Kartemquin Korner

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.







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).


Kartemquin Korner is a weekly-ish segment spotlighting a particular selection from Kartemquin Films, the finest documentary production company this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

The Inquiring Nuns (1968)


Who wouldn’t want to answer a question from these two smiling nuns? Not surprising that they both left the order within a few years of doing this film- neither one looks like they would enjoy tormenting a child!


Co-Directed by Kartemquin founders Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner, The Inquiring Nuns was one of the collective’s first projects. It features music by a very young Phillip Glass and was filmed on Kartemquin’s now legendary first camera. The Inquiring Nuns was inspired by a French film, Chronicle Of A Summer (1960), which itself inspired the cinema verite movement– which in turn led to reality television and the current glut of shows about worthless yet photogenic proto-humans (must take the bad with the good I guess).


The Inquiring Nuns features two young nuns (Sister Marie Arne and Sister Mary Campion) traveling around various circa 1968 Chicago locales (the Art Institute, the MSI, a supermarket, outside churches etc.) and asking people the same question posed by its French inspiration, “Are You Happy?”


This interview also provides an insight into the fact that one used to be able to get a steak in this town for $1.29!

The responses range from the glib to the profound and offer a fascinating glimpse into 1968 Chicago/USA and the human condition in general. At first the project seems like a lark, but becomes increasingly deep as more people open up to the pair of earnest inquisitors. It doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers found the most adorable nuns since Sally Field strapped on her flying habit to ask their question- a far cry from the stern, yardstick wielding Dogmafascists which terrorized me in my youth!


Some segments offer hilariously unintended insights into the folks being interviewed, like a couple who were obviously seeing each other on the sly (“Is this going to be shown anywhere?” they ask nervously). Others offer a glimpse more into the relationship dynamics of the couples or the internal lives of the individuals answering the question rather than the question itself.


One wonders what became of this young boy who emphasized one of his father’s qualifying remarks by forcefully intoning “I am happy TODAY!!!”


As one can imagine, the war in Vietnam was foremost on the minds of many interviewees, as well as the social strife of the era in general- but in many ways The Inquiring Nuns points out the cyclical nature of societal trends and how little people really seemed to have changed in the past 50ish years.


The Inquiring Nuns works both as a glimpse into the past and as an insight into certain permanent aspects of the human condition. It is definitely worth a look by contemporary audiences- and is also a project that needs to be repeated {this time with Buddhist nuns}!


Chicagoans say the darnedest things when asked open-ended philosophical questions by a pair of inquisitive sisters.


Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune did a marvelous piece about The Inquiring Nuns which features more of the history, back story, and subsequent influence the film had on society and culture (although it’s hidden behind a pay wall so you will have to register):


Kartemquin Korner is a weekly-ish segment spotlighting a particular selection from Kartemquin Films, the finest documentary production company this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

The Last Pullman Car (1982)


The Last Pullman Car goes back to the Pullman strike of 1894 and then details the labor movement in the US in order to explain the state of labor relations at the Pullman plant in 1981.


Ok, I am not going to lie to you, my fellow Kartemquinites. This is a tough one. Watching a documentary about a group of heavy industry workers in the US heartland trying to save their union and their jobs at the beginning of the Reagan Era Corporate Globalization and Union Busting Program is somewhat like watching a documentary about gay Jewish performance artists in Berlin in 1936- you know it isn’t going to end well— either for the documentary subjects or for any of their contemporaries.

However, it is really a must-see for those who wish to understand how we got to the point where we are now in terms of the global stranglehold that multinational conglomerates have on humanity.

The Last Pullman Car documents the struggles of Pullman-Standard Passenger Car Works employees on the far south side of Chicago from 1979 to 1981 as they unsuccessfully fight to prevent their plant from being closed. United Steel Workers of America Local 1834 President John Bowman and the workers at the Pullman plant battled mightily and bravely to keep their plant open but were swamped by a tsunami of historical forces; short-sighted industrial policies, government abetted union busting, the rise of multi-national conglomerates, industrial competition from Germany and Japan, the gutting of mass-transit funding throughout the US, the withering of national union power overall, the flight of US industrial plants to other countries, and the brutal recession of the early 1980’s.

