NEW ON THE BLOG
Cine-File contributor Michael G. Smith interviews director Michael Curtis Johnson, whose film SAVAGE YOUTH is screening this weekend at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Read the interview here. (https://www.cinefile.info/blog/)
New Episode! On episode #4 of the Cine-Cast, Cine-File associate editors Ben and Kat Sachs get the party started—banter ensues between the married critics; contributor JB Mabe interviews Chicago Underground Film Festival programmer and artistic director Bryan Wendorf about the upcoming festival (June 6-10), now in its 25th year; associate editor Kat Sachs interviews local filmmaker and all-around delightful human Lori Felker about her new film, FUTURE LANGUAGE: THE DIMENSIONS OF VON LMO, which is the closing night film at CUFF (Sunday, July 10 at 8:30pm); associate editor Ben Sachs and contributors Kian Bergstrom and Kyle Cubr discuss the "Stanley Kubrick: The Filmworker Series" at the Music Box Theatre, during which Ben tells a joke about Kubrick that you won't want to miss.
Listen here. As always, special thanks to our producer, Andy Miles, of Transistor Chicago.
MICHAEL CURTIZ X 4
at the Music Box Theatre
Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (American Revival)
The fourth collaboration between Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD presents the classic English folklore tale in a world of rich Technicolor greens and primary colors. This adaptation of Robin Hood’s renowned adventures of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor capitalizes on the resources of the Hollywood studio system, allowing for many virtuoso elements beyond the lush color. Errol Flynn’s performance is scene stealing and his charisma oozes from every frame with his endless charm. Shot during the infancy of Technicolor, the rich color palette recreates the lush countryside of Crusade’s-era England that is so vibrant that one can’t help but feel the rustle of the breeze through the trees of Nottingham Forest. Michael Curtiz’s direction adds new life to a well-known tale, aided in part by the dance-like quality of the film’s fight choreography. Be it Robin battling Little John with a staff to him taking on Prince John’s guards with swords in a castle, the onscreen skirmishes have an effortless flow that dazzle in time with Erich Korngold’s passionate and romantic score. The film has excellent pacing; its plot unfolds naturally and at a rapid pace towards the next lively set piece. For all of its predecessors and successors, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD stands tall as one of the very best Robin Hood entries. (1938, 102 min, 35mm) KC
Michael Curtiz's CASABLANCA (American Revival)
A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, CASABLANCA irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against the backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood's old studio system. You must remember this: Bogie as Rick Blaine, the American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-World War II France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They'll always have Paris—and we'll always have CASABLANCA. (1942, 102 min, 35mm) MGS
Also showing: Michael Curtiz’s 1931 film THE MAD GENIUS (81 min, 35mm) is on Saturday at 11:30am; and his 1950 film THE BREAKING POINT (97 min, Newly preserved 35mm Archival Print) is on Sunday at 2pm. All four introduced by Alan K. Rode, author of Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film.
Jiří Trnka’s THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE (Czech Animation Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Sunday, 3:45pm and Wednesday, 6pm
In the Hans Christian Andersen fable this unsettling film is based on, the Emperor of China delighted by the music of a nightingale, covets a mechanical replica of the bird, growing attached to it, amorously, until his obsession nearly kills him and only the song of the real bird can cure him. It has often, and simplistically, been interpreted as an autobiographical allegory, but Andersen’s story is a subtle warning about the power of replication to corrupt us, a cautionary tale about how the ersatz can be addictive, overwhelming, more real than real, so to speak. Trnka’s powerful, horrifying adaptation takes this theme and applies it to Trnka’s own work. It is a film in which puppets play with, animate, even fall in love with, their hand-cranked, wind-up wonders. Trnka’s Emperor is made a connoisseur of the clockwork imitation. His palace is filled with seemingly living things that are gradually revealed to be constructions, marvels of the mechanical rather than the natural world. Swans that swim and kiss in a pool of mirror. Flowers that bloom in their own. The film is framed by a curiously primitive and stylistically brutal live-action narrative about a shut-in boy making friends with a girl living nearby, hurting his head, and dreaming (perhaps) the puppet show before waking again to rejoin his new friend, now in a free exploration of the outdoors. The contrast between these deliberately clumsy scenes and the expert and visually mellifluous technique in the long animated middle section. In the framing scenes, the two children behave robotically, moving with strange precision and obeying unknown rules, as though they are the final stage in a progression/regression of animation, from the mechanical to the quasi-living to those who are alive but only quasi-animated. Trnka’s own work is put in sharp relief, then—his refusal to animate his ‘living’ characters is at odds with the work of animation that those characters perform, which is often more flowing and vibrant than what Trnka does with his humans, whom he makes move in uncanny, eerie manners, evincing a preternatural rather than a natural liveliness. The film then reduplicates itself, an ouroboros of continual bringing-to-life that takes its own existence, it’s own efficient and masterful animation, as both its justification and its curse. It is a cabinet of wonders that recursively contains only itself, endlessly opening into its own boundaries. (1949, 72 min, 35mm) KB
Also showing this week is Trnka Shorts Program II (1949-53, 74 min total, DCP Digital), a program of four films directed by Trnka and one designed by him, on Sunday at 2:15pm and Monday at 6pm.
