Jonathan Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD (American Revival)
Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) – Wednesday, 7:30pm
I confess to taking Jonathan Demme for granted, both in life and death. His films, while wonderful and affecting, are often so ingenious as to seem accidental, unpolished gems in an expanse of prosaic gravel. Most I recall seeing as a kid—then impervious to the notion of auteurism, reveling in chance viewings of sublime cinema either on TV or rented VHS tapes—others I’ve revisited in years since, still mostly unaware of what made Demme, the director of such mainstream fare as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA (both of which are good, maybe even great, when taken on their own, if a little bedewed by superficial accolades), a cinephile favorite. After his passing in April, a sad event that inspired weeks worth of thoughtfully composed tributes, I recognized his contribution internally while still being unable to grasp the appeal. But recalling a recent viewing of RICKI AND THE FLASH (a vastly underrated treasure) and watching MELVIN AND HOWARD for the first time in over a decade this past week, it’s clear to me now that Demme had his finger on the pulse of American life in an unparalleled way, transcending the idea of Hollywood cinema and almost single-handedly embracing a distinctly American cinema, one whose narrative and technical nuances reflect spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties, all above fruited—albeit littered—plain. Directed from the true story of Melvin Dummar, the man who claimed to have met eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in the desert and was later listed as a beneficiary in his alleged will, and given to Demme after Mike Nichols backed out, MELVIN AND HOWARD opens with the legendary convergence between Hughes, played by a grimy Jason Robards, and Melvin, affably played by Paul Le Mat, whose own griminess rivals that of the man who’d just previously been laying in the sand following an accident. After Melvin drops Hughes off at the Desert Inn, not believing that the apparent drifter was who he said he was, the film shifts to focus on Melvin’s life between the fateful meeting and the fateful discovery, during which he divorces and marries the same woman (Lynda, played to perfection by Mary Steenburgen, who won an Oscar for her performance), has another child, attempts to climb the corporate ladder as a milkman, remains unable to control his spendthrift ways, cajoles his wife onto a game show called Easy Street, gets divorced from said wife a second time, marries a determined coworker, then finally receives the infamous ‘Mormon Will.’ In his review of the film, Roger Ebert succinctly referred to it as “a slice of American life.” Trite? Maybe. True? Definitely. Upon finding out the man who claimed to be Howard Hughes really was the elusive billionaire, Melvin doesn’t lament his circumstances—he knows it’s unlikely he’ll ever see a penny of that money. Yet he’s happy, happy because Howard Hughes sang his song, a weird Christmas carol that he paid $70 to have put to music. Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD is about what makes America great—small people, small moments, glimmers of hope. Maybe to make it great again, we should be like Melvin, more excited about a real connection and earnest creation than even the prospect of a so-called easy street. (1980, 95 min, 35mm) KS
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ENDLESS POETRY (New Chilean)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Check Venue website for showtimes
After examining his very early life in THE DANCE OF REALITY, Alejandro Jodorowsky turns the camera around on himself again to focus on his creative beginnings in ENDLESS POETRY. Jodorowsky examines his artistic roots as a youth in Chile where he decides to become a poet (much to the chagrin of his parents). The young Alejandro (played by his son, Adan Jodorowsky) later joins the circus where he meets other artists, poets, and performers who help foster his unbridled creativity. The film is visually stunning, shot by Christopher Doyle of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE fame, with each frame bursting with more color and more vibrancy than the last. Of course the story is a highly dramatized presentation of his past but this allows the director’s trademark surrealism to walk hand-in-hand with the period before he became a lauded auteur. Chile is portrayed as a visionary’s dream with its rich culture playing heavy influence on everything he would later create. This is Jodorowsky at his most straightforward and accessible. ENDLESS POETRY is bold in its decision to depict its director’s life with such intimacy and feverous determination, and it makes the audience all the richer for having viewed it. It is a fascinating view into the lives of one of filmdom’s most distinct creators. (2016, 128 min, DCP Digital) KC
Mapping the Obscure: James Fotopoulos (American Independent Revivals/Special Events)
Facets Cinémathèque – Showtimes listed below
