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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2 of my ABC 7 interview segments aired last month, and it features even more of my waxing rhapsodic about Chicago Film:

 

 

And here is Part 1 in case you missed it:

 

It has been such a thrill to be a part of such fantastic tributes to the Chicago Production Industry. I sincerely hope these segments bring even more recognition to what a wonderful place Chicago is to make a film or television show. Please share with everyone you can and help once again make Chicago the worldwide production hub that it was in the early 1900′s (when 1 out of every 5 films was made here)!

 

Oh Yeah— And BUY MY BOOK!!! ;-)

 

Kevin’s Movie Corner has an excellent review of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition. Check it out here!

 

 

I especially enjoy the fact that he had read the original edition and loved the additions I made and the extra material that Arnie put in the history section:

I had bought, and enjoyed, the first edition of the book, but there’s a lot of fascinating new material on hand for the new edition. So many movies have been shot in the Chicago area since the first book came out that there’s lots of interesting tidbits to enjoy.
 
The book is loaded with not only stories and anecdotes, but interviews with moviemakers with deep Chicago roots, such as writer/director Harold Ramis, producer Michael Shamberg, actress Irma P. Hall and so many others.
 
Plus, the authors have substantially beefed up the section on the early days of cinema, where for a short time it looked like Chicago might be the nation’s movie making capital. This is what I found particularly interesting.
Yes!!! He then goes on to detail several tidbits and sidebars that he found enjoyable and intersperses it with fascinating stories of his own encounters with Chicago Film. It is really a fine piece of work.
The takeaway here is that Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition is the perfect gift for that relative or loved one who is an old movie buff!!!

HOLM 2 Book Cover

 

http://kevinsmoviecorner.blogspot.com/2013/12/book-review-hollywood-on-lake-michigan.html

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I am extremely honored to announce that I am speaking at Chicago Book Expo. It is a major gathering of Chicago Writers and Independent Publishers and I can’t begin to describe how pleased I am to be a part of it.

 

Chicago Book Expo

Sunday, November 24

St Augustine College, 1345 W Argyle.

 The event starts at 11AM and I’ll be presenting from 2:30-3:30

 

It will be such a kick to do my HOLM 2 presentation in the old Essanay Studio Buildings- which were the site of one of the first movie studios on earth. And to be in the company of such fine authors and publishers makes it an even bigger thrill.

You really ought to stop on by because I will be in Full Expounding Mode!!!

Arnie Bernstein will be there as well talking about his fantastic new book, Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German American Bund.

Here is the ABC 7 News segment featuring me discussing Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition and Chicago Film. I couldn’t be more pleased with how well it turned out. Enjoy!!!

 

WOW! I watch the ABC 7 News At 4 pretty regularly and it was SUCH a surreal and wonderful experience to see ME suddenly appear on screen in the midst of such a well done piece of work. Incredibly reifying!!!

A big thanks to Producer Marsha Jordan for her kindness and general awesomeness. And a huge shout out to Tonya Davis for a brilliant editing job!!!

Part 2 will be airing at some point in the future. Stay tuned for details!

I have just been informed that- barring any new disaster or politician/celebrity junk shot (same thing really)- I will be appearing on the Channel 7 ABC News at 4PM today (November 7). So tune in or set your DVRs!!!

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Yeah, I’ve been getting around lately!!!

I did a very long interview with them last month and have been waiting with bated breath for it to air. Apparently this will be a two part interview with another segment to appear sometime in the future.

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Here is an interview I did for the Outside The Loop radio show on WLUW.
I come on right after the first break:

Click here for the show.

I will be giving my Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition Slide Presentation and selling/signing books:

Thursday, October 24 at The Mather’s More Than A Cafe, 7134 W Higgins Ave. 1:00 p.m.

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Hollywood on Lake Michigan,2nd Edition Live!
Michael Corcoran, Historian/Author

In the early history of films, one out of every five motion pictures was made right here in Chicago! Michael discusses early film history in Chicago and entertains us with stories about more recent Chicago films and locations; descriptions of some great, yet unknown, Chicago films; profiles of people he interviewed for his book; and hilarious stories about his efforts to update Arnie Bernstein’s beloved Chicago classic, Hollywood on Lake Michigan.
Suggested Donation $8

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This picture of the aftermath of the Car vs Train collision in the movie Running Scared (1986) is just one of the many behind the scenes photos I will be showing and discussing. (Photo courtesy of Bob Janz)

Stop on by if you can, it shall be a fun and frolicking time. Where else are you going to see a picture of Gary Coleman in a bright chartreuse body stocking?

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