Every January 1st it seems I have the same set of New Year’s resolutions. Over the years I’ve added a few and a few have dropped away, but the core resolves always stay the same. One of those that has made the list every year since I was 15 is “See more movies in the theater.” While it is clearly true that the genre of film is its own legitimate form of art, what is also true, to me at least, is that film has the power to transport in a way that other art forms do not, with the possible exception of the novel. This power to transport exists outside of subject matter and artistic intent. A film with serious intentions is neither more nor less transportive than a film whose sole objective is to entertain. Why does this matter?, you may ask. It matters because real diversion, actual imersive experience, subverts the stresses of the everyday. At minimum, it takes your mind off the laundry list of shit to do. At best, a good movie gives our mind a reprieve so that we may return to our own work invigorated and refreshed.
In Andersonville, there’s a hidden cinematic gem, Chicago Filmmakers. Okay, the “theater” is not so great, but Chicago Filmmakers is undoubtedly the best purveyor of independent cinema in Chicago. They are running a couple of series concurrently. Feminism Flatlined: The New Girl Series, “explores the impact of today’s media and an increasingly sexualized culture on teenage girls and young women.” Coming up is Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012). This documentary uses the superheroine Wonder Woman as a way to discuss media representations of strong women and what these representations mean to our society as a whole. I’m looking forward to the interviews with Linda Carter (Wonder Woman) and Lindsay Wagoner (Bionic Woman). Also at Chicago Filmmakers is the decade-old series Dyke Delicious. A lesbian centric film series, Dyke Delicious brings films that most likely wouldn’t show at a mainstream movie theater. March 9th they are showing the film Pariah (2011), the story of an African-American girl coming to terms with her butch identity. Pariah won the Sundance Award for Best Cinematography. If you are so inclined, Chicago Filmmakers offers classes and independent filmmaker services. Do check them out.
The opposite of the scrappy indie Chicago Filmmakers is the international theater chain Cinemark, which has a northerly outpost at the Century 12/ Cine Arts 6 Theater in Evanston. Much to my surprise, they host a national film series called Cinemark Classic Series, which plays at theaters across the country. I finished up the winter series last Wednesday with Saturday Night Fever (1977), a surprisingly sad and serious film despite the tsunami of cultural marshmallow fluff it spawned. The next series was just announced this week. Through March and April look forward to Forrest Gump (1994), West Side Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), American Beauty (1999), Casablanca (1943), and The Godfather (1972). The Cinemark website lists all of the theaters across the country that are hosting the series. And as an added bonus, on Valentine’s Day they’re showing all of the Die Hard films back-to-back, culminating in the release of the newest in the Die Hard saga. It’s hard to imagine anything more diverting than 12 hours of Bruce Willis.
Would that I were able to simply say, “Once a month I will go to the movies,” but I don’t have that kind of discipline. It takes a prepaid film series to get me out of the house during the week, especially at night, especially in winter. But the amazing thing about a film series is that you are there in theater with others who share your interest. Seeing a film in the theater is different than watching it at home. Somehow the big screen and the communal experience makes it easier to see these movies as works of art and not just a late night rerun.
I lived in San Francisco once. It sometimes feels distant now because I have even lived another place between there and here. San Francisco occupies an interesting place in the American imagination. Even though high rents and a sort of institutionalized and self-aware weirdness pervade much of the city, it is still, in fact, filled with oddballs, Peter Pans and visionaries. Its role in American culture is as a provocateur, a laboratory and a refuge. I think this is true and the city certainly thinks it’s true.
It was stirring, then, to see so much of San Francisco last week at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema screening of Stories Untold, one of over 20 different programs of (mostly) shorts under the umbrella of the Radical Light project. The project, whose full name is Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, encompasses a large, brimming book, those 20-some programs of experimental media and a gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Museum of Art. The monumental exhibition was facilitated by curators/editors/programmers Steve Anker (now the Dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, once of the San Francisco Cinematheque), Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Film and Video Curators at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive,). Over the course of a decade, the three scholars and exhibitors wove together a history of alternative and experimental media notable for the quality, diversity and energy of the work.
The book teems with interesting essays, artist pages, personal reflections and histories and, ecstatically, loads of ephemera from various screenings. Cinema is an event and even when large institutions are involved (SFMOMA, SFAI, KQED and BAM/PFA all having played interesting roles in the development of Bay Area media), the works and culture in Radical Light’s purview are scrappy, marginal and rule-defying. Flyers from shows, dispatches from seminal organizations and photographs enliven the text and remind young guns that the culture has always been suffused with polymaths—artists as curators as critics as janitors as flyer-makers as audiences as artists—and that making a show is as simple and as complex as making a show.
On Thursday February 16th, the excellent Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center brings Steve Anker and the New Preservation/New Prints program. The program features works from 1906 to 1984. A number of these films and some of their makers—for me, at least—fall under the “seen about but haven’t seen” category. Making this an even bigger treat is that these films have been well preserved and new prints have been struck. For all the great benefits of increased online visibility of canonical (and forgotten) experimental film history, the joy of seeing these works in a proper cinematic context and in their correct format is immense. You can watch Oh, Dem Watermelons by the recently deceased Robert Nelson below, but you’re better served just tasting it here and letting your interest be sated by real thing.
One week later, CATE brings us George Kuchar: HotSpell. I love Kuchar’s work, especially the video diaries he began to make in the 1980s. Ed Halter wrote this lovely piece on Kuchar for Artforum and I think it perfectly sums up what makes his work so endlessly watchable. The work is funny, smart and messy. It’s about cinematic representation and camp and biography and the weather while still mostly being about that moment. Halter nails it nicely: “cinema à la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making.”
Then, on Friday the 24th, Chicago Filmmakers hosts Radical Light’s Found Footage Films program. The Bay Area has had a long entanglement with collage and appropriative filmmaking. This program is of particular interest to me now because of the (seeming,) (current,) wholesale mainstream embrace of borrowed images. The ease of digital editing and prevalence of moving image media has enabled entire new folk arts of super-cuts, stretched videos and detourned mass media. Bring a teenage friend who’s never heard of Craig Baldwin or who can’t imagine what a debate about sampling would even be and see if the works’ radical histories can still be felt.
(Thad Povey‘s Thine Inward-Looking Eyes)
I had the privilege of helping bring some of Radical Light to Portland last year and with it Steve Seid. Among the great joys were meeting Loren Sears (the book is almost worth its price just for the picture of him from Bolinas in 1973 sitting cross-legged in his Video Van, a mobile video editing and processing station replete with patterned rugs and a lingering hippie/techno-utopian/media shaman vibe that feels quintessentially Bay Arean), having the chance to learn even more secrets than were divulged in the book and, if it isn’t too horn-tooting to admit, to participate in Seid’s reading by doing a performative reading as Kuchar, one of the few impressions I can do. Kuchar’s presence was all over last week’s screening and remains one of the many vital personalities Radical Light teases into the large, varied, tangential and fascinating tape-stry of a half century of inventive cinema.