On episode #5 of the Cine-Cast, Cine-File associate editor Ben Sachs and contributor JB Mabe talk about the upcoming Ingmar Bergman series at the Gene Siskel Film Center; Ben and contributors Kyle Cubr, John Dickson and Dmitry Samarov discuss the Doc Films summer schedule; Mabe interviews Raul Benitez, film programmer for Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square and lead programmer for the Chicagoland Shorts Volume 4 for Full Spectrum Features; and Ben and contributor Harrison Sherrod chat about the Bill Gunn films GANJA & HESS and PERSONAL PROBLEMS, as well as cult-classic LIQUID SKY, all of which played at the Film Center in June. (The new restoration of PERSONAL PROBLEMS in now available for purchase on DVD/Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.)
Listen here. As always, special thanks to our producer, Andy Miles, of Transistor Chicago.
Dorothy Arzner’s THE WILD PARTY (American Revival)
Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) —Wednesday, 7:30pm
In 1929, “It” Girl and newly anointed Queen of Hollywood Clara Bow was 23 years old, starring in her first talking picture, and the wild party was her life. Director Dorothy Arzner was 32, the first woman entrusted to helm a sound film in Hollywood, and on the verge of achieving the greatest commercial success of her career. The resulting film, Paramount’s THE WILD PARTY, is a crazy, incongruous mix of styles, energies, and moods—ranging from joyfully hedonistic pre-Code collegiate dance parties to maudlin academic melodrama (if such a genre exists). If it stretches the limits of the cinephile’s mind to picture Bow shedding her perfected flapper persona for the guise of a bookish academic, rest assured that her role here, as party girl Stella Ames, demands no such swan-to-ugly-duckling transformation. From the beginning, Bow proudly lets her Hard-Boiled Maiden flag fly high, almost like a form of branding (literally...there’s an H.B.M. sign above her dormitory door), living with her girlfriends at Winston College in co-habited bliss. A gag about spoons in her luggage leads to entendres about the “dangers of spooning” with a handsome stranger on the train. When said stranger then shows up at Winston in the form of handsome new Anthropology professor James Gilmore (Frederic March)—affectionately nicknamed “Gil” by the girls—more entendres follow about Stella’s newfound scholastic interest in the “study of Man.” Margaret Mead (a more credible anthropologist than March’s alternately buffoonish and brooding Gil) observed of American gender relations that “a really successful date is one in which the boy asks for everything and gets nothing except a lot of skilful, gay, witty words.” The battle of the sexes for Stella and her friends against a variety of male specimens, in locales ranging from fraternities and roadhouses, is shown as sometimes adventurous and fun, but just as often as obnoxious and even genuinely frightening. Yet even in the moments when the film lapses into the familiar shape of a disappointingly conventional morality play, THE WILD PARTY’s portrait of the enduring virtues of female friendship, loyalty, and principled courage makes it refreshing to see, as an early film to repeatedly pass the Bechdel test. Looking back on her life in the movies, Bow concluded in retirement, “My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. Alcott’s idea of a Little Woman.” For all her flaws, thank heavens for Stella Ames, raising some hell along the way. Preceded by George Stevens’ 1932 short BOYS WILL BE BOYS (20 min, 35mm). (1929, 77 min, 35mm). TTJ
Michael Curtiz’s NOAH’S ARK (Silent American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Sunday, 11:30am
Sure, I recommend seeing NOAH’S ARK—specifically on the big screen, where its epic design and reticulated narratives are likely even more tremendous—but, after researching the film's production, I might rather see a movie about how it was made. Picture this: The not-yet-middle-aged but still highly prolific Manó Kaminer, successful in his native Austria-Hungary (now just Hungary), attracts the attention of Warner Bros. Jack and Harry with his biblical epic MOON OF ISRAEL. They bring him to Hollywood, where Kaminer, now working under the anglicized name Michael Curtiz, hopes to start this modest little project straight from the Old Testament. But the brothers are at odds and instead assign him a less ambitious project titled THE THIRD DEGREE. It’s not until a few years later, as they’re experimenting with new sound technology, that they ask Curtiz to finally helm the ship—er, ark; ducks in a row, to the ark they go—shooting commences. Five thousand extras are needed for the biblical scenes (just as in MOON OF ISRAEL, proving Curtiz was thinking big before he even got to Hollywood), and intense practical effects are used for the flooding. Chaos ensues, with a young extra named John Wayne in the midst of it all. Reports of mayhem were quashed at the time but may actually have been exaggerated since—claims range from one to three fatalities, and one man is said to have lost his leg, though almost no documentation about these incidents survive, if they ever existed (Hollywood be shady). The film’s star, George O’Brien, said both of his big toenails were torn off during the deluge. It sounds like a veritable nightmare, but the results are impressive, if morally dubious. Shot silent, Vitaphone technology was used for the music, sound effects and dialogue, the latter of which pierces the film at