6th 01 - 2014 | 6 comments »

“Our Backstreets” #33: Snow Days

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

6th 04 - 2013 | 15 comments »

“Our Backstreets” #32: I Remember Roger


By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

roger-gene-5sIt 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.

fruit_stand_crash_6245It 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.

20th 02 - 2012 | 10 comments »

Our Backstreets #31: A Short Course in Etiquette

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The more I look around me, the more I see people who are absolutely confused about life. I don’t know whether to blame technology and its ability to both bring together people from all over the world, yet teach them nothing about other cultural norms (or even those in their own country), a rebellious generation raising children with little restraint or guidance, or Gordon Gecko. Maybe it’s the hole in the ozone layer, or global warming, or too much sugar in our diets, or guns, or Michael Bay. But it seems to me that it’s time to straighten out at least a few crooked lines we seem to be walking.

Proper etiquette for standing ovations

I’ve noticed that no matter what has happened on a stage, at the end of the performance, audience members give the performers a standing ovation. It seems the mere act of being a living, breathing person facing other living, breathing persons is an act of such extraordinary valor that it is to be encouraged with high praise at all costs.

I wish to let confused audience members know that it is perfectly all right not to stand and applaud wildly at every performance. Standing ovations are the ultimate compliment for performers and should be reserved for extraordinary work. If you give performers a standing ovation just for getting through a performance, you’re just encouraging them not to be the best that they can be. They won’t feel truly complimented, and they won’t respect your opinion because you obviously have no powers of discernment—unless, of course, they wish to believe that everything they do is extraordinary.

I’ve read that a standing ovation is proper for all children’s performances, but this is absolutely not so. It gives children a false sense of how their abilities will be judged when they get older and will turn them into confused adults who stand and clap for everything without knowing why. If you’re not praising your children properly while raising them, get some help and leave those of us who like to separate the wheat from the chaff alone.

Proper etiquette for flying the American flag

New Jersey governor Chris Christie caught some flak for lowering Old Glory to half-staff to mark the passing of Whitney Houston. I was pleased about this until I learned the nature of the criticism—doing so was honoring a person who indulged in recreational drug use. Not only is this criticism hypocritical—after all, which of us has not gotten shitfaced on our 21st birthday and many opportunities thereafter—but it also is erroneous.

Now I know that great statesmen and women are very, very scarce these days, and it could be argued that that fact alone warrants perpetual half-staffing of the flag in mourning this national tragedy. I also know that celebrities are now our new role models, and helping to build a successful franchise like the Twilight series, as Kristen Stewart has done, or becoming famous for no apparent reason a la Kim Kardashian, are great accomplishments that may seem to warrant serious respect and shows of civic pride. But according to the National Flag Foundation’s Standard Bearer magazine:

The Flag Code says, “by order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States government and the governor of a state, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.

“In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any state, territory, or possession of the United States, the governor of that state, territory, or possession may proclaim that the national flag shall be flown at half-staff.”

So, unless Whitney Houston served in the New Jersey government, which the record shows she did not, Gov. Christie made a huge faux pas, showing disrespect for those who actually serve all of us. And people, let’s all try harder to elect people who took a civics class or two and actually paid attention. We’d all be a little better off, or at least, not so confused.

Proper etiquette for personal space

According to proxemics studies for natives of the United States (yes, there is an actual behavioral sciences field devoted to personal space), these are the appropriate distances for various interactions:

0–18 inches: Intimate distance
18 inches–4 feet: Personal distance, for interactions among good friends or family members
4 feet–12 feet: Social distance, for interactions among acquaintances
12 feet–25 feet or more: Public distance, used for public speaking

It seems that some people in Virginia are kind of confused about personal space etiquette. The legislature has passed, and the governor will probably sign, a law that requires women who want to have an abortion to have their vaginas invaded by an ultrasound probe. Since a lot of legislators have gotten into trouble by disregarding intimate distance etiquette, I’m not surprised about the confusion here. Maybe they think that using an inanimate object negates this rule of etiquette, but the Commonwealth of Virginia has affirmed in previous case law that penetration with an inanimate object is criminal behavior, as evidenced in an appellate court ruling William Anthony Booker vs. Commonwealth of Virginia:

William Anthony Booker (defendant) was convicted in a bench trial of rape, two counts of inanimate object penetration and four counts of forcible sodomy. On appeal, defendant complains that the trial court erroneously (1) denied his motion to restrict the Commonwealth’s evidence to offenses committed on dates specified in response to a bill of particulars, (2) admitted hearsay evidence, and (3) found the evidence sufficient to support the convictions. Finding no error, we affirm the trial court.

It’s hard to believe, too, that when medical procedures are being denied coverage in large numbers, the Commonwealth of Virginia would force anyone to pay for this medically unnecessary procedure.

* * *

I hope my brief insights into common mistakes in etiquette have proven helpful to you, dear readers. When in doubt, think of this advice from the established authority on etiquette, Emily Post:

Amidst today’s fast-paced world of technological innovation and casual lifestyles, manners naturally adapt to new situations. Social and cultural traditions fuse and transform in new ways, and the roles and expectations of adults and children evolve to meet those trends. Despite continuous changes, however, social civility remains rooted in the guiding principles of respect, consideration, and honesty.


