La Politique des Autres: Short Films by Agnès Varda, Program I (French Revivals)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) – Thursday, 7pm (Free Admission)
As her subject says in UNCLE YANCO (1967, 22 min, 35mm), “It’s important to always be by the sea. The sea is the ingredient of love, don’t you think?” It’s clear that whether Jean Varda was, in fact, a relative of Agnès Varda’s—a fact the film seems to muddy—their mutual love of the sea, of art, of iconoclasm made them kindred hearts. Varda says as much in her narrative in this sunny portrait made during San Francisco’s fabled Summer of Love of the elderly artist who lived among the flotilla of jerry-built homes that dotted the harbor of Sausalito, California. A more direct engagement with the sea comes in Varda’s DU CÔTÉ DE LA CÔTE (1958, 27 min, 35mm), made for the French Office of Tourism to promote the French Riviera. Varda does her duty to her client by hitting the tourist attractions along the coast, but her eye mainly wanders to the tourists themselves as they pack themselves like sardines on the beaches and queue in thick lines to walk through a botanic garden the narrator cheekily promotes as a place to go for peace and quiet. A glimpse of the real Eden visitors to the Côte d’Azur seek contrasts with the artificial Edens businesses create to entice them. This funny, but essentially pessimistic film may not have had the effect the Office of Tourism desired. L’OPERA MOUFFE (1958, 16 min, 35mm), made when Varda was pregnant, consciously evokes images of pregnancy and fertility by surveying life on rue Mouffetard in Paris. At the market, melons are split, spilling their seeds. Middle age and elderly women bitten with bitterness argue. The haggard and drunken are considered ruefully—they were once babes in arms. Finally, a young woman eats the fertile part of a plant, its flowers. Also showing are RÉPONSE DES FEMMES (1976, 9 min, 35mm), part of an omnibus project in which women filmmakers were asked to film their answers to the question posed during the 1975 version of the Year of the Woman, “How does it feel to be a woman?” and ULYSSE (1983, 22 min, 16mm), in which Varda revisits a disturbing photo of hers taken on a rocky beach in 1954 and relates it to her own life, the lives of those she photographed, and the historical context in which the photo was made. MF
A second program of Varda shorts screens on Friday, July 12 at filmfront (see next week’s list).
Victor Sjöström’s THE SCARLET LETTER (Silent American Revival)
It’s perhaps appropriate that two of the driving forces behind Victor Sjöström’s THE SCARLET LETTER—based, obviously, on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel—were women, affecting the classic tale of woman-made-to-suffer with decidedly “feminine” perspectives that further highlight Hawthorne’s attack on Puritan hypocrisy. Those two women were the film’s star, Lillian Gish, and its writer, Frances Marion, one of the most revered female screenwriters of her era; their efforts, combined with Sjöström’s distinct directorial vision, account for an adaptation of the classic (if rather wordy) text that's uncommonly fitting for silent film. Set in 1640s New England (and maybe needing no summary, considering the book's longstanding residence on summer reading lists far and wide), THE SCARLET LETTER depicts Hester Pryne’s travails after she becomes pregnant by a man not her husband, the latter having been missing since her voyage to the colonies. Her punishment is being forced to wear a scarlet ‘A,’ for adulteress, for the rest of her life. One of the biggest deviations from the book is that the identity of Hester’s lover, Reverend Dimmesdale (played by Lars Hanson, whom Gish brought to the States in order to appear in the film), is known from the get-go; the initial romance between the two is surprisingly sweet for such a distressing tale. That’s the beauty of the film—it compounds a complex novel into something poignant and accessible, the intricacies of the written word beautifully translated onto the screen. This airier, at times even comedic, reading is owed to Marion, who achieves something singular in a romantic, sometimes funny, more-often-than-not dramatic adaptation that retains the knotty pathos of its source. Gish’s