In past years, the CIFF set aside some of its programming for films from bygone eras of particular interest to film enthusiasts. That practice went a bit into decline in recent years, but happily, this year, filmgoers can see three films in new restorations: William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968); To Sleep with Anger (1990), in conjunction with the festival’s tribute to its influential director, Charles Burnett; and perhaps most exciting, the newly recovered Sherlock Holmes. The latter film was thought lost for nearly a century, but was found in 2014 at the world-famous Cinémathèque Française in Paris, a happy occurrence of the type that has become more common in recent years.
The significance of the find is immense, as it was the only film in which the great stage actor William Gillette ever appeared, preserving his famous, standard-setting characterization of the super-sleuth in his own highly successful co-adaptation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of the writer’s first Holmes story to appear in Strand Magazine, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891). Its significance to Chicago film history is even more noteworthy because the film was shot at the Essanay Studios at 1333-45 W. Argyle St. in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which now serves as the Essanay Center, a division of St. Augustine College.
What? Chicago film history? Yes, indeed. For a short time, from 1898 through 1918, Chicago was the filmmaking capital of the United States. A fascinating history of this era written by my good friend Michael Glover Smith and his coauthor Adam Selzer, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry offers a look at this crucible time in film history, with engaging profiles of the major players in the Chicago film industry, including Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson and George Spoor, founders of Essanay; Selig Polyscope founder “Colonel” William Selig; film distributor and producer George Kleine; and some of the directors and actors who answered the call of Chicago before they found warmer pastures in Hollywood, including Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Oscar Micheaux, and Ben Turpin.
Recently, I sat down to talk about the Chicago film industry and Sherlock Holmes with Mike Smith, whose other claims to fame include his charming indie film, Cool Apocalypse, set to screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 and 23, and his engaging blog White City Cinema. Our conversation ranged across a number of subjects, from film preservation to CGI.
Marilyn: Even though I knew there was a Chicago film industry, I had no idea how much was going on. What got you interested in doing this history?
Mike: The impetus was discovering how large the film industry was here, which I had no clue about even though I’ve always been really interested in early cinema. As a film history teacher, I always taught that era—the 1890s and early 1900s. But I mostly talked about Europe and the northeastern United States, Thomas Edison, Biograph, because that’s what the history books focused on.
I discovered by chance how large the industry here was when I went to the Chicago History Museum. They have a very small display devoted to film, TV, and radio, and they had an old Essanay camera on display and a little plaque describing Charlie Chaplin making a film here and the address of Essanay. I knew Chaplin had worked here, but I wasn’t sure when it was, where it was, how long he was here, or how many films he made. So I decided to do a bit of research, and I was surprised to learn he was only here for 23 days, and he only made one short film!
I went to Essanay and was amazed to find that it was intact, and when I started to learn more about the studio, I was surprised to learn that there was no book-length study of Essanay or the local film production scene in the silent era. There have been books that devote a chapter or two to the era, and there have been great biographies written of people like “Bronco Billy” Anderson and Col. Selig, but there’s never been a whole book devoted to just that era in Chicago film history. When I learned how crucial Chicago was to the developing film industry in America, I thought it was a worthy subject for an entire book.
I also think that the fact that Columbia University Press put out the book, which I’m still over the moon about, is that I think they realized that there was no other book devoted solely to this subject. Hopefully, Adam and I have helped to fill in a gap in early film history.
How did you and your coauthor get together?
Adam has been a good friend of mine for over a decade. We met by chance in line at a Bob Dylan concert at the Vic Theatre back in 2004. He is an author, historian, and tour guide and has a number of books out, primarily young adult novels. But he has some history books out, too, most notably The Smart Aleck’s Guide to U.S. History. So it was kind of a natural fit, because he knows Chicago history very well and I know film history very well.
You bring out the entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago. You can do anything here in Chicago, nobody will stop you. How did you feel about the characters you encountered?
I was fascinated by all of the major players and that entrepreneurial spirit really made researching this a lot of fun. I grew to really respect them as visionaries. This industry didn’t exist, so they were helping to build it up from nothing and they were coming from different backgrounds. Col. Selig was a phony medium who saw a kinetoscope and thought, ‘I want to get in on this.’ So the line between artist and businessman was totally blurred and also what it meant to be a filmmaker, a distributor, and an exhibitor. That was really interesting because in a few years, everything would become separate and regimented, but in the early days of cinema, they were selling cameras and they needed films that people could project. For George Spoor, certainly, filmmaking was an afterthought; he wanted to sell cameras.
I was really fond of George Kleine. He became my favorite character even though we write about him less that the others because he wasn’t a filmmaker; he was a distributor and he stood up to Edison the most and also, he was the only one who retired a success in the 1920s. He’s the only one who did not lose his fortune at the end of the local industry here.
Thomas Edison is someone I grew to grudgingly respect. Early on, Adam and I joked around about how he was going to be the villain of the book, and in some ways he is, but we also ended up sympathizing with him the more we looked into his point of view. I don’t think he was a super-villain trying to monopolize the industry out of greed. I think he truly thought that he had a case to make for patenting this equipment, and then the other thing to understand is that he didn’t understand how big the film industry was going to become. So when we look at what he did from today’s perspective, he seems really, really greedy, but if he had known how large the industry would become, he would have behaved differently. He was trying to make practical decisions to protect his own business interests by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) and only licensing his patented equipment to nine studios, and he did do some positive things, such as getting fire insurance for all the theatres that showed his films. In the early 20th century, that was very progressive. We tried to be balanced.
It’s hard to predict the future, though some people seem to have a sense of it, like Selig, who was a very innovative individual.
Moreso than Spoor and Anderson.
But he didn’t have the business acumen or didn’t know how to realize his dreams the way that he saw them. That’s often a problem with visionaries—they need somebody else to do the grunt work. I’m curious about Selig, too, because I know him more for his work out west. Can you tell me more about his Chicago versus western work?
I don’t know exactly how many films he produced here versus there, but I would estimate that the majority of the films he made were here because he started in 1896, and he didn’t shoot his first films out west until 1909. They call him the man who invented Hollywood—that’s the name of the biography of him because he was the first filmmaker to use a location in southern California, but that was almost by chance. He shot part of The Count of Monte Cristo (1908) there, and realized it was so ideal for shooting, especially in the wintertime, that he decided to set up a second branch out there.
The mythology is that Hollywood became Hollywood because Chicago was too cold, which is partially true, but not the whole story. Do you think there was any way that Chicago could have maintained, if not the center of film production, some ongoing film concern here?
That’s an excellent question. It’s hard for me to imagine the industry continuing beyond what it initially was. I feel like it’s almost a miracle that it happened at all.
Film production had already begun in the northeastern United States. Thomas Edison was producing films prior to their public exhibition, and I feel like the only reason it sprung up here was because he stunted the growth of the film industry there. I think it was a combination of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the fact that Chicago was such an important hub for distribution, and a number of other factors that made it conducive to film production at that particular time, but I don’t think it was destined to last.
There was one really curious individual in this book—the censor, Major M.L.C. Funkhouser. What a great name! If anyone put the film scene in a funk, it was him. Obviously, there were a lot of bad business decisions that were sinking the industry, but do you think censorship was a contributing factor?
Definitely! Although we couldn’t get hard evidence against him, we tried to imply that he was in the pocket of Edison’s trust, the MPPC. The evidence comes mostly from the fact that he was a lot stricter about censoring independent films and foreign films than he was the MPPC films, especially as time went by. So I think that if he wasn’t in their pocket at the beginning, he eventually became that way. But he became that way at the wrong time because the ship was already sinking. Early on, when he did censor local films, he probably hurt the industry, and then later on, he was part of the sinking ship. Metaphorically, he was on the Eastland.
Metaphorically, but almost literally as well because the people most affected by that disaster were not allowed to see the films of it. I find that rather irresponsible and considering the history of the newsreel and how it became more codified here in Chicago, it seems like a real crime against Chicago cinema in that sense.
That footage could be seen in the suburbs but not in the city itself, which I agree is a tragedy. There are a few fragments of the film, all of which were found in an archive in Amsterdam, and one of them is unbelievably gruesome.
One of the amazing things about writing this book was witnessing the discovery of a lot of these old films. The Sherlock Holmes film was found just as Flickering Empire was going to press, so we were just able to add a footnote that it was going to be restored and rereleased. And now I’ve seen the film, and I love it. I think it’s wonderful. And there are a couple of other films that were either rediscovered or have been restored and are coming out soon in definitive editions.
I think we’ve hit into an era where film recovery and restoration is on the upswing. A lot of archives are opening and have the tools to finally see what they have, and I think we’ll see a lot more of these recoveries.
I think you’re right, and what I like is that a lot of these films have been discovered in an archive where they know there are films, but they’ve probably been mislabeled or the archive is in another country and the title was translated as something different so they don’t quite know what they have. So it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a cinephile, and it’s great that enough people care that there’s a market out there for this stuff. And that was another reason I wanted to write this book, because I’m always trying to show my students that film history is exciting. It’s not a boring, dry, academic endeavor. Just to watch films that are 100 years old can be a hell of a lot of fun. I think a film like Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade is as entertaining as a movie can be. Hopefully, my enthusiasm for this topic comes through in the book.
Telling this chapter in film history is really important if you’re going to get a true picture of how film developed in this country.
You’re so aware of the fact that this is the first time it was ever done on film. Maybe there are genre elements that come from literature and theatre, but when you see it on film, you realize that this is the beginning.
Like with William Gillette. Having his stage performance preserved for posterity, those opportunities don’t come along very often and it’s really a treasure to see that.
The last thing I want to say in terms of trying to capture this particular era is that I didn’t only want to transfer my enthusiasm for early film history to the reader, I also wanted to capture the excitement of the age, especially in the first chapter. That was the hook we wanted, to show how movies were sort of the climax of this flurry of invention that included other exciting breakthroughs—the lightbulb, the phonograph, and then there were moving pictures.
You really did that. The early nickelodeons, the idea of just being able to put your face down into the viewer and watch these moving pictures is revelatory to people. This wasn’t always here.
It’s hard to impress upon my students what the world was like before people saw moving pictures because today we’re just bombarded with moving images wherever we go. You’re at the gas station pumping gas and there’s a screen with people moving on it. There are screens in front of you all the time.
One of my favorite stories about early cinema is the Lumière Brothers had a film about a couple and their baby. They are in the foreground of the shot, and they’re outdoors. What made the biggest impression on audiences was not what was happening in the foreground, but rather the leaves blowing in the wind in the background. If you read contemporary reports of the screening, they talk about how that caused a sensation in the audience. And in a way, it makes sense if you think that people had looked at so many paintings and still photos of trees, just to see leaves blowing is revelatory.
There is a contemporary version of that with CGI, when you can see individual strands of hair moving, which I found fascinating because I was used to traditional cel animation.
I heard there was a hair physicist in Disney’s Tangled (2010) credited in that film. And that’s the great thing about film history, it’s a never-ending series of breakthroughs.
Sherlock Holmes screens Saturday, October 24 at 3:00 p.m.at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Treasure: Sly comedy about the pressures of capitalism in the new Romania and the pleasures of buried treasure from Romanian New Wave star Corneliu Porumboiu. (Romania)
Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)
The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)
Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)
Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)
Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)
Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.
Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.
James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.
James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.
Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.
The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.
It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”
I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.
The big news in Chicago and many parts of the Midwest is the cold. As I write, current air temperatures in Chicagoland are -13℉, and this new-fangled measurement they call wind chill puts the temperature down to -38℉ for anyone who gets a kisser full of breeze. Last night, the governor of our neighboring state of Indiana declared a state of emergency and called weather-trained members of the National Guard out to close and patrol roads and rescue any fools who took the car out for a spin before the roadblocks went up. Veteran weathercaster Steve Baskerville tried to cover the story using those new-fangled weather-terror words like “invasion” to describe the cold air coming down from the Arctic and, as usual, fashion trumped safety as the pretty, low-ranking women the TV station sent out to report on what could plainly be seen from any window wore minimal head and no face coverings. (I am reminded of the poor reporter sent to O’Hare Airport, where “many international flights arrive,” to “cover” a shooting at a fast-food restaurant in Australia, wasting valuable resources that could have been used to report on Lindsay Lohan’s botched haircut.)
As you may have gathered, this lifelong Chicagoan is respectful of the weather but remains cool-headed (actually quite warm in my cozy condo) as the hubby tries without success to terrorize me with the extremity of the situation. As nearly every decent employer in the area has closed for the day—even the mayor of Chicago was shamed into closing the Chicago Public Schools by the ever-wonderful Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union—there really isn’t much to worry about. No fighting blowing snow on the roads, no jamming to get on the only train that has appeared at the open-air platform in the past quarter-hour. Instead, many of us are relaxing, making soup and hot toddies, doing a spot of work remotely from our home computers and phones, or engaging in any number of pastimes, from watching movies to catching up on our reading. This is what as a kid I looked forward to during the winter—a snow day.
Dad shoveling out after the Big Snow of 1967
During the blizzard of 2011, I told a couple of shell-shocked Californians who were spending their first winter in Chicago—indeed, they moved here in November—that they were lucky to experience something I had only lived through three times before. They thought I was nuts, but I was sincere. My memories of my first blizzard, the Big Snow of 1967, are extremely fond. School was closed for four days, and my brother and I and all the many kids on our Baby Boom block were delirious at the possibilities 23 inches of snow on the ground presented. The wind had cast drifts that reached the roofs of some of my neighbors’ houses. A couple of intrepid children climbed them and then jumped into the snow, but I was too afraid to join them. Snowball fights and building snow forts were more my speed. Our front door was snowed shut, but Dad went out the back door and began the long, slow clearing of a path from the front door to our driveway and then digging out the driveway so that he could get his car off the road. I remember people who had to abandon their cars trying to find them again after the snow had covered them completely. People who hate the time-honored Chicago practice of putting out kitchen and lawn chairs to hold spots people shoveled out for their cars might have a better appreciation for the practice if they could have seen my dad and a lot of other people doing the back-breaking work of moving two feet of heavy snow for hours on end.
