New! Special mini episode. Contributor Harrison Sherrod interviews local filmmaker Brian Ashby, editor and producer of THE AREA (David Schalliol, 2018), which has a two-week engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Friday, September 14.
Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Check venue website for showtimes
The starting point for this fascinating and endlessly surprising documentary by Julien Faraut was the director's discovery of a previously unseen cache of 16mm film rolls dating from the mid-1980s that featured John McEnroe at Roland Garros, the tennis tournament commonly known as the “French Open.” This archival footage was originally shot by another director, Gil de Kermadec, for a series of instructional films that began in the 1960s and for which McEnroe, the controversial number-one athlete who helped popularize tennis when it first became widely televised, served as the final subject. De Kermadec shot more than 20 times the amount of footage that he needed for his official portrait of McEnroe, more than he captured of any other player, and the awesome “leftover” footage provided an audiovisual goldmine for Faraut’s idiosyncratic essay film. The younger director eschews most non-fiction filmmaking norms – there are no contemporary interviews, and his witty, scripted narration, spoken in voice-over by actor Mathieu Amalric in English, makes no attempt to offer any conventional context for who McEnroe is or why he's important to the sport. Instead, Faraut uses de Kermadec’s footage as an investigative tool to create an in-depth study of McEnroe’s beautiful and creative playing style and to draw parallels between tennis and cinema. This wildly unorthodox approach is apparent from an opening quote by tennis fan Jean-Luc Godard (“Cinema lies, sport doesn’t”), which is swiftly followed by an excerpt of a ridiculous early tennis-training film in black-and-white, then a gangbusters montage in glorious 16mm color, irresistibly scored to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl,” of McEnroe’s distinctive lefty serve on the burnt-orange clay surface of Roland Garros. Later, Faraut analyzes de Kermadec’s unusual technique of using medium shots to focus on a single player in three-quarters profile by noting that viewers of this type of shot are not like typical tennis spectators. As we watch McEnroe (but, crucially, not his opponent) scramble along the baseline, expertly mixing slices with flat hitting, Amalric's narration informs us that we are being invited to discover “with a certain empathy, what is actually needed to win a point in a tennis match.” Slow-motion shots break down McEnroe’s movement even further, showing “what the eye cannot see,” as Faraut makes comparisons between de Kermadec’s footage and the “chronophotographic” cinema experiments of the late 19th century. Faraut also invokes critic Serge Daney, who noted that one of the chief pleasures of the movies is the way they seemingly “invent time,” by contrasting the more fixed timetable of other sporting events with the way a tennis match’s unpredictable duration is determined by the ability of the players. McEnroe’s notorious temper tantrums are analyzed at length for their performative quality—in the film’s most outrageous conceit, Faraut overdubs a McEnroe tirade against a linesperson with a famous passage of dialogue from RAGING BULL in which Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta harangues his younger brother ("Did you fuck my wife?")—while McEnroe the player is elsewhere provocatively compared to a filmmaker. In Faraut’s analogy, the frequency with which McEnroe comes to the net to end points swiftly is akin to a director calling “Cut!” The only sequence in all of JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION that resembles anything close to a traditional sports biography comes during a suspenseful climax when Faraut shows a condensed version—complete with onscreen shot-clock—of McEnroe’s see-saw 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl (a Czechoslovakian player whose lanky, gaunt figure, sunken cheeks, dark features and humorless demeanor made him the tennis equivalent of NOSFERATU’s Count Orlock), a match whose outcome gives this splendid movie its poignant and ironic subtitle. (2018, 95 min, DCP Digital) MGS
Bing Liu’s MINDING THE GAP (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Check venue website for showtimes (week one of a two-week run)
Above and beyond a prescience toward current events that makes his first documentary one of the year’s most crucial, Bing Liu also has the distinction of being what one might call a natural filmmaker. The consummate visual aesthetic of MINDING THE GAP often seems wane in light of the film's sociopolitical urgency, but it's a perfect example of how these components can work in concert. Produced by Kartemquin Films and shot over several years, Liu follows a group of boys (now men) from Rockford, Illinois, through various obstacles in their respective lives. Though heralded as a skateboarding doc, the enduring burnout sport is really a narrative device by which the story glides, grinds, and even crashes. Liu himself is one of the young men in question, along with Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson—contrary to what the film would have you believe, only Mulligan and Johnson are childhood friends, with Liu an acquaintance who met both at different points in late adolescence and early adulthood. The men have more than skateboarding and their hometown in common: All three are intimately familiar with domestic violence, a theme that not only coheres the subjects, but the film itself. It’s perhaps as apt an exploration into toxic masculinity as I’ve seen of late, with firsthand insight into the hows and whys of the epidemic. The most difficult element of the film is Zach’s alleged abuse of his on-and-off again girlfriend, Nina, who’s also the mother of his child; Liu interviews both about the abuse and even plays a recording of Nina’s alleged retaliation. It’s comparable to a similar, but more graphic, sequence in Wang Bing’s BITTER MONEY (another one of the best documentaries to play in Chicago this year), the audience watching as these incidents unfold in real life rather than behind closed doors. As in the work of fellow documentary filmmakers Wang and Frederick Wiseman, Liu’s diplomatic observation of problematic