seemingly random intervals. Originally over two hours, many of its Vitaphone sequences were cut to get the film to its current 100-minute version. The story of its scripting is decidedly less dramatic, but knotty nonetheless: it was first a Curtiz treatment, then a collaboration with his soon-to-be-wife Bess Meredyth, from which Warner Bros. screenwriter Anthony Coldeway adapted the actual script, the story of which was eventually credited to Darryl F. Zanuck. Speaking of stories, the film merges two of them: one set during World War I, the other telling the tale of Noah’s ark with the actors from the present-day segment playing the biblical characters. In the former, two young Americans, Travis and Al (O’Brien and Guinn Williams), save a young German woman, Marie (Dolores Costello, with whom Curtiz worked several times), after their train, the Orient Express, crashes. On board is Nickoloff (Noah Beery), a Russian Secret Service officer who attempts to rape Marie and whom Travis attacks in turn. Later, in Paris, after the war has broken out, Travis goes to join Al after the Americans get involved. He loses track of Marie, now his wife, who again runs into Nickoloff. He frames Marie as a spy after she won’t sleep with him, and she and Travis are bleakly reunited in front of a firing squad. Here is where the film switches to its biblical segment, with the aforementioned actors playing dual roles (O’Brien as Japheth, Beery as a tyrant king, a priest from the first segment as Noah, etc...). Something of a riff on Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS from several years prior, Curtiz’s film is perhaps more oblique than DeMille’s epic (the connection between the Old Testament tableau and the Great War is tenuous in my atheistic mind), but still, it's a follower rather than a leader in its genre. Within his filmography, however, it’s both a prime example of Curtiz’s formidable competency and a symbol of his discreet auteurism. That he was so committed to its verisimilitude makes it worth watching; that he wanted it so badly makes watching worth it. (1928, 100 min, 35mm Restored Archival Print) KS
John Ford's FORT APACHE (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday, 7 and 9:30pm
Though it's set firmly in the mid-19th century, John Ford's FORT APACHE belongs as much to the post-war American cinema of self-doubt as does William Wyler's BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES or Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A LETTER TO THREE WIVES. Those films questioned the stability of domestic life after World War II; FORT APACHE contemplates, more daringly, the triumphalism of the U.S. Military itself. The time is shortly after the Civil War and the setting is a cavalry stronghold in the middle of forbidding Apache territory. Henry Fonda plays the Lieutenant Captain Owen Thursday, a character out of Herman Melville, obsessed with military order to the point of jeopardizing family relationships, professional credibility, and, ultimately, his own life. John Wayne plays Fonda's counterpart, an introspective leader who spends much of the film urging him not to wage a losing battle with hostile Apache tribes. The dichotomy between these two characters (who, in Shakespearean fashion, never descend to mere archetypes) is as literary in conception as any of the stories in Ford's O'Neill adaptation THE LONG VOYAGE HOME. Yet the execution, which realizes the men's outsized values against the mythic landscapes of the American West, is entirely cinematic. There are few sequences in Ford as troubled as the epilogue of FORT APACHE, in which Wayne's character reflects on the film's events and can only bring himself to positive sentiment by lying. The preceding two hours are not without lighter moments, but in the end it's the sense of worry that overwhelms. Tellingly, Ford shot the film on infrared black-and-white film, a stock developed for scientific research that registered sky blue as funereal gray. (1948, 125 min, 35mm Archival Print) BS
Jan Sverák’s ACCUMULATOR 1 (Czech Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Sunday, 5pm and Monday, 6pm
Never released in the U.S., the 1994 Czech film ACCUMULATOR 1 takes the notion of television as a soul-sucking device and literalizes it in this surreal comedy/fantasy. Olda (Petr Forman) is a surveyor who has just been interviewed for a man-on-the-street news segment. At home, he intends to watch his spot with two friends, including a woman he fancies, but they abandon him, sneaking off to bed early. Depressed, Olda sits in bed watching television, where he’s later discovered mysteriously unconscious and taken to the hospital. While lying in the hospital, he’s visited by natural healer Fisarek (Zdenek Sverák, who also co-wrote the film) who restores his vitality and teaches him how to draw energy from the world to reinvigorate his life. It is discovered that individuals who have been filmed for television have a ‘double’ of themselves living inside the TV that draws their energy they are in front of a powered on unit. While Olda is forced to cope with an existence without TV, he regains a zest for life that had been previously gone. Jan Sverák’s film is gloriously silly and although it’s not the first to address the zombification process television can have on its most avid viewers its execution is a crystal clear dramatization of it. Within the TVs live the doubles of everyone ever recorded for broadcast; this interior world is presented as a fast moving labyrinth of