pitched perfectly to the film’s grand campiness. Caught between his devout belief in the religious righteousness of the Inquisition and his sudden lust for a newly accused heretic, Henriksen plays Torquemada’s growing madness as pathetic and frightening. Gordon makes excellent use of close-ups and hard lighting to let Henriksen’s wide-eyed menace control the scene.

For most of its run time, The Pit and the Pendulum does not read like a conventional horror film of the era. There are no jump scares, and the special effects and gore are relatively tame compared to Gordon’s earlier Lovecraft adaptations. Instead, it can be seen as a precursor to the torture porn subgenre of horror, reflected through the prism of its early 90s, low-budget sensibilities. Popularized in the 2000s by films like Hostel (2005) and the Saw franchise, films of this ilk derive their terror from the spectacle of prolonged, often extremely gory, torture sequences. Much has been written on the echoes of 9/11 and its consequences in these films, filmmakers and audiences alike trying to make sense of the United States’ use of torture at Abu Ghraib. The Pit and the Pendulum similarly uses torture as a device to grapple with the historical legacy of organized religion that disenfranchises women and robs them of their agency. It’s far less bloody than these later films but just as upsetting, methodically paced to force the audience to really sit in these moments.

If this sounds crushing to watch, worry not – Gordon is too fun of a filmmaker to be lost in dreariness for too long. His affinity for blood and cheesy, but endearing, special effects revs up as the film goes on, and the titular pit and pendulum both make an appearance in a thrilling and gross climactic set piece. There are even scenes throughout that harken back to the days of good, old fashioned swashbuckling films, but despite juggling these disparate elements – action, absurdist comedy, low-budget horror – the film never feels jarring. It’s a testament to Gordon’s earnestness as a filmmaker that he sells everything in The Pit and the Pendulum without a bit of irony.


Tuesday, September 27th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

On a special double feature/dual podcast episode of 70 Movies We Saw in the 70s/Cinematalk commemorating screenings this month at UW Cinematheque, Ben Reiser and Jim Healy take a deep dive into a “Fistful of Feiffers”, discussing both LITTLE MURDERS (1971) and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971). ‘71 was a big year for screenwriter/playwright/cartoonist Jules Feiffer, with Alan Arkin’s LITTLE MURDERS and Mike Nichols’ CARNAL KNOWLEDGE both hitting screens within six months of each other. Listen along as Jim and Ben try to suss out Feiffer’s inspirations, figure out what genres these films do and don’t fall into, Elliott Gould on top of the world, Candice Bergen’s best work, waiting for Godard, Gordon Willis goes wild, Nicholson as man-baby, magnificent Ann Margret, and much more, including not one, but TWO rounds of “What else was playing that week?”

Listen below or listen to Cinematalk on Soundcloud or Apple Podcasts.


Tuesday, September 27th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Francis Coppola's The Cotton Club Encore were written by Samantha Janes, PhD student in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cotton Club Encore screened as one of "A Couple of Coppolas" on Saturday, September 24.

By Samantha Janes

From 1923 to 1940, the famous Cotton Club in New York City roared with musical orchestras from the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, singers such as Lena Horne, dances from the legendary Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, and audiences that included Fanny Brice, Mae West, and Al Jolson. During its initial years of business, the Cotton Club operated with strict segregation laws leading them to serve only white customers and hire all African American performers. These performances often portrayed imagery of the south and depictions of the performers as “exotic” in order to entice the crowd. Numerous performances from these artists would move beyond the walls of the Cotton Club. Hit songs such as “Creole Love Call,” performed by Duke Ellington and Adelaide Hall, and “Stormy Weather,” remembered most from Lena Horne’s performance in the film adaptation, Stormy Weather, were both featured songs at the nightclub. Over the years of its operation, the Cotton Club’s owner, the gangster Owney Madden, emphasized featuring talented performers that would draw in crowds even during the years of prohibition and depression. However, even with the success of the club’s performers, it would take until the late 1930s for the club to begin allowing African American patrons.

Flash forward forty years: the club’s rich history became the center of the project, The Cotton Club, which began formulating in 1980 and premiered in 1984. The film’s controversial production raged with financial issues, leadership changes, and numerous rewrites of the script. Initially, Francis Ford Coppola was not involved in the film’s creation but was drawn into the project when Robert Evans called to ask how to rework the film’s storyline to include Richard Gere’s character as a white musician within the environment of the Cotton Club. Although Coppola was resistant to joining the film, he became the director and brought William Kennedy on as a writer to join the team that already included Mario Puzo (Coppola’s collaborator on The Godfather trilogy). The circumstances surrounding the film’s production were exceptionally strenuous. Numerous scripts were written but then the writers were forced to condense descriptions, cut dialogue, and replace music. Throughout production, there was also a shady financial situation that resulted in budget issues and even a murder. When the original version of The Cotton Club was released in theaters in 1984, it underperformed at the box office and the overall reception was underwhelming considering the hopes placed on the film’s director, plot, and stars. Despite these struggles, the film still garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.