performance is astounding—again, the inherent ‘silence’ of silent film is irrelevant when one can communicate without words just as easily as with them. Not irrelevant in this process is Sjöström; Gish had enough clout at this point in her career (now at MGM) not only to pick her own projects, but to pick her own directors as well. According to Bo Florin’s book Transition and Transformation: Victor Sjöström in Hollywood, 1923-1930, “[T]he Hays Office had put the film on an unofficial blacklist… [b]ut...MGM producer Irving Thalberg agreed to pursue Gish’s choice for her next film, but only on condition that she promise to deal with the story properly. Her personal guarantee immediately led to the lifting of the ban by both women’s committees and church groups, which had hitherto been strongly opposed to the making of the film.” She then chose Sjöström for a rather unusual reason: “I was asked which director I would like, and I chose...Sjöström, who had arrived at MGM some years earlier from Sweden,” she said. “I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feelings of New England Puritans than modern Americans.” (Gish and Sjöström, as well as Marion, would work together again in 1928 on THE WIND, perhaps Sjöström’s best-known American film.) His direction rounds out a bevy of talents, his aesthetic flourishes—specifically framing and his use of light—complementing both Marion’s clever script and Gish’s superlative acting. These methods, thought to be a holdover from films made in the director’s home country, lend themselves to illuminating, sometimes literally, the public scorn faced by Hester in Puritan New England, as well as the inner anguish both she and Dimmesdale experience vis-à-vis hypocrisy and shame. Sjöström successfully exudes whatever tone he needs to display within a scene, from the youthful romance at the beginning (the shot of the lovers in the water is dazzling) to the almost epic-like scenes of them on the scaffolding amongst a judgmental crowd. The source boasts one author, but this adaptation has three: between Gish’s tenacity (both on screen and off), Marion’s nimble scripting, and Sjöström’s incisive direction, their THE SCARLET LETTER is something to be exhibited with pride. Preceded by Otto Mesmer's 1927 Felix the Cat cartoon ROAMEO (6 min, 16mm). Live accompaniment by Dennis Scott. (1926, 100 min, 35mm archival print) KS
Gregory La Cava's MY MAN GODFREY (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Saturday, 4:30pm and Tuesday, 6pm
Is there a more quintessential—or contentious—screwball comedy than MY MAN GODFREY? Gregory La Cava's Fifth Avenue farce has been the locus classicus of the genre since an anonymous Variety scrivener off-handedly coined the phrase in a GODFREY review, observing “Lombard has played screwball dames before, but none so screwy as this one." Within two years, the same trade paper would lament "the apparently unending string of screwball comedies." Almost as soon as GODFREY was recognized as a landmark, critics began wagging fingers at the film and its spawn. In 1940, Otis Ferguson cited GODFREY's arrival as the moment when "the discovery of the word 'screwball' by those who had to have some words to say helped build the thesis of an absolutely new style in comedy," before according pride of place to the earlier SING AND LIKE IT, "consistently funnier and more screwball as well." William K. Everson's 1994 screwball survey, American Bedlam, likewise acknowledged GODFREY's place in the canon, with the caveat that the film is "lunatic rather than charming, and in addition to being unreal is totally dishonest." So what is it about this madcap reveille that sets people off and sends them running to the nearest trash heap? There's no arguing with the performances—William Powell’s effortless suavity is the perfect counterpoint to Lombard's antic, giggly effusion, and Mischa Auer's gigolo remains an absurd specimen of primate masculinity. These three, plus matriarch Alice Brady, were each nominated at the 1937 Academy Awards, marking GODFREY as the first film to receive a quartet of acting nominations—in the year that the supporting categories were introduced, no less—but the less-heralded turns from Gail Patrick and Eugene Pallette are equally accomplished. Patrick takes a crude sketch of a cruel character and imbues her with enough interiority to render her climactic question—"What good did you find in me, if any?"