sets, set pieces, and genres of every kind, including a few American Western actors whose Czech subtitles seem to follow them wherever they go. Sverák’s practical effects are pleasingly visceral, whether it is the glowing blue aura that extends from the TV to suck the energy from its target to the inner workings of the human body, like the beating of a heart or during the act of sex. As Olda becomes more emboldened in his newfound ability to draw energy to himself, we see him take on the attributes of others, and in one such humorous scene get into a John Woo-esque gunfight with a block of televisions at an appliance store that he must ‘shoot’ with a battery of TV remotes. Even though it is pushed to extreme absurdity, ACCUMULATOR 1 is a beautiful cautionary tale about the dangers of over doing media consumption and taking the time to appreciate the real world. (1994, 102 min, DCP Digital) KC
George Cukor’s ADAM'S RIB (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Saturday, 7 and 9:30pm
George Cukor may have made better films, but few are as mellifluous as this courtroom comedy he made with some of his most trusted collaborators—Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who play married lawyers defending opposing parties in court) and Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (married writers whose quick, urbane dialogue reigned on Broadway for almost two decades). The film boasts the unassuming grace of Cukor’s best comedies as well as the director’s progressive sexual politics, which have made him popular among revisionist critics. What makes ADAM’S RIB so remarkable is that its most “subversive” qualities are in fact right on the surface: the Hepburn-Tracy relationship represents a near-utopian model of gender equality and the film’s climaxes (there are two) are direct challenges to the era's male dominance. (1949, 101 min, 35mm) BS
Stephen King Film Festival
Music Box Theatre – Friday and Saturday
The Music Box presents two days of films based on author Stephen King’s novels and stories, restricted to those set in his fictional town of Castle Rock (pegged to the new Hulu series of the same name). In addition to the films highlighted below, there will be a live podcast recording of The Consequence of Sound’s King-themed show “The Loser’s Club” on Saturday at 5pm (TLC curated the mini-fest); plus: Rob Reiner’s 1986 film STAND BY ME (89 min, 35mm) is on Friday at 7pm; Lewis Teague’s 1983 film CUJO (93 min, 35mm) is on Friday at 9:15pm; Frank Darabont’s 1994 film THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (142 min, 35mm) is on Saturday at 11:45am; David Cronenberg’s 1983 film THE DEAD ZONE (103 min, 35mm) is on Saturday at 2:45pm; Fraser C. Heston’s 1993 film NEEDFUL THINGS (120 min, 35mm) is on Saturday at 9:30pm; and Mary Lambert’s 1989 film PET SEMATARY (103 min, 35mm) is on Saturday at Midnight.
George A. Romero's CREEPSHOW (American Revival) - Friday, 11:30pm
Between the masterful DAWN OF THE DEAD and the just slightly overrated DAY OF THE DEAD, George Romero made two of the most unlikely films of his career: 1981's KNIGHTRIDERS and 1982's CREEPSHOW. While the former is a rather pedestrian sex comedy, the latter is easily the greatest horror anthology film ever made. A send up/homage to the popular horror comics published in the 1950's by E.C., CREEPSHOW's "wrap-around-story" involves a young boy's father confiscating his "Creepshow Magazine" after declaring it "filth" only to have it returned by the titular "Creep" (a more than obvious take on E.C.'s famous Crypt Keeper), who shares with our young hero (and us) five tales of supernatural horror. What immediately sets CREEPSHOW apart from other horror films of the era, and even its cinematic predecessors such as VAULT OF HORROR and TALES FROM THE CRYPT (both directly based on E.C. stories), is a combination of stylization and brilliant comic timing, thanks in great part to the screenplay authored by Stephen King, who clearly has as much nostalgic affection for horror comics as Romero does. King, who also appears in one of the stories, providing a rather fascinating and quite compelling performance, is able to bring out the clear humor in genre contrivances which previous anthologies unwisely played completely straight faced. CREEPSHOW is truly a kid's film in the most literal sense: despite subplots involving alcoholism, infidelity, and frequent sexual innuendos, Romero maintains a sense of mysterious optimism and constant excitement which is wholly in keeping with the structure of the pre-teen to teen oriented comics he's emulating, completely ignoring the overt savagery and hate which found its way into so many horror films of the era. The film literally moves from panel to panel, thanks to creative opticals, and scenes are often bathed in red or blue light, or shot from canted angles, to maintain a feeling of cartoon-like wonderment. As horrifying as any given story might become, each tale ends with a silly punchline, to serve as a reminder that everything is in good fun. (1982, 120 min, 35mm) JR
Frank Darabont's THE MIST (American Revival) - Thursday, 7pm
