Alan Arkin’s LITTLE MURDERS (American Revival)
Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) – Wednesday, 7:30pm
Before LITTLE MURDERS was a film—and a superior one at that, the best I’ve seen in awhile—it was a play, albeit one with a complicated history. Written by the estimable Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer (whose other forays into the film world include writing the scripts for Mike Nichols’ CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and Robert Altman’s POPEYE), it ran on Broadway for only a week before opening in London to much acclaim, thus catapulting it back to New York in 1969 for both a second, more celebrated run on Broadway and a longer, more mindfully appreciated Off-Broadway stint. Actor Alan Arkin directed the latter production, for which Feiffer won an Obie award (he won one the next year, too, for The White House Murder Case, which Arkin also helmed), and the film, not originally intended for Arkin but eventually bequeathed to him for his feature debut (Jean-Luc Godard was approached but ultimately declined). The result is something wonderful, bizarre, even stupefying in its esoteric jocularity, at once singular to its time and ripe for broad interpretation. What it’s not is an auteurist tract, belonging more to Feiffer and the performers—among them Elliott Gould (who bought the film rights and co-produced it with Jack Brodsky) as the protagonist, Marcia Rodd as his girlfriend/wife, and even Donald Sutherland as the kooky minister who marries them—than to Arkin, who himself appears in the film as a Melvillian detective (think TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN, but way more stressed out). Still, Arkin’s pat direction is what allows it to be greater than the sum of its parts; Feiffer’s madcap scenario and the actors’ idiosyncratic performances are so brilliantly eccentric that, like a gifted child, they benefit from structure. Gould’s Alfred is an apathetic photographer whose outlook begins to shift when he meets Rodd’s Patsy, an optimistic interior designer. Surrounding their bizarre romance is an antagonistic New York in which gangs indiscriminately beat up people whilst yelling an array of nonsensical slurs and anyone, anywhere, can be shot at any time, even in the comfort of their own home. Referring to his original text as a "post-assassination play,” Feiffer wrote that “[i]t was as if any shot from any window in any direction could kill a president, as if history could be voted out of office by a madman.” He continued: “Kennedy’s murder was intensely depressing. Oswald’s murder converted experience into farce. This was not a serious country anymore. This was not a place with meaning. A screw had come loose.” This more or less sums up the environment in which his characters live, that middle ground between society and anarchy where civilization hangs by a thread. Alfred copes with it via his camera and particular brand of indifference; Patsy deals by forging ahead, ready at a moment’s notice to replenish her apartment with material possessions. Both account for the meaning which Feiffer insists people need, be it through a willful lack of meaning or an overabundance of stuff. Despite the existential subtext, Alfred and Patsy’s relationship is endearing, even if impractical; Gould’s fond looks and Rodd’s frustrated infatuation add depth to the farce, leveling out its abstraction. The loveliness of their peculiar courtship makes the climax all the more affecting. “I suspected that Kennedy and Oswald were only the beginning,” Feiffer wrote, “that a wave of irrational violence was going to take over the society, random acts with no apparent political context—but quite political in that they symbolized our dementia.” The film’s narrative follows this path, burrowing itself deeper and deeper into paranoia. Gordon Willis’ cinematography complements the tone at every turn; shot just a year before THE GODFATHER, his signature lighting is discernible as being owned by him but still belonging to the film. Roger Ebert wrote that “LITTLE MURDERS is entirely self-contained, and once you get inside it, you've got to stay.” Indeed, once you’re wrapped up in it, you won’t be able to get out. LITTLE MURDERS remains with you, for better or worse, as long as at least one of you shall live. Preceded by Dave Fleischer’s 1934 Betty Boop cartoon HA! HA! HA! (7 min, 16mm). (1971, 110 min, 35mm) KS
Satyajit Ray's CHARULATA (Indian Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Saturday, 7 and 9:30pm
