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Attend: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS at Central Library Cinesthesia, February 7 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
The Silence of the Lambs | Jonathan Demme | United States | 1991 | 118 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, February 7, 6:30 p.m.»

Director Jonathan Demme gives the psychological horror thriller a distinctively feminist twist in his acclaimed adaptation of Thomas Harris’s bestselling novel, The Silence of the Lambs.

At once a detailed, authoritative law-enforcement procedural, a disturbing gothic horror story, a stark psychological thriller, and an unflinching descent into the darkest recesses of the human mind, The Silence of the Lambs remains a landmark of American cinema and an unparalleled cultural phenomenon.

Adapted from the bestselling 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, Jonathan Demme’s film focuses on the strange relationship between Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an ambitious, bright young FBI trainee, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a sophisticated, diabolical, and calculating former psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh. Starling visits the notorious mass murderer in a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane, where he has been confined for life. On an assignment from Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), director of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, she hopes to gain insight into the mind of an active serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” who inexplicably starves and skins his victims. When Bill abducts the daughter of a powerful senator from Tennessee, Starling finds herself in a race against time. Desperate to save the woman, she reluctantly agrees to reveal personal information about herself in exchange for cryptic clues to the identity of Buffalo Bill. As Starling learns to play Dr. Lecter’s intricate mental games, she must confront not only the monsters of the world, but also her own inner demons.

Thomas Harris created Dr. Lecter for his page-turner Red Dragon (1981), in which a male veteran FBI investigator is brought out of retirement to track down a serial killer, consulting with the convicted mass murderer to gain more insight into his subject. Lecter remains a peripheral character in the first book, while Harris does not mention the epicurean cannibalism that came to define his charismatic anti-hero. The sequel to Red Dragon proved as big a literary sensation as its predecessor seven years earlier. Harris had spent five years planning and writing The Silence of the Lambs, conducting in-depth research at the FBI’s Department of Behavioral Science. Author Clive Barker declared, “Thrillers don’t come any better than this. It takes us to places in the mind where few writers have the talent or sheer nerve to venture.”

A larger-than-life, almost supernatural creature akin to Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, Lecter has become a popular icon of the late twentieth century with his keen intellect, verbal dexterity, refined sensibilities, and savage behavior. The most famous incarnation of Lecter, Anthony Hopkins presents a chilling portrait of the archetypal villain. Reviewing the film version of The Silence of the Lambs in the Evening Standard, Alexander Walker suggested that “It’s the combination of high intelligence and primitive appetite that makes Lecter such an uncomfortable character.” Financial Times critic Nigel Andrews described the Doctor as “Stone Age man and Renaissance man rolled into one.” In other words, Lecter perfectly embodies what Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung recognized as the duality of human nature.

While Lecter came largely from Harris’ imagination, the antagonist of The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill (also known as Jame Gumb) evidently represents a composite of three real-life serial killers: Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Gary Heidnick, all of whom preyed on women. Gein skinned and dismembered his victims, wearing the hides and using the other body parts as house decorations. Bundy lured victims by putting a phony cast on one arm and asking for help. Heidnick held his victims captive in a basement pit.

Although Harris’ book attracted a lot of interest from filmmakers, The Silence of the Lambs initially seemed just too bleak for movie material. At one point, the film rights were held by director John Badham, whose career had taken off with the John Travolta disco smash Saturday Night Fever (1977). Despite his relatively strong commercial track record, every studio he approached turned him down flat, citing the unsavory subject matter. As one studio executive put it: “Nobody wants to see a movie about skinning women… I have no intention of making The Silence of the Lambs.” Badham therefore sold his option on the film rights. Orion Pictures acquired the project when actor Gene Hackman (The French Connection) expressed a strong interest. Intending to make The Silence of the Lambs his directorial debut and possibly star in the film as Lecter, Hackman eventually passed on it, feeling it was too violent. In the end, the project went to Jonathan Demme, an up-and-coming young director who had made two previous films for Orion, including Something Wild (1986) and the recent hit Married to the Mob (1988).

When it came to casting the role of Clarice Starling, Demme and Orion boss Mike Medavoy wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, star of Married to the Mob. Still at the peak of her career, the actor agreed to read Ted Tally’s script for The Silence of the Lambs, only to express a strong dislike for the bleak subject matter. As Demme put it: “she was unable to come to terms with the overpowering darkness of the piece.” Pfeiffer had serious reservations about what she considered the film’s “glorification” of evil. Jame Gumb, the lowlife psychopath hunted down by Starling, did not present a problem, since the character was portrayed as a warped, loathsome figure throughout the film and ultimately defeated. Lecter, on the other hand, signified the apparent triumph of darkness, being a magnetic, quick-witted serial killer who cunningly escapes his jailers. Nevertheless, Pfeiffer admired Hopkins’s performance in the finished film.

Jodie Foster had read Harris’s’ novel and immediately recognized Clarice Starling as an ideal role. In her opinion, this would be a Hollywood first. Foster approached Tally and expressed her strong interest in the part. She had offered her services to Demme as a possible substitute if Pfeiffer passed on the role, but the director felt she lacked the necessary versatility for Starling. His next choice was Meg Ryan. Yet Foster met with Demme in New York and convinced him that she both understood and appreciated the dark, disquieting tone of the film, which she connected with on a “serious personal” level. The director respected her approach to the role: “Her identification was with a character who felt deeply for victims.”

Demme had seen David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), in which Anthony Hopkins plays eminent Victorian surgeon Frederick Treaves, a pioneer of medical science with a strong sense of humanity who discovers and helps a grotesquely deformed individual performing as the star attraction of a freak show. Interviewed by Saskia Baron for the BBC’s Late Show arts program in May 1991, Demme explained the choice of Hopkins for the part of Lecter: “Anthony Hopkins appears to be exceptionally intelligent; there’s something about his face, something about his eyes, something about the way he expresses himself.” The director wanted Lecter to possess both intelligence and humanity, rendering the character more than just “a brilliant icicle.” Hopkins certainly seems to have been his first choice for the part. A longtime fan of the actor, Demme felt that Dr. Lecter represented the inverse of his compassionate Dr. Treaves in The Elephant Man. He sent Hopkins a copy of the script, which the actor skimmed through. Nevertheless, he felt from the outset that The Silence of the Lambs would “touch the pulse of people.”

Hopkins realized immediately that Lecter was the kind of role that comes along only once in a lifetime. In an interview with the actor featured in Inside the Labyrinth, a 2001 documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz on the making of The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins explains his relationship to the character of Lecter.

I understood the man and how to play him. I knew he was the shadowy figure that lurks inside all of us. And I don’t know why I have an instinct about those things, but I do. I’m fascinated by the shadow side of our psyches, because they are also the most creative sides of us. And if we deny . . . the dark side of our nature, we live a pretty bland life or a destructive life because it will come out in the end in some form or another.

Cast in the role of Clarice’s mentor, Jack Crawford, actor Scott Glenn was determined to do his character justice. He therefore went to Harris’s original inspiration for Crawford, John Douglas, now head of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit. Serving as the Bureau’s senior official consultant on The Silence of the Lambs, Supervisory Special Agent Douglas agreed to spend time with the actor, coaching him in the role.

To prepare for the part of Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster spent two weeks at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia, where co-stars Scott Glenn and Ted Levine also did some background research. Foster partially based the role of Starling on one of their guides, FBI special agent Mary Ann Kraus. Her determination to make the character as authentic as possible involved looking at grisly crime scene photographs and attending the autopsy of a female murder victim. She reportedly declined to join Glenn when John Douglas played him the taped screams of two young women as they were tortured to death. 

Demme understood that The Silence of the Lambs was first and foremost the story of Clarice Starling, a woman fiercely dedicated to saving the lives of other women. Harris’s novel neither dwells on Jame Gumb’s gruesome activities nor makes him at all sympathetic. Tally’s screenplay for the film, which remains relatively faithful to the source material, removes the emphasis from the serial murderer. In a 1991 interview with film critic Amy Taubin for the Village Voice, Demme remarked, “One of the great things about the script is its genre base. It’s a suspense movie with a female protagonist who’s never in sexual peril. It’s a slasher movie that’s devoid not only of slasher scenes, but of the anticipation of seeing them.” While Starling does not appear in every scene of The Silence of the Lambs, Demme aimed to tell the tale from her point of view. He and director of photography Tak Fujimoto employed a subjective camera to force identification with the character and show exactly what she sees. The scenes between Lecter and Clarice are shot in extreme close-up, with the actors looking almost directly into the camera.   

Finding the proper approach to the depiction of sadistic violence in The Silence of the Lambs was one of Demme’s principal concerns during pre-production. Along with Ted Tally, production designer Kristi Zea, and Tak Fujimoto, the director strived to remain faithful to Harris’s book without repulsing the audience. Since much of the novel’s power derives from horrific, clinically described detail, Demme did not want to dilute the material for the sake of tastefulness. He opted to show some extremely graphic images in brief, almost split-second shots. There would be no lingering close-ups of flayed faces or decayed flesh.The film achieves a delicate balance, neither sanitizing nor glamorizing the grim reality of serial murder.

