Available On DVD

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

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

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

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


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


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

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



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



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


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



6- The Godfather: What can you say?


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


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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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


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

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

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

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

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


Seven Ways Of Looking At A City
By Michael Corcoran

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

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



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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Family thing

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


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


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



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




The Merry Gentleman (2008)



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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Guy Van Swearingen and Tom Bastounes play Chicago Homicide Detectives.

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



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

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



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


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


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

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

And you should check it out.

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

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

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.

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.


"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.

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.

NOTE: Sometimes procrastination leads to thematic serendipity. I took so long getting around to finally finishing up and posting my review of Hannah Free, that it is now Pride Week; so I might as well make it a theme and haul out more LGBT-centric content. This is a reposting of a review I wrote a few years ago.

The issues raised are even more crucial in light of the real progress on LGBT Rights made in the last few years: Namely the idea that tastefully done gay themed projects should be marketed and be made available to a more mainstream and “Family-oriented” (though it makes me grit my teeth to use that term!) audience- and that the main obstacle to this happening is the timidity of TV/Film execs who are themselves gay. Perhaps it is time for some bravery on their part and for them to have a little more faith in mainstream America. /endsoapbox




Of all the Chicagoland shot films that I was hoping to see before handing in the manuscript for Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, Were The World Mine was probably the one that I was most sad to have missed out on. I had heard great things about this empowering gay musical made on a shoestring budget, and how the film’s makers were desperately trying to get it a mainstream theatrical release.

Unfortunately, that mainstream release never materialized, and I was forced to wait until it was recently released on DVD. While the film was definitely worth the wait, viewing it made it painfully clear what a travesty of cinematic justice it was that this delightful little picture never received the exposure it deserved. Hopefully, the DVD release will bring it some wider recognition.

Were The World Mine is an enjoyable film on several levels; an exuberant and charming musical, a touching and tender coming of age story, a meditation on the nature of love and acceptance, and a wacky, surreal and sometimes campy comedy.

The project grew from a short musical screenplay, written in 2003 by Tom Gustafson, about a young gay teen who finds solace and strength in the words of Shakespeare (the piece was inspired by his experiences growing up gay in a small Illinois town). Gustafson’s partner, Cory James Krueckeberg, was impressed by the script and they both embarked on an attempt to actualize the work.

Gustafson, a graduate of Northwestern University, used contacts developed from working as a casting assistant on Road To Perdition and Master And Commander: The Far Side of The World to marshal resources and assemble a devoted team of collaborators and crew members. Krueckeberg, an accomplished actor, designer, and director; also drew upon his tenure in the Chicago theater community to assist the cause.

The result was Fairies, a short musical film. Fairies received a rave response at a screening in a Boystown venue, and they were quickly able to raise money for festival submissions. The film ended up appearing at over 75 festivals around the world. A year later, during a flight from LA to New York, they decided to expand Fairies into a full length feature. By the time the plane landed, Gustafson and Krueckeberg had already sketched out the framework for the picture.

After the pair completed the script (working in conjunction with talented Chicago composer Jessica Fogle on the songs), Gustafson and Krueckeberg then methodically set out to acquire financing for the feature film. Their efforts were a primer on the right way to fund and create a low budget independent movie; using staged readings of the script to garner interest in the project from potential investors, presenting a well constructed business plan to those investors, and doing research to locate all other possible funding sources. Meanwhile, they were also working hard on a production schedule so as to be able to hit the ground running when the financing came through, and searching the country for the talent to perform the various roles in the film.

Although many big name actors who expressed interest early on disappeared once the extent of the film’s gay content became apparent to them, casting people Carrie Barden, Mickie Paskal and Jennifer S. Rudnicke were able to assemble an amazing group of performers, the proverbial mix of seasoned veterans and talented newcomers.

Big name actors (and/or their agents) weren’t the only ones afflicted by uneasiness over the film’s gay content, investors were shying away as well, and for a while it looked as if financing would not materialize. But Gustafson, Krueckeberg and producer Peter Sterling were able to secure the final funds required. Pre-production reached a fever pitch in preparation for the shooting of the film, which was done in the Chicago area and took an amazingly short 4 weeks (it almost seems impossible when you watch the movie).

Were The World Mine is the story of Timothy, a shy and creative gay teen who often retreats into his musical daydreams in order to endure life in a private boys school and a stultifying small town. When he is cast as Puck in a school production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, he becomes more aware of his talents and starts to blossom under the tutelage of his arty English teacher.