Over the next two weekends, Chicago cinephiles will have the rare opportunity to see several of James Fotopoulos’ films with the prolific underground filmmaker in person. This weekend, his first two feature films, ZERO (1997, 142 min, DVD Projection; Friday, 11pm) and MIGRATING FORMS (1999, 80 min, DVD Projection; Saturday, 11pm), as well as another early feature, BACK AGAINST THE WALL (2002, 94 min, DVD Projection; Sunday, 9pm), screen at Facets Cinémathèque. The Illinois-born director will also participate in an intimate conversation with Cine-File Managing Editor Patrick Friel and a dinner event preceding the screening of BACK AGAINST THE WALL, on Saturday at 9pm and Sunday at 7pm, respectively. Described in an interview with critic Rick Curnutte as being one of a select group of “real” independent filmmakers—a misnomer often used to describe low-budget but still Hollywood-adjacent spectacles, often as laden with stars as they are lacking in funds—Fotopoulos is certainly an auteur who makes up in artistic integrity what he forgoes in mainstream appeal. His earliest feature, the two-and-a-half hour ZERO, shot in color rather than black and white like the other two, utilizes a sense of perverse naiveté to ironic effect, the subject matter and its resplendent eeriness benefiting from the director’s then greenness. “People have said ZERO is juvenile—badly acted and so on,” he said in an interview with Other Cinema. “The type of people in ZERO are juvenile and their sexual obsession with the forbidden is like a time bomb. There is no healthy human interaction with that behaviour. It is self-destructive. Some of them may be intelligent, but not emotionally mature. So these people are not reasonable, which an audience wants. And this nightmarish existence has to be translated into film. So the film must mirror those emotions.” Made soon after ZERO, when Fotopoulos was still in his early 20s, MIGRATING FORMS won the Best Feature award at the New York Underground Film Festival in 2000. It evokes Chantal Akerman in its use of a fixed camera to observe the bizarre activities happening within the frame; in the film, a man and a woman have casual sex, the woman infecting the man with a mysterious growth that’s obliquely depicted during their passionless trysts. It’s Tarkovsky-esque in how it explores “empty sexuality and its psychic and physical consequences,” eschewing coy symbolism for something altogether more organic and disconcerting. BACK AGAINST THE WALL divides one woman’s questionable love life into three parts, “a triptych of personal destruction,” as Fotopoulos himself refers to it. Perhaps the most disturbing of the three, its noirish grotesqueness is nonetheless appealing, his distinct sensibilities garnering comparisons to Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. His formal aptitude, however, elevates the violent absurdity from shocking to mesmeric, a rare quality that makes even the most off-putting of his films worthy of consideration. KS
James Cruze's THE GREAT GABBO (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Friday, 7 and 9pm
There's an exquisite strangeness to the early American talkies. More than any other country, America (or, rather, American audiences) fell madly for sound. In nearly every movie of the period, it feels like the studio is a kid who's been given a big paint set for his birthday and wants to try out every color on the first picture. James Cruze's THE GREAT GABBO is a weird labyrinth of heavy framing, paranoid juxtapositions, and unsettling musical numbers. Eric von Stroheim is better-cast here than in any other sound film--including GRAND ILLUSION--because his real strength isn't aristocratic elegance, but pretentious disdain: He spends the entire movie looking like he's offended by the lives of everyone around him. In GABBO, von Stroheim plays a self-important ventriloquist slowly growing crazy; and, in a way, his madness becomes our madness as his subtly lurid story becomes increasingly marginalized by the song-and-dance scenes featuring minor characters. The first image alone--a long wide shot of Stroheim drinking coffee like an aristocrat while sitting in a dingy apartment next to his dummy--is worth the price of admission. (1929, 92 min, 35mm Archival Print) IV
Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ SUNTAN (New Greek)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Saturday, 7 and 9:15pm
Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ SUNTAN is a veritable horror movie, with a drudging story told from the perspective of its monster. It’s from this viewpoint that the film is most effective; the “coming-of-middle-age” tagline adds a layer of repugnance to the inadvertent terror. Kostis, the seeming protagonist, is a 42-year-old doctor who arrives on the Greek island of Antiparos during the off-season, his loneliness palpable as he meanders through the day-to-day. During the “on” season, however, the island is in full swing, and it’s then he meets Anna, a 21-year-old woman visiting his office with her similarly attractive and hedonistic friends following a motorbike accident. Kostis joins their gang and develops a tentative relationship with Anna, which culminates in an awkward, yet innocuous, sexual encounter on the beach. The tone shifts soon thereafter, devolving into every woman’s worst nightmare. Christos Karamanis’ evocative widescreen cinematography frames the narrative in such a way that the subtext is inescapable. Neither Kostis’ small life nor his mid-life crisis excuse his depravity—it’s the artful juxtaposition that redeems problematic implications. (2016, 104 min, DCP Digital) KS
Jean-Luc Godard's PIERROT LE FOU (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 4:45pm and Wednesday, 6pm
This favorite of Godardophiles marked a transition between the aspirations towards narrative and genre of the director's early films and the more essayistic style to come. Godard's final collaboration with his two most iconic actors-Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina-PIERROT is formally playful while maintaining an emotional tug unlike any that would be seen in his work for a decade (the film famously mirrors Godard and Karina's own crumbling relationship). Belmondo and Karina play two lovers on the run, as they escape from civilization. Their desert island fantasy doesn't last, of course, and things rapidly deteriorate, leaving Belmondo's character to pine after his lost love. More than any of his other works, PIERROT masterfully walks the line between Godard's expressed intention to throw everything he can into a film and the compelling, immediate charms of classical cinema-the result being a surprisingly accessible film that will richly repay repeat viewings. (1965, 110 min, DCP Digital) AH
