Halls of Cinema

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Halls of Cinema is a writing assignment that I give students of Intro to Film at Harper College in Palatine, IL. I ask them to submit a film that we should preserve for future generations and to keep an eye out for films that I may have overlooked for some reason or another.

These are the results from the Spring semester of 2016:

Shawshank Redemption – The Express – Pursuit of Happyness x 5500 Days of Summer – Bajo La Misma Luna – Little Rascals – The Watchmen – The Breakfast Club – Rocky – Mulholland Drive – Gladiator – Chronicle – Walk the Line – Detachment – The Natural – Bridesmaids – The Notebook – Scarface x 3 – Dante 01 – Hurt Locker – The Dark Knight – The Force Awakens – Office Space x 2 – Django: Unchained x 3 – The Bucket List – The Prestige – Focus – Toy Story – Standford Prison Experiment – American Sniper – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – Harold and Maude – Evil Dead 2 – Big Hero 6 – A New Hope – Moneyball – Million Dollar Baby – The Office (TV) – The Motivation – Avatar – Almost Famous – Tiny Times – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Pay it Forward – 2001: A Space Odyssey – A Goofy Movie – The Graduate x 2 – A Walk to Remember – Borat – Up – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – Cloverfield – Step Brothers – Chicken Run – Donnie Darko – It’s a Wonderful Life – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Not my best #dualworld but I’m happy to leave work while the sun is still up! – Via Instagram @Cinemar10

Entry that I hadn’t seen yet: I haven’t been brave enough to watch The Boy in the Striped Pajamas but this student pushed me to seek it out.

Entry that I want to rewatch: This student had some cool theories about how Donnie Darko plays out that left me wondering whether I’d really seen the film at all.

Biggest Surprise: What is it about this semester that made 5 students write about Pursuit of Happyness? There are also students that chose this film for their Final Presentation.

Bonus Shout Out: Harper College Film Club took Second Place in the Reel Illinois Film Competition for their video about Anne’s Resale Shop in Rolling Meadows.

Harper College Film Club – Via Instagram @Cinemar10

Steve James and Life Itself

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I tried to write a review of Life Itself back when it premiered at Sundance but I found it difficult to get past the first few paragraphs. I’m compelled to dust the draft off now that it’s available On Demand and at the Landmark Theatre. Also, this interview with Steve James for the Reader reminded me of what I loved about the film to begin with. Here’s where I left off in January:

I cried like a baby. Both times to the voice of Warner Herzog.

My favorite thing about Life Itself is that it opens a window into Chicago film history and Roger Ebert’s impact on the careers of people who I deeply admire. Others will take away lessons in hubris, bravery and companionship but the trail that Roger blazed and the nurturing creative environment that he left in his wake are what drew me in. Parts of his story provide an example for who I want to be, but the film stops short of washing away his flaws and spends plenty of time on his addiction, pettiness and ego.

You’re probably asking yourself how I’ve seen the film already if it just premiered at Sundance last night. The folks over at Kartemquin thought it would be a cool idea to stream the film to those of us that contributed to their IndieGoGo campaign. It works for me. It’s nice to know that we’re two of only a few hundred that have seen the film. The best part is that we didn’t have to take off work, travel and stand in line for the opportunity, we just had to get aboard the bandwagon before the wheels got turning.

I didn’t grow up paying much attention to film criticism but I knew who Roger and Ebert were. I first learned about their impact on the Chicago film community through the story of Roger’s persistence in making Hoops Dreams an acclaimed documentary by chastising the Academy for overlooking it. It wasn’t until watching Life Itself film that I realized a lot of what I love about the film community here grew out of people who commit to the city over Los Angeles and New York even though they’re walking against the wind.

This sentiment echoes through Steve James’ interview in the Reader. He discusses his experience with Hollywood, making Prefontaine and two other movies but returning to Chicago and documentary because art is something you live with here. The juxtaposition he sets up between control in narrative and documentary suggests that he’s more concerned with maintaining control over his life than what’s on the screen. This courtesy extends to the people in his films, many of which have to live with the consequences of his creative work and a few that won’t have that privilege. The generosity and humility that James shows by mentioning his long time collaborators and sharing screen credits also exemplifies the nurturing spirit of this city and reminds me that those of us fostering Chicago’s Cultural Re:Nuisánce today are simply harvesting fruit from seeds planted decades ago.

As a note to myself, watch The Big Picture and revisit Renoir before the fall semester starts.

