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A Golden Age

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A Golden Age
The Wisconsin Film Festival revives memories of Madison's long love affair with the movies.
By Michael Wilmington x'68

When I got a call several years ago inviting me to attend the first Wisconsin Film Festival — as a representative of Madison's "Movie Golden Age" — I was happy to accept. But why had it taken so long?

The Madison I knew — where I came at the age of seventeen to study English, where I acted onstage in the Wisconsin Union Theater and elsewhere, where I went to the Field House and Camp Randall for sports and to the Majestic, Orpheum, and Memorial Union Play Circle for movies, where I marched against the Vietnam War, wrote for newspapers, and became a certified member of the notorious Madison Film Mafia — no longer really exists. Some of my old film friends are still in town, but most have scattered to the far corners of the country. I see them only rarely now, when my job takes me to the coasts or when I bus back to Madison.

Posters on kiosk
A campus kiosk advertises a typical night at the movies during the 1970s.
And the Golden Age, as I knew it, is long gone. The city seems less volatile and exciting, the student body more complacent. And that wonderful treasure trove of movies on campus, which marked Madison in the sixties and seventies, has largely vanished — except when the festival and a few other venues try to bring it back. Once, there were dozens of movies shown every week, and passionate buffs arguing about them everywhere. Now, the campus kiosks are bare of the movie posters that once crowded them top to bottom. The movies have largely ended.

The Golden Age overlapped the Vietnam War protest years and was, in many ways, part of the same cultural ferment. During those years, amazingly, in addition to everything else happening, the UW played host to a film culture and community that matched the activity, intensity, and productivity of the more famous film communities at UCLA or NYU. Movies were critiqued, movies were shot, and most of all movies were shown — an endless stream every week, not just in the regular theaters, but in campus auditoriums and classrooms, and off-campus student centers and hangouts (like the Green Lantern Eating Cooperative), where sixteen-millimeter films were screened every night. It was a fabulously eclectic bill of fare, from The Battle of Algiers, City Lights, and Wild Strawberries to Bringing Up Baby, Notorious, and Duck Soup.

We were crazy about movies. And we all seemed to know each other. We wrote about films, studied them in classes, and joined film societies and selection committees. When you're young, you're often poor in money (as I was), but rich in acquaintance — and you often make the friends and enemies who will haunt your whole life.

Once, I could walk down State Street and almost immediately bump into someone I knew — or two or three. Sometimes, since it was an age of student protest, we'd emulate Barry Fitzgerald as Michaeleen Oge Flynn in The Quiet Man, and "talk a little treason." But more often than not, we would talk movies — talk about John Ford and Jean Luc Godard, and the morality of tracking shots, and the truth twenty-four times a second, and whether Ingmar Bergman was really a better director than Don Siegel. We would pore over the latest issues of the various journals, for which most of us wrote: The Velvet Light Trap, a homegrown independent film magazine with an international reputation; the Daily Cardinal, which, from 1971 to 1973, may have had the best student film reviewing staff ever assembled; or TakeOver, a proudly sensational underground paper of alternative culture and outright scandal.

At night, if there wasn't an uprising somewhere, we'd settle down to another movie in another classroom, put on by one of the many film societies that flourished on campus then. There were several dozen societies at one time or another, with names like the Fertile Valley Film Society, the Praeteorius, El Dorado, Phoenix, Green Lantern, and, most venerable of all, the Wisconsin Film Society — the one film group that predated all the others, and, sadly, the last to fall, after home video killed them all.

Why did this campus film culture spring up so suddenly and why did it disappear? For years, I was so caught up in that world that I couldn't have analyzed what made it special. But it's obvious that the terror and turbulence of those years had a lot to do with its birth. Violence in the world and on campus made people want to gather together, to retreat into fantasy. There was also a specific chemistry to the student body — the mix of kids from the Dairy State and kids from the East. The city kids were more fluent in art-film lore, but the country kids (like me) may have been more passionate about learning it. All of us were predisposed to the easy, cheap entertainment of movies. We sopped it all up.

Certainly I did. I came to Madison from the village of Williams Bay, Wisconsin (population: 1,114 or so, at the time), from a high school graduating class of twenty-eight. We were tiny; in the fifties and sixties, the only movie theater in the Bay was the Lakes Outdoor Theater (since demolished and replaced by a compost field) on the outskirts of town. I grew up going to see movies in the surrounding towns, becoming a devotee of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, David Lean, and Elia Kazan. But I longed to see the more unattainable ones — the movies with subtitles that were written about in Esquire and The New Yorker. When I went to Madison in 1964, I had seen only two foreign films — Rififi, from France, and The Magician, from Sweden - both dubbed.

In Madison, things changed. I became active in student theater and the student paper, and I saw two movies every week, and sometimes more. Eventually, I dropped into the Wisconsin Film Society, then ensconced in the basement auditorium of the Commerce Building (now known as Ingraham Hall). In 1967, I began writing movie reviews for the Daily Cardinal, an association that continued, off and on, into the seventies. That same year, I befriended Joe McBride, a tall, bespectacled Milwaukee guy who also contributed to the Cardinal, under its old film critic-editor Larry Cohen. The first time I saw Joe (outside of Professor Richard Byrne's film history class) was on the day of the Dow Chemical demonstrations, when he raced into the Play Circle during a showing of They Were Expendable to announce that students were being gassed on Bascom Hill.

Joe and I began staging plays, shooting movies, and writing film articles together, which we got published in national or international magazines. Through him, I met other Mafiosi: the darkly comic cynics Tim Onosko and Mark Bergman, and John Davis and Tom Flinn, who ran the Fertile Valley Film Society and also turned out killer riffs with the White Trash Blues Band.

