Christopher Nolan was intent in mid-May on a July 17 big-biggest screen release for his palindromic “Tenet.” Warner Bros. was intent on making this potentially civic event happen, but how? Even the Los Angeles County stay-at-home order extends past that date. The dark side of the moon? A pop-up past dusk on the edge of Lincoln Park, drive-ins?
Drive-ins, including the McHenry Outdoor Theater, the most publicized in the Chicago area, are open, showing “The Flintstones” and “Jurassic Park.” Drive-ins have opened in Alaska, too; at least until the midnight sun drives darkness into a tiny well of night. Looking back into the dark rather than anticipating the light that may yet be far ahead of us, we asked Chicago exhibitor-cinephiles to share the last movie they saw on their own big screen.
The last film for Julian Antos, executive director of the Chicago Film Society was School of the Art Institute graduate Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “on 35mm, of course!”
“I miss running a test reel alone in the auditorium before the audience arrives to make sure everything is just right,” he says. “Checking the focus with binoculars to make sure the grain is nice and sharp. I miss cleaning the projectors before the film. I miss seeing the audience after the film and eavesdropping on what they thought. I miss the many people who show up half an hour, or earlier, to our shows to talk with their friends.” And extending social graces: “I miss going to Traspasada [in Avondale] after the show.”
“The last film I watched in the Gene Siskel Film Center Theater 1 was the Croatian comedy ‘Comic Sans,’ our opening-night film [in March] of the twenty-third Annual Chicago European Union Film Festival,” Siskel director of programming Barbara Scharres says. “I had previewed it on video more than once to select it, but this was my first time seeing it projected in the theater. I really got a kick out of and was relieved to hear the audience laugh in all the right places—and keep laughing. They weren’t being polite, they were having fun! As a programmer, this is the payoff, the thing you don’t get at home. It’s experiencing the audience connecting with the actors and the director’s vision right there in front of you. It’s where the whole process comes together, from the production to the projection, and the movie lives as a real thing in real space.”
Siskel executive director Jean de St. Aubin saw two European Union films on March 15, Germany’s “All About Me” and Poland’s “The Last Witness.” “The first is a quirky, lovely film about being your true self and using humor to get you through the toughest things in life. The second is a retelling of the massacre of thousands of Poles toward the end of World War II by the Russians. I miss the audience so much! After each film we chatted with everyone and hung out in the gallery cafe. I knew that would be our last day for a while, but it wasn’t public yet, so I only let the staff and a few loyal audience members know. After the last film, we all sat around and had a glass of wine and talked about seeing each other again mid-April. How wrong we were! It was sad because we had to close in the middle of the Chicago European Union Film Festival, so many great films not to be seen on the big screen. But still, what I miss the most are those conversations after the films, such a smart movie-loving audience, their insights and knowledge of film always astound me.”
“I do not remember the last film I saw, but the last that comes to mind Is ‘West Side Story’ in 70mm at our festival at the Music Box,” says William Schopf, the theater’s owner. “I love sharing the excitement of the dancing, singing and emotion on the big screen with an audience that loves it as much as I do. The richness of 70mm makes you feel like you are on the streets of 1960 New York City as well. And a glass of good wine completes the experience!”
The power of the image is what lingers for Marty Rubin, associate director of programming at Siskel. “The last movie I saw on screen at the Film Center—I had to look it up—was Anthony Mann’s ‘Winchester ’73.’ Universal’s new 4K restoration was so sharp it almost looked like 3-D. The power of images like that to overwhelm you are what I miss the most.”
Chicago Film Society director of operations Rebecca Hall also remembers that last show of “Uncle Boonmee,” on March 4 at the NEIU auditorium. “I was running the box office. I remember being happy that the audience was a nice mix of new people and regulars. We already felt what was over on the horizon, so I was surprised that attendance was so good. What do I miss? I miss box office chitchat and getting people talking to each other. Watching a movie for the first time at the same time as the audience. The fifty seconds of darkness between the short and the feature, when Julian would be switching between 16mm and 35mm in the projection booth and I’d feel the audience get restless for a second and then relax as the feature started rolling. The structure that having a weekly film series gave my life and being part of the structure for other people.”
“The last CFS presentation I saw was a 35mm screening of Otto Preminger’s ‘Angel Face’ at NEIU,” says Chicago Film Society programmer Kyle Westphal, “a devastatingly great film that’s not streaming anywhere and long out-of-print on DVD. But the last film I saw in any theater was Tobe Hooper’s ‘Lifeforce’ at the Music Box 70mm Film Festival, a movie about sexy space aliens, but much of the dialogue is about infection rates, an exponential growth curve and unfathomable public suffering. I have been staying at home ever since.”
Still, Westphal says, starkly, “I miss the very idea of public life. Our lives are made much narrower by all this. We see colleagues and relatives on video calls, but cross to the other side of the street if a stranger is sharing the sidewalk. The joys of urban life—public transportation, shops and restaurants, a flâneur’s afternoon stroll—are marked with suspicion and fear. The very things that denoted a successful night for Chicago Film Society—a large crowd made of people who’d never met before, some of whom had driven across state lines to see a rare film—now feel deeply irresponsible. We have to keep each other safe, but we can’t let our idea of society and culture be diminished in the interim.”
“The last movie I saw was Friday night on my couch with the family, Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman,’” says Anthony Kaufman, senior programmer at the Chicago International Film Festival and Doc10. “Everyone liked it, and we debated the multiple endings. But the thing that I most miss is the cavernous space and big screen of a movie theater, to be totally enveloped. I don’t know if I miss other people, maybe subconsciously, but I do miss that surrounding sound and image.”
A champion of sound and image who is unknown to the general public is Steve Kraus, owner and operator of the private Lake Street Screening room. “Although the screening room sits there and is presumably devoid of any active virus after almost two months, I’ve not felt like watching anything there. I stop by to pick up mail, and I have the ability to connect remotely, to power up the projector periodically as experts suggest to keep it from losing its security certificate. I have a video projector at home and once in a while I will give something the big-screen treatment. In honor of ‘Star Wars’ Day, I watched the ‘despecialized’ edition off a laptop.
“But the very last thing I viewed via projection,” Kraus says, “was an actual film print, a beat-up, highly faded 16mm ‘Scope print of the drawing room comedy ‘The Grass Is Greener,’ with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. It’s one of only a couple of 16mm prints I have, and it was mostly just to play with an old projector.”
“I projected ‘Lifeforce’ and ‘Khartoum’ a few days before we closed,” says Rebecca Lyon, assistant technical director of the Music Box. “It was March 15 and I was feeling pretty despondent, as I knew we would have to close very soon, but bewildered at the amount of people still coming out to see films that week.
“What do I miss?” Lyon asks. “The popcorn smell, the squeak of the curtain going up, the way I can slouch down real low in those seats and block everything else out for a few hours. Finding the most polite moment to crack my beer. The fact that I’m forced to not look at my phone. Knowing that even if I go to the movies alone, I’ll inevitably see someone I know in the lobby afterward that I’ll want to talk to. Putting my choices in the hands of talented programmers rather than having to scroll endlessly through streaming services. And I miss real film, big, bright and thick on the screen.”
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.