31 Christy LeMaster, Director, The Nightingale
Christy LeMaster is part of a new generation of dogged curators and programmers, running The Nightingale microcinema (co-founded with J. B. Mabe), a Milwaukee Avenue storefront that’s turned out not to be fly-by-night. She hails from Columbia, Missouri, which has a rich DIY music and media culture, including the widely illustrious True/False documentary festival, for which she worked in its early days. The Nightingale has that smaller-town, post-collegiate feel: the space is intimate, the crowds sometimes small, but the range of work and reactions is wide and warm. Since 2008, there have been more than fifty screenings annually, sometimes co-presenting with other groups, including veteran programmer Patrick Friel’s White Light Cinema. An April Kickstarter initiative to upgrade the space for HD projection, improved sound and more audience comfort and celebrate its fifth anniversary surpassed its $5,500 goal. LeMaster also works as the Columbia College Television Department’s student activities coordinator, as well as programming for CUFF, Onion City and other forums, teaching semiotics and Media Theory at Columbia and contributing film reviews to WBEZ’s 848 and CINE-FILE.info.
32 Abina Manning, Director, Video Data Bank
Long before the evolution of technology led to the convergence of film and video, the Video Data Bank was on the scene, founded at the School of the Art Institute in 1976 to document the development of video as an art form. Today it controls a vast, seminal archive of 5,500 titles by more than 550 artists that includes a deep and wide collection of mostly experimental works, ranging from the archives of work of contemporary artists like Miranda July, as well as the archives of George and Mike Kuchar. Brit expat Manning has been at VDB since 1999; prior to that, she worked the artists’ film and video scene in Europe, including establishing the Pandæmonium Festival of Moving Images.
33 Kevin B. Lee, video essayist
Kevin B. Lee is one of the most skilled, most intellectual makers of the latter-day “essay film,” crafting commentaries through repurposing another filmmaker’s work. Filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Thom Andersen have set the bar high in thinking about the world through the form, but in terms of film criticism, Lee, has reflected that “an essay film explicitly reflects on the materials it presents, to actualize the thinking process itself.” He’s contributed over 100 videos to indieWIRE, Sight & Sound and Fandor Keyframe as well as his own Vimeo page (vimeo.com/user459576). (Roger Ebert considered him ” “One of the brightest film critics working today.”) A younger generation has also taken up the charge, including Chicago’s Nelson Carvajal, whose eager, fiercely alert YouTube videos led to multiple takedown notices contesting claims of Fair Use of copyrighted material. (Carvajal also contributes to Keyframe and indieWIRE as well as nelsoncarvajal.com;) “Is it just an insidious new form of media consumption?” Lee frets in a piece from July 2013’s Sight & Sound magazine. “At least that’s how much of what lately is termed ‘video essay’ strikes me: an onslaught of supercuts, list-based montages and fan videos that do less to shed critical insight into their source material than offer a new way for the pop culture snake to eat its long tail.” As with other fluent practitioners of the form, like RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz, with dissections of the films of Wes Anderson and Michael Mann, Lee’s best work is a pungent hybrid of thematic criticism and formal analysis. Lee is also a founding partner of dGenerate Films, which imports powerful independent film and video work from China.
34 Milos Stehlik, executive director, Facets Multimedia
Facets Multimedia began programming film and alternative theater in a church in Lincoln Park in 1975, before moving to its current extended sojourn on Fullerton Avenue. At the helm since its first stirrings is Czech-born Milos Stehlik, who also provides film commentary on WBEZ, often from festivals like Cannes. In an oral history from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, Stehlik remembers his first active film series almost forty years ago was “on a very, very low budget on a very low scale, 16mm, bedsheet, very, very old cranky projector.” But the idea of Facets was born and perennially rocky finances have never closed the doors. Alongside screenings programmed by Charles Coleman, attentive in recent years to the more lyrical side of new American cinema, the Facets Videotheque has grown to become one of the world’s largest video stores still standing, claiming over 65,000 films for rent, many of which are no longer in print. While the Facets Video label has a lower profile, its library of releases numbers over 800. Facets hosts the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (the largest children’s film festival in North America), which will present some of its programming in 2013 at the Music Box.