Though his name is familiar to American cinephiles and his debut feature, PATHER PANCHALI, has been a staple of film school curricula for decades, Satyajit Ray remains something of an unknown quantity in the United States: a writer and filmmaker with a vast and diverse body of work who is known chiefly for a handful of early features. If you only known Ray for his Apu trilogy—or for his reputation as a dude who, like, made some important movies—then this nuanced masterpiece about a lonely, neglected upper-class housewife in 19th century Calcutta should be an eye-opener. The son and grandson of illustrators, Ray had a background in graphic design (PATHER PANCHALI was adapted from a novel for which Ray has designed the cover), and his masterful sense of visual composition comes to the forefront in CHARULATA, a film where the visible—the framings, the careful dolly movements, even the wallpaper—somehow communicates invisible undercurrents and subtexts. The gorgeous score—composed by Ray himself—is nothing to sneeze at either. (1964, 117 min, 35mm) IV
Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME and Jonathan Olshefski’s QUEST (New Documentaries)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, 8:30pm and Saturday, 6pm (Whitney) and Saturday, 3:30pm and Monday, 8pm (Quest)
Two documentaries playing this week as part of the annual Black Harvest Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center explore antipodal milieux of black life. WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME (2016, 100 min, DCP), an unauthorized documentary from genre provocateur Nick Broomfield and co-conspirator Rudi Dolezal, whose never-before-seen footage comprises much of the film, explores the sad life of the late, great Whitney Houston, from her humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey to her premature death in 2012 following a near-lifetime struggle with drugs. Broomfield and Dolezal transform what might otherwise have been a straightforward documentary about a celebrity, even if a particularly compelling one, into an inquest of sorts, exploring parts of Houston’s life not often covered in the media, including her place within the black community and her alleged bisexuality (specifically her relationship with a childhood friend who was a crucial part of her entourage for decades), often connecting these things to her ongoing drug problem. Performing from a young age, there are parallels to stars with similar backgrounds, such as Judy Garland and, more recently, Drew Barrymore, but Houston’s issues, even if borne of a comparable upbringing, are respective to her experiences as a black woman within an increasingly splenetic society. The title, CAN I BE ME, refers to something she would say when confronted with external expectations, whether from those closest to her—family, friends, her husband, Bobby Brown—or those farthest removed—her fans, her detractors, the media. Unlike some other celebrities, whose protestations against the lifestyle of the rich and the famous often ring hollow, one can’t help but to believe Houston when she expresses a desire to be taken as her own person. Broomfield’s prior filmography (he directed controversial documentaries about Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and Biggie and Tupac) and Dolezal’s footage for a never-completed documentary about her 1999 world tour account for an uncanny portrayal of a singular talent. Jonathan Olshefski’s QUEST (2017, 105 min, DCP), on the other hand, deals with “real” people, an African-American family of four living in North Philadelphia. Shot over the course of a decade, Olshefski’s unobtrusive camera (he’s also the cinematographer) follows the Rainey family through the good and the bad, using the political climate at whatever point they’re at to frame intimate moments within a larger societal framework. Much as Steve James’ HOOP DREAMS and Margaret Byrne’s RAISING BERTIE utilized years-long shooting times to document their subjects, QUEST confronts stereotypes with longevity, showing us there’s often more than meets the eye. In that way, both documentaries have this common. KS
Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY (Soviet Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Thursday, 7pm
ALEXANDER NEVSKY was Eisenstein’s most propagandistic film, a Soviet-sponsored vision of Slavic might over Teutonic invaders. Government officials suggested the project and decorated the director with the Order of Lenin for his efforts once the movie was completed. NEVSKY vilifies foreigners as forthrightly as it celebrates Russians, and its rousing depiction of battle remains, per J. Hoberman, “a dangerously stirring call to arms.” That it is a superior work of propaganda is a result of Eisenstein’s artistry, which resists the dictates of Stalinist order. Note how he locates a human dimension in every character he presents, no matter how broadly the character’s defined (it’s a talent Eisenstein shared with Charles Dickens). Note also the integration of humor. Eisenstein’s humanist instinct separates his propaganda from that of Leni Riefenstahl, whose dehumanizing approach to her subjects made her filmmaking perfectly aligned with the Nazis’ mission. Of course, Eisenstein was also a better filmmaker than Riefenstahl; his approaches to composition and editing are among the most original in film history. NEVSKY is worth seeing on a big screen simply because Eisenstein directed it. The images, as is always the case in his films, suggests architecture in motion; the organization of images suggests futurist murals. Sergei Prokofiev’s score is justly one of the most famous in cinema; as ambitious as the images, it’s a symphony with separate movements for different passages. (1938, 112 min, 16mm) BS
