I was tagged into this game on a certain social media network and thought it would be edifying to the public to redo it (with some bells and whistles) on my blog.

The rules were: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you- not necessarily the best films. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

I obviously took more time than that on this post, but the list itself came to me in a few minutes. It’s uncanny how the ones you just think of turn out to be influential in other ways, especially to someone whose upbringing was as odd as mine.

Here Are My Fifteen, Roughly In The Order I Saw Them:

 

1. Night Of The Iguana: Stayed up to see it on TV when I was five because the voice over made me think it was about giant lizards attacking people. Or something with scary monsters. Here is a longer version of the trailer they showed that grabbed my attention:

 

Turned out to be much scarier of a premise to a five year old but I was riveted through the whole thing.

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2. Ring Of Bright Water: Not very memorable except it was the first movie I ever saw in the theater. In fact, I had to Google for the title because all I could remember was that it was about a guy who has an otter named Mij.

 

 

3. 3 Days Of The Condor: Robert Redford’s character in this movie became a lifelong role model. He’s able to thwart the entire CIA because of things he learned reading books. I was already on that path but I wanted even more to be that guy whose depth and breadth of knowledge struck fear into The Man. Best exchange between CIA wonks: “He Reads!” “So what?” “No, you don’t get it. HE READS EVERYTHING!!!”

 

 

4. Jaws: Saw it in the theater and was scared when swimming in my boyhood Wisconsin lake for the next two years.

 

5- Love And Death- Saw it in the theater with my parents at age thirteen and was so proud that I got all the jokes.

 

 

6- The Godfather: What can you say?

 

7- Blue Velvet: Saw it by myself in an empty theater in the middle of the afternoon and was almost traumatized by it. It was so raw and so far beyond anything I had ever seen.

 

8- Stop Making Sense: Cried after seeing it because it seemed so beautiful and perfect and I felt like I could never create anything (film, music, novel, etc) so powerful and moving. Then that evening I did a standup comedy set with my parents in the audience (seeing me for the first time) and I killed. I felt like it was the power of the Talking Heads that gave me strength to fight the butterflies and also that perhaps someday I could contribute something worthwhile to the World Of Ideas.

 

 

9- Wings Of Desire: In 1987 I was crashing on some friends’ couch in Chicago every weekend and auditioning/performing at comedy clubs with an eye to moving down here. One of the friends was a film major and we watched this one afternoon. It introduced me to the films of Wim Wenders and the music of Nick Cave- and gave me a HUGE crush on Solveig Dommartin.

 

 

10- Matewan: One of my favorite dramatic films. The sequence that cuts between the boy preacher and Chris Cooper & James Earl Jones talking is one of the best in all of Filmdom. And this scene here isn’t so bad either.

 

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11. Shakes The Clown: Bob Goldthwait’s saga of a misanthropic alcoholic birthday party clown is still one of the craziest and most twisted films ever. Where else you going to see Aunt Esther from Sanford & Son talk about her punani? And Tim Kazurinsky is hilarious in his cameo, too bad the clip cuts off before his brilliant response.

 

 

12. Rikky And Pete: A delightfully quirky Aussie Indie comedy with a score by Crowded House.

 

 

13. Pow Wow Highway: Great Native American road comedy. Just see it!

 

 

14- Sans Soleil: Chris Marker’s video essay totally changed my ideas of what a documentary film could be.

 

 

15- You Me And Everyone We Know: Miranda July created one of the most bizarre yet most strangely realistic indie films ever. It’s a meditation on how amazing it is that (considering how insane and damaged we are) humans are able to connect with each other in way at all.  I couldn’t stop crying for 20 solid minutes after watching this, for reasons I still can’t quite understand. Then I wrote a heartfelt email to Miranda July at 3AM. She never responded, but from her end it probably seemed much more crazy and stalker-ish than heartfelt.

 

 

So there you have it. Hope you enjoyed this long trip through the underpinnings of my psyche!

I am appearing at the Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling on Thursday, September 11 at 7 PM.

I’ll be discussing Chicago Film and selling & signing copies of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition.

 

It’s free but you need to sign up:

Click Here To Do So.

 

Hope to see you there!

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME SOUL SEARCHING?!?!?!?!

 

SOOO…

In a fit a pique right before the last Superbowl I sent a tweet to my followers (and copied the NFL on it) that if the NFL was still a tax exempt organization by the beginning of the next season then the Superbowl would be the last NFL game I would ever watch. At the time I knew that meant I would never be watching an NFL game again (if I held to my guns) because there was no way in hell they would voluntarily give up that status and for some reason nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that an organization that makes BILLIONS of dollars doesn’t pay a fucking cent in taxes.

After spending the last few weeks thinking about “walking back” my bold declaration (the season approaches and I do still have a primal love of American Football going back to infancy)- my mental pendulum began to swing the other way.

I’ve always been bothered by how much Sports in general (and the NFL in particular) are used to sell the lies of Hetero-normative Consumer Capitalism and the Military Industrial Complex [sounds like real GooGoo Lefty statement when I say it like that- but can you honestly say that it’s not an accurate one?] and how much the various Sports Subcultures have become bastions of ignorance and bigotry of all sorts.

