My Brush with Reel Chicago

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.


Scanning Life Through the Picture Windows: Young Americans (1967)

In 1968 five documentary films were nominated for an Oscar but you’d never know that from looking at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website. The site claims to feature a complete list of all the Oscar nominees and winners, but on the official web page for the 41st Oscar ceremony there are only four nominees listed instead of the customary five. James Blue’s A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM, Harry Chapin‘s THE LEGENDARY CHAMPIONS, David H. Sawyer‘s OTHER VOICES and Bill McGaw’s JOURNEY INTO SELF all receive credit but the original Oscar winning documentary of 1968 is suspiciously absent.

Despite the website snub, the fact remains that YOUNG AMERICANS took home the award for Best Documentary that year but director Alexander Grasshoff was forced to return his Oscar a few months later due to one of the Academy’s most notorious blunders. Thankfully the documentary still exists even if it has been forgotten by the Academy and it remains a fascinating relic from a decade that I too often categorize as “swinging” and “groovy.” I must point out that there’s nothing swinging or groovy about YOUNG AMERICANS. In fact, it’s an extremely square film but it offers audiences a unique and undeniably conservative look at American culture in the sixties that is as revealing as it is deceiving.



It’s been a little over a year since I debuted here, and in that time I’ve stirred up a handful of firestorms–but weirdly, not the ones I expected.  I posted a clip of Buster Keaton as a sympathetic Nazi general, and nobody chirped a word of protest.  I ran a whole blog about blackface comedians, and the comments thread it initiated was reasoned, intelligent and low-key.  I facetioustly pretended that The Thing was a Christmas movie, defended Popeye, and praised Charlie Chaplin imitators.

But the one time I provoked serious anger and acrimony was the time I suggested that William Haines–William Haines!–wasn’t all that funny (I got called “hateful” for that one!)

When I wrote last week’s post about the Muppets, I figured I was running a risk.  Critics say nice things about heavily hyped contemporary movies at their own peril.  But my positive thoughts on the new Muppets wasn’t what kicked up dust–heavens, no.  The vitriol came out in my offhanded reference to Orson Welles having appeared in the 1979 Muppet MovieSomehow, this prompted the comments thread to start to tear into F for Fake. (how?)

To be fair, it was just one lone voice, wailing into the ether about how much he hated the Muppets, and F for Fake.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a put-on, somebody simply trying to bait me.  But I’m not above being baited.  I won’t stand by and let anybody talk smack about F for Fake, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time.  Consider the battle joined.

Let's get in on!


A New Film Roster

Today marks the last day of my Fall calendar film program. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get working on the next one. My goal is to find 50 titles that provide repertory programming, community and academic outreach, festival favorites, cult oddities, challenging cinema, quality docs, along with enough arthouse money-makers and crowd-pleasers to keep the whole damn thing alive. The ideal mix honors the past, is grounded in the present, and has an eye for the future. Like a good friend, it needs to have the temerity to confront you with uncomfortable truths, take you to new places, introduce you to new talents, provide a window to other cultures, feed the mind, feed the soul, provide catharsis, tears, laughter, and a wide variety of surprises.  A few directors come to mind who try to do all those things in one film, but this at risk of making you nauseous. (I’m looking at you Takashi Miike!) What follows are some of my top-picks (so far) as I consider titles to include in my Spring calendar. [...MORE]

Georgia on My Mind

Every week I seem to have a conversation with someone about the rapid passage of time. Where did the summer go? The month of September? This week? Enjoying anything at a leisurely pace or taking time to ensure that a task is well done have become casualties of our fast-paced, urbanized lifestyles: The immediate delivery of services, information, and goods is more important than their quality; overworked employees in a downsized job market multi-task and work overtime to compensate for the loss of coworkers. Taking eleven years to create and produce a film seems out of sync in the new millennium and the new economy, but then everything about Robert Persons’ General Orders No. 9 goes against the grain of our contemporary world.

General Orders No. 9 is almost impossible to describe and categorize, which makes it difficult to market—a strike against it, according to conventional wisdom.  Various reviewers have described it as “a tone poem,” “an experimental documentary,” and “an essay film.” None of those phrases sound particularly inviting; neither do they adequately convey what General Orders No. 9 is about. Not that I blame the reviewers. I doubt if anything I come up with is going to do justice to the film either.



