The Wisconsin Film Festival revives memories of Madison's
long love affair with the movies.
Michael Wilmington x'68
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?
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.
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
campus kiosk advertises a typical night at the
movies during the 1970s.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Wisconsin Home Page
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
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