SAVE THE DATE!
Come support our mission at a fundraising party being thrown by the Scrappers Film Group and Pentimenti Productions on Friday June 21 from 6 - 10pm at their shared space on 329 West 18th Street, Suite 607, Chicago, IL 60616.
$10 suggested donation at the door. RSVP or donate here.
Hal Hartley’s TRUST (American Revival)
Still Hal Hartley’s finest hour, TRUST is heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, often both at once. One can trace the film’s complex tone to a variety of sources: the influence of Robert Bresson (which can be felt in Hartley’s meticulous framing and the deadpan line-readings of his actors); the writer-director’s deep affinity for blue-collar Long Island (which reveals itself in his sensitive depiction of the characters and their dead-end milieu); and the witty, probing dialogue (an unlikely fusion of screwball comedy and Jean-Luc Godard), which condenses thoughtful examinations of social mores, interpersonal relationships, and spiritual longing into breathless one-liners. Yet the film’s magic is ultimately irreducible—the narrative proceeds with such sharp logic that the components of Hartley’s creative inspiration reveal themselves only after the movie ends. Adrienne Shelley, in her second collaboration with Hartley, plays a wayward teenager named Maria. At the beginning of TRUST, she tells her parents she’s pregnant and plans to drop out of school; the news comes as such a shock to her father that he instantly dies of a heart attack. That same morning, a gifted ne’er-do-well named Matthew (Martin Donovan) quits his job at a computer manufacturing plant, then gets into a fight with his emotionally abusive father when he tells him the news. Maria and Matthew meet that evening, after they’ve both been kicked out of their homes; they form a tentative bond over being scapegoats in their families. The rest of the narrative concerns the blossoming of their relationship, which sees both protagonists changing their natures in surprising ways. The misanthropic Matthew teaches Maria about the pleasures of introspection, while she inspires him to open up and trust others. Along the way, the two investigate the disappearance of an infant, debate whether Maria should have an abortion, and reflect on the nature of work. Tying all this together is Hartley’s sincere consideration of what it means to grow as an individual. The characters’ progress is beautiful to behold, and it speaks to the compelling mystery that Hartley roots out of the most banal environments. Preceded by Christopher Gamboni's 1985 film GOING OUT OF BUSINESS (15 min, 16mm). TRUST is showing in a new 35mm print commissioned by the Chicago Film Society. (1990, 106 min, 35mm) BS
Walt Disney's PINOCCHIO (American Animation Revival)
Music Box Theatre - Sunday, Noon
Where does one begin with PINOCCHIO, the greatest and most durable animated feature produced by the Walt Disney Company? There is the extraordinary creative decision that all movement should follow the example of the crooked, pre-automobile cobblestone streets of Collodi's Italy, with characters constantly pivoting and colliding at odd angles, continually twisting and re-jiggering the space between themselves and the camera. There is the remarkable casting of washed-up vaudevillian Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards (who had lately been cutting pornographic party records with such blunt titles as "Take Out That Thing") as Jiminy Cricket, the puppet boy's literal Conscience, who is crucially both a moral authority and a naïf nearly as fallible as Pinocchio himself. ("Why doesn't Jiminy know how worried Geppetto will be?" asks Roger Ebert. His lovely and logical conclusion: "Maybe crickets don't understand human love.") There is the terrifying scale of Monstro the Whale, a rigorous abstraction to equal anything in FANTASIA and the all-around least cute creature in the Disney canon, abetted by innovative effects animation that masterfully suggests ocean spray. But unsurprisingly, it's the moral education that cuts deepest and lingers longest in PINOCCHIO. The naughty puppet's erect nostril is justly famous, but for me the jaunt to Pleasure Island has no parallel. (The only other sequence that can scare the bejesus out of children so thoroughly is the worship of the Golden Calf in DeMille's Technicolor TEN COMMANDMENTS remake.) The late critic Richard Schickel famously surveyed the specter of butt stuff in the studio's character animation and conjectured that Disney had some sort of rectal fixation, but the kink is more diffuse and mysterious in PINOCCHIO. The boys are initiated by a nameless, burly pederast with an alcoholic's maroon nose, spirited away to a run-down amusement park of pre-pubescent delights. Through an alchemy that remains unexplained, the boys slowly, then suddenly, adopt the ears and tails of donkeys, braying a donkey's HEE-haaaaaw into the thick night air. The dirty old man herds the donkeyboys into cages and earmarks them for salt mine slavery and circus chicanery, as if donkeys were ever so rare as to justify an industrial-scale bootlegging operation. Watching this sequence again as an adult, you get the unmistakable sense that the evil coachmaster doesn't so much need the donkeys or the money they'll fetch on the black market; he just