Canyons of snow after the digout
The Blizzard of 1979 was quite a different affair. I was living in the far south suburb of Chicago Heights and commuting on the Illinois Central Railroad to my job at the Chicago Tribune. The aftermath of that blizzard stayed in the area for months, as cold temperatures allowed more snow to accumulate as winter storms continued through the area. I helped a young man push his car out of a rut, and he seemed gobsmacked that anyone, let alone “A GIRL” would help him. I began to understand the very different world I was living in when I went to see a doctor about a very infected ear, and waited in vain for my bus home to arrive. I stood outside for a very long time as person after person leaving the closing clinic refused to give me a lift and my boyfriend’s father refused to come and get me. I would have died of hypothermia had one person not finally agreed to drive me home. I sat in front of the fireplace in my rented house for hours, the chill in my core and my bones so deep I thought I would never get warm again.
Obviously, I lived to see another cold day—in fact, the coldest ever recorded in Chicago. On January 10, 1982, the air temperature dropped to the current record of -27℉. I was back on the north side of Chicago, and was scheduled to go to the Museum of Science and Industry on the south side to hear my friend Marcia play a concert with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra. Unlike today, the city didn’t shut down, and the concert was on. At the time, my friend had a slavishly devoted boyfriend who would literally do anything she asked. So, he picked me up, and we drove south down Lake Shore Drive, the joints of his car creaking—EVERYTHING creaking—as the remaining snow on the road crunched under his frozen tires. We were nearly alone on the road, but neither he nor I would have dreamed of disappointing Marcia by behaving sensibly. Our nose hairs froze on our first inhale when we stepped out of the car and remained frozen until we entered the mostly empty museum. The orchestra, musicians who would have lost a paycheck if they hadn’t shown up, worked to literally warm up their instruments before the concert, and the show went on. I don’t remember the concert, but I do remember sitting after the concert with Marcia and her beau in the Harris, an all-night diner near her apartment and a hang-out for musicians coming off of late gigs, drinking hot tea and talking not about the weather, but about the concert. Yes, Marcia could be self-involved, but the truth was that none of us found the weather all that interesting by comparison. It gets cold in the winter, and that’s that.
Mayor Bilandic (r.) met his Waterloo soon after this picture was taken.
But lest you think Chicagoans don’t notice the weather, here is the cautionary tale of Michael Bilandic, who took office when Hizzoner the first Mayor Daley died late in 1976. The mayor made one crucial error during the 1979 blizzard that ended his career in the city’s top spot after less than three years in office. City streets, including main arteries, remained clogged for weeks as Bilandic seemed unable to marshall the resources to clear them. But that’s not what cost him the election—he brought out the snowplows to clear the way for some honchos attending a fundraiser at the Conrad Hilton hotel downtown. Chicagoans will take our weather, we’re raised to do that, but we never forget a snub.
Roger Ebert was my hometown critic. When he first started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, I wasn’t quite old enough to be aware of written film reviews, and my parents subscribed to the Chicago Tribune anyway. It would be a while before Roger Ebert really became a presence to me.
It began with Sneak Previews, the program he cohosted with Gene Siskel that, for a while, was only available on WTTW-TV, Chicago’s PBS station. I loved the show for a lot of reasons, but mostly because Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were people like me. They were both from Illinois, they looked and talked like people I knew, and they dealt with a subject that my movie-mad mother had taught me to love. I couldn’t get enough of their Dog of the Week segment, when they welcomed Sparky or Spot the Wonder Dogs to sit with them in the balcony and take a metaphorical leak on one of the films that Siskel hated for stealing two hours of his life that he would “never get back again.” His pain at the lost time made me determined to try to see only good movies. So while I was of a writerly bent and just as besotted by newspaper journalism as they were—that seems to be a common affliction of would-be writers from Chicago—I never aspired to have their job.
When I went to live in Chicago proper, the alternative newspaper The Reader was my source for recommendations of things to do in the city. I read Dave Kehr regularly, though I really didn’t understand his verbiage very well, and then Jonathan Rosenbaum. And I kept watching Sneak Previews. The Reader steered me in the direction of such new films as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Russ Meyer’s Supervixens (1975). But at the time, I was a legit theatre hound and went to films on dates or as something else to do.
As I got older and burned out on theatre, film started to loom brighter on the horizon. During this time, Roger Ebert entered my personal space, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. My father and I had a Monday night series, and as it happens, Roger did, too. We’d see him at the act breaks in the lobby, where he stood talking with a succession of women, one of whom was Chaz. When I pointed excitedly at Roger, Dad looked him up and down. Never a stargazer, he asked me if I thought Ebert made a good living. When I said that I did, he commented that it would be nice if he used some of his earnings to get his suits tailored properly. I was so embarrassed, as we were within earshot of the great man.
“I LOVE Metropolis!” were the first words Roger Ebert ever spoke to me. The time and place were 1999 at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, where I was attending Roger’s very first Overlooked Film Festival. We had just seen Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925), a great motion picture that is hardly overlooked among film enthusiasts. Roger, however, wasn’t thinking about the film per se as overlooked, but rather the increasingly niched taste for silent film that made such towering works part of the cultural landscape of only a relative few. It was his mission to nurture an appreciation of these and other films that time and tastes had all but passed by.
His reason for choosing Battleship Potemkin over many other silents had to do with his other mission in life: discovering and nurturing young talent. An industrial rock band called Concrete had written a score for the film, and Roger was in attendance when they first played it for a showing in Three Oaks, Michigan. So invigorated was Roger by the presentation that he invited Concrete to the Virginia to give his audience a thrill. Even my 73-year-old mother thought they were wonderful. Hence my sheepish approach to the great man with the idea that he invite Concrete back to play for a showing of Metropolis (1927). That didn’t happen because Concrete never wrote a score for the film—commissioning one, he said, would have been too expensive for the fledgling festival that was a fundraiser for the Virginia and for Roger’s alma mater, the University of Illinois—but silent films would be a fixture at what became known as Ebertfest from that point onward. I was fortunate to attend almost all of the festivals, a couple on press passes Roger okayed for me, an experience I know from reading the many tributes to him that others would have killed to have had.
When I started getting invited to the Lake Street screening room during the Chicago International Film Festival, I got to share air space with the great man and his wife. I remember that he was one of the few critics who chose to advance-screen The Princess of Montpensier (2010), which had been savaged by French critics. I was pleased that we were both fans of Bertrand Tavernier and that we were sharing the director’s unfairly maligned feature together.
Roger’s famed generosity has been commented upon many times since we got the devastating news of his death. He brought Martin Scorsese from despair to renewal and even declared young director Shane Carruth a budding Scorsese when he brought Carruth to Ebertfest for a screening of his 2004 debut film Primer. He was generous in supporting my film criticism, tweeting out a recommendation of a post I wrote, linking my review of Sita Sings the Blues (2008) on his journal, and helping to support For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon all three years with tweets, prizes, and probably a donation or two. At one of the Ebertfests I attended, I believe it was the first one where they had a La-Z-Boy lounger installed in the back of the theatre for him, I went up to him to introduce myself as the blogger he’d been so nice to. He pointed to himself, crossed his arms across his chest, and then pointed at me—I was floored.
It was this generosity, encouragement, and the acute insights he brought to bear in his criticism that marked him as a consummate educator. In my opinion, Roger Ebert’s greatest gift to the world was to educate people about film, to help them develop visual literacy that, as it turns out, is more important than ever to the global, electronically connected world in which we live. His Great Movies series is a curriculum all its own, essential reading and a viewing guide for anyone who wants to understand the language of cinema at its finest. Roger also dissected what was bad in the film literature, pointing out clichés like the fruit cart that gets hit during a car chase, a tired trope that was lampooned in Ski Patrol (1990) with said cart being labeled “Siskel and Ebert Fruit Cart.”
His passion to be a newspaperman exemplified his desire to learn the facts, discern the truth in them, and communicate both to others. His fellow newspaperman and TV partner Gene Siskel called their arena “the American dream beat,” but Roger saw it as much more. In focusing so much on the performances and people on screen, as well as the viewpoints of those behind the cameras, he helped us understand human behavior, learn close observation, and connect our fate with those of people distant from our own lives.
For example, I remember a segment from Sneak Previews where he pinpointed a choice Shirley MacLaine made in Terms of Endearment (1983) to take off her shoes and shake them in her hand as pivotal to understanding the internal thoughts we all have and communicate through gesture. I remember his ingenuity in choosing Tian-Ming Wu’s King of Masks (1997), a subtitled period Chinese film, as his free family film during one iteration of Ebertfest, telling parents and older siblings to read the subtitles to children not yet able to read. Despite the setting, alien language, and harsh conditions very far removed from the lives of youngsters living in the middle of Illinois, he understood how children would be transported with their imaginations and identify with the girl and the old man who come to love each other. And they did.
Roger Ebert taught film classes, wrote millions of words in his reviews and books, and eventually let the film beat fade a bit as he wrote more personally of his own travels and travails as a human being. His personal and confessional approach left some professional film critics aghast, but Roger understood the importance of telling the stories of our lives, of passing them along as wisdom for the next generation. He touched us as an educator not just about movies, but about what it means to be human. We’ll not see his like again any time soon.
In 2002, the filmed version of the Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical Chicago won the Academy Award for best picture. It was a stunningly great film with a message for our media-manipulated times. The genesis of these works, as well as William Wellman’s 1942 film Roxie Hart, was a hit Broadway play from 1926 by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who sensationalized the stories of two female murderers and contributed to their acquittals at trial. One of the killers was Beulah Annan, a glamorous and adulterous party girl who, in 1924, shot her lover, Harry Kalstedt, when he announced he was leaving her. The other was Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who gunned down her lover Walter Law as he sat in his car. The larger-than-life producer and director Cecil B. De Mille grabbed the rights to the play, and the result is the 1927 film Chicago.
Chicago takes up the story of only one of the murderers, Beulah Annan, who from this film onward becomes Roxie Hart. Played by Phyllis Haver, she is a beautiful, golden-haired waste of space who is only interested in money and fame. Her straight-arrow husband Amos (Victor Varconi) adores her. He picks up one of her garters as she sleeps, a gaudy contraption with bells on it, and shakes it lovingly near his ear. Later, he waits on a man at his tobacconist shop. This man, Rodney Casley (the great character actor of silent and sound pictures Eugene Pallette), takes an interest in some cigarettes for ladies whose advertising suggests your woman will stay with you if you buy her these cigarettes. Casley laughs that he’s trying to unload his woman. Amos drips that if Casley had his wife, he’d never want to be rid of her. In fact, we learn they are talking about the same woman, Roxie, when Casley fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and comes up with the other silver-belled garter.
Casley goes to meet Roxie to end their affair. She persists in trying to keep him, but he pushes her roughly against the wall and knocks her bureau over. Out spills a gun. As Casley opens the door and steps out into the hall with the words “I’m through” on his lips, Roxie says, “You’re through, all right,” and shoots. A bullet shatters a mirror on the door, and passes through, hitting Casley. The broken mirror is a brilliant spidery image, followed by an equally brilliant depiction of Roxie’s reaction to what she’s done. We never see Casley’s body, only Roxie looking at it as she tries to maneuver around it. You can see the wheels turning in her, trying to figure out what to do, wondering if he’s really dead, being disgusted by the dead body in her front room. She tears the piano roll out of the player piano; this is a reference to the Annan murder in which it was reported that a recording of “Hula Lou” was playing on Annan’s victrola as Harry lay dying in a pool of blood.
Roxie calls Amos, who comes running and phones the police. They and a male reporter show up. Amos tries to take the blame, but the sly assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond) traps Roxie by saying Amos said she did it. She goes ballistic, accusing her husband of ratting her out. Of course, he did no such thing, and the heartless Roxie realizes she’s been set up. Nonetheless, the reporter is thrilled by her seductive good looks and has his cameraman pose her as remorse itself while a cop stands in for the dead man on the floor.
The scenes in prison while Roxie awaits arraignment are clever and all too short. Roxie’s all-out fight with another woman on murderer’s row, who is strapped into a hip-reduction machine, is comic and a little frightening. The wit and sardonic humor of this film is just as piercing as in the 2002 film, and most of it is done without words. Haver gives a knockout performance, showing the difficulty Roxie has being anything but a chippie. When her attorney Billy Flynn, played with cynical grace by Robert Edeson, has her rehearse her brave, sweet, innocent, and noble looks before they face the jury, she needs a lot of coaching. He puts her in a cream puff of a dress that we are told is pink and has her carry a bouquet in her hands. She looks like an overgrown infant with a nosegay to ward off the smell of her own rotten character. The trial ends with Flynn snatching the bouquet from her hands, tossing it to the floor, and crushing it underfoot, a symbol of delicate womanhood threatened by a guilty verdict. Roxie flings herself on the broken blossoms and passes out. “The defense rests,” Flynn murmurs. You bet it does!
