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Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Inquiring Nuns

inquiring

Chicago-based Kartemquin Films has made a name for itself over the past couple decades for producing acclaimed, socially conscious documentaries such as Hoop Dreams (1994), Vietnam, Long Time Coming (1998), Stevie (2002) and The Interrupters (2011). But only the most seasoned cinephiles — or Chicago-philes — are likely to know that Kartemquin’s roots stretch all the way back to the mid-Sixties when the company was formed by University of Chicago alumni Stan Karter, Jerry Temaner and Gordon Quinn (who named their brainchild after the first three letters of each of their last names). The most well-known of Kartemquin’s early features is probably Inquiring Nuns, which was shot over the course of one long Sunday in 1967 and released the following year. It is a fascinating time-capsule of both Chicago and America during the height of the Vietnam war, a work of urban anthropology clearly inspired by Jean Rouch (whose Chronicle of a Summer is referenced by one of the offscreen filmmakers in the opening scene). It also remains a great and truly under-appreciated document of its time, especially in comparison to the work of more famous contemporaneous cinema verite directors like D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and the Maysles brothers. Fortunately for movie lovers, Inquiring Nuns is available in a superb-quality DVD put out by Facets Multimedia in 2009, which means the film is at least easy to track down for those lucky enough to know about it.

The compelling premise of the movie, directed by Gordon Quinn, is that the filmmakers follow two young Catholic nuns, Sister Arne and Sister Campion (the latter of whom will make my long-threatened list of Cinema’s Hottest Nuns whenever I get around to compiling it), as they travel around Chicago asking random people the question “Are you happy?” The sisters manage to cover a lot of ground in just one day, stopping at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, a South Side church, a co-op grocery store and more, and interview an array of subjects of impressively diverse races and ages. One particularly fortuitous interview is a random encounter with Stepin Fetchit, the controversial black comedic actor and veteran of films by John Ford. The sisters clearly have no idea who Fetchit is but he nonetheless plies them with photographs of himself with the likes of Will Rogers and Shirley Temple and talks of how he pissed away a fortune of seven million dollars (he was the first African-American millionaire) but still considers himself happy because he goes to “communion” every day. Ford fans will want to see the movie for this interview alone: it represents a rare chance to hear Fetchit speak in his “real” voice (as opposed to the cartoonish slur he always used in Hollywood movies).

In addition to offering the appealing prospect of seeing a now-vanished Chicago, the film is also noteworthy for the unique responses that the nuns receive to their questions. Most respondents answer thoughtfully and seriously (with some even ruminating philosophically on the nature of happiness) and talk about what they would require in order to be happier. Interestingly, many of the interview subjects (including a man and a woman who identify themselves as belonging to a band called “The Bubblegum Orgy”) express dissatisfaction with various social and political ills — especially the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam — and it’s hard not to imagine that a comparable survey of random Chicagoans today would yield responses that seem less well-informed. But, then again, maybe not. We’ll never know how many uninteresting or superficial interviews ended up on the cutting room floor when Quinn was editing his film; or, perhaps more importantly, how many of the interview subjects in the finished product wanted to come across as morally serious individuals precisely because they were being interviewed by nuns instead of, say, a random guy in a suit. Regardless, the end result is captivating and should be seen by anyone who cares about the documentary form. Also of interest is that the original score, a typically repetitive organ doodle, was composed by a then-unknown Philip Glass.

Check out Kartemquin’s official trailer for Inquiring Nuns via YouTube here:

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. L’atalante (Vigo)
2. Trapped (Shahbazi)
3. At Berkeley (Wiseman)
4. Los Olvidados (Bunuel)
5. Pieces of Me (Lemesle)
6. Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski)
7. The Girls on Liberty Street (Rangel)
8. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
9. Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes)
10. Soul (Chung)


An Australian/New Zealand Cinema Primer

A dozen titles from Australia and New Zealand, two sister-countries whose local film industries didn’t really take off until the 1970s.