—exquisitely deserved and heart-stoppingly earnest. At the decade's start, Pallette was still a somewhat generic second fiddle of comic relief, an embarrassed man scurrying around the lady's locker room in FOLLOW THRU; by MY MAN GODFREY, he had settled into his artistic groove and his highest purpose, embodying the put-upon patriarch with sandpaper vocal cords. Pallette gets the film's most famous quip—"All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people"—and perfects its delivery with an even, unenunciated reading that lets it land with selfless aplomb. La Cava excels at filling an empty room with the right kind of people, and the film's handful of crowd scenes are marvels of camera movement and antic, maximal composition. So far, so good. But the crux of GODFREY is its gossamer social veneer, a Depression-era update of the eternal story of a princess slumming outside the palace walls. Opening amidst the shantytowns of Sutton Place and gradually revealing that its titular hobo is a Harvard man on a sociological vision quest, MY MAN GODFREY isn't just a questionable work of social realism, but something like the business end of a broken bottle. The "forgotten men" are phonies, the Depression is a bunch of hot air, and prosperity is just around the corner—just level the slums and salt the earth with nightclubs. In retrospect, MY MAN GODFREY was clearly a way station for screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, who began as a socialist and Marx Brothers scenarist, but would soon fink for HUAC, provide seed money for The National Review, and pen right-wing diatribes for syndication from his Southern California mansion. "If them cops would stick to their own racket and leave honest guys alone," opines one of Powell's hobo buddies, "we'd get somewhere in this country without a lot of this relief and all that stuff." Amen, brother? (1936, 96 min, 35mm) KAW
John M. Stahl’s WHEN TOMORROW COMES (American Revival)
The Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) — Wednesday, 7:30pm
Labor strikes and hurricanes. Cinderella and Jane Eyre. James M. Cain and Douglas Sirk. At just ninety minutes long, John M. Stahl’s WHEN TOMORROW COMES packs in a lot worth examining. Irene Dunne stars as Helen Lawrence, a chain-restaurant waitress helping to lead a strike against her employer; Charles Boyer is a world-famous concert pianist, Phillipe Andre Pierre Chagal, who meets Helen in the restaurant, attempting to order American cheese without the accompanying slice of apple pie. (The two had previously starred together in Leo McCarey’s LOVE AFFAIR; many believed this to be a hurried capitalization on that successful pairing.) Following this charming meet-cute are a series of lithe little melodramas that together form a whole: Helen and Philippe attend the waitresses’ labor meeting, where Helen delivers a compelling refrain in favor of strike, and the next day they’re off sailing and getting caught in a hurricane near Phillipe’s coastal estate, having to find refuge in an empty church. It’s there they properly fall in love and where Helen, the Cinderella of this story, learns that Phillipe has a wife, who’s “mad” (but not living in an attic like the first Mrs. Rochester) after losing their baby several years prior. The waitresses prevail, though working-girl Helen’s love affair with the rich guy seems doomed. The melodrama is compelling, but it’s perhaps a little too discordant, the individual flavor profile of each portion at odds with everything else on the plate. As of several years ago, this was considered something of a rare film, and there was debate over its inspiration, Tom Ryan revealing in an article for Senses of Cinema that its source was not James M. Cain’s Serenade as previously believed, but rather Cain's short novel The Root of His Evil, conceptualized as a “modern Cinderella story.” The confusion stemmed from the film’s connection to Douglas Sirk’s INTERLUDE, loosely based, like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and IMITATION OF LIFE, on a Stahl film, this one in particular, Sirk himself remembering it as having been based on Serenade. Alas. There’s certainly a richness here even if it’s not immediately evident—at the very least, its depiction of labor issues and the women involved in them is interesting. Preceded by a selection of soundies (approx. 10 min, 16mm). (1939, 90 min, 35mm) KS
