Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, October 13-19, 2023
All the major distributors cleared their movies out of the way for the release in over a hundred countries of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” which has already set records with over $120 million in advance sales. Here’s hoping, at least for the sake of an exhibition industry in need of sustenance, that it’s a one-person “Barbenheimer”!
This release, via AMC Theatres, as well as December’s “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” take advantage of recent changes in antitrust law, and would not have been possible only a few years ago, reports the New York Times. “Most big movies are distributed by a major studio. But Swift instead bypassed the studios, produced the concert film herself and sought distribution through AMC, a theater company rather than a movie studio… Swift was able to make one deal with AMC for all of its theaters, and it could make deals with other movie theater chains [which then cover] all of their theaters. Under the  Paramount consent decrees, standard practice was to negotiate with theaters individually instead of licensing to a block of theaters at once. But because the law changed, Swift did not need to negotiate with individual theaters. She only had to negotiate with AMC.” This way is “much more efficient and allows for innovative practices such as the Taylor Swift deal with AMC,” Makan Delrahim, former D.O.J. antitrust division chief told the paper. Variety has more.: A $150 million opening weekend is expected from the 8,500 theaters (playing on multiple screens at each locale), and in the U.S., theaters have guaranteed to play the film for four weekends, Thursday-Sunday. The running time is 168 minutes. Opens Friday, October 13 at many theaters very near you.
But there’s another form of joyous noise in the glorious form of “Joan Baez: I Am A Noise,” the splendid collage film by Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor. Its slipstream is built upon the armature of moments preparing for and consummating the “farewell” tour in the now-octogenarian singer-activist’s decades in the public eye. (That’s in 2019, pre-COVID). It’s mosaic as memoir as the filmmakers incorporate archival riches: home movies, journals and all sorts of recordings to capture a life in music and in spirited activism. (Oh the glimpses of her youthful smile, especially in some footage performing with a grin-gleaming “Bobby” Dylan.) Many mysteries, many miseries, naturally, still course beneath the surface of Baez’s consideration of her epic career—the film even opens with a quotation from Gabriel García Márquez—”Everyone has three lives: the public, the private, and the secret”—but she is frank. “I’m not very good at one-on-one relationships,” Baez says, “I’m great with one-on-two-thousand, y’know?” Opens Friday, October 13 in Theater 2 at the Music Box.
Warming melodrama in a remote village in the Outer Scottish Hebrides before World War I, “The Road Dance” is a small beauty, old-fashioned in emotion and technique, a pocket epic shot in the 4:3 “Academy” ratio of the earliest feature films. The storytelling is old-fashioned, but its raptures dear; the landscapes are timeless. Hopeful, it sweeps, even soars. Opens Friday, October 13 in Theater 2 at the Music Box and on digital.
Also this week: repertory riches from Chicago Film Society—”I Was Born, But…” with live accompaniment, as well as a variety of gems at Drafthouse and Doc Films.
Plus, “Faraway Downs,” a new (old) Baz Luhrmann film materializes in a few weeks with a running time of six hours or so, and words from great, late Liverpudlian filmmaker Terence Davies and a brief, sweet final short film. And: an essay by the New York Times’ A. O. Scott on leaving his reviewing perch he held as co-chief critic for most of this century.
Not only one of the greatest movie titles of all time, but a snappy little comedy as well: Yasujiro Ozu’s schoolkid cut-up “I Was Born, But…” (1932, 35mm) is as essential as his later, better-known serene yet biting family dramas like “Good Morning” and “Tokyo Story.” Live musical accompaniment by MIYUMI Project Japanese Experimental Ensemble. Chicago Film Society at Music Box, Monday, October 16, 7pm.
Drafthouse attractions: The restored version of Gregg Araki’s “Nowhere” (October 13-14, 16-18); William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (Monday, October 16, 7:30pm); a Nia DaCosta-programmed double-feature of “Get Out” and Brian Yuzna’s squelchy, felchy body horror gross-out “Society” (Saturday, October 14, 11am), which may not have been shown theatrically in Chicago since its original release.
(This is the R-rated “red band” trailer.)
