Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, December 9-15, 2022
New stuff: Eighty-four-year-old Polish master Jerzy Skolimowski released his first feature in 1964, a startling fact based on his confident, innovative latest feature, the donkey-starring marvel “EO.” Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” excels at setting and moment, setting many moods across a simple story.
Matthew Heineman’s powerful, intimate observation, on the ground and in control rooms, of the last nine months of the twenty-year American war in Afghanistan, “Retrograde,” on the National Geographic Channel, streams on Disney Plus starting Friday, December 9 and Hulu on December 11. Exhilarating, powerful, even despairing, it is decades of wreckage culminating in moments of physical, if not moral or mental escape. Guillermo Del Toro’s co-directed dark delight, the stop-motion “Pinocchio,” arrives on Netflix on Friday.
Venerable old stuff: The Music Box alternative Christmas roster includes “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Batman Returns” and “Edward Scissorhands,” while the Thirty-Ninth Annual Music Box Christmas Sing-A-Long & Double Feature begins in earnest on December 9. Siskel’s Christmas cracker? “The Muppet Christmas Carol” on 35mm, with special $5 tickets on Sunday, December 11.
Chicago Film Society double-features a newly struck 35mm print of Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” along with Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” (also on 35mm), on December 12 at the Music Box.
Weinberg/Newton Gallery world-premieres “A Letter to the City: Jail is not my home,” shaped by letters written by incarcerated youth in Chicago.
Newcity’s 2022 Film 50 arrives, making up for last year’s hiatus with fifty epic entries on behind-the-scenes leaders in Chicago film here. Plus an exhaustive Q&A with the leadership of the Music Box Theatre and Music Box Films here. An additional short exchange about how events are booked for the theater is below.
Ohio-located Midwestern filmmaker Julia Reichert was seventy-six, a champion of finding ways to describe work and the working class on film.
Sight & Sound’s humbly titled Greatest Films Of All Time survey of academics, directors and some movie reviewers, is out. Discussion has creased the expected online outlets; I have only general comments here.
“EO” is the name of a gray donkey (played here by five creatures of differing talent) as well as the sound it makes, as rendered in Polish. Movie master Jerzy Skolimowski has made many bold pictures in his time, but as co-written and co-produced by his partner Ewa Piaskowska, he’s turned to radical means, a cinema povera of great empathy and unexpected grace and, sometimes, silliness. It’s one of 2022’s very best, providing orientation through disorientation: Skolimowski seeks the perspective of a wandering creature, making its way across Poland and Italy, suggesting its subjectivity to its human counterparts, even those onscreen who are willful and blind. “EO” is both vision and tragedy. Opens Friday, December 9 at Siskel.
Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” makes lucent quotidian of a seaside cinema in coastal England in the early 1980s. The Empire—not of sun, not of signs—is a two-screen white elephant with a clutch of characters holding it together, and their lives, just barely. As shot by Roger Deakins and designed by Mark Tildesley, the clatter of troubles, particularly those of the fragile Hilary—Olivia Colman, graced by one of the greatest smiles of contemporary cinema—hardly rises to plot-making, but instead indicates events, both at hand and in the world outside: it’s a shadowplay of its time and other art, an unhurried, largely unflurried simulacrum of pictures swept by social tides. The setting-up of eight or so motley characters in a minute or two while cleaning the auditorium suggest Annie Baker’s “The Flick,” and the interracial attraction at its core reaches back to 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette.” Passing instants suggest the purposefully banal pictures taken by Martin Parr. The mood steeps, absorbs the desultory plotting.
A similar exterior setting erupted in Mendes’ “1917.” About three-fifths of the way through that 2019 film, we arrive at a seemingly abandoned place ablaze by night, the flicker of reflected flames turning a town into a succession of phantasms that resemble di Chirico’s studies of cities and shadow. The imagery grows subjective and then hallucinatory. Time elongates and becomes non-naturalistic, fiery and horrible and beautiful at the same time.
