UW Cinematheque’s Zachary Zahos on programming the universal language

The Cinematheque Project Assistant discusses helming a Chantel Akerman series in April, and other highlights of the series’ spring 2020 schedule.

The Cinematheque Project Assistant discusses helming a Chantal Akerman series in April, and other highlights of the series’ spring 2020 schedule reveal. ( Image: Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties screens on April 25. )

Amidst the chatter of award season, UW Cinematheque’s spring schedule announcement always aids in refocusing local audiences’ attention to the bounty of forthcoming cinematic treasures, both old and new, in Madison. UW Cinematheque’s programmers often give us clear reasons as to why Wisconsin is keeping up with the national and international film conversation while also boasting some truly one-of-a-kind events that are free and open to the public, both in the series’ home screening room in Vilas Hall and at other venues including the Chazen Museum of Art.

At immediate glance, at the start of this new year and decade, Cinemateque is hosting a slightly delayed 25th anniversary screening of one of the all-time great epic art films, Sátántangó (1994), by now retired Hungarian director Béla Tarr, on Saturday, February 1. Capitalizing on the #bonghive and buzz generated from last year’s international hit, Parasite, Cinematheque is also bringing in modern South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s debut work, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) on Sunday, March 29. And for anyone particular keen on the boundary-pushing NYC avant-garde music scene of the early ‘80s (Gray, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, DNA, James Chance, etc), Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien’s Downtown 81 (2000) is a can’t-miss on Sunday, March 1

Zachary Zahos

Zachary Zahos

For more insight into these individual screenings and series, though, I wanted to reach out to current Project Assistant for UW Cinematheque, Zachary Zahos, who deftly curated this spring’s three-week series on Belgian director Chantal Akerman, which provides not only a great primer on her filmography but the range of her abilities in sculpting with genre and tone. This past weekend, Zahos joined me at the Tone Madison office to talk about the timing of this year’s calendar, what he’s personally anticipating, the ongoing significance of Akerman and process of booking her films, reasons for his own voracious cinephilia, and future aspirations after his tenure as a project assistant.

Tone Madison: Initially, I just wanted to get ahead of things for this spring 2020 calendar announcement that just dropped a few days ago. I see that it’s starting a bit later than it has in past years. I’m sure you personally don’t have any control over that timing, but maybe you know a reason for the end-of-January kick-off rather than mid-January that would sync more precisely with the start of the semester.

Zachary Zahos: As you said, I am the Project Assistant, and I do have the lowest amount of power of the bunch of us who work for the Cinematheque; but, that said, I did talk to Director of Programming, Jim Healy, and he basically said it’s due to Sundance Film Festival, which he and the other [senior] programmer Mike King go to for [choosing] Wisconsin Film Festival programming. So, that schedule overlap combined with the fact that we wanted to start with a bang, a 3-D show that has two different screenings [on January 30 and 31]—Cunningham. We needed all hands on deck and had to push it back a week.

Tone Madison: You usually begin with a more noteworthy title like that. Cunningham is part of the Premiere Showcase, and it’s in 3-D. So, you’re piquing the interest of a swath of movie-going population.

Zachary Zahos: That’s true, yeah. “Madison Premiere” is always a nice little title to throw on a film. In this case, it’s a really well-reviewed film that you can’t really see in its proper format. You definitely can’t see it in any venue in Madison. I don’t even think it’s been going around the country that much, because it requires 3-D for the full experience. The 3-D investment we were able to make with our projection system in 4070 Vilas has been paying off, being able to land premieres like this and as a venue in the film festival for all sorts of movies.

Tone Madison: Yeah, last year you had Creature From The Black Lagoon and Long Day’s Journey Into Night [during the Wisconsin Film Festival].

Zachary Zahos: That’s right. I’m always looking over the calendar like everyone else, and I sort of see things… “Oh, I didn’t choose this one.” The Sword Of Granada In 3-D [on March 20]. It’s a Mexican film with Cesar Romero and all sorts of Golden Age of Mexican cinema actors. Never been shown before, apparently, in the US. It’s been restored by the 3-D Film Archive. Bob Furmanek is a regular who’s shown up many times at the festival and Cinematheque, and his institution has brought us this what looks like [not] only a good movie but an oddity in film history. So, we’re gonna have the US premiere of that. The lowly UW-Cinematheque. It’s gonna happen. [Laughs]

Tone Madison: Oh, wow. Well, it’s not lowly anymore.