Alan J. Pakula's KLUTE (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Monday, 7pm
BARBARELLA treated Jane Fonda as an object of fascination. But KLUTE was the first to treat her as an object of dissertation. When we first "see" her, it's a tape recorder unspooling a recording of her voice, an image that reoccurs frequently. This motif of documentation signals the film's intent to make "Jane Fonda" a topic for study and dissection. Her character, Bree Daniels, is not only a call girl but also a struggling actress; and as the audience, we see both Bree playing Bree and Jane playing Bree. Where does the celebrity end and the character begin? The whole setup is so meta, it's no surprise she won for Best Actress at the Oscars. Godard would push this theme even further in TOUT VA BIEN and especially LETTER TO JANE. KLUTE is the first film in Pakula's so-called Paranoia Trilogy (alongside ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THE PARALLAX VIEW); its focus on private fears is best summed up when, nearing the climax, a character says, "Everyone knows everything. So it doesn't matter what I do." (1971, 114 min, 35mm) RC
Joseph Sargent's THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Monday, 9:15pm
Let's start with all the things that the 1974 version of TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is not. Unlike A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, it's not a film that romanticizes anti-social violence; the PELHAM hoods are middle-aged, dejected men who hijack a subway train out of a fog of desperation that they themselves regard as pathetic and low. Nor is it a DIRTY HARRY or FRENCH CONNECTION, burnishing the results of warrior cops who step outside the law; Walter Matthau's police lieutenant scarcely fires a shot and spends the movie in a plaid button-up with a bright yellow tie, the squarest law enforcement figure this side of Jack Webb. PELHAM never drills too deep on sociological details, and consequently lacks the political depth and impassioned edge of THE INCIDENT, Larry Peerce's neglected subway heist thriller from seven years prior; the hostages are so generic that they're simply referred to as "The Homosexual," "The Spanish Woman," "The Hippie," "The W.A.S.P." and whatnot in the credits. If they represent a cross-section of society, circa 1974, PELHAM is not the vehicle to bring them together and reveal a common Americanism under duress; indeed, the movie is rife with ethnic slurs fired in every direction and a pervasive sense that the melting pot will boil long into the good night. So if THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is a great movie—and it is—that's largely because it subsists on its own special sense of funk and friction, a ruthless piece of work that churns in every direction and finds garbage all around. As a time capsule of mid-'70s New York, its only rival is TAXI DRIVER; PELHAM is the more coherent satire, laser-focused on the procedural rot of Lindsay-era NYC. Though the Metropolitan Transit Authority denied PELHAM the right to film in its subway, Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting eagerly backed the project—a favor repaid with an unmistakable and deeply unflattering stand-in for Hizzoner himself, played by Lee Wallace as a meek, needy man who invokes John Lindsay's infamous complaint that he possessed the "the second toughest job in America" while sitting in bed watching a television game show. (Lindsay had been replaced by Abe Beame by the time PELHAM hit theaters, which made the movie a premature wake for a vision of New York hardly dead yet.) Despite its thundering threats and last-minute rescues, PELHAM never plays like a melodrama; instead it feels like just another day, just another damn thing, something else to muddle through and walk away from. (1974, 104 min, 35mm) KAW
Author Nathan Holmes will be in person and signing copies of his new book Welcome to Fear City: Crime Film, Crisis and the Urban Imagination.