The director of record was Frank Urson, but the hand of De Mille is in clear view. The basis of the real murder, sex, shows how the canny De Mille always had one eye on the box office in his choice to produce the film and in the bawdiness of many of the scenes. Filming the entire murder sequence with Haver in a negligee starts the ball rolling. Of course there is nothing like a balls to the wall catfight to stir the blood. During the trial, a clever sequence showing Roxie’s legs and the curled toes of the male jury shows the Little Bo Peep routine to be a variation on the sex with a schoolgirl fantasy.
De Mille the moralist shows up in the end, of course, preserving his reputation as a God-fearing man with Urson as his front for the smut on display. Amos Hart is on screen way too much, stealing money from Flynn to make up the rest of the $5,000 he needs to hire the lawyer for Roxie in a completely unnecessary scene, and flinging Roxie into the streets, trashing the apartment, and stomping on her photo in a moralistic rage, knowing that he helped her get away with murder. The film should have ended with Roxie disappearing into the crowd on the uncaring streets of Chicago, but we are shown that good triumphs as the Hart’s maid Katie (Virginia Bradford) cleans up the apartment and is poised to become the good wife Amos always deserved. Too late. The phony melodrama of the main story flings the straight-up melodrama of the happy ending into the brass spitoon where it belongs.
As I move into the downside of my 50s, a sometimes overwhelming nostalgia sweeps over me. I’m luckier that most people who are fond of their past to live only six miles from where I grew up in Morton Grove. A short drive west on Morton Grove’s main drag, Dempster St., will bring me into familiar surroundings. Some of the landmarks of my childhood—Lochner’s garden center, the Dairy Queen, Par-King miniature golf park, the Ground Round—have been converted into other eateries or vacant lots. Nobody today will ever know what was there before—not the way I do. But, miraculously, less than a mile farther west, the house with the double lot and garden right on Dempster, hasn’t been sold, torn down, or built upon. Another summer will see another crop of corn, cabbages, and tall blossoms. The condos that were the first in town are still there and still looking very kept up. Littman Lighting long ago replaced Dolmar Pharmacy, which my uncles owned and where my mom worked and I walked from the grade school four blocks away to have lunch in the back room with her, and still sells its chandeliers and ceiling fans.
A phantom feeling of warmth always comes over me on Sundays. Sundays were the best days of all. We got to hang out in our pajamas all morning, and Dad would cook a cholesterol-soaked breakfast of bacon, sausage, and eggs on the middle griddle that occupied the center spot on our kitchen stove, its spotless chrome cover coming off only for this special occasion. Since my mother was an indifferent cook whose best friend was the TV dinner, we looked forward to this handmade breakfast as the best meal of the week. While breakfast was on, my brother and I laid on the living room floor and read the comics; I frequently pressed my favorite images with a flattened piece of Silly Putty stored in its moisture-saving plastic egg for just this opportunity. I’d pull the flexible Silly Putty to distort the transferred image, and then ball it up and start over. My flesh-colored wad of magic turned dark from its mix of inks in no time flat.
After breakfast, I had my television routine. I liked Saturday morning cartoons, but I LOVED the Sunday morning line-up on the CBS affiliate. They ran the Flash Gordon serial my parents used to watch at the movies when they were kids, and the battles this venerable character and his cohorts, Dr. Zarkov, Dale Arden, and Prince Baron, had with Ming the Merciless, Princess Aura, and the Clay People always had me on the edge of my seat. After that, there was a rotating group of regular series, including Sky King and The Lone Ranger. I was not a fan of the masked man, but Sky King had Penny, an adventurous girl whom I dreamed I could be like; I’ve probably spent more time in an airplane since then than Penny ever did, so I guess I kind of got my wish. Always, however, was The Cisco Kid (“Hey Pancho!” Hey Cisco!”) that I suppose would be terribly un-PC today, but that I found much more fun than the humorless Lone Ranger and Tonto. At noon, a Charlie Chan movie would be shown. Warner Oland was my favorite Charlie Chan, and I had a mild crush on Keye Luke as No. 1 Son. Again, the Chinese characters were caricatures, but the Chans were mighty smart, too, and always solved their mystery. Revisiting Charlie Chan in Meeting at Midnight with the less-beloved Sidney Toler, I saw how bad some of these films really were. I’m not sorry my tastes have improved, but the perfection of watching those movies as a child was a bit tarnished by this reality check in adulthood.
During the summer, we spent nearly every sunny Sunday with my mother’s sister and her family picnicking and swimming at one of the many nearly beachless lakes in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. In the days before water parks with mechanical wave makers, fountains, and giant buckets that fill with water and tip on the kids below, we made do with the waves the wind generated, an anchored raft to swim to, a pier to dive off of, and a simple water slide that was the special attraction at Lake Wauconda, distinguished only by being higher than a playground slide and slicked with cold water to make the ride down faster. Occasionally, I’d get my foot mired in some silt at the bottom of the lake, a slimy, faux-scary experience. My brother and I would swim just under the surface with one hand at a right angle to the back of our heads, pretending we were sharks.
We also spent Sundays visiting my parents’ friends and family. I didn’t like these outings as much because we kids were always shunted to the kiddie table at dinner, particularly when we went to my Auntie Ida’s house. But as long as I could keep away from my uncle’s blood-drawing pinches, I loved to explore their old Chicago bungalow, with its low-ceilinged attic apartment just the right size for a little girl to walk through; I’d sit at the window seat of the house’s “third eye” to look out on the old streets that were so different from our modern subdivision in the suburbs. Everything looked so old and mysterious to me then.
Now I’m the old one and wonder what the world will think of my memories. Already, many of the markers of my youth are gone or have been so changed by the culture of the people who inhabit them now that I no longer am connected to them by my cultural DNA. And yet, Sundays are still the best days because of all the best Sundays that went before.
When I started thinking about what I would say to wrap up this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I knew it would not be the usual gathering of impressions, recaps, acknowledgments, and griping about being tired. I got a thorn stuck in my craw after reading an interview with Gabe Klinger about the festival. There was much Gabe said that I agreed with, particularly about the need for more outreach and new blood, which I believe an endeavor of any kind needs perhaps as often as every five years. But I also felt a stale wind blow regarding taste and who sets it and, of course, the age-old question of show vs. business and the uneasy alliance that has existed since the dawn of cinema between those with the money and those with the vision. I had to ask myself some hard questions about how I see my role, not only in covering this festival, but also as a film blogger. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading some intelligent and cogent articles, blog posts, and comments on these and related subjects, including the contentious and enlightening post and comments on Girish Shambu’s site just prior to the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival and a look at film journalism by Chris Fujiwara.
In the spirit of the debate about Toronto, I want to say a few words about the festival I just finished covering. CIFF is not a destination film festival for making deals and apparently has no plans to become one. Nor is it one that wishes to explore cinema at the edge or educate audiences; while I liked, even loved, a lot of the films I saw, I can’t call most of them cutting edge or revelatory of new possibilities in cinema. CIFF is what its founder and staff do for a living and to give themselves the perks of hobnobbing and travel, and like most long-time employees, they do what they know how to do year after year.
The festival is a very American affair, with honorees in most years comprising American directors and actors and marquee films opening and closing the festival comprising mainstream American product. The audience for the films they program are largely middle-brow Midwesterners looking for something to do, cinephiles from small towns near Chicago who are hungry for something other than multiplex fare, or immigrants who want to see films with scenes from their old country in their native language. It offers audiences a veneer of sophistication by bringing the “big” cinephile films from Cannes in—and this festival is nothing if not Francophile, reflected enduring ties from its founding during the rise of the French New Wave. But if CIFF had not offered Uncle Boonmee, that film certainly would have shown up (and will show up again) in one of the venues around Chicago, which has a very vibrant cinematic community offering experimental, foreign, revival, and video presentations every day and more specialized film festivals and retrospectives than I can shake a stick at. CIFF doesn’t have to be more than it is—audiences won’t demand it because there’s something for everyone outside of the festival—but I never hear the end of hardcore cinephiles saying they hate CIFF.
From my reading about other festivals, it seems the conditions that persist at CIFF are not unusual. Is that really what film festivals are these days—a race to the middle? Strip malls? The hardcore cinephiles in Chicago know they’re being ignored by the “premier” cinematic event of the year. But are they snobs who can’t find value in anything that isn’t difficult or trendy? Sadly, encountering the snobs is a very distasteful part of my cinematic experience. It’s not hard to see great value in many films that offer other kinds of challenges and delights, particularly the chance to see and understand life in other parts of the world. These types of films have comprised the bulk of my viewing at the 2010 CIFF. What comprises an “important” film or national cinema is debatable, but for me, it involves finding the universal in the particular and activating archetypes that are the road to personal and global transformation. That’s why a film like Uncle Boonmee, which I can’t say I enjoyed in the usual sense, has so much power and so deserved to win at Cannes. Yet, I can imagine the snobs touting it without understanding it in the least—and CIFF did nothing to make the film accessible to casual or serious filmgoers besides show it.
My role isn’t terribly complicated, but I also feel that CIFF doesn’t “get” me either. As someone with a “general” press pass, I am able to see films for free in exchange for publicizing them through my blog, hopefully in advance of screenings to drive ticket sales. I am not considered by CIFF a top-tier member of the press and therefore am not invited to stand on the red carpet (unless they can’t fill it), attend the awards ceremony, or take screeners home to view because CIFF does not consider my audience significant enough to court—they have never asked for my “distribution” statistics, therefore they must not care how many or where my readers are located. In this stance, CIFF further reveals its isolation from the international film community that it advertises in its very name. Reporters from Chicago-centric publications like our daily and weekly newspapers and the Chicagoist website do belong to this privileged caste, reflecting the desire of organizers to promote ticket sales among locals and the assumption that these outlets are still where their audience get their film information.
Even as I see the limitations of this festival, I understand that I myself am in a privileged position. A large number of my readers and even my blog partner will never get the chance to see most or all of the films I do. I recently got into a heated debate with someone over a favorite directors list that comprised nothing but majority men we’d recognize as more-or-less the usual canon. As I told him, “Movies tell us about ourselves, but you can take for granted that you’ll have your stories told (certainly your favorite directors reflect your satisfaction with the stories they tell to some extent) whereas I cannot.” With more distribution channels opening on the Internet and in other home-viewing formats, I can only hope that my shout-outs can give some of these films a chance to deliver their ideas to more people so the universe of ideas can expand beyond the usual suspects. Although I acknowledge it as a deficit, I am not primarily a champion of the aesthetics of film; I am an activist interested in communication through word, image, and emotion of the experience of being alive. That’s what it is my responsibility to promote, and as long as I write, I’ll take it seriously. l
Previous CIFF coverage
Problema: A meeting of 112 thinkers and doers who give their answers to 100 pressing problems of our day forms the core of this open-source documentary that will be available for recutting and showing to anyone anywhere in the world. (Germany)
The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)
Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
You know you’re getting old when public television stations start mixing pledge drives in with musical performances of the stars you used to listen to when you were a teen. So far, my local PBS stations, having moved on from the 40s, are now stuck in the 50s. But I know my time is near. For the last few years, WGN-TV, known throughout the United States for broadcasting the inexplicably popular Chicago Cubs playing in their “ivy-covered burial ground,” have been offering up a heaping plate of nostalgia for Chicagoans my age in the form of a tribute to the great children’s programming they ran in the 1960s.
Now, I know every city has its own local programs for kids—the hubby waxes fondly about J.P. Patches, Seattle’s answer to Bozo the Clown—and I know that many of these shows were great. But Chicago is a peculiarly chauvinistic town—we always think what we have is the best (including, by the way, our Bozo—Bob Bell). And I do absolutely feel that way about the programs I grew up with. They are a huge part of me, informing my love of silent films through a PBS show called The Toy that Grew Up and great family films through Family Classics, hosted by a fellow you’re going to meet below, Frasier Thomas. I’ve thought about revisiting these programs on Ferdy on Films for a long time and finally have a legitimate excuse to do so: five shows from the 1969-1971 run of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a Chicago-based human/puppet show that went national, have been issued on DVD. Sadly, I was too young to remember the original run of the show (1947-1957) and too old to appreciate the two-season revival. But as a piece of both Chicagoana and Americana, I embrace KFO with almost as much vigor as I do the shows I did experience in my formative years. And without further ado, here is my personal hall of fame of Chicago children’s television:
Kukla, Fran and Ollie
As I said, I wasn’t able to watch this show when I was the age of its target audience, but it’s hard not to appreciate this smart and charming human/puppet collaboration. Burr Tillstrom provided the hands and voices for all of the puppets, and looking at the DVD episode I was sent, “Madame O’s Merry Musicale,” the strong vocal resemblance of Kukla, Ollie, Beulah Witch, and Madame Ooglepuss is obvious. This show from 1970 features the KFO operatic recital of Madame O, hastily arranged so that Madame will not leave the show in a huff. Fran—always slightly befuddled—and all of the characters feel terrible that they haven’t done more to show their appreciation for Madame O, and Beulah especially tries to help in any way she can by hanging a curtain. Her failure is mitigated when Madame embraces her in friendship and says that it doesn’t matter at all. When the guests start arriving to view her performance, she waves to “Marilyn” and “Joan.” Now how many children’s shows these days would acknowledge real opera stars the way this one did Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland? The cultural literacy, intelligence, and excellent values this show presented to children for a total of 12 years make it a gem well worth revisiting.