Filmed on a modest budget of $22 million, The Silence of the Lambs opened in theaters on February 13, 1991, a day before St. Valentine’s Day. Despite being released by a smaller studio during the typically weak post-Christmas period, the film was remarkably well received by both audiences and critics. By the end of its initial release, The Silence of the Lambs had earned more than $130 million in North America, and its worldwide box-office take of $250 million equaled that of Tim Burton’s mega-hit Batman (1989). Most surprisingly, its recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was virtually unprecedented. At the sixty-fourth Academy Awards in 1992, Demme’s film swept the top five awards.

The Academy members honored The Silence of the Lambs with the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hopkins), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Tally). Only two previous films had ever won in all of those categories—the 1934 Frank Capra film It Happened One Night and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

Handed the award by Michael Douglas, Jodie Foster’s acceptance speech included the words: “Thanks to the Academy for embracing such an incredibly strong and beautiful feminist hero that I’m so proud of.”

Partly as a reaction to the overwhelming accolades heaped upon The Silence of the Lambs, the movie became embroiled in a spectacular controversy. At the Academy Awards, hundreds of protestors from various gay rights and advocacy groups such as Queer Nation disrupted the entrance to the gala event by chanting, picketing, defacing the giant golden Oscar statues with stickers reading “Fag,” and even throwing objects at those on the red carpet. At least eleven protestors were reportedly arrested as “police in riot gear and on horseback interposed themselves between the demonstrators and the pavilion.” The events surrounding the ceremony, as a New York Times reporter put it, “resembled a barricaded war zone in which police, the paparazzi, and demonstrators engaged in running skirmishes.”

The protest, which had begun hours before the ceremony and continued until after the awards show was finished, had been threatened for weeks. At the root of this controversy was what Judy Sisneros, a leader of Queer Nation, called “Hollywood homophobia.” The AIDS crisis, which had come to national prominence in the mid-1980s, had provoked a dramatic rise in gay, lesbian, and transgender activism. By the early 1990s, numerous groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation were taking increasingly vocal stands against legal and cultural forms of discrimination, and Hollywood had become one of the targets.

The real provocation for the action against the Academy Awards, however, came from two Oscar-nominated films: Oliver Stone’s JFK, for its negative portrayal of gay characters, and The Silence of the Lambs. The harsh condemnations of Demme’s film were largely due to the suggestion that Buffalo Bill was a homosexual. For some gay male critics, the vicious serial killer was another in a long line of homophobic representations. Nonetheless, Demme insisted that Bill’s pathological efforts have nothing to do with being gay. “If you don’t understand that this guy isn’t gay, you don’t understand the story. It’s about a man who doesn’t want to be a man, he wants to become as different from himself as he can.”

Although some in the gay and lesbian community vilified The Silence of the Lambs for its alleged homophobic overtones, many feminist critics hailed it as an important, empowering work. For instance, Amy Taubin thought The Silence of the Lambs, in its “uncompromising feminism,” subverted the typical gender politics of the horror movie. She also pointed out that “the collaboration between Tally, Demme, and Foster transforms Clarice into a more radically feminist character than she was in the novel.” Judith Halberstam observed that the film “undermines the murderous gaze of patriarchy.” B. Ruby Rich noted that the film declines to eroticize violence “by removing any sense of sex from its depiction of violence.”

With its evocative, cathartic mingling of fantasy and realism, sustained structural clarity, sensitivity to the feminine perspective, and powerful, nuanced performances, The Silence of the Lambs elevates the horror genre to the realm of high art, while offering an immensely entertaining cinematic experience. For a film dealing with mass murder, torture, cannibalism, extreme violence against women, and human flesh wardrobes, The Silence of Lambs remains remarkably palatable throughout. Even when it probes the depths of depravity, the film eschews sensationalism and reveals a profoundly humanistic outlook. Despite Demme’s achievement of astounding popular and critical success with a complex, courageous female protagonist overcoming the barriers of patriarchy, the American film industry, alas, has not yet followed the precedent of Agent Starling. At any rate, the world is indeed more interesting with her in it.

Attend: BEING THERE at Central Library Cinesthesia, December 6 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Being There | Hal Ashby | United States | 1979 | 130 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, December 6, 6:30 p.m.»

A stately satire of modern media consumption and American politics, Hal Ashby’s Being There feels more prescient than ever.

“The emergence of celebrity in America is not based on depth,” Jerzy Kosinski, author of the 1971 novel Being There, states. “It is based on visibility and accessibility, a smile, a figure. It is based on appearing as a man of importance. The question asked is not ‘Is he a good man?’ It’s ‘What circles does he move in?’”

Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979).

Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Kosinki’s seminal book captures the spirit of the 1970s, while conveying the power of images in our increasingly technological consumer society. At once a provocative look at the unreality of American media culture, a brilliant political satire, a modern parable about the nature of identity in the information age, and a bizarre story of chance, Being There feels more relevant than ever.

In his last great performance, Peter Sellers plays Chance, a childlike, simple-minded gardener who has spent his entire life in the high-walled estate of a wealthy, reclusive benefactor. His only knowledge of the outside world comes from watching television and his meals have always been produced by Louise, the cook (Ruth Attaway). When his guardian dies, the illiterate Chance suddenly finds himself thrust into the streets of Washington, D.C., with no birth certificate, driver’s license, checkbook or medical records.

Well-groomed and impeccably dressed in an elegant, secondhand tailored suit, Chance knows how to comport himself by imitating what he has seen on TV. As he aimlessly wanders around, a happy accident brings him into contact with Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the much younger wife of Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), a rich, powerful, and ailing industrialist. Assuming Chance the gardener to be an aristocratic businessman named “Chauncey Gardiner,” Eve invites him into their home and therefore into their lives.

With one foot in the grave, Benjamin immediately feels an affinity for this calm, reassuring, and enigmatic visitor, whose vacuous remarks are misinterpreted as astute observations on life and politics. When the President of the United States (Jack Warden) stops by, Benjamin introduces him to his new friend, who naïvely addresses the Chief Executive by his first name and makes an impression on him. Chance unwittingly becomes a presidential policy adviser and a media icon, appearing on talk shows, attending important functions, and establishing a close rapport with the Soviet ambassador. In no time, Chance rises to national prominence, despite seeming to have never existed prior to meeting the Rands.

Journalist and film historian Mark Harris, in his essay on Being There for the Criterion Collection, writes,

Who is Chance? In the cultural syntax of Kosinski’s work, he is a kind of holy fool, a man who knows nothing yet knows everything, a popular mystical/sentimental trope of the time. In contemporary diagnostic terms, he would be considered to lie somewhere on the autism spectrum. Cultural moralists labeled him the ominous end point of what was, at the time, referred to as “the television generation”—an incarnation of stoic passivity who can express almost no preference other than “I like to watch.” In Sellers’s determinedly controlled, virtually affectless performance, he is all those things and more, and also less—a blank slate, an emotional dead spot, the eternal “little boy” his late benefactor’s caregiver calls him, and also, in a very quiet way, a clown.

In his outstanding, thoroughly researched biography, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, Nick Dawson notes that Peter Sellers brought Kosinski’s novel to Ashby in 1973, soon after Ashby had finished directing Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail. “When I read Being There, I was crazy about it,” Sellers said. “I had just seen Harold and Maude, which I thought was sensational, so I rushed a copy of the book to Ashby.” Sellers considered himself ideal for the character of Chance. The actor once told film critic Roger Ebert he had “absolutely no personality at all. I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.”

Ashby was intrigued by Sellers’s pitch for Being There and liked the idea of working with him. However, at the time, Sellers’s career was in a slump and neither he nor Ashby was in a position to raise enough money to make the film. Being There lay dormant for five years until producer Andrew Braunsberg, unaware of the history of the project, approached Ashby to direct it. Ashby said, “Absolutely. But I wouldn’t do it with anybody but Peter Sellers.” Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) was Kosinski’s choice, and Braunsberg too was skeptical that Sellers—a corpulent, aging comic actor without significant box-office influence—was right for the role. He finally had a facelift to look the part and his casting was approved.

Yet, just days before shooting was to begin, Sellers underwent a crisis of confidence, suddenly doubting his ability to portray Chance. He had never thought about precisely how he would play the part and now frantically searched for the two elements that would define the character: Chance’s walk and most important, his voice. Working alone with a tape recorder, then with his wife, Lynne Frederick, and with Ashby, Sellers perfected Chance’s speech, a mid-Atlantic accent, clear enunciation, and a flat delivery.

“I like to watch.”

Sellers completely withdrew into the persona of Chance the gardener. He described the experience of working on Being There as “so humbling, so powerful,” and would sometimes call “Cut!” in the middle of a scene because he was overwhelmed. When asked if he was all right, he would answer in a bewildered way, “Oh. No, no. I’ve just never seen anything quite like this film before.” Once a scene was over, he would more often than not silently retreat to his trailer so as not to lose his connection with Chance. The actor refused most interview requests and kept his distance from MacLaine, who complained about him going off into a corner. Even when he returned home to his wife, he usually remained in character.