After an opening segment which introduces the workers and their quest, producer/director/writing team Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal go all the way back to the bitter and violent Pullman Strike of 1894 and then detail the subsequent industrial union movement in the US in order to illustrate how these forces came into being.

The Pullman Strike of 1894 quickly expanded into a national rail strike which was then brutally crushed by the US government at the behest of George Pullman and the Rail Trust. This only fueled the overall push for national unionization, which flowered in the early 20th Century and by the 1950’s had brought the industrial middle class of America into the highest standard of living that rank and file workers had ever known.

Of course the forces which seek to control workers and maximize corporate profits did not take this situation lying down, and there was a major push to roll back union gains as the 1950’s progressed. It is here where the highest echelon of union leadership made a grave tactical error, seeking to hold on to individual wages and benefit structures instead of trying to use their power to change society and government on a “macro” level such that corporations did not have such an undue influence on them. Basically winning several short term battles but losing the overall war, as US industrial monopolies steadily morphed into the multinational conglomerates of today.

Pullman was one of the first companies to do so, diversifying into other industries and expanding their global scope until the rail car making business was just a tiny fraction of their overall profit scheme. Once this was accomplished, Bowman and his cohorts were defeated before the battle had even begun. By 1979, the car manufacturing plant was so insignificant to the Pullman Corporation (who obviously wanted to be rid of it anyway) and the rail car industry was in such dire straights that threatening to shut the plant down with a strike was like threatening to kill a hostage with terminal cancer that your adversaries wanted dead to begin with.

This is something that the workers did not understand until it was much much too late; and it is heartbreaking to watch them struggle with this realization as they are sold down the river by their government and their national union (although by that point in the process the legislators and union brass aren’t really lying when they say their hands are tied). Simple, decent folks so imbued with a strong moral code that they were virtually unable to comprehend the fact that their opponents had no morality whatsoever (and essentially saw them as worthless) and so naïve about the reality of their position that they had no idea how badly the cards were stacked against them. At one point, after the national Steel Workers union forces them to shut down their local, Bowman says “If this is their answer to deal with plant closings in this country- the working man is in trouble.” This statement (for me) is pretty much the crux of the entire film.

The Last Pullman Car also begs extremely thorny questions which the world is still trying to answer: How can a community, city, or nation keep a company that wishes to move its factory from leaving without totally trashing the concept of private property and free market? Are these concepts as important to a free and just society as we have been led to believe? Do people have a “right” to a well paying job and is it the government’s duty to make certain that they do? If not, then what is the purpose of government in the first place?

These are not easy questions to resolve, but resolve them we must if we are to avoid a dystopian “Blade Runner meets The Jungle” future.

So as not to end this post on a total downer; it is my belief that in the long term this future will be avoided. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln- “You can oppress all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t oppress all of the people all of the time.”

Although globalization has temporarily given the conglomerates the upper hand as they abandon areas where unions are strong and move their plants to places where they can cheat their workers- the union movement has also grown global and is steadily spreading to those locales where sweatshops are the norm and those oppressed people are becoming empowered to throw off their shackles and agitate for fair treatment and decent wages. To revive the lingo of the 1960’s and 70’s—-The Man can run, but he cannot hide!


Who is that handsome young man with the camera? Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn would like to know! 😉

Kartemquin Korner is a weekly-ish segment spotlighting a particular selection from Kartemquin Films, the finest documentary production company this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

A Good Man (2011)


Bill T Freaking Jones!!! As he is known to many.


This documentary; which was directed by Kartemquin cofounder Gordon Quinn  and veteran television director Bob Hercules, produced by Joanna Rudnick and Rachel Pikelny, and featuring Keith Walker as Director of Photography; originally appeared on PBS as part of the American Masters series.

It chronicles modern dance pioneer, choreographer, director, and cultural icon/national treasure Bill T Jones as he and his company create and perform an original work about Abraham Lincoln for the recent Bicentennial celebration of his birth. The piece was commissioned by and performed at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

Jones is most known as the co-creator and public face of the Broadway sensation FELA!, based on the life and music of AfroPop sensation and political activist Fela Kuti, but his artistic impact has been felt ever since he burst upon the modern dance scene in the 1970’s with his partner/collaborator Arnie Zane. The pair formed the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 and redefined modern dance with their intense, socio-politically charged fusions of dance, music, theater, and performance art. After Zane’s passing in 1988, Jones continued the ensemble he had founded with his lifelong love and muse, and the company’s work has continued to define the cutting edge.