This process reaches full flower (pun mandatory) when he discovers a love potion recipe for Puck’s purple pansy secretly encoded in Shakespeare’s text (the pansy causes those sprayed by it to fall for the first person they see). Timothy creates the potion, then uses this magical flower to turn his whole town gay, most notably the hunky rugby player for whom he has been pining.

Tanner Cohen, who plays Timothy, was really quite a find for the production; possessing strong acting skills and an incredible voice (not to mention an uncanny resemblance to Nick Stahl). Cohen deftly captures the nervous insecurity of Timothy, but also really brings it in the musical numbers.

Nathaniel David Becker, who makes his film debut as Jonathan (the rugby playing love interest), has an excellent voice, handsome looks and solid acting chops. He should be able to write his own ticket in the musical film/theater world; in fact he already seems to be a bit of a gay heartthrob.

The supporting cast is unbelievably strong: the devilishly quirky Wendy Robie (Nadine from Twin Peaks) plays the English/Theater instructor (in a role she reprised from Fairies), revered Broadway stage performer Judy McLane shines in her first film work as Timothy’s mother, Daytime Television fixture Jill Larson (Opal on All My Children) is an absolute hoot as McLane’s eccentric employer, veteran Chicago character actors Christian Stolte and David Darlow do their usual brilliant jobs, and newcomers Zelda Williams and Ricky Goldman are adorable as Timothy’s best friends and confidantes.

In addition to the fine acting performances, the musical numbers really knocked my socks off (and I’m not generally a fan of contemporary musicals). Cory Krueckeberg seamlessly melded Shakespeare’s words with his own clever lyrics, Jessica Fogle’s melodies were excellent (catchy without being cloying or fluffy), and Tim Sandusky’s work on the score, arrangements and production was absolutely first rate (of course, he has a reputation for that in Chicago). Todd Underwood’s choreography was joyously kinetic but not too busy or cliched, Elizabeth Powell Wislar’s costumes were fab, and Director of Photography Kira Kelly was able to achieve a beautiful look with limited resources.

Gustafson and cohorts worked hard for a wider mainstream release for the film and it’s a shame that they weren’t successful, because Were The World Mine is truly “The Gay Teen Musical For The Whole Family.” Seriously. Although there’s a certain intensity in the romantic moments that generates a bit more heat than the hook up scenes in your average WB-style teen dramedy (which comes more from having better actors being directed well); WTWM is much less salacious than the teen centered offerings on any network. The most graphic action in any of the love scenes is a chaste kiss and warm caress, which is positively Disney-esque compared to the bump and grind explicitness in standard teen fare (actually, WTWM has been likened by many to Disney’s High School High). And I think we can all agree that young dudes with their shirts off isn’t exactly pornographic (those who don’t agree probably wouldn’t have read this far anyway).

Of course it’s two guys doing the kissing, so the knee jerk reaction from mainstream execs (particularly gay mainstream execs) when confronted by a film that forthrightly portrays romantic affection between two males is to pronounce it “too gay.” Those two words are the bane of the existences of all gay filmmakers/artists/musicians/etc. seeking to expose their work to a wider audience.

The fact that this cowardly mantra is so often recited by corporate cultural gatekeepers who are themselves gay is especially puzzling. Particularly about something as heartfelt and wholesome as Were The World Mine. In a interview included in the WTWM press kit, Gustafson wonders:

Maybe it’s really that purity and innocence that scares people into saying the film is too gay? I think to some people, this innocence is even more dangerous than films that portray gay characters in very crude and sexual ways. Historically, ‘gay’ has been more prominent, and as a result more accepted in a way, as a dirty little secret involving bathroom stalls or sex clubs than when it involves real love, religion and the long term commitment of a marriage like institution. Regardless, it’s a strange irony to say that an incredibly innocent film is too gay. In some way I think it comes from a shameful place, and I think some of the non-straight people in the industry react this way to things as a defense mechanism. The same way our main character escapes an unsavory reality with daydreams, these people escape reality by saying it’s ‘too gay’ instead of putting support behind it and risking ridicule.

Whatever the true motivations of those who denied this film its due, the fact remains that it was a poor decision. With both filmed and live musicals pulling in the public in droves in recent years, Were The World Mine could have really made a splash had it been given a chance.

Hopefully, the recent DVD release will at least help get this picture seen by some of the legions of people, gay and straight, who would enjoy it.

Which is the really crux of the matter at hand, not to mention one of the most frustrating things about the capricious and arbitrary way that films are distributed by Hollywood, the fact that so many great pictures never get brought to the attention of the people who would most enjoy them.

Aside from the sheer injustice of it, it’s just bad business.

Tanner Cohen and Nathanial David Becker bring the sexy in Were The World Mine.
Tanner Cohen and Nathanial David Becker bring the sexy in Were The World Mine.


