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Cinematheque curators Heather Heckman and Karin Kolb talk movies
Introducing the fall 2007 season at the UW film showcase
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<i>To the Stars by Hard Ways</i> was directed by Richard Viktorov
To the Stars by Hard Ways was directed by Richard Viktorov
Credit:Cinematheque

This autumn marks a changing of the guard at Cinematheque, the UW film coalition dedicated to screening rare, foreign, archival, and restored films on weekends at Vilas Hall. After helming the projectors for three years, Tom Yoshikami is passing the baton. Karin Kolb, who served as a co-programmer last spring, is working with Heather Heckman to curate Cinematheque this year.

For the fall semester, they are presenting four different series and a handful of special events. In addition to the conclusion of Wisconsin's first major Jean-Luc Godard retrospective, and part three in its look at humanist Indian director Satyajit Ray, Cinematheque is featuring a third international director this fall. This is Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Japan's premiere auteurs of its post-war golden age. Then there is the theme-based series From the Tsars to the Stars, a voyage through some eight decades of Soviet and Russian space-oriented science-fiction. The special events, meanwhile, include looks at Marshall Plan propaganda shots (titled Selling Democracy), the environmental festival Tales from Planet Earth, and their annual Polish Film Festival.

The fall semester for Cinematheque begins on Friday, September 7 with a screening of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatri to kick off the retrospective of the Japanese director, followed on Saturday with a pair of films from the Russian sci-fi series. Screening first is Cherez ternii k zvezdam (To the Stars by Hard Ways), a restored cult hit in Russia made at the tail end of the Brezhnev era, which will be followed by Pervye na lune (First on the Moon), a 2005 mockumentary about Soviet lunar cosmonauts exploring at the height of Stalin's Great Terror. A full list of the complete fall 2007 Cinematheque programming, meanwhile, is available in the related downloads at right.

Currently attending the Toronto International Film Festival, Heckman and Kolb responded to a variety of questions posed by The Daily Page about this semester's programming at Cinematheque. Their responses follow.


The Daily Page: How and why did you pursue the opportunity to become a curator for Cinematheque?
Heckman: When I first came here, the Cinematheque appointment was really not on my radar. While I've been at Madison, though, I've become increasingly fascinated with the film archival community. One of the things that really drew me to the Cinematheque was its close ties not only to its parent institution, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, but also to film archives worldwide.

Plus, it's a great way to make sure that I make it to Cinematheque screenings -- as a grad student, it's often too easy to say, I'm busy with this or that... and miss a really great film!

Kolb: I worked as the film programmer for the Goethe-Institut in Boston before we moved to Madison.


Why did you select Kenji Mizoguchi as one of this semester's featured directors? How did this collection of films get put together?
Kolb: The Chazen Museum of Art has an exhibition on Utagawa School prints coming up in November. They had asked if there was a film that would match their topic. We thought that Utamaro and his Five Women would be the best fit.

While we were searching for a good print we found out that Janus Films had struck prints of six other Mizoguchi films for the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 2006. We thought it would be great for our audience if we could follow up Tom's Ozu and Naruse programs by showing new 35mm prints of this once famous but now lesser known director.


Many of the Mizoguchi films you are screening this fall are period piece set throughout Japanese history. How do these classic-era films prefigure the better-known works of directors like Akira Kurosawa made well after World War II, not to mention the more contemporary phenomena of tokusatsu, anime, and J-horror that are well-known in the U.S.?
Heckman: Actually, we are showing comparatively few of Mizoguchi's early works -- more than half the films are from the 1950s, when Mizoguchi's popularity began to decline in Japan, but swept the international community. During the 1950s, Mizoguchi was right up there with Kurosawa as one of the most (arguably, the most) internationally renowned Japanese directors, and to a large extent, the films of the 1950s remain his best-known works.

We are, however, showing three films from earlier in his career (two from the 1930s, and one from the immediate postwar era). I think one of the interesting things for audiences attending this series will be to watch the development (in reverse, I suppose) of Mizoguchi's personal style -- although both films are known for long takes, Sisters of the Gion, the last film of the series, is a far cry from Ugetsu, our opening night film. Another thing to look out for are the political mutations present in these films -- Mizoguchi is known as a director who changed political affiliations several times.

As for how they compare to the movements you mention -- Mizoguchi was a prestige director, so on the one hand, there is a pretty large gap between his work and these phenomenons. On the other hand, he dabbled in the fantastic (Ugetsu is, after all, a ghost story), so there is a generic bridge of sorts. More importantly, the Japanese industry has been an experimental one almost since it's inception, and Mizoguchi in particular is a director known for overt stylization. I know that one thing I, for one, find so delightful about anime or J-horror is the baroque style of those genres.


What will viewers recognize stylistically and perhaps politically from the series featuring Soviet science fiction films (and one recent work satirizing the space race)? What will likely be unexpected?
Heckman: The Constructivist design of Aelita, Queen of Mars is great -- it's really iconic of the early Soviet avant-garde, and I think people will immediately recognize it. Similarly, First on the Moon has a lot of fun recreating the kitschy-side of Soviet propaganda of the 1930s (although it would be inaccurate in the extreme to label it a comedy). I think To the Stars by Hard Ways, on the other hand, might be much more likely to recall sci-fi touchstones like Forbidden Planet, the original Star Trek series, and perhaps even Alien, at times, to American audiences -- the iconography of science-fiction almost seems to be international by this point.

Politically, I think audiences may find the films to be more ideologically complex than they might originally expect.