Garfield Goose and Friends
This enormously popular show in the KFO mold offered us Garfield Goose, King of the United States, and fatherly human Frasier Thomas as his prime minister. Gar and rest of the hand puppets, including Romberg Rabbit, bloodhound Beauregard Burnside III, McIntosh Mouse, and Mama Goose (hilarious in her lace nightcap and granny glasses) were all given life and personality by Ray Brown, but only through movement, not voice. For example, Brown had a killer way of signaling Gar had just been made a fool of by pointing the puppet’s face straight into the camera and twisting his hand so that it looked like Gar was grinding his teeth. Fraiser Thomas would bring out the little theatre screen and hang it on a hook at the front of Gar’s castle, and we kids would be treated to cartoon series like Clutch Cargo (and his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot) and dramas like Journey to the Beginning of Time (actually, a 1955 Czechoslovakian film that was serialized!). Our favorites were the Christmas classics Suzy Snowflake; Hardrock, Coco, and Joe; and UPA’s Frosty the Snowman. I was so attached to Frasier Thomas that I actually cried when he died in the 1980s.
Ray Rayner and His Friends
Ray Rayner was a gentler Soupy Sales who indulged a tiny bit of slapstick and a lot of sly humor. The show always started with the Looney Tunes theme song. Rayner always wore an orange jumpsuit plastered with notes that he would pull off and read to announce the various parts of the show. Offering as it did craft projects, Warner Bros. cartoons, even Rayner singing the popular ballad “More” and speaking in French in one episode, Ray Rayner and His Friends was a variety of morning show for kids that gave adults information they could use, too. This wasn’t my favorite, but Chelveston, the live duck who was Rayner’s constant friend, always kept me coming back.
Another puppet/human show, this one featured a giraffe named Geraldine and host Jim Stewart. It had opera-singing Helen Hippo, as well as other wild animals, like J. Pierpont Crocodile and Virgil the Vulture. The most memorable part of this show was its theme song, “Be Kind to Your Parents,” which came from the Broadway show Fannie. I still remember every word of that song, and named a sterling giraffe charm I picked up in Africa Geraldine. Jim Stewart would continue to delight me in my older age with a program that picked up a bit on Here’s Geraldine’s wild animal theme—a travel and nature show called Passage to Adventure.
One show that is a very dim memory for me, but a favorite of my brother’s is Blue Fairy. All I remember is the beginning. The Blue Fairy, a beautiful young woman in a long blue gown, would fly across the TV screen and say “I’m the Blue Fairy. I’ll grant you a wish to make all your dreams come true.” This show won a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming. Imagine my surprise to find out that its star was none other than Brigid Bazlen, who played a very convincing temptress in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings.
I don’t know if all Chicago children watched Magic Door, but all the Jewish kids did. The theme song sung by the elfin Tiny Tov (“A room zoom zoom, a room zoom zoom, gilly gilly gilly gilly gilly ah sah sah”) beckoned us to come through the magic door in an acorn bigger than he was. “Just say these words and wonderous things you’ll see.” We spent the half hour with puppets Booby Beaver, Deedee, Scrunch, and other residents of Torahville learning about the Torah and Jewish holidays and traditions. It was pandemonium among us students at Temple Sholom when Tiny Tov came to meet us.
On Sunday, as the hubby and I were on our way into the AMC theatre for the day’s films, I spotted a weathered, red-haired man standing on the sunshine-filled sidewalk talking to some people. “Isn’t that the guy we saw last night in Chicago Overcoat, the detective?” I asked. Sure enough, it was. We waited patiently for said actor—Danny Goldring—to finish his conversation and then went up to him and thanked him for a great evening. He commented on how young and talented the filmmakers are. “When he hits 30, they’ll have to kick him out. Over the hill,” the veteran actor joked.
A homegrown production shot on the streets of Chicago, Chicago Overcoat is one of the hottest tickets at the festival. The advance word must have been out that this neat crime drama has all the goods. Chicago Overcoat is an amazingly professional directing debut for Brian Caunter, with assured handling of both actors and cameras, amazing cinematography and location choices, and great pacing. But it’s also clearly an homage of the neophyte filmmakers not to the crime capers of old, but rather to Quentin Tarantino. The hardboiled screenplay has an ironic, almost kitschy feel without taking much away from the reality of the characters, and it’s hard to ignore how much the lead character’s girlfriend in her synthetic black wig looks like Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. I hope Thurman, who is receiving a Career Achievement Award from CIFF, stops by to see this small tribute to her.
The film opens in Cook County Jail, where mob boss Stefano D’Agnostino (Armand Assante) is being held for trial on various racketeering charges. He orders his lawyer to have the witnesses silenced. D’Agnostino’s second in command, Lorenzo Galante (Mike Starr), reluctantly gives the job to 65-year-old mob soldier Lou Marazano (Frank Vincent), who has been itching to make some real money after spending 20 years performing small-time strong-arm jobs.
If it’s possible for someone to be nostalgic for contract murder, then Lou is. In fact, however, he’s nostalgic for the entire way of life that is disappearing among the 31st Street Crew of mobsters he calls his family. Respect, it seems, is sorely lacking. Particularly for him. This chance will help him repair his reputation, help his divorced daughter Angela (Gina D’Ercoli) make a new start with his grandson Michael (Robert Gerdisch) apart from his insolent ex-son-in-law Joey (Mark Vallarta), and get him to Las Vegas for a comfortable retirement.
Lou’s first hit is a cinch. The second, too, except that Lou returns to an old habit of his—sending flowers to the widow of the man he’s just killed. The return of the “Flower Man” has Det. Ralph Maloney (Goldring) hot on his trail, beginning at the shop where the flowers came from. He picks Lou up for questioning. Although he’s let go for lack of material evidence, the Cicero boys decide Lou’s a liability and order his death. You don’t want to trap an old dog with his own tricks, however. Lou’s seen it all, played every part (“I’ve been the friend” who suckers the victim), and he’s not going down—not to the cops and not for his family. “Fuck that! I’m going to Vegas!” But will he be able to stay one step ahead of the many people who want to take him down?
Chicago Overcoat is a fast-paced cops-and-mobsters film that gets a bit of star power from brief appearances by Assante and Stacy Keach, who took a day off his gig at the Goodman Theatre playing King Lear to shoot a short scene as a retired cop who worked on some of the “Flower Man” hits. But it is the yeoman actors playing yeoman mobsters and cops who fill the screen with anger, regret, petty politics, and longing that propel this procedural beyond caricature. Lou’s long-suffering girlfriend Lorraine (Kathrine Narducci) hopes Lou will see her as more than a shack-up and alibi, but seems to reach her last straw; odds are, though, that she’ll still be pining for him long after he’s gone. Goldring plays an obsessed cop with equal amounts of verve and defeat. His partner, Eliot (Barret Walz), is young, handsome, and in over his head. They make a perfect team.
But it is Frank Vincent as the cold-blooded killer who’s afraid his daughter will find out he let her son hold his tommy gun who moves like a well-oiled pistol through this film, driving the action, committing to acts of sudden violence that shock and delight us, remaining himself—a family man to his real family and a hard-headed pragmatist who kisses the past good-bye the way any self-respecting Sicilian mobster would. He narrates the film with a Mike Hammer sort of patois that is sometimes too glib, but always working to convince. I was especially tickled by a line Lou has when he meets an old friend who has baited the trap for his execution. They’re talking about the old days, and his friend tells him he hasn’t been the same since his wife split. “Maybe I should talk to someone,” says Lou in a perfect send-up of Tony Soprano, “let it all out.” Genius.
I don’t know if there are any tickets left for the last screening of this wild ride of a movie. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t get a DVD release. Look for it. You’ll have a great time.
This weekend, the hubby and I roused ourselves from a rain-induced stupor and decided to do something we both like enormously—poke around some second-hand stores. We drove down Lincoln Avenue, easily my favorite street in Chicago, and pulled up on a block that had three antique stores, one used clothing store, and a used record shop. We waded around the clothes, buying nothing but enjoying a lovely conversation with the owner, who was celebrating her birthday that day. We scored a few records at the used record shop and again, enjoyed the company of a real music/record enthusiast. We bought a vintage-looking table fan to replace our actual vintage fan that stood precariously on an ill-designed pedestal, and again, talked with the owner who lamented the inadvertent sale of a directory from Rogers Park filled with the names of Jewish businesses in the formerly Jewish neighborhood. In the last store, populated mainly with antique furniture, we scored big time. A family had unloaded its collection of stagebills spanning performances from the 30s to close to the present, perhaps 300 in all.
Now, I’ve seen at least that many plays and used to collect my stagebills until they just started taking up too much room. Therefore, I understood this collection and thumbed through it with great interest, wondering what this family had taken in over the years. I actually found a stagebill from one of the first shows I ever saw, The National Health, or Nurse Norton’s Affair (1972), with a very young Frank Galati in a memorable role as the white-coated nurse. He now is part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble and directed their Tony-award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath. I also found the stagebill for G. B. Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, a reader’s theatre production from 1972 starring Paul Henreid, Ricardo Montalban, Edward Mulhare, and Agnes Moorehead (“in her original role of Dona Ana”) and directed by John Houseman, whom I would interview just a couple of years later. So good were these actors that when Henreid lit a cigar on stage while Montalban was expostulating, I didn’t even notice. I was delighted to reclaim these bits of my past.
The real pleasure of going through the stagebills was seeing just how many movie stars trod the boards in days gone by. The oldest stagebill I acquired was from 1939—Walter Huston in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Grand Opera House, book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill. Do you suppose Huston sang well? I saw not one, but two stagebills featuring Edward G. Robinson on the cover. I bought this program of his 1951 production of Darkness at Noon, based on the book of the same name by Arthur Koestler that is one of my favorite novels of all time. It played at the Erlanger Theatre, which I had never heard of. I think the State of Illinois Building might be standing on the site of the old theatre.
Others are Constance Bennett in Without Love (1943); Paul Robeson in Othello (1945), costarring Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen; Audrey Hepburn in Gigi (1953); and Cyd Charisse in Once More with Feeling (1967).
I’ve left you with a couple of puzzles and one surprise. I’ve put up two photos. The young lady was starring in Over Twenty-One, a 1944 comedy staged by George S. Kaufman. The elegant couple was appearing in The Cherry Orchard, also a 1944 show. Can you tell me who these stars are? HINTS: Both women had their brightest moments in film later in life, with the actress on the left becoming quite well-known beginning in the late 60s. The other actress spent almost her entire career on the stage, but was nominated for an Oscar in her third, and last, film; she also has something in common with Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The actor won an Oscar, and I wrote about him recently. ASKED AND ANSWERED BELOW IN THE COMMENTS.
Finally, the surprise. The characters on this cover are of ZaSu Pitts and Guy Kibbee, who were starring in the 1947 production The Late Christopher Bean. One of the players in the cast is none other than Nancy Davis, aka, Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Here’s what the program biography has to say about her:
NANCY DAVIS (Susan Haggett), comes naturally by her theatrical bent because her mother was an actress and her God-mother was Alla Nazimova. After graduating from Smith College, where she majored in drama, she made the usual preparatory flights in summer stock and repertory work. These neatly completed, she landed her first professional job with Miss ZaSu Pitts in the touring company of “Ramshackle Inn.” This lead to her first Broadway engagement in Michael Myerberg’s enchanting production of “Lute Song” where she played Si-Tchun, lady-in-waiting to the princess. The following season again saw her on the road with Miss Pitts in “Cordelia,” and last summer she toured the stock circuit in her present role in “The Late Christopher Bean.” Her only contact with the flesh-pots of Hollywood occurred recently when she appeared in a documentary film for RKO.
She’d have a little more contact with a particular flesh-pot soon enough.
This week, Chicago will be hosting a very unique event—a celebration of music and music movies called CIMMfest. In its inaugural year, CIMMfest will bring together movies and music, showcasing films with music at their center and other syntheses of moving image and musical performance.
CIMMfest is the brainchild of Ilko Davidov, producer and director at Chicago-based BulletProof Film, and Josh Chicoine, lead singer of the Chicago band the M’s. According to Chicoine, “We looked around and knew that we both had this love for movies and music and that there weren’t any fests spotlighting them as they exist together.This is an opportunity to see films from around the world with music as central to the telling, meet the filmmakers, and get immersed.”
The Chicago Cultural Center, the new St. Paul’s Cultural Center in Wicker Park, the Th!nkArt Salon, and music venues Schubas and the Double Door will host screenings, music/film-related exhibits and concerts created by artists from France, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Brazil, India, Canada, and Israel. More than 200 entries were received for the competition portion of the fest in the following categories: long- and short-form documentary, long- and short-form fiction, and music video.
At 7 p.m. opening night, distinguished filmmaker Lech Kowalski will present the U.S. premiere of his latest film, Camera War, accompanied by a live performance by composer Mimetic. While at CIMMfest, Kowalski will present the U.S. premiere of his documentary Unfinished, and the Chicago premiere of East of Paradise, the best documentary winner at the 2005 Venice Film Festival.
Other confirmed special guests, filmmakers, and panelists include Chicago producer Steve Jones, film legend John Anderson, Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic and cohost of National Public Radio’s “Sound Opinions” Jim DeRogatis, Chicago Reader film critic J.R. Jones, industrial music legend Martin Atkins (Public Image Ltd., Pigface), WXRT radio personality Marty Lennartz, rock photographer Richard Bellia (Rolling Stones, Radiohead, Paul McCartney), music video pioneers Encyclopedia Pictura, and many more.
One guaranteed-fun event is “The Greatest Rock Movie Ever Panel,” from 3:30–5 pm on Sunday, March 8. It should be as good as debating all those “best” lists everyone seems to love to attack and correct. The awards for this juried festival will be presented 6–8 pm that same day. On Monday, March 9, CIMMfest will proudly present the Chicago premiere of the new Wilco tour documentary film Ashes of American Flags at the Music Box Theatre. A Q&A with codirector Christoph Green and codirector and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty will follow each screening.