gets off on the sense of irrevocable violation. When Pinocchio's ne'er-do-well buddy Lampwick tugs at his friend's shoulders and discovers only hooves, his horror is ours—the impotence that knows no expression, the stolen manhood that will never be restored. I don't know if I learned the right lessons from PINOCCHIO, but I tell you this: I've never so much as picked up a cigar. Nota bene: the Disney vault giveth and taketh away. PINOCCHIO played on nearly 2,000 screens when it was restored in 1992, but 35mm screenings today are few and far between. This edition is especially noteworthy as among the last Disney restorations that stopped short of buffing out film grain and eliminating cel shadows, the unforgivable indication that these corporate evergreens were once assembled by human hands. PINOCCHIO simply looks stupendous in 35mm—none of the video editions come close. (1940, 88 min, 35mm) KAW
Anthony Mann's THE FURIES (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday, 7pm and Sunday, 1:30pm
If the western might be thought of as a simple genre, that of two-dimensional archetypes, breathtaking landscapes, and oversimplified racial and gender dynamics, then Anthony Mann could be said to have pushed the genre to its logical—and often illogical—extreme, perhaps most blatantly in THE FURIES. Among the first of his many westerns, it’s an utterly outrageous film that’s anchored by the classic texts it references and the elegant beauty of Victor Milner’s cinematography, as informed by Mann’s visually minded direction. In Greek mythology, the Furies were goddesses of vengeance and retribution, referred to by one source as being “personified curses.” In Mann’s film, it’s the name of the sprawling estate helmed by T.C. Jeffords, a King Lear figure (Mann was obsessed with that particular Shakespeare play) played by Walter Huston, and his daughter, Vance, played by the indefatigable Barbara Stanwyck, who dominates the film as assuredly as Vance dominates the men in her life. THE FURIES opens with an exchange between Vance and her brother, who’s come home to get married and who appears again only once—this isn’t about Vance’s struggle with another man for her father’s affection, but, as the plot progresses, with another woman. The opening scene likewise finds Vance in her deceased mother’s bedroom, wearing her gown and jewelry, the unoccupied room a place of mysterious attraction for her father. If the Furies were curses personified, then this film is the Electra complex epitomized: the near-incestuous relationship between father and daughter is hardly subtle, with one recurring motif involving T.C. asking Vance to scratch his sixth lumbar vertebrae. Huston and Stanwyck are almost Shakespearean in their handling of this discomfiting behavior, so much so that the central, intentional romance between Vance and rogue businessman Rip Darrow, whose father was financially devastated by T.C., seems weak in comparison. (Not weak, however, is the romantic tension between Vance and Juan Herrera, a Mexican man whose family has been squatting on the Furies for decades. He loves her, and perhaps she him, though their bond is largely defined by her reluctance to kick his family off the land at her father’s request.) Things come to a head when T.C. goes on a trip and brings back Flo (the formidable Judith Anderson), who aims to take charge of both the man and the land. After Vance attacks Flo—with her mother’s scissors, natch—T.C. retaliates in such a way that spurs Vance to seek revenge. The method she undertakes is to buy up T.C.’s make-believe currency in order to acquire his estate. Based on a novel by Niven Busch (who penned the source material for THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and another Freudian western, King Vidor’s DUEL IN THE SUN), the complexities of its story are rendered visual by the astounding cinematography. “I believe in a visual conception of things,” Mann said in an interview with Claude and Charles Chabrol for Cahiers du cinéma. “The shock of glimpsing an entire life, an entire world, in a single little shot is much more important than the most brilliant dialogue.” Unlike the film version of DUEL IN THE SUN, the last several minutes of which is the strongest part, the ending of THE FURIES is the film’s weakest part, a fact pointed out by no less than critic Robin Wood. Given that its inspiration ranged from Greek mythology to Shakespeare to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (Mann himself said that Busch based his novel off that canonical text), THE FURIES’ ambition may have been difficult to conclude. Despite this, it’s a veritable masterpiece—I’m hard pressed to think of a film so utterly singular yet so classically exquisite. (1950, 109 min, 16mm archival print) KS
Gregg Bordowitz’s THE SUICIDE (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 5:15pm