A Good Man follows Jones and his cohorts through the creative process; casting ensemble members for the production, brainstorming about the form the piece will take, adjusting and improvising as the piece begins to take shape— all the way through the furious final push to bring everything together into a finished work. Creating such a large and ambitious multi-media piece from scratch is the ultimate high wire act, made even more treacherous by the realities of the dance world. As Jones wryly laments, “in commercial theater, this would be the first preview, but in the world of dance, this is our World Premiere.”

The footage of this frenetic and often angst-laden struggle to “fashion something from nothing” provides an incredible window into the creative process, as Jones and his team of brilliant and committed collaborators from several disciplines (composer/musicians, light, sound and set designers) work in tandem with the dancers in constructing the piece.


Photo from the production of Fondly We Hope…Fervently We Pray, which premiered at Ravinia Festival.

Distinct from all other types of performer, dancers have a certain unique intensity about them. A mixture of conservatory trained artist and Olympic level athlete, they seek and achieve transcendence on multiple levels, a process which has a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The peculiar emotional zeitgeist engendered by being an artist whose medium is their own body can make them on occasion, shall we say  “a bit tightly wound.” Jones and his dancers are no exception to this phenomenon, and some of the exchanges captured might seem adversarial to those not familiar with artistic/performance subcultures, but are all in a day’s work for those involved in the arduous process of raw creation.

As are the often awkward interactions between Jones and his musicians as they try to bridge the gap between two entirely different artistic languages, music and dance. Composer/Bandleader Christopher Antonio William Lancaster remarks “the miscommunications that happen between me and Bill and the rest of the musicians are an integral part of the process. That’s just how we do it.”

That may be Jones greatest challenge— translating movement into the language of not just music but lighting and design. He is often forced to resort to what seems like a mixture of non sequiturs and Zen koans. There is an especially amusing scene where Jones and Lancaster are watching the dancers work. Jones suddenly turns to Lancaster and matter-of-factly intones: “He- They.  He- They.  He- They.  US    He-They-Us   He–They–Us” and just as quickly turns away as Lancaster smiles enigmatically.

Jones is an amalgam of exacting theater director and hard ass football coach, pushing everyone in the production to give every fiber of their being to the effort. His manner can get brusque, but he tries to temper to the vinegar with a bit of sugar, and is quite candid with the others about his own fears and insecurities as he wrestles with the material.

The dance piece itself, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, is incredibly wide ranging; incorporating Lincoln, Slavery, the Civil War, Abe’s relationship with Mary, Jones’ feelings about Lincoln, and even the personal biographies of Jones and the dancers themselves. New elements are folded into the show even as the premiere approaches and new dialogue put into the script the very morning of it.

A Good Man intersperses footage of the rehearsals and creative meetings with that of the actual performances and sprinkles in a few hilarious snippets of post show commentary from some Bougie North Shore culture vultures kvetching about how they don’t like political/social commentary in their art and especially their dance. There is also a fine overview of Jones’ career embedded within the narrative.

A must see for fans of dance, art, music, culture, and the creative process. Even hardcore historian fans of Lincoln may be intrigued by it. And hardcore Kartemquinites (Kartemquians?) like myself will adore it!



Much of Jones’ narrative struggle in creating Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray revolved around his own feelings about Abraham Lincoln.





Ameena Mathews, herself a daughter of imprisoned Gang Leader Jeff Fort, discusses the toll of violence with a group of teens.

Ameena Mathews, herself a daughter of imprisoned Gang Leader Jeff Fort, discusses the toll of violence with a group of teens.

The Interrupters

This film was co-produced by Steve James (one half of the team that created Hoop Dreams) and author/journalist Alex Kotlowitz (best known for his book There Are No Children Here, about two brothers growing up in the Henry Horner projects). It chronicles one year on the streets of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods through the eyes of three “violence interrupters” for an organization called CeaseFire.

CeaseFire (now known as CureViolence) was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who believes that since violence seems to mimic the same patterns as infectious disease, it should be treated as such by public authorities and the community. Namely by going after the most infected and attempting to treat the outbreak at its core.

