Attend: SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE at Central Library Cinesthesia, August 1 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
sex, lies, and videotape | Steven Soderbergh | United States | 1989 | 100 min.

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

Thirty years after Steven Soderbergh’s provocative feature debut changed the face of American independent film, sex, lies, and videotape clearly resonates with the present era of internet porn, post-truth politics, and social networking.

Director Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape in eight days, and on half of those he was driving from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles. It was a personal project and he did not know if anybody would even read it, let alone transform it into the breakout low-budget film that revolutionized American independent cinema. Soderbergh secured funding of $1.2 million from RCA/Columbia Home Video and the movie debuted at the U.S. Film Festival (soon to be renamed the Sundance Film Festival) within twelve and a half months after he first dropped the script on his agent’s desk. Although sex, lies, and videotape was unfinished, with temporary sound and titles made on a Xerox machine, the film won an audience prize. Soderbergh’s first narrative feature went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earned as much as $100 million worldwide on its initial theatrical release, which actually represents a return on investment proportionately higher than that of the same year’s megahit Batman. According to industry historian Peter Biskind, it was the “big bang of the modern indie film movement.”

In the director’s commentary recorded for the 1998 DVD release, Soderbergh recounts how some agents didn’t want to show the script to actors because they thought it was going to be a porn movie. Despite the sleazy tabloid connotations of the title, sex, lies, and videotape contains neither nudity nor explicit sexual activity. Rather, Soderbergh’s film confronts the naked realities of contemporary sexual politics with frank discourse and at times uncomfortable directness. His restless, intimate camera slowly tracks the four main characters as they talk to each other, deceive each other (and themselves), have or avoid sex with each other, and reveal the depths of their interior lives on videotape. While the subject matter is certainly provocative, the actual experience of watching the film may not be what one expects.   

Shot on 35mm film, sex, lies, and videotape takes place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in summer. The film traces the shifting currents of desire that intertwine the complicated personal lives of four photogenic people in their early 30s. Ann (Andie MacDowell), a frustrated, prudish housewife, has entered long-term psychotherapy, worries about garbage flooding the world, and remains in denial about her sex life (or rather lack thereof). Unbeknownst to Ann, her husband, John (Peter Gallagher), an ambitious lawyer and inveterate philanderer, has been conducting a passionate affair with her promiscuous, emancipated sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s former college roommate, Graham (James Spader), walks into this tangled web, he inadvertently initiates a chain of events that will disrupt all of their lives.

Since John and Graham last saw one another nine years ago, Graham has become a long-haired, sexually ambivalent drifter who wears black shirts and lives in his car. A self-described recovering pathological liar, he now insists on being scrupulously honest and tends to ask fairly invasive questions point-blank. Ann finds herself attracted to the enigmatic stranger, although she refuses to acknowledge her feelings. She eventually discovers his peculiar private obsession and recoils in horror. Graham has a penchant for interviewing women about their sex lives on videotape and subsequently masturbating to the cassettes.

In a recent essay on the film titled sex, lies, and videotape: Some Kind of Skin Flick,” critic Amy Taubin writes,

The brief account of the plot above does not do justice to the psychological complexity of the characters, the quicksilver dialogue, the play of desire and its repression, and the dramatization of how moving images had already, by 1989, begun to mediate all relationships—intimate, social, political, economic, you name it. We can see in sex, lies, and videotape the beginning of the way in which all our lives would become performances for our own cameras, and how performance, whether in the personal, social, or political sphere, cannot be trusted. Just as the lies that Reagan told on TV in 1986 during the Iran-Contra scandal led to the daily lies of the president who was elected in 2016, our need for personal technology to defend us from both our interiority and the outside world has become all-encompassing.

When sex, lies, and videotape was released in 1989, it truly captured the cultural zeitgeist, while offering a perspective on modern life and human sexuality that was practically nonexistent in American cinema.

Soderbergh observed, “What is ironic is that this is a culture obsessed with sex, but only up to a point. In the movies, for example, they’re more than willing to show a representation of the sex act, but I don’t think a lot of films want to deal with the real responsibilities and implications and repercussions of sex.”

“There are incredible emotions leading up to and following the physical act of sex. And that’s what I wanted to concern myself with; not with the act itself, which I think doesn’t vary that much for any one individual.” The director focuses on the fears and desires of men and women, the difference between sex and love, the destructiveness of lying, and the dangers of detachment as a lifestyle choice. In a way, sex, lies, and videotape turns the tables on the viewer by subverting expectations and presenting a raw portrayal of the complexities of human intimacy rather than the skin flick suggested by the movie’s title.

While sex, lies, and videotape definitely epitomizes its particular moment in time, the issues Soderbergh tackles are still very much alive today. Indeed, his film feels increasingly relevant as our relationship with technology becomes ever more similar to Graham’s.

At the time of the film’s release, Soderbergh explained to Film Comment why he used video as a metaphor for distance. “Video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events. We tend to think that we can experience things because we watched them on tape. [Graham] needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism….”

Soderbergh’s words call to mind those of Brian O’Blivion (played by Jack Creley) in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), an apocalyptic, mind-bending, techno-surrealist horror movie about how electronic media alters its users:

“The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

Through the lens of the twenty-first century, Soderbergh’s period piece may appear somewhat dated, but sex, lies, and videotape clearly resonates with the present era of internet porn, post-truth politics, and social networking. Graham’s problem has essentially become the modern mode of communication.

We rely on high-tech mobile devices to facilitate interpersonal connections, even as those same devices insulate each of us in our own hermetically sealed bubble of images and information. Our digital avatars grant us distance from people and events, while we freely gorge ourselves on a steady stream of stimuli.

The radiant, seductive, and artificial glow of intimacy generated by our ubiquitous screens represents a more socially acceptable and up-to-date form of the ersatz closeness Graham can only feel through the remove of a video recording. Look around you and, in truth, Graham might seem comparatively healthy.


Attend: ACE IN THE HOLE at Central Library Cinesthesia, July 3 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Ace in the Hole | Billy Wilder | United States | 1951 | 111 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Wednesday, July 3, 6:30 p.m.»

A hard-hitting exposé of the perpetual American media circus, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is dark for 2019, let alone 1951.


One of the most nihilistic, hard-edged, and brutally honest pictures to ever come out of the Hollywood studio system, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole exposes the underbelly of American media culture, while fearlessly investigating the corrosive effects of sensationalized news on society and the individual soul.

Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a cynical, profligate, and fiercely ambitious journalist who takes a job at a dreary newspaper office in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Once a successful reporter, he has been dismissed from eleven metropolitan newspapers for reasons including drunkenness, slander, and adultery. After a year of tedium working for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, Tatum stumbles upon a story that will return him to prominence. Dispatched to the outskirts of town to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he and an impressionable young photographer, Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur), stop at a remote trading post for gas and presently discover that the proprietor, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), has been trapped in an abandoned silver mine by a cave-in. Tatum then does everything in his power to manipulate the scoop into a sensational public event, even conspiring with the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) to prolong the ordeal and exploit it for headlines. In no time, the effort to rescue Minosa becomes a lurid, exaggerated spectacle as tourists, politicians, reporters, and various performers all converge on the site for their own dubious purposes. While Ace in the Hole was a commercial and critical failure upon its release, Wilder’s biting, prescient satire of the American media feels especially up-to-the-minute in our post-truth world.