War is not being fought in the foreground or background of “Empire of Light,” but within its character’s tight lives, each provided with exquisite flickers of performance or behavior in a loose frame. The movies at the cinema play around them, not for them—they’re not a nest of film nerds but a raft of people who splash together. The space is shabby as day comes, in thin afternoon light. Yet it remains a palace, as well as a parallel to the paintings of Edward Hopper, where one or two figures—alone, even when together—linger or languish in dusty, soon-disused spaces. Taupe, auburn, some green of baize or an accountant’s shade. There is an essential loneliness that attracts some to the dark, to the loneliness that will be drawn and spent onscreen.
The old projectionist (Toby Jones) softens and shows the light, then describes it in a speech not unlike the mother’s opening scene in “The Fabelmans,” “It is amazing because it’s just static frames with darkness in between, there’s a little flaw in your optic nerve, so that if I run the frame at twenty-four frames per second. You don’t see the darkness…Viewing static images rapidly in succession create an illusion of motion.” Dust motes linger, settle.
REPERTORY & REVIVAL
The Music Box offers a series that not only establishes an “Alternative Christmas,” but also provides cinephilic sugar in an otherwise strained period for repertory goodies.
The 35mm program of “Sean Baker’s Fabulous Christmas Double Bill” includes the director’s 2015 “Tangerine” and Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother.” “Tangerine” could well have been titled “Adrenaline”: it’s a brash, vivacious screwball comedy of West Hollywood street life, told in the course of several blocks across several hours as Christmas Eve moves from day to dusk to dark of night and ache of heart. It’s also a bold, intimate challenge to mild-mannered contemporary notions of independent filmmaking. There are camera moves you’ve never seen before, but the characters are even more gratifying: The opening line, “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!” is one of the raucous story’s politest bursts of frank language. (More of our review here.) Writes the Chicago Film Society, “‘Tangerine’ was famously shot on iPhone cameras and was briefly a poster child for the democratizing potential of digital technologies for independent filmmakers; Baker, a long-time advocate of analog film exhibition, commissioned 35mm prints of ‘Tangerine’ in 2022, one of which we will be screening.” Of “All About My Mother,” Baker says, “Almodóvar has been an inspiration in so many ways–his artistry, his audaciousness, his sensitivity, his love of cinema and on and on. I am honored to have my film screen with one of his masterpieces.” Music Box, Monday, December 12.
Has a long career ever ended on the same blunt hope as the last line of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”? “Fuck.” The Music Box hosts two seances in the big room of Stanley Kubrick’s final statement. A personal remembrance of its release: “Someone uploaded to YouTube the ‘Siskel & Ebert’ show that I and several other Chicago reviewers were on after Gene died in 1999. We talked about Stanley Kubrick and ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’
“The show taped for a few hours and overnight the editors somehow filleted together twenty-two or so minutes of Roger holding center frame while we ‘committed television.’ There’s a single cut, slightly mistimed, that is the only reason I would ever want to watch the episode again. I make some kind of joke, probably a terrible pun, and almost smirk, and the editor cuts to a medium close-up of Roger, smiling at my bad gag. Better than a thumbs-up any day of the week, any week of any year.”Music Box, December 13.
Weinberg/Newton Gallery in River West is hosting the world premiere of the locally produced, eighty-nine-minute feature, “A Letter to the City: Jail is not my home,” shaped by letters written by incarcerated youth in Chicago. The film “depicts these deeply personal stories through performative actions and image making into our social fabric, reflecting on the ways in which the prison-industrial complex affects individuals, families, communities, and the city.” Weinberg/Newton, Friday, December 9. Reservations here.
Film 50’s extensive “Film Leaders Of The Moment” interview with the Music Box here still didn’t include the entire hourlong conversation. Here’s a bonus exchange about how the Music Box Theatre schedules events in between all the films presented each day.
Your daily schedules aren’t built around just films, but how do you plan the other events? Are they just Mondays and Tuesdays, do you leave those slots open? Are these times that fewer people are likely to come for a regular Music Box attraction?