Kosinski, who had written a screenplay of the novel back in 1971, was hired to adapt Being There. Ashby later said that Kosinski’s own script was “too heavy-handed” for his taste. So, Ashby gave the book and Kosinski’s screenplay to Robert C. Jones, who rewrote it extensively. For the most part, the film remains faithful to the book. Jones wrote an alternate ending in which Chance leaves the funeral, and Eve goes after him. As he uses his umbrella as a windscreen to protect a tree, Eve says, “Where were you? I was looking for you.” And he replies, “I was looking for you, too, Eve.” Instead, Ashby concludes the film on a note of whimsy that he thought up during production. MacLaine, among others, disliked the final image.

Regarded as Ashby’s masterpiece, Being There exemplifies the maverick director’s offbeat sense of humor, optimistic outlook on life, freewheeling approach to filmmaking, and deep-rooted humanism. “There’s no story line or anything like that running through my pictures,” Ashby told film historian Joseph McBride in 1976, “but I try to do films that deal with human relations, with people relating to one another.” While it has been called a “one-joke film,” Being There finds its tone and stays with it. Sellers’s carefully nuanced, low-key performance brings Chance’s aloof innocence to life as Ashby’s gently assured direction realizes the absurdist comedy of the film’s premise with warmth and sensitivity. “The timing is often so perfect that the film, at its very wittiest, strips conversation down to its barest maneuvers and stratagems,” Janet Maslin observes in her 1979 New York Times review of Being There.

A hilarious portrait of a man living in the immediate present, who relates to no one but to whom everyone relates, Being There ultimately reveals something darker and deeper beneath its placid surface. If Chance’s empty-headed pronouncements indicate how superficial public speech can be, then his reception tells us even more. Because he happens to be a white, middle-aged, well-spoken man with an attractive outward appearance and influential friends, Chance inadvertently achieves miraculous success in the world. People mistake his social ineptitude and directness for eccentricity and self-confidence. Although he can neither read nor write, the Soviet ambassador admires him for his deep appreciation of Russian literature, and a book publisher offers Chance an advance on a manuscript. By the end of the film, he is being seriously proposed as a candidate for office. In the words of Mark Harris,

We invest people with unspeakable power by reinventing them as reflections of our hopes and our vanities, and it is thus terrifyingly possible for us to endow a complete imbecile who watches TV all day with qualities he has never possessed. This idea will never go out of style; as a cautionary tale, Being There is elastic enough to feel as if it is perpetually about our moment, as long as our moment includes campaigns, elections, and politicians. (In 1980, as the film went into wide release, many commentators saw it as a prescient take on the rise of Ronald Reagan.)

In a high-tech, post-truth cultural landscape saturated with images, Ashby’s stately satire of modern media consumption and American politics continues to resonate with our ideals and anxieties. “Of course, today the film’s worst-case scenario looks nostalgically benign,” critic and filmmaker David Cairns remarks. Nevertheless, the enduring appeal of Being There derives not only from its foresight or the acuity of its observations. The much-discussed final sequence of the film compels us to rethink our assumptions about Chance and leaves Being There open to many different interpretations. Functioning as a blank screen on which people project their expectations, Chance effectively becomes a continuous flow of mutable images, just like a television set. While the audience may take his actual disposition for granted, things are not always what they seem (especially in a movie about the pliability of perception). At last, Being There presents viewers with a lingering image that remains as fundamentally unknowable as any other. After all, as the president asserts during his eulogy for Ben Rand, “Life is a state of mind.”

Attend: THE DEAD ZONE at Central Library Cinesthesia, November 1 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
The Dead Zone | David Cronenberg | United States | 1983 | 103 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, November 1, 6:30 p.m.»

A successful fusion of two extremely different artistic visions, David Cronenberg’s overlooked adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone has become scarier than ever, in view of the contemporary political climate.

“Because of our necessity to impose our own structure of perception on things we look on ourselves as being relatively stable. But, in fact, when I look at a person I see this maelstrom of organic, chemical and electron chaos; volatility and instability, shimmering; and the ability to change and transform and transmute.” — David Cronenberg, in a 1989 interview with filmmaker Bette Gordon for BOMB Magazine

An existential science-fiction horror thriller from 35 years ago that has become improbably relevant in view of recent events, The Dead Zone stars Chrisopher Walken as a schoolteacher named Johnny Smith who awakens from a five-year coma to discover that he has acquired the gift of extrasensory perception. He soon realizes that he can not only predict the future, but he also has the power to change it. When Smith encounters an unhinged right-wing populist demagogue campaigning for political office and suddenly foresees an imminent apocalyptic scenario, he must make an extremely important decision.

Director David Cronenberg’s impressive adaptation of Stephen King’s eerily prophetic 1979 novel of the same name might seem like an outlier among the marginal films of the Canadian body horror specialist. One of his most mainstream works, The Dead Zone represents a collaboration between someone who undoubtedly remains the single most commercially successful writer in the history of horror literature and a controversial auteur who seems to pride himself on the provocative, disturbing, and emphatically non-commercial nature of his creations. While Cronenberg eschews, for the most part, the shocking surrealistic flourishes that distinguish his other films, his usual thematic preoccupations are still intact. Like all of his movies, The Dead Zone unflinchingly explores the intensity of human frailty and decay with a focus on the body and its many accelerated mutations, whether out of disease, anger, dread, or hope.

Although the metamorphosis of Johnny Smith may not be perceivable by normal sensory channels, Cronenberg’s wasted hero undergoes a transformation no less radical than that of, say, Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986), which features Jeff Goldblum as a brilliant, eccentric scientist whose teleportation experiment goes dreadfully awry. As Smith struggles with the terrible responsibility of his newfound psychic powers, he becomes increasingly alienated and withdraws further into an insular, hermetically sealed world that only he can access. Faced with a life devoid of meaning, he ultimately has no choice but to use his potential for the benefit of humanity, even if that entails sacrificing himself in the process.

Cronenberg strips down King’s source material to its bare essence, using the book as a springboard for a tale about the human condition and the decisions we make to give our fleeting lives purpose. He keeps the audience at a contemplative distance as he suggestively portrays Smith’s deterioration and the emptiness of his isolated existence. The story comes to life because the characters are vividly three-dimensional and the performances are uniformly excellent, thus facilitating our suspension of disbelief. Shot in Ontario, Canada, where temperatures plummeted past freezing, The Dead Zone unfolds amid a desolate, wintry landscape that heightens the film’s chilly atmosphere, along with Cronenberg’s clinical detachment, Michael Kamen’s sadly pensive score, and Jeffrey Boam’s episodic, well-paced screenplay.

After Videodrome (1982), an apocalyptic techno-surrealist horror film about how electronic media alters its users, Cronenberg was evidently looking for a tonal change from his previous work’s lurid descent into an underworld of fascist conspiracies, sadomasochistic sex games, and extreme body modification. “Videodrome was a very heavy experience,” the director reveals in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg. “If you’re used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a very heavy picture. But if you’re used to Videodrome, Dead Zone is not. At that point I needed to do something based on somebody else’s work, as a relief.”

The Dead Zone was optioned shortly after its publication in 1979, and several screenwriters and directors were involved in its production before Cronenberg took over the project in 1982. Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), and Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) were once attached to direct, while Stephen King attempted to write a draft of the screenplay himself.

“King’s own script was terrible,” Cronenberg later said. “It was not only bad as a script, it was the kind of script that his fans would have torn me apart for doing […] It was basically a really ugly, unpleasant slasher script. The Castle Rock Killer in the middle of the movie becomes the lead, and it was, ‘Let’s show lots of his victims.’” Jeffrey Boam concurred, stating that King had “missed the point of his own book.”

In the process of adaptation, Cronenberg and Boam greatly streamlined King’s long and complex novel. The narrative switches between Smith and Greg Stillson were removed and the story was told entirely from the protagonist’s point of view. Although violence remains in the movie, Cronenberg depicts it less graphically than the book and omits King’s excesses. For instance, Stillson no longer kicks a dog to death.

The story was simplified further in the final edit. Cronenberg had originally filmed a pre-credits scene in which Smith suffers a head injury while ice-skating as a young boy, therefore implying the origin of his clairvoyance. He eventually cut this out, leaving only the vague suggestion that Smith already had some sort of latent ability before his accident when he feels a sharp head pain while riding on a roller coaster.

Before filming began, various names were tossed around for the lead role. Curiously, King wanted Bill Murray. Cronenberg was concerned that Walken might be too old to play the part, and his original choice was his frequent collaborator Nicholas Campbell, who instead played the deputy sheriff Frank Dodd. He later admitted that Walken was not only right for the role, but also the film’s enduring image.

Walken, of course, dominates the film with his halting verbal rhythms, glassy stare, and wan, haunted expression full of pathos, fragility, and wistful longing. “It’s Chris Walken’s face,” Cronenberg has said. “That’s the subject of the movie; that’s what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.”

At once a brooding, hypnotic, and starkly beautiful character study, a poignant reflection on the centrality of choice to humanity’s search for meaning, a straightforward, accessible genre picture, and an alarmingly prescient political fable, The Dead Zone stands as one of the strongest adaptations of King’s works. It also ranks among Cronenberg’s most fascinating creative experiments. The film finds the director at the height of artistic restraint, while disguising his unorthodox vision in King’s pop sensibility.

