It seems scandalous that Charles Burnett, the most gifted black American director offering purely realistic depictions of black urban life, has had to wait for more than a decade to get any of his films distributed in this country, and that this one only got made because Danny Glover agreed to play a leading role in it. (He also served as an executive producer.) Unlike Burnett’s previous and undistributed Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, his new feature is steeped in folklore, but that doesn’t prevent the film from giving us a depiction of contemporary black family life richer than we can find anywhere else. The plot concerns the arrival of one Harry Mention (Glover), an old friend from the rural south, on the doorstep of a family living in Los Angeles, and the subtle and not-so-subtle havoc that he wreaks on their lives. The family is headed by a retired farmer (Paul Butler) and his midwife spouse (Mary Alice), whose two married sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) are in constant conflict. Babe Brother (Brooks) is married to an upwardly mobile realtor (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and his relative distance from the family’s traditional ways is further exacerbated by the outsider’s influence on him. When the father mysteriously becomes ill, Harry Mention’s baleful and somewhat supernatural effect on the household finally causes a crisis. Burnett’s acute and sensitive direction is absolutely free of hackneyed movie conventions; even something as simple as a “Hello” is said differently from the way you’ve heard it in any other movie. All of Burnett’s features have the density of novels, rich with characters and their interplay, and this one is no exception. (Fine Arts)
The 26th Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second and final week with well over 60 programs to choose among. The range of selections, as usual, runs all the way from indispensable (Secret Love, Hidden Faces) to awful (The Mad Magician), from interesting and oddball (Vincent and Theo, Archangel, Recollections of the Yellow House) to slick and conventional (Superstar and Shaking the Tree).
It’s always a risk to go hunting at random with a festival as uneven as this one. But you’re almost certainly better off taking your chances with the films shown in the festival than lining up for an overpriced commercial release that will be out on video a few months from now anyway. By contrast, most of the foreign films showing this week at the festival are now-or-never propositions; if you don’t see them now, chances are you won’t get a second opportunity. And good or bad, most of them will tell you something about another part of the world that you probably didn’t already know. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the festival films are a dollar cheaper than the bad new Hollywood efforts that are currently clogging the multiplexes.
Reviews preceded by a checkmark are highly recommended by their respective reviewers. Screenings are at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, and the Fine Arts, 418 S. Michigan. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office the day of the screening starting one hour prior to the screening or at the film festival store at 444 N. LaSalle. They are also available by phone at 644-3456 or 559-1212. General admission to each program, with some exceptions, is $6, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. The 3-D movies cost $7 each, $6 for Cinema/Chicago members, which includes a pair of polarized 3-D glasses. The TV-commercials and “Best of the Festival” programs cost $10, $9 for Cinema/Chicago members; $10 sounds to me like a lot to pay for commercials designed to take even more of your money, but they’re traditionally the most popular event at the Chicago festival, so go figure. For further information, call 644-3456 or 559-1212.
Much as history is written by survivors, film history is frequently written by distributors. So the greatness of the serials of both Louis Feuillade and Jacques Rivette must remain a postulate for Americans who can’t see them, and the towering importance of the fascinating ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch is usually something U.S. viewers can only read about. Rouch was a pioneer in working with sync sound and in mixing fiction and narrative with documentary, usually through the creative intervention of the subjects being filmed–aspects that were to fundamentally influence the French New Wave. Fortunately, one of Rouch’s finest (and earliest) features–about three young men who leave Niger to find work in Ghana prior to its independence–has been unearthed for a rare screening. This film was made before sync sound was available, and Rouch invited the major characters to improvise a narrative over the footage, which is an amazing and often funny document in its own right. If you care about cinema and haven’t yet encountered Rouch, this shouldn’t be missed (1953). Chicago documentary filmmaker Judy Hoffman, a member of the Kartemquin collective who has worked with Rouch, will introduce the film and lead a discussion. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, October 5, 8:00, 281-8788)