It just so happens that film blogging’s own Michael W. Phillips, Jr. (aka, Goatdog) is one of the programmers of the film portion of the festival. He asked me to take part in reviewing the events and spreading the word, and I’m more than happy to comply. The rest of this week, look for preview reviews, reports from the fest, and possibly an interview or two. Check out the CIMMfest website and be sure to put some of the events on your calendar. l
The above statement is what my esteemed friend and blog partner Roderick Heath had to say about the woeful countenance of Illinois’ newly deposed knight errant—former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Yesterday was a big day for taxpayers in Illinois, the day when one of the thousands of crooked politicians past and present who have had their hands in our pockets got kicked out of office. Despite Blago’s protests that the state senate had usurped the power of the voters who twice elected him to the highest office in the state—a fact he repeated so many times that I thought he was on the verge of making a run up to Canada to buy us all cut-rate hearing aids—they unanimously booted him with our blessings. According to Politico, a poll conducted in December 2008 showed that 70 percent of Illinois voters believed that Blagojevich should resign immediately; a 73-percent majority supported his impeachment—including a majority of Democrats—with 58 percent “strongly supporting” his impeachment; and only 7 percent of Illinois residents and 13 percent of Democrats approved of Blagojevich’s performance as governor.
I’ve been following the trial all week with the help of The Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes, who live-blogged the proceedings on NBCChicago.com, and his entertaining and enlightening commenters, particularly one with the moniker Blago Sphere. As television (or in my case, streaming video to my computer), the evidentiary phase of the prosecution’s case was a little dull. Various senators asked questions that went beyond the scope of the investigator’s ability to reply. Of course, things picked up when the secret FBI tapes were played during which Blago discussed various pay-to-play schemes, pressure on the Chicago Tribune to fire an employee critical of His Hairness, and, of course, his bartering for President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
Finally, the day of reckoning arrived yesterday. House-appointed prosecutor David Ellis delivered his summation, replaying part of a tape in which Blago discussed a pay-to-play arrangement with a lobbyist, pausing it several times to explain various parts of the scheme, and then playing it again uninterrupted to allow listeners to take it all in with full knowledge of its implications. His summation built logically, much the way the evidentiary phase built, addressing each point of the articles of impeachment with examples and compelling punctuation, like the tape. Although the senate proceedings didn’t offer much in the way of visual variety, the content of Ellis’ explications was more than compelling enough to make for riveting television.
The pièce de résistance, of course, was Blago’s closing argument to a defense he never mounted. The reason that he didn’t put on a defense is that he would not be allowed to lie with impunity without committing perjury. And lie he did from the start to the end of his 47-minute speech. He started off awkwardly, trying to curry favor in the senate chamber by thanking them early and often for allowing him to speak on his own behalf. This toadying was negated, however, by his repeated assertions that he had not been allowed to present a case and evidence that would clear his name—a bald-faced lie that was designed not to appeal to the senators, but rather to the viewing audience outside of Illinois and to potential jurors in his criminal trial. It worked, too, if comments left on the NBCChicago.com site and phone-in calls to CNN are any indication. Blago effectively confused this trial with a criminal trial—a fairly easy thing to do since impeachment and removal are extremely rare and, therefore, unfamiliar processes. The crucial difference is that holding a public office is a privilege, not a right—a privilege, like driving, that can be revoked if there is evidence of unlawfulness and recklessness in its exercise. In essence, the senate fired the governor, and we all understand the limits to protection against firing. Nonethless, Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. Let me repeat that: Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. He chose not to.
The former governor continued to try to address each point of the articles of impeachment, but couldn’t stay on point because he had no real defense. He repeated an anecdote about a little old lady needing medication—probably made up, and certainly embellished with novelistic flourishes about how she goes about her day—and believes this is evidence that he was right to go around the state legislature and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to buy drugs from Canada. One Canadian supplier never received payment, though funds were transferred to pay for them, and more than $1 million were wasted on promoting a program that never happened. He also said how much he cares about children and how he tried to provide flu vaccines to save lives among the young and old. He doesn’t mention how he tried to shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for $50,000 in exchange for his support for $8 million in additional funding. Then he punted to the overwarm rehash of his immigrant Serbian background, how he’s in it for the little guy who works so hard to give his children a better future. His script needed editing to remove the redundancies, but that would have left him with about 20 minutes of talking points. Still, he’s telegenic and knows how to feign sincerity. I’d cast him in the Law & Order ripped-from-the-headlines story of his future criminal trial.
In Ellis’ rebuttal to Blago’s closing argument, he said, “When the camera’s on, the governor is for the little guy, the little people. When the camera’s off, what are his priorities?” Ellis asked, pointing behind him to a poster board containing words extracted from intercepted phone conversations. “‘Legal, personal, political,'” Ellis said. “Nothing in that statement about the people of Illinois.” This moment, and Ellis’ fiery rebuttal charged with passion, were the climax of the trial closing. All of the rage, indignation, and disgust I and others feel for the ex-gov and all the Illinois politicians like him were channeled into this one moment.
The unanimous vote to remove him from office and bar him from ever holding another public office in Illinois was the second great moment of yesterday’s coverage. While it was preceded by far too many 5-minute statements made by about half of the 59 senators who make up the Illinois Senate, many of whom did a bit of electioneering and who were definitely pots calling the kettle black, nothing could take away from the satisfaction of the final verdict. Watching the lights shine from the voting board was a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of moment. The people of Illinois, so pissed upon for so many years, finally were heard.
Right after a phone call to CNN from a non-Illinois resident who said the prosecution had not made its case (again, confusing this with a criminal trial) was a call from one Illinois resident who lives not far from Springfield, the state capital. She said, “You have to live here to understand.” I sincerely hope not. I know there are many other states riddled with horrible corruption. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a movement across the country to try to clean up government. l
In his new biography, Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art (Macmillan, 2008), Simon Louvish recounts reaction to The Greatest Show on Earth, the backstage drama about the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus that won the Best Picture Oscar for 1952:
The tale of Buttons, a clown played by James Stewart, who hides behind his great painted red smile the secret of a crime committed in his previous life as a surgeon: the mercy killing of his wife. This part of the story brought DeMille into conflict with the Catholic Legion of Decency, who issued a condemnation of the film for this theme, which they claimed was treated sympathetically. DeMille protested that a crime had been committed and atoned for, as Buttons saves the wounded Brad and other in the train-wreck scene. But the Legion of Decency’s Christianity was too robust to accept atonement.
Buttons’ story is fiction, but what if it weren’t? What if you met and grew to like, admire, even love a man who is kind, creative, and a good friend (even if he does have a bit of drinking problem), and then found out he was wanted for murder?
This is exactly what happened to a lot of people in Chicago, including several friends of mine, when, in 2005, state police from Illinois and Massachusetts apprehended Norman Porter, Jr. at the Third Unitarian Church on Chicago’s West Side. More than 20 years earlier, Porter, known in Chicago as Jacob “JJ” Jameson, had escaped from a minimum-security prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, where he was serving time for murder. Porter was convicted for the shooting death of John “Jackie” Piggott during a 1960 robbery of a Robert Hall clothing store, and then charged and convicted again of the murder of David Robinson, Sr., a prison guard, during an escape attempt he made with another inmate, Edgar W. Cook, in 1961.
At the time of his successful escape in 1985, Porter had served 23 years of two life sentences. He was a model prisoner who, as an admired leader among the inmates at a maximum-security prison in Walpole, helped keep Massachusetts prisoners from rioting in the wake of the infamous Attica prison riot in 1971. He went from functionally illiterate to earning his high school diploma and writing a new constitution for Norfolk Prison. Then-Gov. Michael Dukakis commuted his sentence for the Robinson murder due to his impressive rehabilitation and the fact that he did not fire the weapon that killed the guard. Porter fully expected to be paroled in 1985, but the changing political climate and Dukakis’ bid for the U.S. presidency prevented this. Despondent, he walked off the prison grounds, made his way to a bus depot, and asked what buses were leaving the soonest. He had a choice between Florida, New Orleans, and Chicago. He had just finished reading Nelson Algren’s prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, so Chicago it was.
During his 20 years in Chicago, JJ made a modest living as an apartment rehabber and handyman; it was in the latter role that he came to know my friend Chris and her family and, through Chris, my friends Eleanora and Matt and some of the Facets crowd. He also became a fixture on the robust Chicago poetry scene. He was a regular at some of the poetry venues, among them Weeds and The Green Mill, where the poetry slam was born. Through his friendship with Dave Gecic, publisher of Puddin’head Press, he published a well-regarded book of poetry, Lady Rutherfurd’s Cauliflower. When he became active at the Third Unitarian Church, he rose to the highest lay position in the church and started a day care center that still thrives today. He joined the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington and won the all-white Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago for the future African-American mayor by an amazing figure (for Chicago) of 51.6 percent.
How are we to make sense of these disparate actions, reconcile the Good JJ with the Bad Norman? In this black-and-white world we’ve become accustomed to, there is only one or the other. The possibility that there should ever be an end to Norman’s punishment—tacitly denying there was or is anything good in him—must be shut out among the family and friends of the victims and the justice system that represents them. The shock among his Chicago friends, who just could not imagine that he was responsible for two horrific crimes, has turned into a galvanic crusade on his behalf. Director Gray provides an absorbing 360-degree view of this one extraordinary case to examine the criminal justice system as it was when Norman Porter entered it, what it became when he left it, and what it is now that he has returned to it.
The film opens with a pomp-and-circumstance, full-dress-uniform ceremony honoring the officers of the Violent Fugitive Apprehension Squad who brought Porter in. Individuals we will later meet as family and friends of the murder victims stand and applaud as the commendation is read and official congratulations meted out in a receiving line. A personal account of Piggott’s murder is given by Claire Wilcox, Jackie’s fiancee. She describes the spray of holes the sawed-off shotgun made on Piggott’s back. David Robinson’s nephew Peter is interviewed at the grave of his uncle. Forty-five years haven’t seemed to ease his pain.
Porter’s unhappy childhood, early scrapes with the law, and his “career” in prison are all recounted using photos, interviews with police and prison officials, and Paul T. Smith, a lawyer who represented Porter at his 2005 sentence hearing. The police refer to Porter as a cop killer for whom a mandatory death sentence should have been imposed. Piggott’s cousin recounts her special relationship with him and the difficulty she has in finding forgiveness in her heart.
When the scene shifts to Chicago, we meet Gecic and several poets who recount JJ’s many thoughtful acts on their behalf, but also a drunken performance he gave at an annual fundraiser of the Nelson Algren Society, a videotape of which Gray includes in her film. He was volatile, they said, chasing demons. What they didn’t know was how carefully JJ worked to stay “off the books.” He left no paper trail—no credit cards, no utilities, paid cash. He says, “If the speed limit was 50, I’d do 49.”
However, he didn’t manage to keep his record as spotless as he would have liked. While drunk, he shoplifted a pack of Camels. He also blew through a traffic light and failed to pay for a “service” (I presume a meal). He was fingerprinted, and those prints eventually were seen in Massachusetts. Connections to Gecic and the poetry scene were made through simple Google searches. When the police arrived, he made no attempt to resist. “”I had a good 20-year run,” he said. Gecic and several other friends felt betrayed and disturbed by his past, even as others rallied to his defense.
At a sentencing hearing for his escape, family members of the victims of Porter’s crimes faced off against his Chicago friends in their testimony regarding an appropriate punishment. The judge gave him a fairly reasonable three years on the escape attempt, but both of his life sentences were put back in force. Norman now languishes in a maximum-security prison, spending 23 hours of every day in solitary confinement. After repeated refusals to grant Gray’s team access to Porter for an interview, the prison officials finally relented.
The sentencing hearing really goes to the heart of the issue Gray has been aiming for all along: subtly asking us to examine our notions of justice through the stranger-than-fiction story of Bad Norman/Good JJ. Rev. Donald Wheat, from JJ’s church, says that he understands the essence of religion to be about redemption. Why is it so hard to believe that a young, troubled man could try to change his life to atone for his grevious sins and put something good into the world? Paul Smith provides testimony that suggests that Porter was not the shooter in the Robert Hall robbery, and that he is the poster child for rehabilitation. The 45-year-old anger of the victim’s relatives and friends, the fact that Porter escaped from prison, and the perceived lack of remorse, however, sealed his fate.
At the screening I attended, Gray, several members of the production crew, most of the Chicago residents who appeared in the film, the four Illinois and Massachusetts officers who apprehended Porter, and a former inmate who served time with Porter came to the podium to add brief comments to the film. There was only enough time for two questions, and I was lucky to ask the first one. I wondered, since the film was so even-handed, how Gray, a Massachusetts journalist, felt about Porter’s fate. She said that her film editor kept her from tipping the scales to her own view—that a life sentence is now a death sentence, and that this is not the way the system used to be applied nor should continue to be applied. She said that the penal system used to work to keep violent young offenders off the streets until they reached an age when they no longer represented a threat to society. Anger, impulsiveness, lack of sense, and fear all played a role in what happened to Jackie Piggott. Norman had shown he could be rehabilitated, but when the political climate changed to make “soft on crime” a death knell to political ambitions, the rehabilitative aspects of incarceration died instead.
The second question was to the former inmate, asking whether Porter had ever admitted to actually killing Piggot. He said, no, and said Porter had learned more or less to live with what he had done and was a role model for him in coming to terms with his manslaughter of the mother of his children.