Gregg Bordowitz, a professor and director of the low-residency MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a longtime AIDS activist who has lived with HIV since 1988. His oeuvre is largely composed of activist videos and films about AIDS/HIV, but it was never his intention to be tied to that subject. Nonetheless, his decision to make a video adaptation of Russian playwright Nicolai Erdman’s The Suicide (1928) was a subversive choice, as the satirical play was banned by Stalin just before its first performance and was not staged in Erdman’s homeland until 1990. Bordowitz blows a bit of a raspberry at Stalin by including film of the dictator at Lenin’s state funeral, weaving this and other period images into this highly stagebound film at coordinating plot junctures. The main protagonist, Semyon Semyonovich (Lothaire Bluteau), finds the revolution has left him and other working-class comrades out in the cold, as work has dried up or been forbidden to enemies of the state—certainly a commentary on Erdman’s dilemma. After failing to find an alternate profession as a tuba player, Semyon decides to commit suicide. Suddenly, he finds himself being courted by Russian intellectuals, small businessmen, and a romantic woman, all of whom want him to dedicate his death to their various “causes.” Bluteau, so brilliant as the lead in Denys Arcand’s JESUS OF MONTREAL (1989), is an appealing Semyon who, in the end, lends more weight to this light farce than it could have had. Brooke Smith as his hectoring wife Maria is a bit of a cardboard cutout, but she skillfully suggests their codependent relationship, and the supporting cast attack their roles with zeal. Nikolai Gogol was a clear inspiration for Erdman, but his plot, sadly, is far from surreal, as it is impossible to look at Bordowitz’s THE SUICIDE as anything but an urgent plea for life from a society that seemed determined to abandon him and other AIDS/HIV sufferers to death as the penalty for their identity. Equally, however, Bordowitz makes a case for the value of the individual, eschewing the symbolic use of death to forward various agendas. The final image of a handsome young man laying dead on a black stage is his memorial to fallen gay men everywhere. This screening of THE SUICIDE is in conjunction with the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well. (1996, 88 min, Digital Projection) MF
CHICAGO UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL
Logan Theatre – Wednesday through Sunday, June 9
The Chicago Underground Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Logan Theatre. The festival includes features and shorts programs, narrative, documentary, and experimental. We’ve highlighted several programs showing this week below. Check their full schedule for more.
Adam Sekuler’s 36 HOURS
Considering that Adam Sekuler’s 2017 documentary TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS, one of my favorite films of recent years, so expertly broaches the topic of death, it’s no surprise that his follow-up documentary feature, 36 HOURS, takes a similarly exceptional approach to the subject of birth, specifically as it’s happening in real time to one woman. The woman, Angelle, arrives at the hospital, literally bursting with life. In her head—and in a folder—is a birth plan, the journey of which she hopes her birth will follow but, as with anything relating to the body, is not guaranteed. Where TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS found Sekuler becoming almost a part of his subjects’ uncommon family, in 36 HOURS he takes a more pointedly observational approach, allowing for the physical realities of childbearing and then childbirth—which, for Angelle, ends up taking 36 hours after labor begins—to be unmarred by any sort of discreditable subjectivity. Interspersed throughout is footage of Angelle, a contemporary dancer and choreographer, nude and immensely pregnant, dancing in the woods. Perhaps in spite of itself, the film strays from the potential for wooiness that’s inherent to many of its subjects; Sekuler is exceptionally respectful, heaping neither undue attention nor antagonism on the very kind of person—one who is pregnant, and one who has made specific choices both in life and with regards to their pregnancy—that so many feel entitled to judge. As in TOMORROW, Sekuler’s camera becomes a tool for empathy, illuminating the most fraught moments in life—the act of dying, previously, and here the giving of birth—oftentimes in highly graphic ways. The film concludes with the delivery in all its hemic glory, but unlike some other films that use the emergence of a baby from the womb to either shock or amuse, 36 HOURS revels in the process as the miracle it truly is. Preceded by Kimberly Forero-Arnias’ 2018 short PRESSED (5 min). (2019, 76 min, Digital Projection) KS
Peter Parlow’s THE PLAGIARISTS
This almost irritatingly clever movie is both a satire of mumblecore and lo-fi indie filmmaking and a love letter to the written word and the limitations of cinema. Shot in a retro aspect ratio with a retro TV news camera, THE PLAGIARISTS notably critiques race relations, AirBnB and other modern-day conveniences, precious white hipster culture, and the inability of cinema to reach an intimate immediacy with the audience as individual. The movie begins with what at first seems like an overdone plot device: a couple's car breaks down in the country on their way back from a friend's house in upstate New York, and they are helped by a friendly bystander, played by Michael "Clip" Payne of Parliament Funkadelic. Their gratitude for his generosity in connecting them with a cheap mechanic and letting them spend the night at his house is tempered by their uneasiness about his race and the