Ryan Oestreich, Music Box general manager: Yeah, Monday through Thursday. We keep our weekends clear for our programs that we know work—midnight matinees, and our theatrical runs, or if we have our own one-off events. But we try to keep Monday through Thursday available for Chicago Humanities to use, Chicago International Film Festival, whatever book tour, a partner program with another organization, or a touring thing, like we [had] Kevin Smith on his tour for two days, on a Monday and Tuesday. WBEZ is going to start a residency with us for their “Mortified” series, where we’ve got three planned with them every quarter. They’re going to take Wednesdays. We try to do week nights because it helps us with—well, it really helps Brian booking theatrical films to have the weekends, which is when distributors want those, and we know that if Monday’s softer than Saturday then put a rental there, or a co-branded event to pop that night. And we have a lot of those, as you see when you look at our calendar. The weeknights can be busier than weekends, sometimes!
Oscar-winning filmmaker Julia Reichert, who co-directed her work with her partner, Steven Bognar, has died. Her fifty years of work, which recently Reichert and Bognar kept close to their Ohio home, included 2020’s Oscar-winning documentary, “American Factory,” the first film acquired for Netflix by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company. “When talking to Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, issues of class and labor, of how class and labor shape and inform us as people, are often the main text, and otherwise subtext,” wrote Eric Hynes at Film Comment of that film, “an omnivorous account of the opening of the Chinese-owned Fuyao car windshield plant in Dayton, Ohio,” and their work. “It is their second nomination as a team (filming in the same building that they watched shutter ten years prior with their 2009 Academy Award–nominated ‘The Last Truck: Closing of a G.M. Plant’), and Reichert’s fourth nomination overall (starting with ‘Union Maids’ in 1976).” Their final film, “Dave Chappelle Live in Real Life,” follows fellow Ohioan Dave Chappelle as he prepares his live comedy concert in a Yellow Springs, Ohio cornfield during the pandemic in 2020. “We had to create alternative institutions because the way America was set up—the culture and the social structures we all lived under—was not working for us. It was not working for most people,” Reichert told Kartemquin senior adviser Gordon Quinn at Filmmaker in 2019. “I’m a working-class kid, I come from a small town. I remember in college reading Marx and Chairman Mao even, and realizing people like me—working class people—have a role to play in history. It’s not just elected officials or military leaders or whatever, it’s people like me. That was just so incredibly empowering to me coming of age. The Women’s Liberation Movement became my home and where I felt I learned the most and where I felt the most comfortable.” In the closing words of her acceptance speech at the Oscars, Reichert quoted “The Communist Manifesto”: “We believe things will get better when workers of the world unite.” Posted Pat Aufderheide, professor of communication, at American University: “Julia Reichert has passed on, after over four years of cancer. She made three films in that time. Besides her long career in documentary, her legacy is also in the many, many people she mentored and supported.” Aufderheide’s 2019 Film Quarterly career profile of Reichert, “The Work Of Telling Working Class Stories,” is here.
The once-a-decade Sight & Sound survey of academics, filmmakers and reviewers is out. A mix of polemic and hierarchy, British film magazine’s once-a-decade ten-best-films, or, immodestly, “The Greatest Films of All Time,” collated from submissions to an invited range of programmers, filmmakers, academics and reviewers has been published in the British nonprofit magazine’s December issue, alongside a vertiginous online roster of individual lists from filmmakers. (Hundreds of individual lists from other contributors are slated to be posted online in coming months into next year.)
I started a digest of interesting remarks since the publication a few days ago, but even a selection is as daunting as the range of individual lists. Plus the chatter about whether the list was jiggered to favor certain types of features over others. (The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, ever-contentious, stakes his ground for “a bolder vision of world cinema” here.)
The toastiest and tastiest topic in online discussions as contributors and those who were not invited to contribute compared and contrasted lists—and interrogated their goals, motivations, and range of interests. Ten films: why do you esteem them, why do you love them, what do you hope to accomplish after licking the virtual tip of the pencil and marking them down?
“The heart of the issue is that canons matter. They set the agenda,” wrote Christie, an expert on the films of Powell-Pressburger, among other twentieth-century subjects. “Are we voting to reinforce a sense of cinema’s cultural legitimacy or to topple a false structure of accepted classics?” I wrote more about list-making here.