As a 24-year-old child of Hungarian refugees at the beginning of his film career, Frank Darabont became one of the first of Stephen King's "Dollar Babies" when he adapted King's story "The Woman in the Room" as a short film. Thus began a decades-long association between the world's most beloved horror novelist and the most successful (for certain values of successful) adapter of his works for the screen. After Darabont's ambitious King adaptations THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE racked up Oscar nominations and divided critical opinions, he turned to King's bread and butter, the horror story, in the form of The Mist, a novella from King's second collection Skeleton Crew. The story, which Darabont adapts faithfully, concerns a monster-filled mist that envelops a small Maine town. A group of locals, along with some people From Away, hole up in a grocery store where demon creatures pick them off and a self-styled prophet riles up end-times sentiments among the survivors after each horrific attack. Darabont understands the RKO rule that there's more terror in a half-seen shape and a smoke machine than there is in any number of rubber or CGI monsters, so much of the film's first half builds toward the big reveal. The creatures, when they do arrive, are satisfactory even after a decade of development in CGI. Created by the FX company behind PAN'S LABYRINTH, they're inventive and weighty, their verisimilitude aided by the ever-present mist. When tension between the monsters inside the store and those outside comes to a head, the finale comes, and it is one of the greatest things to have appeared in any horror film, ever. Accompanied by the skin-crawly keening of Dead Can Dance's "The Host of Seraphim," a few survivors set out into the mist in a spotlight-laden Land Rover, like a lonely tugboat navigating foggy, hellish shoals, its searchlights picking out vague shadows of interdimensional behemoths and murderous dragonflies. They lurch underneath the only recognizable bit of actual Maine in the film (Portland Thru Lanes / Points South Right Lanes) toward an ending (the only major departure from King's novella) so nihilistic that despite knowing it was coming, I still felt sick. It's brutal, and it earns it: King and Darabont are both really good at some of the same things, among which is endearing us to characters through small, well-written scenes. They make us care, and that's why it hurts so much. Presented in the director's preferred black and white version. (2007, 126 min, DCP Digital) MWP
INGMAR BERGMAN X 2
Gene Siskel Film Center
Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (Swedish Revival) — Friday, 4pm, Saturday, 3pm, and Thursday, 6pm
Whenever I revisit THE SEVENTH SEAL, what hits me hardest isn’t the heavy symbolism or the theological discourse, but rather the material involving the traveling players. Along with the romance in SUMMER WITH MONIKA, these passages epitomize the earthiness and sensuality that course through the first decade or so of Ingmar Bergman’s filmmaking career, communicating not just fascination with but also enthusiastic love for other people. The middle-aged actor and his young wife are bright, hearty, and endearing characters; the cheery way they go about life and work provides a sharp contrast to the angst and spiritual suffering of Max von Sydow’s knight. They also serve to illuminate just what von Sydow is suffering for—that is, some feeling of contentment with being alive. The actors’ pleasure in raising a child feels timeless, no less than the knight’s struggle to understand his purpose on earth, and these recognizable experiences make the medieval setting feel intimate and knowable. (Not for nothing is THE SEVENTH SEAL one of the most popular of medieval films.) As for the stuff involving chess and Death, it’s been parodied so often as to lose some of its aesthetic power, but the questions the film raises about mortality remain ever relevant. (1957, 96 min, DCP Digital) BS
Ingmar Bergman's SAWDUST AND TINSEL (Swedish Revival) — Saturday, 5pm and Tuesday, 6pm
What I believe in most about Ingmar Bergman's vision is the wholeness of it, the sense that he gives us a complete picture: not only the angst of life, but (albeit less famously) the life force, as well. Perhaps his signature early film, SAWDUST AND TINSEL is erotic, personal, poignant, and not without a mordant wit. The circus master, Albert (Åke Grönberg), lies in a gently rocking wagon and lovingly regards the half-sleeping Anne, played by Bergman's lifelong dear friend Harriet Andersson (with whom he was, at the time, engaged in an already deteriorating affair). The ragtag, impoverished caravan is rolling up to the hometown of Albert's wife Agda (Annika Tretow) and their kids, whom he hasn't seen in three years. As Albert gets reacquainted with Agda, a jealous Anne takes up with a smirking theatre actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman). Bergman wrote in his memoir The Magic Lantern that this film is one of the few occasions when he "managed to move unhindered between dream and reality." There's a jarring opening anecdote about Frost the clown and his wife Alma that veers from noisy, knockabout farce (Alma frolics with soldiers) to damn near tragic (Frost gets jealous), and starkly quiet. We witness cruelty, the mean laughter of jeering crowds. There's a sour misanthropy to it. However, we also get an exhilarating sense of the sheer joy of circus life—of life as a circus. Even when Albert becomes consumed with jealousy, the tone is ironically slapstick. (Waving a gun around drunkenly, he proclaims, "It's a shame people should live on earth!" Frost, encouragingly: "Isn't it nice to be maudlin and sentimental?") This film marked, in fine expressionist/noir style, the beginning of Bergman's collaboration with cameraman Sven Nykvist. Roger Ebert has analyzed the way Nykvist helped Bergman achieve "the visual equivalent" of his great theme, the way humans can be "so close, and yet so separate." Watch for the way, as Ebert writes, "if you freeze a frame on one of his two-shots, you'll see that Nykvist has lighted each face separately, and often not from the same source; he uses the lights to create a band of shadow that is like a dark line drawn between the faces, separating them." Bergman credits his then-wife Gun for inspiring the character of strong, independent Agda. The rather oafish, pathetically lovable Albert, then, is likely Bergman in disguise. His kids don't recognize him. He begs Agda to let him stay: I'm too old for the circus, I want to lead a quiet life, to watch my boys grow up. Even as he's saying it, both of them know the carnival is in his blood. While SAWDUST AND TINSEL sings of betrayal and humiliation, I cherish its lingering note, which is of the redemptive comfort of love. In a coda, Frost tells Albert about an extraordinary dream he had about Alma, in which she says he looks sad and tired, and bids him to crawl right up inside of her to rest, into her womb, until he becomes a little seed and eventually disappears. Bergman's central vision may have been of our ultimate separateness, but there's a countercurrent running through his work which says our reaching out needn't be in vain—and even if it is, it's all we've got. In the vision of Frost literally enveloped by Alma, he found a touching metaphor for the way our traveling companions on the road of life give us, in the words of the poet, shelter from the storm. (1953, 93 min, DCP Digital) SP
Afro-Futurism Short Films (New Narrative/Animation/Experimental)
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) and Black World Cinema — Saturday, 7:30pm
This program, curated by Black World Cinema’s Floyd Webb, from winners of BWC’s Afro-Futurism Film Competition, includes SIGHT (Janeen Talbott, 2017, US, 16 min), THE GOLDEN CHAIN (Adebukola Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels, 2016, US, 14 min), HASAKI YA SUDA (Cédric Ido, 2010, France, 24 min), and TWAGGA (Cédric Ido, 2013, France, 30 min); also showing is local filmmaker and scholar Ytasha L. Womack's 2017 film A LOVE LETTER TO THE ANCESTORS FROM CHICAGO (14 min), about which our contributor Michael W. Phillips, Jr. has previously written: “With the staggering success of BLACK PANTHER, 2018 may be remembered as the year that Afrofuturism took over the mainstream, but it is also the second year of the Trump administration, the year in which police shot Stephon Clark twenty times in his grandmother's backyard, another year that seems to argue against the cozy white-liberal belief in gradual but unstoppable progress toward equality. In the midst of these precarious times, multi-hyphenate Ytasha L. Womack, who literally wrote the book on Afrofuturism, offers a celebration of Black fabulousness. The film is constructed primarily of dance scenes set in mundane and recognizable south side places, performed mostly to a samba (reminding us of the breadth of the African diaspora) by an all-star team of talented Chicagoans, including past AACM president Discopoet Khari B, singer Gira Dahnee, and choreographer Joshua Ishmon. The camera is usually still, the simplicity and efficiency of the images belying the dizzying layers embedded in them. In one that particularly stood out, a couple embraces (and later, a man dances the robot) in front of a statue in Marquette Park, site of a racist attack on a 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. led march and also the favored site of Nazi party marches in the 1970s. Other shots find beauty and mystery in the everyday realities of city life, such as a yellow-lit apartment hallway where dancers defy gravity, a concrete stairwell that becomes a stage for a masked tap-dancer, an Art Deco apartment building lobby that becomes a ballroom. I’m not sure if this was Womack’s intention, but these sites also summoned memories of the murders of innocent African American people by police: Tamir Rice in the park, Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in the entryway of their apartment building, Akai Gurley in a concrete stairwell—and I could go on. Throughout, Womack’s performers look directly at the camera: asserting their fabulousness, yes, but also their very right to exist.” Curator Floyd Webb and Womack in person. (2010-17, approx. 98 min total, Digital Projection)
Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (American Revival)
Black Cinema House (at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, 1456 E. 70th St.) — Friday, 7:30pm (Free Admission)
In the decade since it debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to prizes and acclaim, American independent cinema has not produced a more focused and humane film than Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (with the exception of Barry Jenkins’s MOONLIGHT, of which more later). Set in the Mississippi delta in dreary midwinter, the film’s narrative is as austere as the lives it depicts: after the self-inflicted death of his brother Darius, shop owner Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) attempts suicide himself. Saved from death by a neighbor, Lawrence finds himself alive but lifeless and without purpose. Desperate for money, his adolescent nephew James (JimMyron Ross) steals his gun and robs him. When James uses the weapon to threaten a group of drug dealers, he and his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) are forced to