William Dieterle’s SATAN MET A LADY (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Sunday, 11:30am
By the time John Huston made his adaptation of The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel not only had already been filmed (in 1931) but also parodied (in 1936). The latter film, directed by William Dieterle from a script credited to Brown Holmes (who also worked on I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING) is a footloose and fancy-free Warner Bros. entertainment at a time when that studio really excelled at this sort of thing. Hammett receives an onscreen credit for the story, but the movie feels less like The Maltese Falcon than a play on the detective genre as a whole. It’s not exactly a spoof—SATAN MET A LADY doesn’t mock every aspect of the genre in the fashion of a Marx Bros., Mel Brooks, or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy. Dieterle still allows his stars to be commanding and sexy, and he respects the mystery plot just enough to get a certain narrative momentum out of it. Brisk, self-effacing, and proudly lightweight, it feels like a holdout of the sort of comic programmer best associated with the pre-Code era. Not coincidentally, it stars the greatest leading man of pre-Code Hollywood, Warren William, an actor who could pitch an entire performance in the gray area between suave and sleazy. He plays Ted Shane, a small-time detective who gets recruited by several mysterious individuals to track down a rare ancient horn. For a while, the film is less concerned with William’s progress on the case than with his efforts to fend off the sexual advances of every woman he encounters. Bette Davis plays one of William’s clients, and she has a grand time doing the double-crossing femme fatale act, her tongue firmly in cheek the entire time. (1936, 74 min, 35mm archival print) BS
Claire McCarthy’s OPHELIA (New USA/UK)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
The genius of William Shakespeare has proved a bottomless well of inspiration for creators down through the ages—flexible enough to absorb all manner of revision, from modern dress to modern English, and timeless enough to speak to successive generations with the common language of the human heart. Novelist Lisa Klein published Ophelia, her revisionist take on Hamlet, in 2006, and now director Claire McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas have brought her vision to the screen in a production that won’t please every Shakespeare enthusiast, but that I found intriguing. The opening image, ripped from the canvas of 19th-century pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, shows Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) floating face up with a bouquet of flowers in her right hand in what has always been presumed to be her watery grave. Ophelia, in voiceover, declares that she is going to tell the real story, her story. What follows is an interpretation of the events of Hamlet that follows the logic and desires of a young woman who is determined to survive in a world of masculine striving and violence. I liked the modern language that echoes Shakespeare’s words while infusing them with wholly different meanings because Ophelia is actually allowed to have a story. The interpolation of a bit of Macbeth here and a touch of Romeo and Juliet there brought a pleasant familiarity to this Shakespeare fan. I particularly liked the addition of a witch (Naomi Watts, in a dual role), a character that clarifies that such women were often wronged and cast out, a theme that seems to be gaining currency in recent years if Jafar Panahi’s 3 FACES (2018) and Rungano Nyoni’s I AM NOT A WITCH (2017) are any indication. The cinematography by Denson Baker and costumes by Massimo Cantini Parrini are stunning, and the final rejection of the values of patriarchy heartened me to the idea that young people who may flock to this film because of Ridley’s presence might just succeed in reinterpreting our social norms to build a more equitable future devoid of the destructive vanity that tears people and nations apart. Author Lisa Klein in person at the Friday, 7:45pm screening. (2018, 106 min, DCP Digital) MF
Henry Selick’s CORALINE (Contemporary Animation)
Beverly Arts Center — Wednesday, 7:30pm
Over the last decade, the family-friendly film has been irrevocably sanitized—especially animated films intended for young audiences. No longer is the focus solely put on creating engaging plots and characters that resonates with both children and adults; rather the new normal has been to prioritize popular franchises with capitalistic success as well as big-name voice actors to bolster market appeal. But there was a time where family-friendly movies could take risks in storytelling and style, break conventions, and still be commercially successful—and Henry Selick’s CORALINE is a prime example. After moving into a dreary new town, the film’s brash and spitfire titular character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) discovers a parallel world that seems like a dream come true—one that’s exciting, full of color, and starkly contrasts her everyday. But when Coraline’s friends and family sew buttons onto their eyes and are a bit too sickly sweet for comfort, she has to face the fact that not everything is what it seems. Animation studio Laika’s whimsical stop-motion work is a standout and helped cement what would later be considered a studio standard of excellence. But what’s most remarkable about CORALINE is that it takes its young-intended audience seriously. Selick is not afraid to frighten; nor is he shy to delve into complicated topics like toxic familial relationships and how one's perception of the world drastically shifts in their adolescence. (2009, 100 min, Digital Projection) CC
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre – Check Venue website for showtimes