Even though critics gave The Dead Zone some of the most positive reviews of Cronenberg’s career at that point, the movie finally did not have the same cultural impact as other adaptations of King’s works. The Dead Zone earned approximately $20 million on a budget of $10 million, but it was not a hit like Brian De Palma’s sensationally violent Carrie (1976), for example, and it only made about as much money as Lewis Teague’s insipid adaptation of Cujo or John Carpenter’s version of Christine (1983).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attend: BLUE VELVET at Central Library Cinesthesia, Thursday, October 4 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Blue Velvet | David Lynch | United States | 1986 | 120 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, October 4, 6:30 p.m.»

A mind-bending psychosexual odyssey and a visionary piece of popular transgressive cinema, David Lynch’s breakthrough film, Blue Velvet, looks at the underbelly of a picturesque, well-ordered American small town.

“Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.” — Overheard after a showing of Blue Velvet

A spellbinding, unprecedented mélange of classic film noir, pop surrealism, gothic horror, and avant-garde experimentation, Blue Velvet finds David Lynch at the peak of his career, while reinventing the art of cinema. In what remains his signature film, the visionary director boldly investigates the chaotic, nightmarish underworld lying just beneath the manicured surface of an idyllic, all-American small town.

Clean-cut college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to Lumberton, North Carolina after his father suffers a near-fatal stroke. When he discovers a human ear in an uncultivated field, his idle curiosity plunges him and a police detective’s wholesome, pure-hearted daughter (Laura Dern) into a bizarre erotic mystery involving a troubled nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) and an infantile, sadomasochistic thug who habitually takes amyl nitrite with an inhaler mask (Dennis Hopper).

In her review of Blue Velvet, Pauline Kael describes Lynch’s visual style as “hallucinatory clinical realism.” With one startling, painterly composition after another, the director juxtaposes the serene, immaculate façade of this artificial suburban paradise and its tainted, seamy underside. The iconic opening montage of the film presents a dreamlike series of archetypal American tableaux. Lynch’s low-positioned camera looks up at vibrant red roses bobbing against an impossibly clean white picket fence and clear blue skies. A shiny red old-fashioned fire truck coasts down a residential street in silent slow motion, while the cheerful fireman on the outside running board smiles and waves with a spotted Dalmation next to him.

Outside of the Beaumont house, a paunchy middle-aged man wearing sunglasses effortlessly waters his verdant lawn with a hose, while his wife sips coffee and watches a daytime television mystery inside. (Lynch’s Blue Velvet script includes a shot in which the man’s neighborhood and its dome of blue sky are reflected in a close-up of his dark glasses, but this image does not appear in the film.) All of a sudden, the hose gets caught on a bush, putting a disruptive kink in the water flow. Then, the man spasms, slaps his neck, and collapses as he is wracked by a massive seizure. He lies there writhing in agony, his hand rigidly gripping the hose as it aimlessly spurts water into the air and drenches his fallen body. The camera follows him to the ground and penetrates below the lush blades of vivid green grass to find a grotesque subterranean realm teeming with ravenous, glossy black beetles buzzing and hissing noisily.

In his book David Lynch: Beautiful Dark, Greg Olson writes, “In a passage of bravura filmmaking, Lynch has taken us from the innocent red tulips of small-town serenity to the hungry, gaping mouth of hell.” Lynch proceeds to distort the binary relationship between light and darkness as Jeffrey embarks on a perilous descent into Lumberton’s netherworld and the deepest recesses of his own unconscious mind. The strange psychosexual adventures of this naïve, idealistic junior crimefighter will open his eyes to something that was always hidden both outside and within himself. In a 1995 interview, Lynch says, “If Jeffrey hadn’t found the ear, he would have walked on home, and that would’ve been the end of it. But the ear is like an opening, a little egress into another place, a ticket to another world that he finds.” He adds that, in Blue Velvet, the ear “draws Jeffrey into something he needs to discover and work though.”

Lynch has also said that Blue Velvet is “a trip into darkness, as close as you can get, and then a trip out. There’s an innermost point, and from then on it pulls back.” Jeffrey’s wayward journey comes to a head when he steps across the threshold of Dorothy’s apartment into the hallway and encounters Frank with three of his depraved cohorts. Frank takes the trembling youth for a ride, first to the hangout of one of his business associates and then to a deserted spot, where he repeatedly strikes Jeffrey, while a large-headed prostitute in a short, pink skirt impassively dances on the roof of the car to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” (In Lynch’s script, Jeffrey was to wake up lying on the ground after being beaten unconscious by Frank. His pants were to be pulled down and the words “FUCK YOU” scrawled on his leg with lipstick in the aftermath of a homosexual rape. However, Kyle MacLachlan pleaded with Lynch to remove the sexual violation details, and after giving the matter some thought, the director acquiesced to his wish.)

Discussing the genesis of his film in 1987, Lynch told Cineaste that “the first idea was only a feeling and the title Blue Velvet. The second idea was an image of a severed ear lying in a field. I don’t know why it had to be an ear, except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else. The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind, so it felt perfect. The third idea was Bobby Vinton’s song ‘Blue Velvet.’” He didn’t like the song when it came out, though. In his recent book Room to Dream, a hybrid of biography and memoir co-written by journalist Kristine McKenna, Lynch reflects,

“Blue Velvet” was schmaltzy and didn’t do a thing for me. Then I heard it one night and it married with green lawns at night and a woman’s red lips seen through a car window—there was some kind of bright light hitting this white face and these red lips. Those two things, and also the words “and I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” These things got me going and it all married together.

Lynch wrote the Blue Velvet script while listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in A Major. An important piece of the puzzle that had eluded him was the climactic finale to the story, but then the solution purportedly came to him in a dream. Lynch’s dream was set in the living room of the apartment of Dorothy Vallens and involved a pistol and a police radio. With those simple elements the director was able to bring the narrative to a conclusion, and he completed a final shooting script dated July 24, 1985.

While determining the final form of his story and its setting, Lynch began casting the principal roles. He chose Kyle MacLachlan to play Jeffrey “because Kyle is an innocent, and he’s kind of all-American in a way that makes you think about the Hardy Boys.” Oliver Stone had offered MacLachlan a leading role in the highly anticipated production of Platoon, but the actor felt that the part of Jeffrey made a far more fascinating journey than the comparatively undeveloped lead character of Platoon. Lynch had talked to just about every young actress in Hollywood before he found Laura Dern. She was only seventeen years old and had starred in two films—Mask and Smooth Talk—when she first met him to discuss Blue Velvet.

In a serendipitous way, Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis would provide the actress to portray Dorothy. One night in New York, Lynch and a male friend were having dinner in Dino’s restaurant when he said to an uncommonly beautiful woman sitting across the room, “You could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter.” Somebody said, “Stupid! She is Ingrid Bergman’s daughter!” Thirty-three-year-old Isabella Rossellini was indeed the daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. Even before meeting Lynch, she had been swept away by his Blue Velvet screenplay. In her 1997 book Some of Me, Rossellini recalls that the script opened up “a world of deeper truths,” while bravely depicting “the reality of abused women, the many layers, the horrible twists, the unclear emotions.”

As for the character of Frank Booth, it took Lynch a while to wend his way to Dennis Hopper. Willem Dafoe came in to discuss the role, and Lynch offered it to Harry Dean Stanton, who said, “I didn’t want to go on that violent trip,” and turned it down. By the mid-1980s, Hopper had developed a wild reputation that overshadowed his gifts as an actor, painter, photographer, and director (Easy Rider, 1969). He maintained a militantly anti-establishment stance throughout his career, while his professional and personal life spiraled down into drug addiction, explosive rage and psychotic behavior. Lynch had put Hopper on his first list of possible actors to play Frank, but he was told not to hire him. However, since Hopper was absolutely out of control, his friends had intervened and got him into a detoxification program. His agent called Lynch and said he was clean and sober. Then one day, the director’s phone rang, and Hopper declared, “I have to play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth.”

Although Blue Velvet was born from the mind of Lynch, the four main players bring his script to vivid life. The role of Jeffrey seems tailormade for MacLachlan’s engagingly youthful zeal and idiosyncratic playfulness. As Jeffrey’s angelic teenage sweetheart Sandy, Dern positively radiates with virtue, love and innocence. The two performers work together like magic and, in reality, they began a romantic affair. Rossellini holds back nothing and delivers a fearless, convincing performance as the film’s tragic femme fatale. And Hopper embodies the deranged, uncontrollable Frank with fierce, commanding authenticity.

The unique look of Blue Velvet anticipates the fluid relationship with time that would shape Lynch’s subsequent work. At the Slow Club, where Dorothy performs, she sings into a vintage microphone from the 1920s, her apartment calls to mind a 1930s art deco movie set, and she has a television with a 1950s rabbit-ears antenna. Arlene’s, the local diner where Jeffrey and Sandy conspire, also suggests the 1950s, but Jeffrey’s tiny gold earring and Sandy’s clothing are distinctly 1980s. Sandy has a poster of Montgomery Clift on her bedroom wall, while classic American cars roam the streets of Lumberton. Greg Olson comments, “In Blue Velvet, Lynch is pioneering a subtly stylistic motif that other filmmakers will try to copy; he’s giving us an evocative dream time, an ambiguous mix of various decade signifiers in which we float around, subtly disconnected from the waking realities of our own time-bound lives.”