Wake in Fright (Kotcheff, 1971)

wake

This early entry in the remarkable Australian New Wave of the 1970s is easily one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen — not so much because of any “extreme” content (although that is certainly present in the kangaroo-massacre montage) but rather because of the way Canadian director Ted Kotcheff paints such a convincingly bleak picture of self-destructive masculinity, moral degradation and human nature in general. The film begins with a rural schoolteacher (Gary Bond) embarking on a summer holiday. While staying overnight in a nearby mining town en route to visit his girlfriend in Sydney, the teacher becomes persuaded by the locals to engage in their favorite pastimes of binge-drinking and gambling, which leads to an unintended week-long stay of increasingly debauched and animalistic behavior. The performances, especially by Bond and Donald Pleasance as a sexually ambiguous doctor, are excellent and Kotcheff sustains an almost unbearably tense and unsettling atmosphere from beginning to end.

Walkabout (Roeg, 1971)

walkabout

A man takes his two young children — a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her pre-adolescent brother — on a picnic in the Outback, goes berserk without warning by trying to shoot them and then turns the gun on himself. Stranded, the children soon meet up with a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a “walkabout,” a monthlong coming-of-age ritual in which he is separated from his tribe. While the Aborigine leads the children safely back to civilization, they are nonetheless incapable of truly understanding one another, and their miscommunication inevitably leads to tragedy. The solo directing debut of British cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, Walkabout is a visually stunning and thematically rich meditation on the clash between civilization and nature, the loss of childhood innocence and the first stirrings of burgeoning sexuality. In spite of its darker elements and a liberal use of nudity, I think this beautiful, hypnotic film is ideal to show to children.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975)

picnic

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting, enigmatic film — often erroneously referred to as being based on actual events — about the disappearance of three female college students and a middle-aged teacher during a Valentine’s Day picnic in the year 1900. Like Antonioni in L’avventura, director Peter Weir refuses to provide a concrete explanation for their disappearance while simultaneously hinting at several possible interpretations (including a supernatural one). Trying to figure out “what happened” is ultimately irrelevant, however; this is really about the foolhardiness of British settlers trying to impose Victorian values on an alien landscape, which is made most obvious in a parallel plot about the school’s repressed headmistress relentlessly punishing a student for expressing a schoolgirl crush. But Picnic at Hanging Rock is also a true cinematic wonder: it is finally the striking images of those young women — immaculately attired in white dresses, walking in slow-motion among primordial rock formations — that will stay with me forever. Contemporary viewers may want to look sharp for multi-Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver in a small role as a maid.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Schepisi, 1978)

jimmie

It is remarkable how many Australian filmmakers of the 1970s were able to deal honestly with their country’s painful racist and colonialist past. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be the most impressive Aussie film in this cycle; based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, which was itself based on a true story, it charts the adventures of a half-caste Aboriginal title character whose axe-murdering of an entire family is seen as stemming from a lifetime of having endured condescension and outright abuse at the hands of his white employers. This is not, however, a simple polemic; the murders are graphically depicted (one particular shot involving an egg yolk is genius in its disturbing detail), which is one of many ways director Fred Schepisi refuses to make us fully sympathize with the title character, even while he takes great pains to explain Blacksmith’s behavior. A tough, complex and essential movie.

Newsfront (Noyce, 1978)

newsfront

What a delight it was for me to discover this little-known gem of a film, the auspicious debut of director Philip Noyce. Newsfront lovingly recreates the lives of newsreel cameramen living in Sydney from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s — highlighting their rivalries with each other and their clashes with the top brass, the conflicts in their family lives and, most importantly, the challenges posed by working “in the field,” which makes cinematography seem almost as adventurous a profession as archaeology was for Indiana Jones. I especially loved how distinctly Australian it all seems (with genuine newsreel footage of important events being seamlessly intertwined with the fictional scenes) and how, like David Fincher did in Zodiac, Noyce captures the passage of time through a careful, nuanced selection of detail.