Toni Morrison is a great writer, full stop. She could almost be considered the creator of a genre of fiction, one that surveys with blazing originality and honesty the lives of African-American girls and women. Therefore, predictably, attempts to marginalize her, ignore her, change her, and ban her have dogged her from the moment her first novel, The Bluest Eye, debuted in 1970. Being the highly intelligent, imaginative, and socially committed person that she is, Morrison has triumphed over her detractors, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Now we are able to share a bit in her journey through Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, a film that focuses probingly, and almost exclusively, on her working life and accomplishments. We are edified about how Morrison used the early morning hours to turn out her stellar debut novel with two young sons to raise and provide for, and how now the world always looks better to her at dawn. We learn how, as an editor for Random House, she was able to bring other African-American voices into the world. We see her fun-loving side and her clear-eyed compassion. The documentary is packed with talking-head admirers, but really, Morrison can tell her own story perfectly well without them, as she has for 50 years. TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM is a competent portrait of a life well lived. (2019, 120 min, DCP Digital) MF
John Woo's HARD BOILED (Hong Kong Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Saturday, 7 and 9:30pm
Somewhere between silly and sublime, the pièce de résistance of John Woo's Hong Kong career turns pulp cheese into pop ballet—fluid, extravagant, and totally enamored with its own sense of cool. Chow Yun-Fat stars as Tequila (a name that only John Woo—or a ten-year-old boy—could love), a clarinet-playing cop who teams up with an undercover loner (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) to take down a triad boss (Anthony Wong), shoot a lot of people, and rescue some adorable babies. Woo's worldview—overwrought, slightly homoerotic, with some entry-level metaphysics and psychology thrown in for good measure—may be reductive, but damn if it doesn't have a certain brutal grace to it; the way he turns the characters into bodies in motion—charging at one another, leaping through space, getting showered with shards of glass—is engrossing and often just plain beautiful. (1992, 128 min, 35mm) IV
Howard Hawks’ BALL OF FIRE (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Thursday, 7pm
In Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy BALL OF FIRE, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) is a grammarian who is studying modern slang. He lives with seven other professors who are all working together to produce an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. While out researching, Bertram finds himself at a nightclub where he meets performer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). Her colorful vocabulary is exactly what he needs for his project but she hesitant to assist him until it is revealed she needs a place to hide from the authorities because they want to question her about her mobster boyfriend. Shades of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES are felt here as the professors and their idiosyncratic personalities learn to live with the saucy Sugarpuss. BALL OF FIRE was the last film written by Billy Wilder before his own foray into filmmaking and working under Hawks on this film had an immense influence on Wilder’s career. Because of the strong writing and evenhanded directing, Stanwyck is a perfect example of the quintessential Hawksian woman here. Her quick wit and cool demeanor allows her to assimilate into the professors’ home quite easily and her character is often cool under pressure. Sugarpuss stands tall amongst a cast full of offbeat characters. With an oeuvre as long and celebrated as Hawks’, BALL OF FIRE might not be one of the first titles that springs to mind when thinking of the director but it assuredly carries all the hallmarks of his finest comedic works. (1941, 111 min, 16mm) KC
John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre - Check Venue website for showtimes
High concept and low class, John Carpenter's 1981 sci-fi/action film premises itself on a paranoid endgame scenario: what if crime just keeps going up? Carpenter settles on the conservative trajectory of 400 percent and cedes Manhattan to the most violent criminals, turning it into an island prison and letting it go to ruin. Only the most hardened offenders are sentenced there—new prisoners are given the option of cremation before arrival—making it a particularly bad place for the President (Donald Pleasance) to crash land. Charged with fishing him out within 22 hours, the police commissioner (Lee Van Cleef) offers a full pardon to incoming convict 'Snake' Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces operative-turned-criminal—but only if he can successfully recover the President. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a wild ride that is at times clever and at other times surprisingly dull. Most interesting is not the search-and-rescue but the creative depiction of a ruined New York and its ad hoc city-life, circumscribed by extreme danger. An old acquaintance, Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), watches an all-convict Broadway production before making his way uptown with Molotov cocktails at the ready. Shot mostly in darkness, Carpenter succeeds in creating a closed-off atmosphere that is both somehow dingy and futuristic. These touches, along with several solid performances, breathe life into the rote barrel fire-pocked landscape, and Snake himself. (1981, 99 min, DCP Digital) BW
Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Friday, 4pm, Saturday, 2:30pm, and Thursday, 6pm
