Entries tagged with “documentary films”.

Chicago Film/History Fans Will Have TWO Final Chances To Catch My Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition Presentation This Week:



Wednesday, July 8— 7PM
Palatine Public Library
700 N. North Court
Palatine, IL 60067



Thursday, July 9— 7PM
Wood Dale Public Library
520 N. Wood Dale Road
Wood Dale, IL 60191





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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

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)


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.


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.



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.







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.

HOLM 2 Book Cover

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


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?

The World Premiere of my Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition Lecture!!!

Saturday, October 5        4PM

I am appearing in Lisle this coming Saturday, October 5 at 4PM at The Lisle Depot Baggage Room (921 School St.) as part of The History Author Series of The Museums At Lisle Station Park. I will be holding forth about the History and Present of Chicago Film and telling stories of my herculean struggle to update Arnie Bernstein’s beloved Chicago classic.  I will also be selling (cash only) and signing copies afterwards.

It’s going to be a very fun afternoon, so stop on by!!!




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!


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
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/


This is a very interesting piece of work and is definitely worth a look by those who are fascinated with the creative process.

The Artsiders is a documentary project by Chris Olsen which examines the lives of several artists from various genres and features them discussing what inspired them to become artists, what inspires them to continue along that path, and all aspects of their creative process. It is an ongoing series but this particular DVD (I rented it from Netflix but it is also available online) is the full length original project that started things off.

The artists run the full gamut of artistic genres: visual artists, dancers, a percussionist, even a voice-over artist. They all discuss their lives and their art with candor, providing insight into what drives the creative mind and just exactly what the life of an artist entails (hint: it isn’t generally wealth and glamor). Personally I love listening to artists discuss their process (even if you don’t particularly like them or their art there is always something to be learned) so this film was really in my wheelhouse, but even those not totally obsessed with art will find it fun and edifying.

Kartemquin Korner is a regular series spotlighting the efforts of Kartemquin Films, the best documentary producing collective this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. Much of this particular piece is excerpted from the large Kartemquin section in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition.

At The Death House Door (2008)


Click on this picture to order At The Death House Door.

Although they are most known for the legendary film, Hoop Dreams (1994), which they directed and produced together with Frederick Marx, Steve James and Peter Gilbert also share co-producer and co-director duties on this brilliant collaboration. In addition, Gilbert handles director of photography duties and James is co-editor (with Aaron Wickenden). Wickenden and Zak Piper are co-producers and the executive producers are Gordon Quinn, Christine Lubrano, Debbie DeMontreux, Evan Shapiro, and Allison Bourke.

"At The Death House Door"

Gilbert (left) and James pose with their camera in the cemetery where many of the convicted men were buried. The sequence where Pickett walks through this graveyard pointing out those whom he ministered to is one of the film’s more powerful moments.

At The Death House Door tells the story of Carroll Pickett, a prison chaplain in Huntsville, Texas, who presided over ninety-five executions during a fifteen-year period. Having no one he could share his emotional burden with, Pickett made cassette-tape recordings of his thoughts and impressions of each individual execution, describing the entire day (which Pickett would spend with each condemned man from 6 am until they were killed at midnight) in vivid detail.


Carroll Pickett sits with some of the tapes he recorded during his time as minister to the condemned men. He had not listened to any of these tapes until the making of this film.

Several interconnected threads tie the film together: footage of Pickett recounting his life and experiences to the camera, shots of him listening to his tapes (none of which he had listened to since recording them), Pickett’s visit to the prison cemetery where all the condemned men were buried, interviews with his adult children, friends, and colleagues, and a birthday party for Pickett attended by his children. Also woven into the narrative are two Chicago Tribune reporters investigating a story about Carlos De Luna, an executed man who was almost undoubtedly innocent (a sentiment shared by Pickett at the time, which he reveals in a meeting with the two journalists), and the story of De Luna’s sister, who becomes inspired by the injustice foisted upon her brother to become an activist against the death penalty.


One of the series of Chicago Tribune stories filed by reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley which provided much evidence to exonerate De Luna, unfortunately too late to save him.

All of these elements are artfully combined into what is one of the most powerful documentary films (or any other category of film or narrative form) ever made. And despite the fact that one can’t watch this film without becoming convinced that there is something seriously wrong with America’s prison system in general and the death penalty in particular, all political issues are superseded by the story of Carroll Pickett, a man who willingly endured unspeakable emotional agony and torment because of his ministerial calling and strong religious faith. A man who is undoubtedly a “Christian” in the purest sense.

"At The Death House Door"

Whatever your political, social, or religious beliefs may be; if you are not deeply moved by this film you really ought to seek help from a trained psychiatric professional.