15th Anniversary of Hoop Dreams at The Siskel Center
William Gates, Roger Ebert and Arthur Agee via Kartemquin Films

Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakes

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I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare since taking a class about him at Harper College my sophomore year. Othello, with Lawrence Fishburne, was on the shelves at Blockbuster Video and O, with Josh Hartnett, was set to come out in theaters. Diana and I were still just friends so she found it creepy when I stuffed a handwritten copy of Sonnet 18 into her locker but the bard was involved when our courtship started a few years later.

It’s a new style. It’s whatever we wanna be. So welcome, welcome, welcome to the Bombitty!

Bombitty of Errors was a hip hop rendition of William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors where 4 male actors played all the characters. Diana and I went to the Chicago Shakes Theater at Navy Pier to see it during our first Summer back from school. It wasn’t a date but it might have been if she hadn’t had a boyfriend at the time. We were both blown away by the writing, music and performances so the memory’s stuck with us in the 12 years since.

JQ as Rodrigo, GQ as Iago
JQ as Rodrigo, GQ as Iago

The Q Brothers, the writing and rapping duo that co-wrote Bombitty, continued making add-rap-tations like Funk It Up About Nothing. Their most recent commission from Chicago Shakespeare Theater premiered at The Globe in London and was the only North American production to sell out and receive critical acclaim at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s ‘Globe to Globe’ Festival. Othello: The Remix makes its American premiere at CST from now through April 28.

Replacing the crusades with the rap game, the Q Brothers use the original storyline and characters in a modern context by making Cassio a Vanilla-Ice-style-bubblebum-rapper, Othello a bootstrap-liftin’ kingpin that’s been softened by his backup singer and Iago a cunning, abstract lyricist with a chip on his shoulder. Though each of these characters has a distinct charm that made them believable in the 21st century, the male character that I’d dismissed in the original play was my favorite.

(left to right) Cassio/Jackson Doran, Iago/GQ, Othello/Postell Pringle, Loco Vito/JQ
(left to right) Cassio/Jackson Doran, Iago/GQ, Othello/Postell Pringle, Loco Vito/JQ

Remixed Rodrigo (above) is a lighting designer, played by JQ, as a slurpy-mouthed gamer geek with Chilindrina-styled glasses and a gait that implies a permanent wedgie. His crush on Desdemona never seemed as real to me as when Iago convinced him to sell his original, in-box He-Man action figures to shower her with gifts. It made his desperation real for me in a way I couldn’t grasp before. His references to gaming and nerd culture give him depth while modernizing the ideas for a new audience, in the same way that Cassio’s references to Can’t Buy Me Love betray a soft and flirty side that would originally have been of a soldier’s make up.

The female characters are mostly a source of comic relief and pawns in Iago’s plot to take down Othello. Bianca, the Nuyorican groupie that thinks she’s exclusive with Cassio, hilariously slips into rants that mimic the rhythm of a scorned lover in Humboldt Park. Emilia’s role as the undersexed wife of Iago is an amusing way to remind us of Iago’s obsession with Othello’s downfall but her best part comes when she leads an R&B song about it being “A Man’s World.” Their abstract portrayal of Desdemona was bold, original and it brought a touch of intrigue to how they’d handle the climax of the story.

It’s common knowledge that the tragedy in Othello centers around the death of Desdemona. I’ve read it in the script, seen it 3 ways on-screen and once on stage. The difference with Othello: The Remix is the energetic pace and audience engagement that it sets up in the first few acts. Iago’s monologues brought on applause more than once and the rafters occasionally bounced with audience members keeping the beat for themselves. This atmosphere made the moment that Othello puts Desdemona’s light out all the more profound. One lonely soul wanted to applaud but surrendered to will of the room and let the stillness hang, bringing attention to our unity through a moment of silence.

Do yourself a favor and catch this production while you have the chance! If you find Shakespeare intimidating, Hip Hop will make the language more accessible. If you don’t get why your kids love Hip Hop so much, Shakespeare’s characters will give you a new appreciation for the complexity of their culture. Seriously, how often can Elizabethan literature be fun for the whole family? Get Tickets Here

Here’s part of a radio interview with The Q Brothers.

Madness and Art in The World of Z

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The World of Z, a four-year journey into the eccentric life of manic-depressive outside artist Zbigniew Fik, will have a limited run at The Gene Siskel Film Center this weekend. This intimate portrait combines candid cinéma vérité with 25 years of explosive home videos revealing the art, insanity and love of Z.

I highly recommend this film to docsters, poets, artists, mental health advocates and Chicagoans.