13th 06 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Our Backstreets #30: The Ayes, Not the Ears, Have It

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For those of you who may have been wondering why things have been quiet at Chez Ferdy on Films, the answer is that I’ve been in Orlando working a convention for my day job. Specifically, I have been at one of the resorts that service visitors to Disney World. The property, the Coronado Springs, has a Latin American theme. The eateries are Mexican cuisine, though in a nod to people who don’t want to eat quesadillas every day, a cafeteria-style restaurant offers pizza, pasta, and salads. The sit-down restaurant features margaritas of every stripe as their signature drink. A sweeter, more nauseating margarita I have never had. The grounds are beautifully planted around a manmade lake that is encircled with a trail for early morning joggers—in mid June Florida, only a crazy person would go running when the sun dominates the sky.

And, of course, the ever-present Big Brother that is Disney surveys it all.

Now, I’m not talking about Walt and Roy per se. Yes, the cartoon-centered empire is built upon their creations and business sense, and Walt makes appearances via all the TV screens and monitors Disney controls. It is that control that makes Disney so B.B. on the Disney Magical Express shuttle from the airport to the resort, those little pop-down screens you see on airplanes creating a hazard to body and mind. I literally injured myself when I bumped my head on one as I sat down in my seat. During the 40-minute ride, not even the sight of great blue and great white herons flying and strutting through what marshes remain along the spaghetti bowl of highways could help me escape the nonstop commercial that ran on these Orwellian ViewScreens. When I took the shuttle back to the airport at the conclusion of my business, one of the passengers said families should plan to bring $2,000 per child for a trip to Disney World, and seeing how the commercial hyped the shopping and the necessity to go to all of Disney’s theme and water parks, I’d say his estimate was right on the money. Oh, and don’t forget that if you are kicking yourself for not buying that $200 Cinderella porcelain music box, there’s always the online shopping experience for when you get home. Oh, and don’t forget, we have another park in Anaheim (but let’s not talk about EuroDisney right now—it’s not the happiest place on earth). Cruises to Alaska, Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean populated with your favorite Disney characters and gift shops complete the money pit.

I was not prepared for the total immersion of Disney. Little girls can be seen everywhere wearing princess costumes. Every product, from a candy bar to a belt buckle, is Disney-branded. The Coronado Springs is brightly colored and, from a distance, looks like a cartoon set. It is impressive beyond belief how single-minded the Disney Co. is in creating its own highly scripted version of reality. This really is Disney World, covering a vast expanse in Central Florida that pays homage to American family values—children, wholesome entertainment, shopping—like nothing else. It’s impossible not to be awed into wanting everything Disney has to offer.

I had no time or energy—nor was I tempted to part with several hundred dollars—to try to get to Downtown Disney, Epcot, or any of the other locations accessible by bus (no walking here!). So my remove from the actual frenzy of kids and parents enjoying and enduring at the main attractions let me take a look at the value on offer at the resort. Frankly, the guest accommodations were pretty paltry. The rooms were fine, but the safe for valuables would hold a wallet or two, being that it was just a shallow hole cut in a wall with a locking metal panel in front of it. The TV set had very few entertainment stations, taken up as they were by more Disney advertising. Many of the sinks didn’t work in the common bathrooms, and I swear I heard Mickey Mouse laughing every time the toilet flushed.

My Disney memories have nothing to do with Goofy or Donald or even the Mouse himself. My most exciting moments comprise having a hummingbird feeding at a flower while I sat on a bench talking on my cell to the hubby, seeing a locust on the ground moving slowly and bending its legs like a folding chair in a hypnotic ritual, and watching the volunteer members of the association for which I work conduct their business according to Robert’s Rules of Order—a fascinating look at democracy in action on behalf of children. Disney could take a few cues from these volunteers.

17th 04 - 2011 | 12 comments »

Our Backstreets #29: Sundays Were the Best Days

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.


11th 03 - 2009 | 14 comments »

Our Backstreets #28: When Movie Stars Were Legit


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Legit theatre, that is.

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.


30th 01 - 2009 | 5 comments »

Our Backstreets #27: He Looks Like a Former Child Star Gone Evil


By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

16th 01 - 2009 | 9 comments »

Our Backstreets #26: All the World’s a Dardo and We Merely Dardites


By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s something going around the online world that’s even more viral than the Valentine’s Day virus from a few years back. I’m talking, of course, about the Dardos Awards. Never having heard of them until I was presented with one by blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Lapper, I found it a rather strange sensation to have actually won something, or kind of. See, I never win anything. Whenever there’s any kind of raffle, drawing, or other event of chance, I make the hubby enter it. He always wins stuff. I don’t even try anymore. Maybe that’s the secret. Or maybe I just intimidated Jonathan with my Amazon warrior cry. Yup, probably.

Anyway, so what did I win? Well, it’s not as good as wealth beyond my wildest dreams nor as bad as those parting gifts they give game show losers. Actually, it’s a pat on the back. A very nice pat on the back. A solid-gold pat on the back:

“The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”

Dardos winners must do the following:

1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.

