Dig This! Films By Hamid Naficy (Experimental and Documentary Revivals)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) – Thursday, 7pm (Free Admission)
Northwestern University professor Hamid Naficy is a noted scholar of Iranian, Middle Eastern, diasporic, and ethnographic film, but before he entered the world of academia, he was a filmmaker, receiving an MFA in Film and Television Production in the early 1970s. He made a number of personal experimental and documentary films before working commercially in for-hire documentaries. This program features four short films and videos made during his time as a UCLA film student. As might be expected, three of the works showing—the three video works—do show signs of being student work. They range across a wide span of styles, as Naficy explored differing approaches; they are uneven, though still interesting, in what they achieve. In ELLIS ISLAND: A COMMUNE (1969, 37 min, Digital Projection) Naficy documents the communal living space he shared at the time, using an early half-inch reel-to-reel Sony Portapak video camera. It is comprised mostly of group discussions and individual direct addresses to the camera by the young, idealistic student residents. Their philosophizing and rap sessions seem to take on the same kind of inauthentic role-playing they criticize in others—they are “outsiders” and “intellectuals” and, frankly, they grow wearisome after a while. But one extended sequence near the end punctures this view, when they share their concerns that newer commune residents don’t seem to share the same sense of community and shared responsibility. Here, the discussion is perceptive and engrossing, and the intimacy afforded by the video technology is palpable. THE PIANO PLAYER (1969, 10 min, Digital Projection) is a dramatization of a story by Donald Barthelme, shot in a campus television studio. Barthelme’s absurdist text is further distanced through self-reflexive tactics: Naficy ranges beyond the minimal studio set, shows the cameras, gives commands from off-screen—the artifice becomes part of the meaning. Not an unusual practice, but one that is energized by being televisual rather than filmic. A much more experimental and abstract work, BLACKTOP (1970, 7 min, Digital Projection) could easily be mistaken for something by Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, Charlemagne Palestine, or possibly (especially given its title) one of Aldo Tambellini’s “Black” films. In it, Naficy uses computer and video generated imagery that is distorted to the point of just being video static, which is then re-recorded on video off of a monitor. The soundtrack is minimal and repetitive: a background drone is coupled with what seems to be vehicle ignition and engine sounds, and with the sound of Naficy’s footsteps as he paces a hard floor. The visual and aural textures created are satisfyingly disturbing, creating a very different kind of alienating affect than that of THE PIANO PLAYER. All three of these video works will be screening in new digital preservation transfers. The final work in the program is the best, and considerably so. SALAMANDER SYNCOPE (1971, 24 min, New 16mm Preservation Print) was Naficy’s thesis project for his MFA and, unlike the other works in the program, does not have the same student-film hesitancies; rather, it is assured and strong. Like BLACKTOP, it utilizes computer-generated imagery. Naficy had received approval to access the equipment of the computer department (and the aid of students there, including future Google-guru Vinton Cerf; Naficy would have at least six student computer engineers and systems analysts contributing) and spent two years working on the project. The abstract imagery generated by the computers was manipulated on a secondary analog computer and then further through video processing tools, finally being output to 16mm film. Naficy abstract film was intended to visualize “inner and outer consciousness” and was inspired by the writings and ideas of Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Buckminster Fuller, and others who were advocating for expanding the mind in various ways (though eastern religion and philosophy, drugs, etc.). Despite the fact that these themes and ideas were prevalent enough in 1960s and early 1970s experimental cinema to almost become a mini-genre, Naficy says that he was only familiar with some of John Whitney’s films at the time. And, rather than being an influence, Naficy was working in opposition to the symmetry, regularity, and geometrical perfection found in Whitney’s films. Indeed, SALAMANDER SYNCOPE’s visuals are chaotic and “messy.” They have an unruly energy that seems more in keeping with the thematic ideas of the beginnings of the universe and the beginnings of human life, both of which are more or less violent events. The abstract images in SALAMANDER are irregular and undefined; they move, shift, and change in unruly ways, offering constant surprises. All is flux; nothing is allowed to become predictable. Even if the film seems to have an arc to it, moment-to-moment it remains untethered. The film’s goal of exploring cosmic and human mysteries through profoundly technological means is furthers by fellow UCLA student Ken Yapkowitz’s score, which combines the use of Moog synthesizers and recordings of Muslim preachers recorded at Naficy’s uncle’s house. If the first two videos are recommended with some reservations, and BLACKTOP is recommended more heartily, SALAMANDER SYNCOPE receives an enthusiastic recommendation. It is an exciting “new discovery” and deserves to find a place in the histories of early computer and video-based experimental filmmaking. Naficy in person. (78 min total, 16mm and Digital Projection) PF
John Huston’s FAT CITY (American Revival)
The Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) – Wednesday, 7:30pm
