Special Cine-Cast 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.
F.W. Murnau’s CITY GIRL (Silent American Revival)
Keep the big city, just give F.W. Murnau that good ol’ countryside—at least, that’s what one might assume when considering his magnum opus SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927) and the lesser-known CITY GIRL (1930), two of his final four films, all either produced or distributed in the U.S. following a long career in Germany. Both deal with a city-versus-country dichotomy, the first pitting honest country folk against a conniving city woman, the latter considering the redemption of that ilk, its female protagonist, Kate (Mary Duncan), a veritable city girl who yearns for the simplicity of farm life. Kate meets her soon-to-be-husband, Lem (Charles Farrell), after he goes to Chicago at the behest of his surly father in order to sell the family wheat crop. Kate is a waitress in the diner where Lem takes his meals, the two falling in love almost instantly. They marry before returning to Charles’ family farm in Minnesota, where his father takes an immediate dislike to Kate, presuming her to be a gold-digger. The couple’s life is made miserable by both the father and rowdy farmhands, who compromise Kate’s virtue; in the background, the family’s wheat crop is at stake. Thought not as transcendent as SUNRISE, which figures among the best films ever made, it’s representative of silent film at its de facto peak, that is, on the precipice of sound. There’s another version of indeterminate length in which sound sequences were added, but it’s now thought lost. No worries, though—this version is what Murnau likely wanted audiences to see. That being said, what seems a rather ordinary romantic drama (only in regards to plot; its visuals are superb) was originally intended to be an elegiac documentary-of-sorts titled OUR DAILY BREAD, which would have featured the laborious processes by which wheat is grown and harvested and bread is made. Murnau procured an entire wheat farm in Oregon (writing for the New Yorker, Richard Brody says “purchased,” while a book titled The Future of agriculture in the Rocky Mountains claims Murnau merely rented it), and he’d also wanted to film the city sequences on location in Chicago. But after SUNRISE failed to perform at the box office, Fox demanded something more commercial and less ambitious, production-wise. The visual resplendence that would have undoubtedly marked OUR DAILY BREAD is present in CITY GIRL, specifically in the scene where Lem and Kate go back to the farm. It’s a sublime sequence, beautifully directed; Farrell and Duncan, as the euphoric lovers running amongst the sunlit wheat, are acquiescent to their abundant surroundings. Even when viewed in absolute silence, this scene seems to emanate music, a soft breeze almost palpable—it’s no wonder that the film was a direct influence on Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN. The rest is just as poetically realized, from the meticulous hustle and bustle of the city to the shadowy ambiance of the film’s dramatic crescendo. Its topographic politics are relatively nuanced, and Murnau handles literal space just as deftly, framing people and places with masterful gradation. Preceded by a selection of Untitled Home Movies shot by Joe Antos (c. 1936, 12 min, 16mm). Live accompaniment by Dennis Scott. (1930, 88 min, 35mm) KS
Stan VanDerBeek: Euclidean Illusions (Experimental Revival)
Experimental filmmaker and artist Stan VanDerBeek died in 1984, but it’s only in the last decade or so that the full range of his artistic output has begun to receive significant attention. During his lifetime he was often at the cutting edge of new movements and technologies: he was a pioneering force in expanded cinema, immersive viewing environments, and computer-generated films. But, even today, he is most remembered for his collage-animation films of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. These films, ironic and humorous riffs on popular culture, social norms, and politics, meet somewhere between the collage works of Max Ernst and the Monty Python animations of Terry Gilliam—though they are more freewheeling and anarchic than Ernst and more pointedly political than Gilliam. This strain of his filmmaking is represented in the show by his 1959 film SCIENCE FRICTION. Other early animated work screening includes ASTRAL MAN (1958), which mirrors the style of many of his paintings, and SEE SAW SEEMS (1965), which combines photographs, drawings, and paintings of human and animal figures, landscapes, and plants in a slow series of compositions that blend and morph one into another. It’s a particularly old-fashioned-feeling work for VanDerBeek, especially when considering that it was made the same year as his first computer-based films. It’s these works that make up the bulk of the program, several coming from a series of POEMFIELD films (1965-69) that VanDerBeek made at Bell Labs in collaboration with their resident