During the month of January the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts a series that spotlights new works of documentary films in a series called, Stranger Than Fiction: Documentary Premiers. For this month we will check out a couple of films including Mine, Prodigal Sons, and this week’s pick, An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps.
Directed by Philippe Seclier, An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps documents the filmmaker’s attempt to capture scenes from Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s seminal work The Americans. Published in 1959, the book first came under criticism before it was heralded as a body of work that portrayed a complex portrait of American life on the cusp of the 60s. Beginning his journey after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship Frank traveled 15,000 miles documenting a side of America that typically was not portrayed in photography at the time.
While meeting with friends and colleagues we get a better idea of how the artist worked. Primarily editing from contact sheets and often throwing away unwanted negatives Frank appeared to have an intuitive approach when it came to selecting his frames. A scene that really stands out in the film happens near the beginning when we get a chance to see the maquette Frank put together for the first edition. It’s worn down and dirty but the object almost feels as if it reflects many of the subjects within the series, humble, dignified, and underrepresented.
I have to give Seclier some credit, he knows how long to make a doc. Clocking in at only 60 minutes, the film, although filmed with a handheld (which I hate), quickly moves through the American landscape. It is unclear if he visited every location from the book but after viewing a handful it would be hard to show all without feeling repetitive. Although we walk away with small stories about Frank’s travel it is not a particularly powerful portrait of the artist. Instead, we are left with the notion of changing landscapes, urbanization, and mortality.
An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps will be playing:
Thursday, January 14th at 6:00pm
Gene Siskel Film Center
164 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60601-3505
October 22, 2009 · Print This Article
Presented by the Department of Film Video and New Media at SAIC, the Video Data Bank and the Gene Siskel Film Center, as part of their Conversations at the Edge series, Mark is a video portrait of Mark Karbusicky, created after his suicide in 2007.
Director Mike Hoolboom began his opening remarks by stating that there was a time in his life when all the good things happened in a movie theater, until a day in 2007 when he found out that his friend and collaborator of six years Mark had killed himself, which he was told right before a movie began. Yikes.
The film reads less like a documentary and more like a moving collage of stock footage, childhood portraits and relics, as well as interviews with his friends and family. Beginning with his oldest childhood friend, the film traces the life of a man you end up knowing less about in the end than you did to begin with. It is an odd portrait in that it seems to capture more the periphery of his life than actually attempting to memorialize the man himself. Or perhaps documenting the margins of his life, his politics, odd moments in home videos, Hoolboom was attempting to achieve a more genuine view of Mark as a person.
Created mostly of footage taken by his partner (who happens to be transsexual, although this is actually irrelevant), of her own performances and activism, Mark by default seems to be the supporting character in his own life memorium. Mark was clearly a tortured person. Deeply invested in animal rights, queer politics, and helping others with mental illness, a lot of attention was focused on how little he cared about himself and put all others before him. Hoolboom spoke after the screening about how the film was created in the space between the way things were before Mark had died and before things had settled into the way they would be after his death. The rawness of this period is apparent especially in the interviews, which were all done within the year after his death.
The film is edited to create an intense amount of tension. Many pieces of footage are overlapped, the hand-heldness is emphasized in upside down and shaky camera work, and shots seems to be just too short, or just too long or just too out of focus for one to feel comfortable. In an interview with one of Mark’s friend and coworker, the camera is at table height, and the woman is half obscured by a large candle holder. The focus goes in and out as she tells this heart-wrenching rendition of their final interaction. After the screening, Hoolboom explains that he wanted to give his interviewees physical space, and referenced this shot in particular to demonstrate how he wanted the candle to mediate the space between her and the camera. Although I acknowledge the gesture after he spoke about it, during the shot I felt myself wanting to peer around the obstacle and actually see her face. Another shot I thought was more successful was that of Mark’s partner Mihra-Soleil Ross; the camera was focused on the deep red wall of their apartment, you could see a bookcase and a plant, and she walked almost around the frame while she spoke about her recurring dreams during their ten year relationship that he had left her. Her body was just present enough to give you a sense of agency, but the lack of her presence really caused you to focus on her words and storytelling.
I wish the voiceover was left out. Hoolboom in person is charming and eloquent and gesticulates beautifully; on screen his voice seems affected and melodramatic. I think the subtly is lost when documentarians feel the need to describe what has happened instead of letting moods come across through images.
The film was successful in that it felt vast and encompassing, through the use of stock footage that spanned decades, Mark’s own home videos and photos as well as different people speaking about him. It did not feel like the entire momentum of the piece lead up to a dramatic revelation of how he killed himself, which was refreshing. Hoolboom said that his death was not the most important thing that happened in his life, and I think the film reflected this sentiment.