Initially titled The Human Interest Story, Ace in the Hole was inspired by real-life events. In January 1925, Floyd Collins, the owner of the Crystal Cave in central Kentucky, became trapped inside after a landslide.A young Louisville reporter, William Burke “Skeets” Miller, helped direct the rescue operation, covering the story all the while. Collins’ misfortune thus became America’s entertainment. As in Wilder’s film, the story gained national attention and a carnivalesque atmosphere sprang up outside the cave. Collins died fifteen days into the rescue and Miller was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his articles. Roaring Twenties readers never tired of the sordid details, especially when certain irregularities began to emerge. One of the supposed rescuers lied about having reached Collins with food; items meant for Collins were found tucked into niches in the cave wall. A man claiming to be Floyd Collins turned up in Kansas one week into the rescue operation. (He was not Collins.) Finally, Floyd’s brother Homer, who determinedly and heroically attempted to aid his brother during the crisis, announced upon Floyd’s death that he was putting a road show together to tell his own version of the tragedy for anyone willing to buy a ticket.

The case of Kathy Fiscus, both sadder and more farcical, has also been cited as an influence on the film. In April 1949, in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, a three-year-old girl fell into an abandoned well and launched a national media sensation. Television reporters broadcast live stories on the rescue effort and several thousand spectators showed up to watch the excitement unfold. Cave-ins and seeping water delayed the operation, which involved klieg lights donated by Hollywood studios, power drills, earth movers, and a host of engineers, miners, and cesspool experts. Jockeys from the Santa Anita racetrack arrived and volunteered to be lowered into the well. Johnny Roventini, the Philip Morris cigarette dwarf, appeared, too, as did an earnest contingent of diminutive clowns from the Cole Bros. Circus. When the rescuers finally reached her, Kathy Fiscus was dead, and the disappointed crowds promptly dispersed. 

Ace in the Hole was the first Hollywood film that Wilder did not co-write with his longtime collaborator, Charles Brackett, a conservative Republican and ex-New Yorker drama critic who clashed creatively with him. The idea for the story was presented to Wilder in the form of a treatment by radio writer Walter Newman. Playwright Lesser Samuels was brought in for polish. Wilder, Newman, and Samuels worked on the script (which was nominated for an Academy Award) throughout the spring and summer of 1950.

An early draft of the screenplay reportedly included voice-over narration by Tatum as his corpse is being loaded onto a railway baggage car. Wilder also toyed with the idea of making Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the jaded, world-weary wife of Leo, even more avaricious, having her beg Tatum not to reveal her husband’s death so the circus could run one more weekend. In one version, Lorraine is run over by a carnival truck.

On July 6, 1950, just four days before the beginning of principal photography, the shooting script was finished. Wilder sent a copy to Joseph Breen at the Production Code office, who responded that the script was lacking “a proper voice for morality” at the end. He was especially concerned about the wider social implications of presenting a corrupt law enforcement officer on American movie screens. Because Tatum ultimately pays for his transgressions with his life, Breen was relatively easy on Ace in the Hole.

But Breen and his advisers believed that “Sheriff [Gus] Kretzer breezes out of the story a little too easily, considering the malice of his misdeeds throughout the story.” The censor expected Wilder to develop some additional dialogue, “which will make it clear that Kretzer will be answerable for his evil in the near future.” In the finished film, Tatum declares that he plans to write some sort of exposé about the sheriff.

Ace in the Hole was shot in forty-five days and cost approximately $1,842,000 to produce. Location filming took place in Albuquerque and in an area outside of Gallup, New Mexico, where Paramount’s advance team had prepared the ancient cliff dwelling, parking lot, and trading post. The term “media circus” was not yet in use when Wilder shot the enormous carnival that arises around the plight of Leo Minosa. An entire day was set aside purely for rehearsal; the circus was filmed on what Paramount’s public relations team claimed was the largest noncombat set ever constructed. The set—235 feet high, 1,200 feet across, and 1,600 feet deep—included the cliff, roadside stands, amusement rides, a parking lot for 500 cars, booths, concession stands, and musicians. Over a thousand locals were hired as extras.

When Ace in the Hole premiered at New York’s Globe Theatre on June 30, 1951, the film flopped with a resounding thud. Although it won a Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and was a hit with the British press, critical reaction in the U.S. was mixed. John McCarten in the The New Yorker deemed the film “a compound of unjelled satire, half-baked melodrama, and dialogue in which not even a dowsing rod could discover a vein of wit,” and called Chuck Tatum “certainly the most preposterous version of a reporter I’ve ever seen.” Bosley Crowther labeled it “one of the truly challenging pictures of this year,” and praised Wilder’s “spectacular job of visioning the monstrous vulgarity of mob behavior.” However, the New York Times critic took exception to what he described as a “distortion of journalistic practice.”The Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer called Ace in the Hole “a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions—democratic government and the free press.”

The American press made such an outcry against the film that Y. Frank Freeman, who was vice president at Paramount, dispatched publicity agents to city desks around the country to explain that “the picture’s depiction of trashy journalism was not directed against the Fourth Estate as such,” but only against a few bad apples. In an effort to revive the movie’s chances of finding an audience in the United States, Freeman retitled it The Big Carnival and reissued it in the domestic market. Freeman made this decision without Wilder’s knowledge or consent; the director was so incensed that he began to consider leaving Paramount forever. In any case, the film did not go well with the alternate title and it was changed back.

With its vérité photography, its razor-sharp dialogue, its savage indictment of tabloid journalism, and its uncompromisingly bleak outlook on American life, Ace in the Hole is dark for 2019, let alone 1951. The movie has become increasingly relevant as the excesses of the press and public become more flagrant. (Director Spike Lee, who allegedly wanted to remake Ace in the Hole, copied the last shot of the picture in his 1992 film Malcolm X.) In Wilder’s searing portrait of the perpetual media circus, the targets of his attack are not only the unscrupulous reporter who covers the story or the victim’s shameless wife, but also the mass of faceless, anonymous, passive spectators who have an insatiable appetite for sensation.

In a 2014 essay on Wilder’s film titled Ace in the Hole: Noir in Broad Daylight, critic Molly Haskell writes:

Wilder’s vision of corruption seems to take in the whole spectrum of grubby, postwar America, with its loss of moral imperatives, its return to normalcy after the excitement of the war years. He plants his finger firmly and prophetically on the pulse of the new excitement, an addiction to the breaking story that television would create and feed to a nation of adrenaline junkies. Already in the squawking, hawking opportunists are our own telegenic communicators in embryonic form, the self-promoting reporters donning Bedouin robes or Muslim chadors or hurricane slickers to provide twenty-four-hour coverage of themselves at the ego-center of hot spots and sleazy “human interest” tabloid stories. Stories whose staying power is manufactured, stories stretched out beyond any “human interest” at all, simply because they are scary, scandalous, sordid, or just bad, and fill the airspace until the next bad story arrives—or until the anniversary of an old one.