wizard Ken Knowlton. These films utilized a programming language developed by Knowlton; text from poems appears on screen one word or short phrase at a time, and is transformed in various ways—abstracted, placed into motion, superimposed, blended into the background, etc. Each film is a variant iteration on this formula, though different soundtracks are explored, and at least one of the films superimposes the computer-generated imagery over photographed footage of skydivers in free-fall. These technology-driven films are quite mesmerizing; the roughness and limitations of the early computer images and motion give them a vital quality, a sense of something new trying to break free. VanDerBeek continued his explorations of computer-based filmmaking with two later films on the program, WHO HO RAYS PART 1 (1972) and EUCLIDEAN ILLUSIONS (1980), both of which are quite different from the POEMFIELD films and from each other. WHO HO RAYS presents a series of red, blue, and green curvilinear geometric shapes in constant movement and transformation against a black background, reminiscent somewhat of the abstract films of Mary Ellen Bute and other 1930s and ‘40s experimental makers, but with a definite contemporary feel. The harder-edge forms of the POEMFIELD films and the fluidity of motion in WHO HO come together in the most recent film on the program, EUCLIDEAN ILLUSIONS, which more than any other of the works showing reflects VanDerBeek’s interest in mathematics. The geometric forms, with their much softer color palette, straddle a line (or reconnect a long abandoned tradition) between the scientific and the mystical. Perhaps appropriately, it was made at NASA. With Johannes VanDerBeek of the VanDerBeek Archive in person. (1958–80, approx. 65 min total, Newly Preserved 16mm Prints) PF
Peter Lorre’s THE LOST ONE (German Revival)
Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave — Wednesday, 7:30pm
In iconic character actor Peter Lorre’s sole directorial effort, a doctor (Lorre) in the postwar era is confronted with his guilty past when a former colleague shows up at the refugee camp where the doctor ministers to the sick and reminds him there’s no running away from cardinal sin, no matter how many good deeds one performs. Moody, noirish cinematography accentuates the mournful tone of the film, but it’s Lorre’s fretful moon face which delivers most of the impact. It’s a face that communicates guilt, helplessness, corruption, and a half-dozen other emotions, often all at once. There are few actors better able to express the internal turmoil of people who have compromised themselves in wartime than Lorre. This is a bleak, utterly unforgiving thing to take in, but I couldn’t look away. Lorre returned to Germany in 1950 to make this film—having fled the Nazis for Hollywood many years earlier—and his parable of that nation’s sins was not well received. I imagine that people were not ready to acknowledge their complicity in the atrocities of WWII, especially when these issues were brought up by Jews. Judging by how poorly this film has been distributed, maybe they’re still not ready. It is not available on any streaming service, so I had to preview it off a pirated Russian version with English subtitles made by someone translating literally from the German as if there were no difference between the two languages. So, I can’t vouch for the impact of the dialogue, but with Lorre in just about every scene, few words are needed to understand what he’s saying. Preceded by a TBA short. (1951, 98 min, 35mm) DS
Jean Cocteau’s LES PARENTS TERRIBLES (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday, 4pm, Sunday, 3pm, and Monday, 6pm
Jean Cocteau was many things—novelist, poet, playwright, visual artist, and filmmaker—which is to say that no individual work can illuminate the full scope of his genius. Still, his 1948 film of his 1938 stage play Les Parents Terribles comes pretty close. More realistic in nature than his most famous films (THE BLOOD OF A POET, BEAUTY AND BEAST, ORPHEUS), this nonetheless reflects a certain fancifulness. Much of the action takes place in the cluttered apartment of an eccentric middle-class family that might remind you of the clan from YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and the dialogue finds Cocteau taking obvious delight in his own epigrammatic wit. (“I don’t know if this is a tragedy or a farce,” a character comments on his predicament at one point, “but either way, it’s a masterpiece.” Jean-Luc Godard was sufficiently impressed with the line to steal it for A WOMAN IS A WOMAN.) As in Cocteau’s similarly titled Les Enfants Terribles, the ornate trappings throw into the stark relief the theme of sexual perversity, while the dark subject matter renders the fairy-tale aesthetic strange. The story centers on the all-too-close relationship between a young man named Michel (played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s longtime lover) and his mother, Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray). They