fact that an unexplained white child is present in the house. The couple are comprised of a novelist (Lucy Kaminsky) who has yet to publish her first novel but still considers herself a novelist, and a young cinematographer (Eamon Monaghan) who refuses to call himself a filmmaker because all he as ever done is write a draft of a screenplay. Instead, he makes his living shooting commercials and TV spots. The film manages to explore the couple's racial unease, and their unease with each other, in a refreshingly nuanced way, and after the viewing I learned that one method the filmmakers used to achieve this disconnect was by shooting the two white main characters separately from Michael Payne, who is named "Clip" in the movie—one of the many extratextual references that make the film more interesting and complex than it at first appears. Apparently the actors never met before or during the shoot. The tone of the movie shifts dramatically when Clip delivers a poetic monologue about childhood memories to the novelist, and his monologue clearly has a dramatic effect on her. I won't spoil the plot that twists both the meaning and critique of the movie around on a meta-dime, because the surprise made the viewing much more interesting to this particular viewer, but it does revolve around this beautiful monologue delivered by Clip. Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol often prefaced his aptly written descriptions by deprecating the written word. In one scene of Dead Souls, he wrote, "Oh, if I were a painter, how magnificently I would depict the night's charms!" He then went on to poetically describe a magical night scene in a way that a painter never could. In many ways, THE PLAGIARISTS mimics (but does not plagiarize!) the funny, razor-sharp tone and wit of Dead Souls and Gogol's devilish method or disavowing the medium and disarming the audience, which only charms them and entangles them more deeply in the web of appreciation for this slippery, absorptive, tricky art form. THE PLAGIARISTS also recalls some of the recurring themes of the late auteur Abbas Kiarostami, both in the unadorned, deliberately banal cinematography and questioning of what is real, what is fiction, what is original, and what is fake, and whether cinema is even capable of tackling such epistemological questions. If you go see this movie, be sure to stay through the credits and read them closely! Preceded by Patrick Müller's 2018 German short ACTUALLY, THIS IS NOT A FILM (5 min). (2019, 76 min, Digital Projection) AE
Aaron Schimberg’s CHAINED FOR LIFE
Opening with a scroll of text quoting film critic Pauline Kael expounding on the advantages that being beautiful lends to actors and actresses, CHAINED FOR LIFE immediately seeks to dispel this notion. Mabel (Jess Weixler) is a conventionally beautiful actress who’s never quite hit the mainstream, acting in a German auteur’s melodrama in which she plays a blind woman in a hospital filled with malformed patients. In addition to some actors and actresses who play the aforementioned patients, her immediate co-star is Rosenthal (played wonderfully by Adam Pearson), a man with neurofibromatosis. The film’s premise recalls Todd Browning’s FREAKS but director Aaron Schimberg subverts these expectations. CHAINED challenges pre-conceived ideals of what makes a person beautiful, both inwardly and outwardly. There is a certain sense of calmness that pervades the film in how it approaches this aspect. When Mabel first meets Rosenthal, she displays a sense of reverence towards him, assuming he’s an esteemed actor having landed such a role in this celebrated director’s film only to learn he’s never acted outside of a high school play. Indeed, both Mabel and Rosenthal come to find they have a lot to learn from one another. Dialogue is CHAINED’s strong suit and it manages to juxtapose endearing exposition with often times wry humorous jabs at modern cinephile culture. Shot on Super 16mm, the film’s cinematography has a warm aura that further resonates CHAINED’s message about the inner-warmth of the human soul. Tossing in a little Altman with a dash of Lynch-ian surrealism, CHAINED FOR LIFE is an astonishing effort, elevated by its two leads, and presents a humbling message about the modesty of people’s dreams. (2018, 91 min, Digital Projection) KC
Shorts Program 8: The Uncertainty of the Poet
The eight short, experimental films that comprise “The Uncertainty of the Poet” program offer meditations on the past that are contemplative, frenetic, confounding, and endearing, expressing the filmmakers’ relationships to both personal and collective memories. E-TICKET, expatriate Hong Kong filmmaker Simon Liu’s 2019 assembly of personal and archival images, makes a mad dash through world. Approximately 16,000 splices pull together images from India, a protest of a 2006 WTO summit in Hong Kong, and views out an airplane window, among other scenes. Much of the film is quite beautiful, even mesmerizing, leading the viewer to freefall through Liu’s juxtaposed impressions. German filmmaker Bernd Lützele interrogates consumerism in his 2018 short _GALORE, set in India. His camera slowly closes in on frames filled with everything from tourist trinkets and plastic bangle bracelets to used tires and cookware, stacked to the rafters as is the