Critic A. S. Hamrah entitled his indispensable volume of collected criticism of films and movies and the film industry from the years 2002-2018, “The Earth Dies Streaming,” but for this extended moment, the Earth eats streaming.
Here’s a range of highlights from local filmmakers, as well as services including Hulu, Amazon Prime and the Criterion Channel, along with off-the-beaten-path viewing that includes restored punk films via Nicolas Winding Refn, a silent love tragedy from 1927 by Jean Epstein from La Cinémathèque française, a lost Bill Hicks set from 1985 and the ten-minute first film by Chicago arts education pioneer László Moholy-Nagy.
“It’s one of those things, you can’t really appreciate something until it’s taken away from you. This has certainly accelerated a dystopian future look at what the landscape could look like,” John Bell, president of the Tampa Theatre, a 1920s-era movie palace said in early April. “But I innately believe that humans are social creatures and, ultimately, they will want to gather again. Streaming is great, it’s convenient. But it’s just not the same.”
When the theater chains and the independent theaters closed a few weeks ago, only a couple of movies were offered, including Eliza Hittman’s powerful teenager drama, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” the kind of ambitious, hand-crafted movie that distributors like Focus Features are dedicated to promote and sustain, and “Saint Frances,” the locally produced SXSW success story from the smaller, more nimble Oscilloscope Laboratories. Released the same day to Chicago audiences, online as theaters were shuttered, both independent features are unabashedly about women, and about abortion. These accomplished movies would have been a striking pair on Chicago big screens, including the Music Box. “Saint Frances” is available for streaming through April 30 via the Music Box website; we wrote about its path to success in the 2019 Film 50 issue. (“If you can create with a higher purpose in mind and walk this fine line between art and commerce, good things will always happen… and it did. Chicago is budding with reckless filmmakers making bold choices and creating with abandon. I absolutely love it. The time is now,” producer James Choi told us.) Since that time, other distributors have followed suit with their own “virtual cinemas,” streaming work that would have played at Siskel, Facets or the Music Box in revenue-sharing arrangements with local theaters. (More about that here.)
Another mesmerizing movie made by women and about women, Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” a feat of concentration in performance—all praise Julia Garner—and in mood and moment, arrives on Hulu, Amazon Prime and Apple TV on April 28. A terse, dynamic thriller of the most modest means and the most expansive psychological space about the maleficent impact of an abusive boss (see under: Harvey Weinstein), anatomizing at a #MeToo circumstance with implications far beyond, “The Assistant” is one of the still-young year’s best.
The streaming services are ripe in this moment of the great indoors, too. Hulu features Celine Sciamma’s masterful, essential “Portrait of A Woman on Fire,” as well as Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite” and earlier work including “Mother,” and Jennifer Reeder’s Chicago-made “Knives & Skin” (produced by Newcity).
Amazon Prime boasts its usual teeming cornucopia of obscurities, as described on Twitter by writer-producer Gerry Conway: “Amazon Prime Video is like your old neighborhood off-brand video rental store (’80s kids, you know what I’m talking about) with a handful of popular titles upfront and the really weird Philippine-jungle low budget shit in the back.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody offers largely desultory comment on eighty-three movies presently on Amazon here.
What catches my eye on Prime? Two of the greatest American movies ever, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” as well as two misunderstood 1980s movies, Elaine May’s “Ishtar” and the comically cataclysmic “Hudson Hawk.” (“We blew up space shuttles for breakfast!” barked by James Coburn?) Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” long hard to see, is also showing, in all its romantic melancholy. Other rarities: Alan Rudolph’s Algonquin Round Table riff, “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” Mel Gibson’s never-before-streamed “Apocalypto” and the 1973 “Messiah of Evil,” a pop-art inflected supernatural horror film co-written, co-produced and co-directed by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, just off the success of “American Graffiti.”
