Sarah Jacobson’s MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE (American Revival)
I’m so in love with writer-director Sarah Jacobson’s DIY classic MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE as to be unqualified to write about it—there’s no illusion of impartiality when I say the film is a masterpiece, one of the best I’ve seen in a good, long while, and, upon further consideration, perhaps one of my new favorites. I reference impartiality because this is, for me, a very personal film, one that chronicles the coming-of-age of a young, female cinephile whose stint at a local movie theater leaves a lasting impression. I, too, worked at a movie theater during that tenuous period between high school and college, when you’re free from the confines of childhood but facing the even more agonizing limitations of adulthood, torn between what you want to do and what everyone else expects you to do. Granted, I graduated in the mid-aughts, but in 1996 (the year the film was released—by Jacobson herself, who not only wrote, directed, shot, edited, and produced it, but also self-distributed and promoted it with her mom when she was only 23 years old, on the heels of her landmark 1993 short I WAS A TEENAGE SERIAL KILLER), I was already starting to admire girls like the film’s protagonist (played by the unforgettable Lisa Gerstein, who hasn’t done much since), a 17-year-old working at a Midwestern movie theater during her last several months of high school and into that ever-memorable summer before college, and her bad-ass coworkers, with their cool style and even cooler interests. (And their zines, oh, the zines. Be still, my sloppily Xeroxed heart.) The film opens with Mary Jane, called Jane, losing her virginity in a graveyard to the shockingly forgettable Steve, who brazenly ask-demands, “So did you come yet?” We then meet Jane’s coworkers, partying at the theater after hours, asking about her date. Here begins the ‘first-time’ motif, which involves each character detailing the first time they had sex. To wit, this is a film about sex, and more broadly, relationships. (I’m unsure whether or not it passes the Bechdel test—I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t—but here that’s irrelevant.) Jacobson, herself a young woman when she made the film, is best equipped to make a work preoccupied with these subjects, however passé they may seem nowadays. But it’s these concerns, namely sex, romance, and friendship, that often dictate how us women see the world—no one is an island. Our interpersonal relationships, and what we demand from them, matter, regardless of how whole we are outside them, and that’s what Jacobson is saying. She explores variations on the theme, from heterosexual to same-sex relationships, to always important friendships, including platonic ones between the sexes, and even the unfortunate circumstance of one of the older girls having been raped (she bravely tells Jane that it didn’t count as having lost her virginity, even though she had never had sex before the assault). The film has an impressive script, with a lot of worthwhile conflict crammed into a relatively compact running time, but it’s the actual filmmaking that truly astounds. Shot on 16mm (and not Super-8mm, as is oft reported), Jacobson utilizes the DIY aesthetic masterfully, the barest and most decrepit of settings turned into striking, punk rock tableaux. She embellishes the narrative with playful interstitials that subtextually expand its thematic concerns; when Jane masturbates for the first time, Jacobson transitions the scene from its ‘reality,’ tattered pajamas and all, to a fantasied depiction of the act in which Jane is literally glowing. Women are not only the heroes of their own stories, but also the objects of their own desire, those responsible for the acquiring of it. Less significantly but still super fun, MARY JANE features cameos from legendary underground filmmaker George Kuchar, under whom Jacobson studied, and the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra. Sadly, the rightfully self-proclaimed “Queen of Underground Cinema” passed away in 2004 at the age of 32; she died from endometrial cancer, proof that we only have our bodies a short time. If MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE should leave us with anything, it’s that we should love ‘em—and our local cinemas!—while we got ‘em. Preceded by I WANT A CLEAN CINEMA (Doc Films, 1999, 1 min, 16mm). (1996, 98 min, 16mm) KS
