“We were filling the gap in the 60s. We started changing people’s tastes in filmgoing to make them want to see more of this kind of product. And now the theaters that used to show it all have stopped showing it because the distributors do not buy foreign product anymore and foreign product is not being shown in the local theaters anymore. So, ironically, we’ve become the only source now, the festival, for this new kind of film.”
“I have always found that in Chicago, depending on the year, I find the critics to be a rather provincial lot, and they do tend to destroy their own [film festival] but they like seeing the very same film when they can get out of Chicago on a comp or a VIP tour to another festival. They seem to like it more when they can be extracted from their own city and relax and see films.”
“Kieslowski is a director we discovered, and the Decalogue would not exist without us, interestingly enough.”
These modest remarks by Michael J. Kutza, director of the Chicago International Film Festival, are quoted verbatim from John Callaway’s show Chicago Tonight on October 17. (In the interest of brevity, I’ve omitted Kutza’s groundless attacks on the aesthetic tastes of the programmers of the Toronto film festival and on the historical acumen of Dave Kehr.) Taken separately or together, I think these comments provide a helpful clue about what makes the Chicago festival, in spite of its undeniable virtues, something of an embarrassment.
In the course of these three statements, Kutza (1) blithely ignored the work of the Film Center and Facets Multimedia Center, both of which show foreign films year-round, and usually of a much higher overall quality than those that he shows; (2) discounted the considerable efforts of local critics to draw attention to the festival and particularly to the few essential works it does show; and (3) dismissed the international climate of opinion that has made Krzysztof Kieslowski’s name important quite independently of Kutza’s. (As Kieslowski himself tactfully pointed out shortly after the broadcast, while introducing his first feature, Camera Buff, at the Village, this film was shown at the Chicago festival 13 years ago only after it won first prize at the festival in Moscow.)
Solipsism of this kind is one of the things that prevent the Chicago festival from being the equal of those in Berlin, Denver, New York, Rotterdam, San Francisco, San Sebastian, Toronto, and Venice. The qualities that can be found at all the best festivals, in the U.S. and elsewhere, are predicated on a precise sense of what is happening in film and film history both locally and in the world at large, and a need and capacity to share some of that sense as it relates to the films selected. There’s no messianic zeal evident in the Chicago festival, and no flow of information that would help viewers to see the selected films in any context broader than that of the festival itself. It’s these absences that are largely behind the vaguer dissatisfactions that local critics have expressed over the years. Listing the main selections in the program guide according to nationality is certainly a step in the right direction, but as Barbara Scharres of the Film Center pointed out on the Callaway show, it is only a first step.
Having gotten this grumble off my chest, let me make some recommendations for this final week of the festival, based on what I’ve seen: Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York; Michael Moore’s Roger and Me; Christian Blackwood’s Motel; and Jacques Demy’s Three Seats for the 26th.
Screenings are at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport; the Village, 1548 N. Clark; Ida Noyes Hall on the University of Chicago campus, 1212 E. 59th St.; and the Three Penny, 2424 N. Lincoln. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office the day of the screening starting one hour prior to the first screening or at the film festival store at 1538 N. Clark. They are also available by phone at 644-3456 or at Ticketmaster: 559-1212 or 902-1500 (credit cards only). General admission to each program, with some exceptions, is $6, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. Major exceptions are the Chaplin programs, which are $5 general admission, $4 for Cinema/Chicago members, not including the two special presentations of City Lights at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, on Monday, October 30, where the ticket prices range from $6 to $25.
For further information, call 644-3456 or listen to radio stations WNUA (95.5 FM) or WBEZ (91.5 FM) for updates and coverage.
In the reviews that follow, films that are recommended by our critics are preceded by an asterisk (*).