2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.
I’ve made some great comrades among film bloggers, some of whom I would gladly name for a Dardos Award if someone else hadn’t named them first. I do have a couple of film bloggers that richly deserve this award, as well as bloggers in other subject areas. I’ve cheated and named six because I just couldn’t cut any of these great blogs. In alphabetical order:


One of the most knowledgable film bloggers I can think of is Peter Nellhaus. His blog, Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee, reflects his vast cinematic experience, particularly his specialty in Asian films. He gets a lot of views, I’m sure. What he doesn’t get are a lot of comments—it’s because you’re way ahead of us, Peter.


Nick Plowman makes me sick! How can a high school kid be so damned talented, intelligent, and productive? Fataculture is a great blog no matter how much Nick obsesses about not keeping up with the “big guns.” He could splatter most other blogs to bits with his x-ray vision or whatever it is that keeps him going.


Daniel Getahun consistently provides great, thoughtful, self-questioning content on Getafilm. He keeps me current on what’s new in the film universe and has the most ingenious film-rating system I’ve seen. Sometimes I even think I can hear his great “Minnesota, eh” accent through the screen. (You do have one of those, don’t you, Daniel?)


I met Anna Brady Nurse from Move the Frame when I invited her to participate in the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon I held last May. I really wanted to get some dance bloggers involved, and she was eager to join in. She does a great job of promoting New York City’s Kinetic Cinema and admirably fulfills her more general mission statement: Where Dance Meets the Camera.


The Tennessee Guerilla Women have been fighting the good fight for women in Tennessee and around the world. Some feminist sites are bitter, some are funny and bitter, some are confused. These women just tell it like it is with style, relevance, and wit. Onward sister suffragettes, or something like that.


Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe does something I’ve never seen on any other blog: he provides a comprehensive production history of every film he reviews. He’s started to do the same with unsung character actors and actresses as well, with whom he probably identifies. Joe keeps a low profile, but I’m here to expose him to all the world! Get used to it, Joe. You’re about to be really appreciated. l

6th 12 - 2008 | 2 comments »

Our Backstreets #25: Ferdy on Roof, etc.


December 6, 2008, high noon

Owl%20street%20sign.jpgBy Marilyn Ferdinand

When I’m not watching something on a screen, cooking, eating, or any of the other things I do in my off hours, you might find me out birding. Reports of a snowy owl had my birding buddy Eleanora ready to run out of the house last night. Owling normally is done at night, but knowing snowys are easy to spot during the day, I said, “Curb your enthusiasm.” This charming lady owl was waiting for us today when we got to a building near the corner of Sacramento Boulevard and (get this) Ferdinand Street. I’ve named her Ferdy.


4th 12 - 2008 | 16 comments »

Our Backstreets #24: Yours Truly


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Over the past few weeks, a few of my fellow movie bloggers have revealed parts of their home movie libraries. They weren’t big show-and-tells, but they provided a glimpse at the person behind the curtain, so to speak. Now, I’ve never hidden my identity or a lot of the details about my life, but I am a bit private when it comes to my home. Not that it’s some kind of sanctum sanctorum, mind you, though the computer room/den comes very close to being a staging area for macabre rituals thanks to the hubby’s delight in collecting gargoyles, mini-guillotines, pagan altar pieces, and other bizarreiana. But I’m ready to show you just what kind of a film geek I am.

As a collector, I’m as piddling as someone who never goes to the movies. I don’t have a lot of books or DVDs. I had a lot of videos, mostly recorded off my TV; it was hard to rent or buy them at a reasonable price for quite a while, so my VCR was once my best friend. I don’t have a lot of memorabilia other than ticket stubs, because I live in a condo without a lot of storage space and I really hate the feeling of clutter. So what you’ll see here represents the items I’ve deemed worthy of taking into my home, some rather randomly, some foisted upon me by others, but mostly because I feel better knowing they are giving off energy in the place I am most relaxed and inspired.


I have a lot more artwork than I have room to hang it, but this piece will always have a place of honor in my home. The advertising cards are all from films I’ve seen, and none of them ever made a big splash, though most film buffs will recognize them and may have seen them. The card on the right in the second row is my version of historic preservation—the 2001 line-up of films from the late, lamented Shooting Gallery; two of the cards in the frame, The Low Down and The Day I Became a Woman, are from that series. I have the most awesome framer who I’ve been going to for decades, so I’m really pleased with how this looks.


On to the memorabilia. Above is one piece in a small collection of Rudolph Valentino items that includes a couple of vintage photos and a paper doll collection. I keep the bulk of the collection at work, but this cookie tin kept rolling off my desk, so I brought it home where the hubby has surrounded it with other vintage items from my mother and his.
Now the ticket stubs. Here’s what holds them:


I can’t show them all to you, so I’ve selected some that have some special interest for me. The first Ebertfest had some beautiful tickets. (They got grayer and more subdued over the years.) A three-piece band from Michigan called Concrete played their own score for Battleship Potemkin. Director Paul Cox did a Q&A about his wonderful A Woman’s Tale.