Getting back to the NFL: this ongoing idiocy and continued resistance to changing the name of the Washington franchise has also bolstered my decision to drop my American Football habit. There several other sketchy/unethical things about the league l could list as well; but the recent incident where an NFL player beat his fiance unconscious in a public place and RECEIVED A 2 GAME SUSPENSION for his punishment is the last fucking straw.

Therefore, I will hold to my statements of last January and will not be watching any NFL games this season, even my beloved Green Bay Packers [might as well “come out” about that as well since I’m being all bold & shit! ]. I’m not going to avert my eyes if I’m in a public place and a game is on (I know that gives me a huge out but I’m not wearing blinders when I go drinking) but I will no longer willingly consume the product of the National Football Association until I can not feel like watching a game makes me Part Of The Problem.

The thought of doing this also makes me really uneasy, so that’s another indication that this is something I need to do.

In its purest form Organized Athletic Activity can be one of the most beautiful experiences a person (especially a young one) can engage in. It’s time to stop supporting those who use its inherent power to make untaxed fortunes, bolster the lies of those who are enslaving humanity and promoting the destruction of our species, and indoctrinate young men into a destructive cult of masculinity.

/stepping off soapbox

 

UPDATE:The NFL increased their penalties for assault to make it a harder slap on the wrist for a first offense and a possible lifetime ban for a second (just make sure there is video if you are cold-cocked by a player) , but there are still too many other issues they have to address before I’ll return to the fold.

 

UPDATE #2 (9/11/14): The same day I was having a moment of weakness and was considering letting the slightly enhanced penalties for assault allow me to just watch Packer games— the Ray Rice elevator video was leaked. Now I knew what was going to be on that video so I was not surprised (how did people think she became completely unconscious- he rubbed her belly like an alligator to put her to sleep?) but the immensely disingenuous and hypocritical response from the NFL (you have a world class security and investigative team and nobody saw or thought to ask for the elevator video?- PUHLEEZE!!!) and the sports media (just C’MON!) has furthered my resolve in this matter. Concussions, the Washington Mascot fiasco, Domestic Violence, Non-Taxed Status, etc etc etc—- It’s just all too damn much…

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This Is What I’ll Be Watching On ESPN 7…

I am EXTREMELY pleased and honored to announce that I will be the Featured Author in the Lt. Governor’s Tent at the Illinois State Fair from 11AM-1PM on Friday, August 8!!! I’ll be doing an interview, reading excerpts from Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, and signing free copies to be raffled off to attendees.

Stop on by if you are at The Fair that day. It’s going to be HUGE fun!!!

You might call my appearance The Unofficial Opening Ceremonies. ;-)

You might call my appearance The Unofficial Opening Ceremonies. ;-)

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I don’t normally like to brag on myself, but it seems to be the only way to get attention these days.

In February of 2013 I was invited to write an article for Printers Row Journal (they had received an advance copy of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition).  The piece was about some lesser known Chicago Films and ran in their February 23rd edition. Click here to read it.

When I emailed them the piece, I also sent it my publicist at Chicago Review Press (publisher of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition). He told me that it might not be what they wanted, because it was in the form of a list and wasn’t “literary enough.” This threw me into a panic and I spent an afternoon furiously revising the content so as to have a clearer overarching theme and to be more “Authorly.”

Then I sent that revision to the editor at Printers Row Journal, telling her that they could use this version if the original was not highbrow enough (or words to that effect). As you can see from the link, they ended up using the first version I submitted.

I recently ran across the second version in my files, however, and decided that it deserved more than to just sit in my computer drawing pixel dust. Plus, I wanted to show off how well I can quickly revamp and revise content. Here it is (with a few added bells and whistles for the internet):

 

Seven Ways Of Looking At A City
By Michael Corcoran

Chicago has been involved in film-making since the very beginnings of the technology, and the world’s first movie studios operated here in the early 1900’s. And even from those early days of the nascent film industry, when neighborhood kids would sneak on to the Selig Polyscope lot at Western and Irving Park (many old Selig Westerns include children curiously peeking out from the bushes during shootouts), Chicago has managed to insert itself into the productions shot here and basically become another character in them.

The overwhelming presence of the city was imbued into the iconic Chicago blockbusters of the 1980s, such as The Blues Brothers, Risky Business, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and even recent hits like The Dark Knight still feature Chicago’s distinctive look as an integral part of their narrative landscape. And the city, much like the mercurial lake which it sits upon, never seems to appear the same way twice. Other lesser known productions have harnessed Chicago’s chameleon like qualities and also showcased areas not normally seen in the more mainstream Hollywood films shot here.

 

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Unconditional Love is about as quirky as you can get. A Don’t Look Now reference and a bizarre Julie Andrews cameo don’t come along too often, especially in the same film.

