“Dear Evan Hansen” makes the leap from the Broadway stratosphere; “Cry Macho” is lovely late Clint Eastwood; Rebekah Del Rio sings the silencio out of a Music Box special presentation of “Mulholland Drive“; Full Spectrum Features and Chicago Underground, the world’s oldest underground film festival align; the Chicago International Film Festival releases first details of its fifty-seventh edition; and Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival turns thirty-nine.
The musical “Dear Evan Hansen” (previewed after deadline) moves from Broadway smash success to the big screen with an old-fashioned move: hold tight onto the person—Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Ben Platt—with the best pipes and the best chops even if their distance from looking like an anxious, isolated teenager will be widely commented upon looking nothing like a teenager. Directed by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” “Wonder”), the film has been adapted by the show’s Tony-winner Steven Levenson, with music and lyrics by the show’s Oscar, Grammy and Tony-winning songwriting team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”).
Clint Eastwood meanders and mumbles and yes, squints, through the wispy “Cry Macho” as Mike, a washed-up horse trainer who loses his longtime job and then takes an unlikely gig for someone his age from a former boss to bring the man’s young son home from Mexico after he’s been in a bout or two of cockfighting gone wrong. Eastwood doesn’t shy away from sentimentality in any motion on screen, from his own scuppered gait to male characters’ late realization of their own substantial shortcomings. It’s simple and wears sincerity with gentle grace, a pocket-size fable, placidly directed nearly to the point of being merely indicated: this is how Westerns began, and persisted. Story? You want a story? Eastwood rides a horse; peers from beneath a hat’s brim of epic proportions; is silhouetted against one serene sunset after another; slugs a man: ambling through a nonagenarian character’s fantasy of waking vitality that denies Mike’s elderly vulnerability; the leathered skin, the parched voice, the half-a-thousand-yard glare. (There are ways the film is a much lesser version of David Lynch’s magical, besorrowed 1999 masterpiece, “The Straight Story.”) Mike seeks solitude and Eastwood savors it: his pacing is deceptively classic in the face of contemporary rhythms, adroit and generous: he rides lonesome. The ending tumbles into a handful of gentle compositions, and the final shot slows and slows in an interior setting with a hard shaft of setting sun from behind, a tender turn of two figures and FADE OUT. “Cry Macho” ghosts the crowd. In theaters and on HBO Max for three more weeks.
The Majordomo Of Music Box Matters Of David Lynch, Daniel Knox, is prestidigitating a second David Lynch affair within a month at the Music Box, on September 29-30, with a Very Special Episode of “Mulholland Drive” at the Music Box, with 35mm projection of Lynch’s nightmare twenty years after its festival premiere in September 2001, accompanied by a performance by Rebekah Del Rio, a Q&A and signing and customary deliquescent Lynchian accoutrements. Tickets here.
Chicago Underground And Full Spectrum Features Join Forces
Full Spectrum Features is now the official presenter of the twenty-eighth Chicago Underground Film Festival, which will run November 5-7 at the event’s home of nine years, the Logan Theatre. We asked Eugene Park, executive director and founder of Full Spectrum Features, Bryan Wendorf, co-founder, programmer and artistic director of CUFF, and Taila Howe, CUFF’s festival producer, how this enterprise will work, expanding on years of programming that has paid attention to a century of experimental film culture that came before and thrives even today, the fest’s bold sidebars and events and its brash nightlife.
The collaboration combines CUFF’s record as the longest-running underground film festival in the world with Full Spectrum’s mission to drive equity in the independent film industry by producing, exhibiting, and supporting the work of women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ filmmakers. The partnership is finding its footing, with short-term plans including the host of more intersectional participants; longterm goals include adding a wider range of voices to CUFF programming and expanding the festival’s staff. Initiatives to increase equity and inclusion include producing community-engaged programs for traditionally marginalized groups; hosting a curatorial fellow to work under the mentorship of Wendorf, CUFF’s artistic director; providing staffing support to produce festival events and helping with post-screening Q&As; and helping CUFF attain financial stability while ensuring that festival staff and artists alike are fairly compensated.
A brief definition of the groups, both FSF and CUFF?
Eugene Park: Full Spectrum Features is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit committed to uplifting voices that have been ignored and misrepresented by mainstream media culture. We’re engaged in three main activities: film production, film distribution and exhibition and artist development.
Bryan Wendorf: The Chicago Underground Film Festival is the longest-running “underground” film festival in the world (this will be our twenty-eighth year), presenting an eclectic mix of documentary, experimental and avant-garde narrative film and video. Our focus is on filmmakers working to reinvent and explore new approaches to established practices, to foster new forms of media art and to build an audience for such work and to present this work as part of a fun, user-friendly and accessible event.