Viva Doc had hosted the critique of an earlier cut of the film with Brad Besser and Vince Clemente a few years ago. We spoke at length about the structure and the chronology of the edit and the ethics that the project carried with it. In watching the finished film, I was happy to see that they found a completely organic solution for structuring the doc by focusing on the waves of depression and mania that Zbigniew experiences throughout his life.

I see The World of Z as a Bizzaro version of Welcome to the Gift Shop. Thierry Guetta used the street art scene to promote his alterego, Mr. Brainwash, regardless of his own artistic merit or integrity. Zbigniew Fiks, on the other hand, is all integrity and little success, so his talent and unique ideas were left behind by his movement. In this way, the film uncovers a tragedy that unfolds in art regularly where the flood of the convenient and mediocre drowns out true originality.

The edit that we previewed years ago presented Z’s video work in a purer form. I’m sure that these scenes were trimmed back for the good of the story and some are used as B roll throughout the film. One piece that left an impression on me in the years since I previously watched the film comes at 1:10 into this trailer. Z mounts his camera to a board with bent nails jutting out of it and then lets the camera run while the sun’s shadows dance on the board. It’s a beautiful piece of video that stayed with me for years after the screening and I could still recall the feeling from watching it when I saw the few seconds that Besser and Clemente snuck into the final edit.

Brad and Vince met Z when they made a film about him for a documentary course at Columbia College Chicago. As the years went on, they continued visiting him and developed a deeper investment in his life story. Interacting with Z over time opened a window into his swings from mania to creativity. It’s unclear if the block of his creativity leads to his mania or if his mania leads to his blocks of creativity but the symbiotic nature of the relationship creates spirals in both positive and negative directions.

While I don’t suffer from manic depression, I can understand the frustration that comes with being stuck on an idea or not feeling creative. In the weeks before revisiting The World of Z, I was passed an article from Scientific American that makes a connection between Schizotypal behaviors and creative personalities. “The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research and molecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of ‘weird’ scientists and artists.”

Two of the findings cited in this article came to mind when I saw the final edit of The World of Z. It’s complex stuff so I’ll let the experts start before chiming in.

“Cognitive disinhibition is the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival…. our brains are constantly accessing imagery and memories stored in our mental files to process and decode incoming infor­mation. Thanks to cognitive filters, most of this input never reaches conscious awareness…. It is easy to see that allowing unfiltered information into consciousness could lead to strange perceptual experiences, such as hearing voices or seeing imaginary people.

During moments of insight, cognitive filters relax momentarily and allow ideas that are on the brain’s back burners to leap forward into conscious awareness, in the same manner that bizarre thoughts surface in the mind of the psychotic individual.”

This idea of cognitive filters allowing your subconscious to communicate with your conscious by taking attention away from your own survival could either be distressing or comforting depending on how you look at it. Cognitive filters are like curators for your brain art on a good day. On a bad day, they’re probably more like a critic playing Space Invaders with your precious ideas. – SPACE INVADERS Shooting Game

“Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.. Among the cited similarities are the finding of alpha patterns when the brain process information from within the brain instead of from outside stimuli… This interpretation explains the tendency of creative people to focus on their inner lives, which is also a sign of schizotypal personality… This vulnerability may allow the highly creative person access to ideas and thoughts that are inaccessible to those of us with less porous mental filters.”Watching Z come in and out his manic depression made me think of alpha channels. It appears as though his cognitive filters would block his creativity and cause his internal brain activity to turn on him. His condition strains the relationships in his life as people are seduced by his poetry and unique view of the world before being pushed away by his paranoia and alcoholism. The World of Z lays out an interesting case study for questions about creativity within the brain. Z’s offered medical solutions throughout his life and the film but he prefers to live with the consequences of his condition to avoid the risk of stifling his creativity. Hopefully science’ll find a better solution for him.

Matt Irie: You are my Vanishing Point at Ebers Moore.

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I got a chance to check out Matt Irie’s opening last night. Great Work. Hope you all get a chance to see it too.

This piece below was one of my favorite pieces in the show. It plays with space in a way that is different from the others. Perhaps it is the high contrast between the lines and background or the obsessive overlapping… either way it is a great combination and it works for me.

This work rewards those who look from far away as well as those who like to get really up close. Every once in a while you notice little”mishaps” at the end of some of the drips. They definitely add a little extra goodness to these pieces. Unfortunately, you can’t see them in the image below, but you can see them if you go see the show.

It runs from August 5th  through September 3rd.

213 North Morgan Street, Suite #3C
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 772-3021
Wednesday – Saturday 12 – 6 pm