Kartemquin Korner is a semi-regular segment spotlighting the work of Kartemquin Films, the greatest documentary collective in this part of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

Typeface (2009)


This film is a delight! Art geeks, Graphic Design geeks, Print geeks, Media studies geeks, Documentary geeks, and History geeks will all find a metaphorical chicken to bite the head off of with this film.

Typeface was directed Justine Nagan, who has been Executive Director of Kartemquin Films since 2008. Under her leadership (in conjunction with the Board Of Directors) the Kartemquin collective has grown into an even more powerful artistic and cultural force as a series of bold strategic initiatives were conceived and actualized.


A genius watches a legend film an artist making art. Justine Nagan looks on as Gordon Quinn shoots a subject from Typeface.

She also handles Executive Producer duties on Typeface (as she does on every Kartemquin Film), sharing them with Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn and documentary doyen Maria Finitzo. Starr Marcello is Associate Producer, Tom Bailey was the Director Of Photography, Liz Kaar edited the film, and Zak Piper did the sound.



Typeface explores The Hamilton Museum of Wood Type in the small Wisconsin town of Two Rivers. The museum serves many functions; as an exhibition of of the history of printing, as a repository for 1.5 million pieces of wood type, and as a gathering point for the many artists who now use those pieces to create mostly abstract works of graphic art. The museum also holds several workshops throughout the year with the most cutting edge letterpress artists holding court and sharing their techniques and tips.



The museum was originally opened in a part of the old Hamilton Factory.

The Hamilton Company, founded in 1880, quickly became the largest manufacturer of wood type for offset printing in the US; dominating the industry for decades and operating up until the mid-1980’s (not coincidentally when the first Macintosh computers were made available). Wood-based letterpress printing was the engine that drove American culture in general and the advertising industry in particular throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th Century until being supplanted by computer graphic design and offset lithography printing techniques.


The film provides a brilliant illustration of a point media studies guru Marshall noted in his ground breaking studies in the mid 20th Century- namely that when one type of media is eclipsed by a newer media, the old media then turns into an art form.


We see that here as a slew of graphic designers and artists are shown availing themselves of the museum; but especially in the case of Dennis Ichiyama, a Letterpress Artist and Purdue University Professor who makes regular pilgrimages to Two Rivers (with as many of his students as he can) to create works of art which utilize selected pieces of type from the museum’s collection of over 1.5 million wood type blocks. The segments where he holds forth on the zeitgeist of his art and the joys of the Hamilton Museum (and Two Rivers) are among the film’s most rewarding.


Some young graphic design artists get very enthused about the museum’s immense collection.

The film contains many lovely segments of practitioners of letterpress art in action; students and faculty of Columbia College’s Center For Book And Paper Arts, members of the Post Family Artist Collective, as well as Ishiyama and his students- combined with footage of them discussing their process and waxing rhapsodic about letterpress printing.


There is something extremely sensuous about the process of letterpress printing. Large dollops of thick ink are mixed to the desired color then slathered onto rollers; then the page is inserted, a lever is pulled, and the machine prints the text with a satisfying “ku-chunk.” Then, its surface now glistening with still-wet ink, the page is gently removed.


The sight of a letterpress machine such as this one may arouse you a bit after viewing this film.

Nowhere is the illustration of where industry meets art form more poignant than in the scenes where old employees of the Hamilton factory interact with the artists who now use their old workplace as a creative playground, particularly the segments featuring Norb Brylski a retired Hamilton employee in his 80’s who regularly volunteered his time at the museum filling orders and teaching his craft to the younger generation (before ill health forced him to cut back).


Norb’s segments are delightful in several respects; the skill he uses in his craft, the respect that the “youngsters” have toward him, his good natured yet slightly quizzical attitude towards the abstract and often bizarre works created by the artists. “When I was working at Hamilton I never had time to play around with that stuff” he says while going through some of the prints given to him by Ichiyama. As confused as he seems (“Don’t ask me what they are!” he remarks wryly) one can tell he enjoys and respects what these artists are up to.



It briefly looks as if things might be dire for the museum, but the film ends on a positive note with a new director, Jim Moran, taking the reigns (the previous director Greg Corrigan’s herculean struggles are chronicled throughout Typeface) and the Museum’s 10 Anniversary gala being a tremendous success. UPDATE: the Museum’s just moved to a much larger space, so a great and exciting transition period is afoot.


The museum has moved into this new facility, which has more space and a great view of Lake Michigan.

Almost all Kartemquin Films projects these days seem to be about something serious or dire (for good reason of course) so it is a rare joy to just let a Kartemquin constructed narrative wash over you and give yourself up to the storytelling skills of the some of the greatest practitioners of the documentary form (and Josh Ritter provides a very nice soundtrack).