“This film has cross-over appeal that connects with progressive hippies and Tea Party members alike. It’s about government raids on local and organic farmers.” I’d had a long working relationship with the distributor who was telling me this over the phone, but in the past Jessica had been a broker for classics of the silent era as well as representing some of the biggest names in both the realm of foreign and contemporary arthouse movies. This was a very different and far cry from Dersu Uzala. It was a debut low-budget documentary called Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms.   [...MORE]

Pining for Lost Bohemia

What do movie stars Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando, painter Childe Hassam, writer Mark Twain, New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, and dancer Isadora Duncan have in common?

These American artists, who so excelled at their crafts that their names can be found in the history books, lived or trained in the artists’ colony that existed for over 100 years in the two towers above Carnegie Hall. The towers contained 160 artist studios where painters, musicians, actors, photographers, dancers, and teachers lived, worked, or taught.  Prior to seeing the documentary Lost Bohemia at the Sarasota Film Festival, I didn’t realize that this magical world—where art was the center of the residents’ lives—had ever existed.  “Had existed” is the operative phrase as the artists were evicted and their uniquely designed studios destroyed or reconfigured by the Carnegie Hall Corporation. Why would they destroy a 100-year-old artists’ colony that was a living history of the popular arts in America? Well, the operative word there is “Corporation.”



The film series I program celebrated its 70th year anniversary last night with a concert film matinee from 1988, followed by a musician-studded film that was retooled last year, all of which was capped off with two live concerts in a building that was once an 800-seat film theater smack in the middle of downtown. I’m still recuperating from the festivities, which stretched out to into the morning hours. In the interest of full disclosure I should let you know that I’m writing this in a state of only semi-consciousness and am probably still legally intoxicated, this thanks to the 70-cent Imperial Stouts we had on tap to promote our 70th anniversary. If this post gets ugly or sloppy I’ll blame more than the booze and also point the finger to rock-and-roll. It’s what happens to be on my throbbing brain right now. Specifically: some of my favorite concert docs that are usually overlooked by the mainstream.


Sundance 2011: 20 paragraphs for 20 films

Last week I saw 20 films in five days at Sundance. With just over 200 films listed in the index, that means I barely covered 10% of the slate. Documentaries are a Sundance forté, so it’s not surprising that almost half of the films I screened fall into this category. Similarly, as most docs these days never get transferred to film that accounts for why about half of all my screenings were digital projections. Happily, despite many rumblings by industry pundits regarding the eminent death of 35mm film, most of the narrative features were still on celluloid. Huzzah! [...MORE]

The Film David Lynch Doesn’t Want You to See

David Lynch celebrated his 65th birthday last Thursday and Fellow Morlock RH Smith honored one of America’s most respected directors by offering a thought-provoking post comparing Lynch with Edgar Allan Poe as artists who traffic in a peculiar brand of American macabre. Elsewhere on the Internet, bloggers and cinephiles revealed their high regard for the Master of Muholland Drive by noting his special day. The attention and respect given Lynch is deserved, given his auteur status, body of work, and reputation as America’s premier surrealist of the cinema. Coincidentally, I recently caught a film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival that revealed another side to Lynch, and I wonder if his devoted fans will think of him differently should they see it.

David Wants to Fly was not the best film I saw at the festival but it may have been my favorite.  This diary-style documentary by David Sieveking, a young filmmaker from Germany, is deceptively light in tone, but it is actually a complex combination of a personal journey, an investigative expose, and a commentary on hero worship. The film opens in 2006 with a young Sieveking fresh out of film school, unemployed, and living with his independent-minded girlfriend. With no direction, job, or sense of himself, he decides to travel to Fairfield, Iowa, for a workshop conducted by his idol, David Lynch, on the sources of creativity. There, Sieveking discovers that the event is being held at the Maharishi University of Enlightenment and that much of the workshop is about Transcendental Meditation. Lynch has been a practitioner of TM for about 30 years, but he did not begin advocating it publicly until after the turn of the millennium. In addition to workshops at Maharishi U, Lynch has written a book titled Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity. Transcendental Meditation is the spiritual movement begun by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who initiated many celebrities into TM in the 1960s, including the Beatles, Mia Farrow, and Donovan.  Through TM, the Maharishi promised creativity, good health, success, and “heaven on earth.”

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