In a conversation with Charlotte Chandler published in her 2002 book Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, the director discusses his favorite film and the unpalatability of its bitter realism.

Ace in the Hole was a failure here, but a success in Europe. I think my mistake was in offering the American public a shot of vinegar when they thought they were going to get a nice cocktail. It was a vinegar cocktail. The reviewers said I was too cynical, that no newspaperman would really act that way.”

Shortly after the film was blasted by the press, Wilder recalls, “I was feeling very downhearted, walking down Wilshire Boulevard when, right in front of me, somebody got hit by a car. A cameraman comes running up out of nowhere. I said, ‘We’ve got to help him.’ The cameraman said, ‘You help him. I’ve gotta get my picture in.’ And off the guy went. Maybe I wasn’t cynical enough when I did Ace in the Hole.”


Attend: THE VIRGIN SUICIDES at Central Library Cinesthesia, June 6 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
The Virgin Suicides | Sofia Coppola | United States | 1999 | 97 min.

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

A poetic, timeless, and entrancing meditation on teenage angst and inexpressible loss, Sofia Coppola’s confident debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, dresses up 1970s upper-middle-class suburban existential horror with lush visuals, pitch-perfect period detail, and plenty of verve.

The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.

Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game (1939)

An adaptation of the acclaimed 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides plunges viewers into the murky emotional depths of female adolescence, while fluidly evoking upper-middle-class suburban life in the late 1970s. Sofia Coppola’s luminous, intoxicating, and assured debut feature acutely observes the interior worlds of five preternaturally beautiful sisters, ranging in age from 13 to 17, who inexplicably take their own lives. Raised on the outskirts of Detroit by their strict, domineering Catholic parents, the Lisbon sisters lead an increasingly cloistered existence and become the objects of erotic fascination for a group of oblivious teenage boys. The tragic tale unfolds through the wistful voice-over narration of one of the boys (played by actor Giovanni Ribisi) who, now approaching middle age, recalls their experiences with the girls and attempts in vain to make sense of their lives and deaths.

Coppola came across The Virgin Suicides in her mid-20s when Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth reportedly gave her a copy of Eugenides’s book. The director remembers liking the cover, “a close-up of blond hair unspooling on the ground.” Her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides was an “experiment” in screenwriting, a labor of love motivated by her adoration of the novel. “It felt like Jeffrey Eugenides, the writer, really understood the experience of being a teenager: the longing, the melancholy, the mystery between boys and girls. I loved how the boys were so confused by the girls, and I really connected with all that lazing around in your bedroom. I didn’t feel like I saw that very much in films, not in a way I could relate to.”

After completing the script, Coppola was dismayed to learn that another company owned the rights to the novel and was already producing an adaptation of their own. However, they were unsatisfied with the “really dark” draft they had originally commissioned, and eventually met with Coppola, who pitched her version as having “a lighter touch.” Hence, Eugenides’s novel led to Coppola’s career as a filmmaker.

“With a book like this, no one should really play the characters,” Eugenides once mused when asked about the adaptation, “because the girls are seen at such a distance. They’re created by the intention of the observer, and there are so many points of view that they don’t really exist as an exact entity . . . I tried to think of the girls as a shape-shifting entity with many different heads. Like a hydra, but not monstrous. A nice hydra.” Moreover, Coppola has said that, for her, The Virgin Suicides is about “how deeply people can affect you, and how little images can get the biggest importance, and never go away.”

Coppola beguiles us with ethereal, dreamlike images as she offers a seamless succession of shimmering surfaces that mask the deep emptiness and creeping inevitability at the heart of The Virgin Suicides. Rather than attempting to explain the behavior of the Lisbon sisters, she focuses mostly on the boys’ gaze by visualizing their desires, speculations, and idle reveries. At the same time, Coppola peers into the sisters’ harsh reality, revealing private aspects of their day-to-day lives that the boys cannot see. She portrays them as individual young women and insists that we look beyond the boys’ limited perspective.

In an essay on the film, novelist Megan Abbott writes, “From the start . . . we see that the standard narratives, the endless cultural fantasies about teenage girls, are going to be played with, refused, subverted—a point driven home in the shot just after the opening title, in which the screen fills with Lux’s image, superimposed, godlike, across the sky as she gazes into the camera (and us) and winks.”

Although the presence of death permeates The Virgin Suicides at the outset—thirteen-year-old Cecilia slits her wrists and a diseased tree has been marked to be sawn down by the city—Coppola punctuates her movie with moments of black humor. She exhibits an elegant filmmaking style that counterbalances the grim storyline, while seducing us into the hazy, poisonous, hermetic world of the Lisbon family. The audience already knows that the film will not have a happy ending, but The Virgin Suicides casts a spell.

Like the unwary teenage boys who find themselves smitten and bewildered by the girls’ mystery, and who as men try to extract some sort of meaning from the tragedy, we too are lost in our efforts to either understand their actions or decipher an elusive femininity that seems forever just beyond our reach. In the end, the film leaves us with little more than a collection of haunting memories that defy elucidation.

“When I was growing up, movies for teens were always lowbrow and not well crafted, and it was hard to relate to them,” Coppola said in a recent interview. “There wasn’t much poetic filmmaking that spoke to me as a girl and a young woman, and also treated [us] with respect I felt that audience deserved.” She recalls that the now-defunct studio Paramount Classics, which distributed the movie, was afraid it would encourage teen suicides and gave it a small release. Nonetheless, The Virgin Suicides caught on as a cult classic, spurred by its unique look, its iconic soundtrack (mostly by the French electronic duo AIR), and the rising stardom of Kirsten Dunst, who portrays the enigmatic, wayward fourteen-year-old Lux Lisbon.

Even though Coppola went on to pursue an illustrious career in American independent cinema, The Virgin Suicides arguably remains her finest achievement, a singular combination of sound and vision, a poignant blend of pathos and comedy, and an art-house teen movie touchstone. Twenty years since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Coppola’s masterpiece continues to resonate with audiences of multiple generations.

Discussing her creation with The Guardian in 2018, she said that “a couple of years ago, a bunch of teenage girls told me how much they loved The Virgin Suicides. I thought: ‘How do they even know about that? They weren’t even born.’ Through the internet, it’s had a second life. It’s nice to know that it still speaks to some young women.” On April 24, 2018, a restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection, to the delight of cinephiles and Coppola alike.

The director-approved special edition of The Virgin Suicides includes a 4K digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Ed Lachman, new interviews with the cast and crew, a making-of documentary filmed by Coppola’s mother, Eleanor, and Lick the Star, a 1998 student short film by Coppola. In his review of the Blu-ray treatment, Niles Schwartz writes, “The transfer practically allows the colors to talk in a stunning multivaried [sic] palette, the spectrum of plentiful hues popping with gorgeous distinction, the fleshier warm colors in a kind of showdown with the smothering suffocation of blue and mossy green.”