Netflix concentrates on promoting its hurtling rapids of production, but Armando Iannucci’s toppling marvel of political cynicism, “The Death Of Stalin” is a prime attraction, especially in parallel with deathly palace intrigues in Pyongyang as well as bumbling barbarisms broadcast from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Criterion Channel has an unusually extravagant range of offerings, even for their large library and licensed offerings. (Criterion majordomo Peter Becker liked to call the label “film school in a box” way back at the turn of the century.) Expanding on an earlier selection of films noir from Columbia Pictures, Criterion is streaming twenty-six movies as “Columbia Noir,” including Nicholas Ray’s acrid, piercing “In a Lonely Place,” with Humphrey Bogart’s screenwriter character, Dix Steele, observing “A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we were in love.”
The service christens April 26 as “Jean Arthur Day,” introducing its selection of sixteen of the charming actress and stellar presence’s movies, including Frank Borzage’s stunning “History is Made at Night,” Howard Hawks’ just-as-stunning “Only Angels Have Wings,” Mr. Deeds Goes To Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “The More The Merrier” and lesser-known diversions like “If You Could Only Cook” and “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.” What else? Four early pictures by Douglas Sirk are scheduled, “A Scandal in Paris,” “Lured,” “Shockproof” and “Slightly French,” restlessly stylish warm-ups for his later American melodrama masterpieces. More? A big burst of Luis Buñuel, including an episode of the French series, “Cinéastes de notre temps,” “L’âge d’or,” as well as features including “Death in the Garden,” “Viridiana,” “The Exterminating Angel,” “Diary of a Chambermaid,” “Belle de jour,” “The Milky Way,” “Tristana,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “That Obscure Object of Desire.”
But the Criterion Channel gem upcoming in May? One of the grails of North American distribution, Jacques Rivette’s 1974 slapstick-magic act-fever dream-playhouse of the imagination, “Celine & Julie Go Boating,” one of Chicago-based critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s ur-texts. “One of the great modern films, Rivette’s 193-minute comic extravaganza is as scary and as unsettling in its diverse narrative high jinks as it is hilarious and exhilarating in its uninhibited slapstick…. An outlandish plot-within-a-plot magically takes shape… the elaborate, Hitchcockian doublings are so beautifully worked out that this movie steadily grows in resonance and power.” (Woo-hoo!)
A previously unreleased Bill Hicks set from 1985 comes to life, footnoted by Texas Monthly.
Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s epic 1980 documentary, “Hollywood,” built off Brownlow’s “The Parade’s Gone By,” nestles on YouTube.
Streaming free from La Cinémathèque française: a restoration of Jean Epstein’s “The Three-Sided Mirror,” a silent 1927 drama etching the story of three women who remember their love affairs with the same young man.
YouTube: Screenwriter Aaron Stewart-Ahn points up two minutes of lurid pop from the recently passed director of “Hausu”: “Nobuhiko Obayashi was such an extraordinary filmmaker, even this Japanese cologne commercial with Charles Bronson is a pop psychedelic whirlwind.” The most euphoric scene from Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” can also be found in the catacombs of YouTube. (There will be accordions.)
Ubu.com has embedded a ten-minute, 1929 city symphony from László Moholy-Nagy, “Impressionen vom alten Marseiller Hafen (Vieux Port). “The documentary description of everyday life in Marseille leads to a study of the famous transporter bridge, which was a symbol of modernism for an entire generation of photographers and filmmakers.”
Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn has a side game in preserving slices of film ephemera, but more importantly, meaningful slices of history like the compendium of punk films, “Ears, Eyes And Throats: Restored Classic and Lost Punk Films 1976-1981.” (An expanded description is here.)
“There is probably no one such thing as ‘punk,'” Peter Conheim writes, “and as a film curator, this presents a golden opportunity: if there aren’t a lot of barriers thrown in your way, you’ve got a potentially wide array of work to choose from that can click together in illuminating ways.” The nine films in the 105-minute compendium include work by the Residents and Devo, but there’s much more parch and scorch to savor.
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.