Zachary Zahos: No, of course not. I do like holding our Cinematheque, if not in direct competition, at least in comparison to every art house cinema in the country. Be that the Film Forum in New York or what have you in LA. We’ve got the goods.

Tone Madison: What are you most plainly excited for on the spring 2020 calendar? What do you think is worth talking about that may not receive the same fanfare as, say, 63 Up, Tokyo Story, and the two by Fellini, for example?

Zachary Zahos: Yeah, those are the big things you just mentioned. There’s also Varda By Agnès [on February 7], which we have the Madison premiere of. And I’m actually very excited for the “big kahuna” that we got in early February, Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994), which I will there for. Mike King and I are working that show [with one intermission and a dinner break] for the great 7-hour Hungarian film. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of those you put off because—well, who has 7 hours, especially in one sitting. But we’re going to give [audiences] the opportunity.

Otherwise, this UCLA series is fascinating. Every other year they have a touring retrospective of the films that they recently restored. It’s basically a package they give to us. They say, “Here are the films we have, and if you could play all of them, that’d be great.” I really think Jim [Healy] tried hard to pack every single one in. I don’t think he made any cuts to the full swath. So, we have a real wide range of DCPs that we’ll play at 4070 Vilas on Saturdays in February, and 35mm prints that we’ll, for the most part, be playing at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday afternoons in February.

There’s film noirs, from The Crooked Way (1949) [on February 23], to Richard Fleischer’s Trapped (1949) [on February 2]… kind of a noir-melodrama with Jeff Bridges’ dad, Lloyd Bridges. We’ve got The Man Who Cheated Himself (1951) [on February 2]. All these crime and thriller films. Then we have lots of early either pre-code or early sound films like Alibi, directed by Roland West, from 1929 [on February 8]. Right now on the Criterion Channel, there’s this 1970s sci-fi series that we have a title from called A Boy And His Dog from 1975 [on February 8]. That’s apparently a real odd dystopian film.

Tone Madison: I’ve heard about that. In the description that Ben Reiser wrote, he mentions Mad Max. I think it’s also had some influence on the Fallout game series. I think there are some in-jokes in those games.

Zachary Zahos: That’s a good point. I play the Fallout games, but I think I played them before I got super into the movies that they’re definitely riffing on—like Them! (1954), and the ’70s and ’80s nuclear panic kinds of films. If we had a whole series on Fallout influenced [cinema], that would be a fun series. [laughs]

On Valentine’s Day, we have a good title: The Mortal Storm (1940) with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. That’s Frank Borzage’s great wartime melodrama that we got a [35mm] print of. And then finally on the UCLA series, I want to give a plug to Gay USA (1977) [on February 15], directed by Arthur Bressan, Jr. He has passed, but we had his sister appear last year for Buddies (1985), [a narrative film] about the AIDS epidemic. Gay USA is rather a documentary.

Tone Madison: I’m looking at the description, and the filming over the course of just one day is quite impressive for a film that was made in the mid-’70s.

Zachary Zahos: Yeah, exactly. The documentary is really a time capsule of the beauties of being gay at that time but also the real dangers. With certain leaps and bounds that have been taken recently, from the Supreme Court and general changes in the culture, this is a film that’s still worth giving a look at just to see how far we’ve come. But also the commonalities between then and now are pretty heartfelt.

Tone Madison: I thought it might be interesting to go behind the scenes a bit in programming the Cinematheque, since we usually just see the end product… the full schedule with the announcement. If you’d like to talk about some of your weekly tasks as a project assistant: How do you go about proposing something, and what distributors do you normally correspond with or look at?