“Society,” as the posters of Yuzna’s directing debut had it, “The rich have always fed off the poor”, is the wealthy melding into a cruel, hungry blob, absorbing the less worthy in a ritual they call “shunting.” There’s a keen 2021 survey and interview with Yuzna at Jacobin: “For all the pastel colors, poofy hair, and teen sex antics that date it firmly to the 1980s, ‘Society’ oddly feels like it was meant for our era of Jeffrey Epstein, QAnon, and oligarchic scheming… Bob Guccione’s ‘Caligula’ filtered through an Eli Valley cartoon… It’s bleak stuff… The world it presents is sickening, no doubt. But it’s the reality of class warfare waged by those at the top against the poor and working class that’s the scariest thing of all.”
In his indispensable memoir, published when he was seventy-eight, William Friedkin wrote of the ups, downs, pauses and rekindlings of his long career. Of the bruising of “Cruising” (1980): “Had I done ‘Cruising’ simply to stir up controversy? I thought not. I knew it would be controversial, but not to this extent, nor did I believe it would trigger violence against gays. And it didn’t. I made it because it was a fresh take on the detective film against a background that had never been seen by a mainstream audience. And it encompassed the themes that continue to fascinate me: good and evil in everyone; our conflicting desires.” (More thoughts on Friedkin here.)
The Siskel Film Center hosts a big batch of Chicago International Film Festival attractions, including the cine-memoir of Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, “Pictures Of Ghosts“; multiple shorts programs, including on architecture; Turkish master of landscape and languor Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s impeccably photographed 200-minute “About Dry Grasses“; the trans superhero appropriation of Vera Drew’s semi-legal transmission “The People’s Joker“; and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Evil Does Not Exist.”
Among the best of Doc Films this week: John Cassavetes essential marvel of love and performance “A Woman Under the Influence,” featuring a magisterial performance by Gena Rowlands, still with us at 93 (Friday, October 13, 7pm, Saturday, October 14, 4pm). François Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” (35mm) is a sneaky story of the turns of the writer’s mind and the audience’s sexual imagining (Thursday, October 19, 7pm). Plus, Joseph W. Sarno’s 1966 sexploitation entry, “Red Roses of Passion” (Thursday, October 19, 9:30pm).
Terence Davies, with great deliberation but uncommon felicity, found his way to define the resplendent, transcendent and essential, in sound, image, performance: he was unique and stubborn, keeping at the forge even in the indifference of British custom and finance. After his unexpected passing last weekend, I thought of a melancholic story Billy Wilder recounts in Cameron Crowe’s interview book: “William Wyler and I were pallbearers [at Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral], and when we were walking away, I said, ‘What a shame, no more Lubitsch.’ And then he said something better. He said, ‘And worse, no more Lubitsch pictures.'”
One more Terence Davies picture: This year’s Film Fest Gent in Belgium commissioned brief works that paired filmmakers with composers, including this one by Davies. He was in the last planning stages for a further film, based on Stefan Zweig’s “Post Office Girl” (one of the inspirations for Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) before his sudden illness. This short bit is likely his last work to be released.
The most recent interview I had with Davies, for his Emily Dickinson biography, “A Quiet Passion” in 2017 is here. “There are certain things which are very autobiographical. I think Mrs. Dickinson was probably suffering from post-natal depression. In all the biographies, she comes very near to tears all the time. I thought, I want to illustrate that. There’s a moment at the end of some days, when the light is very low and it comes in at a certain angle that just leaves me absolutely desolate. I can’t explain it. I feel desolate, the way the light falls. I thought, I want to give her that. That time of day, when the shadows lengthen, that’s exactly how I feel. I wanted to use that. I’m fascinated by light falling on a subject. That’s Vermeer, you know.”
A new Baz Luhrmann… picture? Pageant? Emanation? Limited series? Starting during lockdown, Luhrmann’s taken the time to salvage his 2008 nearly three-hour epic-of-a-nation World War II-set misfire, “Australia,” starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. Of the six-chapter result, says Luhrmann, “I was inspired to re-approach my film ‘Australia’ to create ‘Faraway Downs‘ because of the way episodic storytelling has been reinvigorated by the streaming world. With over two million feet of film from the original piece, my team and I were able to revisit anew the central themes of the work.” Hulu, November 26.
A few months after giving up his shared seat as New York Times lead film critic, A. O. Scott has quite a few thoughts on being a “civilian” at the cineplex.