Alain Tanner’s LA SALAMANDRE and LIGHT YEARS AWAY (Swiss Revivals)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Thursday, 6pm (Salamandre), and Saturday, 5:30pm and Tuesday, 8pm (Light)
One of the most seductive aspects of Alain Tanner’s films is the way they interact with literature. His narratives feel like the stuff of postwar fiction in their digressions into psychological and social portraiture, and they offer the vivid sense of place (or, in some cases, placelessness) that one derives from good novels. Suitably the subject of Tanner’s second feature, LA SALAMANDRE (1971, 125 min, 35mm), is writing. The film centers on two writers assigned by a Swiss TV studio to write a docudrama about a young provincial woman accused by her uncle of attempted murder. The writers, both men in their 30s, travel from Geneva to the young woman’s town on the western border and get to know their subject, who’s now 23. They quickly discover that her life is more complicated than they expected: impulsive, defiant, and vulnerable, Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier, in a tremendous performance) confounds the writers’ ideas for how to translate her experience into a narrative. She also becomes sexually involved with one of the men, Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau), and arouses the sexual curiosity of the other, Paul (Jacques Denis). Tanner, who wrote LA SALAMANDRE with British intellectual John Berger, hints at Rosemonde’s influence over the two men by having her narrate the film—the film is her story, and it’s animated by the struggle to devise a narrative structure that befits her free-spirited lifestyle. Subtitled “a color film in monochrome,” LA SALAMANDRE was shot like a cinema verite documentary in gritty black-and-white; the film’s color, presumably, comes from the characters, who exhibit a complexity that books have traditionally been better at conveying than movies. Also playing this week in the Siskel Center’s Tanner retrospective is LIGHT YEARS AWAY (1981, 105 min, 35mm), the director’s first film in English and one of his rare forays outside of a social-realist mode. “Tanner turns away from the social and political realities that inform his best films to embrace a kind of terminal mysticism,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. “It’s as if this militantly left-wing filmmaker had given up on this world to contemplate the next: our problems are not to be solved, but set aside in favor a journey to the center of the self.” Set is a post-apocalyptic future, LIGHT YEARS centers on the spiritual training of a young drifter (Mick Ford) by a Russian mystic (Trevor Howard) living in a big garbage dump at the edge of the world. Canby referenced Samuel Beckett in his review; I haven’t seen the film, but the premise does suggest an Endgame feel. BS
Logan Theatre – Through Sunday
The 25th edition of CUFF continues this weekend, through Sunday, with a diverse range of features, shorts programs, retrospective screenings of work by special guest Craig Baldwin, bar talks, and parties. We’ve got a generous group of reviews below, but there are many other programs we didn’t have time to cover. Check out the full schedule at www.cuff.org.
James N. Kienitz Wilkins's COMMON CARRIER (New Experimental)
In all but the most technically virtuosic experimental films, double exposures suggest a haphazard brilliance, a grasping, instinctual sense of how two disparate images might interact in-camera. Even more sophisticated films which fuse separate rolls of footage through optical and contact printing are always walking a tightrope between chance and intention. Such superimpositions are firmly in the realm of collage: in the language of Cubism, it’s a synthetic form of connecting images together. But video superimpositions behave differently. If Godard’s later work is any guide, layering video images in editing software produces a more analytic form, as if the idea were to get the viewer to critically disentangle the overlaid images again. An experimental feature built entirely through superimposed frames, James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s COMMON CARRIER (2016) is also an analytic exercise, both a self-examination and a social inquiry into the lives of working artists during a time of precarity, corporate exploitation, debt, and dispersal. Wilkins downplays the more metaphorical possibilities of superimposition to focus on strategies for collapsing and expanding space, but when the film does shift into more pyrotechnic passages of associative montage, it’s easily the equal of Isiah Medina’s groundbreaking work of digital-cinema poetry 88:88 (2015). Wilkins’s more distanced, disciplined sensibility results in a less rapturous but more coherent and intriguing experiment. Controlled doublings and juxtapositions, such as the soundtrack that ping-pongs between NPR to Hot 93, lend the film an architecture that rein in the limitless possibilities of non-linear editing. In form and content, the film is a bit like looking at yourself in the window of a coffee shop: it’s easy to see oneself reflected among the film’s ensemble of frustrated creatives, moonlighters, and layabouts, but are you one of the people shamelessly broadcasting their professional ambitions, or are you another victim of wifi-enabled distraction? Superimposition represents only one of many shrewd ways the film dramatizes its identification-alienation, working-hard-or-hardly-working dilemmas: on the outside looking in as an off-screen voice, Wilkins also appears onscreen in interviews and its charmingly under-rehearsed scripted passages. While documentary and essay-film techniques embody the film’s split sense of immersion and distraction, its reflexivity is tempered by mumblecore-ish narrative passages about young people struggling with interpersonal, economic, geographical, and technological disconnection. In these moments, the film recalls two recent Argentinean films, Mathias Piñero’s HERMIA & HELENA (2016), which also made gorgeous use of superimpositions in the form of long dissolves, and Eduardo Williams’ THE HUMAN SURGE (2017), which also mapped its socioeconomic terrain around its characters’ relative access to data. But from its wily use of subtitles to the way it stages dialectical exchanges between Rihanna and Radiolab, COMMON CARRIER is an essay film through-and-through, one that earnestly grapples with the paradoxes of a creative economy in which people striving to imagine new forms of social connection find themselves increasingly alienated both from their labor and from their peers. It’s a keen work of analysis about the frustrated desire for synthesis. Preceded by Craig Webster’s LOVE GUN (2017, 15 min), “a portrait of a fragmented mind.” (2017, 93 min, Digital Projection) MM