Unconditional Love (2002), a quirky comedy starring Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett, goes beyond the standard Lower Wacker Drive chase scene to explore Downtown Chicago’s vast and often foreboding underground labyrinth of streets, byways, parking areas and subterranean loading docks. There is also an extended scene in the legendary Billy Goat Tavern, which sits in the catacombs beneath The Magnificent Mile. Bates plays a frumpy Chicago housewife whose singing idol (Jonathon Pryce) is murdered right before a television appearance in Chicago. This inspires her to fly to England to attend his funeral, where she bonds with the singer’s longtime gay lover (Everett). The pair then return to Chicago to solve the murder, which leads them on an odyssey through the bowels of the downtown area.

Moving back above ground, Scriptwriter Zach Helm (a graduate of DePaul’s Theatre School) and Director Mark Forster succeeded not only in capturing the spirit of great 1970s Hal Ashby comedies such as Harold and Maude but also provided a unique view of downtown Chicago in their 2006 offering, Stranger Than Fiction. The story is set in an anonymous “any town” but the filmmakers chose Chicago for its plethora of International Style buildings, which function as a visual shorthand for the bland conformity of the film’s protagonist, routine bound IRS agent Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell in an uncharacteristically subtle and brilliantly understated performance). Chicagoans will immediately recognize this forbidding landscape of glass and steel boxes set in concrete plazas, however, as the Daley Center, the CNA Building, Illinois Center Plaza and several other iconic modernist structures are utilized.

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Will Ferrell is not his usual over-the-top Wacky Guy in this film, so don’t let his presence scare you off.

In the film, Ferrell’s character suddenly finds himself hearing the voice of a narrator describing his life, “accurately and with a better vocabulary.” When the third person omniscient voice portends his death, he seeks out an English Professor (Dustin Hoffman) to try and discover the origin and identity of the narrator. In a parallel story, an author (Emma Thompson) is locked in writer’s block over how to kill the protagonist of her latest novel, an IRS agent named Harold Crick. The audience is charmed and horrified as these two narrative threads move toward their inevitable meeting.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal and Will Ferrell have a fantastic chemistry in Stranger Than Fiction.

Another facet of Chicago architecture is pointed out by the film Crime Spree (2003), an amusing mob farce starring Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel. Set in Paris and Chicago (with a few locations fudged in Canada), it not only visits some more obscure Windy City environs (such as The Heart ‘O’ Chicago Motel in the far North Edgewater area) but during an opening montage in Paris also illustrates just how much French-style Beaux Arts Architecture exists here, as shots of certain Parisian vistas make you think you are in Chicago. The plot revolves around a woefully inept band of French burglars led by Depardieu who after blowing a job in Paris are sent to Chicago for what is supposed to be an easy score. The victim turns out to be an Outfit underboss (Keitel), however, and the ragtag ensemble is thrown into a nightmare of mob reprisals, corrupt feds, and a series of double and triple crosses.

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This hilarious film also has several inside jokes for a French audience.

The Merry Gentleman (2008) is a darker mob related offering starring Michael Keaton. Keaton (who also made his directing debut) plays a depressed hit man about to commit suicide by leaping off a roof, but first is spotted by a woman on the sidewalk (Kelly Macdonald) whose scream startles him into not jumping. Keaton later searches her out and the two begin an awkward relationship; with her unaware of his identity and he unaware that she has fled an abusive ex (Bobby Cannavale) and is living under an assumed name. The Merry Gentleman (2008), uses the rarely filmed North side neighborhoods of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, and North Center to provide a fresh look that is still unmistakably Chicago.

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I just evangelized about The Merry Gentleman in my last post.

The powerful drama Proof (2005) is set on the University of Chicago campus in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park, and the ivy-covered Gothic structures there are used to great effect. The film’s plot revolves around a brilliant yet mentally ill mathematician and professor (Anthony Hopkins). When he dies after a long bout with delusion and dementia, his daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is left to deal both with her grief and with fears that she may have inherited the same mental instabilities. Her anguish is compounded by the arrival of her overbearing and manipulative older sister (Hope Davis) and by an increasingly complicated relationship with a young math student (Jake Gyllenhaal) studying her father’s notebooks. Although stunning, the campus buildings themselves (particularly the Rockefeller Chapel where Hopkins funeral is set) seem to loom disapprovingly over Paltrow’s character as she works through all her various issues and tribulations.

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Proof is a superb dramatic film. One of the best ever made in Chicago.

Back on the North side, Return To Me (2000), directed and co-written by Chicago native Bonnie Hunt, used several sites in Old Town (her old stomping ground during her Second City days) and Lincoln Park, most notably the Twin Anchors Restaurant. These urban yet almost homey locations shot during the midst of summer provide a perfect backdrop to this sweet romantic comedy, and Chicago seems like an dear old friend encountered by chance on a beautiful sunny day. Minnie Driver plays a woman who receives a desperately needed heart transplant, and David Duchovny is the grieving husband of the woman who donated Driver’s new heart. A coincidence brings them together and they begin a romance that is greatly complicated when they find out each other’s identities.

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Driver and Duchovny get close. Return To Me is the kind of smart, sincere, and sweet romantic comedy people often complain “they just don’t make anymore.”