My Brilliant Career (Armstrong, 1979)

mybrilliant

Gillian Armstrong’s terrific adaptation of Miles Franklin’s celebrated novel depicts the life of a precocious young woman with literary ambitions living in rural Australia at the turn of the 20th century. Judy Davis, impossibly young and fresh-faced and, as Sailor Ripley might say, “dangerously cute,” is Sybylla, the headstrong author-surrogate who has to choose between marrying the man of her dreams (Sam Neill) and keeping her independence to pursue her career as a writer. This witty, poignant film is much less dark than any of the other period piece movies on this list and yet it still manages to deviate from the conventions of cinematic fairy tales in a way that is immensely gratifying and should prove empowering to young women.

The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)

road

George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.

The Year My Voice Broke (Duigan, 1987)

year

John Duigan’s fine coming-of-age film, set in New South Wales in the early 1960s, is extremely impressive because of such underrated and low-key virtues as sincerity and modesty. The plot centers on Danny (the immensely appealing Nick Cave look-alike Noah Taylor), a 15-year-old-boy whose heart is broken when his childhood friend and secret crush Freya (Loene Carmen) falls for Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn), a slightly older, thuggish rugby player. The gorgeous locations and effective use of period songs (including Gene Pitney’s “Liberty Valance”) effortlessly conjure a specific time and place, which is bolstered by solid, naturalistic performances and a nostalgic story that avoids sentimentality and cliche at every turn. Contemporary Hollywood screenwriters could certainly learn a thing or three from watching this.

Young Einstein (Serious, 1988)

youngeinstein

This hilarious alternate-history farce imagines Albert Einstein (writer/director Yahoo Serious) as a young man from a Tasmanian farm who invents the theory of relativity in 1905 as a means of solving his father’s challenge to add bubbles to beer — and thereby making it tastier! It isn’t long afterwards that the budding young scientist invents surfing and rock and roll, the latter of which he describes as a “scientific musical theory based on the human heartbeat.” He also romances Marie Curie, saves Paris from being destroyed by an atom bomb and, most endearingly, saves some kittens from being baked in a pie. Serious, wire-thin and sporting troll-doll hair, is as physically expressive in his mannerisms as he is understated in his line readings. As a director, he’s also a great visual stylist like the great filmmaker-performers of yesteryear (Keaton, Chaplin, Tati, etc.). While Young Einstein, Serious’ first feature, was an unexpected global success, his subsequent films unfortunately were not and he has been very quiet since his last, Mr. Accident, in 2000.

The Piano (Campion, 1993)

piano

Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

Heavenly Creatures (Jackson, 1994)

heavenly

The career of New Zealand director Peter Jackson can be broken into at least couple distinct phases — with many of the devotees of his early gore-fests unappreciative of his later big budget Hollywood work, while many devotees of his Tolkien adaptations remain ignorant of such delirious low-budget items as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. Heavenly Creatures, a black comedy/psychological horror film from 1994, effectively serves as a bridge between these worlds and also remains my favorite of the director’s works to date: it tells the true story of the unholy friendship between two imaginative teenage girls, Juliette Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), who conspire to kill the latter’s mother in 1950s Christchurch. In spite of a certain cartoonish stylization in terms of dialogue and performance, this convincingly illustrates how two people can carry out a plan that, had they never come together, would have remained nothing more than a dark fantasy in the mind of each individually.

The Tracker (De Heer, 2002)

tracker

While many consider the “western” a uniquely American genre, there have been plenty of great Australian examples; this is due in part to the lawless, frontier-like region of the Outback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the conflict between European settlers and native Aborigines, which can be seen as analogous to the Indian Wars so often depicted in American westerns. The Tracker is a particularly good example of an Australian western and one that uses the form to make a powerful statement about racism. In 1922, three white policemen and their subservient Aboriginal “tracker” follow another Aboriginal man suspected of murdering a white women deep into the Australian brush. Throughout the journey, the power dynamics dramatically shift between this quartet of disparate characters, leading to a conclusion as unpredictable as it is sublime. What I especially like about this film (in addition to David Gulpilil’s always-welcome presence as the title character) is the way director Rold de Heer uses primitive folk-art style paintings as well as the songs of Aboriginal singer Archie Roach as additional texts to comment on the narrative. A powerful allegorical movie that engages the heart as much as the mind.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
2. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
3. The Big Shot (Murphy)
4. The Third Man (Reed)
5. Possession (Zulawski)
6. Man’s Castle (Borzage)
7. Excision (Bates)
8. The Circus Queen Murder (Neill)
9. Goodfellas (Scorsese)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)


Halloween Screening Alert: Dumplings at Facets Fright School!