Lori Felker’s FUTURE LANGUAGE: THE DIMENSIONS OF VON LMO (New Experimental Documentary)
Most modern documentaries about eccentrics, forgotten geniuses, and cult heroes are about as adventurous as a Disneyland jungle cruise. Suffocated by voice-overs, clogged by talking heads, and bloated with cloying AfterEffects photomontages, they aspire to a one-size-fits-all competence that evacuates the strangeness of their subjects even as they turn that strangeness into a commodity. Conceivably, such films will one day be made entirely by algorithms and a few Wikipedia links. But FUTURE LANGUAGE: THE DIMENSIONS OF VON LMO is the only documentary that could be made about Frankie Cavallo, aka VON LMO, irrepressibly bent noise musician and space refugee from the planet Strazar—and Chicago-based filmmaker Lori Felker is the only person who could have made it. Ask LMO why it had to be Felker, and he might talk about their shared “extraterrestrial hybridity,” or about their past lives together, perhaps as two ingredients in an 18th-century salad. The filmmaker certainly has gift for entering what Steven “Laserman” Cohen, VON LMO collaborator and inventor of the “Gimbaled Laser Bongo,” describes as a “mindlocked brainfuck” with the post-punk icon: throughout FUTURE LANGUAGE, Felker tunes us to station WLMO by way of pixel-frying video effects, Martian-time-slip montage, and sheer sonic attack. Something of a stylistic factotum in her experimental film and video work, Felker’s got enough technique to be exactly as weird as she wants to be, maneuvering between interviews, candid camera phone footage, animation, live performances, and blizzards of CRT noise with exhilarating confidence. Clearly her subject is impressed: after seeing one of his acid trips woozily brought to life in Mike Lopez’s cartoon recreations (sequences which serve as color-coded act breaks in an otherwise very freewheeling film), VON LMO lets out an unbridled shout of recognition that conveys as much joy on screen as I’ve seen in eons. In these moments when FUTURE LANGUAGE circles back on itself, revealing the seven (hundred?) year process of portraying a bizarre and troubled life, we see Felker’s fandom take on the gravity of real friendship, but this film is really an extended dialogue between two artists, and only an artist of her ingenuity and idiosyncrasy could slingshot around this “intergalactic superstar” without burning out. Though an undeniably affectionate, sometimes awestruck tribute, the film wisely describes a more elliptical orbit around its subject than most rock profiles—over the years, VON LMO seems to come in and out of focus not only to Felker and to us, but to himself. Her trajectory not only helps shield the filmmaker from her subject’s sometimes disturbing volatility, it also lends FUTURE LANGUAGE a peculiar rhythm, one that mirrors the flux of its own making. Most importantly, her ability to step back preserves the quantum of VON LMO’s essential strangeness, which utterly confounds conventional rise-and-fall-and-rise biographical structures anyway. Thrilling and sometimes frightening up close, the dimensions of VON LMO become both more spooky, and more affecting, at a distance. Preceded by Tommy Heffron’s inspired LIKE THIS/LIKE THAT (2017, 3 min), a face-melting, multi-camera TV tesseract. (2018, 84 min, Digital Projection) MM
Shorts 3: Short-Circuit Control
This program showcases the formally experimental side of underground cinema, though some of the selections exhibit fascinating content as well. It opens with a short Belgian documentary called HOMELAND (Sam Peeters, 2016), which looks at several “normal” couples in an upper-middle-class suburb. Peeters employs calm, careful compositions to present hideous behavior, emphasizing the subjects’ racism and xenophobia. The approach recalls the work of Austrian Ulrich Seidl, specifically IN THE BASEMENT; nevertheless, this feels timely in its presentation of the rise of far-right nationalism—a subject to which Americans can certainly relate. Another, more optimistic stand-out is Jake Hart’s DESCENT (2017), which documents the sport of downhill skateboarding as practiced in the hills of North Carolina. Hart generates a nice sense of motion, with nifty skateboarding footage, deft editing, and groovin’ lo-fi rock music; the skateboarders’ enthusiasm is infectious. WESTERN WILD: OR HOW I FOUND WANDERLUST AND MET OLD SHATTERHAND (Martha Colburn, 2017) maintains an upbeat tone as well, achieving a gee-whiz sense of wonderment at the life of German author Karl May. Colburn addresses May’s massive popularity as well as his mental illness, suggesting that the two were in some ways symbiotic. The film is overloaded with information and visual styles (which range from found footage to cut-out animation), and this gives it the feel of a brief manic episode. The non-narrative selections include AMUSEMENT PARK HOME MOVIES INSPIRE THE ALGORITHM (Caleb Foss, 2017), a provocative piece of conceptual art which was made by feeding home movies shot in amusement parks into a computer-generated, predictive algorithm similar to the ones used to generate individualized online advertising and weather reports. Evocative of Harun Farocki’s work, AMUSEMENT PARK considers surveillance technology through the lens of art, rendering it doubly strange. PATCHES OF SNOW IN JULY (Lana Z. Caplan, 2017) is a nice bit of collage art that features the music of Shellac and a thematic emphasis on American bigotry. Also playing are two works shot on 16mm: Stephanie Barber’s 3 PEONIES (2017) and Josh Lewis’s AN EMPTY THREAT (2018); and, on digital, Jesse Malmed’s SINK (2017), Benjamin Buxton’s ON THE RINK (2018), Susan Deleo’s AS NEAR AS LIGHT (2015), and a formalist documentary on European tractor-pull competitions, THIS MECHANICAL PLACE (Jakob Ohrt and Oliver R. Jennings, 2017). (2016-18, 90 min total, 16mm and Digital Projection) BS
