Posted by Susan Doll on February 27, 2012
Filmmakers dedicated to documentary make hundreds of nonfiction films every year, few of which are widely distributed and exhibited to the general public. Film festivals, cinematheques, special programs affiliated with museums and universities, and PBS are the primary avenues of distribution for new documentaries. The mode lacks the commercial or institutional infrastructure of feature filmmaking that results in any organized perpetuation or preservation, resulting in the loss or deterioration of too many documentaries.
The home viewing industry has offered another avenue for viewers to discover documentaries and another format for filmmakers and distributors to release –and even restore—films. For the last year, I have worked on a long-term project at Facets involving the restoration of several Chicago-based documentaries from the past. Dubbed Reel Chicago, the series features five DVDs showcasing the work of filmmakers working in the city from the 1960s through the 1980s. Two films in the series, The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago by Jill Godmilow and Maxwell Street Blues by Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky, are now available. I am working hard on the third in the series, Tom Palazzolo’s Chicago, scheduled for an April release, and I have just started the final two, The Films of Gordon Wiesenborn and The People Versus Paul Crump by William Friedkin (yes, the William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist). The series represents one of my favorite projects while working at Facets, and I am excited that my hard work is coming to fruition. Today’s post places these films in context with Chicago’s unsung but remarkable documentary tradition; next week, I will talk about the process and frustrations of restoring and preparing films for DVD release.
In documentary history, discussion of the 1960s-1980s is dominated by the work of the great cinema verite filmmakers, including Robert Drew and his famous Associates, Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles. A distinction was made by these filmmakers between verite and direct cinema, but both styles/movements are the result of technical innovations that changed the conventions of the documentary. By 1960, the availability of lightweight, portable 16mm cameras, wireless sync sound recorders, and wireless microphones allowed filmmakers to follow their subjects unobtrusively with a camera and recorder. Some of this technology, including a wireless synchronization system based on crystal-controlled motors, was developed by Drew and his group in the very early 1960s. Hand-held mobile camerawork, natural lighting, and direct sound recording became the conventions of a new type of documentary, connoting a “you are there” quality that appeared to be more realistic and objective than the old-school, tightly structured docs driven by a scripted voiceover. Long takes of hand-held shots unbroken by editing became a signifier of the objectivity of the verite cameraman. Verite was considered unpredictable, ambiguous, and realistic compared to the poetic style of early documentarians or the emphatic nature of newsreels or information-driven docs. The French and Americans who embraced this mode disagreed regarding the intent of the filmmaker: The French tended to provoke with their cameras, while Americans, who preferred the term direct cinema, strove to be the unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
In the mid- to late 1960s, Chicago-based filmmakers developed their own views and approaches on the new style of documentary, and they were less concerned with the rules and guidelines of proper verite procedures and more concerned with capturing their subjects. Though these filmmakers did not work together or even know each other, like the Drew Associates had, they shared enough characteristics in common to compel me to refer to them as a school or movement, albeit a loose-knit one. I can’t help it; it’s the teacher in me that wants to organize and clarify eras and filmmakers in order to place them in a larger context. The members of this “school” of documentary include the directors of the films in the Reel Chicago series in addition to the filmmakers of Kartemquin Film and The Film Group, among others.
The verite techniques are clearly noticeable in the work of these directors, including the handheld long takes, use of direct sound, and natural lighting, but the camerawork seems straightforward, even rough and gritty compared to the fluidity of someone like Albert Maysles. Over- or underexposed scenes are not uncommon, as are unclear audio and shaky hand-held. The primary concern seemed to be to “get” the shot of an event or moment that could never be duplicated, not polished technique. The Chicago filmmakers were also personally and emotionally connected to their subjects in a way the advocates of direct cinema sought to avoid. Cinema verite filmmaking became associated with a social agenda, often documenting our society’s ills and issues of the 1960s and 1970s, but some of the Chicago filmmakers wore their hearts and their politics on their sleeves. I am not suggesting that no other verite documentarians became personally involved with their subjects; I am saying that this characteristic seems particularly common among Chicago’s filmmakers.