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s SHOPLIFTERS (New Japanese)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Coming home after a day spent shoplifting, a man and a boy see a young girl playing by herself outside an apartment and decide to take her home with them. Their household is presided over by an elderly woman, along with two younger women, one of whom has a relationship with the man. Their home is a ramshackle corrugated lean-to, perpetually in danger of being demolished by a local property flipper. They get by on various grifts and scams to supplement the meager salaries of the grownups’ menial jobs and the old lady’s pension. Each member of this makeshift family does their best to play the part they wish they had in their previous lives. I kept thinking of Dickens’ Oliver Twist while watching this movie. There’s a lot of Fagin in the man and of the Artful Dodger in the boy; the grubby neediness of their lives is out of Dickens as well. In his careful and unassuming way, Kore-eda has made a devastating indictment of capitalist society, as well as the sacrosanct place the nuclear family holds within its structures. He continues plumbing the depth and breadth of what connects one human being to another through this group of strangers—unwanted or rejected by their relations and by the larger world—who throw in their lots together to form a bond made by choice rather than blood. This one left me gutted. (2018, 121 min, DCP Digital) DS
John McTiernan's DIE HARD (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Wednesday, 4:30 and 9:30pm and Thursday, 7pm
Non-aficionados of narrative overanalysis are basically going to have to step off in the case of DIE HARD, which is inarguably a modern masterpiece of both structuralist and psychoanalytic semiosis. As an n-dimensional mythological lattice posing as an unpretentious, violent movie, DIE HARD simultaneously pits East Coast vs. West Coast, Eastern capitalism vs. Western capitalism, work vs. family, local vs. global, working class vs. upper class, white vs. black ad infinitum, all entirely immersed in the sacred moment of the pagan Winter Solstice. How, indeed, will John McClane (Bruce Willis) reassert values of patriarchy and Anglo supremacy during this longer-term period of acute economic and multicultural transformation? The answer is by defeating a band of indeterminately Euro monsters who erupt from his unconscious on Christmas Eve as he attempts to renegotiate the terms of his marriage in a building played by—in one of Hollywood's premier self-reflexive architectural cameos—20th Century Fox's brand new office tower. Additionally, the film is creatively suffused in a wide variety of explicit and implicit Christmas-related symbolism (our red-footed hero frequently sends explosive "presents" to lower floors, bond certificates float through the air like snow, etc.) However, the present-day evidence of the film's DVD commentary track suggests that director John McTiernan is almost completely unaware of what he has done, remaining entirely concerned with the implementation of shrill, irrelevant action set pieces. (1988, 131 min, 35mm) MC
Showing as a double-bill with Chris Columbus' 1990 film HOME ALONE.
Luchino Visconti’s SENSO (Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Sunday, 3pm and Wednesday, 6pm
One of the most operatic of all films, Luchino Visconti’s SENSO opens at a performance of Il Trovatore and goes on to spin a melodramatic tale in which both the emotions and aesthetics are sumptuous. The year is 1866, and Venice sits under Austrian occupation. A countess (Alida Valli) whose cousin is part of the Italian resistance meets an Austrian lieutenant (Farley Granger) with the aim of gaining information about the enemy army. Against her best intentions, she falls in love with the officer and enters into a passionate affair with him. The woman sacrifices not only her principles, but her integrity as well, staying devoted to her paramour even after she learns he’s cheated on her many times over. Rainer Werner Fassbinder may have named THE DAMNED as his favorite Visconti film, but this is the one that most anticipates his own cinema, presenting passion as a brutal force that drives people to their destruction. The final act even feels proto-Fassbinderian—the bitter final meeting between the two lovers finds two lost souls burning themselves out in a torrent of spite and self-pity. For all the messiness of the emotions, Visconti’s style is magnificently controlled, with dancelike camera movements and the richest, most immersive mise-en-scene he created prior to THE LEOPARD. The Technicolor cinematography is also hypnotically lush; this was Visconti’s first feature in color, and he makes the most out of it, presenting a wide array of hues in nearly every shot. The opulent visual style is a perfect analogue to the intense emotional content—like his characters, Visconti holds nothing back. Still, there’s something almost subtle about the way the filmmaker charts his subjects’ downward trajectory, his formal control betraying the impulsiveness on display. (1954, 119 min, DCP Digital) BS
Tanya Hamilton's NIGHT CATCHES US (American Revival)
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) — Friday, 7:30pm (Free Admission)
Although couched in the historical setting and rhetoric of the waning years of the Black Power movement, Tanya Hamilton's debut feature has as much and as little to do with that period as CASABLANCA had to do with World War II. Former Black Panther Anthony Mackie returns home for his father's funeral and inadvertently digs up the past for himself and for those he left behind (Kerry Washington as the widow of his best friend, now a rising star in the public defender's office; The Wire's Jamie Hector as a gangster of some sort, vowing to kill Mackie for past transgressions). The super-saturated palette, meticulous costume design, and funky score by The Roots evoke the period beautifully, and Mackie and Washington are smoldering. But Hamilton's excessive use of stock footage of real Panthers, instead of integrating her melodrama into that tableau, oddly achieves the opposite, drawing lines between history and fiction the way rear-projection reminds us that Bogie and Bergman never really had Paris. Still, Washington is reaching for something important, a reminder about the turbulent recent past to a readily forgetful America, a goal smartly embodied in a subplot where Washington's preteen daughter researches the past her mom won't talk about. (2010, 90 min, Digital Projection) MP