Shorts 4: Temporary Temple
Artist Robert Smithson wrote that “one thing all films have in common is the power to take perception elsewhere.” Despite their considerable tonal and stylistic differences, the films in this program all address the mobility and the alienation of perception. In keeping with its title, FOREIGN QUARTERS (Rajee Samarasinghe, 2017) sets the stage both formally, geographically, and thematically with a suite of perceptual estrangements. Using a vertical aspect ratio, the film shuttles between China, the US, and Sri Lanka, and between ultra-slow motion footage of garment workers, drone footage of urban sprawl, and multilayered images suggesting augmented (and diminished) reality. At one point, a title card appears over an inverted shot of sunflowers strewn across a slate-grey beach, asking us to “look this way.” Although it’s unclear where Samarasinghe’s gliding tracking shots along assembly lines and winding woodland paths are taking us, the film’s imperative suggests a way—rather than a where—of seeing. Some of these films, like Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat’s amiable AMARILLO RAMP (2017), direct the viewer’s perception rather gently. Casting a wide glance at the communities and landscapes around Smithson’s final earthwork, a 140-foot partial spiral gradually ascending from a now-dry lakebed, the film asks us to trust its playful yet sure handed guidance over an unhurried 24-minute runtime. Polak Van Bekkum’s gradually-ramifying digital dérive A COLLISION OF SORTS (2017), on the other hand, confronts the queasily transcendent eye of Google Earth; as the film GPS-tracks Philadelphia inhabitants across flattened urban spaces, we hear their voices describing the sights surrounding them and reflecting on the city as a space of isolation—until a misplaced look introduces both rupture and connection. Perhaps the program’s most striking meditation on “taking perception elsewhere” is Fern Silva’s THE WATCHMEN (2017, screening in 35mm). Ironically, among all these films, WATCHMEN provides locals with the most familiar sights, inserting landscape shots of iconic Chicago hot-dog restaurants and the imposing, panoptic architecture of the Stateville Correctional Center. Yet between Silva’s clever and often breathtaking cinematography and his unmistakeable facility for what Artavazd Pelechian called distance montage—an approach to editing in which “the meaning of ideas...is best communicated not through the joining of two shots, but in the creation of interaction between them through numerous links” —WATCHMEN captures both the absurdity and the brutality of an American landscape in which there is no “elsewhere” outside the eye of the law. Peleshian claimed of distance montage: “It’s not linear, it’s spherical. It’s in continuous motion.” Kind of like the eyeball itself—for better or for worse. Also screening are Kelly Sears’s animated film APPLIED PRESSURE (2018), which proves that the middle ground between the therapeutic and the traumatic is the thaumatropic; and Shambhavi Kaul’s HIJACKED (2017), which brilliantly defamiliarizes common tropes of air travel through intensified gestures and strikingly effective minimalist mise-en-scène. (2017-18, 87 min total, 35mm and Digital Projection) MM
Shorts 5: Revealed Manifestation
‘Revealed Manifestation’ is an ingenious title for an experimental shorts program—experimental cinema is manifestation incarnate, as unequivocal as it is mystifying, wearing its heart on its sleeve, then asking us to wonder what is a heart? What is a sleeve? How does one wear one on the other? The films in this program are both explicitly demonstrative and wonderfully evasive; abstraction at its most blatant and elusive. Akosua Adoma Owusu’s MAHOGANY TOO is an ethereal reimagining of the 1975 Diana Ross-starring melodrama MAHOGANY. Shot on 16mm, it’s “[i]nspired by Nollywood’s distinct re-imagining [sic] in the form of sequels” and stars Nigerian actress Esosa E. On her site, Owusu writes that the film “emphasizes the essence of the character,” a concept that adds a cerebral dimension to such visceral subject matter. With AUGENBLICK, Vivienne Dick explores “what it means to be human in a post-human world.” Nestled between more outwardly experimental elements is a desultory conversation between three women from different walks of life, at once familiar and perplexing. That Jean-Jacques Rousseau—or, at least, a man dressed and speaking as him—factors into it makes it all the more bewildering. Mike Rollo’s FAREWELL TRANSMISSION chronicles the demolition of Saskatchewan’s CBK Transmitter Station in 2015, examining a rather straightforward occurence in experimental terms. In THE SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER, Cecilia Araneda uses found footage to weave together seemingly disparate events and experiences to illustrate the interconnectedness of all things. Its prophetic tone lends itself to a new way of thinking about personal filmmaking; what at times can be a navel-gazing mode is broadened via discordant interrelationships. Perhaps the most oblique of the bunch, Kera MacKenzie and Andrew Mausert-Mooney’s STONES FOR THUNDER, which I’ve now seen several times, continues to confound me in the most sublime way. One feels it must be watched several times more for its manifestation to reveal itself, but then wonders