Attend: WOMEN IN LOVE at Central Library Cinesthesia, May 1 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Women in Love | Ken Russell | United States | 1969 | 131 min.

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

A deliriously stylized, exceptionally provocative, and revolutionary adaptation of the controversial 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Ken Russell’s Women in Love probes the complexities of human sexuality through the lens of late-sixties free love.

A florid, provocative and visually extravagant adaptation of the landmark 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) remains remarkably faithful to his source material, while elevating it to dizzying aesthetic heights. Larry Kramer’s erudite screenplay extracts virtually all of its dialogue from Lawrence’s novel, with some judicious interpolations from the author’s poems and letters. Russell, the celebrated enfant terrible of British cinema, shot the film at the moment when permissiveness on the screen finally made it possible to do Lawrence justice. When Women in Love premiered in 1969, the picture caused a sensation with its groundbreaking depictions of sexuality beyond the heteronormative. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its transgressive elements, Women in Love became a box-office hit and earned considerable acclaim, catapulting both its director and its leading lady (Glenda Jackson) into the spotlight. Although time can dilute the potency of a controversial work of art, Russel’s kaleidoscopic, lavish, high-camp spectacle endures as a significant cultural artifact and a singular cinematic experience.

Where Lawrence’s book maintains a deliberately ambiguous timeframe, Russell’s film takes place soon after World War I, when members of the Lost Generation, as a result of the widespread social upheaval, were disillusioned with the world in general and unwilling to embrace established behavioral patterns. This lack of cultural and emotional stability provided fertile ground for exploring the myriad possibilities for personal and sexual freedom, a situation that nicely resonates with the late-sixties era of “free love.”

The emancipated
Brangwen sisters, Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden)

Set in a dreary, blighted English Midlands mining town, Women in Love follows the romantic exploits of two liberated sisters, the ambivalently sadistic sculptress Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and the demanding, enigmatic schoolteacher Ursula (Jennie Linden). Gudrun drifts into an entanglement with the aloof, brooding industrial heir Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), while Ursula falls for Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), a restless, free-spirited visionary who, with his poetic soliloquies and pointed beard, resembles Lawrence himself. This quirky quartet is perfectly complemented by a brilliant cast of absurd peripheral characters, including Rupert’s discarded lover, the eccentric heiress Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron) and Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), a vaguely sinister, proto-fascistic German artist with decadent sensibilities.

Women in Love initially suggests an acerbic comedy of manners as Russell playfully skewers the insular, hermetically sealed world of the modern intellectual elite. (For instance, at an outdoor luncheon, Rupert elaborately compares the act of eating a fig to cunnilingus.) However, the tone of Russell’s film begins to darken and it veers into hallucinatory melodrama after an ill-fated, late-summer soiree by a lake. Russell depicts the ever-shifting psychic landscapes of his avant-garde characters in a staggering succession of fevered tableaux. The director uses Lawrence’s occasionally overwrought prose as license for flights of grandiose lyrical reverie, such as musical interludes, bizarre interpretive dance routines, abundant sex scenes, and most memorably, a homoerotic nude fireside wrestling match between Gerald and Rupert.

As the two amorous, amorphous relationships at the center of the film become increasingly intertwined and complex, Russell vividly captures the volatile emotions of each character, generating a whirlwind of erotic intensity. The four sensual, forward-thinking people strive to achieve a delicate balance between their primitive impulses and lofty ideals, while flouting the staid, stifling conventions of English society.

Their probing self-analyses and romantic ruminations about love and being are seamlessly woven into broader philosophical discussions about art, sexual politics, and power. Lawrence’s writing is extremely idea-led, but Russell visually translates the passions of his characters into a deliriously stylized portrait of human sexuality on the verge of modernity, as seen through the lens of the late-sixties cultural moment.

As a commercial success, Women in Love was controversial. The British critic F. R. Leavis called the movie “obscene” and “an outrage.” A decade that began with court rulings in the United States and England allowing for the expurgated publication of Lawrence’s scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the 1960s were a receptive moment for his thoughts on men and women, and men and men. (The author died in 1930 before his right-wing political views could overshadow these sexually revolutionary ideas).

For all the excesses, Women in Love survives as a milestone in film history and a bold, exquisitely crafted work of art in its own right. In a recent essay titled Women in Love: Bohemian Rhapsody,” Scholar Linda Ruth Williams observes, “The famous homoerotic male nude wrestling scene between Birkin and Gerald—once a notorious censorship cause célèbre—is most remarkable now not for its swinging penises but for its naturalism, with firelight as the only apparent light source throughout.” She proceeds:  

Of course, Women in Love’s moral detractors focused most particularly on the nude wrestling scene. If film history is written in part in those landmark moments when the previously unrepresentable becomes visible, Women in Love constitutes just such a moment. In it, we find mainstream cinema’s first overt representation of male genitalia, within a veiled gay love scene that appeared just two years after the passing of the United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act 1967, which legalized sodomy for men over twenty-one.

The restless intellectual Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and the tortured aristocrat
Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed)

The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection on March 27, 2018, with the Blu-ray featuring a restored 4K digital transfer, which Budd Wilkins, in his review of the release, describes as “nothing short of a revelation.” Shot by cinematographer Billy Williams in a lush, painterly color palette against the bucolic backdrops of Derbyshire and Northumberland, Women in Love can be appreciated fifty years later for its sumptuous images and expressive lighting. The impeccable costume styling by Shirley Russell (the director’s wife at the time) and the art direction by Ken Jones are also noteworthy, since Wilkins writes that the 4K restoration of Women in Love authentically captures “the vibrant hues of the Brangwen sisters’ apparel . . .  and all the baroque details of the lavish country home interiors.”

Russell brings D.H. Lawrence’s classic exploration of human sexuality to the screen with candid eroticism and the director’s own distinctive visual flair. Though twenty-first century audiences may not be shocked by the content of Women in Love, his film demonstrates the power of cinema to defy sexual and artistic conventions, while inviting us to envision what types of love, as well as art, will be possible in the future.

Nicknamed “Kinky Ken Russell,” the acclaimed, eccentric and polarizing filmmaker died in 2011, after a series of strokes, at the age of 84. He told NPR in 1991: “My films assault people, but that’s because the images are potent. I don’t have any gratuitous scenes in my films. They’re actually integral to the plot.”


Attend: THIEF at Central Library Cinesthesia, April 4 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Thief | Michael Mann | United States | 1981 | 124 min.

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

At once a meticulously crafted action thriller, a finely nuanced character study, a bold exercise in formal aesthetics, and a gritty, visually explosive look at the underbelly of advanced industrial society, Michael Mann’s groundbreaking first feature, Thief, is a true gem.