The superb drama A Family Thing (1996) provides a fascinating window into a Chicago almost two decades gone, with some seedier parts of Uptown (much more so than today) getting screen time as well as other off the beaten path locales. The story begins with rural Arkansas store owner Earl Pilcher, Jr. (Robert Duvall) discovering that his biological mother is actually an African American maid who died in childbirth and that he is of mixed race. Stunned by this sudden and jarring news, he gets in his truck and proceeds to drive to Chicago to find the half-brother he never knew existed. The brother (James Earl Jones) is understandably ambivalent about Earl’s appearance but is chastised by their Aunt T (Irma P Hall in a career making turn) into taking him in and giving him a place to stay. This vision of Chicago seen through Pilcher’s eyes is intimidating yet filled with wonder, much like the city must have seemed to the scores of southern blacks who migrated here in the 20th Century.

Family thing

A Family Thing is another great Chicago film. Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones are as fabulous as usual, and Irma P. Hall goes toe-to-toe with them both dramatically.

 

All of the aforementioned seven films highlight a different area of the city, and despite their disparate content and varied views of our metropolis, Chicago is the one constant. And, as in all films shot here, the city provides a powerfully photogenic tableaux.
Of course this is not surprising, for what is Chicago anyway other than an immense film set? Built on stilts of concrete, hovering above a swamp. A patchwork constructed of dreams from across the globe. A set for the greatest movie ever made, the story of Chicago.

 

Michael Corcoran is a historian, lecturer, and Certified Chicago Tour Guide. He and Arnie Bernstein are co-authors of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, available from Chicago Review Press. Visit www.brainsnack.net for info about Michael’s tours and lectures.

____________________________________

 

There you have it. It’s a bit clunky but I whipped it up over the course of a single long afternoon. The takeaway here is that I am an extremely bright penny when it comes to content manipulation and you should look to me for your freelance writer needs.

 

 

 

The Merry Gentleman (2008)

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Sometimes a film falls through the cracks because it is treated poorly by the studio or is unable to find a distributor and other times it happens because of disputes between the creative and fiduciary forces involved in making it. The latter scenario is the reason The Merry Gentleman never received its due and it’s high time to correct this oversight.

The disputes over this film have been bitter, so much so that one of the Producers actually filed a lawsuit against Michael Keaton last year; essentially accusing him of sabotaging the post-production and release of The Merry Gentleman via a variety of bad behaviors (which I detailed in this 2013 posting) and dooming the picture to a poor box office showing despite decent reviews and a warm reception at The Sundance Festival. This matter is still in litigation at this time.

Despite all the acrimony and problems, The Merry Gentleman is still a fine film which deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The fact that the movie itself survived all these travails essentially intact (although there are some problems with the editing and few other minor issues) is a testimony to the excellent script by Ron Lazzeretti (who was slated to direct until a bout of appendicitis right before shooting led to Keaton taking the helm), the fine performances by the cast (top to bottom), and (regardless of whatever happened in post-production) a good job of directing by Keaton.

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Michael Keaton’s experience as an actor and his thoughtful approach to the craft served him well in his directorial debut.

The film begins with Kate Frazier (played by Kelly Macdonald) fleeing her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) by escaping to Chicago and starting a new life. This fresh start is complicated however, when (while leaving work) she notices someone (Michael Keaton- who shines as a depressed hit man) standing on a building ledge contemplating suicide. Her scream startles him and he slips and falls backward onto the building roof instead of jumping to his death. Macdonald then calls the police to report the incident. These two acts trigger a chain of events which demonstrate that, although a woman can flee an individual abuser, it is far more difficult for her to escape from the attentions of men with deep emotional issues.

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Kelly Macdonald plays Kate Frazier; a woman who flees an abusive husband but can’t seem to escape the controlling desires of men in general.

The next day she is questioned about what she saw by two homicide detectives investigating a murder which occurred in the same building as her employer. The detectives correctly surmise that the man she saw committed the crime and try to obtain whatever details they can from her. In the course of the interview one of the cops becomes infatuated with Macdonald and begins questioning her about her personal life (in particular why she has a black eye). She is evasive and oblique; partly because she doesn’t wish anyone to know her situation (her abuser was a policeman which further complicates the matter) and partly because it’s none of this nosy cop’s business. But the damage has been done and the detective (played brilliantly by Tom Bastounes) is now fixated on her.

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Guy Van Swearingen and Tom Bastounes play Chicago Homicide Detectives.

The fact that she can’t escape from men who want to claim her is further reinforced at a company Christmas party when she is besieged by guys who all want to “get with the new girl.” On her way home from the party she stops and buys a large Christmas tree (which her cab driver refuses to help her with) and is pinned underneath it while trying to drag it into her building. She is rescued by Keaton, who has sought her out to discern if she can identify him (and perhaps kill her) but is also fixated on her emotionally after noticing her as he looked around through the scope of his rifle while waiting to kill his victim the previous evening. He helps her carry the tree up to her apartment and as she opens her door they are interrupted by a phone call from Bastounes, who wheedles a date out of her via the pretext of “wanting to discuss new developments in the case.”

 

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If you see this man, it probably means you are about to die. Keaton plays his hit man character with an understated matter-of-fact manner that’s still quite menacing.