35 Oprah Winfrey, Producer, entrepreneur, television personality
While no longer on syndicated television as a daily presence in the lives of a huge and adoring audience, Oprah’s cable venture, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) affects the film world by investing in documentaries, and more recently, the once-troubled network began to right its finances, not only with the “Oprah’s Next Chapter” interview show, with high-profile gets like serial doper Lance Armstrong and serial recidivist Lindsay Lohan, but with more series, some of which could be made in Chicago (first, however, is Lohan’s recovery reality series for OWN). Though the tug of her television network has pulled her daily life into California more often than not anymore, her core venture, Harpo Productions, remains based here in Chicago. In 2013, her most prominent contribution to film would be her eccentric, stirring role in Lee Daniels’ well-misunderstood Civil Rights-era banquet of melodrama, “The Butler,” with a current gross of $110 million. “I thought that Lee was pushing the Oprah envelope,” she told Access Hollywood last week. In a star-sprinkled cast, playing Gloria, the fictionalized wife of Forest Whitaker’s White House servant, Oprah elevates the film with her boozy, blowzy embodiment of the figure of the neglected woman, running her house with the ruthlessness her husband runs his part of the White House. She has a couple of monologues that are nothing less than captivating camp and awards season catnip.
36 Farhad Arshad, Owner, Olive Films
Tehran-born Farhad Arshad’s Olive Films label has quietly (and rapidly) built up one of the more exciting collections of films on DVD and Blu-Ray, releasing the back library of older films alongside European classics. The company’s slogan is “The Art Of Cinema Lives Here.” Yup, in offices just west of the Loop. After the cratering of the home-video market, studios, including Paramount, have been willing to sublicense their films to other companies. Notably, Olive transfers and prepares many of the films it acquires, rather than having elements handed to them. A small sample of greatness, from noir to Westerns to European classics: Nick Ray’s “Johnny Guitar,” Abraham Polonsky’s “Force Of Evil,” a raft of rare early John Wayne vehicles, five Jerry Lewis comedies, five Hal Hartleys, the Wachowskis’ first film, “Bound,” Betty Boop cartoons, Robert Bresson’s fantastically bleak final film, “The Devil, Probably,” and five Godards, including his dense, eight-hour, impossible-to-clear-rights essay, “Histoire(s) du cinema.”
37 Gigi Pritzker, financier
With potential young-adult blockbuster “Ender’s Game” opening in November, about a gifted child who could save civilization and starring Abigail Breslin, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld and Ben Kingsley, billionaire Chicago financier Gigi Pritzker’s reputation as a go-to producer should grow. Earlier, smaller productions since 1989 didn’t have as much exposure, including “Mean Creek,” “Rabbit Hole” and “Green Street Hooligans,” but a 2011 deal, taking the family investment portfolio public, accompanied an accelerated production slate. Her OddLot Entertainment put three-quarters of the “Ender’s Game” $100-million production together, in a year its bittersweet family comedy “The Way, Way Back” grossed $23 million. The fifty-one-year-old heiress’ pursuit of filmmaking isn’t her only venture, which makes it more likely she can keep at the game for longer than most investors. Last month, with her brother, Tom, also an heir to the fortune long associated with Hyatt Hotels, Pritzker made a deal to take private a steel scrap and slag processing concern, for a billion dollars in cash and debt. (The sibling investors are also cousins to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.) Forbes estimates her net worth at $2.1 billion. With a little more ambition, Pritzker, whose company intends to make two-to-three films a year, could be Chicago’s answer to fellow producer Megan Ellison (estimated net worth also around $2 billion) whose Annapurna Pictures financed or co-produced “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “The Grandmaster,” “Spring Breakers” and 2013 awards season releases from Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and Bennett Miller.