In an essay on Thief for its Criterion Collection release in 2014, Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound magazine, describes the first two wordless shots of Michael Mann’s groundbreaking 1981 feature debut:

In the first shot, the jewel thief Frank (James Caan) gets into an Eldorado driven by his partner Barry (James Belushi), which then cuts across the camera’s field of view and drives away into the distance, down Chicago’s rain-swept Lincoln Avenue—thereby epitomizing the script’s bare description in a later sequence: “Taillights on wet, black streets.” The V of streetlights and its reflection form a perfect X of vanishing-point perspective. The second shot looks up at a big, moonlike light, with torrential rain coming out of the night sky, then pans down slowly between angular configurations of fire escapes to the narrows of Rat Alley. With the big, boxy cars that line the street, and the feeling of the city as a labyrinthine machine, these shots give Thief immediate kinship with the likes of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). But the X of lights shows a different kind of stylistic chutzpah, and in its grandiose descent from the sky, the second shot suggests a more totalized dystopia than the streets of New York represent in those earlier films, one that anticipates, for instance, the way Ridley Scott would shoot Blade Runner a year later, in a globalized city of perpetual rain. In the Chicago of Thief, the black streets are rat runs and the black sky behind the lights is impenetrable; dreams here have strict limits.

Based on the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by “Frank Hohimer” (the pen name of real-life jewel thief John Allen Seybold), Thief stars James Caan as the taciturn, world-weary Frank, a freelance safecracker who specializes in high-line diamond heists. Frank has spent eleven years in prison, where he learned his trade from a fellow inmate and mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson). Ever the consummate professional, Frank works methodically with a tight-knit crew, while adhering to his own personal code of conduct. The brilliant opening sequence of Mann’s existential neo-noir crime drama immediately establishes Frank’s expertise. With considerable flair and astonishing authenticity, the film minutely observes Frank as he uses industrial tools to expose and remove the locking systems of a safe full of uncut diamonds. Dedication to process and magnification of detail reach the level of abstraction, with bold, hypnotic close-ups of drills piercing through the metal layers and emitting cascades of sparks.

Owing to his particular aptitude, Frank remains on the fringes of society. He desperately wants to leave the underworld behind and realize his dream of a domestic idyll with a wife and children. Determined to compensate for the time he lost behind bars, he plans to build a respectable life. A diner cashier named Jessie (Tuesday Weld) catches his eye and he impulsively asks her out on a date. In the fluorescent glare of a late-night café, Frank tells this woman, who is essentially a stranger, about his experiences in prison and his ambitions for the future. Frank convinces Jessie, right then and there, to become his life partner.

However, Frank has unexpectedly come into contact with Leo (Robert Prosky), a vicious local crime boss who admires his work and offers to employ him. While Frank prefers being an independent contractor, he agrees to do one final diamond heist, in the hope that it will enable him to retire from his occupation. Of course, his acceptance of Leo’s proposal turns out to be a mistake and he soon discovers that escape is more complicated than he had anticipated. All of a sudden, he finds himself under police surveillance, everyone knows his business and insists on a piece of the action, and Leo has his own plans for the thief.

While making the TV drama The Jericho Mile on location at Folsom Prison in 1979, Mann became closely acquainted with the way felons interact with one another in a penal institution. The movie tells the story of Larry “Rain” Murphy, a convict serving a life sentence for murder who survives his time on the inside by keeping mostly to himself and focusing on running. In time, he becomes so proficient that he actually starts training to be an Olympic competitor. In a 2014 interview with Kevin Jagernauth for IndieWire, Mann reveals that The Jericho Mile helped him gain insight into the character of ex-con Frank in Thief.

The idea of creating his character, was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what do you want with your life and how do you go about getting it. Everything that’s normal development, that we experience, he was excluded from, by design. In the design of the character and the engineering of the character, that was the idea. 

Nevertheless, in the absence of social growth, Frank has become a highly accomplished career criminal. His pursuits may not be particularly noble, but his intentions are pure and no one ever gets hurt. Frank focuses obsessively on his work and completes tasks in accordance with exacting standards. Mann finds something poignantly human in his relentless perfectionism and desire to transcend his circumstances.

Caan delivers a particularly convincing and unforgettable performance as the titular antihero of Thief. The film comes alive because the characters are vividly three-dimensional. Every principal performance in Thief successfully creates a plausible person, rather than the cookie-cutter characters that viewers might expect. Therefore, the interactions between people are just as riveting as the action sequences.

Mann sets his slick, stylish breakthrough film in Chicago, where he grew up in a tough neighborhood. Thief conveys the sense that he knows the streets intimately and the director’s painstaking attention to detail imbues the film with its lifelike textures. Achieving a certain level of realism in the preparation and production of Thief was key. It was made with real-life thief John Santucci as a technical consultant; he also plays the part of a cop. For his leading role, Caan was expected to do much more than just embody perfect cool. Unbeknownst to the actor when he took on the part, he would need to actually acquire the difficult skill of breaking into hard-to-crack safes. The tools seen throughout Thief, such as the magnetic drill applied in the opening sequence, are not props, but real tools which the actors were trained to use.

With its striking verisimilitude, desaturated, cobalt-blue imagery, video-game-like environment of neon-washed streets, and propulsive, hypnotic synthesizer music by Tangerine Dream, Thief evokes a sterile, mechanistic, inhuman world. Mann and cinematographer Donald Thorin present a simultaneously grim and dreamlike vision, finding cold beauty in a hyperkinetic techno-industrial grid as the dazzling electric variegated signs of late-night Chicago pop against the soft shimmer of perpetually rain-blurred surfaces.  

At once a meticulously crafted action thriller, a finely nuanced character study, a bold exercise in formal aesthetics, and a gritty, visually explosive look at the underbelly of advanced industrial society, Thief is a true gem.


Attend: THE LONG GOODBYE at Central Library Cinesthesia, March 21 @ 6:30 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
The Long Goodbye | Robert Altman | United States | 1973 | 112 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, March 21, 6:30 p.m.»

Robert Altman’s highly original, amusing adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye casts a critical eye on the classic hard-boiled detective noir genre, while offering trenchant commentary on the shift in American values after the 1960s.

In a 2015 review of the Blu-ray release of The Long Goodbye for Cineaste magazine, Rahul Hamid writes:

Film noir is a slippery term. It doesn’t really represent a consciously produced genre, like the Western or the musical. It is a mood and a style and a preoccupation with dark themes that can be found in some, but certainly not a large percentage, of Hollywood films of the Forties and Fifties. It might be historically contingent on the flood of German émigrés—trained in the expressionist style—that came to Hollywood in Hitler’s wake. It can be contextualized by the loss of innocence experienced by GIs who witnessed the horrors of the war, or insecurities at home based on the expanding presence of women and minorities in the workforce and American public life, or the expansion of American cities and the housing crunch caused when veterans returned home. The explanation might be as mundane as the invention of cheaply produced metal venetian blinds in the 1940s. Some argue that it is the existence of neo-noir, or the collective memory of noir, that gives the original movement any real coherence. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a contemplation of the memory of Hollywood and an invitation to interrogate the values of and reassess our nostalgia for that great dream factory.

Based on the hard-boiled 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye offers an idiosyncratic, revisionist take on film noir and the detective genre. Maverick director Robert Altman playfully updates Chandler’s story to the 1970s, “transforming it into a dreamlike excursion through modern Los Angeles,” in the words of Alan R. Howard, who reviewed the movie for The Hollywood Reporter when it came out.

