As a bracing alternative to the steady diet of straight story films and talking-heads documentaries of the Chicago Film Festival–as well as the hit-or-miss selection that makes random viewing a very high risk venture–the experimental shorts at the fourth annual Onion City Film Festival offer a breath of fresh air. Apart from the intriguing-sounding Chicago-Frankfurt Film Exchange, which is being offered as a separate special event (see listings), two three-hour programs have been put together representing work all across North America, and the overall quality and diversity of talents on display are impressive indeed. Judging from the ten films I’ve seen, comprising about a third of the selections, there are no major breakthroughs, but a lot of interesting and energetic forays. Today Is Sunday, a lovely black-and-white, elliptical seminarrative by Chicago performance artist Jean Sousa, gravitates around a beachside location and is punctuated by suggestive, free-floating intertitles and isolated bursts of music. Chick Strand’s Artificial Paradise, shot over three years in Mexico, interweaves a kaleidoscope of colorful visual and aural textures in dancelike rhythms; Alex Prisadsky’s short and silent Dmitri and Ramona performs a sprightly jig of its own using only printed words. Domenic Angerome’s Continuum does wonderful things with tar, paint, and other aspects of urban street work in striking high-contrast black-and-white photography that evokes the 30s, while Scott Guitteau’s Advanced Civilized Nation makes politically provocative use of found footage. Chel White’s novel The Key of Dreams repeats and mixes the same crisp images and sounds in various combinations to create a Spike Jones syncopation, and Sharon Couzin accompanies the frenetic palpitations of Shells and Rushes with some very strange-sounding Eskimo throat music. Check these programs out for some sensual feasts, including a certain amount of food for thought–scarce quantities these days on the commercial circuits. (Northwestern Univ. Swift Auditorium, 1905 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Friday, October 30, and Saturday, October 31, 8:00, 486-2025 or 869-7664)
From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 1987). — J.R.
Genre specialist John Carpenter returns to the principle of confined space that he used as a disciplinary structure in Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing in this horror thriller set in an abandoned church. The main difference here from earlier Carpenter films is the heavy metaphysical baggage: a team of graduate students and teachers (including Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, and Jameson Parker) in physics and science is summoned by a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence) to study an ancient religious manuscript that proves to contain differential equations (long before such equations were developed), and a canister containing a green liquid that proves to be seven million years old. Mathematics combines with demonology to produce a variant on Night of the Living Dead, and while the church is playfully called Saint Godard’s, the pivotal use and significance of mirrors spawned by the canister liquid might make Saint Cocteau’s a more appropriate appellation. While the dense significations of the script (credited to one “Martin Quatermass”) may get a bit thick in spots, Carpenter’s handsome ‘Scope images generally make the most of them, and some haunting poetic notions — such as video images from the future that appear as recurring dreams dreamt by the church’s inhabitants — figure effectively in the plot. (Bolingbrook, Chestnut Station, Golf Glen, Grove, Orland Square, Plaza, River Oaks, United Artists, Woodfield, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak, Deerbrook, Evanston, Norridge, Hillside Square)
The 23rd Chicago International Film Festival, running from Monday, October 19, through Sunday, November 8, promises 131 separate programs, not counting repeats. As a newcomer to this event who has attended about a dozen other international film festivals, most of them several years in a row, I can offer at this point only a single, broad generalization about what seems to make Chicago’s relatively pluralistic and amorphous, for better and for worse.
Although film festivals come in all shapes and sizes, one can generally make a loose distinction between the free-for-alls, where anything and everything is likely to turn up (Cannes, London, Los Angeles’s Filmex), and the ones with a more discernible selection process that tend to project a more critical and polemical profile (Toronto, New York, Rotterdam). By reputation and to all appearances, Chicago belongs more in the first category than in the second. What this means in practice is that the shopping spectator has to become his or her own critic while browsing through the festival schedule, rather than trust in either fate or some imagined philosophical unity in director Michael Kutza’s selections.
Practically speaking, with a festival this size, taking some initiative is what everyone has to do anyway. Unless you intend to see half a dozen films a day for nearly three weeks, it becomes necessary to carve out your own piece of the action. You might want to concentrate on the festival’s designated subcategories–Latin American films, Asian films, Italian films, golden oldies from Paramount, contemporary world cinema–but be forewarned that even there the quality of what you see is likely to range from the sublime to the awful. Any festival that elects to show the latest Claude Lelouch as well as the latest Alain Resnais can’t be accused of having any particular ax to grind.
As a partial aid to festivalgoers, we have endeavored to round up as many critical reviews of the movies as possible, commissioned either from writers who have seen the films at other festivals or from reviewers who have more recently attended this festival’s press screenings. (Overall, for the festival’s three weeks, we have drawn on the critical talents of 20 writers from nine cities–Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington–although others may conceivably join the fray before were done.) When we couldn’t get a review, we resorted to a brief description, drawn from the festival’s own blurb if we had nowhere else to turn. Having seen only a handful of the films myself at this point, I can only add my major recommendations–Alain Resnais’ Melo, Leos Carax’s Bad Blood, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Clarence Badger’s It–scheduled for the weeks ahead.
In the meantime, a few basic ground rules: Screenings are at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln, and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, except for opening night at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office the day of the screening, starting one hour prior to the first screening, at the Film Festival stores at 1551 N. Wells and 1157 N. State, or by calling 664-3400 (credit cards only). General admission to each program (with some exceptions–see below) is $6.50, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. Exceptions: (A) All weekday 5 PM screenings are $4 general admission, $3 for Cinema/Chicago members. (B) Opening night is another ball game entirely: the movie cost: $5-$15, and a cool $150 gets you into both the movie and the party.
For further information, call 644-3400 (questions) or 644-5454 (24 hour update/hotline), or listen to radio stations WBBM (78 AM) or WNUA (95.5 FM), or watch WMAQ TV (Channel Five) for updates and coverage. Happy hunting!
From the Chicago Reader (October 16, 1987). — J.R.
Hitchcock lives! David Mamet’s first time out as a director is a thriller about compulsive behavior and con games, done with a sureness of touch and taste that shows a better understanding of Hitchcockian obsessions than the complete works of Brian De Palma. The viewer has to adjust to Mamet’s theatrical reflexes, which impart a certain strangeness to both the performances and the staging — such as confidential conversations held within earshot of characters who don’t hear them, because the conventions of theater space are employed rather than the usual conventions of filmic space. But once past this barrier, one is easily seduced by Mamet’s storytelling gifts, which deliver a shapely script (developed with Jonathan Katz), full of its own con games and compulsions, with an adroit grasp of emphasis and pacing. Lindsay Crouse (Mamet’s wife) plays a successful upper-crust psychiatrist and author whose feelings of frustration in treating her criminally involved patients goad her into a walk on the wild side, beginning with the eponymous gambling den, with Joe Mantegna as her guide. Apart from uniformly fine performances — with Mike Nussbaum, Lilia Skala, and J.T. Walsh among the major secondary parts — the film has striking hard-edged photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia, and a good score by Alaric Jans that nimbly integrates a Bach fugue. (Fine Arts) (JR)