Keaton rings her bell a few days later, but succumbs to a case of pneumonia and passes out in front of her building as she answers. She then visits him in the hospital and they begin an awkward yet tender relationship; with her unaware that he is the man she saw on the ledge and he oblivious to her past. The budding romance between the two is complicated by Bastounes’ jealousy and increasing suspicions about Keaton, as well as an appearance by Macdonald’s now completely unhinged husband.

 

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Bobby Cannavale was denied recognition for his excellent cameo in The Merry Gentleman by the limited exposure of the film, but this performance likely helped him land his role as a psycho Mobster in Boardwalk Empire.

 

I won’t explicate any further so as not to spoil the drama, but I really encourage you to either rent or purchase this movie. While it is admittedly on the somber side, it is by no means a depressing film. Aside from being a fine understated drama, it’s also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of power dynamics, particularly in relation to violence against and oppression of women. Whether he is aware of it or not, Lazzeretti has fashioned a brilliant illustration of how the philosophical concept of Male Privilege operates in the day-to-day context of society as the story follows a woman who seems to want nothing more than to go about her life and be left in peace but is continually having to deal with unwanted attention from men who feel that the fact she is female entitles them to impose their will and desires upon her. The ultimate irony of the film is that the one man who is truly kind and understanding to Macdonald’s character is from a world steeped in violence and treachery and the supposedly “good” policemen want to abuse and/or own her.

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Keaton and Macdonald have a certain chemistry that makes their oddly mismatched relationship believable. Whatever you do, avoid the terrible trailer for The Merry Gentleman which tries to make it seem like a quirky Rom-Com.

I know I’m making this film sound like some sort of Gender Studies or Feminist Theory thesis, and although these elements are implicit in the narrative, it’s still just an extremely interesting film about lonely people trying to cope in this world.

And you should check it out.

PS- Another fabulous reason to check this film out is that three people involved in it are featured/interviewed in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition; Producer Steven A. Jones and Line Producer Christina Varotsis (neither of whom are involved in the aforementioned lawsuit whatsoever BTW) and Special Effects Foreman John Milinac.

It also uses locations in areas not normally seen in other Chicago films; such as Lincoln Square (opening scene is right in my ‘hood in Welles Park which was quite a kick for me), Ravenswood, and North Center.

Every once in a while I like to discuss a Chicago-related documentary not created by Kartemquin Films just to see what it feels like. ;-)

 

Musician (2007)

Subject: Ken Vandermark

Produced by Jason Davis and Daniel Kraus. Cinematography and Editing by Daniel Kraus. Additional Crew: Joe Chellman, Amanda Kraus, Ryan Bartelmay. Released by Facets Multimedia Studios.

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Musician is Part 2 of The Work Series, a documentary project conceived and created by Daniel Kraus; the other 3 being Sheriff (2005), Professor (2009), and Preacher (2011). The series is currently on hiatus while Kraus works on a series of writing projects, although he hopes to return to the series to profile several women at some point (fingers crossed on this!).

 

The Work Series is a documentary project inspired by the oral histories collected by Studs Terkel, most notably his volume entitled Working. Featuring no narrator or any typical documentary film drama-enhancing bells and whistles, the series uses the “fly-on-the-wall” technique to try and bring the viewer as far as possible into the work and life of the subject.

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Tearin’ it up on Baritone. Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

 

 

This technique is perfect for the subject of Musician, the Chicago-based musical genius (literally so, as he won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 1999) and Civic Treasure, Ken Vandermark. Musician opens with Vandermark composing a new tune in his basement workspace, worrying and fretting over each note as he tries to actualize the sounds he hears in his head, and then cuts to a segment of the finished composition being performed by an ensemble.

 

The film then follows him as he goes about the Herculean task of being a working original Jazz musician/composer in America (which unsurprisingly includes several trips to Europe and other foreign locales where quality musicianship is more readily accepted by the public). Musician doggedly chronicles the whole experience; talking on the phone with bookers and club owners, coordinating/rehearsing with other musicians, hauling gear to and from gigs, endless hours in airports or behind the wheel, and of course the performances themselves. The film also illustrates Vandermark’s struggle to maintain his relationship and home life in the face of constant travel and work, something he approaches with the same calm rationality and good humor he brings to his work.

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Cookin’ with Ken. Dave Rempis on Sax and Tim Daisy on Drums. Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

 

 

Vandermark was the perfect choice for the Work Series, because DAMN does he work! If he hadn’t won a MacArthur grant so early in his life this film would have been a perfect “audition” for the coveted Genius Grant; because you simply cannot watch this film without coming away thinking that the man is a genius. Even if you don’t enjoy/get his music (and I truly pity you if that is so) you still have to award him the moniker by the “99% Perspiration” benchmark (easily 110% in his case). The sequence that shows the CD covers of all the bands and projects he has either headed or participated in (over 100 albums with almost 40 ensembles) is an apt testament to this fact.

 

Musician is available for streaming (as is the entire WORK Series) and has several bonus segments of Vandermark and some of his various ensembles playing his music.