In stark contrast to the tough, no-nonsense leading men usually cast as Chandler’s legendary private eye Philip Marlowe, most memorably Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep, Altman chose laid-back, amiable Elliott Gould for the starring role. Gould remodels the character into an eccentric, bungling, clueless hipster who chain smokes, while repeating the mantra, “It’s OK with me.” Always dressed in a dark suit and tie and driving a 1940s Lincoln, Gould’s Marlowe represents a walking anachronism. He seems to be the last moral and decent person in a materialistic, self-absorbed society where human lives are disposable and any concepts of loyalty or friendship are essentially meaningless.

Working from a screenplay by Leigh Brackett (who also co-wrote Hawks’ The Big Sleep), Altman makes a number of changes to Chandler’s book, while remaining relatively faithful to the plot. Although The Long  Goodbye eschews the violent sequences of both the original novel and earlier adaptations of Chandler’s work (no punch-ups or shoot-outs), it contains two shocking scenes of brutality that are not in the book.

Altman has admitted that he never actually finished reading The Long Goodbye. With the adaptation, he and Brackett attempted to reflect more on the author than on his story. The making of the movie was influenced by a volume called Raymond Chandler Speaking (edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker), a collection of excerpts from letters, notes, essays and an unfinished novel by the writer. Divided into various themes, the book includes a section on Chandler’s love of cats. Thus, Altman’s film famously opens with a sequence that does not appear in the original novel. Marlowe attempts to trick his yellow tabby cat into eating an inferior brand of cat food, but the feline immediately sees through the deceit. Alas, the private detective does not possess the same powers of discernment as his pet cat.  

Marlowe receives a visit from his best friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) at three o’clock in the morning. Lennox has apparently had a bad fight with his wife Sylvia and wants to get out of town until things cool down. He asks Marlowe for a ride to Mexico and the private investigator obliges him. When Marlowe returns to Los Angeles, the police show up. They inform him that Sylvia Lennox has been found dead and that they suspect Terry. However, Marlowe does not believe Terry killed his wife. After spending a few days in police custody for refusing to cooperate, Marlowe begins his own investigation and finds himself entangled in a labyrinthine murder mystery. While attempting to prove his friend’s innocence, Marlowe encounters an array of unsavory characters, including a washed-up, alcoholic romance novelist, (Sterling Hayden), his rich, seductive, much-younger wife (Nina van Pallandt), an avaricious, drug-pushing quack psychiatrist (Henry Gibson), and a sadistic Jewish gangster (Mark Rydell) to whom Lennox owes money.       

With its elaborate, gliding zooms and graceful tracking shots, The Long Goodbye exemplifies Altman’s remarkably fluid directorial style. Altman subverts the brisk, relentless pacing typical of many private eye films, allowing the streamlined narrative to unfold leisurely as a series of mostly comic set-pieces.

Altman made his intentions clear when the film was released: “Chandler used Marlowe to comment on his own time, so I thought it would be an engaging exercise to use him to comment on our present age.” A shaggy-dog story of a baffled gumshoe from 1953 cast adrift in the world of 1973, The Long Goodbye presents a piercing, formally innovative critique of film noir mythology, while satirizing the narcissism, decadence, and moral bankruptcy that pervaded American life after the decline of the counterculture.

Marlowe appears entirely out of touch with reality in that he maintains an unwavering commitment to his sleazy, so-called “friend,” despite intimidation from the police and Lennox’s criminal associates. He also allows himself to be deceived and used by a femme fatale who charms him with a candlelit dinner for two. Even the blissed-out women practicing nude yoga next door seem aware of his existence only when they want a favor from him. Rahul Hamid insightfully comments, “In Chandler’s novel, Marlowe’s superior morality is able to vanquish the fallen and corrupt noir world. Altman recasts Marlowe’s loyalty as irrelevant and naive in the modern world and changes the ending of the film to reflect this: Marlowe’s reassuring values, like the glamour of classic Hollywood, are revealed to be illusory and out of date.”

In The Long Goodbye, the visual conventions of the hard-boiled detective genre are radically altered. As opposed to the chiaroscuro lighting typical of film noir, Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond employ a technique called flashing, which involves partially exposing the negatives to light before they are developed. Hence the film has a distinctively hazy, washed-out look that simultaneously reinforces Marlowe’s lack of clarity and evokes the sense of a fading cinematic past. Critic Rogert Ebert, in his 2006 review of the film, also points out that “Most of the shots are filmed through foregrounds that obscure: Panes of glass, trees and shrubbery, architectural details, all clouding Marlowe’s view (and ours).” While Altman consistently defies viewer expectations and casts an analytical eye on the well-worn traditions of the American movie industry, The Long Goodbye nevertheless reveals a reverence for the history of film.

The director incorporates multiple references to classic Hollywood filmmaking: the security guard at the Malibu Colony does impressions of Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Walter Brennan; Marlowe smears fingerprint ink over his face at the police station, recalling Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer; and the last scene of the film suggests the famous long take that concludes Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

At once an elegiac tribute to Hollywood, a brilliant exercise in genre deconstruction, an endlessly entertaining cinematic experience, and a bittersweet meditation on the shimmering instability of manufactured images, The Long Goodbye may be appreciated on multiple levels. In a 2007 article for the International Herald Tribune titled “Revisiting Altman’s The Long Goodbye,” Terrence Rafferty observes, “It’s a film about transience, about the awful fragility of the things we want to think are built to last: friendships, marriages, faiths of all kinds – including the faith that pop culture can sometimes makes us feel in powerful fantasy figures like Marlowe and his jaunty, street-smart, superbly incorruptible ilk.”

Attend: BAMBOOZLED at Central Library Cinesthesia, March 7 @ 6:00 p.m.

Attend: Program Notes
Bamboozled | Spike Lee | United States | 2000 | 135 min.

Cinesthesia, Madison Public Library Central Branch, Thursday, March 7, 6:00 p.m.»

Spike Lee’s overlooked 2000 satire Bamboozled remains in constant dialogue with the world of today, while demonstrating that media representation of race has never been a black and white issue.

Arguably Spike Lee’s most confrontational, groundbreaking, and misunderstood movie, Bamboozled has long been dismissed as little more than a mid-career curiosity in the filmography of the prolific, seminal director. A bizarre, caustic, multifaceted satire of American television, this timelessly important piece of experimental filmmaking examines the complex relationship between race and popular culture in an emotionally provocative and intellectually stimulating manner. In the 2012 book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen begin a chapter on the film as follows.

The screen has never been as bold, as powerful, or as angry a response to the black minstrel tradition as Spike Lee’s 2000 feature Bamboozled. The movie is a vehement damnation of black minstrelsy, a presentation of some of the art form’s best moments, and perhaps most valuably, a vividly illustrated catalogue of some of the greatest hits, misses, and embarrassments of American cinema’s adoption of the form. In the years since its initial release Bamboozled has introduced fresh eyes and minds to shocking images and practices, and provided students of this complicated cultural history a useful tool to spark discussion, debate, and scholarship. It would be impossible to thoroughly study black minstrelsy and its impact on contemporary culture without lingering on this mesmerizing work.