On Friday, October 4th, I will kick off Facets Multimedia’s annual Fright School, which has “Horrible People” as its theme, by presenting a midnight screening of Fruit Chan’s horror/comedy gem Dumplings. Any of my students who attend the screening can earn extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for details. Below is a synopsis of Dumplings I wrote for the Facets website:

dumplings

You Are Who You Eat!: Fruit Chan’s Delicious, Disturbing Dumplings

The “horrible people” in Dumplings, the film kicking off the 2013 edition of Facets Fright School, are not limited to one or two villainous characters but instead constitute an entire society at the turn of the millennium: the materialistic and youth-obsessed denizens of Hong Kong. Dumplings is esteemed director Fruit Chan’s rarely seen feature-length version of a short film that he originally made for the Asian horror anthology Three. . . Extremes. The story centers on an over-the-hill television actress, identified only as “Mrs. Li” (Miriam Yeung), who will stop at nothing to revive her sagging career and rekindle the interest of her philandering husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai). As if in answer to her prayers, Mrs. Li meets Auntie Mei (a spectacularly creepy Bai Ling), a local chef whose homemade dumplings contain a “secret ingredient” imported from the mainland that supposedly has the power to restore the youth of anyone who consumes it. But Mrs. Li soon discovers to her horror that she must eat the dumplings continually if she wants to stay forever young . . .

Fruit Chan (Made in Hong Kong, Durian Durian) became internationally famous for a series of gritty, naturalistic dramas tackling important social issues in the turbulent Hong Kong of the 1990s. With 2004′s Dumplings he drastically shifted registers, crafting an elegant and beautifully photographed horror film (the exquisite color cinematography is courtesy of the great Christopher Doyle) that successfully translates his trademark social criticism to the confines of the more genre-oriented filmmaking for which Hong Kong is best known. The result expertly balances visceral shocks with intellectual provocation, and deservedly became one of the most acclaimed Hong Kong films of the post-”handover” era, winning numerous accolades along the way (including a Film of Merit Award from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and many Best Supporting Actress trophies for Bai Ling). Come on out to see this director-preferred expanded version of Dumplings and find out what all the fuss is about — though you may want to hold off on eating before you come!

For more information, including directions and ticket info, consult the Facets website: http://www.facets.org/pages/nightschool.php

You can also check out our facebook event page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1419112194974988/


Adventures in Early Movies: the Lumiere Brothers’ Serpentine Dance

loie

France’s trailblazing filmmaking brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere produced well over a thousand short films, many of them “actualities” consisting of a single shot no longer than 45 seconds, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Out of the hundreds of impressive shorts they made that I have seen, one of my absolute favorites has to be their beautiful and kaleidoscopic Serpentine Dance (or Danse Serpentine as they say in French) from 1896. Purely as a piece of eye-candy, this stimulating film of a woman performing a popular vaudeville dance — invented and patented in 1891 by Chicago’s very own modern-dance pioneer Loie Fuller — still manages to charm and impress today. Fuller’s dance, which involved her artfully twirling the long, flowing silk fabric on her skirt and shirt sleeves, made her a hit in France and helped to influence the Art Nouveau movement there. Unsurprisingly, many films were consequently made of different “serpentine dancers” all over the world, including one by Georges Melies, as well as Thomas Edison’s well-known 1894 production Annabelle Serpentine Dance, which featured a relatively crude use of color-tinting as well as a relatively amateur dancer in one Annabelle Moore.