The oft-quoted Truffaut-ism contends that, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” The genre is like quicksand, so the theory goes: Grappling with its multifarious complexities only makes it worse. The same principle could be applied to the boxing genre: You find me a grim, slice-of-life boxing flick and I’ll find you a moviegoer gleefully shadowboxing through the end credits. No matter the intent, the sweet science inevitably plays as an elegant ballet or a savage spectacle featuring a morally complex warrior. Leave it to John Huston, director of one of the quintessential anti-war films (the 1946 documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT), to craft the quintessential anti-boxing film. Or if not “anti-boxing,” then profoundly indifferent toward its subject. Huston’s 1972 FAT CITY follows a perfectly cast Stacy Keach—rail-thin and wispy-haired—as Tully, a Stockton, California-based boxer stumbling into the lowest stakes comeback in the history of the sport. Tully’s prospects are bleak: Deemed unemployable by even the Stockton box factory—a thriving paper-goods concern—he finds work picking fruit and meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a naïve amateur boxer at a local gym. In convincing Ernie to pursue a pro career Tully convinces himself to give his own stalled career another go. Along the way Tully enters the orbit of Oma, played by Susan Tyrrel, with whom he pursues a boozy, codependent affair. FAT CITY is littered with dark humor and a pessimism bordering on nihilism: The protagonists are not talented fighters, but maybe they are, but also maybe it doesn’t matter. For those familiar only with Huston’s early Bogart-collaborations FAT CITY is a must-see, both for the ways in which it’s stylistically unrecognizable as a John Huston production, and for the core themes that are ever-present in his work. Just as LET THERE BE LIGHT derives its power from denying viewers any semblance of glory and focuses instead on its protagonists’ fragile internal lives and comedown, FAT CITY barely acknowledges Tully’s previous life and instead stares with him into the abyss. In the aftermath of Tully’s big fight, one can easily imagine the Walter Huston voice over: “In faraway places men dreamed of this moment, but for some men the moment is very different from the dream.” Preceded by Russ Davis's 1955 short wrestling film DICK THE BRUISER VS. CHEST BERNARD (13 min, 16mm). (1972, 96 min, 35mm) JS
Canyon Cinema 50: Continuum (Experimental Revival)
Film Studies Center (at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., University of Chicago) - Friday, 7pm (Free Admission)
The Film Studies Center wraps up their month long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the indispensable Bay-area film co-op Canyon Cinema with a screening presented by the curator of the series, David Dinnell. Out of all the screenings, this one perhaps has less of a thematic spine, but contains some stone-cold classics, some hidden gems, and certainly some personal favorites. VALENTIN DE LAS SIERRAS (1968) by Canyon co-founder Bruce Baillie is a folksy, breezy masterpiece of gentle songs and graceful, appreciative closeups of daily life. Dominic Angerame, former longtime-director of Canyon, is represented by his film CONTINUUM (1987), a starkly constructed view of labor and power. One of Canyon's first members, the always-amazing Gunvor Nelson, created the classic MY NAME IS OONA (1969), a ritualistic chant of motherhood, childhood, beauty and life. Pat O'Neill's DOWN WIND (1973) is "some sort of berserk travelogue" by perhaps the world's greatest virtuoso of the optical printer. It's alternately reverential of the natural world, and amusingly appreciative of its inhabitants. TERRACE 49 (2004) by the extraordinary puppeteer, animator, and theater and video artist Janie Geiser is a bit of a leap forward for her, using new techniques to explore the deep textures of danger and fear. Chick Strand's MUJER DE MILFUEGOS (1976) is surrealist ethnographic portraiture of women in Greece, Mexico, and Spain. Tomonari Nishikawa's MARKET STREET (2005) is a swirling stuttering stroll down the titular San Francisco street. The unknown gem of the group is SAVING THE PROOF (1979) by Karen Holmes, which promises to be a complex, ingenious structuralist film that breaks down filmic and thematic dichotomies. (1968-2005, 85 min total, 16mm) JBM
Penny Lane’s NUTS! (New Documentary)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) – Friday, 7pm (Free Admission)
NUTS! is a tragicomic experimental documentary that plays seriously with conventions of the genre in order to illustrate a point about how we as viewers can be easily manipulated by the filmmaker, all while telling a crazy, almost-unbelievable story about the ultimate snake oil salesman and the mythos of the American dream. Penny Lane's second feature documentary (OUR NIXON, the first, received much critical acclaim) tells the "mostly true story" of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a huckster who built a radio empire on his success selling an impotence cure made from goat testicles. Through irreverent animated recreations (so many goat cameos!), archival footage, and interviews with historians, Lane tells the story initially from Brinkley's perspective, putting the viewer in the position of falling prey to his charm, rhetoric, and trickery. The "authorized" biography of Brinkley used to narrate the first part of the film lends nominal credibility to the story being woven, until the cracks in the narrative become too large to ignore, and the story turns on its head. What begins as a goofy, entertaining documentary becomes something much darker and scarier: an indictment of ourselves as gullible viewers who might not interpret the narratives presented to us as critically as we could and should. Comedy turns to tragedy as the true(r) narrative is revealed, credibility is lost, and the costly toll of Brinkley's legacy is speculated (because it can never truly be calculated). A clever and well-crafted film when it was released in 2016, NUTS! acquires a layer of urgency and added pathos in 2018 when viewed during the presidency of a similar huckster who managed to dupe the American people with his snake oil cures. Lane in person. (2016, 79 min, DCP Digital) AE
Seijun Suzuki’s EVERYTHING GOES WRONG (Japanese Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Tuesday, 7pm