The interrupters are key to this effort, going into distressed areas where violence has recently occurred and encouraging those closest to the victims (and the victims themselves) not to seek retribution. The interrupters mission literally brings them into the midst of a storm as they try and calm communities long wracked by violence and strife on the heels of a fresh incident.

This is aptly illustrated by a scene in the film where a fight occurs on the street right outside of a CeaseFire strategy meeting and everyone heads outside to stop things from escalating. This becomes especially difficult after a sister of an injured party rushes to the scene to seek vengeance for her bloodied brother and begins wielding a brick at members of the opposite faction.

The three interrupters followed by the filmmakers; Ameena Mathews (daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort), Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra; all have past gang memberships and criminal records. This gives them a certain cachet as they try to discourage young gang members to not only resist the temptation to commit retaliatory violence in the moment, but also to eschew the gang lifestyle altogether.

The film follows their attempts to lead young people out of the cycle of crime and to quell strife in the affected communities, and also in their efforts to make up for their own criminal pasts and deal with their troubled consciences over past acts of violence. This struggle is acutely felt by Bocanegra, who details his attempts to come to terms with a murder he committed during his teens. The same theme of redemption is also illustrated by a wrenching scene where Cobe Williams takes a young recently released felon who has turned his life around back to the very barber shop he was convicted of robbing years before to apologize to those people he terrorized by his actions. An exchange between the young man and one of the women he robbed is an amazing illustration of the human capacity to change and to forgive, and of the incredible courage it takes to do both.

A major incident covered by the film is the killing of Derrion Albert, whose death during a massive street brawl was captured on video and received worldwide coverage. The filmmakers show the behind the scenes strategy sessions of CeaseFire as they scramble to prevent retribution and deal with the underlying community tensions that fueled the incident in the first place.

Of course the very gang backgrounds that provide credibility to the interrupters when they interact with residents of distressed areas are a red flag to law enforcement agencies, who view CeaseFire’s activities with varying degrees of suspicion and mistrust; particularly the fact that the interrupters will not share information gained during their interventions with authorities. Not surprisingly, CeaseFire responds that they are a violence reduction initiative, not a police agency, and that they would lose all credibility with the community if people felt they couldn’t be trusted.

The uneasy relationship between the interrupters and the police continues to this day, as do the problems of violence in the places where they work. The Interrupters doesn’t provide any magic potion for curing these problems, but it does shine a light upon some of the people who are trying one day at a time to do what they can to heal the pain felt by these communities, and by themselves.

Kartemquin Films. This wonderful Chicago film institution can best be summed up by their Mission statement:


Our Mission

Kartemquin Films is a home for independent filmmakers developing documentary as a vehicle to deepen our understanding of society through everyday human drama. Focusing on people whose lives are most directly affected by social and political change and who are often overlooked or misrepresented by the media, Kartemquin’s films open up a dialogue, both in communities and between the general public and policymakers.

Kartemquin documentaries are supported by civic engagement strategies that are developed with local and national partners to foster understanding, change thinking, and build support for social change. As a locally and nationally-recognized media arts organization, Kartemquin acts as a trusted bridge between communities and the media, fosters the growth of emerging filmmaking voices passionate about social issues and media policy, and encourages staff and stakeholders to play a role in advocating for a strong public media.


These are the words of an organization that has not only shined a light into how we live our lives but has also illustrated ways in which those lives could be better lived. Though it’s most well known as the company that made Hoop Dreams (1994) a reality, Kartemquin Films is a long-standing Chicago institution. Since its inception in the late 1960s, Kartemquin has been a thriving hub for socially conscious documentary filmmakers. In 1998, the Chicago Film Critics Association presented Kartemquin partners Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal with the “Big Shoulders” award, honoring their “ongoing efforts to promote filmmaking [that] best exemplifies the bold, innovative, and independent spirit of Chicago.” And in 2007, Kartemquin received one of eight international MacArthur Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions.

Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition has much more about the beginnings and early history of Kartemquin films, but now I want to introduce a new weeklyish segment, Kartemquin Korner (sorry, I just can’t resist the cutesy hometown newspaper-esque misspelling); where I will spotlight a particular Kartemquin Film. The first installment will be about the second most renowned  Kartemquin film, The Interrupters (2011).