if that even matters—as a work of moving image art, its ambition is astounding. Sarah Meyohas’ CLOUD OF PETALS is a remarkable achievement of both theory and form. The filmic component of her eponymous 2017 installation, it was shot on 16mm and features the process by which a team of temps hired by Meyohas, all men, plucked the petals (almost 100,000 to be exact) from roses and individually documented each and every one. Described as both “a Steely Critique of Big Data” by artnet.com and a film that includes “lingering social commentaries relating to what has been traditionally associated with women’s work versus men’s work” and “contemplation about a post-human reality and the future of labor in the face of automation” by the exhibition venue website, it’s as dazzling in execution as it is befuddling in ideology. Its manifestation is evident, so to speak, but its aim, intention, story, whatever you want to call it, remains elusive. (2017-2018, 88 min, Digital Projection) KS
Shorts 6: Virtual Mirrors in Solid Time
In case you missed it at Onion City, Jesse McLean’s brilliant short film WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE WE ARE (2017) returns to town as part of this shorts program. Funny, haunting, and weirdly expansive, WHEREVER YOU GO uses close-ups of postcard imagery to evoke wide shots, with the textures of the drawings taking the place of the nuances of landscapes. On the soundtrack, Mclean combines a hypnotic electronic score with the texts of spam emails, read by a bland, male middle-American voice. Both the images and the texts are at once anonymous and eerily familiar; when the narrator starts reading from a pamphlet about raising worms, one feels an odd sense of catharsis. McLean’s logic evokes the neat, organized surrealism of Belgians like Magritte as opposed to the wild surrealism of Frenchmen like Breton—its melancholy aftertaste has stayed with me. The themes of mortality and transcendence crop up again in some of the better works in the program. EVERY GHOST HAS AN ORCHESTRA (Shayna Connelly, 2017) is a short, experimental documentary about the experimental sound artist Michael Esposito, shown here preparing an installation piece in an old barn. At one point, Esposito shares a story of a near-death experience, and his confession frames his work in a metaphysical context and raises questions about what an artist is supposed to achieve. PHOTOAXIS (Melissa Ferrari, 2017) is a charming animation whose voice-over narration draws from the Narcotics Anonymous handbook and first-person accounts of people who have claimed to see the storied “Mothman” of America’s eastern seaboard. INTERVENE (Amanda Kramer, 2017), is a live-action narrative short starring Jane Adams as a religious fanatic who’s “training” her grown son to experience a holy vision. Kramer’s style is deadpan and straightforward, but her story is knotty and weird, making for a compelling combination. Also playing are Usama Alshaibi’s characteristically poetic and gross THE FLOWERING (2018), Erya Dellenbach’s performance-art document HELD OVER SHORE (2017), AUTO PORTRAIT / SELF PORTRAIT POST PARTUM (Louise Bourque, 2017), Jim Vendiola’s LIBRARY HOURS (2017), and Jennifer Reeder’s ALL SMALL BODIES (2018). (2017-18, 90 min total, 35mm and Digital Projection) BS
Shorts 7: About Belief
The highlight of this program is Nellie Kluz’s SERPENTS AND DOVES (2018), a straightforward behind-the-scenes documentary about a gargantuan passion play in Arkansas. Viewers inclined to interpret the goings-on as tawdry hick pageantry may find much to laugh at, but Kluz doesn’t encourage such a reading; her tone is one of watchfulness, balancing that pageantry with lovely moments of quiet observation of the small labors that go into putting on the show. Figuring out how to get a life-size Judas puppet to swing properly from a tree is as important here as making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the cast. Voiceover interviews with cast members reveal that they draw on the same kinds of inspirations that any other actors might use, that they suffer from the same doubts, they’ve been through the same kinds of tragedies. Kluz’s entrancing film treats these people as the hard-working and skilled entertainers that they are, and the result is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year. Irving Gamboa’s HISTORY OF FIRE PRAYER OF DEATH GENESIS CREATION AND DESTRUCTION (2017) can be enjoyed with or without its apocalyptic trappings; I was blissfully lost in the intricate textures caused by the various tortures to which Gamboa subjected his 16mm film. Other films to get lost in are Robert Todd’s LIGHTFALL (2016), which celebrates the way sunlight filtering through trees looks on celluloid, Iyabo Kwayana’s PRACTICE (2017), which celebrates Busby Berkeley-like orchestrations of large numbers of people practicing their kung fu, and Brittany Gravely and Ken Linehan’s TELEKINESIS LESSON 6 (2018), which celebrates the joys of optical printing and sound collage. Also screening, but unpreviewable, is Nazli Dinçel’s new film BETWEEN RELATING AND USE (2018). (2016-18, 91 min total, 16mm and Digital Projection) MWP
Shorts 8: Decode – Encode – A Code