Here’s one from the Silent Summer Film Festival. Do you know that I forgot I saw Twinkletoes? Unbelievable. But going through all these ticket stubs, I saw a lot of film titles I didn’t recognize at all, including, believe it or not Bunuel’s The Milky Way, which I claimed not a week ago to never have seen and, in fact, to have avoided! However, the other two on this page, Lost in Translation (Did I really see that at the Siskel Center? How odd.) and Cloverfield, I remember well.


Here are a few from the defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival. Sorry I didn’t get a better picture. The significant ones for me are Vera and Whale Rider, which was unknown in the States when I saw it. It didn’t stay that way.


Below are some different styles of Chicago International Film Festival ticket stubs. I quite like the first ones, with elegant type for the festival name over a grayscale image of the festival logo—Theda Bara’s eyes. By 2004, the stubs were the usual Ticketmaster style they are now. No character. Oh well. The stub for The Exiles is not from the CIFF; it’s sort of my way of bragging that I discovered this film a long time before the hordes of cinephiles who now, thankfully, have easy access to it.



Finally, I’ve got a smattering of films I saw at the Siskel Center. The tickets not only tell what film was shown, but what series it was a part of; for example, Sound of the Mountain was part of an extensive Naruse retro. The Iberia ticket means a lot to me because Carlos Saura was there for the screening, where I got a chance to thank him for his unique dance films and get his autograph on a VHS tape of Carmen and a DVD of Blood Wedding.


I like to go to films when I’m on vacation. I had a few stubs from Hawaii, but the photo didn’t come out. I wish I had the stubs from my trip to Johannesburg, where I remember seeing Center Stage and the first X-Men movie. Then again, I wish I had all the stubs over the decades. “What we’ve missed, Lucia, what we’ve missed.”

On to the DVDs. This is pretty close to all of them; a couple of photos didn’t come out. Yeah, I know: “Is that all?” Hey, I’ve got a kickass library collection and Facets to rent from. The hubby is responsible primarily for the horror films and stuff like Mondo Bubba, Dogville, and Dogma. A number of the films have Chinese characters on them; those came from my Shanghai connection.







I was going to put up pictures of my books, but there are only about 35, and none of them is all that “important.” Nonetheless, I have a few favorites: Silent Star, Colleen Moore’s autobiography, Foster Hirsch’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, and Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.

Whew, I’m glad that’s over! It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to put this out into the world. I don’t exactly know what you’ll make of all this. Let me know. l

2nd 11 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Our Backstreets #23: Take It Easy, But Take It


By Marilyn Ferdinand

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 Show 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.

(L to R) Saul Alinsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, Laurie Anderson, Tito Gobbi

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), 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 Cinematheque.

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.

25th 09 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Our Backstreets #22: The Glamour of Publishing

(2 p.m. the day before the magazine goes to press)


No, no problem at all…

And thank you for your business
(you crawling piece of %*!@##)

14th 08 - 2008 | 12 comments »

Our Backstreets #21: What’s That Smell?

By Marilyn Ferdinand

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

12th 06 - 2008 | 16 comments »

Our Backstreets #20: Corruption on Steroids


By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

barack-is-hope.jpgNow 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.

5th 06 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Our Backstreets #19: From Russia with (Too Much) Love


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Every blogger knows the thrill when one of our posts—hopefully, our whole blog—receives a lot of hits. It’s validation that we wrote something good, something people are interested in, something that will last in the vast ephemera that is cyberspace.

Well, I have such a post about a rather obscure movie that is fully deserving of the widest exposure possible. And that’s the problem. The fact that it exposes widely has made it the most popular of my posts, thanks to a certain group of Russians who are exceedingly fond of kiddie porn.


How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a marvelous film that represents the best of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s and early 70s. It tells the tale of a Portuguese soldier who is being held prisoner by a Brazilian tribe, which intends to eat him in the fullness of time because they mistakenly believe he is French and therefore their enemy. Photos from the film were hard to find when I first posted this review, but I managed one. It shows an elaborately wardrobed European lying in a hammock with a nearly naked native woman in the background. In fact, this entire film is loaded with bodies naked save for a few baubles because that’s how this tribe chose to garb itself. The photo above is representative of a lot of the frames of this film.

A link to my review was posted on a discussion board by someone whose moniker appears as agepi using the Roman alphabet; if you view this person’s moving icon, I think you can imagine a better transliteration from Cyrillic than “agepi.” This link was posted September 28, 2007, and within the first couple of weeks, I had nearly 1,000 hits to my review. Unfortunately, I don’t read or write Russian, so I could not thank this sudden influx of film enthusiasts for their interest in this film and my work. Nor did I know what they were saying about it. You have to understand that when I visited the site, there were moving icons of pretty women here and there, but also one of Stalin. I didn’t suspect the nature of their interest until I started poking around the whole site a little.