“Today, goodwill between people can’t exist anywhere. Everything goes wrong.” This line uttered by a newspaperman as he’s contemplating how to write his next article perfectly surmises the intergenerational feuds depicted onscreen in EVERYTHING GOES WRONG. In post-occupation Japan, Jiro is a teenager navigating life while dealing with his delinquent high school ‘gang,’ his mother and her lover whom he does not approve of, and a woman who has fallen madly in love with him. Far from an angel himself (he’s shown committing a car jacking and a mugging among other misdeeds), Jiro is dissatisfied with the state of his world, blaming those older than him for his unhappiness and for not sharing his outlook on how life should be led. This sentiment echoes the differences in the generations that existed in pre/post World War II Japan. Suzuki’s unique style here is distinctly Japanese New Wave, with heavy emphasis on the youth subculture, jazz music, and social progressiveness. The cavalier attitude of Jiro and his friends towards sex breaks from more traditional values, with the characters showing a willingness to express themselves physically quite easily. Reminiscent of Godard’s BREATHLESS in it’s pacing and composition, EVERYTHING GOES WRONG is a terse narrative displaying the reckless abandon so commonly found in youth and also serves as a cautionary tale about how much there is still to learn in life before one can consider oneself to be an adult. (1960, 71 min, 35mm) KC
Showing as part of a double feature with Suzuki’s 1960 film FIGHTING DELINQUENTS (80 min, 35mm), which is at 8:45pm
Mohsen Gharaie’s BLOCKAGE (New Iranian)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 8pm and Sunday, 3pm
BLOCKAGE marks Mohsen Gharaie’s first solo feature as director, and it’s an exceptional debut. The film plunges viewers into the world of Tehran’s lower class, offering a detailed portrait of the physical environment and the social mores that motivate behavior within it. Moreover, Gharaie develops a sense of desperation that makes the movie feel like a classic film noir—the morally compromised hero finds himself in a sticky situation that only gets worse as the movie proceeds. At the start of the story, Qasem is working for the municipal government as a low-level officer, shaking down illegal street vendors. He dreams of getting out of this work and buying a truck (which he plans to use for a delivery service), but his wife wants him to use their savings to buy a house. (The two of them have been living with his brother’s family for years, and she longs to have her own home.) Their conflicting desires might have inspired an intimate social drama, but Gharaie and screenwriter Saeed Roustayi have other things in mind. One of the vendors targeted by Qasem and his partner shows up at the hero’s home one night, claiming to have been abused when he was arrested. The vendor proceeds to blackmail Qasem, with the hero having to run all over the city to satisfy the other man’s demands. Even when BLOCKAGE transforms into a thriller, one is always cognizant of the social reality in which it takes place, as Qasem has to juggle problems at home along with those he has on the job. Everything erupts in the film’s nail-biting last act, which is underscored by a sense of tragedy. The hero seems a victim of social circumstances—which pit the poor against one another—as much as bad luck and bad decision-making. (2017, 82 min, DCP Digital) BS
Mohammad Hamzei's AZAR (New Iranian)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 6pm and Sunday, 5pm
Mohammad Hamzei's debut feature, the Iranian melodrama AZAR, is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes desultory critique of the role of women in his society. Boasting a cast of well-regarded actors, it's nuanced and thought-provoking. The film's opening title is the Bismillah—an important phrase that translates as "In The Name of God," and which, I learn, opens the Qur'an. Thus, Hamzei seems to intend his film as both a prayer and a feminist statement, and whatever contradictions might arise from that approach, he intends to explore. When we consider this movie's authorship, I think we should include in that category not just Hamzei and scriptwriter Ehsan Biglari, but also the lead actress, Niki Karimi. Not only does she portray the main character, the unconventional Azar, she also co-produced. She's directed four films of her own, as well, and served on the juries of over 20 international film festivals. (Hers is also one of the many female visages we see in Abbas Kiarostami's SHIRIN, and, as usual with Iranian film, one of the pleasures of AZAR is the expressiveness of the women's faces.) When we meet Azar, she's having a blast racing motocross, executing bold jumps, and being cheered on by her husband, Amir (Hamid Azarang), and their little girl, Baran. Houman Seyyedi plays Amir's cousin, Saber. They're as close as brothers and, together with Azar, they run a popular local pizzeria in Tehran. Azar and Amir have been married for 14 years. Their relationship is one of equals, though we get an early indication he'd be quick to sell out her needs. They enjoy a happy community of friends and family. Thanks to a check given begrudgingly by Uncle Ali (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini), Saber's estranged father, they are on the verge of achieving their dream of buying the restaurant, when a horrible accident sends Amir to prison. Azar is left to manage the bustling pizzeria, ably assisted by her loyal, kindly husband-and-wife employees, Mehran and Shirin. A traditionalist, Uncle Ali does not like Azar, because she enjoys not only working (which is one thing), but also hobnobbing with the customers—for a woman, that's a bridge too far. When they're swamped, Azar decides to hop on her bike and deliver pizzas herself—though Mehran warns her, "The police will arrest you." Azar does what needs to be done, often proceeding as if men's BS didn't exist. When we see her in public in her black chador, often silhouetted—this film is strikingly lighted—Western viewers may simplistically decide her cloak is a symbol of repression, and the bike is a symbol of freedom. But Azar contains all of these sides—she's a whole, flawed, modern human being, a determined woman navigating the secular and the spiritual. If she chafes at the dress code—as Saber's fiancée, the controversial Yagemeh, also seems to, showing a tuft of hair—we never know. When we see little Baran at a beautiful religious ceremony for girls, where she's to "join the garden of submission to God," we may wish this to be Hamzei's critique of female indoctrination, but again, Hamzei resists simplifying. Watch Azar's face. She looks distracted at first. Then, she looks proud. In a way, all of the movie's tragic events flow from the prejudices of one unforgiving man, Uncle Ali (as well as his equally unforgiving wife, Panoor), and the weakness of two others, Saber and Ali, who aren't bad men, just cowardly. When Amir tries to get himself out of prison with an alibi that would leave Azar to shoulder the blame and the shame, what could have been a story of a woman's self-sacrifice becomes, instead, a reflection on female independence, perfectly symbolized by the last sound we hear, which was also the first—Azar's motorcycle revving. (2017, 89 min, DCP Digital) SP