live with Yvonne’s husband Georges and her sister, Léonie; these two had once been engaged before Yvonne stole Georges away, inspiring decades of resentment in the aunt. Michel thinks of leaving the close-knit apartment to live with his new girlfriend, Madeleine—who, unbeknownst to Michel, happens to be Georges’ mistress. How the older characters react to the situation inspires even more convoluted plotting, the knotty narrative contrivances providing a sort-of formal analogue to the vaguely incestuous family relationships. As a filmmaker, Cocteau heightens the sense of contrivance by playing up the script’s theatrical origins: the sets are clearly sets, the performances grandiose, and the camera movements draw one’s attention to how little room in which the camera has to move around. (For Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film serves as “an illustration of the paradox that accentuating the theatrical aspects of theater onscreen makes them quintessentially cinematic.”) This formal strategy points to how lives can be defined by unnecessary conventions—anticipating the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodovar, Cocteau uses theatricality as a metaphor for the social mores that govern the play we all live in. (1948, 105 min, DCP Digital) BS
Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (Silent British Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) – Wednesday, 1 and 7pm (Free Admission)
One of the most important and revelatory film restoration projects of recent years has been the British Film Institute’s ambitious digital refurbishing of the “Hitchcock 9” (the nine extant films that Alfred Hitchcock made in England during the silent era), re-releases of which first toured the U.S. in 2014. The crown jewel of this series is 1927’s THE LODGER, which, in spite of being the master of suspense’s first thriller and thus arguably the first true “Hitchcock film,” still hasn't gotten its due in many quarters for being the great movie that it is. It probably hasn’t helped matters much that Hitch himself practically dismissed it in the seminal interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut by discussing it primarily in terms of pulling off the neat technical trick of shooting through a glass floor. But THE LODGER is much more interesting than that. The narrative intertwines two of what would soon become the director’s trademark plots: the story of a murderer and a “wrong man” plot (in which an ordinary man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit). THE LODGER is also, unforgettably, a love story. Daisy (June Tripp), the daughter of a married couple who run a boarding house, falls in love with the eponymous but unnamed title character (matinee idol Ivor Novello), who is also the chief suspect in a series of grisly stranglings of young blonde women. The way Hitchcock laces these elements with a potent eroticism as well as a sense of humor is impressive, notably in a scene where the lodger and Daisy play chess (the context of which gives his line “I’ll get you yet” a delicious triple meaning). When the lodger picks up a blow-poke just as Daisy bends over to pick up a chess piece that’s fallen to the floor, the viewer is left to wonder if he intends to bash her brains in. That he ends up merely stoking the fireplace nearby is both the film’s darkest and funniest joke—one that calls to mind Truffaut's remark that Hitchcock filmed love scenes like murder scenes and vice-versa. THE LODGER was also a clear influence on Fritz Lang’s M, both in its depiction of how murder can drive a community into a lynch mob-like hysteria and in terms of its visual style: Hitch used triangle shapes as a recurring visual motif in much the same way that his German counterpart would employ spirals. Even more significantly, I never realized the extent of how expressionistically lit THE LODGER was until I viewed the BFI’s restoration, which gloriously reveals many previously unseen details in the sublime, high-contrast cinematography. Live accompaniment by Dave Drazin at both shows. (1927, 92 min, Digital Projection) MGS
Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (Japanese Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday and Tuesday, 6pm