My growing suspicion that the films this crowd liked were not likely to be reviewed at Ferdy on Films was confirmed by the housekeeper of one of the elderly residents of my building, who could read some Russian. Then I started getting a little wigged. I live in a town that has a large number of Russian residents. I go to the same produce markets, liquor stores, and pharmacy as they do. I’d go to the market, see a Russian sizing up some tomatoes, and wonder what he planned to do with them. I’d see a Russian at the Walgreen’s picking up a prescription and wonder whether he was getting some Viagra to use with his underage girlfriend—after he plied her with liquor from the Russian deli I’d seen him exit 10 minutes before. My life was truly a nightmare for a short time until I put the incident into perspective.

Let’s face it, fellow film bloggers, porn sites are the most popular web sites on the planet. I stumbled into this world by accident, and am regularly reminded of my dubious popularity by the hits to this review that come at a slower, but still steady pace.

Be careful what you wish for… l

26th 05 - 2008 | 15 comments »

Our Backstreets #18: Whose Life Is It Anyway?


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It’s a day when we remember our dead, particularly those who have served in combat. I mean no disrespect to the war dead and their families, but it has become more than painfully obvious that dying in war is no great honor, that war is a web of insanity in which sane people often are caught. Yet, we remember our fallen combatants in a sainted glow that, in my opinion, allows society to continue to make war. This myth is just one of many we as a society collude in to perpetuate norms.

It may seem trite at this point to switch to movies, but movies are the dreams societies have about themselves. In the case of Hollywood, they bolster the norms of American society and, increasingly, global societies that gobble them like popcorn. Independent film and documentaries may be an antidote to this myth-making, though those areas of filmmaking are often target of cooption by the majors, who prefer to control the story. And every story has its heroes and its villains.

That brings me to biopics. These films are practically destined to become fictions, lantern shows of good and evil. How does this happen? Historical records of long-dead figures may be lacking, contradictory, or deliberately embellished for the sake of posterity. If the subject is more contem- porary—and beloved—it can be hard to show the warts and all without inflaming outrage among fans and family alike. If the subject is still alive, he or she may become hostile to the project if things aren’t told just the right way or, more often, create an self-consciousness in the filmmakers that causes them to self-censor. Still other subjects may be used as nothing more than a template upon which to hang a fictional story, with name recognition used to pull in the crowds. There is even the question of whether a subject’s private life is relevant, whether a biopic should concern itself with the accomplishments of the subject to the near-exclusion of the life.

If you look below at the comments section of my review of Crazy, a new biopic about country/jazz musician Hank Garland, you’ll see some heartfelt concerns by Debra Garland, Hank’s youngest of two daughters. The comments led to a short correspondence between me and Debi, who was written out of the film and who has a running feud with her uncle Billy over it. I don’t know the exact nature of the feud, but I do know that the liberties this biopic took caused a great deal of conflict, not to mention a serious rewriting of history that sometimes becomes accepted fact. In this case, Debi was disappeared; for the people like me who may never have heard of Hank Garland before seeing the movie, there never was a younger daughter named Debra.

I started thinking about the nature of biopics and some films that are much beloved, perhaps for the wrong reasons: for example, what I consider the worst biopic ever made: The Pride of the Yankees. Obviously hurried into production to take advantage of the great public grief over the death of Lou Gehrig, it made Gehrig right-handed for everything but hitting and allowed Babe Ruth to mug shamelessly during Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech. This film was excruciating in every way—and not just because it was a lie from the word “action”—yet it’s a cherished film among many moviegoers.

Then there is one of the best—The Song of Bernadette. This film about the teenage girl who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto at Lourdes takes its story and dialog from the historical record, reproducing the look of a mid 19th century French village, its poverty, and its transformation following the miracle. Only small touches may have been embellished to bring out some of the philosophical differences of the time, strengthening rather than weakening the biography. Why was Bernadette’s story so faithful to what we know about her? Is it because a belief in miracles and religion suits society? And is the miracle itself merely a lie made true by the faithful? You see, this biopic stuff gets complicated.

I’ve pondered this question from a lot of angles, and I’d like your opinions. What purpose do you think biopics serve? Why have they endured as a movie form? What examples do you have of good and bad biopics? I’d be very interested in your opinions. l


27th 04 - 2008 | 14 comments »

Our Backstreets #17: A Critical Question

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past week at Cinema Styles, Jonathan Lapper linked to a column by controversial New York Press critic Armond White that was, frankly, a mess. I can’t really tell you what he was driving at exactly because he appeared to be tripping while resting his hands on his computer’s keyboard. But others boiled it down to this: “My opinions are right, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re an asshole.” The column appeared to be triggered by the adulatory articles about ailing film critic Roger Ebert, most notably one appearing in White’s hometown—and rival—newspaper, The New York Times. Perhaps he wasn’t tripping—he might have just been brain-addled from banging his head against the wall in frustration that the proverbial thumbs-up weren’t for him.

A lively discussion ensued during which we commenters wondered about our own styles of blogging and criticism, what we liked in films, DVD extras, and other things film buffs like to talk about. But are we really film buffs—amateurs—or have we crossed the line to become real critics? Here’s what Andrew O’Hehir said in a Salon article:

Former New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed years ago that the film critic’s pose of being an ordinary moviegoer is just that. You can’t watch 100 or 150 or 200 films a year and be an ordinary moviegoer; you become a specialist with a defined aesthetic and rarefied tastes in some direction or other. Whether that direction lies in Thai kickboxing films or Tarkovskyesque meditations on the soul is purely a question of temperament.