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s FREE SOLO (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Check Venue website for showtimes
In 2017, professional rock climber Alex Honnold became the first person to scale the 3,200-foot-tall monolith in Yosemite National Park called El Capitan without any safety equipment. This method, called free soloing, is the ultimate challenge for those who climb. The climber’s only equipment is his or her body—how strong it is and what it can do—and the preparation and concentration built up by experience. One wrong move is literally a matter of life and death. FREE SOLO, another beautifully shot outdoors film produced in part by National Geographic, is a documentary record of Honnold’s historic achievement. It is also a disturbing look at the ethos of extreme sports and the debasement of the natural world. As revealed in FREE SOLO, Honnold has spent his adulthood as a climbing vagabond, living for years inside a van and regarding girls as temporary hook-ups. Considered something of a highly intelligent oddball by his classmates when they all were growing up, he seems to have missed out on parental nurturing. He has internalized the notion that he needs to be perfect to overcome his mother’s disdain for him—and if ever there was a sport that requires perfection, it’s free soloing—and he seems to have a literal screw loose, that is, an unresponsive amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for fear conditioning. It appears that the only time he really feels in the zone is when he’s scaling a big rock face, and his girlfriend and climbing friends, many of whom are part of the documentary’s camera crew, know that trying to dissuade him from his dreams for El Cap is hopeless. Director Chin is a master at portraying the unique language and bonds of professional climbers and getting the shots during the climb without distracting Honnold. Vasarhelyi, Chin’s partner and wife, bores into the personal story, revealing Honnold to be a blunt and singular person, willing to wound his girlfriend by saying he will always put climbing before extending his life expectancy; he does not share her sympathy for the wife of a climber they learn has died on the Nuptse Wall of Mt. Everest during Honnold’s preparations (“What did she expect?”). This is where the film becomes really troubling. Like the 2008 documentary MAN ON WIRE, which deals with Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, FREE SOLO shows the emotional toll exacted on the people who care about Honnold. Petit’s friends, none of them wire walkers, dropped him after the walk, a fate mitigated for Honnold by the fact that other climbers are helping him. In 2014, Honnold and other free soloists did lose Clif Bar’s sponsorship, which said “that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go.” Nonetheless, extreme sports comprise a multibillion-dollar industry that continues to grow. Another 2018 documentary, MOUNTAIN, shows long lines of people queuing to climb Everest and despoil it with their detritus. Watching Honnold’s terrifying climb up El Cap, I couldn’t help noticing all the chalk whitening the handholds, defacing a once-forbidding edifice. While people have long been fascinated with and challenged to perform feats of daring-do, the commodification of adventure is turning mountains into molehills. (2018, 100 min, DCP Digital) MF
WHITE/WONDERFUL Double Feature
Michael Curtiz's WHITE CHRISTMAS (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Various dates through December 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 – Various dates through December 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
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) presents A Very Kuchar Christmas 2 on Sunday at 6:30pm. The event begins with a potluck (though you don’t have to bring anything) followed by a 7:30pm screening of works by the late experimental film/video maker George Kuchar. Included are MURMURS OF THE HEARTH (2001, 12 min), SOLSTICE (2009, 4 min), and TUMMY ACHE TIMES (2010, 25 min). Video Projection. Free admission.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Black Radical Imagination: Fugitive Trajectories on Friday at 7pm. The program includes work by Amelia Umuhire, Cecile Emeke, Ephraim Asili, summer mason, Dana Washington, and Jenn Nkiru; and Alternative Endings, Activist Risings on Saturday at 7pm. This program is comprised of short works commissioned by Visual AIDS and is followed by a panel discussion. It is free admission via an RSVP on the MCA website.