38 Melika Bass, filmmaker and educator
“Filmmaker Melika Bass directs as if time did not exist, with a rigor that transforms images into still lifes, loading them with a heartbreaking and threatening beauty,” the Torino Film Festival wrote, showing a program of her atmospheric, semi-narrative fantasies she calls “prairie gothic.” “Chicago is a very livable big American city,” she observes. “The Chicago DIY spirit is a bolstering force. ‘The city that works’ applies to making art and films too.” But there’s another Chicago character to the recent awareness of her idiosyncratic work, not quite on the level of Henry Darger or Vivian Maier—Bass is still young and quite alive—but the Southern native worked for a decade in Chicago film jobs and went to “tons” of screenings, being “secretly inspired.” She worked in documentary television production, and then Facets, and then produced DVDs for the now-defunct HomeVision label, which was affiliated with the Criterion Collection. “Excellent employment for a film nerd,” she jokes. “I was making short films and videos but not really showing them to anyone. Eventually I just had to start vomiting them out.” Graduate school at SAIC enabled her to continue making films on 16mm, and on a larger scale. (Along the way, she also studied under filmmaker Phil Solomon and attended Stan Brakhage’s salons.) But it was a 2011 MCA 12×12 New Artists/New Work solo exhibition that most elevated her visibility, bringing her work to the attention of Iceland’s Sigur Rós, who commissioned her to shoot the short “Vardeldur” for their “Valtari” album. Alongside the worldwide attention for that work, she teaches filmmaking at Northwestern and at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Northwestern gig came after being an Artist-in-Residence at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities in Spring 2013, and after being in the show “The Presence of Absence” curated by Debra and Dave Tolchinsky, who teach at NU. Only in Chicago kids, only in Chicago.
39 William Friedkin, Director, Provocateur
Seventy-eight-year-old William Friedkin continues to demonstrate the spunk and savvy he’s shown his entire career, all the way back to documentaries he made in Chicago for WGN, such as 1962’s “The People Vs. Paul Crump,” which got the title subject’s death penalty commuted. “A kind of American ‘J’accuse,’” he calls it in his 500-page 2013 memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.” His entire career could bear that distinction, as well. While the book is kaleidoscopic in a way that exceeds what Nelson Algren once described as “a bloody travelogue,” it captures the Chicago-bred working-class fervor that he took into his long career, which continues in opera and film, including his NC-17 2011 Tracy Letts adaptation, “Killer Joe,” which had originated in Chicago with a young Michael Shannon, who starred in Friedkin’s earlier adaptation of that Chicagoan Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s “Bug” (2006). Friedkin also remains feisty enough to have pulled his 1977 “Sorcerer” from legal limbo between two studios and to supervise its digital restoration, scheduled for theatrical and video release in 2014.
40 Steve Kraus, projectionist-entrepreneur
A large chunk of Chicago’s enduring corps of film critics sees screenings for a chunk of big studio releases at last-minute previews at multiplexes like River East and Roosevelt ICON with recruited audiences, often from radio station giveaways. Chicago daytime screenings, once a constant in the professional reviewers’ workday, are another matter, and today they’re shown mostly in a small room in the Loop, run as a one-man operation (except during awards season, when screenings are reserved for the Directors Guild and critics’ guilds). When the late Midwestern movie chain Plitt Theatres moved its screening room from the top floor of the Chicago Theatre, they built a forty-nine-seat screening room in a high-rise office building on Lake Street. Later, it became Cineplex Odeon and Loews Cineplex, before being bought out in 2000 by Steve Kraus, now the city’s only nine-to-five projectionist. Kraus projected 16mm in college at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and got hooked, learning 35mm projection with discarded prints at home. The end of September marked the Lake Street screening room’s first anniversary of changing over to digital; only two 35mm screenings have been booked in 2013. (Kraus’ digital education was accelerated when the slightly used Dolby server he bought had some non-password-protected content to experiment with.) Kraus’ attention to sound and image may have spoiled the critical cadres for everyday moviegoing, except for the room’s sporadic mobile-phone glare and inappropriate sacks of malodorous microwave grub. Appropriate sound level? Sufficiently bright projection? Being six steps away to make a complaint? The experience is consistently the best. Kraus delayed making the transition to digital, and now worries about the obsolescence of the film medium, “that color film will skyrocket in price or become unavailable, entirely making preservation or making any prints impossible. A small operator could manufacture black-and-white stock but color, whether neg, intermediate, or print, is horrendously complex.” No plaque is necessary for the seat in the back by the door: all and sundry know it was Roger Ebert’s pew for the past decade of movie worship.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.