custom in Indian shops. Several unseen announcers repeat instructions to unseen bus passengers to watch out for pickpockets and guard one’s valuables. The images on the screen suggest that these imagined valuables may actually just be stuff. Single, often off-kilter frames of Pere Portabella’s CUADECUS, VAMPIR (1971) pop up like precious gems in the largely abstract creation of American Julie Murray, UNTITLED (TIME) (2019). Rhythmic and hypnotic, Murray’s film contains an inherent mystery as we speculate what the streaks on the celluloid that appears to be moving rapidly through a Moviola might depict. American Ben Balcom questions memory as a stabilizing, but illusory, function in his 2018 short, IN A CIRCLE AROUND ME, THE SEQUENCE OF YEARS. Colored circles resembling an eye test open and close the film. In between, Balcom moves us into a ruin that is all that remains of a life once lived there. In the utterly charming 2018 short BOOKANIMA: DANCE, South Korean filmmaker Shon Kim animates books that give instructions on how to do everything from the tango to breakdancing. Appropriate music for each dance style provides the platform for these one-dimensional dancers to pop some grooves via quick cuts in a celebration of movement. American Matt Meindl’s GONE SALE (2018) resurrects a shopping mall board game as both a nostalgic look backward at less sophisticated entertainments and a creepy homage to the slowly expiring shopping mall reminiscent of the eerie splendor of the amusement park in Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). American Sara Suarez uses the mirroring surfaces of the James River in Richmond, Virginia, to reflect on the horrors of war, slavery, and death in WATERMARKS (2018), unearthing memories many would like to forget. Historic markers sit neglected and hidden from everyday life as new construction buries the sins of the past. Spanish director Teo Guillem must be a fan of Pilobolus, the dance company that creates abstract and animal shapes with their intertwined bodies. His protagonist in MUDANZA CONTEMPORANEA (2018) uses clothing, household items, blankets, and other objects to surprise the viewer with anthropomorphized shapes and clownish dances. His underlying purpose in obscuring his own form is a desperate attempt to escape from a lost love he cannot put aside. (85 min total, DCP Digital) MF
Shorts Program 10: The Night Watch
Sunday, 6:30 PM
For a festival that so frequently delights in the profane, “The Night Watch,” a shorts program that partakes deeply of the divine and the miraculous, offers a welcome change of pace. CO-REDEMPTRIX (2018, 7 min), the first film in the program, is literally liturgical; Jake Hart’s entry consecrates the daily life (and gnarly skateboarding) of young Franciscan friars in Bloomington to gloriously grainy celluloid. Ephraim Asili’s CALDER FOR PETER (2017, 11 min), a gorgeous meditation on the landscapes surrounding an Alexander Calder sculpture in upstate New York, has an atmosphere of even greater reverence. Dedicated to Peter Hutton, one of Asili’s mentors at Bard College, CALDER FOR PETER invokes the late master through graceful compositions and ecstatic silence. Alongside FLUID FRONTIERS (2017), a highlight of last year’s Onion City, CALDER FOR PETER testifies to Asili’s elevated grasp of 16mm framing, texture, and color—the film boasts reds I thought you needed extra retinal cones to see—and his insight into the relationship between art and place. Whether addressing his position in the history of the African Diaspora or in the formal legacy of experimental American film, Asili draws strength and inspiration from a sense of obligation to those who came before him. That spirit also inspires Cheri Gaulke’s GLORIA’S CALL (2018, 16 min), a diverting semi-animated profile of the trailblazing art historian Gloria Orenstein. Detailing the mystical circumstances that led Dr. Orenstein to pen the first scholarly survey of Surrealist women artists, GLORIA’S CALL suggests that even the work of academics is sometimes guided by supernatural voices. Divine revelation is again at work in Anna Kipervaser’s AND BY THE NIGHT (2018, 10 min), a film that treads a fine line between the gnostic and the gnomic. Despite having seen only two of Kipervaser’s other exquisitely-wrought works—like Asili, Kipervaser’s grasp of the lyrical capacities of color film is highly developed—I find myself recognizing her cinematic voice almost instantly. Slipping in and out of abstraction as if between verse and wordless song, her films speak a language I don’t always understand, but which hearkens to me just the same. In several films in this program, nature seems, as Thomas Carlyle described it, like a text at the threshold of legibility, “a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing; of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line.” Joining Kipervaser in the august tradition of experimental filmmakers seeking the spirit behind the letter of nature, the late Jonathan Schwartz’s A LEAF IS A SEA IS A THEATER (2017, 16 min, digital) is a masterpiece of natural hermeneutics. The filmmaker’s final completed work achieves a sublime synthesis from humble materials and familiar techniques. Superimpositions and stop-motion, shots of leaves dancing and light raking through trees, a