Working with his longtime associate, the cinematographer Frederick Elmes, Lynch essentially paints with light to heighten the film’s atmosphere and achieve the rich texture of Blue Velvet. “Half of the shooting schedule was at night, and the lighting in those scenes was complicated,” Elmes remembers. They shot on a street without streetlights, so the power company put in poles and they wired them up with lights.

Lynch collaborated with sound designer Alan Splet to create an innovative soundscape for Blue Velvet. The film interweaves natural sounds and music with mechanical-industrial noises that give Lynch’s images an eerie undercurrent. When Jeffrey ascends the seven flights of stairs to Dorothy’s apartment, the building has a pumping, groaning sound; a metallic screech accompanies Frank’s eruption of rage; the camera moves into the dark canal of a decaying human ear and we hear the roar of a sinister wind.

Lynch’s intuitive grasp of how to combine images and sound truly distinguishes his cinematic poetry, and beginning with Blue Velvet, music became central to the director’s artistic expression. In the words of Pauline Kael, “Blue Velvet suggests a musical on themes of our pop unconscious.” The cleverly offbeat use of innocuous, sentimental popular songs layered in and out of Angelo Bandalamenti’s orchestral score enhances the pervasive feeling of being outside of linear time, while also advancing the narrative.

The story behind the unusual robin that appears in the final scene of Blue Velvet exemplifies Lynch’s resourcefulness in solving the various creative problems that inevitably arise during the making of a film. Robins and their nests are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so it is not easy to obtain one. However, Lynch needed a robin. Producer Fred Caruso found a trainer who said he had a trained robin, but they brought it to the set and it was inadequate. Elmes recalls, “It was a molting robin in a cage that looked so sad; plus, there’s no such thing as a trained robin!” As the end of the shoot approached, they got nervous about this. Then, by chance, a robin flew into the side of a school bus and fell down dead.

Some kids saw the dead robin and decided the biology department at school could use a robin, so they had it stuffed, and on the way back from the taxidermist it took a detour past our set. David mounted the robin on a windowsill and put a live bug in its mouth, and now we had a stuffed robin that didn’t move. So David took monofilament threads, tied them to the robin’s head so it would move, then got down in the bushes below the window and manipulated the threads. He’s down there asking, “Is he looking the right way?” I said, “I think you got the puppetry down as good as it can get, but it still looks kind of mechanical.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s it!” The robin had this unearthly quality, and I think he loved the artificiality of it.

Blue Velvet was screened for the first time at De Laurentiis’s headquarters on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. A handful of people were there, and when the movie finished and the lights came on, everyone looked at each other in silence. Finally, De Laurentiis said that no one would want to distribute the picture, so he formed his own distribution company and paid for distribution, prints and advertisements.

The film officially premiered in competition at the Montreal World Film Festival in August of 1986, and it opened commercially in the United States on September 19, 1986. While the film initially polarized critics and some audiences were not ready for it, Blue Velvet earned Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. No prior or subsequent film has generated as much popular and scholarly interest or as much criticism (among feminists for the violence toward women, among conservatives for the perverse image of small-town America, and among Marxists for the seeming nostalgia for the 1950s). Blue Velvet ultimately resurrected Hopper’s career, went on to become a staple of film school curricula around the world, and is generally considered one of the greatest American films ever made.

The elements of Blue Velvet are too complex and multi-layered for any kind of definitive explanation. Yet Lynch’s deeply personal film overflows with intention and meaning, in that the director meticulously attended to every possible detail of its creation. Although many have attempted to interpret Blue Velvet as an accumulation of Freudian symbols, Lynch’s film defies the logical reductionism of language. Rather than something to be understood intellectually, Blue Velvet reaches the receptive spectator at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, while yielding fresh discoveries upon each successive viewing.

At once a warped coming-of-age story, a provocative look at the dualities of American fantasy life, an inspired, singular work of art, and a powerful, transcendent cinematic experience, Blue Velvet continues to influence our collective imaginations. Lynch’s lurid masterpiece has withstood the passage of time better than most movies precisely because of the purity of his artistic vision and his faithfulness to ideas. While the film’s disturbing sexual content and extravagant flourishes of violence may not appeal to all tastes, none of the scenes in Blue Velvet feel arbitrary or gratuitous. Viewers who completely surrender to its magnetic flow of audiovisual stimuli will notice that the film can in fact induce a trancelike state. Pauline Kael observes that “Lynch’s use of irrational material works the way it’s supposed to: at some not fully conscious level we read his images.” Through the director’s uninhibited expression of his ideas, his ever shifting, elusive tones, his dark, absurdist sense of humor, and his sensuous, assured editing rhythms, Blue Velvet realizes the potential of cinema to transport us to worlds we never knew existed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attend: SUNSET BOULEVARD at Central Library Cinesthesia, Thursday, September 6 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Sunset Boulevard | Billy Wilder | United States | 1950 | 110 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, September 6, 6:30 p.m.»

A sensational Hollywood story of ambition, fame, greed, and narcissism, Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd. reveals the dark side of Los Angeles’ dream factory, while seducing us with the power of its own manufactured images.

Sunset Boulevard just has the greatest mood; you’re immersed in it like a dream. It catches a Hollywood story that connects the golden age of Hollywood with the present day. But it’s a truthful movie, and so it carries through to today. It has a lot of sadness in it, and beauty. And mystery. And dreams. Beauty, beauty, beauty and more dreams.” — David Lynch

From the unforgettable opening sequence to the famous closing line, Sunset Boulevard continues to captivate viewers as a work of cinematic art in which all of the elements are masterfully coordinated. Billy Wilder’s bizarre, sordid story of a washed-up, delusional silent film star preparing for a magnificent comeback has circulated through popular culture and influenced our collective consciousness like few other pictures have. A scathing, incisive critique of the Hollywood studio system, Sunset Boulevard ironically remains the most acclaimed movie ever made about the movies. Yet Wilder’s classic, self-reflexive film noir is not just about Hollywood, the way Fellini’s La dolce vita is not only about Rome.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-and-out hack screenwriter struggling to pay his bills and succeed in Tinseltown. While evading two men from a finance company who are trying to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon a dilapidated old mansion on Sunset Boulevard and hides the vehicle in an empty garage. He then enters the house, where a stoic butler named Max (Erich von Stroheim) brusquely orders him upstairs, mistaking Joe for a mortician who is due to arrive with a coffin for a deceased pet chimpanzee.

Joe soon realizes that he has come into the residence of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging, reclusive actress who was prominent in the 1920s and still clings to her former glory. When he reveals his profession, she excitedly announces her plans for a grand return to the silver screen. Norma offers to accommodate him and employ him to edit a lengthy script she has written about the Biblical figure Salomé. Desperate for money, Joe reluctantly accepts Norma’s proposal and thus becomes entangled in a dangerously perverse relationship with the silent film queen as her megalomania reaches a fever pitch.

With sardonic wit and dreamlike fluidity, Wilder introduces multiple levels of reality as he meticulously exposes the underbelly of Los Angeles’ dream factory. Sunset Boulevard draws significantly from life, blending fiction with the bitter truths of filmmaking to create a vivid, hard-hitting portrait of Hollywood.

Swanson was fifty-one when she shot Sunset Boulevard. Although her film career began in 1915, she became famous in the 1920s, working frequently with director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. Swanson left the studio in 1928 to produce her own films, but she lost a substantial sum of money on Queen Kelly (1929), an extravagant production directed by Erich von Stroheim, who was fired by Swanson in mid-production because of his excesses. A portion of that film, which was not released in the United States, is shown in Sunset Blvd. when Joe and Norma watch one of her silent classics on a private movie screen. Over one hundred early photographs of Swanson at the height of her career are also seen in Sunset Blvd. 

Although Swanson, unlike Norma, made a successful transition to sound films, she retired in 1934, and performed in only one movie before starring as Norma Desmond. Von Stroheim, originally an actor, became a renowned director, his most famous film being the severely edited masterpiece Greed (1925). Sunset Blvd. marks the first film in which von Stroheim and Swanson worked together since Queen Kelly. The casting of von Stroheim as the once-great silent director now reduced to working as the faithful butler of the woman he discovered and was married to feels particularly inspired, considering the fact that he directed only two sound films and ended up playing parodies of himself in other people’s films.

Like von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille was a director well-known for making extravagant films of epic proportions. He appears as himself in Sunset Blvd. on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949), which he had actually completed a few months before Wilder’s film began shooting. When Norma visits DeMille at Paramount, the director calls her “little fellow,” which is what he always called Swanson in real life.

Aging silent era stars also portray themselves as Norma’s card-playing friends in Sunset Blvd., including the great Buster Keaton, Swedish-born Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927). Norma Desmond’s name was derived from silent comedienne Mabel Normand and her husband William Desmond Taylor. Tragically, the latter was murdered in 1922 under mysterious circumstances in what became one of the most notorious Hollywood scandals of the silent picture era.