During the production of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, Claudette Colbert purportedly referred to Capra's slapstick opus as the worst picture in the world, a criticism she'd repeat until the film was lauded with all five major Academy Awards. It's a messy work, and it's easy to see how Colbert could have objected, but the intricacies of Capra's earnest patchwork (Thanks, Columbia) give the film its merit. Colbert and Clark Gable seem humbled but lovably obstinate, as their mild trepidations about the script bleed into the film itself (as do various inconsistencies in editing and continuity). But IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT never feels like a film that doesn't want to be made and seen. Capra moves in quick, broad strokes, so that small details get picked up by happenstance and only make themselves apparent on repeated viewings. Stepping back, the film's personality is almost perfectly crafted, and there isn't anything about it that doesn't come across as genuine. The same could be said of nearly all of Capra's work, but his surefooted pacing renders this his most immediately likable. (1934, 101 min, DCP Digital) JA
Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Friday, 2:15pm, Saturday, 11:30am, and Sunday, 9:30pm
Spike Lee's long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a "good, lively filmmaker." Lee's best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989's DO THE RIGHT THING, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film's incendiary and unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without pushing an agenda or providing any easy answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes--by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X—about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee's credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson. (1989, 111 min, 35mm) MGS
Agnès Varda and JR's FACES PLACE (Contemporary Documentary)
Alliance Française (54 W. Chicago Ave.) - Wednesday, 6:30pm
I love this sportive, altogether magical film—it's light and simple and funny, and all the more profound for it. FACES PLACES is a buddy/road trip comedy about a deepening cross-generational friendship; it's also an insightful documentary, a mutual portrait of two unique artists whose visions harmonize. Agnès Varda, who was 88 at the time of shooting, is of course the legendary French New Wave pioneer (before even Chabrol's LE BEAU SERGE, there was Varda's LA POINTE COURTE, in 1955). JR, 33, is a street artist known for making giant, collaborative outdoor image installations. Together, they drive around the French countryside in JR's photo-booth van, which spits out large-format pictures of the people they meet at beaches, ports, factories, and villages, blowing the locals up into massive figures which they paste onto community landmarks. These "framing" structures, whether homes or stacks of cargo containers, nod to personal stories and struggles, and honor unsung people as heroes—dockworkers' wives, a postman, a woman from a mining family who refuses to let her home be demolished. The subjects get to talk back, and to see them interact with their magnified selves, the happiness on their faces, the wonder, or even the bemused ambivalence, is a beautiful thing. Mounting the portraits is a collective, social event in which the subjects themselves participate, creating spectacles as rich and full of humanity as Hollywood's are empty and dehumanized. They paste an image of Varda's late friend, the photographer Guy Bourdin, to the side of a German WWII bunker that's fallen onto a beach. In the image he's very young, almost a boy, and the bunker seems to cradle him. When they come back the next day, the image has been washed away by the tide. How fleeting is memory, how fleeting are the years. How fragile, finally, is life. That's why there's a certain urgency to their work: as JR says, we must get as many images as we can, before it's too late. Varda is happy, even as she finds her vision growing dim and her memory fading. She feels herself winding down, but her curiosity about other people remains undimmed. The two laugh a lot, teasing each other. He is irreverent with her in a somehow deeply respectful manner—which is to say, he's never patronizing. (You are good to old people, she tells him at one point, as they visit his grandmother, who's pushing 100). Their friendship is a real dialogue, and as it deepens, we sense he'd do anything for her. Well, almost anything: he lives behind dark glasses, and a running joke in the film has Varda trying to coax him out of them, just as she was once able to do with the young Jean-Luc Godard. Speaking of Godard, I mustn't reveal too much of a final surprise involving their pilgrimage to reconnect with him. (As a factory worker, admiring the group portrait of his co-workers, points out, art is meant to surprise us.) I'll only say the scene finds just the right strain of wistfulness on which to end, evoking, cryptically but movingly, happy days with Varda's late husband, the great Jacques Demy. FACES PLACES is about history and memory and the power of imagination. It is about art and life—the ways they mirror each other, and what's important in both: love and creativity and travel and leaping at chances, and seeing things that make you dream. It is about the life force—as, at its best, was the French New Wave. At one point Varda and JR recreate Godard's famous race through the Louvre, and I actually bounced in my seat and clapped. In the end, they photograph faces because faces are beautiful, and every face tells a story. It is as simple—and as profound—as that. (2017, 89 min, Video Projection) SP
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
The Logan Center for the Arts (915 E. 60th St., University of Chicago) hosts a screening of THE GRANDMOTHER PROJECT, a documentary video produced by the same-named non-profit organization, on Saturday at 2pm. Free admission.