scratchy phonograph soundtrack, jittery stills of Muybridge motion studies and underlit book pages—such is the stuff of countless experimental films, and yet A LEAF IS A SEA IS A THEATER brought me to the point of weeping. A sense of melancholy reckoning pervades Schwartz’s imagery, which approaches nature from a place of human fragility. Yet it rings of benevolence and affirmation more than loss—the work is truly an offering, a gift rather than a relic. British filmmaker Beatrice Gibson’s I HOPE I’M LOUD WHEN I’M DEAD (2018, 20 min) also takes the form of a bestowal, grasping with our debt to those around us, and to those who come after. A sort of prayer for deliverance from the chaos of the present, Gibson’s film juxtaposes scenes of her young children at play with found footage of contemporary catastrophes, from the Grenfell tower fire to the collapse of Arctic ice shelves. Against this cascade of images, reflecting the moral and mortal anxiety of motherhood in the age of Trump and Brexit, Gibson arrays radical poetic recitations by and from CA Conrad, Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich, texts that offer something like what Rebecca Solnit describes as “hope in the dark.” Addressing her son on the soundtrack, Gibson explains, “I wanted to put all these voices in one frame for you...Grief, war, destruction, fear: it’s almost all ok because these voices exist.” Perhaps it’s due to the power of her dense, distressing montage, but that whispered promise of collective redemption through art feels inadequate to the scale of the crisis she depicts—and so the film’s grace note, which releases the tension by playfully reenacting one of modern cinema’s most exalted scenes, rings somewhat hollow for me. But the plea tendered in the closing song—“I don't wanna face the world in tears”—echoes in my ears like a hymn. Also screening: Susan DeLeo’s CONSOLAR (2019, 5 min) and Nisha Platzer’s TULIPS ARE MY FATHER’S FAVORITE FLOWER (2017, 1 min). (90 min total, 16mm and Digital Projection) MM
Nicole Brending’s DOLLHOUSE: THE ERADICATION OF FEMALE SUBJECTIVITY FROM POPULAR CULTURE
Nicole Brending's DOLLHOUSE is one of the most outrageous, brutal, painfully sharp satires I've ever seen.
The originality of the style and the dedication creating this must have required is incredible. Shot entirely with dolls and puppets (and it appears that Brending wrote, directed, voiced, edited, and created the hand-made puppets for this film—hats off to an incredibly multi-talented auteur!), DOLLHOUSE recounts the tragic story of Junie Spoons, a childhood star, in the style of VH1's Behind the Music. Junie Spoons and the horrific downward trajectory of her life are clearly inspired by the many tweens and manipulated icons we've watched crash and burn over the past several decades. I cringed as DOLLHOUSE forced me to remember the self-loathing mixture of schadenfreude and fascination I felt when I watched Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears publicly grapple with nervous breakdowns caused in large part by obsessive media attention, industry pressures, and monstrous maternal failures. The many repulsive characters that destroyed Junie's life also serve to represent a microcosm of the media manipulation that eradicates female subjectivity. From her narcissistic mother to the sociopathic studio executive who has no qualms about hypersexualizing her at the age of 12, the horror that descends upon Junie is both completely preventable and clearly caused by those people. The most outrageous attack on the hegemonic, capitalist cultural system that both created and destroyed Junie Spoons vilifies superfandom and obsession with celebrity in a way that made me wildly uncomfortable, but that I also admired for its audacity, especially because of how brashly it skewered the often-unacknowledged and tacitly accepted phallogocentrism of mainstream culture, and how even gay men are not exempt from that, and in many ways perpetuate it. I laugh-cringed my way through all 75 minutes and felt especially shamed when I couldn't help but be hooked by the catchy choruses of the awful pop songs Brending wrote for the film. Brending conveys her message with brutal clarity through this offbeat stylization and outrageousness. I had to admit guiltily after this viewing that we are all complicit in this eradication through our sickening fascination and obsession with celebrity. Preceded by Monica Panzarino's 2019 short MEMORY (4 min). (2018, 75 min, Digital Projection) AE
Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott’s AMAZING GRACE (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Check Venue website for showtimes