Lee’s absurdist black comedy shines light on historical truths that many people either are ignorant of or would prefer to conveniently forget. At the same time, his film suggests that racial stereotypes from that supposedly bygone era are still deeply embedded in mainstream entertainment, even if actual blackface minstrelsy does not persist. In a 2001 interview with Cineaste editors Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas titled “Thinking about the Power of Images,” Lee explains that in Bamboozled he wanted to “show that from their birth these two great mediums, film and television, have promoted negative racial images.” The director proceeds to assert that “Racism is woven into the very fabric of American society, and it just makes sense that it’s going to be reflected in sports, in movies, in television, in business, and so on.”

Bamboozled centers on the meteoric rise and inevitable downfall of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a pretentious, Harvard-educated, and upwardly mobile black executive for a struggling television network. His vulgar, entitled white boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), continuously demands fresh, cutting-edge, authentically black material, while rejecting Delacroix’s ideas for aspirational black middle-class sitcoms. Artistically frustrated and weary of his job, Delacroix, or Dela, devises a risky scheme to get himself fired.

He conceives a grotesque vaudeville show—set on a watermelon patch—in which black actors wear ludicrously exaggerated blackface makeup, while singing, tap dancing, chattering nonsensically, telling crude jokes, and pilfering chickens. Dela believes his project, called The New Millennium Minstrel Show, in its flagrant racial excesses and distortions, will expose the racism of the white writers and producers.

With the help of his smart, skeptical assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), Delacroix recruits two homeless street performers, Manray and Womack (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson), to star in the production. He rechristens them Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat (borrowing names from minstrelsy-inspired movie actors Mantan Moreland and Willie “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” Best). The Alabama Porch Monkeys serve as the house band (in a cameo by the masterfully dexterous, musically brilliant Philadelphia act The Roots).

To Delacroix’s bewilderment, his program largely fails to excite popular outrage and becomes an instant smash hit. As its ratings go through the roof, The New Millennium Minstrel Show revives the network, earns its creator some Emmy Awards, and starts a national craze for wearing blackface. The show stirs some controversy, of course, resulting in public protests outside its corporate headquarters led by the Reverend Al Sharpton and lawyer Johnny Cochran (appearing as themselves). It also attracts the ire of the Mau Maus, a militant Afrocentric rap collective headed by Sloan’s brother, Julius (played by socially conscious rapper turned actor Mos Def). Named for the legendary Kenyan Mau Mau that organized a dramatic rebellion in 1952 against British colonialism, the illiterate, misguided group espouses vapid, pseudo-revolutionary politics and suggests a ridiculous hybrid of Public Enemy and the Black Panthers.

All too aware that he has hatched a monster, Delacroix nevertheless finds himself seduced by the promise of fame and fortune after working so hard to succeed within the predominantly white entertainment industry. But Dunwitty adopts the minstrel show idea as his own and makes it even more degrading, if possible, than Delacroix had intended. Through his complicity in perpetuating pejorative racial stereotypes on The New Millennium Minstrel Show, Delacroix descends into a downward spiral, while setting in motion a chain of events that has dire consequences for him and everyone else involved. Consumed by guilt, paranoia, and self-hatred, he ultimately faces the harsh realities of American racism.

The germ of the idea for Bamboozled was a film called The Answer that Lee made as a student at the prestigious New York University Film School. Lee shocked his professors and inflamed the first of many audiences with this twenty-minute, black-and-white short about a young African-American screenwriter hired to direct a big multimillion-dollar Hollywood remake of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). “This guy sells his soul to the devil to do that film,” Lee explains. “And we intercut the film with some of the worst racist scenes from the so-called greatest film ever made. Bamboozled revisits that, because if you look at that character in The Answer and at Delacroix in Bamboozled, there are various similarities.”  

The title comes from a Malcolm X speech warning that black people have let themselves be deceived by the white man, which Lee references in his 1992 biopic of the celebrated and influential black nationalist leader: “Oh, I say and I say it again, you’ve been had! You’ve been took! You’ve been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!” But Lee affirms that Bamboozled is not just about black Americans. “I think we were expanding on the speech and saying, ‘Don’t believe everything you…see on television.’”

Bamboozled owes a considerable debt to Melvin Van Peebles’ documentary Classified X (1998) in exposing the way in which African-Americans have historically been portrayed in American cinema. Lee was “amazed” by the imagery in that work, so he contacted the film’s researcher, Judy Aley, to obtain archival material for Bamboozled. He recalls, “None of us had seen this material. For example, I had never seen Bugs Bunny in blackface! Unfortunately, Time Warner would not allow us to use that clip because Bugs Bunny is too valuable a commodity to them, and they didn’t want the world to see that.”

In interviews and publicity, Lee has cited three films that skewer the American mass media as direct inspiration for Bamboozled: Sidney Lumet’s 1976 satire Network, Mel Brook’s 1968 farce The Producers, and A Face in the Crowd (1957) by director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg. As Lee put it, “everything that Budd Schulberg wrote about in 1957 about the power of television—this before people even knew what television was about—happened. Budd had the crystal ball and saw that TV would rule and whoever controlled that stuff would be running things.” (Lee dedicated Bamboozled to Schulberg.)

As in Brooks’s comedy about a play (with the title “Springtime for Hitler”) designed intentionally to flop, Delacroix creates a show that seems guaranteed to fail spectacularly, but his subversive plan backfires. Along with some overt textual references to Network (most notably Manray recalling Peter Finch’s iconic speech by declaring onstage, “Cousins, I want you to go to your windows, yell out, scream with all the life you can muster up inside your bruised and assaulted bodies, ‘I’m sick and tired of niggers and I’m not going to take it anymore!’”), Lee borrows that film’s drastic tonal shifts between comedy and drama.

Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix

The bold, controversial subject matter of the film’s script, as well as Lee’s recent commercial record, meant that the director had trouble raising the budget he wanted to make Bamboozled. Nevertheless, Lee has always figured out how to get his movies made—by any means necessary—and the means at his disposal when he shot Bamboozled in 1999 was digital video.

“We decided to shoot in DV early on, as the script was written,” Lee recalls. “We knew that getting this film made would be a very hard task.” Lee and director of photography Ellen Kuras did many tests with different cameras and formats of video. They did not like the look of Beta, DigiBeta, or high definition, and went with MiniDV, using a battery of Sony VX1000 cameras. “With this film it makes sense because it was about a television show,” Lee says. “And we also had a 132-page script and not a lot of days. . . . We were able to shoot eight, nine, ten cameras at a time. And it enabled us to put in the run-and-gun offense. So we were able to just shoot.”

Lee and Kuras decided to shoot The New Millennium Minstrel Show on vibrant Super 16mm film to give it a different look from the rest of the movie. In contrast to the harsh, pixelated textures of the digital scenes, the richly detailed footage of the show is presented with oversaturated colors that lend these sequences a lurid and seductive quality. (Filmmaker Zeinabu irene Davis has written that these scenes demonstrate the African-American cultural concept of “beautiful-ugly.”) In the words of Taylor and Austen, “The shiny, greasy-looking, pitch-black makeup, glistening blood-red lips, and beads of sweat breaking through the sinister masks make the ominous nature of the minstrel show viscerally obvious.”