Zachary Zahos: As a project assistant, my number one job is not programming. But I will say that I think overall I’m putting a lot of time into the “Wisconsin’s Own” section for the Wisconsin Film Festival. That’s something I’m doing from the beginning of the fall semester up until this very moment. We just have a couple more weeks of deliberating on that. Film festival-wise, I have more of a hand in programming than the Cinematheque, but it’s a nice job because I’m around the [main] programmers. I share an office with Jim [Healy]. And I’m always talking about movies. These people live and breathe movies, and I’m privileged to consider myself one of them.

At the end of one’s term, when you’re a Project Assistant, you might have a stab at programming a full series. I’ve had some one-offs over the past couple semesters, but this series this semester on Chantal Akerman is my first series. Basically, an auteur-focused series is a good starting point, especially for someone like me, who hasn’t done a full packaged series before. There’s a sort of sense of what you’re gonna get, and then you want to throw a couple films in there that you might not expect. In the case of Chantal Akerman, Jim and I were talking about this director about how we love her work. She only died five years ago now, and this year, 2020, [would have been] her 70th birthday. So, there’s some number significance that we can call attention to.

We’re showing five films. Her breakthrough films in the beginning, which are Je Tu Il Elle (1975) [on April 11], Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) [on April 19], of course, which we’re really happy to have play on a 35mm print. And News From Home (1976) [on April 11]. We actually have La Chambre (1972), the short film she did early on thrown into that mix as well [on April 18]. And then we’re gonna be closing with two films later from her career, which I think have a different genre inflection to them than the earlier ones. We have Golden Eighties (1986) [on April 25], which is a very proudly feminist and even more joyous than usual for her. It’s a musical. [We also have] one of the films from the real last stage of her career called La Captive (2000) [on April 18], which is a literary adaptation, starring Stanislas Merhar, who is also from one of her last films, Almayer’s Folly (2011). I wanted to show a range of her output.

As far as getting those films in our hands, we worked through Janus Films, a well-established connection [for Cinematheque], which has a lot of her earlier films. That was no problem at all. For the latter films, Golden Eighties and La Captive, we had to work through the [Royal] Belgian Archive in Brussels, which took a little time, actually, in getting a hold of them and clearance for these films. If I have any regret about this series, it’s that we wanted to throw in one more oddity from her filmography, which would have been A Couch In New York (1996), a romantic comedy she produced with Juliette Binoche and William Hurt. It’s one of those movies that fans don’t know even know about. It seems very at odds with the rest of her career, but unfortunately we just couldn’t clear the rights for that. In the research for this, I saw it on DVD from the Madison Public Library. It’s not the same, but you can get it there. But I’m really happy with what we’ve thrown together for this series.

Tone Madison: Thank you for elaborating a bit. I noticed that, in keeping with recent traditions, the day that follows the closing of the 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival, you have a solid three hours of Akerman films for us. Maybe to go back to the first question about programming, is there a specific reason for programming such an intense cinematic experience that follows the film festival?

 Zachary Zahos: That’s true. We did [Tarkovsky’s] Andrei Rublev, as I recall, last year. We are actually starting on that Friday, April 10, with a Fellini film, The White Sheik (1952).

Tone Madison: Oh, I’m sorry. You’re right. [laughs]

Zachary Zahos: It’s a bit more jaunty. And short. But yes, the next day, we have the full Akerman experience. I don’t think there’s really a thought behind that, like “Oh, the film festival’s over, so let’s give you maximum cinema.” [laughs] It was mainly because we had only four days to work with for the Akerman series, and I wanted more than four films, so we put two [features] in one day. The fact that they’re both early in her career and really speak to each other, even though one is a narrative film, Je Tu Il Elle, and one is avant-garde documentary, News From Home. I thought they would be in dialogue. But yeah, it will require some…

Tone Madison: Patience?

Zachary Zahos: Patience, and some energy. Those two movies are among her best. For me, News From Home might be my favorite.

Tone Madison: I wanted to ask a little bit more about La Captive. I noticed there were some comparisons to Vertigo in your write-up. Could you talk about when you first saw the film and why you think it fits in nicely with the other films?