In 1972, Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, decided to return to her musical roots with a live double-album of gospel music for Atlantic Records. Over two days in January, she lit up the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with a holy thunder that has not and may never be bested. The result, Amazing Grace, won a Grammy in 1973, and is the top-grossing gospel album of all time, as well as Franklin’s best-selling album. Warner Bros. commissioned Sydney Pollack to film the concert, which it planned to release on a double bill with Gordon Parks’ SUPER FLY (1972), but Pollack failed to use a clapperboard to synch the sound with the action. With around 2,000 pieces of film without synch points, the documentary could not be finished. In 2007, Pollack, who was dying of cancer, turned the film over to producer Alan Elliott, who used to work at Atlantic and kept the project alive. Elliott solved the synching problem and finished the film, but it was held up by legal challenges from Franklin. Finally, nearly 40 years after the event, AMAZING GRACE has seen the light of day—and it was worth the wait. A reverential Franklin goes about the business of recording the album in a quiet, straightforward manner. Her powerful, pitch-perfect voice brought many in attendance to tears and caused dancing in the aisles treacherously laid with camera and sound cables. Alexander Hamilton, choir director of the spirited Southern California Community Choir, has a star-making turn in this documentary, and Pollack’s close-ups of Franklin dripping with sweat reveal her effort. Pollack trains his camera appropriately on gospel legend Rev. James Cleveland; on Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, speaking from the pulpit; and on her mentor, Clara Ward, sitting in the pews. But he can’t resist adding some additional star power to a film that doesn’t need it by focusing more than he should on Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who found their way to the church from their L.A. recording session of Exile on Main Street. This unique concert film, guaranteed to cause gooseflesh, is a must for anyone who missed seeing Franklin when she was at the height of her powers. (2018, 89 min, DCP Digital) MF
Olivier Assayas’ NON-FICTION (New French)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Olivier Assayas’ witty, deceptively simple NON-FICTION begins with a comically tense scene in which Alain, (Guillaume Canet), a suave book publisher, and Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a Luddite author whose controversial novels are thinly disguised autobiography, argue about the virtues of Twitter. The seemingly meandering narrative that follows belies a clever structure that resolves itself 90-odd minutes later with Shakespearean symmetry when both men vacation together with their wives: Alain’s partner, Selena (Juliette Binoche), is a television actress ambivalent about her recent success on a cop show, and Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), Leonard’s wife, is a high-profile attorney and the breadwinner in their relationship. This quartet represents a spectrum of diverse attitudes towards globalization and humanity's slavish dependence on technology in an increasingly digital world yet it is to Assayas’ credit as a writer that they also always come across as fully fleshed-out characters, never mere mouthpieces for differing points-of-view. It’s the talkiest film Assayas has yet made though the dense dialogue scenes are cleverly edited in a brisk, Fincher-esque manner, and he often generates humor through the surprising way he ends scenes abruptly. It’s a substantial new chapter in an important body of work, one that illustrates the director’s philosophy that the role of the artist is to invent new tools to comment on a modern world that’s always changing. (2018, 106 min, DCP Digital) MGS
Prince and Albert Magnoli’s SIGN O’ THE TIMES (American Revival)
Stony Island Arts Bank (6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) - Sunday, 1pm (Free Admission)
Succumbing to the joys of SIGN O’ THE TIMES at a thirty year remove from a first viewing hardens my belief that films don’t change, but we do, or can; what once upon a time seemed slapdash and often didactic to eye and ear now feels spirited and downright charming. It’s a scrappy production, with interstitial footage, a bit of story, Skid Row set design, and restaged performances turned into a satisfying rhythmic whole miraculously pulled out of the fire of unusable arena concert shoots. Prince is as generous as can be, a leader who lets everyone play and cut loose; there’s a sweet interlude where the band plays a fat slab of Mingus leading into Sheila Escovedo ripping into a drum solo—everyone gets room to roam, especially the stunning dancer/singer Cat Glover, who on occasion seems like a strip club Cyd Charisse. The man himself is, of course, Himself. You experience Prince’s very body as cinema, his quicksilver bursts and twitches, the pop-and-lock, the clenched, deep-into-it eyes moving to high doe-eyed flirtatiousness in a millisecond, the hunch over the guitar moving into splits—his movements contain the paces of satisfying editing, with its intuitive variances, jaggedness butting up against slow flow. There’ll be no more displays of that munificent talent and giant heart, but screenings like this afford opportunities to commune with each other, and with that spirit and body equalized by pain, to love anew the will and wit and sexy, churchy funk of it all. And if that seems overly sentimental, I would submit that a life given over to art that doesn’t contain a measure of sentiment is worth less than nothing; you might as well take up solitaire. (1987, 85 min, Video Projection) JG
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
Cinepocalypse, a week-long showcase of genre films, opens on Thursday and runs through June 20 at the Music Box Theatre.