From low-tech Super-8 cameras and homemade lenses to high-desert development sites, many of the shorts in this program interrogate the ways that human artifice constructs and transforms space. Kaitlin Martin’s COWBOY CASTLE (2017) sets the stage by exploring an abandoned building seemingly overtaken by wildlife; pulling at the landscape with lens distortions and irises and superimposing enigmatic animations, the filmmaker plays an intriguing game of revealing and obscuring her subject, keeping her cards close to the chest. Simon Liu’s 35mm STAR FERRY (2018) hits an early high mark in the program with an ultra-condensed, smear-streaked silent travelogue of Hong Kong and Tokyo that recalls similarly spectacular efforts by Tomonari Nishikawa and Bruce Conner. Unlike those filmmakers, Liu used a 35mm still camera to produce STAR FERRY, a choice that introduces a welcome untidiness, and which underscores the importance of the frame as both a delimitation of light and as a spatiotemporal architecture. If the film has a signature image, it’s of a pair of baskets hanging in a restaurant window; like them, STAR FERRY posits the film strip as a receptacle overflowing with visual nourishment. Aurèle Ferrier’s TRANSITION (2017) provides something of a harsh, if necessary comedown, but its deliberative tracking shots are just as transfixing. Drawn magnetically from the desolate outskirts of the Mojave towards the equally desolate center of the Las Vegas Strip, Ferrier's eye absorbs unfinished tract-homes, big box stores and outsized casinos along its route with equal indifference. It’s not so much that we view these spaces with contempt, but that they seem to have contempt for themselves. Like the work of New Topographics photographer Lewis Baltz, her landscapes are so thoroughly depopulated that it appears as though the camera were seeing by itself. The rough-hewn, seemingly hand-processed sights of Randolph Jordan’s BELL TOWER OF FALSE CREEK (2017), on the other hand, appear to show a bit more affection for the Vancouver environments they document. However, the exquisite soundtrack, combining archival audio, interviews and field recordings, complicates the elegaic sense of pastness clinging to its grainy shots of harbors, bridges, skylines and indigenous sculpture. The contrast reminds viewers that the century-old displacement of the Squamish Nation that took place in the region remains a living history. Miriam Gossing and Lina Sieckmann’s ONE HOUR REAL (2017) and Max Colson’s CONSTRUCTION LINES (2017) explore more contemporary spaces; both are excellent. ONE HOUR REAL takes us on a bemused tour through various absurdly-themed “escape rooms;” the work unlocks these spaces cinematically, playing with their surfaces through ingenious relationships of lighting and framing. CONSTRUCTION LINES is an equally playful desktop comedy about another absurd construction–a billionaire’s proposed subterranean renovation of a London townhouse, shown entirely in a Google Sketchup architectural model populated with increasingly ludicrous figures and scenes. To a soundtrack comprised of outraged letters protesting the project, the film gradually transforms the underground luxury interiors it depicts into an artificial orgy worthy of an underground film. Also showing: Philip Rabalais’s retro-tech psychodrama PROBLEMS ON THE LINE (2017); J.M. Martínez lovely light-bending interlude CYCLICAL REFRACTIONS (2017), and Nathaniel Draper’s promising-sounding MORICAND IN BELLEVILLE (2018), which promises a view of “the goings and comings in state-of-emergency Paris,” and was unavailable at the time of previewing. (2017-2018, 88 min, 35mm and digital projection) MM
Morgan Neville's WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (New Documentary)
Landmark Century Centre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Those hoping for the Woodward and Bernstein treatment from Morgan Neville's WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a heartening and restorative documentary about public television icon Fred Rogers, will have to look elsewhere. With Mr. Rogers, what you saw was, by all indications, precisely what you got: a deeply humane man, gentle, honest, responsible (and, yes, square). That said, the film deepened and even changed my view of the man. I came away with a new admiration for his vision, and his ambition. Neville, whose previous credits include the personal favorite 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, is a deft craftsman at dramatizing the standard doc formula: well-curated archival footage, artfully mixed with good interviews. In opposition to the bludgeoning children's shows of the day, Pittsburgh-based Mr. Rogers envisioned what we might call a kind of "slow TV." To illustrate a minute elapsing, for example, he'd simply show a clock face as the minute played itself out. He wanted a show that would fortify children for navigating the thorny realities of adult life. His philosophy was remarkably unswerving down the decades: love is at the root of everything. No one can reach his or her full potential unless they realize they are loved, and capable of being loving. He believed children feel just as deeply as you or I, and he was certain that denying those feelings, especially darker ones like fear and anger, was bad for the health, on levels both personal and public. Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood went national in the troubled year of 1968, echoes of which resound through our own days, and we see Mr. Rogers interacting with a painfully riven country in ways that are positive, helpful, and healing. The show grappled with a truer, darker America than perhaps its latter-day image would suggest. To address the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Mr. Rogers turned to Daniel the tiger, one of the allegorical hand puppets from the Neighborhood of Make Believe (and Rogers' alter-ego), who movingly expressed to Lady Aberlin the questions and concerns a child might have. As whites violently drove black people from swimming pools, Mr. Rogers pointedly pictured himself and François Clemmons, the black man who played Officer Clemmons, cooling their feet together in a kiddie pool. Then there is the semi-legendary 1969 Senate hearing wherein his testimony almost singlehandedly saved public television, thanks to the emotional impact it had on hardboiled committee chairman John Pastore. To watch Mr. Rogers, a lifelong gentleman-Republican, nail down funding for PBS is to know you're peering into a different era. Neville does, in fact, include some critical perspectives on Mr. Rogers, which come in the voices of the comically awful American right. They criticized him for the crime of...wait for it...teaching children that each of them is inherently special. Yet the idea that everyone is endowed with value is a very Christian one; in fact, Mr. Rogers conceived of his television work as an outgrowth of his ministry. You might say his vision of TV's potential was no less than to build a neighborhood out of a whole country. (He visits an inner-city neighborhood, slipping happily into the vibrant street life.) This brings us to a hard question in these dangerous days. Did his attempt to influence America succeed? For a man the very essence of whom was finding common ground, the America of 2018 would be a great sadness. WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? makes a strong case that Mr. Rogers' vision is more badly needed than ever, and more absent than it's ever been. (2018, 94 min, DCP Digital) SP
