Film Screenings


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)

trialsofmaliposter

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.

aliprays

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

Ali Objects

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.

 

Khalilah-and-Bill

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a wonderful event where you can take in your old home movies to be evaluated by professional film restorers. If they are in viewable condition you can also screen them that evening for an appreciative audience.

Chicago Film Archives & Northwest Chicago Film Society present….

Chicago HOME MOVIE DAY

Saturday, October 19th (11AM-3PM), Chicago History Museum

Go down to the basement and dig out your Super 8 memories of that interminable trip to Idaho or that embarrassing 16mm footage of your mother’s rockin’ bat mitzvah and bring them to the Chicago History Museum on Saturday, October 19 for this year’s edition of Home Movie Day. Jointly presented for the third year in a row by Chicago Film Archives and the Northwest Chicago Film Society, Home Movie Day offers Chicagoans the opportunity to gather together and share their celluloid histories.

Home movies provide invaluable records of our families and our communities: they document vanished storefronts, questionable fashions, adorable pets, long-departed loved ones, and neighborhoods-in-transition. Many Chicagoans still possess these old reels, passed down from generation to generation, but lack the projection equipment to view them properly and safely. That’s where Home Movie Day comes in: you bring the films, and we inspect them, project them, and offer tips on storage, preservation, and video transfer–all free of charge. And best of all, you get to watch them with an enthusiastic audience, equally hungry for local history.
All Chicagoans are encouraged to attend and participate in Home Movie Day. This year’s edition will also spotlight two special neighborhoods: Bronzeville and Ravenswood Manor. Unique home movies will resurrect the rich history of Bronzeville’s storied performance hall The Forum and offer glimpses of surprisingly dangerous boyhood diversions along the Chicago River, circa 1970. Watch out, too, for the home movies of Olympic medalist Ralph Metcalfe.

Come for the home movies and stay for Home Movie Day Bingo; prizes include memberships to the Gene Siskel Film Center and Chicago Filmmakers and a $100 gift certificate for home movie video transfer services.

When: Saturday, October 19, 2013
What Time: 11AM-3PM
Where: 
Chicago History Museum

1601 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois, go to map

Admission: Free! (Donations Welcome)
More info: http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/current-events/chicago-home-movie-day-2013
Facebook eventhttps://www.facebook.com/events/330879947055507/

In honor of the screening of Goldstein at The Patio Theater on Friday night I am re-posting this review of the film which I wrote several years ago.

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"I saw a man, he danced on the breakwater." The prophet Elijah gets his groove on down on the lake front.

“I saw a man, he danced on the breakwater.” The prophet Elijah gets his groove on down on the lake front.

 

This is very old news, but the always informative and funny blog of  Lynn Becker hipped me to the new section on Chicago in films that the brilliant folks who run Forgotten Chicago have started on their site, entitled Drama, Documentation and Discontinuity. As befits the subject of their blog, they concentrate on older films mostly from the “Daley I” drought years of the 50’s and 60’s.

Much like the rest of their work, the new section is a fascinating blend of historical info and trenchant meta-commentary. I was so inspired by their fine work that I finally rented Goldstein (1965), the first film by eclectic writer/director Philip Kaufman.

Although the film falters overall (as fabulous as Kaufman’s later work was, his debut project was an amateurish aping of French new wave film), the parts are greater than the whole and it functions as a valuable record of several important Chicago persons, places, and things (yes, a celebration of the noun!). Aside from the buildings and locations, Goldstein showcases some of the most talented actors and performers ever to call Chicago home, particularly those from the earliest days of Second City/Compass Players.

Some of the buildings not mentioned in Forgotten Chicago are:

Block 37 before it was razed, sat vacant for a few decades, and became home to the current monstrous structure that occupies the land.

Soldier Field- What a Spartan place it was back then! With nothing but uncomfortable looking bleachers ringing the inside of the classical coliseum.

A shot of the now-unused spotlight on top of the Palmolive Building blazing away (you can really see why residents of the John Hancock Building immediately put the kibosh on the lamp as they moved in just across the street.

An amusing chase sequence through a large sausage factory was also a treat.

As far as some of the amazing performers featured:

Del Close- One of the greatest improvisational gurus of all time and creator of the long form improvisational framework known as Harold, which revolutionized improvisation. Charna Halpern (and later Del himself) used it as the backbone of perhaps the most innovative and eclectic improv theater companies ever, the io. The long form also revitalized Second City when concepts central to it were integrated into main stage shows. Some time I’ll tell the story of how Del scared the utter living bejesus out of me when I was a young stand-up comic.

Viola Spolin– Those people whose young lives were rocked upon reading Improvisation For The Theater won’t need to ask who she is, everybody else needs to do some clicking. To sum it up, she conceived the first games and exercises that formed the foundation of what we know today as improvisation.

Nelson Algren– Yeah, that’s right, Nelson Freakin’ Algren. In all his brilliant prose writing, Simone De Beauvoir exciting resplendence. Right there in his authorial lair. Nelson tells a story whilst the camera pans around his apartment, lingering longingly over his array of nudie centerfolds scattered amidst the books, photos, and awards. The slow pan of Algren’s books is a valuable document in itself (I need to go back and freeze it again and jot all those titles down).

There also were quite a few other early SC alums in the film, including Severn Darden, Anthony Holland, and Jack Burns (from the comedy duo Burns and Shreiber).

Goldstein is a wonderful glimpse into many aspects of Chicago’s past. Just let it wash over you though, and don’t expect it to make any sense.