The Chicago Film Society and the Music Box Theatre (at the Music Box) screen Mauritz Stiller's 1927 silent film HOTEL IMPERIAL (85 min, 35mm archival print) on Saturday at 11:30am. Preceded by Raoul Barre's 1915 film CARTOONS IN THE HOTEL (10 min, 16mm). Live accompaniment by Dennis Scott.
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) screens Joe Talbot's 2019 film THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (120 min, Digital Projection) on Tuesday at 7pm, with Talbot and subject Jimmie Fails in person; and the first two of three programs of work by students in the Documentary MFA program: NU Docs Program 1: Retrospectives (69 min total, Digital Projection) is on Wednesday at 7pm, with work by Agustin Donoso, Molly Wagener, Jung Ah Kim, and Benjamin Buxton; and NU Docs Program 2: Temporalities (56 min total, Digital Projection) is on Thursday at 7pm, with work by Cami Guarda, Naeema Jamilah Torres, Natasha Nair, and Jennifer Boles. Filmmakers in person at both shows, and both preceded by a reception at 6:15pm. Free admission.
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) screens Frank Ripploh’s 1980 German film TAXI ZUM KLO (98 min, Digital Projection) on Friday at 7pm; and Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's 2010 documentary STONEWALL UPRISING (80 min, Digital Projection) is on Saturday at 7pm in the monthly Dyke Delicious series.
The Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens José Luis Cuerda's 1999 Spanish film BUTTERFLY TONGUES (97 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 7pm; and Humberto Morales, Felipe Terán, and Samia Maldonado's 2019 Ecuadoran documentary AYA TUSHUY (65 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 6pm. Free admission.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's 2018 Japanese film ASAKO I & II (119 min, DCP Digital) and Camille Vidal-Baquet's 2018 French film SAUVAGE / WILD (99 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week; Ondrej Havelka's 2018 Czech Republic film HASTRMAN (100 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 7:45pm and Thursday at 6pm; Olmo Omerzu's 2018 Czech Republic/Slovenian film WINTER FLIES (85 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 5pm and Wednesday at 8pm; and Martin Scorsese's 2019 documentary ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE (142 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 6:30pm.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Sebastián Lelio's 2019 film GLORIA BELL (102 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 4pm (note that the previously scheduled Saturday screenings are cancelled); and a double feature of Kunitoshi Manda's 2017 Japanese film SYNCHRONIZER (83 min, DCP Digital) and Teiichi Hori's 2014 Japanese documentary BESSHO TEA FACTORY (64 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 7pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Frédéric Tcheng's 2019 documentary HALSTON (105 min, DCP Digital) and David Robert Mitchell’s 2018 film UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (139 min, DCP Digital) both open; Assia Boundaoui's 2018 documentary THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED (87 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 4:30pm, Sunday at 2pm, and Monday at 4pm, with Boundaoui in person; and Hype Williams' 1998 film BELLY (96 min, 35mm) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight and Wednesday at 9:30pm. Cine-File contributor John Dickson will introduce the film and discuss Williams’ music video work at the Friday screening.
Facets Cinémathèque plays Qiu Sheng's 2018 Chinese film SUBURBAN BIRDS (118 min, Video Projection) for a week-long run.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Joshua Magor's 2018 South African documentary WE ARE THANKFUL [Siyabonga] (94 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) hosts a screening of the prologue episode of the local web series Conspiracy Theorist (approx. 18 min) on Monday at 7:30pm. Followed by a discussion; and presents an outdoor screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 German/French film VAMPYR (73 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 8:30pm, with live accompaniment by Kassi Cork and Daniel Evans. Free admission.
The Millennium Park Summer Film Series (at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion) begins this Tuesday at 6:30pm with Julie Taymor's 2002 film FRIDA (123 min). Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Michael Robinson’s 2015 video MAD LADDERS (10 min) is on view in the group show Shall we go, you and I while we can at the Carrie Secrist Gallery (835 W. Washington Blvd.) though June 15.
Local videomaker, artist, writer, activist, and educator Gregg Bordowitz is featured in a career retrospective exhibition, I Wanna Be Well, at the Art Institute of Chicago through July 14.
Also on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Martine Syms' SHE MAD: LAUGHING GAS (2018, 7 min, four-channel digital video installation with sound, wall painting, laser-cut acrylic, artist’s clothes).
CINE-LIST: June 7 - June 13, 2019
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, Alexandra Ensign, Marilyn Ferdinand, Jim Gabriel, Michael Metzger, Michael G. Smith