abandon an already precarious life, take refuge with Lawrence, and confront the trauma that has made enemies of them all. Although bleak, BALLAST never wallows, thanks in large part to Hammer’s careful editing, which is elliptical without being illegible. Each shot represents a complete emotional statement, each cut a measure of its characters’ perseverance. The film has a pacing unlike any I recall, moving forward and building tension relentlessly, yet also demanding a degree of patience we usually reserve for loved ones. In tracking overlapping ordeals of mourning, crisis, forgiveness and growth, it offers a concentrated account of protracted, private processes. Like MOONLIGHT, BALLAST is a drama of Black interiority: the film’s rhythms, like Lol Crawley’s marvelous handheld widescreen cinematography, are shaped around the volatile inner lives of its protagonists rather than their outward expression in dialogue. As screenwriter, Hammer doesn’t give his cast all that much to say: in its most moving scenes, one character often remains stubbornly silent, and the disconsolate Lawrence, the film’s emotional anchor, barely utters a word until 18 minutes into the film. But the depth of feeling Smith, Ross, and Riggs—all non-professional actors from the region—invest in these silences is extraordinary, and when Lawrence does speak, Smith’s wounded cadence is gut-wrenching. The expression of vulnerability is not simply a reflection of personal tragedy, but has clear racial stakes as well, as we understand when Marlee exclaims after her (presumably white) boss fires her for showing up to work with a black eye: “He said I couldn't work like this ‘cause it's disturbing for the clients. Like the motherfuckers even know I'm there! I'm invisible to them!” In a society that physically and economically punishes African-Americans for the very vulnerability it imposes upon them, it’s no wonder even family members are compelled to talk to one another over the barrel of a gun. It’s in narrating the slow process through which these estranged and embattled figures struggle against these pressures to open up to—and to care for—one another that BALLAST ultimately resembles MOONLIGHT most profoundly. While the broader social and racial implications of these struggles are only hinted at, the politics of visibility and vulnerability are woven into the very structure of BALLAST, through the calibrated obscurity of its cinematography, its performances, and, above all, its editing—which, in its final scenes, pointedly hides the film’s most radical acts of compassion in the space of a few cuts. In a medium that often only represents Black southerners to make a spectacle of their suffering, it’s no wonder that Hammer, a white filmmaker from Los Angeles, leaves so much off-screen. BALLAST doesn’t perform humanism and kindness for its spectator: rather, like every great neo-realist film, it understands that, for its characters and viewers alike, the expression of empathy is the only measure of true freedom. Like James, Lawrence, and Marlee, Hammer’s film isn’t looking for your pity; rather, it solicits, and richly rewards, your care. Followed by a discussion. (2008, 106 min, Digital Projection) MM
Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP (American Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) — Wednesday, 1 and 7pm (Free Admission)
Adapted from Raymond Chandler, here is a movie so storied and so central to so many mythologies that it can frustrate even the best-intentioned of appraisals. While many (including Jacques Rivette, who knows whereof he speaks) prefer the preview cut that surfaced several years back, the version being shown here is the more familiar, slightly shorter, slightly more incoherent, and considerably racier theatrical release, including many scenes re-shot and/or shuffled to capitalize on Bogart's then-escalating affair and all-but-incendiary onscreen chemistry with Lauren Bacall (whom he would marry shortly thereafter, following a nasty but necessary divorce). With a screenplay that seems as much a post-structuralist pastiche of the famous source novel as an honest attempt to "bring it to life"—courtesy screenwriter Jules Furthman, the legendary Leigh Bracket, and some guy named William Faulkner—SLEEP at best skims the surface of the genre tropes that it's often blamed for introducing: the film is a wonderful example of how plot, at its extremity, can be made into an instrument of utter exhaustion. (1946, 114 min, DCP Projection) JD
Robert Flaherty's NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Silent Documentary Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Thursday, 7pm
From 1910 to 1916, Robert Flaherty conducted a series of arduous explorations in Canada's Hudson Bay region that served as the impetus for NANOOK OF THE NORTH, the first feature length documentary film. As he shot the film, Flaherty screened the footage for the participants every day and asked them for suggestions, developing an important technique of ethnographic filmmaking later used by Jean Rouch and Germaine Dieterlen. NANOOK OF THE NORTH centers on an Inuit hunter named Nanook (The Bear) and his family, who live and travel throughout Hopewell Sound, Northern Ungava. It shows them participating in various daily activities, many of which require considerable strength and endurance. They navigate through the sea, hunt seals and walruses, build igloos for shelter overnight, and trade their fox and polar bear pelts. Flaherty also focuses on the desolate and unforgiving arctic landscape, and he shoots it in such a way to indicate that it is Nanook's relentless foe. Flaherty tells this family's story through a series of episodes, and one wonders which are staged and which are "real." How true to life is this documentary? In fact, these people are not related to each other; Flaherty cast them to play their roles. And the Inuit did not wear the type of clothes shown; they began adopting aspects of the Western lifestyle prior to the making of the film. But these small facts do not necessarily matter, because it is fascinating to watch the creation of a genre at the beginning of the twentieth century and recognize what still remains from it today. (1922, 79 min, 16mm) CW