Another thread among the Chicago filmmakers, and another characteristic that sets them apart from the Drew Associates, is that many of them were affiliated with universities when they began making films. Some learned about cinema verite, direct cinema, and Free Cinema while in college, including Tom Palazzolo who discovered Free Cinema—a major influence on his work—while a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The founders of Kartemquin—Jerry Temaner, Gordon Quinn, and Stan Karter—were graduates of the University of Chicago when they began to make films based on a principle they dubbed “cinematic social inquiry.” Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky, directors of Maxwell Street Blues, were affiliated with the University of Illinois; Jill Godmilow, director of The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago, is a long-time faculty member at Notre Dame.
These filmmakers are rarely mentioned in documentary histories, and when they are, it’s as an extension of the New York verite filmmakers. In an article titled “Documentary Becomes Engaged and Verite” for The Documentary Tradition, Lewis Jacobs mentions The Film Group’s Cicero March (1968), but his focus is on the compelling or hot topics of verite filmmakers in general, not on philosophical or stylistic differences. I heard Mike Gray of The Film Group speak about Cicero March. His perspective while shooting this civil rights march was from inside the ranks of the black marchers as they walked through a white neighborhood. Based on the position of the camera, the viewer understands what it is like to be one of the marchers, and by extension what it is like to be black in Chicago. In making the film, Gray and The Film Group were clearly taking a stand and a side. (Cicero March is available as an extra on Facets’ release of The Murder of Fred Hampton.) In the same section, Jacobs discusses Leacock and Maysles’ film Primary (1960), a documentary about the Wisconsin Democratic Primary for the presidential race. In Primary, John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey are followed around the state as they campaign for votes. While some have suggested that Kennedy was privileged in the documentary because he comes off as charismatic and competent, it is subtle and debatable. Leacock and Maysles did not openly take sides. The two approaches to verite documentary are equally valid, but there is a difference between the two, and that difference helps define the Chicago style. The distinction shoots down the myth that documentaries are supposed to be objective and offer all sides to an issue or topic—a myth propagated by news-style documentaries that rarely achieve that objective anyway.
Not all of the Chicago-based documentary filmmakers were as political as Mike Gray, who also made The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), which revealed the facts behind the death of Black Panther leader at the hands of Chicago police, and American Revolution 2 (1969), which featured footage from inside the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, an event the city has yet to live down. In the hands of Gray, the camera was truly a weapon.
The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago (1978) and Maxwell Street Blues (1981), the first two films in the Reel Chicago series, chronicle two of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods and the music and culture associated with each. The films are examples of ethnographic documentary, which records and therefore preserves the culture of an ethnic group or subculture. The term sounds too scientific and cold to adequately describe these two films, but directors Jill Godmilow and Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky did indeed capture and therefore preserve the music of two neighborhoods of Chicago that are now gone.
The Popovich Brothers, which was shot in America’s bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Eli, Adam, Marko, and Ted Popovich who had been performing in their Yugoslav Tamburica Orchestra for almost 50 years. Tamburitza music is a type of Serbian folk music that is dominated by stringed instruments. Their father Nikola Popovich had immigrated to the American West in 1902 to support his family as a miner. Family and friends would gather around the table at the end of the long work day to play music and relax. The tamburtiza music cemented strong bonds among family members and relieved the stress of the grueling days in the mines. Nikola handed down the music and the songs to his children, who formed a band and moved to Chicago in the 1920s. They worked as truck drivers and steel-mill hands during the week and played music on the weekends, which served to pass along the music and sense of tradition to their children and cement the bonds of community among the city’s Serbian-Americans. Godmilow’s film depicts the group just after a crisis when Marko dies unexpectedly at age 60. Reeling from his death, the brothers must decide whether to carry on, or give up the band. Their dilemma raises questions of maintaining traditions versus assimilation and the effect of both on personal and social identity.
Most of the steel mills on the South Side have closed, and the Popovich Brothers passed away long ago, while Chicago’s Serbian-American community has scattered over the decades. And, though the son of one of the brothers occasionally plays in a Serbian band in Pittsburgh, we know that assimilation and time have pushed the Popoviches and their music into the past, giving the film an aching melancholy that will likely affect those who have lost touch with their own roots, whatever they may be.