The film’s working title was A Can of Beans. Sunset Boulevard originally opened with a scene in the Los Angeles morgue, where Joe Gillis’s body has been deposited, and closed with another morgue scene. In the original opening, Joe sits up from his slab and converses with the other cadavers before narrating his own story. When audiences laughed at this scene during a preview screening, the film’s release was delayed by six months and it was replaced with the underwater shot of Joe’s corpse floating in the pool.

In the summer of 1950, not quite sure what they had on their hands, Paramount put on a big preview of Sunset Boulevard on the lot. By invitation only, they brought in most of the leading figures in the movie industry. Many people were taken aback, but one person spoke out: Louis B. Mayer, the West Coast head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “You bastard,” he said to Wilder. “You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.”

Within one year, Mr. Mayer had been fired by Metro. Wilder’s film had opened to outstanding reviews and box-office success. It was named “Best Picture of the Year” by the National Board of Review. The Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association awarded Sunset Blvd. a “Golden Globe” for best picture, as well as one to Wilder for best direction, and an award to Swanson for her performance. Sunset Blvd. won Academy Awards for Best Writing (original story and screenplay), Best Art Direction (black & white) and Best Music (scoring dramatic or comedy picture), and received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Best Cinematography (black & white), Best Directing and Best Film Editing.

Sunset Blvd. was purportedly the last major American feature film to be photographed on nitrate stock.

While most people may remember Sunset Blvd. for its iconic performances and its endlessly quotable dialogue, perhaps the most shocking thing about Wilder’s classic today is that it was a studio picture, from Paramount, paid for and endorsed by the very system that it so fiercely attacks. With its abstract atmosphere, brilliant execution, evocative visual design, astute observations, and furtive meta-cinematic touches, the film captures the alluring emptiness of an industry that traffics in manufactured dreams. Wilder dares to show Hollywood in a harsh light, even as he uses a variety of technical and stylistic tricks to craft the ultimate Hollywood product. In the words of Roger Ebert, “Sunset Boulevard remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn’t.”

 

Attend: TIMBUKTU at Central Library Cinesthesia, Thursday, August 2 @ 6:30pm

Attend: Program Notes
Timbuktu | Abderrahmane Sissako | France, Mauritania | 2014 | 97 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, August 2, 6:30pm»

A radical re-examination of Islamist fundamentalism, Abderrahmane Sissako’s complex, vibrant, and ravishing Timbuktu finds something poignantly human in the interwoven stories of a town occupied by jihadist invaders.

Set in the titular ancient Malian desert city that was once a center of Islamic scholarship, art, literature and music, Timbuktu tells a timely, essential story of occupation and resistance. Veteran Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako deftly weaves together several vignettes to create a rich mosaic portrait of daily life after jihadist invaders subject the townspeople to a perversely rigid interpretation of Shariah law. With subtle force and pinpoint clarity, Sissako effectively conveys the absurdity of terror in practice, while also finding unexpected beauty in the victims’ struggle and even humanizing the fundamentalists.

A ragtag group of foreign fighters consisting mostly of Arabs from North Africa who are indifferent to local customs and who do not speak the native languages, the aggressors are at once brutal and ridiculous. They enforce bans on music, sports, tobacco, and public laughter, yet they often fail to live up to their own strict standards. For instance, they lightheartedly argue about their favorite soccer games and one of the leaders, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), sneaks off behind a dune to smoke a cigarette. Timbuktu comes alive precisely because Sissako’s film depicts the militants in novelistic detail as vividly three-dimensional characters. “To portray a jihadist as simply a bad guy, who does not in any way resemble me, who’s completely different, that’s not completely true,” Sissako told The New York Times. “The jihadist is also … a fragile being. And fragility is an element that can make anybody tip over into horror.”

A complex, ambivalent and multifaceted look at the causes, consequences and contradictions of Islamist extremism, Timbuktu challenges viewers to discover something poignantly human in the drama that unfolds. With one striking tableau after another, Sissako quietly ravishes our senses and presents a tragic yet hopeful vision of a people under siege, while also giving us room to breathe. The film lingers on idyllic moments of everyday pleasure and simple acts of defiance that affirm the spirit of free will. In a particularly moving scene, a group of boys joyfully play soccer on a dusty field with an imaginary ball.

Although Sissako’s film may be far from a comedy, Timbuktu maintains a delicate balance between solemnity and playfulness. Amid injustice, repression and ruthlessness, Timbuktu incorporates furtive touches of humor that undermine our psychological defenses, therefore rendering the film’s abrupt tonal shifts all the more disturbing. Sissako does not shy away from displaying violence, but he never sensationalizes any of these events. He shows us cruel punishments discreetly, while persistently reminding us that individuals with their own motivations and internal conflicts, rather than faceless monsters, commit such acts. In an interview for The Guardian, Sissako explains why he dared to portray jihadists in a new light. “The most terrible thing about this is that they are people like us. It’s always hard to say. But they are. It’s the only film of my own that makes me cry. I’ve cried several times watching it.”

The inspiration for Timbuktu was a horrific incident that occurred on July 29, 2012. A young man and woman were abducted in Aguelhok, northern Mali, by an Islamist group that had recently occupied the village. Accused of having children outside of marriage, the couple were buried up to their necks and stoned to death. Sissako, a Muslim who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, began working on a movie about the takeover of a town by jihadists the next year, seeking to draw attention to this atrocity.

He had made initial preparations to shoot in Timbuktu. For months, Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, had advanced through Mali, attempting to impose Shariah law, but by then the French military had intervened. Just before filming began, a checkpoint near the airport was struck by a suicide bomber. Consequently, the entire production moved across the border into Mauritania. Sissako planned to make Timbuktu as a documentary, but he realized it would be impossible when most of the killers were still at large. “You can’t make a documentary where people aren’t free to speak,” Sissako maintains. “And the risk is that you make a film for the jihadists – because they’re the ones who are going to do the talking.”

Ironically, following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, the mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris, called Timbuktu “an apology for terrorism” and briefly succeeded in banning it from a local cinema, although he had not seen the film. Timbuktu was also withdrawn from the pan-African FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso for “security” reasons. Despite the controversy surrounding it, Timbuktu was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2015 Academy Awards and won seven César Awards (the French Oscar equivalent), including Best Film, Director, Writer, Cinematography, and Music.

Sissako’s unprecedented portrayal of jihadists offers a radical alternative to typical representations of terrorism in our mass-media dominated global culture. The even-handedness at the heart of Timbuktu imbues his film with a pervasive sense of ambiguity that necessitates the active participation of viewers.

Timbuktu never feels didactic since Sissako refuses to provide clear resolutions or facile moral judgments. Far from defending, excusing, or justifying the behavior of extremists, he delivers a powerful statement against the political violence that, in his own words, “makes Islam into something imaginary.” At the same time, he captures the essence of a complex situation and offers insight into universal human nature. By attempting to understand the perspective of the jihadists rather than condemning their actions outright, Sissako’s unflinching, compassionate and lyrical work of art arouses more than just righteous anger and ultimately rejects the kind of narrow-mindedness that fuels fundamentalism.

 

 

 

 

Attend: CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA at Central Library Cinesthesia, Thursday, July 5 @ 6:30pm

Attend: Program Notes
Clouds of Sils Maria | Olivier Assayas | France, Germany, Switzerland | 2014 | 124 minutes

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, July 5, 6:30pm»

In Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart rehearse a complex, nuanced, and shape-shifting psychological drama that blurs the lines between playacting and reality.

A nebulous, multifaceted, endlessly inventive, and phenomenally intriguing film about the complex relationship between art and life, Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria finds the always unpredictable French writer-director at the height of his powers. Against the backdrop of a breathtaking, otherworldly Alpine landscape, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart play out a rich, nuanced and continually metamorphosing modern drama that defies us to perceive where performance ends and reality begins.

Binoche, luminous as ever, portrays Maria Enders, a distinguished French stage and screen actress, while Stewart plays Valentine, her reliable, efficient, and elusive young assistant from America. Assayas plunges us right into the middle of a story that has already been unfolding. Divided into chapters, Clouds of Sils Maria opens on a commuter train traveling to Zurich, where Maria is scheduled to present a lifetime achievement award to her close friend and mentor, the great playwright Wilhelm Melchior (who never appears in the film). Along the way, as Valentine expertly conducts business conversations on multiple smartphones and Maria discusses her pending divorce with a lawyer, they receive the news of Melchior’s sudden death.

The two women arrive in Zurich and meet the playwright’s widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler), who invites them to stay at her home in the Swiss mountains while she is away. Twenty years earlier, Melchior catapulted Maria to stardom by casting her in the play that was a breakout hit for both of them. Entitled Maloja Snake after the peculiar cloud formation that occurs near this place, the work tells the tale of a burned-out female corporate executive’s ruinous affair with a manipulative young woman in her office, played by Maria. Now, in middle age, she has been asked to take on the role of the humiliated older woman in a new production of Maloja Snake. Although Maria balks at the offer, Valentine persuades her to accept it. And so, Maria rehearses her lines, with Valentine reading the other part, amid the rarefied atmosphere of Sils Maria, an area where, in 1881, the idea of eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche “6,000 feet beyond man and time,” as he wrote. Meanwhile, Maria confronts her mounting insecurities.