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Solo improvisation is incredibly difficult, but Vandermark pulls it off with uncanny skill. Photo: Amanda Kraus

And let’s discuss the music! A multi-Reedist (tenor and baritone saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet), Vandermark has absorbed and embodies the style of Modern Jazz known as “Post Bop” but there are also echoes of Punk and Thrash in the mix. Those familiar with avant-garde Jazz will recognize several of his influences in the music; John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, John Gilmore (from The Sun Ra Arkestra), Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Booker Ervin and several other Sax Giants are combined and augmented in a sound that is traditional yet original. His compositions are also stunning and powerful, by turns beautiful & blistering and always uniquely his own. Vandermark has a well-earned reputation for playing with the best musicians around and his various ensembles are always brilliant and tight.

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Genius At Work. Photo: Amanda Kraus

So there you have it, Gentle Reader. Either stream this film or rent the DVD from Netflix (I’ve been hogging a copy for the last several weeks but I finally returned it over the weekend) and make a point to go see Ken Vandermark whenever you are able. Because like many cultural treasures of Chicago, he’s criminally under-appreciated by the mainstream.

 

And let’s hope that Daniel Kraus continues this series as soon as possible!

Kartemquin Korner is a semi-regular feature which spotlights a particular film from Kartemquin Films, the greatest documentary collective this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This installment looks at the first feature documentary to be crafted by the collective, Home For Life (1966).

Home For Life was created in 1966 by two of Kartemquin’s founders, Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner (the “quin” and the “tem” in Kartemquin); the pair co-produced and co-directed, with Quinn handling the camera and Temaner working the sound (assisted by Richard Sato and Neill Hicks). Lois Lione was the assistant director and Gordon edited the film with help from William Clarkson. Barbara Propst was the research coordinator.

 

Home For Life (1966)

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In its own way, it is a work of art rather than an artful work.

— Studs Terkel, Author

 

Watching Home For Life for the first time gave me the same sort of rush I got from seeing the Monadnock Building or the Manhattan Building for the first time. That feeling that you are looking at history, a prototype of a major revolution in a creative endeavor; a sensation similar to viewing early sketches of a ground breaking artist.

The film explores the Drexel Home For The Aged in Hyde Park and looks at the first day (and the next several weeks) of new residents Bertha Weinberg and William Rocklin.

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Bertha Weinberg was moving into Drexel Home from the household of her Son and Daughter-in law.

Far from being a “snake pit” of neglect and abuse, Drexel Home was a very nurturing and caring environment (especially by today’s standards), and the two new residents are given extreme amounts of care as they make the hard transition to institutional life.

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William Rocklin was a fastidious and fiercely independent man who was forced to face the hard realization the he could no longer care for himself adequately.

 

The pair are helped through this process in a variety of ways; a slew of resident physicians (cardiologist, podiatrist, psychiatrist etc.) and support staff are dispatched to evaluate the pair and provide them with the requisite treatment and assistance. Almost 50 years old, this film is literally a look at another century and (after a half-century of America’s social infrastructure being systematically gutted)  is almost like a peek into a parallel dimension. Some strange fantasy world where the elderly are provided with medical/social services and people work out their differences through rational discussion and sensible compromise. Sadly enough, I had almost forgotten what this was like.

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Unpacking belongings.

A piece of history as well as a fine documentary, it is only fitting that Home For Life was restored and re-released in 2007; and I strongly encourage you to rent or buy the DVD for all the extra footage and interviews (which are worth it by themselves).

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Don’t let the hideous 1960’s International Style Architecture fool you- Drexel Home was a place of warmth and caring.

In the interview for the remastered edition, Quinn and Temaner discuss making the film and the innovations involved. Some were planned, like the duo rejecting pressure to include voice-overs from “experts” and instead deciding to let the footage speak for itself or showing long sequences to allow the viewer to become immersed in the narrative; but others came about as a consequence of the process- such as how Quinn (behind the camera) actually responds to a subject speaking to him and breaks the 4th Wall taboo under which documentarians had previously labored.

The bonus footage is also extremely edifying, especially a scene where the staff and management discuss concerns over new procedures as workloads are increased and duties evolve. This sequence really goes into “alien civilization” territory, as it’s almost dumbfounding to see workers and supervisors calmly and rationally working out their various problems and issues. Seriously, this film should be shown to everyone just so they might see and/or remember what that sort of dialogue process looked like.

Aside from being a fascinating artifact of A Seemingly Bygone Civil Society, Home For Life is also touching as a portrait of and meditation on the closing act of the cycle of life. The film aptly illustrates how difficult it is not only for people themselves to become old and infirm but also the emotional toll it takes upon their families and loved ones.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record- this is yet another must-see for Kartemquinites.

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Drexel Home residents “getting their gamble on.” Youngsters will be stunned by the footage of people not only smoking indoors, but during business and staff meetings.

In another incredibly huge honor, Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition has been selected to be one the books included in the 2014 Illinois Reads Program!

Illinois Reads is a statewide program to promote reading amongst all Illinois citizens. It is under the auspices of  the  Illinois Reading Council and in conjunction with the Illinois State Library, State Librarian and Honorary Chair Jesse White (whose Secretary Of State Office funds the literacy effort under which I volunteer tutor).