Eugene Jarecki's THE KING (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Eugene Jarecki's stunning documentary THE KING examines the rise and decline of Elvis Presley as a metaphor for the rise and decline of America. Jarecki structures the film around that most romantic and mythic of metaphors for freedom, the American road trip. Driving across the U.S. in Elvis's '63 Rolls-Royce a year out from the 2016 election, he charts the life of the country via a road trip from Tupelo to Vegas, with stops in, among other places, Memphis and New York City. That is, he traces Elvis's, and the country's, journey from rebellious youth to the top o' the world, then to bloated, corrupt empire. There are detours: a stop in Bad Nauheim, a trip trough the Arizona desert on Route 66, where Elvis, unforgettably, once saw Stalin's face in a cloud. All manner of musician piles into the backseat of the Rolls along the way—the late Leo "Bud" Welch; the startling young Emi Sunshine; Emmylou Harris; students from the Stax Music Academy. Densely, richly, and playfully layered, both aurally and visually, the film contains interviews with the people you want to hear talk about Elvis, like Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, and Chuck D. (In my room back at school, I had a poster of Elvis Presley next to one of Public Enemy. This, I figured, was the dialectic.) Even seemingly random folks like Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, Van Jones, and David Simon nonetheless have cogent, revealing things to say about the traps of American life, about American identity, class and race, happiness and addiction, and the destruction of our democracy by celebrity and money. This final stage reaches its apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump, the smirking goblin popping up throughout like the film's, and America's, curse. If, as Marcus suggests, Elvis was "the voice of America at its best and at its worst," then with Trump we've arrived at the embodiment of us at our absolute worst. A haunting, elegiac farrago, the film, like its subject, is rollicking and electrifying, frustrating and fascinating, endlessly contradictory and complex. By the time we get to Vegas, the film's controlling metaphor is so on-the-nose it hurts: Elvis is strung out on opiates, bloated, gruesome, demented. Yet, as he stumbles to the piano to sing a breathtaking Unchained Melody, he still somehow radiates endless, selfless love and generous good humor. From that chest and heart erupts that voice—a fireworks display so spectrally beautiful it might just make you cry, for what could have been, for what could still be—let loose over a montage of an America riven by dissension and corruption (Kiss, disco, cocaine, Wall St., OJ, Monica, Gulf War, George W., Barney, Twin Towers, Katrina, Native American resisters, BLM, Ferguson...and Trump). Then, with a glint in his eye, our unelected king's ghost is caught one last time in the camera, as if to say, I'll go on embodying and reflecting your contradictions forever. It's up to us to make of his story what we will, but the lesson seems to be it would have been better if we'd treated what we love with a bit more care. (2017, 109 min, DCP Digital) SP
Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Check Venue website for showtimes
Is there any figure whose opinions are more routinely ignored, discounted, or even ridiculed in our contemporary society than an old woman’s? And yet—even before 2018 would become a summer defined by grueling media attention on the Supreme Court—Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an exception, able to quietly command attention and reverence through every word she utters. The alluring mystery at the heart of the biography RBG is Ginsburg herself, as a representation of the increasingly rare, public figure still able to inspire thoughtful reflection and advocacy, against the tide of our culture’s worst instincts. This buoyant profile of Ginsburg lovingly emphasizes her significance in various career roles, first as a feminist icon (crediting her as the architect behind the ACLU’s strategy for the women’s movement in the 1970s), then as the Court’s most accomplished litigator, and finally—in modern, increasingly traditionalist years—as the Court’s most forceful and resolute dissenting voice. Although West and Cohen’s doc frequently takes on all the trappings of a glossy magazine profile rather than the incisive portrait surely deserved by one of the greatest intellects of our time, it nevertheless benefits immeasurably from the remarkable, rejuvenating presence of Ginsburg herself. The weirdness of our culture’s Internet celebritydom becomes a part of RBG’s story too, but compared with Ginsburg’s depth, this maddening new source of cultural power feels like an entirely false and estranging one. Still, in an age of inadvertent stardom, it’s comforting to have a figure like RBG to idolize. (2018, 98 min, DCP Digital) TTJ