I think it’s interesting that Canby and O’Hehir don’t specify formal training as being the hallmark of a film critic—they emphasize the act of watching movies as the crucial factor in developing an aesthetic. Nonetheless, can any avid film enthusiast really go beyond the expressing of an opinion and into what used to be the formal discipline of criticism without multidisciplinary training in the arts, in general, and film, specifically? Here’s another quote from one of my favorite movies, Metropolitan:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.

Tom Townsend’s preference for nonfiction as a more real experience than actually reading a novel is an interesting one to ponder. Some of us read criticism either because we can’t get our hands on the films under consideration or because we’re more interested in the ideas found in cinema, be it of a genre, an artist, or a style/school of filmmaking. Most of us wouldn’t go as far as Tom by only reading about, not watching movies. Nonetheless, when one does see, as Canby says, 200 (or more) films a year, a certain malaise can settle in, a feeling that we’ve seen it all before, a sense like Tom’s that the tried-and-true formulas that have powered so many films in the past 100 years remind us that it’s not real, that we’ve been seduced by our addiction to storytelling and somehow are spending too much time escaping real life and not really engaging with it. Perhaps an intrinsic and valuable knowledge or philosophy worthy of formal criticism may actually have little or nothing to do with the business of moviemaking.

Are we making a mountain out of a molehill, elevating a low form through pretentious points of view and false meaning-making? I find a lot of instruction and comfort for what I am doing in the introduction to James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson:

There are many invisible circumstances, which whether we read as enquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to inlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than publick occurrences. Thus Sallust, the great master of nature, has not forgot in his account of Catiline to remark, that his walk was now quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us, that when he had made an appointment, he expected not on the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Witt are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character, which represent him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life. … If a life [biography] be delayed till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition.

This quote reminds me that the actions of any person, whether real or fictional, can create meaning. Anyone can give an opinion, and the value of that opinion is based on the views of the person receiving it—not on the person giving it. Training to be a professional critic—as in one whose opinions are thought valuable enough to pay for—may include formal study at a university, but it also involves the expansion of one’s critical thoughts through experience. It is through the act of the inquiring mind that the miracle of insight can occur. So I feel that I am both a film buff and a real critic, and perhaps the two never can or should be divorced. In my opinion, a critic who dismisses the populist nature of film viewing and the unpaid ranks of volunteer film critics on the Internet and elsewhere who exemplify the love that is the Latin/French root of the word “amateur,” it is this type of critic who has degraded the discourse on film and who keeps it trapped in the business part of show business. l

17th 09 - 2007 | 5 comments »

Our Backstreets #16: Tarr-Nation


By Marilyn Ferdinand

September 16 marked the long-awaited arrival of Hungarian director Béla Tarr to Facets Cinematheque to preface his “popular hit” Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and join in a discussion of his career with three well-respected members of the film community—critics Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) and Scott Foundas (LA Weekly), and retired film professor David Bordwell (University of Wisconsin—Madison). I’d been looking forward to the event for several weeks and promised to blog on it for fellow cineastes unable to attend in person.

Unfortunately, one of those cineastes was Tarr himself. Well, that is not precisely true. He hand-delivered the print of Werckmeister Harmonies from Minneapolis, where he had conducted a similar dog-and-pony show, introduced the film hurriedly, and then sped off to attend to a family emergency. In addition, according to Rosenbaum, Tarr is by no means a cineaste. He claims not to be influenced by any other filmmaker (though he admires a few, including John Cassavetes) and largely does not watch movies.

Still, having just been mesmerized by his visually striking, metaphysical examination of harmony and chaos in an unnamed Hungarian town, the hubby and I chose to remain for the two-hour conversation, moderated by Facets employee Susan Doll. It was an interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying, afternoon because of the absence of the principal upon whom we focused our attention.

Facets has been at the forefront of exposing Chicago audiences to Tarr, screening his early works, Family Nest, The Outsider, and The Prefab People. Because she came to Tarr’s career in a chronological fashion, Doll said she had a special fondness for these musicless examinations of domestic strife. The members of the panel did not feel the same way, but commented favorably on Tarr’s close examination of faces. Rosenbaum mentioned that Tarr sees faces as landscapes; whereas his later films are caught up in vistas, Tarr sees his earlier focus on faces to be exactly the same thing.

Rosenbaum, Bordwell, and Foundas all agreed that Satantango, a 7.5-hour film “about” betrayal was his masterwork. They railed that people don’t seem to mind committing themselves to miniseries, but shied from watching this lengthy movie. It didn’t seem entirely obvious to them that spending a whole day watching a movie is not exactly the same as spending successive nights at home watching a miniseries a bit at a time (or recording it for future viewing if one day in the series was inconvenient). But these are cineastes, of course.