Emir Kusturica’s UNDERGROUND (Serbian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 2:30pm; Monday and Wednesday, 6:30pm
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, UNDERGROUND is Emir Kusturica’s greatest achievement, an epic satire that takes on a full half-century of Balkan history. It centers on two lifelong friends and black marketeers named Blacky and Marko (played, respectively, by Lazar Ristovski and Miki Manojlovic). During the bombing of Belgrade in WWII, the pair hatches a scheme to keep their families and friends safe by hiding everyone in a giant underground bunker. Marko, elected to serve as a liaison with the aboveground world, sells munitions made by the underground community and becomes known as a hero in the anti-Nazi resistance. After the war ends, he maintains his position as an arms dealer by telling the folks underground that war is still going and has them continue to work. Decades pass and new generations are born, the bunker community carrying on in ignorance. The premise is an obvious metaphor for the closed-off world of Tito’s Yugoslavia, with Marko standing in for the tyrant and the underground bunker representing the oppressed nation, yet Kusturica fleshes it out so vividly that the movie never feels simplistic. UNDERGROUND is filled with rollicking comic set pieces, gloriously outsized characterizations, and near-constant marching band music—it feels as much like party as it does a film. Kusturica has been compared often to Federico Fellini, yet there’s a sense of formal control underscoring the chaos here that’s arguably beyond anything the Italian director achieved. Also, you’ve got to love that chimpanzee driving a tank! (1995, 170 min, DCP Digital) BS
Akira Kurosawa’s DODES'KA-DEN (Japanese Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Sunday, 7pm
The circumstances under which Akira Kurosawa made DODES'KA-DEN, well-known though they may be to anyone familiar with his work, warrant summation nonetheless: five years after RED BEARD—an especially long chasm considering his prolific output in the 50s and 60s—and the year after he was infamously fired as director of the Japanese portion of TORA! TORA! TORA!, Kurosawa, partially in an attempt to prove his mental fortitude after a smear campaign by 20th Century Fox, created the Club of the Four Knights (comprised of himself, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita—its exact name varies among sources) to ensure he could continue making movies on his own terms. His first film in color, DODES'KA-DEN is a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of suffering that simultaneously evokes a sense of realism and intensifies the inherent artificiality of both its characters’ fantastical bearings and the filmmaking itself. In his book on Kurosawa, Donald Ritchie refers to it as a “low-budget, minor film that compares with [his] great works only as a shadow resembles substance,” further elaborating that it’s more straightforward than explorative. He’s not wrong—earlier masterpieces like RASHOMON and SEVEN SAMURAI, both trading in ensemble casts, are allegorical in summary but not in execution, though the outlines of their plots are often touted as such. DODES'KA-DEN, on the other hand, is an amalgamation of parables, based on a book of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, and divided between the residents of a landfill-set slum, which include an adolescent boy who pretends he’s a train conductor (the film’s title is derived from the sound he makes when mimicking a trolley), a pair of young women who swap their imbibing husbands, an awkward young girl at the mercy of her lecherous drunk uncle, a blithe cuckold who embraces a passel of kids borne by his wife of other men, and a father and son who fantasize about their dream house while living in abject squalor. In the middle of all this is a wise-man stand-in for the outrightly heroic figures of Kurosawa’s earlier films, and the figure who assuages the viewer’s passivity—in one scene, he stops a drunk young man flailing a sword to ask if he can take on the task for him, to take some of the burden off him. Toshiro Mifune he is not, but rather a token of understanding and acceptance over aggression and perseverance. Assigning this viewpoint to Kurosawa in light of his previous struggles would be too simplistic—and perhaps even false, as he attempted suicide a year later—but it’s not preposterous to align the progression of his career with that of his outlook. The bright aesthetic is seemingly less ambiguous, Kurosawa taking the possibilities of color film to their illogical extreme. He reportedly shot in 1.33:1 instead of anamorphic widescreen to better retain the colors’ gaudy brilliance; cinematographer Takao Saitô said that Kurosawa didn’t trust the film stock, opting instead to paint the sets bright colors rather than rely on the camera to illuminate them. Its design is evocative of outsider art in its beguiling simplicity, begging further questions about Kurosawa’s relationship to its creative timbre. In one interview he said, “If you were to ask me what sort of mood I was in when I directed this picture, I think I’d have to say I was emotionally drained”; in another, “I was always smiling and never angry...I enjoyed it heartily.” A similar juxtaposition could be applied to the experience of watching the film itself, as bracing as it is wearying. (1970, 140 min, 35mm) KS
Daniela Thomas’ VAZANTE (New Brazilian)
Music Box Theater - Check Venue website for showtimes
