NOTE: Due to the holidays, this edition of Cine-File covers the three-week period from December 15 to January 4. Crucial Viewing and Also Recommended listings will cover all three weeks, so pay attention to the screening dates. More Screenings will be in three parts, one for each week.
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective (Japanese Animation Revivals)
Music Box Theatre – Tuesday, December 26 – Thursday, January 4 [Check Venue website for showtimes]
PRINCESS MONONOKE [Japanese Language Version]
Tuesday-Monday, December 26–January 1 (no screening Dec. 31)
As morally complicated as it is visually complex, PRINCESS MONONOKE was Hayao Miyazaki’s darkest, most contemplative film prior to THE WIND RISES. Like WIND, MONONOKE advances a skeptical view of war and technological progress. It adopts a Medieval setting to portray, in the director’s words, “the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilization.” What makes the film intellectually challenging, however, is that Miyazaki refuses to demonize industrial civilization in delineating the story’s conflict. MONONOKE takes place in a mythological feudal Japan where humans interact freely with gods and demons. Much of the second half concerns the persecution of forest spirits by the denizens of Irontown, a refinery/village that’s producing the first iron Japan’s ever seen and which wants to destroy parts of the surrounding forest in order to expand. In a simpler film, Irontown would be a land of dumb brutes, yet Miyazaki presents the village as progressive, even enlightened. The town’s leader, Lady Eboshi, radically refuses to acknowledge the Emperor’s authority, putting her centuries ahead of her time; she also employs former prostitutes, lepers, and other social outcasts in the town’s operations. (Miyazaki claims to have taken inspiration from John Ford’s westerns in his depiction of a diverse small community.) One can’t help but admire the resolute spirit of Irontowners even as they aspire to commit genocide against the gods—Miyazaki’s humanism is so profound that he sees good even in characters that perform evil deeds. Similarly, the film’s hero, Ashitaka, often seems callow and insecure when doing good. Ashitaka is attacked by a demon at the start of the film and spends the rest of the picture slowly dying from a curse that’s placed on him. The young man’s fate parallels that of the forest spirits: he’s doomed to die, but he’s determined to use whatever strength he has left to fight for the protection of the natural world. And as depicted by Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli team, the natural world seems magisterial enough to die for. In Japanese with subtitles. (1997, 134 min, 35mm) BS
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO [English Dubbed Version]
Tuesday-Sunday, December 26–31 (no screening Dec. 30)
The seminal Studio Ghibli film MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is one of director Hayao Miyazaki's most beloved and celebrated. Thought-provoking and poignant, Miyazaki's fourth feature is an enchanting, hand-drawn masterpiece that demonstrates his creative passion. Mei and Satsuki, the two female protagonists, are perfect vehicles to allow the viewer to see the world through the eyes of children. The film does not rely on traditional narrative structure, where conflicts arise and obstacles must be overcome. Instead, Miyazaki appeals to the viewer to live in the now much like a child would. Both the pain and elation that Chika Sakamoto (Mei) and Noriko Hidaka (Satsuki) emote through their voice acting is palpable in every scene. From this vantage point, a feeling of wonderment occurs, and the dazzling animation invites a sense of nostalgia. This perspective makes it easy to believe that the strange magical spirit Totoro, his band, and the soot spirits are all very real. While these creatures may only be symbolic of nature (the wind, why plants grow, etc.), they serve as a source of comfort and hope for the two girls. Miyazaki's animation is bright and vivid--an homage to rural life--and the mystical quality of the film is bolstered by Joe Hisaishi's uplifting score. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is a beautiful tale about love, family, and hope that makes for joyous viewing for people of all ages. (1988, 86 min, 35mm) KC
CASTLE IN THE SKY [Japanese Language Version]
Tuesday-Sunday, December 26–31 (no screening Dec. 29)
The runaway success of NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND gave Hayao Miyazaki and longtime cohort Isao Takahata the momentum they needed to found their own animation factory, and in 1985 Studio Ghibli was formed. One year later and Ghibli was debuting its first feature, the heartfelt adventure CASTLE IN THE SKY, providing an exhilarating standard for things to come. Taking cues from a long tradition of adventure stories—Gulliver's Travels being the obvious one, but you can feel the influence of Hergé here as well—Miyzaki's third film is certainly his most action-packed, and if it lacks some of the quieter pleasures associated with his later films, it more than makes up for this in the bounty of thrilling set pieces that stretch from the rails of a rustic mining town to the pirate-infested skies far above. Beyond it all is the mythical floating castle of Laputa, sought after by various parties including power hungry Colonel Muska accompanied by a seemingly inexhaustible standing army, tough-as-nails ski-pirate Ma Dola and her rowdy boys, and the two intrepid kids caught up at the center of it all, restless Pazu and the enigmatic girl he rescues, Sheeta. Amidst breathtaking battles with airships and automatons, the film achieves something more than merely introducing Ghibli to the masses; it makes a case for what animation is truly capable of. Released from the live-action burden of special effects, CASTLE IN THE SKY slips more comfortably into the ranks of the timeless adventure stories than just about any film since, retaining today every ounce of wonder that it packed when it launched the celebrated studio more than a quarter century ago. In Japanese with subtitles. (1986, 126 min, 35mm) TJ
SPIRITED AWAY [Japanese Language Version]
Thursday-Monday, December 28–January 1
For evidence that Hayao Miyazaki works from a different playbook than his Disney counterparts, look no further than the dynamic, kaleidoscopic world of SPIRITED AWAY. In this coming of age story set in a modern day wonderland, the animation grandmaster creates a detail-rich realm of the spirits where the only rule seems to be that the rules can always change. Here, physiologically impossible characters shape shift through various forms, villains quite suddenly prove themselves to be friends, and the plot itself refuses to settle into a groove, redefining the boundaries the moment we become aware of them. What begins as a spectral plunge down the rabbit hole takes an abrupt shift the moment young Chihiro lands on her feet, and it's not long before she is neck-deep in the politics of the magical bathhouse at the center of this world. She is tugged at in all directions by the denizens therein, including the disproportioned governess, Yubaba, the dragon-boy, Haku, and the ghostly No-Face, whose part in the story temporarily takes us into horror movie territory, and lest we think the world of SPIRITED AWAY is confined to this singular, vibrant location, the final chapter opens the world even further, allowing neither Chihiro nor the viewer to grow too complacent. The film, like any great imagination, knows no bounds, and its scope and soaring ambition have rightly marked it as Miyazaki's masterpiece. In Japanese with subtitles. (2001, 125 min, 35mm) TJ
KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE [English Dubbed Version]
Saturday-Thursday, December 30–January 4
In movies about witchcraft, especially those centered on female teenage protagonists, magic is often a metaphor for the emotional vicissitude that is coming of age. The same is true of KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, except that its director, Hayao Miyazaki, extends it to also include the young witch’s pragmatic development. In this world, derived from Eiko Kadono’s eponymous novel, witchcraft is as much an amendable skill as it is an innate gift; Kiki has a knack for flying (using a broomstick, as a witch does), and her mother is shown using her own magic to brew medicine for the locals. Though their skills are otherworldly in nature, it’s required that witches leave home at 13 to find a town that doesn’t have any witch inhabitants and make a living using their powers. With her sassy black cat Jiji in tow, Kiki starts her own delivery service, transporting various items around town with minimal effort but maximum mishaps. As is the norm with Miyazaki, there is no easy fix for Kiki’s problems—magic, unfortunately, can’t replace tenacity or account for a lack of self-esteem. “Magic in the film is a limited power no different from the talents of any average kids,” he wrote in a director's statement for its DVD release. About Kiki’s gender, which is an identifying factor of the film, that it’s concerned so intently with a young girl’s maturation, Miyazaki also said that “[s]he represents every girl who is drawn to the glamour of the big city but finds themselves struggling with their newfound independence.” This reflects the conflict between tradition and modernity that’s common in much of Miyazaki’s work. Also present is a preoccupation with flight that started in his childhood—his father manufactured fighter plane rudders during World War II. Despite said fascination, he does not give Kiki her powers so easily. At one point, she loses them altogether; talented painter and new friend Ursula tells Kiki that the same happens to her, that sometimes she’s completely unable to create. The film’s profound display of maturity and all that precedes its acquirement is standard for Studio Ghibli fare but decidedly less so for childrens' films in general. Its happy ending is predicated on the understanding that to be happy, one must persevere through bad times, sad times, and any doldrums in between. As always, its animation style is wholly ataractic, much like the Romantic and Impressionist painters beyond whose captivating canvases lay a whole complex world, both halcyon and tremulous, as honest as they are illusory in their artistic dissimulation. (The novel on which it’s based is set in northern Europe, and Miyazaki cited a couple of cities in Sweden as influences on the design. Yet another hat tip to the idea that even the most tranquil seas swell from time to time.) It’s the first Ghibli film distributed by Disney, a partnership that’s only recently come to an end with Disney granting home media distribution rights of the studio’s films to GKIDS, who’ve held the theatrical distribution rights since 2011. Miyazaki originally intended to just produce the film but decided to direct after being reluctant to cede his vision for the project. One can only assume that Kiki, in all her dewy wisdom, would do the same as it pertains to her witchy industry. Final note—and a spoiler: Perhaps the most heartbreaking-to-me scene in cinema is when Kiki stops being able to speak with Jiji, who’d previously been able to talk to her as if he was another human. If there’s a more apt metaphor for the transition from adolescence to adulthood, I have yet to hear of it. Still, though the magic of childhood may cease, there’s still some to be found on the other side. (1989, 103 min, 35mm) KS
PONYO [English Dubbed Version]
Saturday-Thursday, December 30–January 4 (no screenings Dec. 31 or Jan 2)
I was surprised to learn that PONYO contains 170,000 separate animated images, the highest number of any feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film looks simpler than anything Miyazaki made since his early days in television, with a fuzzy, handmade design that evokes a young child’s view of the world. Fittingly the main character is a five-year-old boy (Miyazaki claims to have based the character on his own son when he was that age), and as in MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, the director delivers an emotionally precise image of early childhood that’s idealized without feeling sentimental. Sosuke is a wonderful boy, curious and energetic, and his behavior reflects an innate kindness that’s consistent with Miyazaki’s young heroes. The film centers on Sosuke’s friendship with the title character, a fish that transforms into a human girl; some of the best scenes depict the two children discovering the world together. PONYO is not without darker sentiments—Miyazaki devotes a surprising amount of screen time to the title character’s father, who pines for his daughter in the world underwater, and he also delivers a heartfelt message about the devastation of the earth’s oceans. This may be the most straightforward of the director’s ecological fables, but the straightforwardness fits with the gentle, childlike sensibility of the storytelling. (2008, 101 min, 35mm) BS
PORCO ROSSO [Japanese Language Version]
Tuesday-Thursday, January 2–4
It's the age of aviation in the Adriatic and even pigs are flying: or at least one pig, an ace pilot of the Great War cursed to live out his days as a swine protecting the skies. PORCO ROSSO is hardly the odd-man-out in Hayao Miyazaki's canon—in fact it's entrenched in his sense of moral ambiguity and vivid visions of flight—but the silly central conceit coupled with an unlikely adult protagonist have left this one easily dismissed. More's the pity, as the animation grandmaster has seldom painted a clearer picture than this anti-war parable set upon a magnificent Mediterranean canvas. Curiously, the film is not an origin story. The pilot known as Porco Rosso has long since been resigned to his condition, and the world itself has accepted him as just another unfortunate byproduct of World War I. He has an old love, the glamorous Madame Gina; a moustache twirling rival, the debonair American pilot Curtis; and eventually, a plucky young sidekick in the over-eager Fio. In the course of his high-flying adventures, he contends with a scrappy band of pirates, goes head-to-head with Curtis for Gina's affections, and witnesses the beginnings of Italian fascism, all while reluctantly keeping Fio in tow. It's all appropriately thrilling, and the seaside vistas are as breathtaking as the dogfights, but Miyazaki saves the best for last as an aerial duel devolves into the best fist fight since THE QUIET MAN, pounding home the futility of all this mechanized aggression. In Japanese with subtitles. (1992, 94 min, 35mm) TJ
Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Friday, December 29 and Saturday, December 30, Midnight
Utopias don’t age, but distopias don’t age well. The imagined ideal society is always abstract, always planned for perfection, always writ on a blank slate. But our nightmares are built out of the quotidian, made from fears magnified, dangers taken to extremes, the horrors of today turned into the horrors of every day. But if the curve of history teaches anything, it’s that we as a species have a special power to become accustomed to any degradation, and so today’s apocalypses have the unenviable fortune of either tomorrow’s farces, which we read and watch and laugh over at how much worse things actually are than we were warned, or today’s uncanny documentaries, weird reverse time-capsules that accidentally captured the zeitgeist of the future. STRANGE DAYS is both. It is a film that unflinchingly puts American racism and misogyny on display as driving forces of catastrophic exploitation, cruelty, violence, and barbarism, constructing a dense web of a narrative that melds VERTIGO, PEEPING TOM, THE PARALLAX VIEW into an elaborate repudiation of the Rodney King verdict in which two women, a white hooker and a black limousine driver, strike with brutal force at patriarchal bigotry and the police state. It is a dizzying murder mystery in which the killer is irrelevant and the detective is effectively already dead, a love story in which neither partner loves the other, a science-fiction allegory in which the futuristic technology is cinema itself. But in the America of Donald Trump and Richard Spencer, the America of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, the America of Sandra Bland and Homan Square, the America of hipster Nazis in the New York Times, the romantic idea that a video recording of police officers murdering a black man at a traffic stop could bring such an institution as the LAPD to its knees is either uncomfortably naive or ridiculously idealistic. Bigelow’s film knows all this, of course. It’s contradictions were clear in 1995 when it was first released, and Bigelow is a master at playing her films against themselves, at making political art that self-deconstructions in a thousand different ways. If anything, the dark malaise of STRANGE DAYS has only become more urgently needed as time has passed. This movie is the White Gaze stabbing its own eyes out. (35mm, 145 min, 1995) KB
Alain Gomis' FÉLICITÉ (New Senegalese/French)
Facets Cinémathèque – Friday-Thursday, December 15-21, Check Venue website for showtimes
Alain Gomis' FÉLICITÉ, an immersive, celebratory work of magical realism, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival; it's also the first ever submission by Senegal for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It can be a harrowing film, but it's also a joyous and vibrant one. With great dignity, Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu portrays Félicité, a magnetic singer in a juke joint in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She's a proud, independent woman, "too tough for her own good," some say. When her son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) suffers a motorcycle accident, the doctor implies he'll lose his leg if they don't operate immediately. He also tells her they won't operate until she first coughs up a hefty pre-payment. (As Stuart Klawans has pointed out, this is a version of the system Republicans would like to see obtain in the U.S.) The first hour sticks to the classical hero's-journey structure, with suspense generated by a time-sensitive goal, as she races about trying to scrape up the cash. The sensory whirlwind of Kinshasa is captured by the tremendous French cinematographer Céline Bozon. She shoots from the shoulder, getting right in the middle of the action reporter-style, all the while rendering available light into beautiful, expressive images (she has spoken movingly of what Raoul Coutard meant to her). The second hour grows surreal, a storehouse of mysterious, even mystic, imagery. She's lost in the forest, searching in the starry night, and she meets an okapi (a little forest giraffe). These images evoke many things, including Novalis' Hymns to the Night, some lines of which Félicité intones, and themes of falling and rebirth—motifs of myth, or even the blues—of being lost and having to one's own way. (Samo seems to be in a kind of limbo; in fact, he only utters one word in the entire film—but it's an important one, and he says it over and over.) FÉLICITÉ is the fourth feature by Gomis, a French-Senegalese writer/director. In interviews, he's spoken about the various hybrids, or dialectics, his movie explores: urban and traditional, fiction and reality (the bar is a real Kinshasa joint; the actors interact with actual regulars), and perhaps most importantly in terms of culture and identify, Africa and Europe. Consider the music (and FÉLICITÉ is a great, life-affirming music film). Her backup band is portrayed by the Kasai Allstars. Well-known on the Kinshasa scene and even internationally, they're rural musicians who moved to the city and plugged in, playing a raucous, electrified, modern/traditional music for dancing. (Sound familiar, students of the blues?) However, we also get gorgeous, non-narrative, blue-tinted interludes of orchestral and choral music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, performed by the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra, who may be of modest means but who play absolutely beautifully. Meanwhile, Félicité gets involved with Tabu (Papi Mpaka), a hapless, fundamentally decent would-be repairman who enjoys getting falling-down drunk at the club where she sings, during which episodes he becomes quite expansive, and usually ends up getting himself pummeled. He is a funny, lovable character, and his relationship with Félicité develops into something good in her life: he makes her laugh, and he loves her. All his chest-thumping has a self-satirical air: he doesn't take himself seriously enough to be patriarchal. (His efforts to fix her refrigerator become a running joke.) Yes, Gomis offers a withering social critique, and Félicité struggles mightily. Yet as the movie goes on, he sounds other notes as well, notes of acceptance and of finding joy in the actually-existing world. I will leave it to others to determine if this is a betrayal of political engagement (essentially, it's the serenity prayer), but to me it looks like wisdom. I won't soon forget the experience of empathizing with a person like Félicité, whose experiences could hardly be more different than my own, and of feeling our inner lives resonate. Gomis seems to be arguing that this is what movies are for, and I couldn't agree more. (2017, 124 min, Digital Projection) SP
Brian De Palma's CARRIE (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Thursday, January 4, 9pm
The strange CARRIE finds De Palma in a mode of perpetual discovery, movement, and defilement. In the film's now-legendary second scene, Carrie White, High School senior, cleans her thighs in the shower after P.E. class. She drops her bar of soap, and we, but not she, see it bounce off the tiles at her feet only to be replaced by a stream of blood filling her hand. After a moment, she gazes into her palm, and we see her fingers in close-up, cupped and dripping with menses. For Carrie, it is a moment of unspeakable horror—she wails like a beast for someone to help her—a horror of sudden knowledge: her body isn't what she thought it was, is in fact terrifyingly unruly where it ought most be domestic. Her blood has revealed her body to be a thing she cannot recognize, a thing we and Carrie are soon to see has a power that, like her first period, is uncontrollable, bloody in effect, and invisible in source. This moment becomes the structuring conceit for both the film's thematics and its style: nearly every shot finds space operating as on the principle of the jack-in-the-box, showing us what we expect to see but in a different place or way than it ought to be. While punishing her daughter for daring to enter sexual maturity, Carrie's religious fruitcake mother works with an antique sewing machine in a forced deep-focus composition made possible by the split-field diopter. It is a deeply uncomfortable shot, with the mother framed far to the right and a vast and preternaturally focused empty kitchen behind her. Suddenly, Carrie emerges through an unseen door into that kitchen. Two shots later, Carrie is weeping in a medium shot, but in a mirror: De Palma has faded from the woman, still at work making clothes, to her daughter's face in reflection such that Carrie's image has exactly replaced that of her mother's head. These slightly off revelations repeatedly reveal hidden filths, corruptions, or hatefulnesses we hadn't access to before: a hurtful graffito, a murderous parent, a bucket of blood. CARRIE begins and ends not in blood but in bleedings, horrifying transfers of what we keep desperately contained within our bodies at all cost, and as such it is a film that itself metaphorically bleeds, spreading though every crevice of its diegesis, mapping out the creepily familiar and labyrinthine space of monstrosity. (1976, 98 min, 35mm) KB
René Clément’s PURPLE NOON (French Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Wednesday, January 3, 7 and 9:30pm
NOTE: Spoilers! -- Loosely adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, René Clément’s PURPLE NOON circles around conman Tom Ripley’s (Alain Delon) exploits to persuade his wealthy friend Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return to the United States and take over his father’s business with Tom believing that he’ll share in the money. While on a yachting trip with Phillipe’s girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforêt), Tom is nearly left stranded by Phillipe when the dinghy he’s forced into that is being towed by the boat breaks free and goes unnoticed. After Tom is brought back aboard from his near exile, Marge gets into a fight with Phillipe (thanks to Tom’s meddling) and demands to be put ashore. Much of this sequence feels like a sort of precursor to Polanski’s KNIFE IN THE WATER. Now alone with each other and back at sea, Tom kills Phillipe when it’s revealed he had no intention of returning to the United States. Tom assumes Phillipe’s identity via his forgery skills and Phillipe’s typewriter so that he may finally live the lavish life he has just caught a taste for. Clément’s film has a bright color palette that juxtaposes the nefarious actions occurring on screen. The idyllic Italian settings of coastal towns and Rome make for picturesque hiding places as Tom tries to stay one step ahead of Phillipe’s family, friends and Marge, whom all believe Phillipe to still be alive, as well as the police, when a friend of Phillipe’s is murdered after nearly discovering Tom’s ruse. Delon’s debonair charm suits his character fantastically and would go on to be similarly utilized a few years’ time with Melville’s LE SAMOURAÏ. What’s most interesting about PURPLE NOON is Tom’s motivations for his actions. Is it just something he did for fun that went too far? Is it because he’s envious of his friend’s life and girlfriend? Or maybe is it because he’s inclined to be anyone and everyone but himself? Like an animal trapped in a corner, Tom will do anything to survive. His perseverance makes PURPLE NOON an enrapturing and satisfying viewing. (1960, 118 min, 35mm) KC
John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (American Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook), Wednesday, December 27, 1 and 7:30pm (Free Admission)
One of the most prominent themes in John Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how that event is perceived after the fact. This theme is implicit in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), explicit in FORT APACHE (1948), and perfectly encapsulated in a famous line of dialogue from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE in 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Ford’s ultimate past-tense movie, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, as he reminisces from the vantage point of 50 about his family life in turn-of-the-century Wales (with Huw's adult voice-over narration being supplied by the director Irving Pichel). This means that Ford’s images are not mean to represent “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the visual storytelling also explains why this child protagonist, portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of cinema’s finest ever child performances, doesn’t seem to age even though the narrative spans many years. (Huw appears to be “too young” at the end of the movie in the same poignant way that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” in the flashback sequences of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.) Perhaps most impressive is how, in spite of the fact that he was an 11th-hour replacement for original director William Wyler, Ford somehow managed to turn HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY into one of his most personal and beautifully realized films: it boasts amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of Arthur Miller, a stirring Alfred Newman score, and a star-making performance by Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). The project’s personal nature shines through in Ford’s melancholy depiction of the disintegration of one family in a mining town beset by union struggles and generational conflict. In so doing, Ford presents an ephemeral vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp's patriarch can preside with tough-but-loving authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a transcendental illustration of his Catholic belief that “death is not the end” besides. Yet his obsessive focus on the inevitability of change also marks this as one of the director’s most pessimistic works: Huw may be leaving his hometown for good at the age of 50 when the film begins but it’s clear by the end that he hasn’t known this now-black valley to be “home” in the decades following childhood’s end. (1941, 118 min, DCP Digital) MGS
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's WORLD ON A WIRE (German Revival)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St.) — Sunday, December 17, 7pm (Free Admission)
Perhaps the key stylistic flourish in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is an exquisite, Old Hollywood-style tracking shot around actors who are in stasis or else performing simple actions with mechanical precision. This strategy, which became central to Fassbinder's cinematic language early in his career and would persist until the end, conveys one of the director's most enduring themes: that modern life suppresses individual emotion through a punishing, economic-based concept of social utility. Yet these moments also reveal Fassbinder's underlying romanticism, his belief in the freedom that could exist in art where it could not in real life. These are among the cinema's most crystallized expressions of cinephilia, as well as the most impassioned: Only someone who loved movies as much as Fassbinder would feel so brutally betrayed by the systems that made their beauty impossible in life. WORLD ON A WIRE, the two-part film Fassbinder made for German television in 1973 and which is now circulating in a new restored print, is rife with shots like these; the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, was surely the most ingenious of Fassbinder's cameramen when it came to realizing grandiose ideas on very small budgets. (He would go on to shoot several of Martin Scorsese's most visually impressive features, including AFTER HOURS and GOODFELLAS.) It's one of Fassbinder's most allusive works, incorporating science fiction, a detective story, melodramatic romance, and even a few musical numbers. The story, appropriately, concerns fantasies within fantasies, as a government employee working on a secret virtual reality project discovers that his world is itself a projection. Once aware of his life's artificiality, he attempts a doomed mission to disseminate this knowledge, only to become a pariah hounded by the authorities. Broadly speaking, the film follows a narrative arc identical to that of the more realistic ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, which Fassbinder would make later that year. WORLD ON A WIRE can be read as epic allegory, though much of it plays as straight-ahead genre storytelling. (As Christian Braad Thomsen notes in his critical biography Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius, Fassbinder approached TV as a means of connecting with a larger audience than he did through his plays and theatrical films.) The final hour consists largely of chase scenes and conspiratorial revelations that wouldn't be out of place in, say, an Alan J. Pakula movie. But even here, Fassbinder makes the material entirely his own, developing an odd, languid pace that emphasizes the film's eerie unreality. Some have criticized the film's conclusion—incidentally, one of the few happy endings in Fassbinder's oeuvre—as failing to resolve the numerous themes introduced in the densely packed first half. That's a fair criticism to level at a work by a 28-year-old filmmaker directing at least half-a-dozen scripts a year, as Fassbinder, extraordinarily, was doing at this time. Still, there's no denying this remarkable work ethic also produced a feeling of urgency (as well as a tense paranoia) that's still palpable four decades after WORLD ON A WIRE was made. No less than any other film of his career, it illustrates the radical will behind Fassbinder's art. As he would describe it, "[My films] developed out of the position that the revolution should take place not on the screen, but in life itself, and when I show things going wrong, I do it to make people aware that this is what happens unless they change their lives... I never try to reproduce reality, my aim is to make mechanisms transparent, to make it obvious to people that they must change reality." (1973, 205 min, Video Projection) BS
WHITE/WONDERFUL Double Feature
Michael Curtiz's WHITE CHRISTMAS (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Friday-Sunday, December 15-17 and Wednesday-Sunday, December 20-24, Check Venue website for showtimes
Critics agree that Mark Sandrich's HOLIDAY INN (1942), the first musical comedy to feature Bing Crosby, an inn, and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," is a better film than this partial remake. Yet it turns out that it's revivals of this Technicolor, VistaVision version that people look forward to this time of year. WHITE CHRISTMAS incorporates the history of its own title song, which, while it would go on to become perhaps history's largest-seller, actually seemed a flop at first. Music historians Dave Marsh and Steve Propes note, "What saved 'White Christmas' were requests made by GIs to Armed Forces Radio around the world. Soldiers away from home, many of them in the South Pacific or North Africa, uncertain of whether they'd ever again see family and friends, let alone a snowfall, responded passionately to Berlin's understated evocation of the mythic romance of Christmas Past." This history is folded into the opening scene: it's Christmas Eve, 1944, somewhere on a World War II battlefield, and Crosby sings the song to fellow troops amidst some very fake rubble, as bombs explode in the background. The movie's got Crosby and Danny Kaye as music-and-lyrics team Wallace and Davis, and Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney as sister act the Haynes. They're a treat to watch even just sitting around a railroad passenger car singing "Snow," bound for Pine Tree, Vermont, where the inn turns out to be run by ex-General Waverly (Dean Jagger). When people gather for a screening of this movie, I doubt they worry that it may not rank with Michael Curtiz's best work (CASABLANCA, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE). They come to mark the change of years together. If there's a season for nestling in the warmth of nostalgia, it's this one. Plus, there's the camp appeal of Crosby and Kaye doing "Sisters." (1954, 120 min, DCP Digital) SP
Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Friday-Sunday, December 15-17 and Wednesday-Sunday, December 20-24, Check Venue website for showtimes
Like Steven Spielberg today, Frank Capra was associated more with reassuring, patriotic sentiment than with actually making movies; but just beneath the Americana, his films contain a near-schizophrenic mix of idealism and resentment. In this quality, as well as his tendency to drag charismatic heroes through grueling tests of faith, it wouldn't be a stretch to compare Capra with Lars von Trier. There's plenty to merit the comparison in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE alone: The film is a two-hour tour of an honest man's failure and bottled-up resentment, softened only intermittently by scenes of domestic contentment. Even before the nightmarish Pottersville episode (shot in foreboding shadows more reminiscent of film noir than Americana), Bedford Falls is shown as vulnerable to the plagues of recession, family dysfunction, and alcoholism. All of these weigh heavy on the soul of George Bailey, a small-town Everyman given tragic complexity by James Stewart, who considered the performance his best. Drawing on the unacknowledged rage within ordinary people he would later exploit for Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart renders Bailey as complicated as Capra himself--a child and ultimate victim of the American Dream. Ironically, it's because the film's despair feels so authentic that its iconic ending feels as cathartic as it does: After being saved from his suicide attempt (which frames the entire film, it should be noted), Stewart is returned to the simple pleasures of family and friends, made to seem a warm oasis in a great metaphysical void. (1946, 130 min, DCP Digital) BS
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS: 12/15-12/21
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: James Franco’s 2017 film THE DISASTER ARTIST (98 min, DCP Digital) continues; Tim Burton’s 1992 film BATMAN RETURNS (126 min, 35mm) is on Monday at 5 and 9:30pm and Tuesday at 7pm, showing as a double feature with Henry Selick’s 1993 animated film THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (76 min, 35mm) which is on Monday at 7:30pm and Tuesday at 5 and 9:30pm; and Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film THE ROOM (99 min, 35mm) is on Friday at 3pm.
Also at Facets Cinémathèque this week: Theodore Collatos’ 2017 film TORMENTING THE HEN (77 min, Video Projection) has a week-long run.
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: J.J. Abrams’ 2015 film STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (136 min, Digital Projection) is on Saturday at 2pm; and George Seaton’s 1947 film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (96 min, DCP Digital) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7:30pm. Free admission. www.northbrook.info/events/film
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) presents Gather: Studio Magick on Friday at 7pm. The evening includes live music, and open mic, and artist/filmmaker A.J. McClenon’s multi-media performance and experimental film series SHARKS, ADOLESCENCE AND BEING THE DARKEST GIRL IN THE POOL (at 8pm). Free admission.
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) presents Black Cinema House Mixtape Vol. 2: Cinematic Futures on Friday at 7pm, featuring work by students at South Shore International College Prep. Free admission.
Sinema Obscura presents TV Party 12 (Unconfirmed Running Time, Video Projection), a program of shorts and trailers, on Wednesday at 7pm at Logan Bar (2230 N. California Ave.).
The Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens Pilar Pérez Solano’s 2013 Spanish documentary LAS MAESTRAS DE LA REPÚBLICA (63 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 6pm. Free admission.
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS: 12/21-12/28
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Norman Jewison’s 1971 musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (181 min, DCP Digital) is on Monday at 7pm. Plus, check the Music Box website for any held-over or added screenings.
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) screens Dee Rees’ 2011 film PARIAH (86 min, Video Projection) on Friday at 7pm. Free admission.
The Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest (400 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest, IL) screens Victor Fleming’s 1939 film THE WIZARD OF OZ (102 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 7pm.
NOTE: Facets Cinémathèque is closed December 22-28.
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS: 12/29-1/4
Cinema 53 presents Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Kahlil Joseph’s 2016 “visual album” LEMONADE (46 min, Digital Projection) on Thursday at 7pm at the Harper Theater (5238 S. Harper Ave.). Followed by a discussion between filmmaker Julie Dash (whose 1991 film DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was a significant inspiration for LEMONADE) and U of C professor/Cinema 53 curator Jacqueline Stewart. Free admission.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 Japanese film LADY SNOWBLOOD (97 min, DCP Digital) is on Thursday at 7pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Alon Schwarz and Shaul Schwarz’s 2016 German/Israeli/Canadian documentary AIDA’S SECRETS (95 min, DCP Digital) opens; Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film STRANGE DAYS (145 min, 35mm) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight; and Santino Panico’s 2017 documentary FROM THE GROUND UP (97 min, Video Projection) is on Tuesday at 7pm. Plus, check the Music Box website for any held-over or added screenings.
Facets Cinémathèque – Unavailable at our press time. Check the Facets’ website closer to December 29 for updated information.
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Allan Dwan’s 1957 film THE RIVER’S EDGE (87 min, Digital Projection) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission. www.northbrook.info/events/film
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Elizabeth Price’s 2015 video installation K (7 min loop) in Gallery 186; Frances Stark’s 2010 video installation NOTHING IS ENOUGH (14 min loop) in Gallery 295C; and Nam June Paik’s 1986 video sculpture FAMILY OF ROBOT: BABY in Gallery 288.
The Graham Foundation presents David Hartt’s installation in the forest through January 6 at the Madlener House (4 W. Burton Place). The show features photography, sculpture, and a newly commissioned film.
CINE-LIST: December 15, 2017 - January 4, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kian Bergstrom, Rob Christopher, Kyle Cubr, Scott Pfeiffer