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I can’t begin to state how excited I am by this development. As a volunteer ESL/ABE tutor, Universal Literacy is a cause near and dear to me, so this is an especially heartfelt honor. It is also wonderful for the book itself, which I had hoped would become a textbook of sorts, and this definitely puts it well on the way to that status.

Many thanks to The Illinois Reading Council, my co-author Arnie Bernstein, my publisher Chicago Review Press, the State Library and Librarian, and anyone else who had a hand in the section process. I’m greatly looking forward to the festivities and kickoff ceremony on Wednesday, March 12 down in Springfield!

 

 

Kartemquin Korner is a semi-regular feature which spotlights a particular film from Kartemquin Films, the greatest documentary collective this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This installment looks at the The Trials Of Muhammad Ali (2013):

 

The Trials Of Muhammad Ali (2013)

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The Trials Of Muhammad Ali was Directed by Bill Siegel, Produced by Rachel Pikelny, Edited by Aaron Wickenden,  and Executive Produced by Leon Gast, Kat White, Kartemquin Co-Founder Gordon Quinn, and Kartemquin Visionary-In-Residence Justine Nagan. Composer Joshua Abrams provides the score.

 

Yet another Kartemquin documentary as powerful and riveting as a great dramatic work, this film will suck you in from the opening seconds and hold you in its grip throughout. The opening sequence features footage from a 1968 British talk show in which American TV pundit David Susskind denounces Muhammad Ali (who is conveniently coming from Chicago via satellite) as “a disgrace to his country, his race, and to what he laughingly describes as his profession” and “a simplistic fool and a pawn.” Cut to the next sequence from a 2005 White House Ceremony in which Ali was given the Medal Of Freedom by George W. Bush and is introduced as “one of the greatest athletes of all time.”

The Trials Of Muhammad Ali explores how he went from being pilloried and vilified as a Public Enemy to becoming one of the most recognizable and celebrated human beings on earth.

The eldest son of Odessa Clay and Marcellus Clay, Sr., Ali was born January 17, 1942 and raised in a lower middle class neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. Christened with the name Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr (he and his father were both named for a 19th Century white abolitionist and important political figure in Kentucky); he was a natural athlete who played many sports, but at the age of twelve devoted himself to the sport of boxing, in which he particularly excelled. He quickly progressed and by his late teens he was a world class amateur boxer, demonstrating that fact by winning a Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics.

After the opening with Susskind and a brief interlude with current Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan; the film picks up the story at this point. We see footage of Ali winning his medal, then announcing that he will turn pro and align himself with a consortium of backers from the Louisville business community.

Although it uses standard documentary “talking head” interviews to flesh out the narrative (particularly with Farrakhan, Ali’s brother Rahman, consortium head Gordon B Davidson, Nation Of Islam Minister Abdul Rahman Muhammad, and Ali’s ex-wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali) the real power of The Trials Of Muhammad Ali comes from the use of archival footage from several sources. It gives the film an immediacy and impact despite the fact that the events described happened over 40 years ago.

The first third of the film continues to interweave the story of Ali’s quest for the World Championship with a concurrent political and spiritual awakening that drew him to the teachings of the controversial and feared black separatist religious group The Nation Of Islam and a deep friendship with Malcolm X. His success and fame continued through the early 1960’s, as did his growing association with Malcolm and The NOI, culminating in his officially joining (and adopting the name Cassius X to replace the “slave name” of Clay) just as he was on the verge of winning his long sought championship.

There was immense pressure from all around him to renounce his affiliation with the Nation or at least to continue to keep it secret, especially on the eve of his title bout with the feared champion Sonny Liston, and he finally agreed not to speak of it publicly before the fight. He chafed against this restriction, however, and the day after he won the title he “came out” as a Nation Of Islam member when asked by a young sports reporter about the long-swirling rumors that he had joined the NOI. After that “it was on” and he never backed down from any questions about his religious beliefs or his feelings about racism and oppression in America.

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Ali prays at the Hussein Mosque in Cairo in June 1964, four months after changing his name from Cassius Clay and announcing he is a member of the Nation of Islam. Note: Ali converted to mainstream Sunni Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975. Photo Credit: Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

 

Shortly afterwards, Nation Of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad decreed that now that Cassius was champion he was too big to carry the letter X and renamed him Muhammad Ali ( Muhammad meaning “Worthy of all Praises” and Ali meaning “Most High”). From then on he refused to allow himself to be called by any other name.

The mainstream American media refused to call him by this new name despite Ali’s insistence upon it, and a battle of wills began between them over the next several years. The white American public, already entranced and repelled by his brash outspoken manner, exploded in controversy over this development. A firestorm grew around him and he did nothing to alleviate it, speaking loudly and proudly about all subjects and rhetorically taking on all comers. In addition to his lightning rod status in the US, his religious conversion combined with his boxing championship and refusal to back down from white establishment pressure instantly made him a worldwide celebrity.