So what is “underground”?
Park: To my mind, “underground” refers to films that are created outside the structures of mainstream financing, distribution and marketing. It can also embody a kind of “F-U” toward the larger, dominant culture. This is very different from what is sometimes characterized as “independent”—i.e., a lot of indie filmmakers may be on the outside looking in, but this often coincides with a burning desire to be accepted by Hollywood gatekeepers. “Underground” could care less about what Hollywood thinks.
Wendorf: I always resist defining underground too rigidly, but at its most basic it refers to films that are out of the mainstream in style, genre or financing. What that specifically means is constantly changing, but CUFF is interested in the more countercultural fringes of independent cinema. We stand in stark contrast to what the late filmmaker and CUFF champion Sarah Jacobson referred to as “Indiewood.” Back in 1996, Roger Ebert wrote about CUFF, “What you get for your money is not just admission to the films but admission to a subculture.” I want that to remain true today.
How has the work you see changed since the founding of CUFF?
Wendorf: When Jay Bliznick and I started CUFF, we were inspired by filmmakers like John Waters and the post-punk “Cinema of Transgression” filmmakers like Richard Kern, Beth B and Tessa Hughes-Freeland. “Shock value” and “transgression” were the words of the day. I still appreciate shock value when it is done well, but over the years we’ve seen the work submitted change, and the festival that exists today is more interested in formal experimentation than in grossing people out. The goal now is to bring smart, thoughtful work to an audience that may or may not have an understanding or appreciation of the history of experimental filmmaking.
How old is FSF and has its mission adapted in the time since?
Park: Full Spectrum Features was founded in 2015. Our mission hasn’t really changed, but the way we approach our work has certainly evolved. Most notably, we’ve become hyper-vigilant about making and exhibiting films in a fair and equitable way. This is a huge challenge when working with small budgets, and even more so when working with filmmakers who do not come from money and privilege. I can’t claim that we’ve cracked the code yet, but I’ll let you know when we do.
What strengths do you bring to the collaboration?
Park: FSF is open to trying anything. We are very intentionally not interested in kowtowing to the cultural mainstream or how things are “supposed” to be done. Sometimes that means we do crazy things that crash and burn. Sometimes we pull off a miracle. Either way, we just keep experimenting. We cannot build a better world by relying on outdated models and institutions.
Wendorf: CUFF has survived in one form or another for almost thirty years now. We’ve built relationships with filmmakers and other festivals and programmers all over the world. I’ve been doing this a long time myself and I’ve learned from my own successes and failures as well as carefully studying how other festivals operate, then learning what works and what doesn’t.
Had you ever run into each other at an event, CUFF or otherwise, and said, hey, maybe we ought to do something together?
Park: FSF and CUFF co-produced a hugely successful event a few years ago, the world premiere of Emily Esperanza’s “Make Out Party.” This film was the perfect way for FSF and CUFF to put on not only a film screening but a full-blown carnival with live music, spoken word and actual carnival games. Ever since that event, it’s certainly been on my mind that we could do a lot more together. On a more personal note, CUFF has been my spiritual home as a filmmaker ever since I moved to Chicago in 2012. No shade to the other festivals in town, but CUFF is where it’s at. Joining forces with them is truly a homecoming for me as much as it is a new chapter for both our organizations.
Wendorf: We’ve screened films by Full Spectrum founder Eugene Park at CUFF in the past and collaborated on that very successful premiere party for “Make Out Party.” Full Spectrum has also worked with filmmakers like Jennifer Reeder and Molly Hewitt, who have also screened their work at CUFF. Jennifer Reeder’s first CUFF film was way back in 1997! I’ve been impressed with Eugene’s ability to communicate his ideas, work with others collaboratively and raise the funding needed to keep things sustainable.
Tell me something optimistic about the future of film… festivals… and CUFF.
Park: We will always need stories, and we will always need community. So I think the future of film and festivals is solid. And right now, people really need stories that inspire a different future—one that doesn’t bring us back to “normal” per se, but a future that uplifts far more people, including all the riff-raff, outsiders and marginalized people who were not part of the old “normal.”
Wendorf: There are so many ways for moving image work to be seen today. New streaming and social media platforms pop up daily. That makes it increasingly easier for filmmakers to get their work seen. The challenge then becomes, how do filmmakers find their audience and how do audiences find the work they want to see? A well-curated festival can serve as a guide to audiences.
Taila Howe: There’s something to be said about this youthful curiosity that’s sprouted from our conversations with FSF. Alone, I think both our organizations are powerful forces with the ability to bring about creative change, but like all things when they come together, that wave becomes stronger and its impact is more far-reaching.
How will the partnership sustain CUFF into the general uncertain future?