Tim Wardle’s THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Note: Spoilers! Playing like an unholy amalgam of THE TRUMAN SHOW, a human-interest puff-piece, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, this documentary about three identical twins separated at birth is a fascinating tale in an imperfect package. When three 19-year-old New Yorkers in 1980 accidentally discover each other they become instant celebrities, making appearances on the Phil Donahue Show and the like, and living it up at hotspots like Studio 54. But when their three sets of adoptive parents go searching for answers this feel-good fairytale quickly goes very dark. The Jewish adoption agency that placed the triplets with three families of different classes seemed to be using them and other twins to run a study to determine the effects of nature versus nurture. After one of the brothers commits suicide, his survivors are even more intent on learning the circumstances of their adoption but their efforts are frustrated by bureaucratic red-tape. The brothers and the only families they’ve ever known are justifiably outraged to have been treated like lab rats. The study they were part of was never published and most of those who ran it are dead or keeping mum about their intentions. The fact that a Jewish organization sponsored a program such as this less than twenty years after the Nazis’ eugenics experiments is equal parts baffling and horrifying. One junior staffer, now a distinguished elderly woman with sparkling eyes, insists they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong. At times, Wardle needlessly inserts reenactments and slo-mo cinematography to tart up his movie; this has become de rigueur since Errol Morris revolutionized the look and feel of documentaries, but these flourishes can’t obscure the power of the story Wardle is telling. More questions are raised than answered, as is often the case in actual life rather than fairytales. (2017, 96 min, DCP Digital) DS
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
South Side Projections and the DuSable Museum (at the DuSable) present Mario Tharpe’s 2017 documentary (produced for WTTW) FIGHTING ON BOTH FRONTS: THE STORY OF THE 370th (30 min, Video Projection) on Thursday at 6pm. Followed by a panel discussion that includes Tharpe and Roosevelt University Professor Emeritus Christopher Reed. Free admission, but RSVPs required (https://1466.blackbaudhosting.com/1466/Fighting-on-Both-Fronts-The-Story-of-the-370th-Film-Screening).
The Chicago 48-Hour Film Project screens its resulting films at the Music Box Theatre this week. The full slate of projects, the five programs of Premiere Screenings, are on Sunday, beginning at 4:30pm, and Monday, beginning at 7pm; the Best Of Screening is on Thursday at 7:30pm. More info and tickets links at www.48hourfilm.com/chicago-il.
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens two episodes of the 1980 Carl Sagan PBS series Cosmos (120 min total, 16mm) on Wednesday at 8:30pm, with an introduction and Q&A by Dr. Andrew Johnston, Vice President of Astronomy and Collections at the Adler Planetarium. Free admission.
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St.) presents Noche de Verano: Tropical Storm, a program of recent short films from Mexico, on Saturday at 8pm.
The Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens Eduardo Mendoza de Echave’s 2017 Peruvian film THE FINAL HOUR (118 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 6pm. Free admission.
ArcLight screens Robert Clouse’s 1973 Bruce Lee film ENTER THE DRAGON (102 min, DCP Digital) on Tuesday at 7:30pm.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Jim McKay’s 2017 film EN EL SÉPTIMO DÍA (92 min, DCP Digital; McKay in person at the 6pm Friday and the Saturday and Sunday screenings) and Kimberly Reed’s 2017 documentary DARK MONEY (97 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week; and David Mrnka’s 2017 Czech Republic/US film MILADA (124 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Wednesday at 8pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Mari Okada’s 2018 Japanese animated film MAQUIA: WHEN THE PROMISED FLOWER BLOOMS (115 min, DCP Digital) opens; Joe Johnston’s 1995 film JUMANJI (104 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 7pm; and George Dunning’s 1968 animated film YELLOW SUBMARINE (85 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Facets Cinémathèque screens Stephen Schible’s 2017 US/Japanese documentary RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: CODA (100 min, Video Projection) and Simon Baker’s 2017 Australian film BREATH (115 min, Video Projection) for week-long runs.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s 2005 Japanese film LINDA, LINDA, LINDA (114 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: John Miller's 2016 PowerPoint work RECONSTRUCTING A PUBLIC SPACE is in Gallery 295A; Cauleen Smith's single-channel video SPACE IS THE PLACE (A MARCH FOR SUN RA) (2001) is in the Stone Gallery through August 19; Gretchen Bender's eight-channel video installation TOTAL RECALL (1987) is in Gallery 289.
CINE-LIST: July 27 - August 2, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, Jeremy M. Davies, Tien-Tien Jong, Michael Metzger, Scott Pfeiffer, Michael W. Phillips Jr., Joe Rubin, Dmitry Samarov, Candace Wirt