A great deal of the time was spent talking about Tarr’s use of long takes. Bordwell quoted a statistic that the average Hollywood movie has 1,100 takes per one hour of film, whereas Werckmeister Harmonies has 39 takes in total. An interesting discussion transpired about edits versus choreographed long takes, and how a long-take director like Tarr or Tarkovsky can use camera movement and precise blocking to create similar effects. Many directors like editing because they like to direct the audience’s attention specifically to the action they feel is important to observe. Other directors, particularly Antonioni, favor a static camera and long takes to allow the observer to make choices.

Rosenbaum spoke about how much of a master illusionist Tarr is, creating effects even in the long-take verite style that are completely artificial. He compared Tarr with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami in this respect, saying that even when Kiarostami intentionally shows the artifice of filmmaking (e.g., the actors and crew shown interacting after the “last” scene of A Taste of Cherry), he is creating additional illusions.

Both Bordwell and Rosenbaum talked about Tarr’s resistance to interpretation. He refuses to interpret his films or answer questions about other people’s interpretations of his works. One thing he will acknowledge about his films is that they are about humanity and the dignity of human beings. He lives in a village in Hungary with “real peasants,” a class of people he clearly prefers to intellectuals. He eskews intellectualism when applied to his films and is suspicious of it, according to Bordwell and Rosenbaum.

Audience questioners included a Hungarian woman who helps run the Hungarian Film Club of Chicago. She was cornered after the event by local film buffs eager to attend their screenings. l


28th 08 - 2007 | no comment »

Our Backstreets #15: No Reservations

Wisconsin%20map.gifBy Marilyn Ferdinand

I hope my fave-rave chef, author, and travel TV host Anthony Bourdain doesn’t mind me borrowing the name of his TV series to head this edition of “Our Backstreets,” but like him, I’ve been traveling. Unlike Bourdain, I haven’t done it to explore the exotic cuisines of exotic places for fame and fortune. Rather, a new publishing cycle in the Land of Paycheck and the effects of dust, environmental chaos, and too many restaurant/fast food meals resulting from our long-running series Kitchen Renovation (now in its 8th week) made me and the hubby realize that we needed to Get the Hell Out of Dodge!

With time and energy in short supply, we settled on a 5-day getaway to a friend’s lakeside summer home in Wisconsin—about a 4-hour drive. It was raining, and we took the long way ’round. After a phone call to the house to get new directions, we arrived about 15 minutes later, none the worse for wear. I should have known things might not turn out so well when there was no one home. Fifteen anxious minutes of driving around looking for the right place and knocking on the wrong doors—and finding out we were in the right place—and our hosts returned to the homestead.

We started drinking, played hearts, and had a really nice late-night dinner of brats off the barby. The following day, still drizzly, was great, motorboating around on a chain ‘o lakes created by dredging channels between several separate lakes. We learned this was done by a developer who had done what had been done in this area for many decades—taken land from the Native Americans on the promise of giving them a few places on it to live, subdivided it, sold it to white folks who demanded more water than they were entitled to for their rec sports, and drained surrounding water from the Indian reservation. Anger between the white folks and the Native Americans brewed to overflowing in the 1970s. Things have improved, but tensions linger on.

After a nice Friday fish fry in a cash-only diner, we stopped at a home on the res to visit our host’s childhood friend. A friendly beer or two became a full-fledged Indian party—one of the daughters was having a birthday bash—and the order of the day was to get as wasted as possible. Every possible cliché you can think of about Indians characterized that night—rampant drunkenness, cheap drugs, poverty, dogs running around, fights. I caught a flung plastic chair in the shoulder. We left shortly thereafter—the hubby worried that our departure would offend our hosts, I worried about escaping further injury—and left altogether to move further north the next day.

What I learned on the res is that I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a Native American. The outside appearances, the stories of exploitation, the free-floating anger that I found on the surface still left me feeling almost completely in the dark about the culture I had briefly dipped into. I’ve visited many foreign lands, but invariably the cultures seemed to share a number of common markers with mine. I feel—rightly or wrongly—that Native Americans have fared so poorly because, perhaps, their fundamental way of life was so incredibly different from the European cultures that came to dominate the large tracts of land they used to need to make a living and way of life. I cannot wrap my head around that or the psychology of living in these traditional ways, and their continuing influence. Before the alcohol and drugs took effect on my hosts, I enjoyed some of their stories. After everyone—elders, adults, children—started disappearing into the bottle and hash pipe, all I felt was alone and frightened.

I was very aware that I didn’t fit in at all; one of my hosts as much as said so, though she tried to put me at my ease until she got too loaded to notice. She had said earlier that she hates her job so much that when the weekend comes, she takes any kind of mind-altering substance she’s offered. I know plenty of white people who do the same thing. It’s not easy to be honest about my feeling of repugnance at the drunken scene around me—my white liberal guilt rebels in every way, shape, and form, even though I’d feel exactly the same way among people from my own background who were doing the same thing. Maybe if I knew more about Native Americans, I wouldn’t feel so alienated. I didn’t grow up around Native Americans. My people came to this country in the 20th century, so I assumed the history of the white man and the Indian didn’t really belong to me. But it does—and I don’t get it. All I wanted to do was run away. Maybe I’m full of shit.