Don’t let its purified appearance fool you—there’s more to Daniela Thomas’ VAZANTE than meets the eye. Shot in striking black-and-white, as if it were a series of tintype photographs come to life, VAZANTE follows a farming family in 1820s Brazil over a particularly turbulent period. After returning home from the city, Antonio (Adriano Carvalho, a Portuguese actor whose face was made for moving images) discovers that his wife has died in childbirth. Muddling one’s sympathy for him is that he’s a slave owner; the country’s slave trade was large, exceeding that of British North America. But that’s not the focus of the film, at least not directly—its plot is episodic, bits and pieces of the characters’ trajectory revealed with an almost frustratingly mystical reserve. Antonio soon marries Beatriz (Luana Nastas), his deceased wife’s adolescent niece; her family lives on the farm, relegated to the small house as everything else was given to Antonio as part of his wife’s dowry. The familial strife is intercut with the slaves’ plight, scenes which run the gamut from a violent escape, led but ultimately abandoned by its particularly (and justifiably) enraged leader, Lider (Toumani Kouyaté), to a sexual relationship between Antonio and one of the slave women, Feliciana (Jai Baptista). The most outrightly dramatic elements are deftly executed—the transitions, elliptical in nature, from delicate scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick (think twirling ingenues and silent wonder) to a swift brutality that undermines all preceding benevolence, effectively activate its intersectional designs. Thomas’ first independent directing credit (she co-directed three films with Walter Salles, who’s best known in the United States for his 2004 film THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES), VAZANTE is an ambitious endeavor, daring in its ambiguity. Thomas’ willingness to confront her country’s insidious history and her own problematic present is commendable, though like most establishment liberals, her efforts shouldn’t be given overdue praise. Still, it’s refreshing to hear an artist engage with it rather than shy away. “[I]t was based on a personal story, a story in my family, family lore,” she said in a recent interview with Remezcla. “It was a story my father told about this great-great-uncle who had married a 12-year-old girl, which was a normal thing in the past. He waited three years for her to menstruate before he consummated his marriage. He used to bring her dolls and treated her like a child, which I found all very perverse and it somehow echoed with the amount of perversity that still is acceptable in Brazil in the government, in relationships, and in so many things.” She also addressed controversy over the film in her country: “[It] was questioned for its portrayal of the black population. There were very, very intense discussions. It was very polarized and it was very interesting. I was very uncomfortable, but I was also very happy at the same time, because all the cultural publications were talking about the question of racism and the black community’s fight.” Perhaps least interesting to me is the very aesthetic element that’s received the most notice. The black-and-white cinematography, a tactic of recent arthouse blandishments such as FRANCES HA, IDA and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, feels incidental, even deliberately newfangled. I’m glad I stuck with it, though—rare is the film that broadens its exploration, employing cinema to scrutinize its presuppositions. (2016, 116 min, DCP) KS
Ron Fricke's SAMSARA (Contemporary Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, 8:15pm and Thursday, 6pm
Cinematographer Ron Fricke has spent over three decades compiling a legacy of exquisitely-lensed examinations of nature, culture, technology, and the inevitable intersection of the three, a study that began with Godfrey Reggio's landmark KOYAANISQATSI, continued on through Fricke's own BARAKA, and now, following a nearly 20 year gestation period, has reemerged with familiar themes and a fresh vantage point in his latest creation, SAMSARA. The first of two 2012 releases to be shot in 70mm (see also, THE MASTER), SAMSARA is a film of spectacular scope; a wondrous world-tour which, like its predecessors, allows us to see that world in a brand new light. It is no surprise then that Fricke returns again and again to the image of the human eye—the most bewitching feature on the trio of dancers in the opening scene, the focal point of the sarcophagus that precedes the title, and the penultimate shot of the film—bookends on a film stuffed full of illusions about the sensation of sight. Most fascinating is how an image so universal as the human eye is continually photographed in various extremes, through makeup and colored-contact lenses, as an ornament fixed on the palm of dancing beauties, and even as the twitching nerve on a synthetic person. There's an uncanny effect to these scenes, particularly one where a performance artist violently reshapes his face with a muddy plaster mixture, and they push the limit to which we can connect with these images that are, at least at their core, still inherently human. But the beauty of it is that Fricke's film doesn't lend itself to any one interpretation, and it encourages viewers to seek out their own connections between the images. It's an astonishing feast for the eyes that's ready to reward active spectators everywhere. (2012, 102 min, 35mm) TJ
Terence Nance's AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY (Contemporary American)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Monday, 7pm
Has anyone ever been as young as the characters in AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY feel? The film is a whirlwind of naval-gazing over-analysis, in the most charming (yet exhausting) way possible. At its simplest level, it follows the romantic-ish relationship of two beautiful people, as perceived by the man whose date has cancelled on him. The obsessive, wormholing logic of an evening of frustrated attraction is given visible life through a variety of image styles, ostensibly comparing a fiction and an educational film, with gorgeously animated fantasies and histories. It's ambitious, constantly layering and re-evaluating the nuances of image and idea, and the openly addressed emotions are refreshing in their lack of cynicism or shame. Perhaps this is the film's greatest strength: it's utter shamelessness. It revels in exploring the visual and presenting as many beautiful things as possible, and it does this while investigating a familiar attraction in exacting detail. (2011, 95 min, Digital Projection) CAM