Wendorf: Obviously time will tell, but the partnership with Full Spectrum should provide more funding, as well the necessary structure to keep the festival going once I decide I’m ready to move on. I’ve been doing this a long time and while I’m not ready to stop, I do want to see things continue without me at some point.
Park: For all my talk about the future and doing things in a new way, I’m also attentive to what’s come before. It’s important to honor legacy, and as we continue to grow this partnership, it’s critical to me that the unique voice of CUFF is retained and celebrated. At the same time, everything evolves, and I’m excited to work with Bryan to dream big for the future of CUFF.
Aside from the shortened in-person event, what other changes are there in CUFF’s mission, public presence through events or programming?
Park: We can’t announce all the details yet, but we have several things in the works, including a curatorial fellowship that will provide an emerging curator from a traditionally marginalized community or background a unique opportunity to program a shorts block under the mentorship of Bryan. We’re also planning at least one crazy late-night fiasco!
Wendorf: The shortened in-person event will, I hope, be temporary. It was a solution brought on by the uncertainties of the pandemic. Potential sponsors are still recovering from losing revenue in the last year, and we are still unsure how comfortable people are with returning to theaters. We’ve decided to approach this year with a smaller event (that will be presented both with in-person screenings and virtually so people can attend regardless of their comfort level). This also gives us a chance to learn how our partnership with Full Spectrum will operate. We all hope to be more ambitious in the future.
For each side, what are a couple of films you’ve programmed that exemplify CUFF in this moment?
Park: Last fall, Full Spectrum produced “Identified,” a short film that was released on Twitch with the filmmakers hosting a live watch party with their fans and community. The creators—the fabulously talented duo Wendy Mateo and Lorena Diaz—knocked it out of the park with this born-from-quarantine project that speaks to the current moment in so many ways. Wendy and Lori’s indomitable spirit really inspired us all during this challenging time, and their specific message of “don’t commodify my identity!” really resonated with me. There’s a way to celebrate our identities without reducing each other and ourselves to checkboxes for marketing purposes. Bryan and I have chatted about this exact topic, and we’ll approach CUFF with the same mindset.
Wendorf: At last year’s virtual edition of CUFF, our audience award went to the feature “Paper Shadows” by Robert Banks [pictured]. Robert is an African American filmmaker from Cleveland who has had experimental shorts at the festival over the years. He often scrounges short ends of film stock from bigger films, Hollywood and independent film and TV shows shooting in the Cleveland area and manages to make his films on 35mm with practically no budget. A truly underground filmmaker. Thematically, “Paper Shadows” deals with issues of race, class, gender and generational differences in a smart and artful way that is as messy and complicated as the real world. CUFF was extremely proud to present the world premiere of this film and I feel it represents this moment in our culture perfectly. It is also a great example of where the missions of CUFF and Full Spectrum align.
Chicago International Film Festival Announces Its Lineup
Opening with Wes Anderson’s long-delayed “The French Dispatch,” the Chicago International Film Festival has also announced its Opening Night at the Drive-In presentation, “The Velvet Underground,” featuring a remote Q&A with Todd Haynes. Venues for the fifty-seventh edition, running October 13-24, include River East 21, the Music Box, the Gene Siskel Film Center and drive-in screenings at ChiTown Movies in Pilsen. Neighborhood pop-up screening events will be announced in coming weeks. Virtual screenings, presented via the Festival streaming platform, are accessible across Illinois as well as to viewers in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. Two world doc premieres were announced: Jesse Moss’ “Mayor Pete,” which followed the first of surely many presidential runs of Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Winston’s “Punch 9 For Harold Washington.” This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the festival’s Black Perspectives program, which showcases films by African Americans and the African diaspora around the world. The festival’s complete lineup is online here.
Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival Announces Slate
Opening September 23 at the Music Box and running September 24-30 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, and virtually from September 27-October 7, the thirty-ninth session of Reeling includes forty-two shows including thirty-three feature films and nine short film programs. This year’s festival includes films from more than fifteen countries, including Israel, Turkey, Iran, Australia, Italy, Romania and Chile. At the age of thirty-nine, Reeling is the second-oldest LGBTQ+ film festival in the world and a Chicago cultural institution. “Cinema is supposed to be communal, and after more than a year of social distancing and isolation it’s never been more important to experience independent film with one another,” Reeling Film Festival founder and executive director of Chicago Filmmakers Brenda Webb says in a release. “Filmmakers interpret the world around them and bring us new perspectives and new ideas with stories of love and loss, bravery and struggle, humor and revelation—the tapestry of the human experience. Reeling’s thirty-ninth slate of films celebrates and embraces this crucial piece of our shared existence.” Details here.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.