“The Wages Of Cinema” comprehensively catalogs Madison’s public screenings

JoAnne Pow!ers’ Tuesday afternoon film calendar endures, and thrives, on WORT.
A photo of the mixing console in one of the main WORT studios. JoAnne Pow!ers' "Wages Of Cinema" notes from June 27 and a pair of headphones rest on top of it. The host mic is angled down on the boom arm in the center of the photo.
A photo (taken by Phipps) of the mixing console in one of the main WORT studios with JoAnne Pow!ers’ June 27 “Wages Of Cinema” notes on top.

JoAnne Pow!ers’ Tuesday afternoon film calendar endures, and thrives, on WORT.

If you’ve tuned into WORT 89.9 FM in the late afternoon during the week, chances are you’ve plunged into multiple subcultures of jazz and improvised music. Since 2009, saxophonist JoAnne Powers (or, as she prefers, Pow!ers) has been curating Fire Worship!, a showcase of modern creative and free jazz. Since 2021, when Pow!ers returned after a nearly year-long intermission during pandemic lockdowns, Fire Worship has alternated with Ohjho’s Petrichor Radio in the Tuesday 2 to 5 p.m. slot. (Pow!ers’ next shows are on July 11 and July 25.)

Pow!ers may be known for her forward-facing appreciation for avant-garde disciplines and music on the fringes. She’s also a well-versed cinephile, and her attendance at local film screenings is as reliable as her fierce presence as a downtown busker. So it’s not surprising to see (and hear) Fire Worship as the home to WORT’s only essential film calendar, “The Wages Of Cinema.” Typifying her sense of humor, the segment’s title mischievously adapts a quote lifted from Romans 6:23 (subverting the notion of its direct connection to any film or the famous Clouzot thriller from 1953).

At around 4 p.m., Pow!ers shifts her show from music to cataloging Madison’s public screenings, with an emphasis on the downtown vicinity and new films popping up at commercial theaters that are now entirely concentrated on the city’s outskirts. The calendar aims to cover every corner, from blockbusters opening wide to the scrappiest production at a local library, sharing a spiritual space with the exhaustive approach that former Madisonian David Klein maintained on his much-missed website LakeFrontRow in the early-mid 2010s.

“I started it because I realized that our radio station did not have a film coverage section,” Pow!ers says. “I floated the idea in passing: ‘Hey, if we ever get some real estate on the dial, I wouldn’t mind doing a proper half-hour film segment not in the middle of my music show.’ But in the meantime, since I had [Fire Worship], it seemed like a good time to keep people informed of what’s happening in the film society in Madison here.” Since introducing the calendar in the early 2010s, Pow!ers has steadily had the opportunity to speak to a broader audience than to those who latched onto her taste for creative music (“from this Earth and others,” as she puts it).

If you happen to listen to Fire Worship with any regularity, you’ll pick up on Pow!ers’ irreverent commentary but also tendency to fuse her voracious appetite for cinema into the scope of the show. Each broadcast opens with a sound collage that contains a snippet from Lalo Schifrin’s main theme to Enter The Dragon (1973). During voice breaks, Pow!ers also samples from a wealth of ’70s jazz-funk that scored some of the most transgressive New Hollywood and Blaxploitation of the era—including Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Curtis Mayfield’s “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” from Super Fly (1972), and Gordon Parks’ “Symphony For Shafted Souls” from Shaft’s Big Score! (1972). (Pow!ers seems to have an affinity for the emphasis that the exclamation mark imparts, if it wasn’t obvious.)

When Pow!ers first introduced “The Wages Of Cinema” more than a decade ago, she received some amusing pushback from a few vocal listeners who’d call the station to say they “just want to hear nothing but music.” Those complaints have dissipated over the years. And while it’s rare for Pow!ers to receive feedback while on the air, she does note that “during pledge drives, I get some people who will say, ‘I love the movie stuff,'” which buoys her spirit to keep the segment going.