Akira Kurosawa’s loose and darkly funny adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is a visually expressive marvel, with the director taking full advantage of the lateral possibilities of the widescreen frame. One scans the screen for details as if watching a tennis match—the garish visuals pop up on one side of the screen, then the other, then the other. (It’s hard to imagine Kurosawa having more fun on a picture than he did with this one.) Directed to behave like a mangy dog, Toshiro Mifune stars as Sanjuro, a wandering samurai who arrives in a small town and takes up work as a bodyguard (yojimbo) for two warring gangs. He cynically pits one group against the other, killing several baddies himself and allowing the gangs to take care of the rest. “Kurosawa converts the impending melodrama to comedy by abandoning his [usual] quest for fully human characters,” wrote Alexander Sesonske for the Criterion Collection in 2006. “Sanjuro is a Supersamurai, a whirlwind in combat; the village gangs are so grotesquely wicked, they become ludicrous and enlist neither our sympathy nor our belief. By the film’s end most are dead, but we feel no regret at the slaughter, nor cringe at its execution. The exaggerated evil of the gangs leaves them no other appropriate fate, and theirs is achieved with such style and cinematic verve that we are exhilarated by the spectacle and not at all dismayed by its content.” SAIC professor Jon Cates lectures at the Tuesday screening. (1961, 110 min, 35mm) BS
Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA (Swedish Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday, 4:15pm, Saturday, 3:30pm, and Wednesday, 6:15pm
Ever since it exploded onto the international art film scene in the mid-60s, PERSONA has continued to keep audiences guessing and discussing. At once a simple story of an emotionally traumatized actress and her nurse and a complex meditation on the nature of cinema, Bergman himself cited it as the work where he went "as far as he could go" as a film artist. After a stunning avant-garde prologue, the film moves fluidly between realistic and dream-like passages, culminating in some space where the two converge. For all the different cinematic forms on display, its most memorable sequences are arguably two highly theatrical monologues delivered by the nurse (Bibi Andersson, in her greatest performance)—frank considerations of sex and psychology that marked a new triumph over film censorship. Readers who aren't familiar with the criticism devoted to this hallmark work are encouraged to check out Susan Sontag's essay on the film, anthologized in her collection Styles of Radical Will. (1966, 85 min, DCP Digital) BS
Ingmar Bergman’s THE PASSION OF ANNA (Swedish Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Saturday, 5:15pm and Monday, 8pm
THE PASSION OF ANNA is considered the end of an unofficial trilogy (beginning with HOUR OF THE WOLF and SHAME) exploring “the thread of violence intruding on ordinary lives,” per film author Jerry Vermilye’s Ingmar Bergman: His Life and Films. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann reunite in this film covering guilt, self-loathing, and emotional isolation. Andreas (von Sydow) is living alone after the end of his failed marriage when he meets his new neighbor, Anna (Ullmann). She’s picking up the pieces of her life following the recent death of her husband and son, living with a married couple, Eva (Bibi Andersson) and Elis (Erland Josephson). Eva and Elis’s relationship has been strained after her miscarriage and the romantic detachment he’s developed over the course of his career as a photographer; meanwhile Andreas and Anna strike up a comforting yet dispassionate relationship. Much of the film revolves around the internal pains of the four principle characters and the coping mechanisms they use when in the presence of others. Andreas has grown content in his solitude, Anna seeks to find truth in the world, Eva desires passion, and Elis seems to care for his work above all else. One unique trait seen here are the four separate interludes in which the actors are interviewed by Bergman out of character about what they think their respective characters’ realities are. PASSION triumphs in exploring the psychological baggage of its players and allows for deep introspection through impassioned monologues. Although not the first title a burgeoning Bergman viewer should reach for when diving into the director’s lengthy oeuvre, THE PASSION OF ANNA is a must-see for those seeking a deeply rewarding film on the nuances of damaged human psyches. (1969, 101 min, DCP Digital) KC
Josephine Decker's MADELINE'S MADELINE (New American)
Music Box Theatre — Check venue websites 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
Bing Liu’s MINDING THE GAP (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Check Venue website for showtimes (week two 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, the film 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 Digital) KS
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s THE THIRD MURDER (New Japanese)
Facets Cinémathèque — Check Venue website for showtimes