From a personal point of view, I think Porter is being punished for making fools of law enforcement, not only because he got away and eluded capture for so long, but because his life example flies in the face of the current thinking that criminals should be locked up to rot. Evidence of that thinking is that the United States has the largest prison population in the developed world. If the 19-year-old Norman Porter were convicted today, he’d never have a chance to spend 20 years doing something useful with his life, but rather would be taking up space in prison on the taxpayers’ dime. I feel for the families of the victims, but haven’t they extracted their pound of flesh? Porter spent more than two decades in prison and did show remorse and take responsibility for his actions at his sentencing hearing. Isn’t it time the families took some responsibility for completing their grieving process and put a little compassion back into their hearts?
Porter has maintained that he did not shoot Piggott, and there’s reason to doubt that he did. This is the lack of “remorse” the court held against him. It may never be known with absolute certainly whether Porter shot Piggot, but here’s one of JJ’s poems that might be a confession, or it just might be a taking of responsibility for his part in the robbery:
THE GUY I KILLED
I remember the guy I killed. I drank with him once down the Lynn Tape and Grille. Wow, it seems like such a long time ago. It’s been ten years now since that rainy Friday night when my crime partner and I ran headlong into Robert Hall’s like madmen of long ago with pork pie hats and bandanas, sawed off shotguns and silver plated pistols. It was the money we were after. Nobody. Nobody was supposed to die. Guns went off. People jumping on people. Just once, for a brief second did it flash through my head that all was madness, couldn’t really be happening. It pains me every time I remember that second. I see the guy I killed. I drank with him once down the Lynn Tape and Grille. We got away that night, but they caught the guy driving the car, a nice brand new four door Buick, I stole over in front of the Lafayette House. He just couldn’t wait to tell all he knew. Soon the police were after us. We wound up getting caught and pleading guilty to murder and robbery, to spare the horrors of the electric chair. I’ve lived every minute of every day of every year, whether I wanted to or not, with that one bad frame staring me right in the face. I don’t want justification or that elusive criminal justice, just want to be forgiven. I remember the guy I killed, I drank with him once down at the Lynn Tap and Grille.
By now, most people know that Louis “Studs” Terkel died on Halloween at the age of 96. He was known to many as the chronicler of America in his many books that assembled the voices of the mighty, the downtrodden, and everyone in between in their own words. Division Street: America (1967), Studs’ first book of oral history, on urban life in Chicago, took its title from a real Chicago street that in days gone by was a nexus for the poor Poles about whom Studs’ great friend Nelson Algren wrote so movingly in The Man with the Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness. Division Street became a metaphor for the divisions in American society. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) was a love letter to the waitresses, factory workers, and other laborers (though he does give executives their due as well) whom Studs championed tirelessly throughout his life; it became a stage musical in 1978 and has been revived regularly ever since.
He was also known as the quintessential Chicagoan, a label I find kind of funny since I always thought of him as the quintessential New York Jew. Yes, he spent only the first 10 years of his life in New York City, but they say those are the formative years. The starry-eyed way he always talked about the common man, the way he never met a progressive cause he didn’t like, his ambition, his hamminess, and his steadfast ignorance about how to drive a car—these all seem so New York to me. Where was the fascination with clout? Where were the stubborn middlebrow tastes and midline ambition so endemic to the working-class Chicagoans he loved so much?
Even so, as a suburban Chicagoan growing up in what was still a very working-class metropolitan area, I could very well have learned and retained the narrower horizons that many of my relatives and neighbors had. Studs gave me the kind of civic, social, and cultural education I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else, and he may be responsible for my highly eclectic and ecumenical tastes. I got that education over nearly four decades listening to The Studs Terkel Show, a talk radio show broadcast live at 10 a.m. (and rebroadcast at 11 p.m. on Thursdays) for an hour or thereabouts (Studs never watched the clock, nor was he made to by station owners Bernie and Rita Jacobs) on WFMT-FM, Chicago’s Classical/Fine Arts station.
I say talk radio for the benefit of younger readers who think this term only refers to the bigots, shock jocks, and fools who pollute our public airwaves these days—the kind of talk that, in pretending to be the voice of the average Joe and Jane, plays to the worst in us and diminishes us. The Studs Terkel Program really was the voice of the average Joe and Jane, and I mean that quite literally. Studs often broadcast interviews with people on the street, in the taverns, on the train—not those who might have hitched a ride on John McCain’s so-called Straight Talk Express, but rather those going to the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, opening his show with the Woody Guthrie song “Bound for Glory.” His interviews could break your heart, such as the one he conducted through an interpreter of a Japanese victim of the nuclear bombing of World War II. They could remind you of why we celebrate certain holidays such as with his annual Memorial Day (always called Armistice Day by Studs) and Labor Day shows. He would read short stories, play music, read scenes with actors and actresses who had come to the WFMT studios to talk about and promote their plays opening in town. If you wanted to know not just what was going on in town among visiting and local performers, but also hear the performers and creators talk about the work, you had to listen to Studs. I remember going to a sparsely attended screening of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984) and finding out that like I, most of the audience had heard about it from Studs.
Studs also was renowned for the famous and interesting guests he interviewed. He spoke with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., musician Louis Armstrong, community organizer Saul Alinsky, director James Cameron, actor Buster Keaton, writers James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, playwright Tennessee Williams, and thousands (yes, thousands) more. Knowing Studs’ age, I was surprised and delighted to hear him interview avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson and rocker Frank Zappa. He also was one of the earliest supporters of Bob Dylan. He loved classical music as well as jazz and folk, and there was always a parade of opera singers, composers, musicians, and conductors through the studios, from Italian baritone Tito Gobbi to Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel and American composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.
He did a little acting as well. In the 1950s, Studs had his own TV show in Chicago called Studs’ Place that featured among its regulars Win Stracke, a folk musician and cofounder of Chicago’s legendary Old Town School of Folk Music, who, like Mahalia Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy, was a musician he tirelessly promoted, talked about, and generally drilled into the consciousness of anyone who listened to his radio show. The only feature film he ever appeared in was John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), a film about the Chicago Black Sox scandal that starred Chicagoans John Cusack and John Mahoney; in it, Studs played Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton. You couldn’t miss him—he was the consummate ham.
In his later years, he grew increasingly deaf, and I believe that fact more than anything lead to his retirement from the airwaves. He kept busy speaking at rallies for progressive causes, archiving his radio shows for the Chicago History Museum, and writing more books. Every birthday, the local news would run a tribute to his amazing longevity and accomplishments. The last one I remember was a telecast featuring local reporter and columnist Carol Marin. She got out a couple of questions, but not hearing them, Studs simply launched into an extended monologue that was both charming and a bit incoherent. Marin sat quietly, smiling, letting this force of nature blow.
The last couple of years, I listened whenever I was around to rebroadcasts of The Studs Terkel Show at 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Most of these revived shows celebrated struggles of the past and, of course, lacked the spontaneity of his live shows. Every now and then I’d see he was speaking somewhere, perhaps at the nostalgia fests that tried to recreate the Bughouse Square debates that were a lively forum for soapbox politics, or introducing a documentary at Facets.
And now it is over. He has joined the other Chicago transplants he loved so well—Win, Mahalia, and Big Bill—in dying in his adopted hometown. The last new broadcast of The Studs Terkel Show featured one of Illinois’ few real statesmen—U.S. Senator Paul Simon. I remember listening, dreading the moment Studs would utter his famous sign-off for the last time: “Take it easy, but take it.” You, too, Studs. You, too.
Arianna Huffington’s come to town. Actually, she’s brought her “local” Huffington Post to my town specifically, but she intends to spread her wings and fly to metropolitan areas all over the United States in the months ahead.
The Huffington Post is something of a juggernaut on the blog scene and one that many bloggers of a liberal persuasion read regularly and blogroll on their sites. Plenty of nonbloggers read HuffPo as well. So did I. I even signed up for HuffPo’s OfftheBus project, in which ordinary people cover the election stories that Big Media can’t or won’t report, because I thought the idea of participating in the democratic process was an important action I could take. I also thought that because I was one of Barack Obama’s Illinois constituents, I’d have a more well-rounded view of a candidate who, frankly, the liberal world has gone gooey over.
I wrote a piece called “Obama’s Green Screen” that was critical of Senator Obama’s conspicuous absence when Lake Michigan was under threat of becoming, yet again, a dump for Big Energy’s waste. Opposition in Illinois to BP’s plans to dump waste from their Northern Indiana refinery was bipartisan, but our junior senator was absent and silent. We’ve seen now that this ducking and weaving from issues that might hurt his chances of election comprise part of his game plan. Back then, however, many of us believed his rhetoric of change, and for many of us, that meant taking unpopular or politically risky stands.
The Huffington Post was not yet headquarters of the Obama for President fan club, but that didn’t last long. The shriller the site’s boosterism, the more disenchanted I became with it. I stopped reading it and decided that my civic energies could be spent doing more effectual things than trying to report evenhandedly about Barack Obama for OfftheBus, hosted on The Huffington Post Web site.
As some of you know, our site has been affiliated with The Beachwood Reporter. I went to listen to some panel discussions at the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication conference held last week in Chicago, one of which included Steve Rhodes, the founder and general manager of The Beachwood. Afterwards, Steve, another journalist, and I chatted, and one topic that came up was the advance work The Huffington Post was doing to get writers for its Chicago site. I was not approached, but both of them had been and were asked to work “pro bono,” in other words, for free. Arianna Huffington is a multimillionaire, yet she is asking professional journalists to work for free. We all thought this was outrageous. If she wants to give space to unqualified celebrities like Deepak Chopra to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s her business. They don’t need the money, but they like the visibility.
However, asking professionals to consider her site one that serves “the public good” (which is what pro bono translates as) to which they should give willingly and liberally of their time is the ultimate in cheek at best and something that looks an awful lot like what liberals are supposed to be against—the labor abuses of Big Business—at worst.
Today, Steve posted a letter that appeared on Romenesko, a hugely popular site for journalists hosted by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists. Since most of you probably don’t visit this site, I’ll duplicate the letter and Steve’s comments from The Beachwood:
“From KEVIN ALLMAN: Phil Rosenthal’s (Chicago Tribune media columnist) story on Arianna Huffington’s foray into the local blogging market included this line: ‘Writers work pro bono.’
“‘Pro bono’ means ‘for the public good.’ What Rosenthal should’ve said is that Huffington wants writers to work for free so she can sell ads around their work. That ain’t the public good. That ain’t good, period.
“The Huffington Post has been a winning formula, because it gives platforms to Huffington’s D.C. and L.A. buddies who need vanity exposure more than they need money. But when she comes into communities and applies the same formula, there’s another word for that formula, and it’s exploitation.
“It’s hard for me to take any ‘progressive’ site seriously that expects people to work for free while the founders make money. At least Wal-Mart pays minimum wage.”
Steve Rhodes said: “Like everyone else and their dog in Chicago, I’ve been asked to contribute to the new Chicago version of Huffington Post – for free.
“So let me get this straight. Arianna Huffington is incredibly rich and you want me to work for free to make her richer? And to help her put me out of business? Let me think about this while eating my ramen dinner and reading Arianna’s latest post about how the Republicans don’t care about working people.
“How about this? If Arianna writes for me for free, I’ll write for her.”
Regardless of whether you agree with letter-writer Allman or Steve Rhodes, they do make a case against Arianna Huffington’s business model. I have one more reason to oppose it.
The Huffington Post-Chicago premiered today. The comments thread under the site’s introductory post were very positive, thrilled that Ms. Huffington chose our terrific burg to splash down in. That’ll teach New York and Los Angeles who The Second City isn’t! I thought I’d like to greet HuffPo a little differently by posting Allman’s letter with my own comments. I’m still a registered HuffPo blogger from my brief stint with OfftheBus, so it should have gone up unmolested. It didn’t. I watched the “Comments Pending” number carefully, seeing it go up and down and eventually reach zero.
Strangely, my post didn’t appear. I wrote another post that said HuffPo was censoring my comment, and it didn’t appear. I tried another approach and responded to another comment with information that HuffPo doesn’t pay its writers. It didn’t appear either. I sent a final comment announcing my intention to write about this disgraceful disregard for working people and the censorship that seemed to be underway to ensure a lovefest for HuffPo’s entry into the Chicago market.
Two established sites, Chicagoist and Gapers Block, have been covering the local scene for several years. The Beachwood has been doing the same for the political landscape for nearly 3 years. Now, like megabucks Sam Zell’s slash-and-burn approach to his recent acquisition, The Tribune Company, Arianna Huffington is ready to run over our local bloggers. Those who are cheering her today may regret it tomorrow when, like Clear Channel, she becomes the dominant voice in Chicago-centric Internet publishing. It’s probable that local sites with fewer resources will dry up and blow away when HuffPo steals their advertisers.
HuffPo may seem liberal, but it doesn’t smell that way to me. When the odor reaches your city, duck and cover. l
It was my sincere desire to write a review of a wonderful film I saw the other day and post it today. Unfortunately, local events that perhaps have global implications have my mind spinning in a murderously angry haze. I will lay the facts of the case down for you and ask you to consider what your role as an active citizen of the United States and the world will be at this crucial time in history. Sorry for getting political on you. Please ignore if you turn to this site just for fun.
As most of you know, I live in the Chicago area. I was born here, in the now burned-out ghetto of Lawndale, on the city’s Near West Side. I was raised in a near north suburb, but moved back to the city to attend college. I lived in the city as an adult for 22 years. Currently, I work in an area called Streeterville, walking distance from the #1 tourist attraction in the city, Navy Pier. Upon this pier rests the Chicago Children’s Museum, by all accounts, a very needed and successful institution for visitors and residents alike.
