Tales of Man and Beast

Animal “actors” have shared the screen with their human counterparts since the earliest days of cinema, though the former have typically been relegated to the status of living props. The films in this program, however, explore the complex relationship between human and other species in greater depth, depicting animals as genuine characters. Some explicitly anthropomorphize nature, casting whole swaths of the animal kingdom as stand-ins for human archetypes—heroic, comic, and villainous, while others take a more documentary approach. By stripping away the boundaries between the civilized and non-civilized worlds, the human and the non-human, these films reveal how animal behavior can tell us much about our own.

Both Au hasard Balthazar and Umberto D.—classics of French cinema and Italian neorealism, respectively—use multiple species of nonprofessional actors to tell the stories of pets and their owners, who together struggle against society at its most socially Darwinian. Alamar and Los Muertos, both Latin American features, follow men and children rediscovering homelands populated by birds, goats, and barracudas. The stop-motion animated rarity The Tale of the Fox offers an early take on the talking animal genre, before the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. came to define its conventions. Finally, this series features a preview of the incredible new documentary Sweetgrass, which chronicles, with astonishing intimacy, the lives and livelihood of a group of rural Montana sheepherders.

Series co-curated by Paul Schrodt of The Film and Projection Society, a student-run film society at Northwestern University dedicated to fostering film culture on campus through screenings, a quarterly publication, and special events featuring scholars, critics, and filmmakers.

Sweetgrass

Friday, April 23, 2010 7:00 PM
(Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, 2009, USA, 35mm, 101 minutes)

In Sweetgrass, documentary filmmakers Castaing-Taylor and Barbash chronicle the journey of shepherds guiding their flocks through Montana's rugged Beartooth Mountains with strict narrative austerity: no interviews, no score, and only the barest acknowledgement of the camera's presence. The result is one of the purest examples of experiential cinema ever released. The succession of moments captured along the trail—breathtaking vistas, lost sheep, expletive-laden rants, nighttime raids by grizzly bears, and an elderly herder conversing affectionately with his ornery flock—are mesmerizing. "A really intimate, beautifully shot examination of the connection between man and beast..."—Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

A Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard)

Thursday, April 29, 2010 7:00 PM
(Wladislaw Starewicz, 1930, France, 35mm, 65 minutes)

The Tale of the Fox was the first feature-length film by master animator, Wladislaw Starewicz. Adapted from northern European folklore, the film (animated with Starewicz's daughter Irène) follows the comic adventures of the fox Renard, an anarchic trickster. Starewicz's iconic visual style, with its fluid stop motion puppetry and strikingly naturalistic menagerie of anthropomorphic misfits, was informed by a lifelong passion for zoology. Admirers of Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox will find a blueprint here for that film's distinctive look and tone (Anderson cites Starewicz’s film as a direct influence). Archival print from the British Film Institute.

Preceded by:

cameraman's revengeThe Cameraman’s Revenge (The Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman)

(Wladislaw Starewicz, 1912, Russia, 16mm, 13 minutes)

With Russian and English intertitles Starewicz, who studied entomology, used actual insect specimens to animate this story of a bourgeois beetle couple and their mutual infidelities.

Umberto D.

Thursday, May 13, 2010 8:00 PM
(Vittorio De Sica, 1952, Italy, 35mm, 89 minutes)

In De Sica’s neorealist classic, elderly pensioner Umberto D. Ferrari struggles to hold on to his apartment and his dignity in a postwar Italy eager to forget its financially troubled past. After his unsympathetic landlady ratchets up the rent, Umberto must prepare himself for the worst—being separated from his beloved dog, Flike. A precursor to the recent and much-lauded Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008), De Sica’s heart-wrenching tale explores the painful realities of class and financial hardship, and stands as one of cinema’s most soulful examinations of the bond between man and pet.

Au hasard Balthazar

Thursday, May 27, 2010 7:00 PM
(Robert Bresson, 1966, France, 35mm, 95 minutes)

Bresson’s minimalist masterpiece depicts the donkey—traditionally the joke of the equine family—not as a mere sideshow or symbol, but as a steadfast, even noble character. The titular Balthazar, raised from birth by a shy, gentle girl named Marie, is left to an uncertain fate when his caretaker delivers him into the hands of a new owner. Like Marie herself Balthazar is ultimately exploited and abused at the hands of a succession of cruel men. The director’s cinematic parable on suffering and saintliness brings morality down to earth—and gives the ass a quiet grace and spiritual significance.

Los Muertos

Thursday, June 3, 2010 7:00 PM
(Lisandro Alonso, 2004, Argentina, 35mm, 78 minutes)

Lisandro Alonso's second feature combines the director's signature fascination with men in the wilderness with a spare and haunting style that emphasizes immersion over spectacle. Newly released from prison for murder, middle-aged Vargas embarks on a trip to reunite with his now grown daughter. Armed with nothing but a machete, he boards a small boat and sets off into the jungle encountering a variety of beasts on his journey, from chirping insects to a stranded goat. Sumptuously shot in 35mm, Los Muertos captures both the beauty and the savageness of the wild. "The Dead" is an ironic appellation for a movie so fiercely alive, though perfectly apt for what turns out to be a strange sort of horror film. – Nathan Lee, The Village Voice

Preceded by:

stS/T

(Lisandro Alonso, 2009, Argentina, 35mm, 1 minute)

Commissioned as a trailer for the 2009 Buenos Aires film festival (BAFICI), Alonso’s masterful one-minute film features an unforgettable fowl.