Hanna Free (2009)


Hannah Free was originally a stage play, written by the Victory Gardens Theater playwrite-in-residence Claudia Allen and presented at the theater in 1992. The film version came about through an alliance between Allen and LGBT media maven Tracy Baim (her Windy City Media Company publishes Windy City Times, OUT!, Nightspots, and Identity as well as a radio show and other important endeavors) along with director/filmmaker Wendi Jo Carlton and editor/producer Sharon Zurek; who had all worked together on the Chicago Gay History Project. Their efforts were augmented by several other noted figures in the Chicago production scene who all worked for little or nothing to see this important project to fruition.


A wonderful example of working with a small budget and making the most of available resources; Hannah Free was shot in 18 days on a budget of $200,000. Virtually every room of a Prairie Avenue District mansion owned by Baim and her sister (the historic Elbridge Keith House) functioned as either a set or production space. The film also shot in the small Illinois town of Beecher.


Hanna Free stars Sharon Gless (of 80’s TV sensation Cagney & Lacey) as Hannah, a free-spirited butch lesbian now in her 70’s and confined to an elder care facility after a snow shoveling mishap. Her lifelong love, Rachel, is in a different wing of the same facility and is in a coma from which Doctors suspect she will never awaken. Rachel’s daughter, Marge, will not allow Hannah to visit Rachel and say her last goodbye; and Hannah has no recourse since she is not a family member and they were never allowed to legally marry. This of course points out the cruelty and hypocrisy of a system which forces second class status upon the life partners of gays and lesbians who are ailing.


Despite being “a message movie” the film tries not to draw its main characters with too broad a brush. Marge is not portrayed merely as an ignorant homophobe, much of her antipathy toward Hannah is sparked by her girlhood memories of strife between Hannah and her mother, which were fomented by Hannah’s frequent absences and occasional infidelity; something which Hannah herself recalls through a series of flashbacks (as well as the good times she and Rachel had together).


Younger Hannah out searching for adventure; something that was a constant bone of contention between she and her homebody lover, Rachel.


This is an important point to include in the film- that there may often be “real” (albeit misguided) reasons other than homophobia for families to want to keep gay partners from visiting their mothers/fathers etc. (just like there may be any number of “reasons” for them to not want straight life partners to visit)— but that just should not matter when the two people in question have a lifelong bond which morally trumps whatever objections are raised. The fact that gays are not allowed to marry leaves them vulnerable to any number of problems when one of them falls ill or dies; inheritance, insurance, child custody etc.- and to deny these rights to them is to deny the principle of equal protection under the law. This is something that may have been lost had Marge been written as merely an uncaring homophobe who was being mean-spirited.


Hannah’s flashbacks span her and Rachel’s entire life together and three different sets of actors play the couple at various stages in their lives. Casting Director L.M. Attea (who also directed the original 1992 stage version) does a marvelous job of finding actors who not only resemble each other but who can also play to the same “vibe” that each character exudes.


A “tween” Hannah and Rachel first experiencing and dealing with the depth and power of their mutual attraction.

The flashback love scenes are extremely well done; just erotic enough to convey the passion of a lesbian relationship without being vulnerable to that tired old “sex-crazed homosexuals” trope that bible thumpers love to haul out whenever gay love is honestly depicted.


I don’t want to spoil the plot so I will cease any further synopsizing and just recommend this movie highly for its touching and honest portrayal of a lifetime of love between two women and for a bracing yet ultimately hopeful look at the state of affairs in the US when it comes to gay marriage and attitudes toward gay love in general.


A now elderly Hanna and Rachel canoodle in the garden.

Hannah Free has been characterized as the “Lesbian Brokeback Mountain” but that is a rather limiting way to describe this film. First off, it is much more than an “issue of the week” kind of movie; and secondly the stage version was written five years before Annie Proulx even wrote the short story that would become Brokeback Mountain. Speaking of writing, there is now a novelization of Hannah Free available!


Although the film does have its problems; some of the tangential characters are a bit crudely drawn (particularly an obnoxious evangelical woman who visits Hannah) and the script gets little talky and “stagebound” at times (always a danger when adapting a play) but this is still a very entertaining and important film that should be seen outside of the usual LGBT film circles.


Jacqui Jackson is fabulous as Greta, an interested party.

There might also be a temptation to think that this film is now outdated— but even with the recent much touted “sea-change” in public attitudes toward gay marriage (and the partial victories in court) it will still be many more years until this injustice is completely remedied across the country, so Hannah Free will unfortunately continue to be painfully relevant for some time to come.







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! 😉

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