In “Race, Media and Money: A Critical Symposium on Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” published in Cineaste, Cynthia Lucia’s analysis of the film poses two probing questions: “To what degree do viewers participate in the very processes they are positioned by the film to criticize? And to what degree does the film, itself, participate in the very processes it seeks to expose?” On the one hand, Bamboozled educates the viewer about the very explicit derogatory stereotypes of African-Americans initiated during the era of minstrel shows (mid-19th to early 20th century) and sustained, as Lee pointed out at a March 21, 2008 talk at Northeastern University, until the present day. On the other hand, Lee creates a highly amusing pageant of traditional minstrel show entertainment. The film deconstructs racial stereotypes, even as it exploits racial stereotypes for their entertainment value, thus sending contradictory signals to viewers.

Bamboozled further complicates the viewing of negative racial images by daring us to laugh at the jokes. Watching the movie with other people can certainly make for a unique, albeit uncomfortable, cinematic experience. Lee acknowledges some ambiguity in the response to the kind of humor used in his film. He tells Crowdus and Georgakas, “We wanted to put the moviegoing audience in the same position as the TV audience in the movie. It’s funny, but they’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Should I be laughing at this?’”

At one point in Bamboozled, Lee cuts to an image of one of the insurgent Mau Maus laughing at a televised minstrel routine. Chastised by Julius (a.k.a. “Big Blak Afrika”), the offender replies, “That shit seemed funny to me.” Lee insists that “some of this stuff—despite how much hatred is behind it, and despite how painful it can be—is funny, and the reason it’s funny is because of the genius of the artists, of the performers who are able to make it funny even within that context. That’s the irony—that these artists were so great that they could take a dehumanizing form and still make it somewhat humanistic.”

Tommy Davidson as Womack, who plays Sleep ‘n’ Eat in The New Millennium Minstrel Show

The film offers viewers an authentic look at the conflicted emotional responses of the performers who must “black up” before going on stage. “The reality of putting this stuff on their face was devastating for Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover,” Lee reveals. “It took away part of their soul, it took away part of their manhood, and it made us think of Bert Williams. Tommy and Savion did it for a couple of weeks, but Williams had to do that his entire career.” Lee’s commentary on the DVD release points out that Davidson has a moment of insight as he applies the final touches to his blackface and cries “real tears.”

Bamboozled exempts no one from criticism for the continuing promulgation of crass racial stereotypes. Lee’s movie successfully indicts guilty parties at every level of media production and consumption for negative depictions of African-Americans in popular culture: past and present performers, the studios, black and white executives, and passive audiences. For Jada Pinkett Smith, this was the heart of the film:

Making this movie, we were all pointing fingers at ourselves in a way. It was really an exploration of “What do we represent in this business? Who are we? What compromises and sacrifices are we willing to make of our commitment to our higher selves and our community and our humanity? What are we doing in this industry that uplifts our community, and what are we doing that breaks it down for the sake of celebrity and money?”

With two commercial interludes that appear during the initial broadcast of The New Millennium Minstrel Show, Lee critiques the manner in which advertisers sell products to African-American consumers, cheap alcoholic beverages and Tommy Hilfiger clothes being the main targets. These hilariously crude parodies are reminiscent of Putney Swope, Robert Downey’s 1969 cult classic about race and truth in advertising, in which a token black executive becomes the new chairman of a major white advertising agency and proceeds to air a series of surrealistic, politically incorrect commercials. In Bamboozled, an ad for Da Bomb, a new brand of malt liquor (or “that liquid crack,” as Lee refers to it), promotes its product as an African-American aphrodisiac, a “black man’s Viagra” that helps you “get your freak on” with a phallic bottle shaped like a weapon of mass destruction. The other ad, for Timmi Hillnigger clothing, mocks the popularity of Tommy Hilfiger’s all-American clothing line within the black urban community. (“We keep it so real, we give you the bullet holes.”) Whereas Hilfiger features the patriotic colors of red, white, and blue, the backdrop in this commercial displays the Republic of New Africa colors of red, black, and green.

Eventually Lee’s satire ceases to be funny and becomes more like a horror film. As Bamboozled reaches its conclusion, Lee presents viewers with a powerful montage of images from the history of television and movies now considered offensive. This astonishing coda, underscored by soft cool jazz music, features some of America’s earliest films (including American Mutoscope’s 1901 short Laughing Ben); excerpts of Hollywood’s most iconic movies (The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, The Jazz Singer); white superstars in blackface (Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Eddie Cantor); comic black actors in stereotypical roles (Butterfly McQueen, Farina Hoskins, Stepin Fetchit); cartoons from the first half of the 20th century; documentary footage of soft shoe and tap; and old newsreels of watermelon-eating contests. In “Spike Lee’s Revolutionary Broadside,” S. Landau argues that “Lee has done in one film more to enlighten audiences on race, class, history and entertainment than Hollywood has done in a century.”

A difficult, uncompromisingly feel-bad movie that requires several viewings to appreciate, Bamboozled predictably met with critical and commercial indifference upon its theatrical release. Ugly in both form and content, the film confused black and white audiences alike, grossing only $2.5 million on a budget of $10 million. There was a basic DVD release of Bamboozled in 2001, but it has been out-of-print for years.

At the turn of the millennium, many critics suggested that Lee had needlessly reopened old wounds and completely missed the point of the film. Chicago Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “sloppy, all-over-the-map filmmaking with few hints of self-criticism,” while Roger Ebert found Lee’s film to be“perplexing” and predicted that “viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused” black images. Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer called his attempt to turn blackface into satire “miscalculated.” Armond White, one of film criticism’s few prominent black writers, slammed it in the New York Press with “Bamboozled resembles a padded cell with which Hollywood has provided Lee to bounce off walls.”

The poor critical response to Bamboozled had Lee lamenting, “Some people misinterpreted the film, thinking it’s only about black people. Bamboozled is about the dehumanization and the degradation that comes via television and film.” Yet the ensuing years have seen Lee’s vision earn the respect it deserves.

Ashley Clark, film curator, critic, and author of Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, considers the movie a quintessential Spike Lee joint. “There are certain things that define Spike Lee as a filmmaker: a lack of subtlety, a fondness for caricatures, an interest in very hot-button social issues, formal and technological experimentation. Those things all crash together in Bamboozled.”

Lee’s flawed, ambitious, inflammatory, and altogether fascinating work of art has proven not only vital, but alarmingly prescient. Clark maintains that “In a fraught contemporary climate where the mediation of the black image in American society is at a crucial juncture, Bamboozled’s trenchant commentary on the importance, complexity and lasting effects of media representation could hardly feel more urgent.”

“Always keep ’em laughing.”

This screening is presented in collaboration with the inaugural Black Arts Matter Festival. A moderated discussion will follow the movie.

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).