Misumi, a paroled double murderer, kills his boss with a wrench, then burns his body. Shigemori, a hotshot lawyer, is brought in by the defense to spare Misumi the death penalty. Everything that happens thereafter in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s meditation on fate and responsibility, masquerading as a cookie-cutter thriller/courtroom drama, is up for debate. Misumi keeps changing his story and the lawyers, witnesses, and victim’s family’s testimony is in constant flux. During jail visits, Misumi turns into a kinder, gentler Hannibal Lecter, beguiling Shigemori with riddles rather than answering his queries and confounding him with insights about the lawyer’s own human failings. Kore-eda is best known for nuanced family dramas, so on the face of it the murder-thriller genre might seem like an odd fit. But the plot is a perfect jumping-off point for exploring the resonances between these two men’s lives. When Shigemori’s father, a retired judge who spared Misumi’s life in a trial 30 years earlier, comes to visit, he reminds his son of a Chinese fable about two blind people who feel an elephant’s trunk and ear, then argue about which body part is which. That type of failure to truly understand anything beyond one’s own senses is at the heart of this beguiling film. Whodunit fans will be disappointed but Kore-eda knows that no true human mystery can ever really be solved. (2017, 124 min, Video Projection) DS
Bill Gunn’s GANJA AND HESS (American Revival)
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) — Friday, 7pm (Free Admission)
Any screening of Bill Gunn’s experimental, avant-garde horror masterpiece GANJA AND HESS is cause for celebration, not least because it almost never existed in the first place. Its original producers, Kelly/Jordan Enterprises, were eager to capitalize on the commercial viability of BLACULA, which was released the year prior. Gunn, who was a fixture in the NYC theater scene, and had written the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s THE LANDLORD, was tapped for the project. Though he was leery of working in the Blaxploitation genre, Gunn saw an opportunity to use studio resources to bring about his own audacious vision. The result, despite winning the Critics Prize at Cannes in 1973, was a wholesale departure from the script approved by Kelly/Jordan, who subsequently sold the film, which lead to it being cut from 112 to 78 minutes and re-released under the guise of a handful of other titles like BLOOD COUPLE, DOUBLE POSSESSION, and so on. The original version was virtually unavailable for decades until MoMA restored a 35mm negative several years ago, enabling a Kino-Lorber re-release. If the producers were expecting anything resembling a formulaic Blaxploitation movie—or, for that matter, something with any semblance of a conventional narrative—you can see why they were dismayed by the final product. GANJA AND HESS is less campy B-movie and more Ingmar Bergman or David Lynch, with a plot that’s deliberately enigmatic and driven by poetic symbolism. The film centers on Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist stabbed by his deranged assistant (played by Gunn) with a diseased dagger from an ancient civilization, thereby causing him to metamorphose into a vampire (although the term “vampire” is never explicitly used throughout the film). The titular Ganja arrives not long after and is infected with the vampiric germ, prompting the couple to spend the rest of the film attempting to satiate their newfound bloodlust. It’s not hard to read vampirism in GANJA AND HESS as a thinly veiled metaphor for drug addiction, an interpretation that has been confirmed by producer Chiz Schultz, but there are deeper valences here. Tasked with making a Blaxploitation film, Gunn instead opted to use the trope of the vampire—a creature that’s all about sucking up human life force—to tell a story about the actual exploitation of black people throughout history. Gunn’s film is not didactic, though. Instead, his thesis is embedded within the visual syntax of the film, which employs elaborate montage editing techniques to subliminally display signifiers—including nooses, body bags, and copious amounts of blood—that conjure up the atrocities of racism throughout American history. Along the way, he interpolates surreal (flash)back to Africa imagery, religious symbolism, and shots of various artworks from the Brooklyn Museum (a commentary, I think, on the reification of living people into things). Moreover, the half-human/half-other hybridity of the vampire is used here by Gunn as an analog to decry the ways in which black people are systematically treated as less than human—put simply, GANJA AND HESS is a horror film made by a director who knew that reality is much more horrific than fiction. (1973, 112 mins, Digital Projection) HS
Morgan Neville's WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (New Documentary)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) — Saturday, 2 and 7pm (Free Admission)
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
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
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) presents Creative Cypher Web Series Showcase 2 on Saturday at 7:30pm (note the date change on this; originally scheduled for September 15). Screening are episodes from Anna Maria Hozian and Brad Riddell’s OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN (approx. 34 min) and Puja Mohindra’s GEETA’S GUIDE TO MOVING ON (approx. 83 min). Artists in person.