Maxwell Street Blues captures the tail end of the open-air Maxwell Street Market on the city’s near South Side, where the Chicago blues were born. In the early 1910s, Jewish residents had established the Maxwell Street Market, modeling it after European markets. Push cart vendors and store owners hawked their wares to throngs of regular customers who were excited by the sights and sounds of an open-air market. During the late 1910s, African Americans began migrating to Chicago from the South, settling in the Maxwell Street area. Blues artists began performing in front of stores, in open lots, or on the sidewalk to attract customers, earn cash, or build reputations. By the 1940s a second generation of blues artists, including Muddy Waters, had moved to Chicago, and they fostered a new, urbanized blues using electric guitars. Merchants allowed the musicians to run extension cords from their businesses as they played on the sidewalks—a perfect example of symbiotic relationship between the Chicago blues and Maxwell Street.
The story of the evolution of the Chicago blues is one of my favorite parts of the city’s history. But, Chicago is a city that likes to destroy, ignore, or bury its most culturally significant history—whether it be architecture, popular entertainment, or the blues. In the 1980s, the University of Illinois at Chicago devised a plan to expand into Maxwell Street. The university began buying property in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, even using the right of eminent domain to force owners to sell. The city supported the university by cutting off services to Maxwell Street, including regular garbage pick-up. In 1994, the city closed the open-air market, and in 1996, it declared Maxwell Street a blighted area. Sometime around 1999-2000, Little Sonny Scott, Jr., gave the last blues performance on Maxwell Street.
Maxwell Street Blues captures a still thriving market but the scene had begun to deteriorate. When recalling the making of the film, codirector Linda Williams (now a highly respected film scholar and professor at USC-Berkeley), noted, “There couldn’t have been a stronger contrast between the modernist concrete bunker-like structures of the growing and ever-encroaching new campus (my livelihood) and the rubble of Maxwell Street’s vacant lots, with half abandoned red-brick row houses (the diminishing livelihood of the neighborhoods’ African American and Mexican American inhabitants). It was only a matter of time before the university or the gentrification taking place around it would swallow up the old neighborhood and its Sunday morning tradition of an outlandish flea market.”
The musicians featured in the film—Arvella Gray, Jim Brewer, Carrie Robinson, Tenner “Playboy” Venson—are not blues stars. Most of them had never recorded or even backed other musicians in recordings, and most of them (and their instruments) had seen better days. But, they were the stalwarts who played their hearts out every Sunday because it was part of their identity and part of a tradition and culture they were proud of. The verite style of the film depicts the musicians’ meager existence in a matter-of-fact way, without pity and without comment; it also captures their understanding of the music and its place in their lives. Arvella Gray was blind and missing two fingers on one hand, the result of a nasty accident when he was young. In the film, he recalls how he was encouraged to live his life in an institution for the blind, dependent on others for his well being. He escaped from that situation to become a self-sufficient bluesman in Chicago. Gray’s story unfolds through long takes of the musician wandering down Maxwell Street on a Sunday, playing his guitar and singing. They are intercut with shots of him and friend Jim Brewer in Gray’s apartment, singing and recalling their pasts. Gray did not consider himself handicapped because of his blindness or loss of fingers, a point made in a scene in which he shows 8mm movies of Maxwell Street that he had taken. Though he can’t see the films, shooting 8mm home movies had become a hobby for him.
There are several documentaries about Chicago’s Maxwell Street, but most are conventional PBS or History Channel-style films with voiceover narration and interviews with scholars and former residents. Thick with nostalgia, these docs tend to tell you what you are looking at via the voiceover and romanticize the area and its residents—like a virtual tourist trip to the past. In contrast, the verite style of Maxwell Street Blues puts viewers in the gritty, litter-strewn streets or sets them down in Gray’s humble apartment, so they can witness and experience the sights and sounds of the area without nostalgia or the romanticized view of the filmmaker.
The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago and Maxwell Street Blues can be found on the Facets website to buy or rent. The films are also for sale through Amazon, including through their Amazon Instant Video service. Unfortunately, Netflix does not seem interested in carrying these documentaries.
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