Jean-Pierre Melville's LE SAMOURAI (French Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Wednesday, 7 and 9:30pm
For many cinephiles—among them John Woo and Johnnie To—this is the quintessential Jean-Pierre Melville film. Alain Delon plays a hitman who lives by a private code inspired by that of the samurai: he says little, requires few possessions, and acts in precise, deliberate gestures. In a sense, he is the ideal hero for this famously eccentric filmmaker, who based his career on whittling down the crime film into a minimal, personal form. As Roger Ebert wrote in his “Great Movies” review: “The elements of the film... are as familiar as the movies themselves. Melville loved 1930s Hollywood crime movies and in his own work helped to develop modern film noir. There is nothing absolutely original in LE SAMOURAI except for the handling of the material. Melville pares down and leaves out. He disdains artificial action sequences and manufactured payoffs. He drains the color from his screen and the dialogue from his characters.” And yet the movie is rich in double-crosses and hidden motives—as well as a seductive sense of movement (assisted by a keen, deco-inspired production design) that mirrors the hero's own progression. To quote Ebert's review again: “One of the pleasures of LE SAMOURAI is to realize how complicated the plot has grown, in its flat, deadpan way.... The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense—how action releases tension, instead of building it.” (1967, 105 min, 35mm) BS
Greta Gerwig's LADY BIRD (New American)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Saturday at 7pm and 9:30pm and Sunday at 4pm
"You stole my life!" Greta Gerwig wails at the climax of MISTRESS AMERICA, the terrific neo-screwball comedy that Gerwig wrote with Noah Baumbach. The object of her scorn is Lola Kirke, the Columbia University undergrad who pilfered Gerwig's neuroses to spice up a short story. I came out of LADY BIRD, Gerwig's solo directorial debut, and expressed much the same sentiment. It's not just that the story is set in Sacramento, the town where I grew up, or that its central character, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), yearns to escape high school in the Operation Iraqi Freedom winter of 2003, a year before I graduated. Every single detail in this movie is right: the unnamed supermarket where Lady Bird's brother works is a dead-on replica of the tan-and-artichoke-green Raley's grocery chain in the early Bush years, before the chain was forced to gentrify and update its color scheme; the ruby red Sacramento News & Review boxes dot the sidewalk cafes, where scruffy hipsters read Howard Zinn and make exotic-for-Sactown references to Maurice Pialat; a non-religious family of Unitarian Universalists send their daughter to a Catholic school because they reflexively refuse to subject her to that purportedly gang-infested, one-time flagship Sacramento High School. (Actually, in 2002-2003, Sac High was subject to a hostile take-over from one-time NBA star, charter school entrepreneur, future mayor Kevin Johnson—but the family's very obliviousness to this debate rings true, too.) But LADY BIRD's achievement goes beyond its exacting production design and precise recall of seemingly trivial details. The rituals of Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf)—a shopping spree at Thrift Town, a disingenuous tour of model homes—track so closely to the aspirational lower-middle-class activities that I know but which rarely wind up on screen. There's a strip mall-sized gulf between the articulate and affectionate depiction of this social strata in LADY BIRD (and Kogonada's COLUMBUS) and the gawking condescension that undergirds the misogynistic screeds of Alexander Payne. LADY BIRD is particularly smart in the way Gerwig expresses gradations of class through competing neighborhoods, accessories, and body language. Compare the belabored set piece about buying a cell phone in Richard Linklater's recent LAST FLAG FLYING, also set in 2003, with the subtle way that a phone pulled out during class stands in for pages of expository dialogue in LADY BIRD. One movie's throwaway comic relief is another's freighted shorthand. Sacramento is front and center in LADY BIRD's logline and I haven't read a single review that fails to describe Ronan as a Sacramento teenager. LADY BIRD was photographed primarily in Los Angeles, with a few days of exteriors shot in Sacramento. That hasn't stopped Sacramentans from claiming every piece of LADY BIRD that hasn't been nailed down. Thrift Town sent out an e-blast promoting the cameo from its El Camino location while Lonely Planet compiled a location guide highlighting the convenience store that Ronan visits in one short scene or the blue house where her first boyfriend lives. The Tower Theatre, which appears on screen for a second or two in a montage towards the end, has been playing LADY BIRD for twelve weeks straight and grossed over $500,000 with the picture, a new house record. But while LADY BIRD is achingly precise in its overall social geography (of course the selfish rich classmate lives in Granite Bay!), there's one detail that's been left deliberately hazy: Everyone I know from my mother to my ex-girlfriend to high school classmates with whom I haven't spoken in over a decade has an opinion about where exactly Lady Bird's house "on the wrong side of the tracks" might be found. In Gerwig's earlier FRANCES HA, her twentysomething Manhattan transplant spends a Christmas at her parents' house in Sacramento at 214 Camellia Ave—an address that doesn't quite exist, but suggests the cozy East Sac bungalow belt that many assume to be the de facto neighborhood of LADY BIRD. In 2003, anything in the city proper would've been considered déclassé, coming as it did right before the debt-financed building boom that finally reversed decades of exodus to suburban Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks. Love and attention are one and the same. It's rare to find a movie that can be subjected to this kind of loving scrutiny, but does any of it matter unless you hail from NorCal? Sure, hella. Even if you can't tell the Tower Bridge from the H Street Bridge, LADY BIRD still feels intensely rooted, evoking