Over the past few months, Mayor Richard M. Daley has expressed his deep desire to move the museum to Grant Park, often called Chicago’s front yard because of its wide-open expanse of public parkland. It would be somewhat analogous to Central Park in New York, but it is not as large and, therefore, all the more precious as a haven from the concrete and steel just to the west.
It’s not only a nice thing to have in our very big city, it’s protected by law. I’ll quote part of an article from the Chicago Reader dated September 14, 2007, and written by Lynn Becker:
Bob O’Neill, president of the Grant Park Advisory Council, jokes that his usual response to citizens concerned about new construction in the park is this: “Well, they’re actually out there building it right now, but thanks for the public input.”
It’s funny, as Homer Simpson would say, because it’s true. Or nearly. O’Neill is lobbying overtime to build a new Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park—the same Grant Park that, a century ago, A. Montgomery Ward fought a long, bruising, ultimately successful battle over. Ward was defending the 1836 mandate to keep Chicago’s lakefront public ground, “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.”
The Children’s Museum is but the latest in a long procession of hustles seeking to circumvent that mandate. It’s looking to replace free access to open land with new construction and stiff admission charges, and Bob O’Neill is doing his part to keep those who don’t think it’s a very good idea safely on the sidelines.
I would add that he is doing that on orders from the mayor.
I won’t go into all of the criminal, unethical, and outrageous things the mayor and his lap dogs in the City Council have said and done to ensure that the city is profitable for the few by being paid for by the many. His favorite way of doing this is through misuse of a law setting up tax-increment financing (TIF) districts to help blighted areas make improvements. If you read any of the long-running series of articles on these legal slush funds reported on brilliantly by Ben Joravsky in the Reader, you’ll see how it works—ridiculously, a TIF has been set up in the city’s financial district, hardly blighted with anything but the greedy and ethically vacant. The mayor’s latest big dream is to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago, lying about not using public funds to help pay for it, even while he allows our formerly wonderful public transit system to fall into ruin and our schools to go further into a pit of despair we didn’t think could get any deeper.
It appears that the Children’s Museum move is simply a ploy to break the back of the law to open the lakefront to development, with its first objective being to allow for restaurants and concessions for the Olympics. From the Division Street/NBC5 Chicago blog:
“Opponents are also criticizing a provision of the museum’s secret agreement with the park district that allows them to transfer their 99-year lease to another private corporation without any oversight from the City Council. That agreement between the museum and Park District Superintendent Tim Mitchell allows the museum to transfer the building with only the Chicago Park District’s approval:
“CCM may not, without the prior written consent of CPD, which may be withheld or conditioned in the sole discretion of CPD, assign all or any rights under the Use Agreement, provided that CPD’s approval shall not be unreasonably withheld, conditioned or delayed if the proposed assignee intends to continue to operate the project as a children’s museum.”
Navy Pier is the museum’s third home in as many decades, and the museum still hasn’t paid off loans for construction at Navy Pier issued in 1994. Opponents also argue that the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, with one million visitors per year, is four times larger than the proposed Chicago museum, yet CCM officials hope to reach one million visitors in the near future. That makes it likely that CCM will have to abandon its Grant Park location long before their 99-year lease runs out.
“The Chicago Children’s Museum is already in its third home in as many decades, and it’s clear they’re already making plans to move out of this building before it’s even built,” said Figiel. “The inclusion of a liquor license in their zoning application means that this could be a 100,000 square foot restaurant and mini-mall just in time for the 2016 Olympics.”
Why should you care
I’d like to think you should care because you like me and trust my judgment. No, seriously, you should care because this situation is all about good government and bleeds over into our presidential election.
As we all know, Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, campaigning on a platform of change. I know some people fervently believe he will be a breath of fresh air, a break from business as usual in that dirty game of politics. I want you to think about it. Change. What does it look like?
Does it look like a politican endorsing the people who are behind the Children’s Museum land grab, who are trying to break the law? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Barack Obama did. From the Reader:
I’m not surprised that Senator Barack Obama endorsed Mayor Daley’s reelection. We’re used to the sight of erstwhile reformers scrambling to board the mayor’s gravy train before it leaves the station.
“Even [Daley’s] detractors acknowledge that the city has been well-managed and has performed in all respects in ways that are the envy of a lot of other cities across the country,” Obama said at his press conference with the mayor yesterday.
Well managed? Daley’s public transportation system is literally falling apart even as it squanders millions on projects it doesn’t need and, in the case of the express lines to O’Hare and Midway, may never even use. Property taxes are skyrocketing as the city plays games of deception with its off-the-books TIF program. Just about every significant public works project—from the O’Hare expansion to the construction of Millennium Park to the Brown Line renovation—has come in late and overbudget.
Mr. Obama also endorsed the entire Regular Democratic Party ticket, which included some people with ethics problems and the incompetent legacy candidate Todd Stroger, who took his father’s place on the ballot after the elder Stroger had a stroke whose severity the Party kept hidden to keep him on the ticket until deals could be made. Toddler has padded his office with PR flaks and high-priced jobs delivered to people he knows in what has been mockingly referred to as the Friends and Family Plan.
Now people will say that Obama had little option, that this is what Illinois politicians must do to have a career. But if Obama really is a reformer, is really about change, why wouldn’t he help out the long-suffering residents of Chicago and Cook County. Don’t be fooled by reports that Mayor Daley got 75% of the vote in his latest election—only 20% of eligible voters cast ballots. Everyone else has become too jaded. We don’t believe in the hope that is plastered on Mr. Obama’s attractive, heroic postcards. I’m not asking you all to vote for Mr. McCain. I’m not endorsing anyone for president. What I am asking you all to do is to GET INVOLVED after the election. Hold Mr. Obama—should he be elected—to his promises for change. Do the same of all your elected officials in Congress who are needed to make change. l
If you want to help Chicagoans preserve their public lands, go to Save Grant Park and contribute to the legal defense fund for the lawsuit the organization has filed against the city.
203 Park Ave.
As a veteran of almost every Ebertfest ever held, I can tell you that this is an event not to be missed. The films are always a revelation and the guests, oh, the guests, are not to be beat. Last year, I got to watch Paul Cox pit his morbid outlook on life with Werner Herzog’s mordant sense of humor. In previous years, I’ve been privileged to listen to conversations between Roger and John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, Bertrand Tavernier, Miranda July, Ayesha Dharkar (star of The Terrorist), Tian Ming-Wu (director of King of Masks), and so many more that only the likes of Roger Ebert could entice to come to a college town in the middle of nowhere.
Champaign is a pleasant town with some nice restaurants and shops and the beautiful Virginia Theatre, looking better every year as restoration work continues, largely through the financial windfall that is Ebertfest. What’s nice about this festival is how laid back it is. Despite its growing popularity, the filmgoers are still mainly townspeople and university faculty and students. The free children’s show every year brings a new generation of film lovers in in droves. Roger and his wife Chaz are very approachable and friendly, even last year, when Roger, struck dumb by a tracheostomy tube, still had a smile, a thumbs up, and an autograph for all comers to his La-Z-Boy lounger in the back of the theatre.
I’ve been waiting weeks for the schedule to come out, and now here it is:
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23 7:00 pm Hamlet (1996)
THURSDAY, APRIL 24 1:00 pm Delirious (2006) Guest: Tom DiCillo, director
8:30 pm Canvas (2006)
preceded by Citizen Cohl: The Untold Story (2006), a short film tribute to Dusty Cohl Guests: Joey Pantoliano, cast, Adam Hammel, producer, Lucy Engibarian-Hammel, producer, Joseph Greco, director, Barry Avrich, director (Citizen Cohl)
FRIDAY, APRIL 25
11:30 am Shotgun Stories (2007) Guest: Jeff Nichols, director
2:30 pm Underworld (1927) Music: The Alloy Orchestra
7:00 pm The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005) Guests: John Peterson, documentary subject, Taggart Siegel, director
10:00 pm Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) Guest: Paul Schrader, director
SATURDAY, APRIL 26
11:00 am Hulk (2003) Guest: Ang Lee, director
3:00 pm The Band’s Visit (2007) Guest: Eran Kolirin, director
When I was going through the comments on IMDb about Bug, I was amused to read that one “reviewer” considers director Bill Friedkin a one-hit wonder. That hit, of course, would be The Exorcist (1973). Ah, how quickly they forget. Friedkin’s early career contained his biggest bangs (The Thin Blue Line , The Night They Raided Minsky’s , The Boys in the Band , The French Connection ). He uncorked another great one, To Live and Die in L.A., in 1983, and recently directed the respectable Rules of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003). I remember reading someone ask when Chicago was going to build a monument to this talented and active native son. (Perhaps when it decides it doesn’t need someone named Daley in the mayor’s office—in other words, not soon.)
Then I started to ponder Chicago’s contributions to world art and entertainment. The city has sent hundreds of influential comedians into the world via The Second City, the city’s famous improv troupe and its offshoots. I’ve found fans of the Blues Brothers (Second City alum John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) all over the world.
And then there’s the theatre company that made the term “Chicago actor” instantly and enduringly hot—Steppenwolf Theatre. John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Tom Irwin, Laurie Metcalf, and many other Steppenwolf ensemble members have gone on to great success in the movies, on television, and in the theatre. Their physical, in-your-face theatrical style went with them, in the process, helping to popularize their favorite playwright, Sam Shepard.
The original ensemble members rarely show up in Chicago anymore to shine their light on early fans such as myself. That’s all right. Steppenwolf keeps the flame alive by nurturing new generations of actors, directors, and playwrights and sending them out into the world. One of them, an Oklahoman who has made the Steppenwolf Theatre an exciting place today, is playwright/actor/director Tracy Letts. Letts has written one hit play after another for Steppenwolf, including August: Osage Country and Killer Joe, the latter of which transferred to New York and wild success. After I saw a knockout performance of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser at Steppenwolf in which Letts had the title role, I was more excited to approach Letts on the street to thank him for a riveting performance than I was to greet the man he was talking to—Oscar winner Adrien Brody. As you can imagine, when I learned that Bug was adapted from a play by Letts, I was more than eager to see it.
Bug was marketed as a horror movie, but its audiences got something both more complex and more basic than today’s horror movies deliver. Letts understands that psychological terror is the worst kind, and that it’s better not to show the monster if you really want your audience to scare itself to pieces. He uses this trick of the unseen threat to terrorize his female protagonist, Agnes White (Ashley Judd), and furiously spin this story of insanity and obsession.
Agnes lives in a seedy motel room with kitchenette in Oklahoma. She smokes, drinks too much, snorts cocaine, and works a deadly dull job at a lesbian tavern. Her days are spent sleeping off the night before, which generally involves partying with her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). One night, R.C., trying to convince Agnes to come to a party after work, says she has a man for Agnes to meet. The episodic film skips the introductions. We next see Agnes in her room, getting drunk and high with R.C., while the man spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. R.C. leaves. When Agnes learns that the man has no place to go, she invites him to sleep on the couch. He promises not to get funny with her, saying he has sworn off sex.
In the morning, Agnes wakes to the smell of coffee and an empty room. The shower is going. She thinks this is rather strange, but gets up to pour herself a cup from the coffee pot. When she goes to the bathroom to thank her guest, she is greeted by the tattooed, threatening figure of her ex-husband Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), only weeks out of prison. He has been calling her—we witnessed her answer the phone, hearing nothing, over and over to an unnerving degree at the start of the film. Without explicitly learning why he was in prison, we already guess that Jerry was incarcerated for spousal abuse.
Just then, Agnes’ guest returns with breakfast in hand. Jerry confronts him, slaps Agnes, and leaves. Before doing so, he learns that the man’s name is Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). This is the first time we’ve heard it, too. Agnes sits down to a bran muffin and vodka and coke with Peter, feeling protected and cared for.
Her contentment is shattered when Peter announces that people are after him and that he has to leave to protect her. She smashes her drink against the wall, slams into the bathroom, and weeps uncontrollably. Peter returns to the room and speaking through the door, tells her that he was a guinea pig for the military in its biological experiments. He ran away, but is still being hunted. Agnes, moved by his desperate story, opens the door and runs into his arms. They make love in a psychedelic scene, interspersing naked bodies with microscopic views of blood flowing through veins and arteries. When Agnes gets up to use the bathroom, Peter says he has been bitten by an insect. He shows her red marks on his arm. She thinks it might be a spider bite. He examines her sheets with a table lamp and finds a tiny bug, an aphid. He instructs her about the power of this tiny bug. We will see exactly how powerful as the film moves through Peter’s paranoia and Agnes’ dependency to a chilling, almost apocalyptic end.
Agnes is a borderline personality dealing with a tragedy and hopelessly lonely, perfect prey for a parasite like Peter. Because of the episodic nature of the film, we don’t watch Agnes move slowly into Peter’s delusions, and this creates the shock Friedkin mined so effectively in The Exorcist. But the shock is more like meeting someone you haven’t seen for a while and finding them skeletally thin or filthy and deranged. Letts is adept in the mania of American conspiracy theories, tapping into some ideas many audience members may wholeheartedly believe or at least find somewhat plausible. Thus, he shines a table light on the sheet of our own gullibility and distrust.