Set in Portland, Oregon, in 1971, this amiable, no-nonsense account of the exploits of a quartet of junkies who live together (Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, and Heather Graham) fully lives up to the promise of Mala Noche, director Gus Van Sant’s previous feature. Based on an unpublished autobiographical novel by James Fogle that Van Sant adapted with Daniel Yost, the movie has the kind of stylistic conviction that immediately wins one over, conveying something of a junkie’s inner life (in the film’s editing rhythms, unorthodox use of sudden close-ups, and Dillon’s offscreen narration, as well as in a few hallucinatory passages) and the outer necessities of the life-style (which, in this case, include many drugstore robberies and changes of address). The characters are all quirky and life-size (the Dillon character’s superstitiousness is one of the principal motors of the plot, and the story’s outcome doesn’t prove him wrong), and, as with the burglaries in Breaking In, the treatment of drugs is refreshingly free of either moralizing or romanticizing. It’s one indication of Van Sant’s ease and assurance that he’s the first director to successfully integrate the persona of William S. Burroughs in a fiction film: all of the actors are used expertly, but it’s Burroughs, cropping up near the end, who articulates the film’s sociopolitical moral in a contemporary context. (Fine Arts)
This is my first encounter with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr (Family Nest) and I hope it won’t be my last. People who don’t have much use for the existential gloom of Antonioni and Tarkovsky are advised to stay away, because many of the hallmarks of that relentless black-and-white style and vision–lots of rain, fog, and stray dogs; murky and decaying bars; artfully composed long takes made up of very slow and almost continuous camera movements; offscreen mechanical noises–are so forcefully present here that one might argue that the film makes a voluptuous fetish of gloom. The rather bare story line in the middle of this–a reclusive loner (Miklos Szekely) is hopelessly in love with a cabaret singer (Vali Kerekes), hopes to find salvation in her, and gets her husband involved in a smuggling scheme so he can spend some time with her–seems almost secondary to the formal beauty of Tarr’s spellbinding arabesques around the dingiest of all possible industrial outposts. The near miracle is that something so compulsively watchable can be made out of a setting and society that seem so depressive and petrified (1987). (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, October 28, 9:00, and Sunday, October 29, 7:30, 281-4114)
Jon Amiel, a British director best known in this country for the miniseries The Singing Detective, directs a wonderful Italian family chronicle with a lot of style, lyricism, humor, and emotion. Tony Grisoni’s script deftly juggles a number of full-blown characters over 20-odd years while successfully employing a few touches of magical realism that Amiel makes the most of. Everything of consequence that happens stems from an incident in Italy that occurs without dialogue in the first few minutes: Danilo (Joseph Long) literally steals his lover Rosa (Anita Zagaria) away from an arranged marriage, and the angry groom Barbariccia (Vittorio Amandola) swears to take revenge. The couple go off to London with Rosa’s mother (Eileen Way) in tow, where they eventually have a lot of kids (their youngest son, played by Ian Hawkes, is the story’s narrator) and open a coffee shop in Soho; eventually Barbariccia comes to London as well, and gradually sets about achieving his revenge. Beautifully shot and richly detailed, this portrait of Italian life is leagues ahead of an effort like Moonstruck, and clearly marks Amiel as a talent to reckon with. (Fine Arts)
The surprising thing about Roland Joffe’s movie about the building of the first atomic bomb is that, for all its unevenness as filmmaking–with a fragmented story line, unconvincing period dialogue, and a soupy Ennio Morricone score that would be more appropriate in a Sergio Leone epic–it still comes across as an unusually intelligent and provocative treatment of its subject. Concentrating on the power relationship between General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman in a carefully crafted performance) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (newcomer Dwight Schultz), with plenty of time left for Oppenheimer’s feisty wife Kitty (Bonnie Bedelia), the romance between a young scientist (John Cusack) and a nurse (Laura Dern), and various other subplots, the movie starts off as scattered, and never fully recovers from the splintered interests of Joffe and Bruce Robinson’s ambitious script. (The corny handling of Oppenheimer’s relationship to his Communist mistress, played by Natasha Richardson, is especially unfortunate.) But the film steadily grows in complexity and power, assisted by Vilmos Zsigmond’s superb cinematography, and by the end it actually winds up saying something persuasive and troubling about the network of forces that ultimately produced the bomb–a vast improvement on such earlier commercial treatments of the subject as The Beginning or the End (1947), which gave us Brian Donlevy as Groves and Hume Cronyn as Oppenheimer, without a trace of irony about either character. Joffe may remain as variable a filmmaker as ever, but this time, at least, he gives one something really solid to think about. (Biograph, Chicago Ridge, Golf Mill, Woodfield, Ridge, Water Tower, Oakbrook, Orland Square, Norridge, Old Orchard, Ford City East, Harlem-Cermak)