Flash forward another thirty-three years after the original release: Coppola premieres The Cotton Club Encore, a re-edited version of the film. After finding the original version of the film on Beta Max tapes, Coppola produced this alternate cut to celebrate the film in a more complete format. The new version of the film attempts to remedy the issues with the strained plot, which, in Coppola’s words, felt “truncated.” Instead, this version refocuses the narrative to balance the storylines between both main characters, Michael “Dixie” Dwyer (Richard Gere), a white musician, and Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines), an African American dancer.

The Cotton Club Encore takes pleasure in leisurely exploring the glamorous and dangerous world surrounding the club’s performers, clientele, and managers. As with most Coppola films, the impeccable casting and cinematography allow the talented performers to dazzle the audience throughout the film. Though the narrative often pulls in different directions as it searches for the balance between the musical and the gangster film, this re-edited version endeavors to flesh out the characters and more clearly establish the experiences of African American characters in Prohibition-era New York. The film delves into Harlem in the late-1920s during the height of the jazz era and sees both Gere and Hines navigate the nightclub scene as struggling performers while dealing with the threats of the criminal underworld. Coppola constructs this intricate world not only by exploring the boisterous atmosphere of Cotton Club but also by establishing intimate relationships for both protagonists. The romantic and familial connections continually form, split apart, and then reconcile throughout the film to prompt the continued momentum of the plot. With a large ensemble cast, the narrative is able to constantly move and introduce new characters in a way that resembles the bustling nature of the city.

While the environment of New York serves as a vibrant backdrop, the scenes in the Cotton Club are where the film shines the brightest. The songs from the late 1920s and early 1930s evoke a keen sense of excitement that make the audience want to be led up the darkened stairs and into the vibrant atmosphere of the club. Overall, the musical performances in The Cotton Club Encore anchor the film as the narrative progresses through the years of the Great Depression and the characters’ shifting lifestyles. Coppola presents the musical elements of the film not just as short numbers but as full performances. This version showcases the addition of three musical numbers initially cut from the 1984 version, including the hauntingly beautiful performance of “Stormy Weather” by Lonette McKee playing Lila Rose and “Tall, Tan, and Terrific” sung by Hines. Although the film’s original cut featured many of the same songs, the re-edited version allows for the richness of the performances to be complimented by stronger characterization within the narrative that was previously subtracted.

While this was not Coppola’s first time releasing a new version of one of his films, the chaotic production history of the original, paired with his desire to unveil the missing narrative elements, makes his decision to revisit the film an understandable one. The Cotton Club Encore takes the good parts of the original and makes them great in ways that permit the talents of the performers, crew, and director to light up the screen. With the new script and musical additions, the film is able to flesh itself out with a stronger narrative that balances both storylines and positions jazz as the lifeblood of the characters. Ultimately, the choice to release The Cotton Club Encore allowed the film to be appreciated by a new audience for its beauty, talent, and tenacity.

The Humanistic Grace of THE RAIN PEOPLE

Tuesday, September 20th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored 4K DCP of The Rain People from American Zoetrope screened at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 17, as one of "A Couple of Coppolas." The second of the series, The Cotton Club Encore will screen on Saturday, September 24 in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By Lance St. Laurent

If Francis Ford Coppola’s career had peaked in 1969 with The Rain People, one imagines that the film would be held in similar esteem as other landmarks of the late 60s’ “Hollywood Renaissance”, such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or The Graduate (1967). Of course, Coppola’s career did not peak with The Rain People, and the breakout success of both Godfathers (1972 & 1974), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) throughout the 1970s catapulted Coppola to a level of acclaim and creative freedom that most filmmakers only dream of. In the shadow of these titanic achievements, The Rain People has languished in relative obscurity, under-seen and underserved in restorations and home video releases, at least until now. It’s not hard to understand why. In comparison to Coppola’s 70s triumphs, The Rain People is a modest endeavor, with far less in common with films like The Godfather than with the more grounded, domestic character studies of the era, journeys of self-discovery set against the beautiful but remote vastness of middle America like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). And within that context, The Rain People proves as beguiling as any of its more celebrated contemporaries, an early gem from a young filmmaker finding his footing after struggling with the studio system—1968’s Irish-themed roadshow musical Finian’s Rainbow proved a poor fit for the young Coppola—and as clear a distillation of the sensibilities of the so-called “film school brats” as any film of its era.