Funny. I thought this was going to be a lighthearted entry on how I spent my summer vacation—a catalog of the homey ways of small-town America, the wide variety of roadkill I saw, an exploration of the many ways of cheese in The Dairy State. Anthony Bourdain had a similar dose of uncomfortable reality in Beirut when he and his TV crew got caught in a war. We both came away with more than we bargained for.

I don’t feel guilty about getting the kind of short respite I wanted. I’ve had a rough couple of years and went after some peace with a selfish singlemindedness. But now I’m home, and I wonder about the res, about the people I met, about whether their shows of native pride on their baseball caps, veterans uniforms, and t-shirts will work for them—and just who else is going to care. l

16th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Our Backstreets #14: Julia Sweeney Redux: Letting Go of God

Julia%20S.bmpBy Marilyn Ferdinand

“There really ARE coincidences!”

Julia Sweeney bellowed this line in amazement right after she confessed her earlier belief that there are no coincidences. It was a funny and oddly moving moment in Sweeney’s new live show Letting Go of God, about her search for and eventual rejection of God. For me, it was also a strange moment. Only about a week ago, I wrote a review of God Said, “Ha!”, the 1998 film of her one-woman show in which she recounted the worst year of her life. In the last line of that review, I hoped that she’d provide an update on the Sweeney clan at some point to give us hope and a good laugh. A week to the day after I posted that review, an item in a local paper said she was in town for a two-day run of her new show. I was lucky to get tickets for the next day’s eventually sold-out performance.

The monologue opens with Julia telling us that she had come to the end of a 4-year love affair that caused her so much pain that one night, in deep despair, she cried out to God to help her. This call in the dark set the stage for a deeper exploration of her religion, unexpectedly triggered one day by the appearance of two Mormon missionaries at her door. The usual reaction to pairs of men in white cotton shirts and thin black ties with bibles in their hands is to politely hide in a windowless room until they stop ringing and knocking on the door. Julia, in an altered state by her spiritual need, invites them in. In answer to their first question, she says, yes, she does believe that God loves her with all His (wait a minute, His?, she thinks) might. Eventually they get to the kookier aspects of their religion, at which point they are invited, very politely, to leave. We then get a brief history of God according to the Sweeneys.

Julia Sweeney was raised a devoted Roman Catholic in Spokane, Washington. We learn of her first religious disappointment—feeling gypped that she hadn’t known God wasn’t reading her every thought before she turned 7, the age of reason. She started telling every 0–6 year old she knew that they could be bad all they wanted and God wouldn’t know, but this knowledge seemed to fall on deaf ears.

In later years, she contemplated becoming a nun. Like me, she was completely devoted to the Hayley Mills character in The Trouble with Angels (“I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea,” she intones in a perfect imitation of Mills’ enthusiastic British accent.) Like me, she watched The Song of Bernadette in perfect rapture and walked around with a towel on her head. But when a priest angrily told her, “Don’t be ridiculous,” to her request to be an altar boy, she did the one thing Catholics are taught never to do—go up on the altar and TOUCH EVERYTHING.

Returning to her spiritual quest, Julia tries joining a liberal Catholic church and signing up for Bible study. She becomes acquainted with the horrors and caprices of the Old Testament God, then moves on to the New Testament, where she discovers Jesus is angry and impatient more than she remembered him to be from her youthful ardor. Finally, the book of Revelations gives her a White Rabbit experience, and she decides that Catholicism doesn’t really do the job of explaining her faith. She sets off for Bhutan to visit a Buddhist monastery, where she is appalled by children younger than the age of reason turned into monks, and comes to reject Buddhism. Then she tries the glories of nature by sailing to the Galapagos Islands and witnesses cute blue-footed booby babies having their brains pecked out by their stronger sibling. Brrrrrr!

She was a huge fan of Deepak Chopra and his scientific explanation for God’s existence and gushed all over him when they were both guests on a talk show. When she actually takes a class in quantum physics and realizes that it doesn’t do anything to explain intentionality in the creation of the universe, she wants that moment of gushing back so she can say, “Deepak, you’re full of shit!”

Sweeney has a prodigiously inquisitive mind that never let religious dogma—or even the feeling of comfort she got from praying—get in the way of what reason applied to indisputable facts told her. “It’s so hard because invisibility and not really there look so much alike!” She ends up an atheist. When she tells her parents that she no longer believes in God, they seem to take it in stride. But when an AP story titled “Julia Sweeney Comes Out of the Closet—As an Atheist” shows up in the local paper in Spokane, her parents stop talking to her. Her recounting of how they finally reconcile is funny, true, and touching.

Well, we do get that Sweeney clan update. Father Sweeney finally succumbs to emphysema, after a doctor-induced death watch that had been renewed every Christmas for about 20 years. Julia adopts a daughter from China. In raising Mulan, she stresses that it’s comforting to think that Grandpa and their recently deceased cat are together in heaven.

But it’s not real.

Julia Sweeney is touring her exquisite show around the country. She will be back in Chicago June 16–17 at the Lakeshore Theater, a fine, converted movie theatre run by the ever-friendly Chris and Jessica Ritter. An audio recording of the show is available on CD. I hope a film is in the offing as well.

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