Al Santana & Denise Santiago’s SALTY DOG BLUES (Documentary Revival)
South Side Projections at Floating Museum (2754 S. Eleanor St.) – Saturday, 7pm (Free Admission)
Subtitled “Merchant Marines of Color Fighting for Their Rightful Share,” this recent documentary considers the rise and fall of the National Maritime Union through the perspective of minorities who belonged to it. The film recounts that the NMU was the first union to accept people regardless of race, color, creed, or gender; in keeping with this spirit of inclusion, most of the talking heads are people of color. The fascinating stories of life on the sea serve to humanize the labor history lesson. Though the overall tone is celebratory, the narrative arc is downbeat, tracing the NMU through government cuts in the 1970s and the dark days of the 1980s and 90s. The film ends on a sad note, showing a group of retired merchant marines in their 70s, 80s, and 90s petitioning the union to get their pensions raised for the first time in three decades. The screening location of SALTY DOG BLUES is as interesting as the movie itself—the Floating Museum is a new arts space converted from an old barge that’s presenting free interactive cultural programming along the Chicago River. (2012, 52 min, Video Projection) BS
Lewis Milestone's THE FRONT PAGE (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Friday, 7 and 9:15pm
There are three major film versions of THE FRONT PAGE, each with distinct and considerable virtues. The most famous, Howard Hawks' HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), rewrites the Hecht-MacArthur play with the insight that Hildy Johnson would make a very fine woman—a brilliant conceit that doesn't so much reveal the truth of the play as the depths beneath it. Billy Wilder's THE FRONT PAGE (1974) is scarcely among its director's finest works—it's agreeable where it should be acid—but it's animated by a certain impulse of restorative fidelity, as if Hollywood's new permissiveness finally allowed an accurate transcription of Hecht and MacArthur's bawdy Chicago milieu. Perhaps the movie only exists so that Walter Matthau's Walter Burns can finally deliver an unexpurgated version of the play's iconic curtain line—even Lewis Milestone's pre-Code version of 1931 finds a clean way around it. (If I recall, there's a strategic train whistle involved.) If we can overlook its odd bits of censorship and flashes of skittishness, Milestone's FRONT PAGE stands as an entertaining, thoroughly sincere engagement with a most insincere text. Locating a cinematic analog to Hecht and MacArthur's staccato dialogue, this FRONT PAGE is rendered in faux Russian montage style—a choice that briefly elevated Milestone to the front ranks of the Marxist-formalist left. (Harry Alan Potamkin hailed Milestone as Griffith's successor and praised THE FRONT PAGE as "the first American contribution to the 'philosophy' of the sound-sight cinema.") Spiritual kin to SCARFACE (another Howard Hughes production) and Raoul Walsh's contemporaneous cycle of urban proletariat scuzz, THE FRONT PAGE possesses an undeniable vulgar dynamism. If its reputation is in eclipse today, this has less to do with taste than circumstance. Much of the 1931 version's innovation is blunted in dupey prints and ropey video transfers, but such is the fate of many a public domain chestnut. Some years ago, the only decent 35mm print of THE FRONT PAGE had to be imported from England for theatrical exhibition; this screening of a presumably-good archival print from the Library of Congress is a major and much-needed revival. (1931, 101 min, 35mm Archival Print) KAW
Mel Stuart's WATTSTAX (Documentary Revival)
Black Cinema House at the Stony Island Arts Bank (6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) – Friday, 7pm (Free Admission)