a rich sense of personal geography that's at once deeply specific and effortlessly universal. It's an effort to conjure the past with every piece in place, but the mystery at the center remaining exquisitely preserved. LADY BIRD is first and foremost a memory play, though Gerwig obscures that form by eschewing traditional markers like voice-over narration and present-day bookends. We sense the presence of an older, wiser Lady Bird through what's left out and what lingers just beyond our comprehension. Lady Bird appears in almost every scene, but there are a handful of moments outside her direct experience—a quietly humiliating job interview for her father, Tracy Letts, or the tender scene of her drama teacher Stephen McKinley seeking treatment for an unspoken malady—that acknowledge the emotional wholeness but ultimately inaccessibility of other people. Our parents are people, our teachers are people, and we're people, too. Someday. (2017, 93 min, DCP Digital) KAW
Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (New American)
Music Box Theatre – Friday-Thursday, 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Midnight
The American heist movie enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2017 with the releases of LOGAN LUCKY, BABY DRIVER and GOOD TIME. While the first two of these films are enjoyable, comedic, populist entertainments, the Safdie brothers' movie is, by contrast, a trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying thing: a breathlessly paced thriller centered on an unlikable protagonist (who is brilliantly played by a charismatic actor) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America—beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface—while also never slowing down enough to allow us to process what's happening until it's over. This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they're put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York Times' A.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of dubiously including "racial signifiers" that he feels can be interpreted in a multitude of ways but that the filmmakers ultimately don’t care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scot free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning of an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie's cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while simultaneously finding him morally reprehensible. I also don't know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its "bad lighting" and "avoidance of prettiness," qualities that are much better ascribed to the Safdies' previous film, the urban junkie-drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. While the two films do share a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it seemingly turns urban spaces into a giant playground), GOOD TIME is also much more daring in how it juxtaposes its "street cred" with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization—one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie's luck has finally run out for good, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It's a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one's faith in the medium. (2017, 101 min, 35mm) MGS
Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD (New American)
Music Box Theater – Check Venue website for showtimes
More often than not, modern movies are endlessly clogged with flimsy and cardboard cutouts of the “classic love story,” a trend hopefully being seared away entirely, given that they seem more offensive in a cavernous last year of cynicism and bitterness. The genre has been in desperate need of a refurbishing to allow for a better understanding of what’s embedded inside its own fragile construction. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest and possibly greatest achievement isn’t without a mind of its own; it is a wonderfully conceived cinematic dream, wrapped in the lush, evergreen imagination of an artist working closely within the inner representation of his creations, much like Daniel Day-Lewis’ dress-making main character, Reynolds Woodcock. Anderson achieves something much closer to the actual emotions and feelings that echo throughout a relationship between two people, avoiding many of the stale and dry trends found in the modern romance movie. These lifeless morality lessons, usually soaked in a pale blue sadness, seem too bitter and lazy to have much real purpose and functionality, allowing Anderson to spin a delightedly deceptive chamber piece instead. Given the film’s advertising, championing PHANTOM THREAD as a brooding sure-fire contender in the race for awards-season gold, you might be surprised to discover a strange rom-com hiding in the lining of its framework. The plot involves a dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his closely-curated daily home and work life, right as another of his romantic relationships is beginning to dim out. As another unfulfilled and lifeless relationship goes, Woodcock decides to retreat to one of his favorite restaurants (it is here I’d like to heavily underline the film’s ideas about taste and hunger, given new literal and metaphorical life in a way that is shockingly unpretentious). It is at this place of dining that he meets Alma, played by newcomer Vicky Krieps, that leads to an intimate portrayal of love’s inherent mystery, built inside an almost hermetic world of imagination that conjures up visions of the classical Hollywood era, while simultaneously managing to subvert the work of “tradition.” straddling the lines of the modern and classical film structure/form with the skill of a master operating at the height of their creative abilities. Despite taking place in Great Britain, this is far from the British-ness on display in BBC dramas and endless droves of Oscar bait. Beginning with its suggestive point-of-view, then unwinding between not two points of view, but a shared point of view, the personal nature of this film for Anderson is evident, with Anderson not only writing the script, but also shooting nearly every frame of film himself (though he appears uncredited in that role). The everyday gestures, glances, embraces, arguments, and alluring atmosphere between two people seeps through every frame, delivering unexpected surprises carefully yet unabashedly. This is one of the few films in recent years that is really essential to witness in 70mm. The projection’s colors and light are captured in spellbinding luminosity, the sounds and images pushing forth the relationship of one woman and one fragile male ego, across a tapestry of sensual pleasures with hardly a hint of on-screen sex in sight. The results trace the lines around eroticism, rather than circling it directly, letting them blossom into a rare achievement in recent American cinema, a precious gift inside the fabric of it’s own design; one to keep close through the next several years. (2018, 130 min, 70mm) JD
Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK (Contemporary Australian)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Thursday, 10pm
The modern horror film, as a whole, seems to have been divided into two distinct groups. On one hand, there are the CGI driven, jump-scare saturated exploits that most movie studios pump out purely for cheap thrills and a quick buck, and on the other, and much more rarely, there are those that entrust in strong storytelling, a building of tension, and promoting a sense of dread until the audience can barely stand it anymore without peeking through their fingers. THE BABADOOK falls into the latter of these categories. "If it's in a look. Or in a book. You can't get rid of the Babadook." These are the beginning lines of the demonic children's storybook, Mister Babadook, presented in Jennifer Kent's horrifying film. As unsettling as David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE and as claustrophobic as Roman Polanski's REPULSION, Kent's directorial feature debut is a much needed adrenaline shot to the arm of the horror genre; a film that owes more to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, and Dario Argento than to the recent trend towards torture porn. Relying on a monochromatic color scheme that ranges from ashen white to ghastly black, Kent creates an ever present sense of terror as a widowed mother and her son are forced to confront and battle the malevolent and mysterious Babadook in a slow descent into psychological torment. (2014, 94 min, DCP Digital) KC
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) screens Laurie Little, Jess Mattison, and Theresa Campagna’s 2018 documentary WHY WE MARCH (22 min, Digital Projection) on Saturday at 8pm, with the filmmakers in person. Followed by an Open Screening, where audience members can bring their own footage of the 2018 Women’s March (up to five minutes each) to share.
The Midwest Independent Film Festival presents J. Wilder Knoschak and Stirling McLaughlin’s 2017 film COLD WAR (96 min, Digital Projection) on Tuesday. The event start time is 6pm, and usually includes social time, a panel discussion, and then the film. At the Landmark's Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.).
Black Cinema House (at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, 1456 E 70th St.) screens Shola Lynch’s 2012 documentary FREE ANGELA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS (102 min, Video Projection) on Friday at 7pm. Followed by a discussion. Free admission.
Wretched Nobles presents the shorts program What Is Love? Baby Don't Hurt Me (Or Do) on Tuesday at 9pm at The Den Theatre (1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.). Screening are works by Rebecca Ladida and Virginie Jrdn, Lauren Kimball-Brown and Julia Zinn, Judy Febles, Jake Myers, Cassidy SM and Paul Scudder, Jim Vendiola, Drew Hanks, Lindsay Denniberg, Crystal Beiersdorfer, and Charles E. Roberts III.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Sean Baker’s 2017 film THE FLORIDA PROJECT (111 min, DCP Digital) and Etienne Comar’s 2017 film DJANGO (117 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week; and Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 French film THE 317TH PLATOON (100 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Tuesday at 6pm, with a lecture by SAIC professor Nora Annesley Taylor at the Tuesday show.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Richard Brooks’ 1958 film CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (108 min, 35mm) is on Friday at 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday at 1:30pm; and Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish film THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (152 min, 35mm) is on Thursday at 7pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Alexandra Dean’s 2016 documentary BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (90 min, DCP Digital) continues; Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film STARSHIP TROOPERS (129 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight; and Craig Denney’s 1975 film THE ASTROLOGER (96 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Facets Cinémathèque plays Philippe Van Leeuw’s 2017 Belgian film IN SYRIA (85 min, Video Projection) for a week-long run; and the final screening in the Religion in the Frame Series, Kamal Tabrizi’s 2004 film THE LIZARD (115 min, Video Projection), is on Friday at 6:30pm.
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film NO WAY OUT (106 min, 35mm) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission. www.northbrook.info/events/film
Sinema Obscura presents Animation Compilation 2 + Art Fair on Monday at 7:30pm at the Logan Bar (2230 N. California Ave.). The evening will include screenings of locally-made short animated works, and an exhibition of work by local artists.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
PRESENT ABSENCE, a five-channel video installation by Salome Chasnoff and Meredith Zielke that honors the lives of individuals killed by Chicago Police is on view at Hairpin Arts Center (2810 N. Milwaukee Ave.) during public events in January and early February. Viewing times include (but may not be limited to): Saturday, February 3, 6-9pm.
DIGITAL FOUNTAIN, a video installation by Jarad Solomon, is on view continuously through the windows at Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) through Sunday, February 18 (ending at 6pm).
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.
CINE-LIST: February 2 - February 8, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, John Dickson, Alexandra Ensign, Jb Mabe, Chloe A. McLaren, Scott Pfeiffer, Michael G. Smith, James Stroble, Tristan Johnson