Assayas’ narrative becomes even more tangled when he introduces a third woman. Klaus, the director of the Maloja Snake revival, has tapped Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), an edgy, rising young American blockbuster star with a penchant for scandal, to play the character that originally made Maria famous. We initially see Jo-Ann via promotional talk shows and paparazzi videos of her public meltdowns that Valentine finds for Maria on YouTube. One of the film’s most extraordinary scenes shows Valentine and Maria viewing the science-fiction franchise superhero spectacular that features Jo-Ann as a princess prancing around in a shiny metallic bodysuit and delivering lines like, “Zargon is not a mutant, but he understands mutant desire.” Maria responds to this display with bemused incredulity, but Valentine, an enthusiastic admirer of Jo-Ann, extolls the actress’s talents. Discussing the movie later, she insists that Jo-Ann “goes deep into the darker side of her character.” Despite her superpowers, she has no defenses.

Throughout Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas probes the murkier depths of the female psyche, while contemplating a range of relevant subjects, such as loss of privacy in the Internet age, the intersection of high art and popular culture, the pleasures and pressures of the artistic life, and, of course, cinema itself.

The tones and genres in Clouds of Sils Maria fluctuate considerably as Assayas weaves together multiple layers of reality with a dizzying array of manicured images, volatile impressions, and hyperbolic parallels. When Maria and Valentine rehearse lines, there is often uncertainty as to whether or not the dialogue belongs to the play or to themselves. Since the script increasingly seems to reflect the dynamics between the two women, we cannot discern where their fictional connection ends and their real one begins. The relationship between Maria and Melchior also mirrors the real relationship between Binoche and Assayas. Before he became a film director, Assayas penned the script for Binoche’s first starring role, that of an aspiring young actress on the verge of fame in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous.

As the boundaries between Maria and Valentine begin to dissolve and their individual personalities overlap, the mysterious permutations of their complex relationship exemplify the various roles we all assume every day. With the proliferation of a mass media-dominated, image-saturated, gossip- and fame-obsessed consumer culture, contemporary life has become progressively more theatrical. Due to the colonization of our leisure time by social networking and the fact that our digital avatars are more immediately accessible than our inner selves, the border between artifice and reality fades ever further.

Above all, Clouds of Sils Maria beautifully captures the essence of the passage of time. Although an aging actress in the spotlight might feel the advancing years more acutely than most people, Maria’s predicament resonates with anxieties that everyone must face, regardless of age, gender, or profession.

Assayas wrote the part of Maria specifically for Binoche after she challenged him to make a film focused on the exploration of femininity. The director creates a restless, intimate, and authentic portrait of a performance artist’s creative process, while incisively commenting on the more ridiculously superficial aspects of the entertainment industry. Yet he also presents a broad canvas onto which viewers can project their own meanings. His self-reflexive, enigmatic, and tantalizingly open-ended character study ultimately eludes definition and assumes many different shapes, thus inviting an infinitude of interpretations. In an interview, he describes Clouds of Sils Maria as “a movie where the invisible is present constantly” and mentions that “what you don’t see is often as important as what you do see.”

 

Program Notes: INAATE/SE at Rooftop Cinema, Fri Jun 29 at 9:30pm

Program Notes: Rooftop Cinema

INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./] | Zack Khalil and Adam Khalil | US | 2016 | 75 minutes

Rooftop Cinema, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Friday, June 29, 9:30pm»

Rooftop Cinema concludes its 2018 season with the hybrid documentary INAATE/SE, which re-imagines the Seven Fires Prophecy from the Ojibway tribe to comment on contemporary Native American experience.

Synopsis from the filmmakers at inaatese.com:

Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil’s new film re-imagines an ancient Ojibway story, the Seven Fires Prophecy, which both predates and predicts first contact with Europeans. A kaleidoscopic experience blending documentary, narrative, and experimental forms, INAATE/SE/ transcends linear colonized history to explore how the prophecy resonates through the generations in their indigenous community within Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With acute geographic specificity, and grand historical scope, the film fixes its lens between the sacred and the profane to pry open the construction of contemporary indigenous identity.

Official Selection, Doc Fortnight 2016, Museum of Modern Art:

“History is written by the victors, but this film reminds us
that the history of the oppressed can still be saved from being extinguished. Native American video artists Adam and Zack Khalil here reclaim the narrative of the Ojibway of Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, from the archives and museums that would confine it to the past. Using personal interviews, animated drawings, performance, and provocative intercutting, the Khalil brothers’ feature debut makes a bold case for the Ojibway people to be their own storytellers—while seeking a cure for the damage inflicted by colonization—in a spiritual reconnection with tradition.”

Review at nonfics.com by Daniel Webster:

“Every one in a while, a film comes around that so bluntly and creatively rejects the dominant form of documentary expression, it feels like something brand new. INAATE/SE/, the debut feature by brothers Adam and Zack Khalil, is one of those revelations. Yet neither the story they tell nor the way they express it to the audience is entirely original. It has simply been neglected, warped by centuries of dishonest narrative and colonial expression. The chief accomplishment of the Khalil brothers is their refusal to succumb to any of these pressures, instead blending their own personal ingenuity with a way of seeing the world that emerges from their culture [. . .]

Unlike the Tower of History or even the National Museum of the American Indian, which can present Ojibway artifacts as if they come from a people entirely in the past, the Khalil brothers use their history as a way to see into the future. The result, boosted by an extended sequence of traditional medicine, vision quests and a green screen trip into a brightly colored realm of new consciousness, is as vital as it is trippy. With its rambunctious, revolutionary style, INAATE/SE/ is as lucid a dream of the future as any historical documentary has ever been.”

Filmmaker biographies:

Adam Shingwak Khalil attempts to subvert traditional forms of ethnography through humor, relation, and transgression. Adam’s work has been exhibited at UnionDocs, e-flux, Maysles Cinema, Microscope Gallery (New York), Museo ExTeresa Arte Actual (Mexico City), Spektrum (Berlin), Trailer Gallery (Sweden), Carnival of eCreativity (Bombay), and Fine Art Film Festival Szolnok (Hungary). Khalil is a UnionDocs Collaborative Fellow and Gates Millennium Scholar. In 2011 he graduated from the Film and Electronic Arts program at Bard College.

Zack Khalil often explores an indigenous worldview and undermines traditional forms of historical authority through the excavation of alternative histories and the use of innovative documentary forms. He recently completed a B.A. at Bard College in the Film and Electronic Arts Department, and is a UnionDocs Collaborative Fellow and Gates Millennium Scholar.

 

 

Program Notes: CANYON CINEMA 50 TOUR at Rooftop Cinema, Fri Jun 22 at 9:30pm

Program Notes: Rooftop Cinema

Canyon Cinema 50 Tour Digital Program | Various Artists | US | 1961-2012 | 73 minutes

Rooftop Cinema, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Friday, June 22, 9:30pm»

Rooftop Cinema continues its season with the first and only screening in Madison (so far) of the Canyon Cinema 50 Tour, a tribute to the historically important and still vibrant and crucial distributor of experimental films.

Canyon Cinema, based in San Francisco, California, is a nonprofit film and media arts organization that serves as one of the world’s preeminent sources for artist-made moving image work. 2017 marked its 50th anniversary. The organization celebrates this milestone through the Canyon Cinema 50 project, which includes international touring programs showcasing newly created prints and digital copies, and an educational website including new essays, ephemera, and interviews with filmmakers and other witnesses to Canyon’s 50-year history. (http://canyoncinema50.org/)

Curator David Dinnell, visiting faculty at California Institute of the Arts, has assembled a program exploring the depth and breadth of the Canyon Cinema catalog. Dinnell served as Program Director at the Ann Arbor Film Festival from 2010 to 2016.

 

Mr. Hayashi | Bruce Baillie | 1961 | US | 3 minutes

Bruce Baillie (b. 1931) began filmmaking in 1960, and he was a founding member of the Canyon Cinema group in 1961. His Castro Street (1966) was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.

“One of the most perfect films that I’ve ever seen runs a total of three minutes,” begins Manohla Dargis’ brief New York Times portrait of Baillie in April, 2016. She then describes Baillie’s All My Life (1966), which was part of a retrospective of his work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. You can watch Baillie introduce one of those screenings (along with scholar P. Adams Sitney) at the Lincoln Center website.

Max Goldberg at Fandor writes that “as much as his contemporary Stan Brakhage, Baillie developed a bold film language to convey visual phenomena outside the realm of dramatic realism.”

 

Arbor | Janie Geiser | 2012 | US | 7 minutes

At her website, Janie Geiser describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes performance, film, installation, and visual art. Geiser is on the faculty of the CalArts School of Theater, and is a founding Co-Director of Automata, an artist-run performance gallery.