"Tsars to the Stars" features the broadest time range for films in any series this semester, running from 1924 to 2005. How do they reflect the evolution of Soviet and Russian cinema?
Heckman: I am no expert in Soviet and Russian cinema, but there are some broad changes that I think will probably be recognizable. Our last double-feature is composed of two films with wild mise-en-scene, but there is a difference between them -- the avant-garde really fell out of favor during the Stalinist period. Although I think the design for Cosmic Voyage is absolutely wonderful, it is clearly different from the Constructivist aesthetic I mentioned earlier. Another thing to notice is the absence of films from the immediate post-Soviet period -- capitalism really created a crisis for Russian cinema, which had been protected by the state for many years.


How did Cinematheque and the UW-Madison CREECA acquire this series for screening? Are these films becoming more widely screened simply because enough time has passed since 1991 to allow for their restoration? Are more on the way?
Heckman: The series was curated by Seagull Films, a distributor that specializes in Russian cinema. It is actually a larger series, drawing on the "fantastic" -- a term that originated in Russia -- rather than sci-fi in particular, that has been touring venues across the country. We chose to focus on space travel films due to the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik in October. In fact, our last double feature will screen just two days after the anniversary date on October 4.


How is this autumn's Jean Luc Godard series different from that presented in the fall of 2006?
Heckman: This fall, we are focusing on his post-1968 career. It's a Godard that gets much less exposure -- people still tend to celebrate his New Wave works.


What should viewers look for in these later works, other than the fact that they're mostly in color?
Heckman: It's funny you should say that about color -- actually, some films we screen this fall might prove to be less colorful than his pre '68 films. When he filmed in color in the 1960s, he was very taken with vibrant, saturated color. One thing he experimented with in some of his later works was a more muted palette.

In general, these are difficult films, but very interesting ones. Godard's works have only become denser with references and meanings as he's gotten older. Most of them are worth not just one, but repeated viewings.


This fall marks the third portion of your multi-year series featuring Satyajit Ray. What's the emphasis in the programming for this round?
Heckman: It's our season of late, neglected works, I guess - -these are films from the 1960s and 1970s that do not get played as much in the U.S. I think it's very exciting that we have restored prints to show.

Kolb: And finally we will be able to bring Joe Lindner, the archivist who is responsible for these restorations, to Madison.


What do you think the "Selling Democracy" series can teach viewers about the occupation and rebuilding of Germany versus the current U.S. occupation of Iraq?
Heckman: Tough question! I suppose the easy answer is that the Marshall Plan was imbuedd with much more optimism. But things are always so much more complicated that that... perhaps I will let my German colleague take a shot at this one.

Kolb: Really tough question. We should ask the expert Sandra Schulberg when she is introduces the programs.


How did you organize these screenings with Schulberg?
Kolb: "Selling Democracy" was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and was very well-received. Most of these films were not shown in the U.S. at the time they were made and were buried for 40 years. When Marc Silberman suggested this program to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Center for German and European Studies, we thought it was a good idea. And it is yet another collaboration with the Academy Film Archive, which we love.


How did you and your UW academic department collaborators decide what to screen in the Polish Film Festival? When was this last featured in the Cinematheque lineup?
Heckman: We do this every year, in collaboration with the Polish Students' Association. It gets a consistently strong turnout, and from a completely different audience, which is great! We do not, however, have a firm line-up yet. Check our website for updates.

Kolb: I think in past years Tom worked with the Polish Film Festival in Chicago. But this year we decided to be a little more active ourselves. The Polish Student's Association sent us a list of films they are interested in -- Heather has already asked for a huge amount of screeners and we will select the best ones for Madison.


How much emphasis do you put on including short films and collections of shorts in your series programming?
Heckman: One of the films I'm most excited about in our Russian sci-fi series this fall is an animated short, Interplanetary Revolution. I have a real passion for animation in particular, and would love to bring more shorts to the Cinematheque. But then, it always seems like we have so many ideas, and so few time slots...

Kolb: For the Listen Up series (composed of early talkies), the Cinematheque showed a Vitaphone short from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research with each feature film. We could show more films from the archive; they do have Looney Tunes!


What was the easiest print to acquire this year? What has been the most difficult?
Heckman: Histoire(s) du cinema has been a pleasant surprise -- that one was supposed to be impossible to screen. On the other hand, it looks like the Monihara restoration won't be down in time to screen the film when Joe Lindner from the Academy Film Archive comes to speak about the Ray restorations. We'll see what happens!

Kolb: I thought the Mizoguchi prints were easy since they all came from a single company, Janus Films (but of course we first had to find out that they do have those prints). The hardest one for me was probably Aelita, Queen of Mars. We wanted a good 35mm print. Seagull only had a 16mm print, and a few other archival prints we found were not loanable (due to vinegar syndrome). In the end, we found a print at the George Eastman House.


The UW has a long history as a center screening films that would otherwise be very difficult to see in most places, at least on the big screen. What do you hope people will take from Cinematheque this year?
Heckman: I think we're really offering our audience a chance to see some old masters in a new light. In general, I guess in my opinion a good program is one that includes some films that will challenge the audience, and others that are just good fun. I think the Cinematheque struck that balance this fall -- I hope our audience thinks so too!

Kolb: I agree -- we have a really diverse program this fall, and I hope our audience enjoys it.


How do Heckman and Kolb hope to make their mark in the future on Madison's primary source for films that might otherwise never be screened here?

"I would like to see more programs of neglected popular cinema," says Heckman. "To a great degree, our concept of cinema from other nations is still composed of art films made for international consumption -- I'd really like to expand the horizon a little bit. It's funny, but some of the easiest films to watch are among the hardest films to see." For her part, Kolb is interested in programming more German films as well as Argentine cinema and film noir. They will also continue to collaborate with UW departments to present both canonical and little-known works for Madison audiences.

All films are screened at 4070 Vilas Hall on the UW campus, which is located at Park Street and University Avenue.


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