circumstances seems necessary to one’s overall understanding of them—he presents domestic violence not as an incurable illness, but rather a treatable symptom, part of a larger societal framework in which almost everyone is a victim. His images, near masterful, do as much to convey this as the words forthrightly spoken by his subjects. Medium and regular close-ups delve into the subjects’ souls, and heedful compositions express more than words; consider the pivotal scenes where Liu interviews his mother, herself a victim of domestic violence, about his abuse at the hands of his stepfather. He isn’t filming these scenes, but Liu's exceptional direction, likely borne of his early career as a camera operator and cinematographer (he's credited as such on this film, as well as on Kartemquin's ALL THE QUEEN'S HORSES and AMERICA TO ME), is evident in the set-up, the camera equipment a noticeable divide between him and his mother, revealing both connection and artifice. Maybe less emotionally affecting, but still superlative, is the delightfully frenetic skateboarding footage and snowy shots of Rockford à la Pieter Bruegel the Elder's “Hunters in the Snow," all of which compounds one’s reception of Liu as a veritable aesthete. He's certainly one to watch—hopefully we’ll do so as thoughtfully as he does us. (2018, 93 min, DCP) KS
Josephine Decker's MADELINE'S MADELINE (New American)
Music Box Theatre — Check venue website for showtimes
Imagine participating in one of those intense acting workshops. You've stripped yourself to the bone, taking that truth inside you that can’t be said, and finding a way to say it. Then, you discover you've put yourself in the hands of a director who's gradually trying to colonize your story. Going down this black hole of betrayal is essentially what happens to the teenage girl in Josephine Decker's MADELINE'S MADELINE, a playful, daring, occasionally annoying, extremely personal piece of work, and certainly one of the most knowing self-critiques a director has served up. Decker is a conceptual artist, musician, and actress, as well as the director of the dark, stream-of-consciousness features BUTTER ON THE LATCH and THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY. Currently, she has the potential to bring experimental film into the mainstream like no one since Terrence Malick. The movie gives us a fractured vision of New York City, reflecting the subjective impressions of young, gifted Madeline, who has an unspecified mental illness, and who's played by the remarkable 15-year-old newcomer Helena Howard. She finds her joy with a local theater troupe, role-playing a cat, for instance, and Decker seems to conceive of the process of acting as therapy—but also as play, which strikes me as a healthy vision. Miranda July is well-cast as Madeline's game if overprotective mother. Molly Parker, spot-on, plays Evangeline, the troupe's patronizing director. Evangeline isn't necessarily malignant. Rather, she walks a line I imagine all directors tread, especially directors like Decker who presumably wish, at least on some level, to shake the audience up. Evangeline may err on the side of exploitation, but it's a continuum, and one that's perhaps only truly being scrutinized today. She must be everything Decker fears she might be, or become, and so Evangeline's occasional self-indulgence and puerile pronouncements play like self-parody. As for Decker's cinematic language, anyone who's taken an Intro to Underground Film class won't find it all that disorienting, and the blurring of boundaries between characters and actors has been around long enough to merit its own adjective, Pirandellian. Decker taps into an insight that also occurred to Ingmar Bergman, who saw that, in David Thomson's words, "the basic human predicament had a marvelous metaphor in the way that an artist treated his subject and his collaborators... that everyone was not a solid identity but an actor trying to play the self." On the level of rhythm and movement, as an almost dance film, this picture really shines. "Moving in unison is one of the most connecting things that people can do, and our culture has lost that," Decker has said. The movie is exhilarating, and occasionally wearying, as an immersive, intimate sensory experience, a claustrophobic barrage. Martín Hernández’s layered sound design is jarring and abrasive. Ashley Connor, the excellent cinematographer, is both documentarian and poet in her use of focus, shadow, and texture. Decker co-edits her own footage; she's described her breakthrough, when she broke with straight editing in order to find her voice, which is "fluid, more dream-like and nightmarish." At heart the movie is a showcase for the talent of fierce, funny Helena Howard, who shows a remarkable amount of trust in both herself and her director. Unlike the film's Madeline, Howard has put her good faith in good hands. For all its imperfections, this film is alive. (2018, 90 min, DCP Digital) SP
Bergman X 2
Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE [Television Version] (Swedish Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Saturday, 1:30pm
Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is one of the singular experiences of my viewing life. Shot by Sven Nykvist on Bergman's beloved Fårö Island, SCENES is a six-part miniseries that ran on Swedish television in 1973; Bergman edited it down to a three-hour feature for showing abroad. The critic James Monaco described it concisely: "It's as painful an exposé of the relationships of men and women as any of the earlier Bergman films, but the more naturalistic style of television gives him a chance to explain more, and that leads to a catharsis that's often missing from the highly-charged, symbolic movies." Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, as Marianna and Johan, make this boxing match riveting, entertaining, scary, and compulsorily watchable. Just to speak the name "Liv Ullman" is, for me, to conjure up the heady days when I was first discovering cinema. ("He made me bloom," Ullman has said of Bergman.) In his perceptive essay for the Criterion Collection, Phillip Lopate concludes that, in a certain retrospective light, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is one of Bergman's "sunniest and most hopeful constructions." He writes, "That Johan and Marianne so palpably continue to care for each other, in the face of much nasty provocation, also suggests a bittersweet, comic, almost Mozartean undertone (Bergman’s very next film project would be THE MAGIC FLUTE) beneath the embattled goings-on." He highlights the "puckish" quality of the miniseries, in contrast to the "more harrowing” feature version, which he chalks up to the "breathing room" and the "more good-humored, forgiving atmosphere" created by TV, where the characters come into your home and abide for a span of time. Lopate is correct when he says the film "is first and foremost a study of intimacy," and that "Bergman, following his master, Carl Dreyer, reconstitutes the cinematic art as a language of faces." But I think the piece is also about time. We join Johan and Marianne 10 years into their marriage, and by the time we leave them, it's 20 years since they first married. I first saw the feature-length version as a callow youth, in probably '90 or '91. I thought these middle-aged fighters were bracing, thrilling, nuanced—a real adult dose. Years later, with a divorce under my belt, I brought home the Criterion package and, curling up with it, winced at what was too close to home. But I found comfort there as well. I'm now about the same age as Johan and lucky enough to be able to see the series from within a successful relationship. It still takes my breath away. Watching now, it's the vision of the bond over time that shakes me so. It's telling that Bergman would revisit Marianne and Johan one last time, for his final feature, SARABAND, where they are senior citizens. I look forward to revisiting SCENES in 20 years, and seeing how it plays from that vantage point. (1973, 301 min, DCP Digital) SP
Ingmar Bergman’s THE MAGIC FLUTE (Swedish Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Sunday and Monday, 2:30pm, Thursday, 6pm
Although Ingmar Bergman filmed THE MAGIC FLUTE in his mid-50s, his love affair with Mozart’s opera stemmed from viewing it during childhood and hoping to recreate it with his home marionette theater. With this moment in mind, Bergman set to recapture the awe and wonder of his initial viewing and convey the entire experience to his audience. This film is atypical of his usual directorial style in that THE MAGIC FLUTE presents the entire environment in which the opera's production transpires. We see shots of the crowd looking on in admiration (including several shots of one child who perhaps serves as a nod to the director’s past self), moments of the cast off-stage waiting for their time to enter, and the physical presence of the stage itself to emphasize this is an opera unfolding. Shades of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMANN are felt both in style and in tone. Elements of Greek tragedy also appear, with Bergman using a motif of trios that seem to recall The Fates. The film’s greatest strengths are its highly motile production design and garish wardrobe. Seasons transition in a blink of an eye; reds, greens, and blacks carry deeper connotations as the narrative pushes on. THE MAGIC FLUTE is one of the finest adaptations of opera ever put on film and one that expands the scope of Bergman’s talent. (1975, 135 min, DCP Digital) KC
Donald W. Thompson's A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (American Revival)
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) — Wednesday, 8pm (Free Admission)
Donald W. Thompson and Russ Doughten (associate producer of THE BLOB) began their four-part Rapture series with the 1972 film A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. It's as surefooted in its filmmaking as it is in its religious beliefs, which is understandable given the main influences: Roger Corman and the Holy Ghost (Corman as a formative figure in Thompson's early film-going career, and the Holy Ghost as a mentor on set). The result is a far more graceful combination of religious propaganda and B-movie auterurism than one might expect, and as a film A THIEF IN THE NIGHT is as clever and briskly paced as the best work to come out of AIP (A BUCKET OF BLOOD, X: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES)—all the more impressive considering these films were never meant to be seen as anything other than tools for conversion. Along with a cast of hip young unknowns is the definitive version of Larry Norman's popular 1970s Christian song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" which similarly blurs the line between propaganda and the upper echelon of popular art. (1972, 69 min, Digital Projection) JA
Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Saturday and Sunday, 11:30am
Drenched in cynicism, Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD ranks up there with Robert Altman's THE PLAYER and David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DR. as one of the best critiques of Hollywood's toxic narcissism and cruelty. The last collaboration between Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett, SUNSET BOULEVARD centers on Norma Desmond (played with maniacal intensity by Gloria Swanson), a forgotten silent star who spends her days cooped up in her gothic tomb/mansion, obsessing over her glory days and penning the script which will launch her revival. By chance she encounters Joe Gillis, a down on his luck screenwriter. Their working relationship mutates into a strange sexual dynamic, with Gillis eager to escape; however, he ultimately finds himself contaminated by the greed and disillusionment of Hollywood. Wilder enlisted the help of master cinematographer John F. Seitz, who also photographed DOUBLE INDEMNITY, to lend the film a chiaroscuro, noir-ish look. This is notable during one of the film's most memorable scenes, in which an entranced Desmond watches her celluloid self on the movie screen, the light from the projector flickering over her face creating a kind of literal fusion of reality and fantasy. Look for a cameo from silent film icon Buster Keaton (referred to by Gillis as a "waxwork"), as well as Cecil B. DeMille playing himself. (1950, 110 min, 35mm) HS
Tim Wardle’s THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (New Documentary)
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
The Chicago Film Society at the Music Box Theatre screens Basil Dearden’s 1957 UK film THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH (80 min, 35mm) on Monday at 7pm. Preceded by Scott Norwood’s 2013 short CINEMA TIME CAPSULE (5 min, 35mm).