The Lumiere brothers’ Serpentine Dance, on the other hand, features a much more dynamic dancer and a much more sophisticated use of color-tinting in which the ever-shifting rainbow-like colors of the film are meant to mimic the multicolored lighting effects that Loie Fuller had designed herself for her live stage performances. The unknown Lumiere dancer — often misidentified as Fuller — is vigorous and whip-fast in her movements, which seem to almost magically combine with the filmmakers’ ever-changing but amazingly precise use of color: the women who were commissioned to tint each frame by hand always stay “within the lines” of the dancer’s costume, an extremely impressive feat (and a rare one for the era), especially given how much movement there is within the frame. The end result, believed to have been directed and shot by Louis Lumiere (a great cameraman who shot many of the early Lumiere brothers himself — including their masterpiece A Train Arriving at La Ciotat), is a film of astonishingly abstract beauty in which light, color, form and movement combine into an exhilarating 45-second blast of pure cinema.

Serpentine Dance (Lumiere catalog number 765) is available on the invaluable compilation DVD The Lumiere Bros’ First Films from Kino Video. It can also be seen on YouTube below:

Wikipedia’s Loie Fuller page is chock full of further interesting reading about the life of this fascinating dance pioneer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loie_Fuller


Willa and the Magic Hour

days“Magic hour” lighting in Days of Heaven

A few years ago I went on an early 20th century American literature kick and read, in quick succession, novels by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, and was astonished to find myself forming the opinion that the first two decades of that century constitute what I believe to be the single richest era for American literature. (I say “astonished” because I had previously taken a 20th Century American Novel class in college that completely dismissed pre-“Jazz Age” authors and had predictably begun with Fitzgerald and Hemingway instead.) The last name on this illustrious list, Willa Cather, became my favorite of the bunch when I read her 1918 masterpiece My Antonia, a short and deceptively simple “memory piece” in which the narrator, a successful New York lawyer, reminisces about his childhood growing up on a Nebraska farm and the first stirrings of love he felt for his neighbor, an immigrant girl from Bohemia. What made a much bigger impression on me than the plot or the characters, however, was Cather’s very specific sense of place — her poetic descriptions of the tall red Nebraska grass blowing in the wind and the quality of the late afternoon sunlight. Such passages put me in the mind of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which takes place on a Texas wheat farm (though it was shot in Canada) the same year that Cather’s novel was published and features similar “magic hour” images of farmers juxtaposed against tall wheat fields. While I knew that Malick had used F.W. Murnau’s penultimate film City Girl (1930) and Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World as visual reference points for his movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t also been inspired by Cather’s prose.

christinaAndrew Wyeth’s evocative 1948 painting Christina’s World

I recently formed a “cigar and book club” with a couple of buddies (one of us chooses a book to read, then we get together a month later to discuss it over cigars and libations), and my first proposal was Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). While I am still in the process of reading this beautiful western novel about Catholic missionaries from Europe establishing a diocese in mid-19th century New Mexico, I have already been blown away again by her ability to capture what one might think of as “painterly” or “cinematic” images in the language of prose. In the novel’s second paragraph, for instance, Cather describes the quality and color of sunlight during the last hour before the sun disappears from a dusky Roman sky. Check it out:

It was early when the Spanish Cardinal and his guests sat down to dinner. The sun was still good for an hour of supreme splendour, and across the shining folds of country the low profile of the city barely fretted the skyline — indistinct except for the dome of St. Peter’s, bluish grey like the flattened top of a great balloon, just a flash of copper light on its soft metallic surface. The Cardinal had an eccentric preference for beginning his dinner at this time in the late afternoon, when the vehemence of the sun suggested motion. The light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax — of splendid finish. It was both intense and soft, with a ruddiness as of much-multiplied candlelight, an aura of red in its flames. It bored into the ilex trees, illuminating their mahogany trunks and blurring their dark foliage; it warmed the bright green of the orange trees and the rose of the oleander blooms to gold; sent congested spiral patterns quivering over the damask and plate and crystal. The churchmen kept their rectangular clerical caps on their heads to protect them from the sun. The three Cardinals wore black cassocks with crimson pipings and crimson buttons, the Bishop a long black coat over his violet vest.

Neither My Antonia nor Death Comes for the Archbishop has ever been adapted for the big screen. Reading the above passage kind of makes you wonder why no one has attempted to bring such vivid images to cinematic life, no?

willaWilla Cather Memorial Prairie in Webster County, Nebraska


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