There are many shots of this man wandering through mid-1960's Chicago.
There are many shots of this man wandering through mid-1960’s Chicago.

Just got this late notice from the Chicago Film Archives about a co-produced event with the Northwest Chicago Film Society happening this Friday.

GOLDSTEIN in 35mm!

Friday, October 4th (7:30 PM), Patio Theater

the Northwest Chicago Film Society and Chicago Film Archives present the locally produced feature….

GOLDSTEIN
Directed by Philip Kaufman and Benjamin Manaster • 1964 • 84 min • Montrose Film Productions • 35mm from George Eastman House
A ragtag, charmingly self-conscious attempt at forging an American nouvelle vague, Goldstein was the first feature of University of Chicago graduate Philip Kaufman. Shot entirely on the streets of Chicago during the fall of 1963, Goldstein offers an invaluable record of apartments, factories, and downtown movie palaces soon buried by urban renewal. The loose storyline follows the audacious adventures of a Hassidic hobo (Lou Gilbert) who emerges from Lake Michigan, but the many digressions include visits with folksy poets, wacky abortionists, novelist Nelson Algren, and Second City veterans Severn Darden, Anthony Holland, and Tom Erhard. A rousing success at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, where it won La prix de la nouvelle critique, Goldstein reminds us, too, of the perilous fate of many independent productions. With no studio to look after it and the original camera negative long missing, Goldstein has been newly restored from Kaufman’s personal print. Preservation funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. (NWCFS)
Goldstein is part of Chicago Artists Month 2013, the 18th annual celebration of Chicago’s vibrant art community presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.  For more information, visit www.chicagoartistsmonth.org
When: Friday, October 4th
What Time: 7:30PM
Where:
Patio Theater

6008 West Irving Park Rd
Chicago, IL go to map

Admission: $5
More info: http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/current-events/goldstein
Facebook eventhttps://www.facebook.com/events/454333994685915/

Since the southwest side is so terribly under-served by arts organizations and other cultural institutions I wanted to post this real quick. Sorry I didn’t get it up sooner!

8 FLAGS FOR 99 CENTS

16mm Restoration Premiere!

Thursday, September 12th (6PM), Garfield Ridge Public Library

Chicago Film Archives, The Garfield Ridge Library and the Clear-Ridge Historical Society invite you to a special premiere of this newly restored film about the home front during the Vietnam War. Father Leonard Dubi, and select others who appears in the film, will be on hand at the screening to discuss the film.

8 FLAGS FOR 99 CENTS (1970, Mike Gray Associates, Chuck Olin, Joel Katz) was produced in response to President Nixon’s famous November, 1969 speech when he contrasted the unlawful and vocal anti-war protesters to the respectful “silent majority” who were in favor of remaining in Vietnam to fight communism. This film explores the thoughts and opinions of the “silent majority” represented by the folks living in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. The commentary that arose from the Garfield Ridge community turned the filmmakers’ expectations (as well as conventional wisdom of the times) on its head. Expecting to record pro-war and pro-government slogans and sentiments, the filmmakers were caught somewhat off guard by the thoughtful, nuanced, and distressed analysis articulated by those that were interviewed and recorded. Contractors, firemen, mothers, fathers, barbers, Vietnam vets and clerks have varied and layered thoughts on America’s involvement in the war. Residents of all ages speak to the war in this film with very little evidence of hostility between generations, shattering another iconic image of those politically tumultuous times.

When: Thursday, September 12, 2013
What Time: 6PM
Where:
Garfield Ridge Public Library
6348 South Archer
Chicago, Illinois, go to map
Admission: Free! (Donations Welcome)
More info: http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/current-events/8-flgs-for-99-cents-restoration-premiere
Facebook eventhttps://www.facebook.com/events/1399635146924567/

Sorry for the late notice on this one, still getting my blogging legs back! Chicago Filmmakers is hosting this co-produced event.

 

ATOMIC MOM

Dyke Delicious Series
Saturday, April 13, 2013 – 7:00pm
Location:

Chicago Filmmakers – 5243 N. Clark St in Andersonville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dyke Delicious Series:  Join us for special events, guests and incredible film as Dyke Delicious celebrates its 10thanniversary series at Chicago Filmmakers, bringing the years most inspiring and groundbreaking lesbian-themed films to Chicago.

7:00 PM Social Hour // 8:00 PM Screening Start
Suggested Donation: $8 advance/$10 door

Atomic Mom weaves an intimate portrait of a complex mother-daughter relationship within an obscure – but important – moment in American history. As the only female scientist present during atomic detonations in the Nevada desert, Pauline Silvia, the filmmaker’s mother, undergoes a crisis of conscience. After a long silence and prompted by her daughter, she finally reveals grim secrets of working in the U.S. atomic testing program.

In our present moment of Wikileaks, Pauline is a similar whistle-blower having been cowed by the silencing machine of the US military for decades. In an attempt to reconcile with her own mother’s past, her daughter, filmmaker M.T. Silvia, meets Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima survivor trying to resolve her own history in Japan. The film follows these survivors, each on a different end of atomic warfare, as they “meet” through the filmmaking process, and as they, with startling honestly, attempt to understand the other.

Atomic Mom invites viewers to confront American nuclear history in a completely new way and will inspire dialogue about human rights, personal responsibility, and the possibility – and hope – of peace. (Directed by M.T. Silva, USA/Japan, 2012, 80 min)