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens Bea Cordelia and Daniel Kyri’s 2018 locally-made web series THE T (44 min, Digital Projection) on Thursday at 7:30pm.
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) and Black World Cinema present Quartiers Lointains: French Films on Self-Image on Saturday at 7:30pm. This touring program of French shorts includes NULLE PART (Askia Traoré, 2013, 25 min), RETOUR À GENOA CITY (Benoît Grimalt, 2017, 29 min), LE BLEU BLANC ROUGE DE MES CHEVEUX (Josza Anjembe, 2017, 21 min), and GAGARINE (Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, 2015, 15 min). All digital projection.
The September Midwest Independent Film Festival (at the Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema) is on Tuesday, beginning at 6pm. A social period and panel discussion precedes the 7:30pm screening of Patrick Creadon’s 2018 documentary HESBURGH (Unconfirmed Running Time, Digital Projection). More info at www.midwestfilm.com.
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) screens Djo Munga’s 2010 Congolese/French/Belgian film VIVA RIVA! (98 min, Video Projection) on Friday at 7:30pm. Free admission.
The Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) screens Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman’s 1926 silent film THE GENERAL (78 min, DCP Digital) on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission.
Local filmmaker Kyle Henry's 2017 film ROGERS PARK (87 min, Digital Projection) screens on Friday at 9pm at the fieldhouse at Ping Tom Memorial Park (1700 S. Wentworth Ave.), with Henry in person. Free admission.
ArcLight Chicago screens Alek Keshishian’s 1991 documentary MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (120 min, DCP Digital) on Tuesday at 7:30pm.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Laurent Tirard’s 2018 French film RETURN OF THE HERO (90 min, DCP Digital) plays for a week; and Neil Diamond’s (not, not that Neil Diamond) 2009 Canadian documentary REEL INJUN (96 min, Digital Projection) is on Friday at 4pm and Tuesday at 6pm, with a lecture by SAIC professor Jon Cates at the Tuesday show.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Ari Adter’s 2018 film HEREDITARY (127 min, DCP Digital) plays late nights for a week; Crystal Moselle’s 2018 film SKATE KITCHEN (106 min, DCP Digital) and Matt Tyrnauer’s 2017 documentary SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD (97 min, DCP Digital) both continue; and Masaaki Yuasa’s 2004 Japanese animated film MIND GAME (103 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Facets Cinémathèque plays Steve Mitchell’s 2017 documentary KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN (110 min, Video Projection), Lee Aronsohn’s 2017 documentary 40 YEARS IN THE MAKING: THE MAGIC MUSIC MOVIE (99 min, Video Projection), and José Pedro Lopes’ 2017 Portuguese film THE FOREST OF LOST SOULS (71 min, Video Projection) for week-long runs; and Kjersti Steinsbø’s 2015 Norwegian film REVENGE (100 min, Video Projection) is on Friday and Saturday at 10pm.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Benny Toraty’s 2012 Israeli film THE BALLAD OF THE WEEPING SPRING (106 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Rosalind Nashashibi's VIVIAN’S GARDEN (2017, 30 min, 16mm on HD Video) is in the Donna and Howard Stone Gallery, through December 2; Dara Birnbaum’s KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (1979, 6 min loop, two-channel video) is in the second floor corridor; and John Miller's 2016 PowerPoint work RECONSTRUCTING A PUBLIC SPACE is in Gallery 295A.
CINE-LIST: August 31 - September 6, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Julian Antos, Kyle Cubr, Scott Pfeiffer, Dmitry Samarov, Harrison Sherrod, Michael G. Smith