Laura Scruggs’ UNCLE FUN: YOU'RE THE ONE (New Documentary)
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.)—Sunday, 11:30am, 2pm (sold out), and 7pm (sold out)
First-time filmmaker Laura Scruggs pays tribute to Chicago’s late, lamented toy and novelty shop Uncle Fun and its owner, Ted Frankel. An unabashed fan, Scruggs doesn’t even feign critical distance, but none is necessary when making a love letter to one’s favorite place on earth. A mecca for gag gifts and doodads of every kind, the store was a reflection of its proprietor, who appears often in the film, wearing a loud shirt or a goofy hat every single time. A parade of customers and employees sing the store’s praises and there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity and impossible not to empathize with their sense of loss at the store’s looming closure. Uncle Fun was a sanctuary for artists, musicians, and oddballs of all stripes and this is a celebration of their Valhalla. There are out-of-focus shots, cheesy graphics, and amateurish editing throughout but it doesn’t matter one bit. This is a heartfelt appreciation for a place dedicated to making people happy, made by people who adored it, and I’m not going to be the one to rain on their parade. Scruggs and Frankel in person at the 2pm and 7pm screenings; Scruggs in person at the 11:30am screening. (2018, 60 min, Digital Projection) DS
Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s LOVING VINCENT (New Polish/British Animation)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Here's another chance to see the "world’s first hand-painted feature-length film" on the big screen. A breakthrough work, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s LOVING VINCENT is comprised of 65,000 gorgeous oil paintings, on canvas, executed by a team of over 125 classically trained painters, working from live-action reference footage and Van Gogh's own paintings. A pulsing, exhilarating experience, I imagine it will only continue to find new audiences: I'm one of them. What the filmmakers have managed to do is get Van Gogh's experience of life, of nature, on screen, in all its richness and lust. Connoisseurs will love the details: you can hear that horse famously in the center-background of Cafe Terrace at Night clip-clopping towards you, under the starry, starry night. It's a pretty staggering technical accomplishment—you can enjoy it just for the texture of those big, thick, swirling impasto brushstrokes. But what's really remarkable is how they were able to craft a story with an emotional impact that does justice to this life, and to a body of work in which so many continue to take solace. The story takes us from Arles in the south of France, via Montmartre, to Auvers-sur-Oise in the north, where Van Gogh died in 1891. It's a year later, and we join Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd), on his quest to deliver the last letter written by lonely, ill Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz). Each character is a famous Van Gogh portrait come to life. There's Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn); his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), at her piano or in her garden; innkeeper Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson). Sometimes, as with the Boatman (Aidan Turner), they've imagined a character based on "just a really tiny character at the shore of the river in a painting," as Kobiela put it. Miraculously, these all ring true as real, dimensional humans. Playing detective, Armand questions them about what really happened on the days leading up to Van Gogh's death: suicide, murder, or accident? Color—throbbing, shimmering, clashing—is for the present; black and white, evoking the greys of Van Gogh's early Nuenen style, is for memories. To describe the film's structure, critics have evoked CITIZEN KANE or RASHOMON. The surreal visual experience they've compared to WAKING LIFE—there's a similar feeling of life as a waking dream, which reminded me of AKIRA KUROSAWA'S DREAMS, with our Marty Scorsese as Van Gogh. ("The sun! It compels me to paint!") I was even reminded of JFK, what with Dr. Mazery's musings on what we might call the "Rene Secretan theory." Everyone Armand talks to has a different theory about "why," a different perspective on who and what we saw before. I think what he comes to understand is that he's looking in the wrong place. The truth is in the beauty, and the life force, of what Van Gogh left behind, a love this film celebrates in every frame. Cracking entertainment, too. A modern classic. (2017, 94 min, DCP Digital) SP
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) presents the first two of three screenings of new work by MFA students in the Documentary Media program. Program 1: Legacies is on Wednesday at 7pm and includes: FOUNTAIN OF TEARS (Kyeongbok Lee, 2018, 18 min), TWO EMPTY NESTS (Sandeep Pamulapati, 2018, 19 min), and SWAN LAKE (Yu Bai, 2018, 19 min); Program 2: Borders/Edges/Frames is on Thursday at 7p and includes: THE SCHWEINFURT PENTALOGY – CENTER (Kai Allen Blakley, 2018, 20 min), ROUGHLY DELICATE (Heqiuzi Wang, 2018, 14 min), BOOK OF DANIEL (Elodie Edjang, 2018, 11 min), and THE B-ROLL (Peter Franco, 2018, 15 min). Each screening is preceded by a reception at 6pm. Free admission.