After returning to the airwaves after the pandemic-fueled hiatus, Pow!ers adapted to compiling a film calendar for every two weeks’ time instead of her previous rhythm of a weekly rundown. As commercial theaters have been announcing the following week’s premieres just 48 to 72 hours prior, Pow!ers has chosen to refocus on many one-time-only events in the last couple years. “It’s a little frustrating, because I don’t actually know what’s coming out in theaters the second week,” she says. “And sometimes even stuff at the Marquee Theater in Union South [is announced] at the last second. So I’m not often able to include them. On the other hand, it means there’s more stuff from the UW Cinematheque to fill that time.”

Pow!ers’ eye also catches what others often don’t (including yours truly), frequently calling attention to special events at Marcus and AMC theaters, like the Bollywood, Kollywood, and Tollywood epics (Hindi-, Tamil-, Telugu-language). Other more DIY corners of campus curation are often overshadowed by the superior presentation and marketing of UW Cinematheque, including La Cineteca italiana (most Tuesdays at 7 p.m. during the spring/fall semester in room L196 of the Education Building at 1000 Bascom Mall on UW-Madison campus). Recently, UW’s SEASSI (Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute) has put together an extensive summer film series in room 206 of Ingraham Hall (at 1155 Observatory Drive) on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. The 2004 Hmong film, Lost Love, is next up on July 12, and the series continues until its August 9 finale, The Scent Of Green Papaya (1993).

A daytime photo captures the exterior of WORT- 89.9 FM at the corner of South Bedford Street and West Doty Street in Madison, Wisconsin. The building is colorfully painted with graphics of musical instruments.
A late-afternoon summer photo (taken by Phipps) across the street from WORT 89.9 FM at 118 South Bedford Street.

Pow!ers is always conscientious in her cataloging, favoring smaller-budget and more niche cinema, but always leaves room for a piquant pan. It wouldn’t be “The Wages Of Cinema” without her dry wit and audacity to list events and then immediately call out what may be to her distaste. One of her recurring favorites is to characterize a film as “great,” but then curtly add “…except for the plot, characters, dialogue, and acting.” (This spring, the final screening of WUD Film’s Animation Is Film! Festival, Satoshi Kon’s debut feature Perfect Blue, was the brief subject of scorn.) That’s not to say the segment nor Fire Worship are reserved for tangential diatribes. WORT’s community-supported programming allows Pow!ers a personal perspective, which she occasionally pits against aggregate assessments from sources that she comically nicknames “Meat Critic” (Metacritic) and “The Tomato People” (Rotten Tomatoes).

This playful sarcasm also comes through in her occasional interviews with local programmers and cineastes, including Ben Reiser of UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival (with whom Pow!ers has an expressively comfortable rapport). Retired Madison Metropolitan School District teacher and film scholar Alan Ginsberg also joined Pow!ers in what became a belatedly pre-recorded, two-part 2023 Wisconsin Film Festival postmortem across “Wages Of Cinema” segments on May 30 and June 13. Ginsberg and Pow!ers celebrated films as diverse as Without Her (2022) and Robot Monster (1953) while offering some criticism of World War III (2022). 

Pow!ers has been involved at WORT-FM since 1997, and doesn’t plan on shirking her other roles at the station (she also does engineering work for news and public affairs programs) any time soon. In contemplating the future of “The Wages Of Cinema,” Pow!ers hopes to eventually find the “real estate,” as she calls it—another time slot—to expand the segment into a separate show that would feature “more interviews with filmmakers” and movie soundtrack deep-cuts of ’70s jazz-funk persuasion. But until then, Pow!ers will be at the station every other Tuesday afternoon, doling out the details on the outlook of Madison’s film landscape. “Depending on what’s going on in my life, there are times I put more energy into it, and times I show up at 2 o’clock and go, ‘I have to write a film calendar,'” she says, laughing. “But it always seems to fall together.”

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