Geiser’s films are in the collections of MOMA, The NY Public Library’s Donnell Media Center, CalArts, and others. Her film The Red Book is part of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The Academy of Motion Pictures Archive has selected her work for preservation, and The Fourth Watch (2000) was selected by Film Comment as one of the top ten experimental films of that decade. (www.janiegeiser.com/)

 

Akbar | Richard Myers | 1970 | US | 16 minutes

Richard Myers (b. 1937) has been an independent filmmaker since 1960. During his career he has won two Guggenheim Fellowships, an American Film Institute Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts Independent Artist’s Grant for filmmaking. He has received First Prize film festival awards at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Kenyon Film Festival, and at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Myers is an Emeritus Professor, School of Art, Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, where he taught film production classes from 1964 to 1991. Akbar is a conversation with Ahmad Akbar (not his real name), an African-American filmmaker, friend friend of Myers, and former film student at Kent State University. (www.richardmyersfilms.com/)

 

Degrees of Limitation | Scott Stark | 1982 | US | 3 minutes

Scott Stark has produced more than 75 films and videos since 1980. Born and educated in the midwest, including time at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he has always been interested in aggressively pushing his work beyond the threshold of traditional viewing expectations, challenging the audience to question its relationship to the cinematic process; yet he also tries to build into the work elements of humor and incongruity that allow the viewer an entryway into the work while maintaining a critical distance.

Stark describes how he made Degrees of Limitation: “A silent film made completely in about 15 minutes in San Francisco in 1982. With the 16mm Bolex camera mounted on a tripod, I wound the motor a single crank and ran as far as I could before the camera stopped (about 1 second). I returned and wound it 2 cranks and did the same, continuing the process, adding one more crank each time, getting a little farther up the hill each time, and getting a little more winded. The process was repeated until the camera ran out of film.”

Scott makes his living as a computer programmer and support specialist for a large multi-national corporation. He currently lives in Austin, Texas. In February 2012 Scott initiated an avant-garde film screening series in Austin called Experimental Response Cinema. (www.scottstark.com/)

 

Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) | Cauleen Smith | 1992 | US | 6.5 minutes

Cauleen Smith is an interdisciplinary artist whose work reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination. Her work draws from a range of influences including structuralism, third world cinema, and science fiction. She earned a BA in Creative Arts from San Francisco Sate University and an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater Film and Television. While based in Chicago, Smith serves as faculty for the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. (www.cauleensmith.com/)

According to critic Holly Willis in VarietyChronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) “began as an installation made up of a series of photographs but Smith realized that she could take the images and put them together in a moving collage, then repeat the sequence of images almost exactly. The result is a film that layers voices and images, and addresses issues of subjectivity and history, but rather than being a boring or predictable self-portrait, Chronicles is lively and visually complex.”

 

Saving the Proof | Karen Holmes | 1979 | US | 11 minutes

The critic Michael Sicinski describes Saving the Proof as a “cinematic answer to Michael Snow’s ‘Walking Woman’ paintings.

“The film is a fascinating application of structuralist technique to a set of Expressionist gestures,” Sicinski continues, “Holmes shows silhouettes of women walking, passing by various scenes and items, displaying different gaits. But eventually the women become pure form and movement, accompanied by a series of abstract contrapuntal sounds. Holmes’ film finally resembles much of the advanced video art of the period.”

In his book Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order, James Peterson offers an advanced analysis of the structure underlying Saving the Proof: “After the titles, the film lays out three sets of three images that form its basic permutational set . . . the rest of the film repeats these images in increasingly complex variants. The order of the images is generally preserved, though it is sometimes systematically varied.”

 

Fake Fruit Factory | Chick Strand | 1986 | US | 22 minutes

Chick Strand (1931-2009) (was another founding member of the Canyon Cinema group in 1961. Her films vary in style from abstraction to what critic Vera Brunner-Sung describes as “lyrical ethnography.”

“A student of anthropology who went on to study ethnographic film,” Brunner-Sung explains, “Strand is most often associated with her work documenting the people she encountered in Mexico, in and around the town of San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato. For years she spent her summers there, always with a 16mm camera in hand: Cosas de Mi Vida (1976), Fake Fruit Factory (1986) and Señora con Flores (1995/2011) are only a handful of the many portraits she created before her death in 2009.”

Strand described ethnographic filmmaking as “a means to get into other perspectives of the culture, to meet them, and to identify with them as fellow human beings.” Brunner-Sung concludes that Strand’s diverse output is permeated by this profound sense of humanity, of film as a tool for identification and relation, transcending time and culture.

 

Dyketactics | Barbara Hammer | 1974 | US | 4 minutes

Artist statement from Barbara Hammer (b. 1939) at barbarahammer.com:

“As a visual artist who primarily uses film and video in experimental, nonlinear time based work, my practice includes performance, installation and digital photography. I embrace critical and formal complexity while promoting an active and engaged audience. Thematically, my work deconstructs a cinema that often objectifies or limits women. My work makes these invisible bodies and histories visible. As a lesbian artist, I found little existing representation, so I put lesbian life on this blank screen, leaving a cultural record for future generations.

The content and meaning of my work have evolved through forty years of work. In the seventies I created an aesthetic based on connecting sight and touch. Tactile imagery would make viewers physically involved while watching film and lead to greater involvement in the world (Dyketactics). In performance I mobilized the projector and made the audience move to ‘see’ the film (Available Space). I hoped that once an audience saw and felt in a ‘new’ way, they would become active in a local, national and global politic.”

 

The Canyon Cinema 50 project is organized by the Canyon Cinema Foundation and supported in part by the George Lucas Family Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Owsley Brown III Foundation, the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation and The Fleishhacker Foundation.

 


 

 

Rooftop Cinema is a program of MMoCA’s education department and is curated by James Kreul, with technical support provided by Tanner Engbretsen. MMoCA’s film programming is generously funded by maiahaus and Venture Investors, LLC.

 

Program Notes: SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE at Rooftop Cinema, Fri Jun 15 at 9:30pm

Program Notes: Rooftop Cinema

Yippie! | Youth International Party | US | 1968 | 10 minutes

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One | William Greaves | US | 1968 | 75 minutes

Rooftop Cinema, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Friday, June 15, 9:30pm»

As the “party with a purpose” continues at the Madison Reunion conference downtown and on campus this weekend, Rooftop Cinema showcases two films that remind us how things have changed and how things have stayed the same since 1968.

In her essay on Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, the critic Amy Taubin points out that in 1968 the film and theater world oscillated between two ideals: the auteur and the collective. Tonight’s films illustrate both ideals: the potential of an individual artist to bring his or her unique vision to the screen, and the possibility of individuals to come together to take collective action.

The first film documents collective action and is itself a product of collective action. Yippie! was produced as the “official statement” of the Youth International Party, known more popular as the “Yippies.” The most well known Yippies included Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, and the folk singer Phil Ochs. Their irreverent fusion of street theater and politically themed pranks earned them another nickname, “Groucho Marxists.” Yippie! documents several Yippie protests staged during the lead up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

As depicted in the film, the Yippies nominated “Pigasus the Immortal” as their candidate for president, and demanded that the 145-pound pig be treated as a legitimate candidate. Pigasus was purchased from a local farmer by Ochs. Seven Yippies, including Rubin and Ochs, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after Rubin’s attempted “acceptance speech” for Pigasus.

While the film was produced “by and for Yippies,” it was eventually distributed by the radical documentary collective Newsreel, who brought the film to a wider audience at campuses across the country. Soon radical filmmaking moved away from the irreverent style of films like Yippie! as filmmakers sought a new film language to address their social and political concerns.

Filmmaker William Greaves (1926-2014) did not come from this tradition of radical or experimental filmmaking, but his unique vision produced one of the most unconventional films of the late 1960s, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. As an African-American actor and filmmaker, he was frustrated by the lack of opportunities in American film and television. In 1952 he moved to work at the National Film Board of Canada, led by the pioneer documentarian John Grierson. Eventually public television opportunities brought him back to the United States, and at the time he shot Symbiopsychotaxiplasm he had been appointed executive producer of Black Journal, a public affairs program produced at WNET by National Educational Television.

Key to the pleasure of watching Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is discovering just what the heck is going on. This is suggested in Greaves’ production notes to himself regarding how to handle the cast and crew: “Refuse to give a total explanation of the film! First of all, it is impossible anyway, due to its complexity. Give only as much of an explanation as will satisfy the performers and film crew. To give more will kill the truth and spontaneity of everyone.” In that spirit, these program notes will not reveal any details about the film itself.

According to Taubin, Greaves shot roughly fifty-five hours of footage for the Symbiopsychotaxiplasm project, which he intended to transform into five films. But after Take One failed to secure a theatrical release, Greaves shelved those plans. Take One only had occasional screenings after its premiere in 1971. Years later, the actor Steve Buscemi and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh saw the film and eventually helped Greaves produce a sequel, Take 2 1/2, which combines footage shot in 1968 and 2003. In 2006, the Criterion Collection released a 2-DVD set, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes by William Greaves, which also includes a documentary about Greaves and his career.

 


 

 

Rooftop Cinema is a program of MMoCA’s education department and is curated by James Kreul, with technical support provided by Tanner Engbretsen. MMoCA’s film programming is generously funded by maiahaus and Venture Investors, LLC.