Also at Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) this week: Mika Kaurismåki's 2015 international film THE GIRL KING (106, Blu-Ray Projection) is on Saturday at 8pm as part of its monthly “Dyke Delicious” series. Preceded by a reception at 7pm.
Black Cinema House (at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, 1456 E. 70th St.) presents Open Television Premieres: New Black TV on Friday at 7:30pm. Free admission.
Cinema 53 presents Screening Black Film in Chicago: An Exhibitor Roundtable on Tuesday at 6pm at the Logan Center for the Arts (915 E. 60th St., University of Chicago). Participating are: Randy Crumpton (Chicago International Film Festival), Sergio Mims (Black Harvest Film Festival), Michael W. Phillips, Jr. (South Side Projections; formerly Black Cinema House), Alisa Starks (ICE Theaters, Black World Cinema, Black Perspectives), Floyd Webb (Black World Cinema; formerly Blacklight Film Festival), and Jacqueline Stewart (Cinema 53; formerly Black Cinema House). Free admission.
The Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens Hermes Paralluelo’s 2014 Spanish/Columbian documentary NOT ALL IS VIGIL [No todo es vigilia] (98 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 6pm. Free Admission.
The Spertus Institute presents Eli Cohen’s 1991 Canadian film THE QUARREL (85 min, Video Projection) on Tuesday at 7pm at the Mayer Kaplan JCC (5050 Church St., Skokie). Followed by a discussion.
Pride Films and Plays presents the June edition of its Pride Film Festival (“Summer Shorts”) on Tuesday at 7:30pm at the Broadway Pride Arts Center (4139 N. Broadway).
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Wes Anderson’s 2017 animated film ISLE OF DOGS (101, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 10:30am (open captioned), 2pm, and 7pm; and Daniel Burman’s 2016 Argentinean film THE TENTH MAN (82 min, DCP Projection) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission. www.northbrook.info
The Ready Freddy Film Festival takes place on Friday at 7:30pm at the Den Theatre (1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.).
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Pablo Solarz’s 2017 Spanish/Argentinean film THE LAST SUIT (92 min, DCP Digital) and Warwick Thornton’s 2017 Australian film SWEET COUNTRY (113 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week; Umetsugu Inoue’s 1957 Japanese film THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (115 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 4pm and Saturday at 5:15pm; and Jeremy Frindel’s 2018 documentary THE DOCTOR FROM INDIA (89 min, DCP Digital) has five screenings Friday-Monday and Thursday.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Olivier Assayas’ 1994 French film COLD WATER (92 min, DCP Digital) and Bart Layton’s 2018 film AMERICAN ANIMALS (91 min, DCP Digital) both open; Tony Zierra’s 2017 documentary FILMWORKER (94 min, DCP Digital) and Xavier Beauvois’ 2017 French film THE GUARDIANS (138 min, DCP Digital) both continue; and Ryan Prows’ 2017 film LOWLIFE (96 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Facets Cinémathèque hosts the African Diaspora International Film Festival this week. Full schedule at www.facets.org.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Jung-Lae Cho’s 2012 South Korean film DURESORI: THE VOICE OF THE EAST (110 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Cauleen Smith's single-channel video SPACE IS THE PLACE (A MARCH FOR SUN RA) (2001) is in the Stone Gallery; Gretchen Bender's eight-channel video installation TOTAL RECALL (1987) is in Gallery 289; Joan Jonas’ MIRROR PIECES INSTALLATION II (1969/2014) is in Gallery 293B; 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: June 8 - June 14, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kian Bergstrom, Kyle Cubr, Michael Metzger, Scott Pfeiffer, Michael W. Phillips Jr., Dmitry Samarov, Michael G. Smith