Agnès Varda's CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Monday, 6pm
Cléo, a stupid and prodigiously influenced rising pop singer, believes she is dying of stomach cancer, a fear that overwhelms her for the majority of the film's real-time running time and which functions as the movie's primary organizing device. The opening scene features Cléo at a tarot reading (the only scene in color), setting up a kind of aesthetic thesis statement on Varda's part: all of existence, in this work, is intimately orchestrated, choreographed, and meaningful, but, crucially, only for this one moment. The fortune-teller is no mere character but a marker for a structural division that cleaves the entirety of the film. The first two-thirds of it are intensely kinetic--mirrors everywhere, setting up bizarre pseudo-split screens, jump cuts unmotivated by plot or psychological concerns, self-reflexive insertions within the narrative (a song performance, a silent film)--and an effect of this is to make the film's constructed nature unmistakable. As Cléo leaves the tarot reader's apartment, for instance, her footsteps are in perfect synchrony with the nondiegetic music we hear, and in a remarkable move Varda repeats the same shot of her descending stairs multiple times in a row, drawing her film into the orbits of such hyper-controlled avant-garde artworks as Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and Murphy and Léger's 1924 film BALLET MÉCHANIQUE. But after a puzzling encounter with a friend who works as a nude model for sculpture students, Cléo enters a wooded park for the first time and meets a soldier on leave about to return to Algeria. Up until now, the film has been a city-bound labyrinth, filled with confusing and grotesque people, buildings, and images. But in the park and in the company of Antoine (the two share an almost instant connection) the film veers into romance. In a series of lyrical long takes and graceful, unobtrusive stagings, Antoine accompanies her to the hospital where test results await her, findings that she knows may well condemn her to death. And here Varda pulls her most brilliant structural play, for just as Cléo begins to contemplate what the doctor's words mean to her future, the film ends, half an hour early. CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 thus turns its protagonist's melodramas into the stuff of deepest power, for the ending is not conclusion but a demand that each of us in the audience supply the missing minutes of Cléo's life. Indeed, the final five minutes reveal the formal virtuosity of the preceding scenes to have actually been ruminations on the roles of fate, love, and death, and turn Cléo's silly up-and-coming singer into a chanteuse of modernist melancholy. The ideal screening of this masterpiece would keep the lights low and theatre doors shut two quarter hours after the projectors were silenced, forcing the viewers to dwell in the same tenuous uncertainties that Cléo, freed now from her celluloid prison, no longer needs concern herself with. (1961, 89 min, DCP Digital) KB
Christopher Nolan’s DUNKRIRK (New British)
Music Box Theatre - Check Venue website for showtimes*
Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature film finds the director delving into the past to tell the story of Dunkirk, a moment during World War II in which 400,000 British and French soldiers find themselves cornered along the shore of the Strait of Dover with German forces closing in from all sides. Focusing on the extraction of the British soldiers, the film’s narrative is split into three timelines, from the perspectives of those on land, on the sea, and in the air. The most unique feature here is the differences in time dilation that each of these plot threads experiences—the time scale covering a week, a day, and an hour, respectively. Much like the structuring of Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC, these scenarios are differentiated from one another via distinct tones. Despite being a war film and covering so much material, the film is relatively light on dialogue. Instead, Nolan seeks to create impact through visually stunning detail and intimate camera work. Cameras are strapped to planes, on boats, and to cameraman in the water, creating a deeply immersive experience. As seen throughout his oeuvre, in which he’s been a proponent of on-location shooting and the use of practical effects, the vast beaches coupled with huge warships create a daunting sense of scale. This immensity also helps to create isolation; some of the characters seem but a drop of rain in a storm—an impression accentuated by the use of soft focus during long shots. Hans Zimmer’s score creates foreboding and suspense. Rising and swelling like the sea itself, the music is underlined with the tick-tock of a pocket-watch, driving home the theme of elapsing time. Drawing inspiration from films as diverse as SUNRISE and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and building on ideas explored in Nolan’s own films MEMENTO and INCEPTION, DUNKIRK immerses its audience with its complex, interweaving storylines. (2017, 106 min, 70mm) KC
*DUNKIRK also has suburban 70mm showings, and is showing in multiple locations digitally.