Zachary Zahos: I just saw it in the process of researching this program last semester. It actually is one that escaped my notice. I know it’s an adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time (1913), actually. So it has a literary pedigree to it that you don’t usually see from all of [Akerman’s] films, because they’re coming from her own experience. But the main impetus, again, was more for a genre variety, so I’d say that’s what gravitated me towards this different, more classical treatment that you see here. It’s got a really wonderful musical sequence in the middle where the two lovers sing from a balcony to each other. The male lead is looking at the two of them in agony. Our professor at UW, Kelley Conway, wrote a great article about it recently in the feminist film journal, Camera Obscura, about that sequence and a few others from Akerman’s work where characters are singing. That’s something you probably don’t think about when you think of Chantal Akerman; you might think more of long takes and sort of geometric composition or duration. But there’s actually a whole through line where female characters are singing. We wanted to bring extra attention to that with Golden Eighties, but La Captive also has a wonderful sequence along those lines as well.

Tone Madison: You’re right. I think that’s a good pitch, especially because she’s probably most known for Jeanne Dielman, being such a stark and severe experience. There’s a lot of joy in her films as well that’s not underlying either. It’s on the surface, for sure.

Zachary Zahos: No, I agree. I think it’s because she started her career on a kind of intense note and ended it with No Home Movie in 2015. Of course her death was quite tragic right after that. No Home Movie is one of my favorite films of the past decade. Again, there’s such a wide variety of life experience that you see in her films, and it was sort of calling attention to that through the lens of genre, I’ll say. But more the ups and downs of life is what we get through this.

Tone Madison: No Home Movie is primarily about her mother.

Zachary Zahos: Yeah, the death of her mother. Her mother is a real presence throughout all these films, especially News From Home. You’re looking at lovely tracking shots of New York City in the 1970s with, on the voiceover track, Chantal Akerman reading letters that her mother sent her from Belgium. That film, people might also think of it in this austere register, but it’s actually quite funny. Those letters become…sometimes nagging, sometimes concerned, sometimes very condescending. There’s a tone that the mother is conveying, that also changes throughout the film, but you can tell this relationship between mother and daughter is as rich as you can get. As heated and loving as you can get.

Tone Madison: When I was initially looking at the schedule, I was pretty excited, actually, for the S. Craig Zahler films. They’re definitely a bit out of my wheelhouse, but I saw that you have Jeff Herriott coming in as a guest during Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017) on March 21, as the co-composer. I know him as a Wisconsin composer, because he’s had some work featured in the Madison New Music Festival that happens in August here, and he’s also in this self-described “sleepy rock” band called Bell Monks.

Zachary Zahos: Oh, wonderful.

Tone Madison: Are you also looking forward to that screening, and is there anything that jumps out at you for reasons beyond the credits of the director and cinematographer [for example]?

Zachary Zahos: Sure. Well, the S. Craig Zahler series is going to be a real trip, I think. His films, for the most part, have just been straight to VOD, so I’ve seen them all at home. And they have extremely violent sequences in them that I’ve been curious to know how an audience would react. Especially the first film, Bone Tomahawk (2015). I’ll be out of town that weekend, but I’m really curious to know what our regular audience will make of that movie. I’m really happy we have Jeff visiting for Brawl In Cell Block. I was actually unaware of his work until Jim programmed this series, but it’s great that we have a Wisconsin connection to these films that have gotten so much buzz. Happy to have someone who’s so close to the process coming to talk about it.

I’m really excited for the LACIS series, which we have every year. Mike King and Jim Healy have programmed a wonderful swath of new films. One’s from Brazil, called Divine Love. That’s in early March.

Tone Madison: I’m particularly excited for that one.

Zachary Zahos: Yeah, it’s got both romance and violence… sex and dystopian dimension to it. Throughout that month of March, we have a Buñuel film, and Sword Of Granada, which I mentioned earlier. Crazy Mexican 3-D from the ’50s. I believe we’re closing it out with, what I’ve heard only raves about, Bacurau [on March 27], directed by Filho and Dornelles, a team from Brazil who made Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius [from past Cinematheque calendars]. Two great recent films from Latin America. So, that series is always worth checking out, even if you don’t know about it. Just go in blind. They’re all good.