Ashley Judd gives this role her all. She looks extremely unglamorous in the beginning, softening upon meeting up with some kindness from Peter, and descending into self-loathing and delusion by the film’s climax. Having said that, Letts clearly wrote an actors’ showcase piece; at times, I felt lost in the zeal with which she strutted her stuff. Michael Shannon originated the part of Peter when it was workshopped at his home theatre, A Red Orchid, in Chicago, and premiered the play in London. He’s clearly an oddball from the word go, but modulates his descent into madness at an even pace. His focus on Agnes is total and mesmerizing, a Svengali for the self-destructive. Lynn Collins and Harry Connick, Jr. are both wonderful, creating fully fleshed supporting characters who seem more in control than Agnes, but are in way over their heads when dealing with Peter.
And what about us? The ride Bug takes us on is as exhilarating as it is absurd. Watching Peter and Agnes examine their blood for bugs using a toy microscope is ridiculous, but we can’t stop them from seeing what they want to see. Reduced to almost a primitive state at the end, Peter and Agnes horrify us as much as they sadden us. I don’t think there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is a certain cynicism, even fatalism, in every ball of energy Steppenwolf ensemble members toss into the world. That’s Chicago, all right. l
As a Chicago native, I feel a particular kinship with Elaine May. As the female of half of the comedy team Nichols & May, she helped forge a peculiarly Chicago style of humor based on improvisation that has been exported around the world by alumni of the comedy group, the Compass Players, and its offshoot, Second City. Both Nichols and May went on to careers as film directors in Hollywood, but only Mike Nichols has been able to sustain that career. Elaine May’s fourth film, Ishtar (1987), laid such an egg that she never got to sit in the director’s chair again. Luckily, we have her debut film, A New Leaf, one of the funniest films I have ever seen.
A New Leaf opens by introducing us to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a fussy, middle-aged bachelor who has been living off a trust fund as a brahmin in elite New York society. He rides, he drives a Ferrari, he goes to his club, and he employs a manservant named Harold (George Rose), embracing “a tradition that was dead long before you were born.” He’s snobbish, foppish, and very nearly broke.
Henry does not realize he’s about run out of money until a bounced check is returned to him. He confronts Beckett, his banker (Mike Nichols lookalike William Redfield), about this embarrassment and outrage. In classic Nichols & May style, Beckett tries to explain to Henry that his trust fund could have afforded him a living of $70,000 a year, but that he chose to spend $200,000 a year. As a consequence, Henry has blown through his trust fund. He no longer has any money. Henry sits looking at Beckett in a defiant, but quizzical way. He responds, pointing to the piece of paper in contention, “What about this check?” Beckett explains that he just explained that Henry hasn’t any money. “But no check has ever bounced before,” Henry offers, apparent proof that he is not without money. Beckett says that Henry has indeed bounced checks before. “I have covered them, $545 of my own money, just so that I might never have to meet with you.” Beckett considers it a bargain, too. When the news finally seems to reach Henry’s vacuous brain, he pulls together as much dignity as possible and offers Beckett his gold cigarette case, dumping its contents onto Beckett’s desk. “This should cover the $545 I owe you. Smoke them in good health.”
In despair, Henry seeks Harold’s consolation. He asks Harold what he would do if Henry couldn’t pay him anymore. “I should leave immediately – after giving proper notice, of course.” So much for consolation. He tries for counsel. Harold suggests asking Henry’s rich uncle for a loan. Uncle Harry (James Coco) did, after all, raise the orphaned Henry. This, of course, was a laughable suggestion when Henry first made it to Beckett. Uncle Harry hates Henry’s guts. Henry is coming to the conclusion that the only thing left is suicide, that is, until Harold suggests that he marry money. Henry grasps at this hopeful straw while, at the same time, finding repugnant the idea that someone would come in and touch his things. Henry, it appears, is completely asexual and perhaps afflicted with a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. How will he pull it off? He decides he can manage it only if he does away with his bride soon after appropriating her fortune.
Henry practices humbling himself to his uncle to obtain a $50,000 loan to keep up appearances while he woos and wins an appropriate female. He goes to his even more fey and disagreeable uncle, who laughs at his suggestion. Henry offers him an interest rate and six-week term that would have made Shylock blush. Uncle Harry considers and then makes a counter offer. He will accept Henry’s terms, but if Henry does not repay the debt with interest on time, Uncle Harry will be entitled to 10 times the initial loan – all that Henry has left. Henry is so desperate to remain idly rich that he agrees. He immediately sets about his task.
He attends a garden party, where a rich woman named Sally Hart (Renée Taylor) is pointed out to him. He takes her aside, and they sit under a tree as Henry swats mosquitoes on his neck and face and Sally writhes seductively in his direction. As she appears ready to remove her top, the camera closes in on her cleavage. We hear Henry’s anguished cry of “Don’t let them out!” Strike one.
Henry’s further attempts are fruitless. With only a little over a week to go, he goes to his tailor to bid him adieu. He enters Lutece to see its elegant dining room once more. In a never-say-die moment, he attends a luncheon where a likely prospect finally pops up. She is a wallflower named Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a botanist and university professor who is heir to a fortune. “Who was her father?” Henry asks his friend Bo (Graham Jarvis). “He was an industrialist or a composer. Something like that.” Henry approaches her. She spills tea all over the oriental rug. The maid starts to blot the rug. She spills another cup of tea. Her hostess accuses Henrietta of maliciousness. Henry expresses outrage on Henrietta’s behalf – and the courtship is on.
He instructs himself on the finer points of botany like a man possessed. Henrietta asks him if he is a botanist, too. Oh no, he assures her, “Every science has its fans.” He seeks to get to know her better:
“Tell me about yourself, Miss Lowell – your work, your hopes, your dreams.”
“Well, I work as a teacher, and I also do field work and write monographs. My hope is to discover a new variety of fern that has never been described or classified. I don’t know what my dream is. Do you think it could be the same as my hope? Well, at any rate, that is my work and my hope except for my dream, which I’m not sure of.”
He takes her to dine and expounds on the relative merits of a ’55 wine over a ’56 vintage. Henrietta interjects that she never liked alcohol until one of her students introduced her to a drink on one of their field trips. “Have you ever tasted Mogen David extra-heavy malaga wine with soda water and lime juice?” No, but he will. He’ll do anything to marry this woman in time.
Henry proposes three days after their meeting, and she accepts. Her lawyer Andy (Jack Weston) is beside himself. He has been controlling her money for decades – and thieving from her along with the rest of her large household staff – and doesn’t want anyone else milking his cash cow. He tells her about Henry’s $50,000 debt as proof of his fortune hunting. Henry confesses that he was suicidal about his financial condition – until he met her. Henrietta decides to settle Henry’s debt and give him full access to her fortune to prove he is not after her money. OK, yeah, did you follow that? Me, neither.
While they are on their honeymoon, Henrietta leans dangerously over a cliff to collect a fern she doesn’t recall having encountered before. They return to her palatial estate, and Henry plots her demise, seeking out household gardening products to use in a lethal brew. Unfortunately, Henrietta believes in organic gardening. Rats! He must devise some other means, but in the meantime, he throws himself into running her house and taking care that she is not an embarrassment to him:
“Oh, no. I forgot to check her before she went to school this morning. She’ll be walking around all day with price tags dangling from her sleeves.”
“I took the liberty, sir.”
“Thank you, Harold. Was she free of crumbs?”
“Only a slight sprinkling, sir.”
Harold is becoming rather fond of the pathetically endearing Henrietta and tries to dissuade Henry from what he fears he will do to her. But Henrietta herself may inspire Henry to a change of heart when she joyfully announces that she has discovered a new fern and has named it after him in gratitude for the confidence he instilled in her to pursue her hope (or dream?). He seems genuinely touched that she would give up her place in history to him. But then they go on a botanical expedition alone, and his scheme has its best chance to succeed.
A New Leaf is graced with a raft of comedy’s finest practitioners bringing to life one of its finest scripts. I’m reasonably sure that many parts of this movie came about through improvisation of an order that comedians working today can only envy. In addition, the physical humor, particularly as provided by Elaine May, has me rolling on the floor just thinking about it.
I have wanted to see this comedy again for years, but it is surprisingly hard to find. If the hubby had not been so persistent on eBay to secure us an old VHS recording, I wouldn’t have spent my holiday laughing my ass off. UPDATE: Happily, Olive Films has finally released this film on gorgeous Blu-ray. Check it out!
The rites of spring are upon us, when a young man’s thoughts turn to love, a housewife’s thoughts turn to wardrobe rotation and offloading junk to the Salvation Army, and a birder’s thoughts turn to LBJs and warblers. I fall into the second two categories, but since house cleaning is repetitive and of no interest to anyone besides S. C. Johnson Wax, I prefer to talk about this interest I share with millions of people all over the world that, to a nonbirder, must seem terribly square.
Square it may be, but birders can be as serious about their sport as athletes are about theirs, maybe moreso. I’ll get to the dark side of birding later. First, I will explain about birding. I mentioned LBJs. That is shorthand for “little brown jobs,” usually sparrows that escape everyone’s notice, that is, except the avid birdwatchers alongside whom I frequently stand and hope to overhear an identification. I’m not the type to study my field guides for weeks in anticipation of the biannual irruption of small feathered creaures passing from one place to another thousands of miles away. I am often stumped by the simplest of birds, say, a golden-crowned kinglet, which is among the most delightful of animals drawing breath on this planet. How is it that I can look at this tiny, far-from-shy bird flitting close enough for naked-eye identification and still have to run to my Peterson’s guide, warped and stiff from the time my mother dropped it in some bogland during a thoroughly miserable day of birding—rather, failing to bird—in the rain.
Yet I must say that after stalking the wild bird for more than 20 years, some of it seems finally to have sunk in. I can quickly spot at a distance a bird that just doesn’t look ordinary, and my best guesses of briefly glanced specimens seem to be right more often than not. For example, as I gazed out the window of the Skokie Swift train (named for the chimney swift, a lovely whiskered bird), I spied a bulbous bird with a white breast, a black cap, and naked legs perched in a tree. Clearly not a hawk, because of the legs. There was water around. Must be a black-crowned night heron. Not many novice birders would call that bird. They’d be too cautious and call it a red-tailed hawk despite the legs, or they’d pick out a rarity that, if correct, would have every birder within a four-state radius camping out looking at it or a bird that doesn’t occur in the area. I have made these errors many times, but not anymore.
I also know my habitats. Edge habitat, the place where one type of habitat collides with another, is the best place to spy migrant birds. I can just look at a crowd of bushes or a tangle of naked branches and know I’ll find something I don’t usually see. Rosehill Cemetery is one of my favorite spots because it has a wide variety of habitats all pouring over each other. The open, grassy areas where the grave markers stand are good places for thrushes, better known to most people as robins. Of course, robins aren’t the only type of thrush, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the birds you think are robins aren’t red. More often than not they’re brown-speckled hermit thrushes, who boast a lovely song characteristic of their bird family.
I like to drive along a gravel road barely wider than a path to seek out the smaller birds that prefer its scrubby edges. That’s where I spotted this season’s first yellow-crowned kinglets, not considered much of a find by seasoned birders because of their larger numbers, and the less numerous, more coveted ruby-crowned kinglet. This tiny bird doesn’t seem like a bird at all. It looks more like a new potato with startled eyes and toothpick legs. But then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of the patch of red on the top its head, which often is hidden from view. Much to my delight, my ruby-crowneds didn’t seem the least bit inclined to hide their glory from me.
When I reported to another birder who had shown up what I had seen, she said, “Those are good birds.” This kind of comment really gets on my nerves. Birders tend to dismiss the ordinary birds we see every day (robins, house sparrows, rock doves [pigeons], even the magnificent Northern cardinal) and more common migrants (yellow-rumped warblers, phoebes, juncos) as “not good birds” or not “important” birds. My friend Eleanora, who is a near-expert birder, and I had a good laugh when we pursued the identification of a sparrow near the lakefront bird sanctuary while some old male birders told us we were foolish not to have gone to North Pond first to see the “important” eared grebe that had been spotted there. I’m not that kind of a birder, I admit. I enjoy bird behavior more than being able to say I’ve seen a certain bird. I get a kick out of the mating dance of the common house sparrow, the most successful bird on the planet, while still coveting a chance to see sandhill cranes flying high in a V-formation over the south suburbs. I simply enjoy being out in the wind and the sun, away from human commerce, hearing bird songs and feeling leaves and earth pressed softly under my feet.
Not all birders feel as I do. Let me tell you just how serious, how all-consuming birding can be. There is an event called a Big Year that a handful of expert birders decide they will do when conditions seem right. Birders on a Big Year travel all over the United States (there are Big Years in other countries and state Big Years, too) in an attempt to see as many species of birds as they can in a single year. This effort requires them to have spotters all over the country who will call them when a bird they haven’t listed shows up. The Big Year birder then must hop on a plane or drive for several hours, whatever it takes, to get to the bird before it flies away. Mind you, this is a competition that is self-declared, that offers no prize money, that requires each contestant to spend many thousands of dollars, lose many nights of sleep, and brave savage weather in such places as Alaska, to win. All the winner gets is bragging rights. Now THAT’s dedication.
As much as I admire the skill of the Big Year birders, I can’t help but feel they are missing the point. A Big Year is more like bean counting than anything else. Show up, see the bird, add it to the list, await the next call. Me, I’d like to say I saw a bird pick up a twig or piece of lint and know it was going to be used to build its nest. I’d tell you about the house sparrows who always build a nest on my mother’s drain pipe, and how a chick always falls out and how I always pick it up and put it back in the nest. I’d tell you that I saw not one, not two, but THREE yellow-bellied sapsuckers hopping along the side of a tree ready to peck a hole to build a nest. Yes, I really did. l
For insight into the world of competitive birding, I highly recommend The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.