Nominally an archival documentary of the Wattstax Music Festival in 1972, the best sequences have nothing to do with the musicians on stage. Yes, there's Isaac Hayes, bedecked in a vest of golden chains, singing a languid version of "Theme from Shaft" to a filled Los Angeles Coliseum. And there's a fire-eyed Rufus Thomas performing "Do the Funky Chicken" before conducting the crowd back to their seats. But these performances act as a platform for a thematic distillation of black identity during the Black Power movement, seven years after the Watts Riots. Between freewheeling concert footage, Stuart (FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), or more likely his black cameramen, ventured into Watts to interview its residents about their thoughts on love, the blues, language, style, and life in the neighborhood after the riots. The interviews feel as if they hit each touchstone of stereotypical black culture: a man's Afro is preened in a barbershop while another discusses the power of Christ. One particularly gripping and frantically shot sequence features churchgoers brought to tears and delirious convulsions by The Emotions' rendition of "Peace Be Still." At the concert, Stuart's use of the zoom lens isolates women's curves and intricate Black Power handshakes from across the Coliseum, as if studying a new breed with a new language. All this might be unseemly were it not for WATTSTAX's purposed assertion that "Black is Beautiful." It is a refrain heard in Jesse Jackson's recitation of "I Am - Somebody" and rounded by Richard Pryor's withering, humorous critiques of the stereotypes portrayed. Followed by conversation with Chicago-based DJ, blogger and, promoter Duane Powell, and performer, writer, and educator Nikki Patin. (1973, 103 min, Video Projection) BW
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: Odds and Ends Ephemera, a program of short 16mm and 8mm films from local collectors, will screen on Wednesday at 8pm. Free admission.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: John Griesser, Jean Griesser, and Lauren Ross’ 2017 documentary HARE KRISHNA! THE MANTRA, THE MOVEMENT AND THE SWAMI WHO STARTED IT ALL (90 min, DCP Digital) and Sébastien Laudenbach’s 2016 French animated film THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS (76, DCP Digital) both play for a week; and Mario Bava’s 1960 Italian film BLACK SUNDAY (87 min, DCP Digital; Original Italian Cut) is on Saturday at 3pm and Thursday at 6pm, and his 1963 Italian film THE WHIP AND THE BODY (87 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 4:45pm and Monday at 6pm; also this week, the Black Harvest Film Festival continues. Screening are: the shorts program “Made in Chicago 1”; documentaries LET IT FALL: LOS ANGELES 1982–1992, WILMINGTON ON FIRE, and I KNOW A MAN...ASHLEY BRYAN; and feature narratives CALL CENTER and TITLE VII. Also see our reviews of WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME and QUEST above. Check the Siskel website for showtimes and more info.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Joshua Z Weinstein’s 2017 film MENASHE (82 min, DCP Digital) opens; Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film WONDER WOMAN (141 min, 70mm) is on Saturday and Sunday at 11:15am and Wednesday at 7pm; Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1987 film RAISING ARIZONA (97 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 7pm, in critic Marc Caro’s occasional “Is It Still Funny?” series; Jeff Baena’s 2017 film THE LITTLE HOURS (90 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at 11:45pm; and Luc Besson’s 1997 film THE FIFTH ELEMENT (127 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
At Facets Cinémathèque this week: Santiago Mitre’s 2015 Argentinean/Brazilian/French film PAULINA (107 min, Video Projection) plays for a week-long run.
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Marc Webb’s 2017 film GIFTED (101 min, Video Projection) is on Saturday at 2 and 7:30pm; Howard Hawks’ 1940 film HIS GIRL FRIDAY (92 min, DCP Digital) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7:30pm; and Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary CHUCK BERRY HAIL! HAIL! ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (120 min, Unconfirmed Format) is on Thursday at 6pm, followed by a discussion. Free admission.
Sinema Obscura at Township (2200 N. California Ave.) presents TV Party 8 Is NOT Enough, an evening of short films and trailers (with trivia questions) on Monday at 7pm. Free admission.
At the Chicago Cultural Center this week: Cinema/Chicago presents a screening of Rob Schermbrucker’s 2015 South African documentary GOOD BUSINESS (25 min, Video Projection) along with Stephen Abbott’s 2015 short South African drama LAZY SUSAN (11 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
The Chicago Cultural Center is also presenting a series of Year of Public Art screenings Saturday-Tuesday. The screening times are unclear, with differing times listed in two places. Regardless, the info is here: https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/yopa_screenings.html.
The Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest (400 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest, IL) screens Chris Columbus’ 1993 film MRS. DOUBTFIRE (125 min, Digital Projection) on Friday at 7pm.
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: August 10 - August 17, 2017
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Brian Welesko