September 22, 2009 · Print This Article
What’s the Matter with Kansas? directed by Joe Winston is based on Thomas Frank’s best selling novel which shares the same name. This film does, however, differ in it’s setting from the book. It acts a bit more like a squeal than as an adaptation. The film begins with the 2006 attorney general elections instead of the books 2004 presidential elections. Throughout the documentary we uncover the surprising liberal history of the state of Kansas.
Lacking a narrator, the film presents itself as a collection of portraits from various members of the Kansas community, both liberal and conservative. Within the first 20 minutes of the film we meet Angel Dillard and Brittany Barden who are both Republican activists, farmer Donn Teske, and my personal favorite, artist M.T. Liggett. Most of the beginning of the film touches on some of the hot topics, such as abortion and gay marriage that have swayed voters over to the Republican Party. It really is unfair to compare this film’s documentation of people’s thoughts on abortion with Tony Kaye’s stunning film Lake of Fire but I am going to have to draw a line to that film. If you haven’t seen it go out and get it. It really is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the past five years. FYI it’s not for the faint of heart. At times I found the film a little long even with it being only an hour and a half. Aesthetically it felt actually rather well composed. There were plenty of meandering shots that gave you an idea of some of the economic hardships that the citizens on Kansas were facing. I also enjoyed the voyeuristic look onto the other political spectrum while still staying in my liberal bubble. Truth be told, I might have been more invested if I had read the book or had been from Kansas.
Gene Siskel Film Center
164 North State Street
Chicago Il 60601
Tuesday, September 22nd, 6:15pm and 8:15 pm
Wednesday, September 23rd, 6:15pm and 8:15 pm
Thursday, September 24th, 6:15pm and 8:15 pm
I posted about this little gem of a film a few weeks ago here; since then, I’ve had a chance to view “Herb and Dorothy” (directed by first-time filmmaker Megumi Sasaki) and just as I’d hoped, it’s terrific. It’s screening in Chicago this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center, so here’s your chance to see it too. The film has already been widely reviewed; I don’t have anything more to add other than to note that I particularly enjoyed the brief but sensitive observations about the New York contemporary art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel made by Richard Tuttle, an artist whom I’ve rarely seen interviewed on camera. Quite simply, this is a film about what it takes to be a great collector: not tons of cash, not connections, not a prescient view of the market. It’s about a way of looking at art, exemplified by Herb Vogel’s manner of staring down an artwork with a look of ferocious, devoted intensity. Don’t miss it.
The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, July 3rd at 6pm, Sunday, July 5 at 5:30pm and Tuesday July 7 at 6pm.
Last Saturday Lauren and I checked out Gary Hustwit’s latest film Objectified at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I have to be honest, I loved Hustwit’s previous documentary Helvetica, so I was really excited to see a new design documentary. The film asks the viewer to not only confront the idea that all of the objects we encounter in our day to day lives are designed but also who designed these objects. The all star cast includes Chris Bangle, Davin Stowell, Dan Formosa , Dieter Rams, Nato Fukusawa, Jonathan Ive, Mac Newson, Rob Walker, and the entertaining Karim Rashid.
I enjoyed Dieter Rams’, the former design director for Braun, list of what makes a good design. In essence , he believes a good design requires the least amount of designing. He names apple as one of the companies with the best design. As much as I enjoy apple products I wish the film felt less like an apple ad and investigated some more aspects of their designs. Like why are their computers designed in a way that makes them difficult to take apart and reassemble without destroying?
I felt like the movie was really easy to consume. Everything is very agreeable, even the geek chic soundtrack. I wished they went a little more into the topic of consumerism, though. In the end all of the designers are designing for a pay check, and this was touched upon, but I wanted to see a bit more of the marketing of goods that most people already own.
John Mahoney, summed up Hustwit’s strengths in his post on Gizmodo, saying “But what’s great (and where Helvetica also ruled) is that Hustwit is a master interviewer. He gets his subjects to speak about what can be a jargon and marketing-voodoo laden industry with total clarity and comfort that folks that didn’t go to design school can comprehend freely. Ive, holding up the single aluminum block from which a unibody MacBook is hewn while trying to control his massive biceps, speaks about how designers are ultimately obsessive, borderline neurotic people. He can’t look at an object anywhere without seeing the multiple layers of intent involved-who designed it, who it’s designed for, what it does well. To Ive, it’s an illness.”
When Lauren and I walked out of the theater we both questioned what Hustwit would come up with next. According to the documentary blog, Hustwit has said that this film is in fact the second part of to a “design trilogy”. I am excited to see what he has in store next, but doubt it could top Helvetica.
Check out Hustwit’s twitter page to see where the film will be screening.
Objectified will be playing at the Gene Siskel at the Following times. For more info check out their website.
Fri. and Mon.-Thu. at 6:00 pm, 7:30 pm, and 9:00 pm;
Sat. at 3:00 pm, 4:30 pm, 6:00 pm, 7:30 pm, and 9:00 pm;
Sun. at 3:00 pm, 4:30 pm, and 6:00 pm