The film also showcases a performance by Coppola’s old Hofstra classmate, James Caan, then best known for star turns in two late-career films by director Howard Hawks (Red Line 7000 in 1965 and El Dorado in 1966). Far from the hot-headed Sonny Corleone, The Rain People sees the young and burly Caan not yet settled into to tough, masculine archetypes that would define his later career. As the soft-spoken and brain damaged ex-college footballer Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon, Caan displays an uncharacteristic gentleness and pathos that reveals emotional depths that Hollywood largely left untapped, his imposing, broad-shouldered physique belying a soul that has been left helpless and abandoned by all those around him. Caan’s Godfather co-star Robert Duvall—already a well-established theater and television actor at this time—also makes a notable appearance as a highway patrolman whose charm belies a more sinister nature.

Still, the work from Caan and the rest of the ensemble would all be for naught without a central performance to hold the film together. Shirley Knight, twice a nominee for Best Supporting Actress, relishes one of her few lead roles as Natalie Ravenna, a beleaguered housewife whose new pregnancy inspires a fit of existential ennui and an impromptu road trip of self-discovery. Knight’s sad, searching eyes give life to Natalie’s sense of emptiness, and her performance, which like the rest of the film leans into a sense of lived-in naturalism, deftly grounds the film in her emotional journey, even as you find yourself questioning many of her decisions. Natalie’s complexity on screen is a testament not only to Knight’s gifts as an actress, but also to Coppola’s burgeoning talents. The whole ensemble demonstrates that Coppola, even at this early point in his career, had developed a keen skill with actors. Furthermore, despite Coppola’s canonical films leaning toward more traditionally masculine genres like crime and war films, his handling of Natalie demonstrates an empathy and sensitivity with female characters that would ultimately be under-explored in Coppola’s later filmography.

Behind the scenes, the film was also an early opportunity for another burgeoning filmmaker, young film school George Lucas, who had met Coppola on the set of Finian’s Rainbow. Still three years out from his feature debut, THX-1138 (1971), Lucas documented The Rain People’s cross-country production in the 30-minute documentary Filmmaker, and edited the film with his future wife Marcia. The partnership with Marcia would prove important not just in Lucas’s personal life, but his professional life as well, as her editorial prowess would be essential to the success of American Graffiti (1973) and especially Star Wars (1977). Lucas’s documentary also helped forge a working relationship with Coppola that would lead to the formation of the pair’s production company American Zoetrope the same year as The Rain People’s release.

In 2022, as The Godfather celebrates its 50th anniversary and Francis Ford Coppola begins to mount his long-gestating, self-funded passion project Megalopolis, there has been much reflection and retrospection about the 83-year-old filmmaking patriarch. Coppola himself has contributed to this reflection, producing new restorations and alternate cuts to many of his films, both the successes (such as the new cut of Apocalypse Now) and the noble failures (such as the recuts of The Godfather III (1990) or the The Cotton Club (1984)). Amidst this flurry of remasters and re-releases, this stunning 4K restoration of The Rain People has been relatively unheralded and is as of yet unannounced for home video or digital release. However, rather than letting the film further languish in obscurity, our screening is an opportunity to celebrate a truly special film, not just for the careers it helped to launch, but for its own beauty, sensitivity, and humanistic grace.

A Slapstick Drama: Peter Bogdanovich's NICKELODEON

Monday, July 25th, 2022
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Peter Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon were written by film fan, film scholar, and film preservationist James Kenney, whose other reviews and essays can be found at James Kenney kicked off our current season of Peter Bogdanovich movies on June 29 with Squirrels to the Nuts, a movie he helped save from obscurity.  Our Bogdanovich series continues with a 4K DCP of Nickelodeon, shown in a Director's Cut featuring 5 minutes of scenes not included in the film's original release, and presented in black-and-white, as Bogdanovich originally intended. The screening will take place on Wednesday, July 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By James Kenney

Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant one-of-a-kind “slapstick drama” Nickelodeon is, like many of the late filmmaker’s films, a film out of time.  While his contemporaries were producing pessimistic works such as Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The French Connection and Chinatown, Bogdanovich followed up his early nihilistic triumphs Targets and The Last Picture Show with similarly personal projects that nevertheless doubled as family entertainments, all rated G or PG: What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon, a 1976 Columbia release, detailing the chaotic exploits of early independent two-reel silent filmmakers on the West Coast as they battle with the first movie moguls. 

Bogdanovich regular Ryan O’Neal plays a hapless lawyer who becomes a low-budget movie director, Burt Reynolds plays the guy at alligator wrestling matches that introduces alligators to each other and then “gets out of the way” who becomes a cowboy star, and Tatum O’Neal, fresh off her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, returns alongside Stella Stevens, and newcomers John Ritter and Jane Hitchcock as members of the film company.  Brian Keith (in a role Bogdanovich designed for Orson Welles) plays the bellicose independent producer who puts dollars and cents over O’Neal’s increasingly artistic impulses, O’Neal’s personal journey reflecting the entire film industry’s increasing maturity as filmmakers learned the genuine magic that a film camera could engender.