As far as the one-offs, I’m most excited for this film from Egypt, The Night Of Counting The Years (1969) [on March 7]. This is one that Jim Healy and I talked about a little while ago, and I didn’t really know it was restored recently by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project through the Cineteca di Bologna, Italy. The two of them came together to restore this film that’s somewhat of a cinephile totem in the late ’60s / early ’70s when it came out. Directed by Chadi Abdel Salam, it’s one of the first Egyptian films to be shown theatrically in the United States, and we have a print of this new restoration. I just know some cinephiles who really think this movie’s special, and I have full reason to believe that it’s every bit as good as they say. For reasons of distribution and being lost to the wind, maybe that movie doesn’t show up in conversation so much. It also goes by the title Al-Mummia, or The Mummy.

Tone Madison: No Brendan Fraser in this version. [laughs]

Zachary Zahos: No Brendan or Boris Karloff or whoever. It does have mummies in it, though. Not in any reanimated sense but in an archaeological sense, yes. And the next day we have Crimson Gold (2003) from Iran by Jafar Panahi. Two films, co-sponsored by the UW Middle East Studies Department. That’s a miniseries of sorts, and with the Latin American series, we have a wide breadth of global cinema this semester.

Tone Madison: Yeah, I was gonna say that your pitch seems to be directed at countries of origin for the films, which can obviously be a point of interest beyond just looking at the stars or the director

Zachary Zahos: I do have an auteurist mindset deepest down. Films come from all over, and if you’re really touched by it, it’s probably something the director’s doing to really move you or bring a certain idea to the foreground. I expect that to be the case for both Crimson Gold and Night Of Counting The Years. But, of course, yeah. It’s really worth broadening our horizons. It’s really crucial that an institution like the UW Cinematheque has its eyes on American film history, European film history, and other countries. Especially looking at a film in Iran, it even becomes a political act in some ways when we’re dealing with circumstances in our politics as they are, unfortunately.

Tone Madison: Cinema, the universal language: maybe the simplest way to put it.

Zachary Zahos: People say that, and I then I say, “What are you talking about?” And then I sit down and [realize] emotionally I’m there, for sure.

Tone Madison: As a final question, I wanted to know if you had a teaser or hint as to what might turn up in the Wisconsin Film Festival that’s maybe embedded into the spring 2020 calendar.

Zachary Zahos: I can’t speak with too much confidence. The few murmurs I’ve heard are all unconfirmed, so I don’t want to throw out something that ends up not happening. But I do know something about the “Wisconsin’s Own” section. If anything, I’ll promote it as really exciting. Trust me when I say we’re going through so many submissions. We have 150 films that we’ve [already] looked at, and we might even have another addition or two in the coming weeks. We’re going to have a few really good features, and we’re gonna have some surprising guests. Some bigger names we’re hoping to land and bring to our audiences in April.

Tone Madison: Oh, did you want to say anything about possibly future programming aspirations for yourself? It seems sounds like your tenure is concluding after this semester.

Zachary Zahos: As far as future programming endeavors, there’s always something. For bigger series, I’ve always dreamed of doing a more South Korean film-focused series. I like that we have Barking Dogs Never Bite, the debut film of Bong Joon-ho this semester.

Tone Madison: Especially for fans of Parasite, one of the most acclaimed films of 2019.

Zachary Zahos: My favorite director living might be Hong Sang-soo from South Korea, and I’d love to program a series with a nice plurality of his films. I’m also a big John Stahl head, from Hollywood— the great melodrama director of the 1930s and 1940s. Thankfully there’s no need to program him in a full series right now, because Jim Healy tracks down every new restoration and print of his, that Madison has had no shortage. As far the “white whale” that I’d like to program one day would be Otto Preminger’s Advise And Consent from the 1960s, one of the last great shots of Classical Hollywood system with Preminger’s cutting edge political sensibilities. At the very least, we just need to have that film restored and released on home media. […] That’s the great thing about this, is that enough people are working on restoration, and enough people are making great films these days is that there’s always something.

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