Heaven Gallery (1550 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd Floor) presents Exposure x Black Radical Imagination: Future Enclaves on Saturday at 6pm. This screening combines selections from Black Radical Imagination’s touring program with local works selected by the Exposure collective. Screening are works by Dana Washington, Ireashia Monét, Jenn Nkiru, Alima Lee, Amina Ross, Zakkiyyah Najeebah, and Amelia Umuhire. Free admission.
Digital Arts Demo Space (2515 S. Archer Ave., 2nd Floor) screens Sami Sänpäkkilä’s 2017 Finnish documentary THE GOODIEPAL EQUATION (70 min, Digital Projection), about Danish musician, artist, and activist Goodiepal, on Saturday at 7:30pm.
The Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) screens Peter Godfrey’s 1945 film CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (101 min, DCP Digital) on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission.
The Park Ridge Classic Film Series (at the Pickwick Theatre, 5 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge) screens George Seaton’s 1947 film THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (96 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 1 and 7:30pm.
At the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Andrew van Baal’s 2018 Mexican/US film HAPPY NEW YEAR TIJUANA (73 min, DCP Digital) and Marilyn Ness’ 2018 documentary CHARM CITY (107 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week; and The 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows (98 min, DCP Digital) begins a two-week run.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Lee Chang-Dong’s 2018 South Korean film BURNING (148 min, DCP Digital) continues; Jerry Vasilatos’ 1993 film SOLSTICE (48 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 7:30pm; and Chris Columbus’ 1990 film HOME ALONE (103 min, 35mm) is on Wednesday at 7:15pm and Thursday at 4:45 and 9:45pm (showing as a double-bill with DIE HARD, see above).
Facets Cinémathèque plays Nathan Silver’s 2018 film THE GREAT PRETENDER (72 min, Video Projection) and Nick Chakwin and David Guglielmo’s 2018 film HOSPITALITY (80 min, Video Projection) for week-long runs.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Gallery 400 (400 S. Peoria, UIC) presents Chicago New Media 1973-1992 through December 15.
The Graham Foundation (Madlener House, 4 W. Burton Place) continues Martine Syms: Incense Sweaters & Ice through January 12.
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Martine Syms' SHE MAD: LAUGHING GAS (2018, 7 min, four-channel digital video installation with sound, wall painting, laser-cut acrylic, artist’s clothes); Rosalind Nashashibi's VIVIAN’S GARDEN (2017, 30 min, 16mm on HD Video) is in the Donna and Howard Stone Gallery, through December 2; Dara Birnbaum’s KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (1979, 6 min loop, two-channel video) is in the second floor corridor.
CINE-LIST: December 14 - December 21, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Michael Castelle, Marilyn Ferdinand, Scott Pfeiffer, Michael W. Phillips Jr., Dmitry Samarov