It was also through Joe that I became involved with the film societies. Movies could be rented cheaply and shown cheaply; you could set up two Kodak Pageant projectors at the back of a classroom and show the films on the pull-down screens. Joe was chairman of the Wisconsin Film Society as a freshman, and he was succeeded by Wayne Merry, a frizzy-haired guy who later worked for the State Department. Bergman succeeded him, and he was followed by skinny, little Reid Rosefelt, who became a well-known film publicist, whose company, Magic Lantern, bears the name of the school's then most successful society.

Up to then, the world of student theater had eaten up most of my after-school life. But I gradually became consumed by film, as we all did. I joined the Memorial Union film committee, a contentious group that picked the films for the Play Circle. The film committee attracted all kinds of movie buffs, and it brought me in touch with faculty such as Tino Balio, D. W. Griffith scholar Russell Merritt, and David Bordwell, the ubiquitous author who shared the pages of Film Comment with Joe and me and later became the country's foremost academic writer on film.

Thanks to Balio and others, the university's Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research acquired the film collection of United Artists, which included movies made at Warner Brothers, RKO, and Monogram studios from the thirties through the early fifties. Inspired by the accessibility of the collection, a bearded, lanky graduate student from New Zealand named Russell Campbell started The Velvet Light Trap, which he typed by hand on an old manual typewriter. Russell looked something like a Hammer Studio horror movie Rasputin, but was probably the gentlest and most collegial of all of us - and his magazine gradually became world famous.

TVLT, as we nicknamed it, published thematic issues in which local writers could analyze the films in the UA collection and elsewhere. The Mafia became the staff, and, unfortunately, it was there that our film community suffered a schism that marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, splitting into two cliques dubbed (by Gerry Peary) the Aesthetes and the Politicos.

The Aesthetes were supposedly devoted to aesthetics above political content; more precisely, we were auteurists, devoted to the directorial achievements of the filmmakers John Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, and others. The Politicos adopted the quasi-Marxist angle then popular in the groves of French academe. The Politicos mostly were film majors, and the arcane theories they studied eventually split the academic film community, as well.

Russell generously tried to keep both groups happy, alternating the magazine's theme issues between the two groups. Although there was no overt hostility at first, there were differences. And they grew. Some Politicos thought some Aesthetes were obnoxious and politically incorrect. Some Aesthetes — myself included — thought some Politicos were uptight phonies. It should have ended at that, with semihumorous clashes, but the arguments eventually broke up the staffs of both TVLT and the Cardinal, as well as the Union film committee.

When I say broke up, I'm not kidding. There was an actual brawl in the Union between Gerry and me after the Politicos ousted me from my chairmanship of the Union film committee, beginning with Mark Bergman tossing a cupful of coffee in Gerry's face, and
ending with Gerry and me wrestling on the floor. Gerry and I are now friends again — I sponsored him for membership in the National Society of Film Critics. Mark, sadly, died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. But Tim Onosko and I have memorialized him in an annual film festival event, called "Bergman's Show." There we show the kind of noirish, auteurist cult movies Mark liked and gather to talk about the old days.

But back then it seemed deadly serious. And, actually, it was. We wrangled about movies, obsessed and fought about them, because we loved them so much. Yet, though most of the group succeeded as writers, historians, and critics, few actually achieved their real goal — which was, of course, to make films. Instead, a bunch of Madisonians not quite at the heart of the Mafia made it in Hollywood.

The seventies were in many ways a terrible time for me. I had left school, I had no money and lived on small-job pittances and money sent by my mother — who, despite having a master's degree in art from the UW, worked in a factory. Violence was always somehow in the air. Both in my undergraduate years and afterward, I often saw my campus aflame and in riot. But I also saw and heard amazing things — and not just at the movies. For me, the whole spirit of that era is summed up by two frantic days back in 1968, when Joe and I and our buddy Steve Wonn traveled to Chicago for the Democratic national convention. In that span, I saw Luis Buñuel's Belle De Jour for the first time, lost my virginity, and witnessed the police-and-protestor riots from atop a van where cameramen recorded the carnage for all time.

And I also lost my heart, permanently, to the movies. We were living in a kind of paradise — but like all false heavens, it was one that would eventually pass away.

Could it all happen again some day? It hasn't yet. Despite the flourishing of programs like the festival and Bordwell's Cinematheque, Madison now seems more an ordinary college film town. Yet there are elements that could trigger another renaissance. Projected DVD is now so refined that students may well be able to show DVDs in classrooms and start up cheap campus film programs again.

I wish they would, because now, when I walk down State Street, as I do when I visit the festival every year, I'm an outsider. I rarely see someone I know. But I do occasionally sight the ghosts. I see them by day, pouring down the sidewalks on Langdon, Mifflin, and State Streets. I watch them at night, settling into chairs at Ingraham or Van Vleck or the Social Science building. I hear the whir of the old Kodak Pageant projectors and see that magical bright beam flooding the classroom screens, and finally, I hear the deep, magical voice from my favorite movie, Citizen Kane, whispering, "Rosebud." I settle down in darkness. It's the last picture show all over again, and this time, it can't fade away, because it's playing in my head. It's safe and untouchable, and so are all those people — veterans of the War at Home and the War for Film, children of the Golden Age — watching it with me.

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Michael Wilmington has reviewed films for Isthmus, L.A. Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times and now is the chief film critic for the Chicago Tribune, in addition to teaching and authoring books.

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