Café Mustache (2313 N Milwaukee Ave.) hosts the Hawk Martha 100 Video Video Hour on Thursday at 8pm. Filmmaker Hawk Martha has selected a barrage of internet-sourced videos that will all show within an hour’s time. Free admission.
Asian Pop-Up Cinema screens Kim In-seon’s 2017 South Korean film ADULTHOOD (92 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 7pm at the AMC River East 21, with director Kim In-seon and actress Lee Jae-in in person.
The Art Institute of Chicago screens Mathieu Amalric’s documentary ZORN (2010-2017) (Unconfirmed Running Time, Video Projection) in on Sunday at 1 and 3pm in Price Auditorium; and Film in Chicago on Thursday at 6pm in Price Auditorium. This shorts program includes: CHICAGO: THE CITY TO SEE IN ‘63 (Margaret Conneely, 1963), CAMPAIGN (Tom Palazzolo, 1968), VIVA LA CAUSA (Teena Webb/ Kartemquin Films, 1974), THE BUILDING: CHICAGO STOCK EXCHANGE (Wayne Boyer, 1975), and BONNIE BELL: 10,000 METER RACE FOR WOMEN (Eleanor Boyer, 1978). Unconfirmed Total Running Time, Digital Projection. Select filmmakers in person. Both programs are free with museum admission.
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens Donald W. Thompson’s 1978 film A DISTANT THUNDER (76 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 8pm. Free admission.
Goethe-Institut Chicago (150 N. Michigan Ave., Ste. 200) screens Janina Quint and Tal Recanati’s 2016 documentary GERMANS & JEWS (76 min, Video Projection) on Thursday at 4pm. Free admission.
The Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando’s 2010 animated Spanish/UK film CHICO & RITA (94 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 7pm. Free admission.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Nicolas Vanier’s 2017 French film SCHOOL OF LIFE (116 min, DCP Digital) plays for a week; Evald Johnson’s 2017 film HIGH & OUTSIDE: A BASEBALL NOIR (98 min, DCP Digital) screens on Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 5:15pm, and Wednesday at 8pm; and Vahid Jalilvand’s 2017 Iranian film NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE (104 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 7:45pm, Sunday at 3pm, and Thursday at 8:15pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Xavier Giannoli’s 2018 French film THE APPARITION (144 min, DCP Digital) opens; Ari Adter’s 2018 film HEREDITARY (127 min, DCP Digital) continues Friday-Wednesday at 9:30pm only; the 2018 edition of CatVideoFest is on Sunday at Noon and 2:30pm; Joe Dante’s 1989 film THE ‘BURBS (101 min, 35mm) is on Sunday at 11:30am; and Colin Minihan’s 2018 film WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE (98 min, DCP Digital) and Stephen Surjik’s 1993 film WAYNE’S WORLD 2 (95 min, 35mm) are on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Also at Facets Cinémathèque this week: Rodrigo Reyes’ 2016 Mexican/US film LUPE UNDER THE SUN (78 min, Video Projection) plays for a week.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Donal O'Ceilleachair’s 2013 Irish documentary BRIGHT VISION (80 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Stan VanDerBeek opens at Document Gallery (1709 W. Chicago Ave.) on Saturday and runs through October 27. The show features a 16mm installation of VanDerBeek’s 1967-68 film POEMFIELD NO. 7, a digital projection of his 1972 film SYMMETRICKS, and a selection of works on paper.
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: September 7 - September 13, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, Scott Pfeiffer, Dmitry Samarov, Harrison Sherrod, Michael G. Smith