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
At Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) this week: The Devil & Themselves: Films by JB Mabe (2008-14, approx. 72 min total, 16mm) is on Wednesday at 8pm. Screening are: TO ANOTHER (2010), ADDY CHOO (2013), MEASURES KINDLING (2012), PASTORAL (2008), TO ITS BLOOM (2010), TO QUIT, TO QUIET (2011), TO MARK THE SHAPE (2011), NOCTURNE: BLUE AND GOLD - PUNKIN' DOUGHNUTS (2010), TO FALL (2010), SMART CHICKENS, RICKETY WORLD (2014), and THE DEVIL AND THEMSELVES (2008). Free admission.
The Midwest Independent Film Festival presents its August installment on Tuesday at 6pm at the Landmark's Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.). This month it’s Female Filmmakers Night, with a program of short works by women directors. More information and complete lineup at www.midwestfilm.com/now-showing.
Sinema Obscura at Township (2200 N. California Ave.) screens two films by Marie Ullrich: the 2010 short FASTER! (12 min, Digital Projection) and the 2014 feature THE ALLEY CAT (65 min, Digital Projection) on Monday at 7pm. Free admission.
Black Cinema House and the Chicago Film Archives present an outdoor screening of William Greaves’ 1968 documentary STILL A BROTHER: INSIDE THE NEGRO MIDDLE CLASS (88 min, Unconfirmed Format) on Friday at 8pm at The Muffler Shop (359 E. Garfield Blvd.). Free admission.
Black World Cinema presents Daniel Cross' 2015 Canadian documentary I AM THE BLUES (107 min, DCP Digital) for a week-long run at Studio Movie Grill Chatham 14 (210 87th St.).
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Richard Quine’s 1958 film BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (106 min, Unconfirmed Format) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7:30pm. Free admission.
The Goethe-Institut Chicago (150 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 200) screens Theresa von Eltz’s 2014 German film 4 KINGS (99 min, Video Projection) on Thursday at 6pm. Free admission.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s 2016 documentary RESTLESS CREATURE: WENDY WHELAN (94 min, DCP Digital) and Barbet Schroeder’s 2015 Swiss/French film AMNESIA (96 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week; Marcel Carné’s 1945 French film CHILDREN OF PARADISE (190 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Sunday at 2pm and Tuesday at 6:30pm; and Petr Kazda and Tomáš Weinreb’s 2016 Czech/Polish film I, OLGA HEPNAROVÁ (105 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 8pm and Thursday at 8:30pm.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Enrique Álvarez’s 2002 Cuban film MIRADAS (90 min, 35mm) is on Thursday at 7pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Jeff Baena’s 2017 film THE LITTLE HOURS (90 min, DCP Digital) continues; Risako Yoshida’s 2017 Japanese animated film THE IRREGULAR AT MAGIC HIGH SCHOOL THE MOVIE: THE GIRL WHO CALLS THE STARS (90 min, Digital Projection) is on Saturday and Sunday at 11:30am; and Ryan Frost’s 2017 film SEPTEMBER MORNING (90 min) is on Thursday at 7pm, showing as part of the Blue Whiskey Film Festival.
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens Igor Buharov and Ivan Buharov’s 2016 Hungarian film MOST OF THE SOULS THAT LIVE HERE (93 min, Digital Projection) on Saturday at 8pm. Preceded by two short films by SAIC grad Zsuzsanna Szegedi: CRISIS OF THE FREE SPIRIT and CRISES OF THE VISIBLE
At Facets Cinémathèque this week: Jamie Kastner’s 2016 Italian film THE SKYJACKER'S TALE (100 min, Video Projection) and Jamie Kastner’s 2016 Canadian documentary GOOD FORTUNE (76 min, Video Projection), both have week-long runs.
At the Chicago Cultural Center this week: Cinema/Chicago presents a screening of Junichi Mori’s 2014 Japanese film LITTLE FOREST: SUMMER/AUTUMN (111 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
At the Art Institute of Chicago, British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen’s video installation work END CREDITS (2012-ongoing), which is currently comprised on nearly 13-hours of footage and 19-hours of soundtrack, is on view until October 1.
The Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing Galleries) has Dara Birnbaum’s 1979 two-channel video KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (6 min) currently on view.
CINE-LIST: July 28 - August 3, 2017
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kian Bergstrom, Kyle Cubr, Adam Hart, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky