Tsai Ming-liang’s THE RIVER (Taiwanese Revival)
Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) – Tuesday, 7:30pm
Splitting the difference between Buster Keaton and Michelangelo Antonioni, Tsai Ming-liang developed a new—and profoundly affecting—approach to both cinematic minimalism and urban alienation with his masterful third feature. The influence of Keaton can be felt in the film’s understated humor and in Lee Kang-sheng’s deadpan lead performance. His character expresses little outward emotion as the world caves in around him; his recalcitrance can be funny, poignant, or downright sad depending on the context of the scene. The influence of Antonioni can be felt in Tsai’s brilliant compositions (which render the landscapes of Taipei commanding and mysterious—the film, like all of Tsai’s work, looks awesome on a big screen) and in the purposeful ellipses of his screenplay. It isn’t clear for almost an hour of THE RIVER that the primary characters are husband, wife, and son, but it becomes clear as soon as all three appear together why the writer-director withheld their relationship for so long: these characters are thoroughly disconnected from each other and barely in touch with themselves. As is often the case in Tsai’s work, the protagonists long for love but find only empty sex. The father (played by Tien Miao, a wuxia film veteran whom Tsai cast against type) is a closeted homosexual who goes cruising in malls, while the mother is carrying on an affair with a man who sells bootleg porno videos. Lee’s character, Xiao-Kang, has a fling with an old friend near the start of the film, yet she mysteriously disappears soon after the two have sex. Before she vanishes, though, she lands Xiao-Kang a role in a movie she’s working on; he plays a corpse, and he’s required to float in a dirty river for an extended period of time. Somehow his neck becomes paralyzed as a result of doing this, and much of the rest of the film concerns his parents’ failed attempts to find a cure for his condition, which represents a manifestation of all three protagonists’ psychic discomfort. These failures are by turns funny and tragic, though you never know which direction the tone will take. Consistent, however, are Tsai’s awesome mise-en-scene and his deep understanding of what it’s like to be lonely in a modern city. Preceded by Tomonari Nishikawa’s 2014 experimental short SOUND OF A MILLION INSECTS, LIGHT OF A THOUSAND STARS (2 min, 35mm). (1997, 115 min, 35mm) BS
Jim Henson's THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (British/American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Saturday and Sunday, 11:30am
Exploring the Mississippi Delta recently, my wife and I found ourselves in the village of Leland, which bills itself as "the birthplace of Kermit the Frog." Jim Henson grew up there, coming out of the shining swamps of the Delta to create characters cherished by kids like me the world over. When the Muppets made the move from television to the big screen with THE MUPPET MOVIE in 1979, I was eight. I recall how impressed my dad was with the ingenious shot where Henson's alter ego, Kermit, rides a bicycle. No strings, no hands, no CGI: how did they do it? THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, a delightful musical comedy, raises the bar: here, the whole gang goes bicycling in the park. The plot: crack investigative reporters Kermit and Fozzie, and photographer Gonzo, head to London to catch a jewel thief (Charles Grodin) scheming to heist the fabulous "Baseball diamond" from his fashion queen sister (Diana Rigg), in whose orbit Miss Piggy also moves. The Muppet movies that appeared before Henson's untimely death were children's films as smart and funny as they were charming; this is the only one he directed. His slapstick mise-en-scène and mass choreography are inventive, kinetic, and colorful. (Details like Grodin's flowered socks should show up well on the big screen.) He's as meta as the most brazen postmodernist, and he mixes genres just as freely. As one of Joe Raposo's fine songs promises, you can expect spectacle and derring-do, mystery, romance, and fantasy. Yet it's the characters I'll always love, and the vision whereby every oddball social type is included in the gang. They come to life largely through the expressive vocal performances of Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and others, yet it's a mysterious alchemy that bestows a soul to a green sock with ping-pong ball eyes. Watching this film today, your adult self can relish the verbal wit, the movie references, and the technical achievement of mixing hand puppets with human cameos (I was particularly tickled by John Cleese and Joan Sanderson as an upper-class twit couple). The oddball kid sitting cross-legged on the living-room floor in front of the TV will be there too, inside. (1981, 97 min, 35mm) SP
Andrzej Wajda’s AFTERIMAGE (New Polish)
Lina Wertmüller’s LOVE AND ANARCHY and FERDINANDO AND CAROLINA (Italian Revivals)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Thursday, 6pm (ANARCHY); Saturday, 5:15pm and Tuesday, 6pm (FERDINANDO)
“And this is the realism of Van Gogh,” asserts Bogusław Linda as Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński in Andrzej Wajda’s AFTERIMAGE (2016, 98 min, DCP Digital), observing a slide featuring one of the Post-Impressionist painter’s distinctive landscapes. “The realism of a living material man, a man who sees not in the abstract, but through the living material organism of his physiological body. Not a spiritual reception of experiences, but a physiological one.” In his book A Theory of Vision, Strzemiński posited—perhaps unquestionably, though every such idea must start somewhere—that our perception, our reality, is largely shaped by external factors, “[a]nd precisely for that reason each age develops its specific perception of reality and artistic practice different from the previous ages,” to quote the book’s latest publisher, Muzeum Sztuki, from their website; the text originated as a series of lectures from his time at the Łódź State Art School during Poland’s Stalinist era, the compilation of which is depicted in AFTERIMAGE, Wajda’s final film before his death last October. This theory, rooted in an objective understanding of the nature of subjectivity, can be applied to all art, though it’s appropriate as both a subject for Wajda and an approach with which to more fully appreciate the final two screenings in the Siskel Film Center’s Lina Wertmüller series: her 1973 masterpiece LOVE AND ANARCHY (120 min, DCP Digital) and the more recent FERDINANDO AND CAROLINA (102 min, DCP Digital), from 1999. Strzemiński rejected Socialist Realism in favor of formalism, then equated by the government with Western debasement, eventually losing everything over his unwillingness to foreground contemporary ideology; Wajda experienced similar rebuke during the height of his artistic output, moreso for his political viewpoints than his creative devoir, though he did subvert communist censorship through method rather than content, once saying about his incomparable ASHES AND DIAMONDS that “it is possible to cut out some words...but it is impossible to censor the acting of Zbigniew Cybulski. It was his behavior, his way of dealing with people which contained ‘something,’ which was politically unacceptable. The freedom of the boy in the dark glasses in the context of the superimposed reality.” (Janina Falkowska’s book containing this quote also refers to Cybulski’s Maciek as a “rebellious hero entangled in twin dilemmas of war and love,” the same dichotomy at the center of Wertmüller’s LOVE AND ANARCHY. More on it later.) Despite the film’s flaws, which include it bordering on meretriciousness—ironic considering its vanguardist subject matter, as well as being a far cry, both aesthetically and contextually, from Wajda’s earlier films—it’s important as both the final entry in a venerated career and a reminder to continue resisting authoritarian regimes. “The film presents a reality in which a distinctive artist takes on the system in a heroic, uncompromising way,” Wajda told critic Ela Bittencourt in an interview for Film Comment. “This harsh reality has been unfamiliar to us for quite some time. But perhaps now is precisely the moment to remind ourselves what those times were like.” In the same interview, he says that his “realism [in the 1950s] was inspired by Italian Neorealism,” the very style that Wertmüller strayed from, preferring instead Commedia all’italiana for its broader appeal. That being said, of her four most popular films (the other three being THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI, SWEPT AWAY and SEVEN BEAUTIES, all of which, in the grand tradition of an auteur ensemble, star the Chaplinesque Giancarlo Giannini, three also starring the sublimely intense Mariangela Melato and two with Elena Fiore), LOVE AND ANARCHY is the most serious, sacrificing more obvious comedic opportunities for a penetrative irony. Giannini stars as Tunin, a young man from the countryside who decides to assassinate Benito Mussolini after the original assassin, his friend, is murdered by police. He goes to Rome to meet Melato’s Salomè, a prostitute with strong political views who uses her sexuality to gain insider information into Mussolini’s movements. While staying at her brothel, Tunin falls in love with another prostitute, Tripolina, and must decide between his infatuation and his ideals—not love and anarchy, but love or anarchy. Unlike SWEPT AWAY, which consociates politics with sexuality in a complicated and arguably problematic way, LOVE AND ANARCHY presents a clear picture of how the two intertwine—and interfere. Wertmüller, refusing the feminist label, is often criticized for her depiction of women, and a film in which all its female characters are prostitutes would be no less disconcerting if it weren’t for how Wertmüller positions them; Salomè is pure anarchy, evading romantic entanglements to focus on the cause, while Tripolina is pure love, embodying a romantic ideal whose consequences are similarly affecting. Giannini’s characters in Wertmüller’s films often toe the line between love, be it for women or a metaphorical equivalent, and some form of anarchy, from lawlessness on a deserted island to the possibility of insurrection within a concentration camp. Wertmüller’s female characters, however, consistently maintain the courage of their convictions, depraved though they may be. The scenes that take place in the brothel are rapturous, a microcosm of a perverse social order; the setting, costumes and makeup evoke influences ranging from silent cinema to Caravaggio paintings, transcending these scenes from mere set pieces to creative visions. KS
Juho Kuosmanen's THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MÄKI (New Finnish)
Facets Cinémathèque – Check Venue website for showtimes
Juho Kuosmanen's first feature, touching and true, is a naturalistic black-and-white boxing film/love story. It is formally audacious, with a glorified verité style and no score, but it also shows a wise, warm understanding of people. It's the story of the lead-up to Olli Mäki's (Jarkko Lahti) fight against Davey Moore in Helsinki in 1962 for the world featherweight championship. The American was defending his title; the modest, scrappy Olli was Finland's rather reluctant contender. Eero Milonoff is charismatic as his desperate, fantasizing manager, who hypes the match as historic, and Olli as a national hero. The heart of the film, though, is the radiant Oona Airola as the good-humored, playful woman with whom he falls in love in the middle of training. A documentary crew trails Olli, staging scenes, and the movie sounds themes of image construction and the true meaning of happiness. (2016, 92 min, Unconfirmed Format) SP
THE CHICAGO UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL
The Chicago Underground Film Festival opens on Wednesday, May 31 and continues till Sunday, June 4, with all screenings taking place at the Logan Theatre (2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.). In addition to the Opening Night film on Wednesday (see below), the Thursday offerings include Adam Luxton and Summer Agnew’s 2015 New Zealand documentary ON AN UNKNOWN BEACH (7pm), Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s 2017 German/UK/Japanese film KURO (9pm), and two shorts programs: Shorts 1: The One With The Tongue (6pm) and Shorts 2: The One With the Flicker (8pm).
Laura Stewart's DRIFTING TOWARDS THE CRESCENT (New Documentary)
The 24th edition of the Chicago Underground Film Festival opens with the premiere of Laura Stewart's second feature film, DRIFTING TOWARDS THE CRESCENT, a smartly crafted window into an economically depressed Midwestern small town experience. Set on the western banks of the Mississippi, the film travels back and forth across the Iowa-Missouri border between the towns of Keokuk, Iowa, and Hannibal, Missouri. Here, where the north and the south seem to blur, Stewart introduces us to a handful of characters who call these self-declared "river rat" towns home. Equal parts character study and landscape portrait, DRIFTING TOWARDS THE CRESCENT is more directly experimental than any of Stewart's previous works. However, it still shares wild and rough American characters like those in Stewart's previous feature, SHOOTER AND WHITLEY. The idea of "wildness" is brought up several times throughout the film by different characters: the wildness of the river, the wildness of the towns along it, and the inherent wildness of the people who live there. The locals divulge that this is tied to their history, to the river town bootlegging and prostitution of the late 1800s, the days of steamboats and Mark Twain, who's birthplace (and the town described in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is in fact Hannibal, MO. The locals describe their wildness to us in detail, but we are shown only glimpses of it juxtaposed with serene shots of the river landscape. We are shown guns, men brandishing confederate flags, hunters, and strip clubs, but while listening to the lapping river, none of this feels very dangerous. Instead, it is a portrayal of a town lost in time, and a way of life that is potentially no longer sustainable. The locals continue to have pride in their history, pride in their wildness, and pride in their "river rat" status, regardless of the changing world around them. In this way, the townspeople are non-transient drifters, aligning themselves with Mark Twain-era stories of river travelers, floating in a time standstill. Stewart asks us to float with them throughout the film, merely observing without any prior judgment. (2017, 83 min, Digital Projection) EE
Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT (French Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Wednesday, 7 and 9pm
At once a thoroughly depressing and exhilarating affair, Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT tracks a counterfeit bill through wretched hands. The film begins in medias res--a timeless moment in a society characterized by greed and pettiness, loosely stitched together by deceit. Much of the film's narrative follows Yvon, a truck driver who happens to be caught unwittingly passing the phony bill. A victim of circumstance, Yvon's day in court turns in favor of the shopkeepers who lied to shirk responsibility. From there, corruption is further rewarded and a struggling Yvon becomes irredeemable. The deadpan delivery of Bresson's non-actors betrays no sentimentality, giving L'ARGENT's forthrightness hints of a moral tale, but none really exists. Yvon pairs with the shopkeeper's clerk: both are relatively untouched by the system at the outset, but by chance and their human nature, one advances with corruption and the other spirals downward through it. If they are two sides of the same coin, it's less good-and-evil and more like tainted and less-tainted. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that L'ARGENT struck him as an "atheist film." And as Bresson's last film in a march away from what Rosenbaum called "grace" in his characters, it may be true. Consider Bresson's precise framing--faces are often omitted and hands become the object of focus--the odds on each random human exchange is a coin-flip. (1983, 85 min, 35mm) BW
Alfred Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER (American Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) – Wednesday, 1 and 7:30pm (Free Admission)
Adapted by Frederick Knott from his play of the same name, DIAL M FOR MURDER stars an exceptional Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, a retired tennis pro who decides to murder his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), after he finds out she is cheating on him. Similar to LIFEBOAT (1944), ROPE (1948), and REAR WINDOW (1954), Hitchcock contains the drama of the film in a single set--the cramped living room of Tony and Margot's London apartment. Enclosing the few characters and their audience in this unhappy couple's living room, Hitchcock creates the film's suspense through our inherent claustrophobia. The small room often forces the characters close together; Hitchcock captures their faces in close-ups, revealing how they look at each other and how much those looks betray. Sometimes they purposely turn their backs to others and/or to the camera in fear of being caught. No one can escape from this room and the interrogation of gazes inside it. While Hitchcock's camera focuses on Tony, Margot, and the supporting characters, it gives equal attention to the couple's things, particularly a key, letter, and telephone. The film and its murder plot hinge on these objects, and Hitchcock fills them with dread; he shoots them in close-ups similar to those that frame his actors' faces. Sometimes the characters see the objects, but often they are not so lucky; Tony and Margot's knowledge of the very small, but complex world in which they live rests in their very things. In his wondrous HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA (1988-1998), Godard described Hitchcock as a poete maudit whose life's work pivoted on the role of the object. Through objects, which override the conventions of narrative and logic, Hitchcock became "the greatest creator of forms of the twentieth century...it is forms which tell us, finally, what there is at the bottom of things." DIAL M FOR MURDER is a great investigation into the prison of claustrophobia and the objects such fear leaves in its wake. (1954, 105 min, 35mm) CW
Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (Soviet Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Wednesday, 6pm (MIMI); Saturday, 5:15pm and Monday, 6pm (SUMMER)
In Tarkovsky’s luminescent and beautiful adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, has been sent to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, which is covered entirely by a potentially sentient ocean. Kelvin is to take charge of the station and either close it down or take drastic, violent measures against the ocean in order to generate scientific data. When he arrives, though, he discovers that the station is regularly populated with ‘visitors,’ people seemingly generated out of thin air while one sleeps, who are manifestations of one’s own memories and dreams. In adapting Lem’s book, Tarkvosky develops a complex structure of flashbacks, dream sequences, and fantasies that are at times indistinguishable from the ‘actual’ events of the plot, and alternates between color and black-and-white cinematography to further alienate us from the narrative flow. The way he shoots Natalya Bondarchuk, uncannily incandescent in nearly every shot as she ethereally wafts through the sets, is in direct conflict with the staid, weathered and deeply conflicted Donatas Banionis, questioning her very existence. While the novel is set solely on the space station, Tarkovsky developed a crucial prologue set on Earth, in which the philosophical and aesthetic issues are introduced that will later play out in dramatic form. It is there that Burton appears, a retired scientist who is the only one we meet to have actually returned from the mysterious planet. It is Burton who gives voice to a potential thesis of the film, that “knowledge is only valid when it is based on morality,” when he learns of the potentially destructive nature of Kris’ mission. Burton’s shadow hangs low over the film, over the violence that the story heaps on the body of Hari, Kelvin’s lost love reborn. If Burton is right, what are we to make of Kelvin’s own understanding of his relationship with her, which is based on betrayal and pain? What conclusions are we to draw on the apparent attempts by Solaris itself to study the scientists by means of the ‘visitors,’ when their inevitable result is heartbreak? Late in the film, the camera lingers on a print of Breughel’s “Hunters in the Snow,” a painting that seems to imply that the titular hunters, instead of returning home empty-handed, are instead on the trail of the ice-skating children in the distance. It is an invocation of the untamable nature of violence, which once released can never be controlled. Kelvin’s reaction to his first ‘visitor,’ the first appearance of Hari, is to attempt to destroy her. Breughel’s hunters with their ambiguous target are mocking commentaries on Kelvin’s own predetermined failure as a scientist and as a human being. Like them, his inability to come to terms with his own nature leads him to lash out against those closest to him, and in so doing to destroy himself. When, in the end, he returns to a heavily ironic homecoming with his surely deceased father, it is with a sense not of a journey completed, but of a cycle repeated, with inevitable tragedy and with inescapable loss that he can never come to terms with. (1972, 166 min, DCP Digital) KB
Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER (Soviet Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Friday, 8pm, Saturday 1:30 and 8pm, and Monday, 4:45pm
Loosely based on the Soviet novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Tarkovsky's STALKER creates a decrepit industrial world where a mysterious Zone is sealed off by the government. The Zone, rumored to be of alien origin, is navigable by guides known as Stalkers. The Stalker of the title leads a writer and a scientist through the surrounding detritus into the oneiric Zone—an allegorical stand-in for nothing less than life itself—on a spiritual quest for a room that grants one's deepest subconscious wish. Tarkovsky composes his scenes to obscure the surroundings and tightly controls the audience's view through long, choreographed takes. Shots run long and are cut seamlessly. Coupled with non-localized sounds and a methodical synth score, sequences in the film beckon the audience into its illusion of continuous action while heightening the sense of time passing. The use of nondiegetic sounds subtly reminds us that this may be a subjective world established for the Stalker's mystical purpose. Where sci-fi films tend to overstate humanity's limitless imagination of the universe, Tarkovsky reappropriates the genre's trappings to suggest the cosmos' deepest truths are in one's own mind. STALKER posits—perhaps frighteningly—that, in this exploration of the self, there is something that knows more about us than we know ourselves. The writer and scientist, both at their spiritual and intellectual nadir, hope the room will renew their métier; the Stalker's purpose, as stated by Tarkovsky, is to "impose on them the idea of hope." But STALKER is a rich and continually inspiring work not for this (or any other) fixed meaning but rather for its resistance to any one single interpretation. (1979, 163 min, DCP Digital; New Restoration) BW
Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Thursday, 9:30pm
The tides of auteurist reputation seem to be turning away from BLOW OUT and toward CARLITO’S WAY as De Palma’s finest achievement. Not, as they say, that there’s anything wrong with that; CARLITO is an undersung triumph and is held in special esteem by the director himself. But BLOW OUT remains De Palma’s signature moment, the nexus of so many strains of his directorial temperament: the longstanding fascination with technology blooming into fullest mastery of the filmmaker’s toolkit, the use of lens and angle to force the viewer into a way of seeing; the political bent of his young career metastasizing into a vision of macro- versus micropolitics no less despairing for their couching in pop thriller verities. John Travolta’s Jack Terri, a sound man reduced to working on T&A bloodbath B’s who finds himself front and center in an assassination conspiracy, seems like Keith Gordon’s whiz kid from DRESSED TO KILL now grown up, ostensibly wised up, but marinating in cynicism. He’s too young to be this beaten up, but beaten he is, phoning it in at the job, taking weakish jabs at the political operative who wants him to disappear after fishing escort Nancy Allen out of a river-sunk Presidential candidate’s car. Travolta is marvelous, by turns giving and withdrawn, petty and playful—a wounded romantic if ever there was one. (Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is rightly renowned for it’s inky blacks, split diopters, and bravura 360-degree moves, but the cherry on the sundae is his lighting of his star’s eyes, which reaches Golden Age heights of expressiveness.) Travolta here embodies an underreported trait of De Palma’s—his deeply felt political sense, a foursquare sense of right and wrong that runs through his career from HI, MOM! to BLOW OUT, the furious CASUALTIES OF WAR, and REDACTED. Travolta processes every deception as a personal affront, and proceeds as such, bringing his technical prowess and sheer cussedness to bear, to the point of finally using Allen as bait to expose the conspiracy. The movie was originally to be called PERSONAL EFFECTS, and it never strays far from that title’s resonance. Travolta and Allen’s give and take, their flirts and terrors, their romance that dies aborning, is among the sweetest and saddest things you’ll ever see. (Allen is every bit the screen presence as Travolta, or at least as nearly beloved of the camera. Her comic timing is impeccable, and her character’s upshot heartbreaking.) BLOW OUT is, along with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, the finest of modern American romantic tragedies, released at point in time when the moviegoing public had no inclination to buy tickets for such bitter pills, no matter how expert and tantalizing their coating. But what remains is that De Palma-ness: the whiz-bang and the mourning, the fetish and the hard truth, the sex and the lie. With Dennis Franz, John McMartin, and a scarifying John Lithgow. (1981, 108 min, DCP Digital) JG
Terence Davies’ A QUIET PASSION (New British)
Music Box Theatre – Check Venue website for showtimes
Substance aside, I remember three things from my early literary education: One, that William Shakespeare may not have written the classic plays attributed to him, and that other persons ranging from Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth could have in fact been the “real” Bard; two, that Charles Dickens allegedly wrote such long novels because he was paid by the word; and three, that noted poet Emily Dickinson was a notorious recluse who rarely left her home. To a young mind yearning to discover that fact is indeed stranger than fiction, these claims, now largely demystified, inspired as much interest as their subjects’ venerated oeuvres. Dickinson’s circumstances, however, beguiled me more than the others. Sure, a clandestine literary scandal and felicitous business acumen are intriguing, but her self-imposed sequestration resonated with my pre-teen self (“The Soul selects her own Society —/Then — shuts the Door —/To her divine Majority —/” she writes in Poem 303 in 1862). And though the idiosyncrasies of her confinement are better understood thanks in part to a myriad of click-bait listicles with headlines like “Most Exaggerated/Bizarre/Just Plain Stupid Myths About Writers with Brown Hair” or whatever, critics still made a point of decrying Dickinson’s life as being inherently uncinematic when writing about Terence Davies’ A QUIET PASSION. On the contrary, her life is ripe for filmic rendering, and Davies succeeds in evoking the richness of an oft-ignored subject—a woman’s byzantine interior, wontedly suppressed beneath a slavish exterior. (Dickinson laments in Poem 764: “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - /In Corners - till a Day /The Owner passed - identified -/And carried Me away -.”) A biopic is an interesting choice for a director celebrated for his fiercely personal fixations, though all of his films since THE LONG DAY CLOSES (1992) with the exception of one (OF TIME AND THE CITY in 2008, his only documentary) have dealt with broader themes, having as their source an array of books (THE NEON BIBLE, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, and SUNSET SONG) as well as a play (THE DEEP BLUE SEA). Still, it’s clear that Davies chooses sources close to his personal interests; in addition to possessing a fervent love of poetry, Davies presents Dickinson, who’s played brilliantly by Cynthia Nixon in yet another of the director's’ perfect, albeit surprising, casting choices (Emma Bell as the teenaged Emily is also amazing), as a feminist hero who rallied—sometimes with her voice, sometimes with her pen—against various forms of oppression. Two interludes in particular emblazon the film with his auteurist stamp: the first, the literal aging of the central characters, bridging the gap between Dickinson’s religiously rebellious childhood (another personal theme) and her later years initially spent in the company of family and friends, then finally alone in her house before she died at the age of 55 (the myth of her seclusion rooted in some legitimacy), and the second, an auspiciously disparate, documentary-style interlude about the Civil War, complete with music, colorized photographs and jarring death tolls. The former effect—and yes, it is quite an effect—is representative of Davies’ preoccupation with the passing of time, while the latter allows him to include an experience near to his own life—war. Dickinson lived during the Civil War—in fact, it was her most fruitful period, as she wrote almost half her poems over those years—but none of her work references it (in her foreword for The Essential Emily Dickinson, Joyce Carol Oates uses this fact to distinguish Dickinson from Walt Whitman, another 19th century poet, but one for whom the war was material rather than immaterial). This segment, then, serves to divide the film just as Dickinson’s life was seemingly divided between an earlier, more well-adjusted period, during which she had a relatively active social life, and her famed reclusiveness; the concept of life and self before and after war is present in most of Davies’ films, the ultimate human conflict an apt metaphor for any number of internal struggles. Striking widescreen cinematography further illuminates this conflict, but not without a hint of irony—does such a large frame befit a secluded life? Perhaps not, but it does befit a grand mind. Davies’ script complements Dickinson’s poetry, which is either read in voiceover or cleverly integrated into a scene (she reads Poem 260, of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” fame, to her baby nephew upon meeting him for the first time), though it’s the witty banter, mostly invented by Davies with the writer’s letters as inspiration, that steals the show, revealing Dickinson as the furtive revolutionary she was. He handles her descent into reclusion and her eventual death as tactfully as her more vivacious years were depicted mirthfully; when she dies, we cry with her family, lamenting the loss not only of a great poet, but also a new friend. “And then – the size of this ‘small’ life –/The Sages – call it small –/Swelled – like Horizons – in my vest –/And I sneered – softly – ‘small’!” (Poem 271). (2016, 126 min, DCP Digital) K
Vanessa Gould's OBIT (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre – Check Venue website for showtimes
Vanessa Gould’s OBIT profiles the New York Times’ obituary department. The documentary posits the somewhat uncontroversial idea that, in fact, obits are all about life and those writers devoted to the craft are hardly the cadre of Zoloft-munching bummers you take them to be, thank you very much. Those that enjoyed Andrew Rossi’s PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES will find much to like about OBIT, and for similar reasons: It provides an entrée into the day-to-day operations of the venerable publication and an excuse to relive some of the Times’ greatest hits. At least a passing interest in the subject is a prerequisite, as talking head journalists rarely get as exciting as David Carr ranting at Shane Smith about Vice’s brand of poop journalism in PAGE ONE. OBIT’s visits with Jeff Roth, The Times morgue’s resident filer/re-filer, are worth the price of admission, though, for fans of journalistic traditions. (2016, 93 min, DCP Digital) JS
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s DEKALOG: PART 6 and A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (Polish Revivals)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St.) – Friday, 7:30pm (Free Admission)
As part of his funding deal to shoot DEKALOG, Krzysztof Kieslowski agreed to transform two of its segments into feature length films. Kieslowski opted for Five: Thou Shalt Not Kill and the Polish Ministry of Culture selected Six: Thou Shalt Not Covet for longer treatments. These larger productions allow Kieslowski to examine character depth in more detail as well as to take more liberties with his material, as television censorship would no longer be restricting his artistic expression. DEKALOG: Part 6 shifts into A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE. The lonely teenage boy, Tomek, and his secret infatuation—his sexually liberal neighbor, Magda—both become more emotionally full versions of the archetypes they embody. Love and sex play even larger roles. Although the only true link between these films is their Warsaw setting, the pair shares a certain duality thanks to their common themes. Kieslowski remarks on the lower class and how those within it are frequently pushed to the fringes of society—or rather, forgotten about entirely with murder or stalking becoming some of their byproducts. The preconceived notion that the middle or upper class are better off and thereby should be more fulfilled is shown not to be the case and that they likewise face their own complications. Kieslowski’s biggest point made between the two films (KILLING and LOVE) is that love is the great equalizer. If shown enough, love can bring the best out of man, but if not shown enough or having it ripped away, the lack of love can create a hollowed-out, not-really-present human being. KILLING and LOVE are more refined versions of their DEKALOG counterparts like gems that have been cut and shaped beautifully by a master of his craft. (1988, 58 min, Digital Projection, DEKALOG; 1988, 68 min, Digital Projection, LOVE) K
Maren Ade’s TONI ERDMANN (New German)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Saturday, 7pm and Sunday, 4pm
On paper, TONI ERDMANN is the stuff of early-aughts awards fodder, the sort of vehicle that might've starred Dustin Hoffman opposite Julia Roberts in an Alexander Payne production. And were Hollywood to remake it today, as they have already threatened, one easily imagines an Adams-De Niro pairing helmed by David O. Russell. As it is, it goes something like this: after the death of his beloved dog, Winfried Conradi, an eccentric music teacher of the hippie generation, alone, divorced, and on the wrong side of the retirement age, sets out on a desperate attempt to woo back his estranged daughter Ines, an eighties child turned management consultant in Romania, and a good soldier in the neoliberal conquest of Eastern Europe. With the aid of a set of false teeth and an ill-fitting wig, Winfried, an outrageous prankster, crashes Ines in Bucharest, assumes the role of Toni Erdmann, “consultant and coach," and proceeds to upend her scrupulously cultivated professional life through a slew of haphazard, grotesquely humiliating sneak attacks. Sound familiar? In Maren Ade’s hands, this story of generational conflict is anything but. There is an extraordinary level of attentiveness and restraint to Ade’s regard here. On the one hand, this is a matter of camerawork and editing that always respect the evolving moment. On the other, it’s a matter of a screenplay that refuses to take even standard shortcuts to hit its beats. At no point, does any hand-of-god logic assert itself to steer things more quickly or more surely to their end. Instead, Ade preserves a deep, abiding trust in her leads Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller, coupled with a refusal to allow them even momentary transcendence of the discomfort of their situation, and deepened by a wry, alert sense for the banal absurdities of self-presentation that dominate far too much of our contemporary lives. The result achieves a momentousness of both scale and intimacy the cinema simply hasn’t seen since the likes of Maurice Pialat and John Cassavetes. It’s also hilarious. (2016, 162 min, DCP Digital) E
Ceyda Torun’s KEDI (New Turkish Documentary)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday, 7 and 9pm and Sunday, 1:30pm
In Istanbul, Turkey, feral cats can be found everywhere; however, unlike the rats of our fair Chicago, these animals experience a peaceful co-habitation with the populace that, for some, borders on the reverential. KEDI packages Istanbul’s admiration for its felines in several vignettes and is meant for cat lovers and non-cat lovers alike. The stories told are uplifting. For some of the interviewees, these cats represent a tangential relationship between themselves and their beliefs in religious omnipotence. The cinematography found in KEDI is superb and beautiful. At times providing a cat’s eye view of the city, the camerawork bounces from rooftop to rooftop, scurries up trees, and dives down pathways that only the nimble footed could traverse. Combined with the staccato score, KEDI has succinct and upbeat tempo. The film follows seven cats’ lives and the nuances of their individual personalities are allowed to flourish on screen. Ceyda Torun explores the circumstances of how these animals came to become so prevalent in Istanbul and to paint a portrait of why their existence is a joyous thing for everyone. KEDI is the kind of film that gives essence to mankind’s love for cats and showcases all of the natural and urban beauty that can be found in Istanbul. (2016, 80 min, DCP Digital) KC
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 3 on Tuesday at 6pm. This program of work by local filmmakers includes: Lori Felker’s ZWISCHEN (2006, 3 min), Martin Mulcahy’s BLOKD (2016, 5 min), Diana Delgado Pineda’s YO NO SOY ESA (2014, 6 min), Valia O'Donnell’s ANT HOUSE (2016, 2 min), Jeanne Donegan and Jennifer Fagan’s THRILL OF THE CHASE (2016, 12 min), Amanda Gutierrez’s GIANTS ARE SLEEPING (2014, 11 min), Valia O'Donnell’s SELFIE (2015, 1 min), Qihui Wu’s CHOSEN PEOPLE (2016, 18 min), Elliott Chu’s GRANDMA & ME DANCING WITH HIBARI (2016, 2 min), Emily Esperanza’s HAIL MARY (2016, 16 min), and Steve Socki’s SPARROW DUET (2014, 4 min). Filmmakers in person. Free with museum admission (which is free on Tuesdays for Illinois residents).
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) presents Released and Abandoned: WNFU Halloween Special on Wednesday at 8pm. The 1987 television program, which explores possible supernatural activity at the Webber House, will be screened from VHS and shown outdoors (indoors, if poor weather). Free admission.
Black World Cinema (at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham 14, 210 87th St.) screens John Scheinfeld’s 2017 documentary CHASING TRANE (99 min, Digital Projection) for a week-long run.
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) screens Eleva Singleton’s 2015 documentary short SHINEMEN (24 min) and Sparky Greene’s 1976 documentary short AMERICAN SHOESHINE (29 min) on Friday at 7pm. followed by conversation with SHINEMEN subject Bill Williams, filmmaker Eleva Singleton, and cinematographer Ahmed Hamad, moderated by Black Harvest Film Festival’s Sergio Mims. Free admission.
The Goethe-Institut Chicago (150 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 200) screens Percy Adlon’s 1984 German film SUGARBABY (86 min, Video Projection – Unconfirmed Format) on Thursday at 6pm. Free admission.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Katell Quillévéré’s 2016 French/Belgian film HEAL THE LIVING (103 min, DCP Digital) and Cesc Gay’s 2015 Spanish film TRUMAN (108 min, DCP Digital) all play for a week; The Animation Show of Shows (106 min, DCP Digital), a compilation of 16 recent short animated films, is on Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 5:15pm; Daniel Raim’s 2015 documentary HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY (94 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Sunday at 2pm and Tuesday at 6pm; Nabil Ayouch’s 2015 French/Moroccan film MUCH LOVED (104 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 8:15pm and Monday at 5:15pm; and Danien Manivel’s 2014 French film A YOUNG POET (71 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 4pm and Wednesday at 8pm.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: So Yong Kim’s 2008 South Korean film TREELESS MOUNTAIN (89 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 7pm; Andrew Ahn’s 2016 film SPA NIGHT (93 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 7pm; and Fire Escape Films: Spring Premeire, a showcase of new work from the UofC student film organization, is on Thursday at 7pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Marshall Neilan’s 1927 Colleen Moore silent film HER WILD OAT (70 min, 35mm Archival Print) is on Tuesday at 7:30pm, with live accompaniment by Dennis Scott; The Modern School of Film with Christopher Guest, an on-stage conversation between Guest and MSF founder Robert Milazzo discussing three films that most inspired Guest, is on Wednesday at 7pm; Mike Judge’s 2006 film IDIOCRACY (84 min, 35mm) is on Thursday at 7pm, with Judge in person. (The Guest and Judge events are part of the 4th Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival.); Amir Bar-Lev’s 2017 Grateful Dead documentary LONG STRANGE TRIP (241 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 2 and 7pm; Paul Michael Glaser’s 1987 film THE RUNNING MAN (101 min, 35mm) and Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 Japanese animated film YOUR NAME. (107 min, Digital Projection; check website for subtitled vs. English-dubbed showtimes) are both on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Also at Facets Cinémathèque this week: Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi’s 2017 US/Peruvian film ICAROS: A VISION (91 min, Unconfirmed Format) plays for a week-long run.
Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Jakob Lass’ 2013 German film LOVE STEAKS (89 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Introduced and a discussion with UIC professor Sara Hall. Free admission.
DePaul University's School of Cinematic Arts Visiting Artist Series continues its Paul Schrader Week on Friday with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER with Schrader in person. This event is, however, sold out.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
The Art Institute of Chicago exhibition Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat is on view through July 9. The artist’s first US exhibition features over 50 channels of video from 1989-2007. It is on view in Modern Wing galleries 186 and 289.
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: May 26 - June 1, 2017
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kian Bergstrom, Edo Choi, Kyle Cubr, Emily Eddy, Jim Gabriel, Scott Pfeiffer, James Stroble, Brian Welesko, Candace Wirt