The Stony Island Arts Bank (6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) screens Kent Garrett's 1971 episode of The Black Journal, THE BLACK G.I. (54 min, Video Projection), and David Loeb Weiss' 1968 documentary NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER (shortened 68 min version, Video Projection) on Saturday at 4pm. Followed by a discussion. Free admission.
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (756 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens Dan Salmon's 2012 New Zealand documentary PICTURES OF SUSAN (86 min, Video Projection) on Thursday at 7pm.
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) presents NASA Moon Landing 50th Anniversary Screening on Wednesday at 8:30pm. This outdoor screening will include 16mm NASA-related films from the collection of Craig Baldwin and an episode of the television series Cosmos. Free admission.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg's 1984 documentary BEFORE STONEWALL (87 min, DCP Digital) has six screenings Friday-Wednesday; and John Chester's 2018 documentary THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (91 min, DCP Digital), and Kirill Serebrennikov's 2018 Russian film LETO (126 min, DCP Digital) both play for a week.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Im Kwon-taek's 2000 South Korean film CHUNHYANG (120 min, 35mm) is on Friday at 7 and 9:30pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Andrew Slater's 2018 documentary ECHO IN THE CANYON (90 min, DCP Digital) continues; John Singleton's 1997 film ROSEWOOD (140 min, 35mm) is on Tuesday at 7pm; a double feature of two Ugandan films by Nabwana I.G.G., BAD BLACK (2016, 68 min, DCP Digital) and WHO KILLED CAPTAIN ALEX? (2010, 64 min, DCP Digital), are on Thursday at 7pm, with co-producer and actor Alan Hofmanis in person; Sean Gallagher and Justin Drobinski's 2018 documentary DECONSTRUCTING THE BEATLES: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (98 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 11:30am and Wednesday at 7pm; John Singleton's 1993 film POETIC JUSTICE (109 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight; and Tim Pope's 2019 music documentary THE CURE: ANNIVERSARY 1978-2018 LIVE IN HYDE PARK (137 min, DCP Digital) is on Thursday at 10pm.
Facets Cinémathèque plays Cai Chengjie's 2017 Chinese film THE WIDOWED WITCH (120 min, Video Projection) for a week-long run.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Cinema/Chicago screening of Rachid Djaidani's 2016 French film TOUR DE FRANCE (95 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
The Cultural Service at the Consulate General of France in Chicago hosts an outdoor screening of Agnès Varda's 1962 French film CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (90 min, Video Projection) on Saturday at 8:30pm at Walsh Park (1722 N. Ashland Ave.). Free admission.
The Millennium Park Summer Film Series (at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion) presents an outdoor screening of Gil Junger's 1999 film 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (99 min) on Tuesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
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: July 5 - July 11, 2019
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Julian Antos, Rob Christopher, Cody Corrall, Kyle Cubr, Marilyn Ferdinand, Scott Pfeiffer, Michael G. Smith, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Brian Welesko