A movie about movies was inevitable for Bogdanovich, with his encyclopedic knowledge of motion picture lore, and he rewrote W.D. Richter’s original screenplay incorporating many anecdotes shared with him by the great early filmmakers he’d interviewed, such as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Leo McCarey. Due to the previous year’s At Long Last Love’s well-chronicled commercial and critical failure, Bogdanovich for the first time had to “battle” with his producers during the making of Nickelodeon, having his initial casting choices of John Ritter in O’Neal’s part, Jeff Bridges in Reynolds’ part, and Cybill Shepherd in newcomer Jane Hitchcock’s part overruled by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Bogdanovich, alongside cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, also conceived of the film in black & white, which had not caused a problem for Bogdanovich on Picture Show and Paper Moon, but after two commercial disappointments in a row (the first being the “art film” Daisy Miller) Bogdanovich made some concessions, and Nickelodeon was released in color.

Nevertheless, Nickelodeon works, delightfully, Bogdanovich’s attention to detail, comedic sensibilities and reverence for film history paying off wonderfully in a film that begins as a chaotic madhouse screwball comedy detailing the first uncertain steps made by pioneer filmmakers (whose films would often be shown with the reels out of order, audiences not noticing or caring). The tone shifts to a more thoughtful, measured one as the stakes rise, nickels turn to dollars, and genuine artists like D.W. Griffith recognize the value of cinema as an artistic statement. The opening shot of the film sums up the delicate meticulousness of Bogdanovich’s mis en scene and his dry sense of humor; we note the ceiling fans and sweaty faces in the 1910 courtroom (sans air-conditioning), as lawyer O’Neal is distracted reading a July 30, 1910 Saturday Evening Post featuring “part two of The Ranger’s Revenge” on its cover. This one “simple” shot establishes the time period and milieu; also that perhaps O’Neal is not destined for a career in law and more interested in the world of the imagination; and thirdly (perhaps only caught on second or third viewing) that he himself is not particularly creative at this point, as he soon after gets his first directing gig with Keith by stealing the idea of a “ranger” protagonist from this story. 

O’Neal and Reynolds are game (Reynolds joked in the Nickelodeon press materials that his earlier films “were the kind shown in airplanes and prisons so nobody could leave”), and perhaps after the enmity in the media provoked by Bogdanovich and Shepherd's real-life and highly publicized coupling, introducing the sweet, fresh-faced Hitchcock as the film’s ingenue proved wise. Bogdanovich told Peter Tonguette in his book Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations With the New Hollywood Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) that his initial conception was of a female lead that was more “threatening”; Hitchcock was “very good, but she’s in the Lillian Gish department and we wanted somebody more in the Theda Bara department.”

The version being screened at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque is Bogdanovich’s director’s cut, which returns the film to black-and-white as Bogdanovich desired and adding about five minutes to the running time, largely restoring Stevens’ love-triangle with O’Neal and Ritter that had been excised from the theatrical cut. As Bogdanovich told Tonguette “We shot [Nickelodeon] with the idea that eventually it would be printed in black-and-white. We designed it so that it would eventually look good in black-and-white because it’s got a lot of shadows and contrasts and so on, which you don’t normally do with color.”

Nickelodeon the film, in tone and temperament knowingly matures as its characters mature (John Milius’ Big Wednesday, made two years later, appropriates this unusual tonal approach). Columbia’s promotional copy that described the film as “fast, funny, frantic, frenetic and flavorful” is suspiciously alliterative but wholly correct in describing Nickelodeon, which will genuinely make you feel like you are there at the beginnings of cinema while also fashioning an unusual collection of characters you will grow fond of and miss when the film ends. 

As the advertising for Nickelodeon promised at the time, “Love. Action. Comedy. Suspense. Excitement.  Before Rhett kissed Scarlett. Before Laurel met Hardy. Before Butch Cassidy met the Sundance Kid. Before any movie ever made you laugh or cry or fall in love. There was a handful of adventurers who made flickering pictures you could see for a nickel.” Bogdanovich in the years following its release voiced some uncertainty with the tonal shifts in the film, but with Nickelodeon Bogdanovich created something wholly unique, not seen before or since, a “slapstick drama” which both captures the reality of the early frenzied pioneer days of silent films, when for a nickel audiences witnessed flickering images dancing across makeshift screens, and the dawning realization that so much more could be done with these flickering images— there is no other film quite like Nickelodeon, true to the tempestuous time in which it is set, when the screen had not truly found its voice, and true to the personal artistic filmmaking that for a fleeting moment in the 1970s allowed Hollywood directors like Scorsese, Coppola and Bogdanovich to share personal obsessions with audiences enthusiastic to take the journey with them.