A strong, outspoken, and militant black man who was also a celebrity was the worst nightmare of the 1960’s power structure, and all forms of pressure were brought to bear on Ali, but he remained unbowed and defiant. In addition to his outspoken public persona and increasingly close relationship with the NOI (even after Malcom X’s bitter break with the Nation and his subsequent assassination), he also was taking an almost sadistic glee in beating the living crap out of a series of opponents who refused to call him Muhammad Ali (the origins of the popular shout-out “What’s my name?!?!?”).

Seeing that he was invulnerable to their pressures, the Establishment (to use a popular term of the era) sought another way to silence or co-opt him, and in early 1967, his draft status for Selective Service was mysteriously changed to 1-A, making him almost certain to be drafted into fighting in the escalating conflict in Vietnam. The Louisville Consortium made successful inquiries with various Reserve units to have him instead serve in the Kentucky National Guard or some other non-combat entity (this was decades before America’s National Guards were “kidnapped” for use in foreign conflicts as they are today). They envisioned him serving in much the way Joe Louis did in WW2, as a noncombat “ambassador” who did exhibition boxing matches to boost troop morale.

This is where the film really takes off. Ali is now faced with a choice between losing millions of dollars and facing jail time or at best becoming a stooge to the racist military industrial complex. Ali chose to stand up for his beliefs and faced the full wrath of the Armed Forces, the legal system, the media, and the American public (and his own parents, who were already furious about his conversion).

His bid for Conscientious Objector status was rejected and he was convicted by an all white jury and sentenced to five years in prison. Although freed on bail pending appeal, Ali was stripped of his title and essentially forbade from boxing the U.S. He also had his passport confiscated and was thus not allowed to fight in another country. Deprived of his livelihood, he went on the public speaking circuit, appearing at college campuses all over the country. At first he was stilted and dogmatic in these appearances, but he soon learned to be himself and became comfortable in his new role. As he became more articulate and entertaining, his message began to soak through and public opinion turned toward him, especially as the Vietnam conflict (and America’s racial conflicts) grew bloodier and “The Sixties” achieved full flower.

I won’t spoil the experience by continuing this synopsis. Watch the film for the rest of the story. There is also a recent dramatic film called Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which is a prototypical example of that particularly insidious kind of Hollywood film where the courageous struggle of a Black hero who bravely faces total ruin and/or violent death is subsumed by the story of a handful upper-class white folks who bravely do their jobs.    end/snark

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Muhammad Ali walks through the streets of New York City with members of the Black Panther Party in September 1970. Credit: David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty Images

 

Here are a few thoughts about the film:

You can’t overstate how much was at stake for Ali and just how vilified he was at first. Mainstream public opinion was still firmly in favor of the war in 1967  (or at least not against it) and didn’t turn for several more years, in no small way because of Ali himself.

The sacrifice he made for his beliefs was gargantuan, costing him millions of dollars and putting him at risk for serious jail time. And it wasn’t like he didn’t enjoy being a popular public figure and having lots of money, nor was he unaware of what he was getting himself into. He fiercely spoke truth to power despite enormous consequences.

Ali’s bravery seems especially pointed in this era of media and sports celebrities afraid to speak to power when all it would cost them is a really good table in the hottest restaurants, or a seven-figure endorsement contract when they are already worth tens of millions. Ali’s sacrifice still serves as a blistering indictment of those who think wearing a ribbon is the same as taking a stand.

In addition to reviving public awareness of how vital Ali was in his prime and how he intimidating was to the White American Establishment, the film really evokes the feel of the sixties and just how intense and confrontational the era was in general. It was no cuddly hug fest- despite what the nostalgia mongers will have you believe.

David Crosby once said that “If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there.” While this was definitely true for the hedonistic rock and roll crowd, for the greater society as a whole I say “If you weren’t scared shitless during the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Beloved leaders were being assassinated, cities were going up in flames, soldiers were dying by the score in Vietnam, and students were getting their asses whupped at home for protesting that fact. It is a fear I remember well as a lad curled on the floor in front of the TV, watching  the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite tally body counts in Vietnam and describe the chaos in the US. The Wonder Years weren’t so wonderful to little kids worried about their older brother’s low draft number or seeing them getting tear-gassed in their dorm room. Bill Siegel’s brilliant use of archival footage powerfully evokes that feeling of uneasiness for everyone involved no matter who they were.

Young folks who have only known Ali as “that shaky guy who makes the grownups act very serious whenever he’s on TV” will be especially surprised by this, but even I was struck by it because he’s been so ill for so long: DAMN, HE WAS FUNNY! As scathing as Lenny Bruce and as quick on his feet as Robin Williams in their respective primes, Ali was hilarious even when denouncing racism or railing against the forces of ignorance. I really want to watch the full Firing Line episode where he tears William F. Buckley a new asshole after seeing a snippet of it in the film. In fact, I shall go see if I can find it online right now.

And you, Gentle Reader, must see The Trials Of Muhammad Ali as soon as you possibly can! It is screening at various locales around the country and will be shown on the PBS series Independent Lens on April 14, 2014. Click here to get it from I-Tunes.

 

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Another public service this film does is bring this wonderful woman to the attention of the public!
Bill Siegel and Khalilah Camacho-Ali. Photo credit: Aaron Wickenden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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