Monday, August 31, 2015

Chicago: A City of Cinephiles


Chicago stopped being a center of film production almost as quickly as it began, but it was a happening place in the early days of cinema. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, first began building his empire on Milwaukee Avenue. Essanay Pictures--original home of Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson--was headquartered here. And Chicago was the home of the two most important Black-owned film companies of the early era: George Johnson's Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux's Micheaux Film and Book Company. I could go on, but the point here is that the city played a vital role in the development of the movie industry.

Alas, its days as a movie center were numbered. There were many reasons the movie industry drifted west--to escape the Edison Trust, to take advantage of a relatively undeveloped social system that allowed for the advancement of non-WASPs--but, really, the main reason is that California had nice weather. Chicago, magnificent city that it is, has never been able to make that argument. Its winters proved too long and too brutal, so the movie industry left for a warmer climate that allowed for year-round production schedules.

Of course, a lot of movies still get made in Chicago--stuff like THE DARK KNIGHT and TRANSFORMERS on the blockbuster side, as well as indies like Joe Swanberg's HAPPY CHRISTMAS--so its appeal as a movie location clearly remains evergreen. Yet, neither Chicago's history nor its current status as a film location really explains its place in film culture.

Its vital position in world film culture is derived from its obsession with the movies themselves. It's no accident that Chicago happened to produce the most famous of all movie critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. This town is movie crazy. As a place for deranged cinephiles, it can compete with any city anywhere. (I say this, of course, as a deranged cinephile.) 

Here, then, are ten things this city has to offer the committed movie geek:

1. The Music Box Theater- A great old theater on Southport Avenue near Wrigley Field, the Music Box is the crown jewel of Chicago's movie world. It plays retrospectives of classic films and showcases new independents and foreign films. It has weekend midnight showings of cult classics. It hosts festivals like Noir City, The 70mm Film Festival, and The French Film Festival. It has a 24-hour horror movie marathon on Halloween. It shows silent movies the second Saturday of every month, complete with live organ music. It has big-time filmmakers come in to do events. It has a full bar. It is connected to Music Box Films which distributes foreign films in America (it brought us IDA for god's sake). It is magnificent. All on its own, the Music Box would make Chicago a damn good place to be a movie lover.

2. The Gene Siskel Film Center- Connected with the School of the Art Institute (where, full disclosure, I teach), the Siskel is the great downtown hub for movie geeks. Located on State Street, it's a truly state-of-the-art facility. It hosts festivals like the Black Harvest Film Festival, shows new independents and foreign films, and runs retrospectives year-round. All on its own, the Siskel would make Chicago a damn good place to be a movie lover.

3. Doc Films- The University of Chicago is home to the longest running student film society in the U.S. Remember how, back in the 1960s, college campuses were obsessed with movies? Well, Doc Films, which traces its roots back to the 1930s never got over its obsession. It shows everything--classics, new stuff, foreign stuff, high brow, low brow. And it's five bucks to get in. And parking is free. Sometimes filmmakers show up to present films. Back in the day, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford showed up to present films here. This year, I saw most of Orson Welles's movies there. It's that kind of place.

4. Facets Cinematheque- An intimate theater and esoteric DVD rental shop located on Fullerton, Facets showcases small off-beat films that you can't usually find anywhere else (not even at any of the the three heavy-hitters listed above). The Cinematheque is only part of Facets Multimedia, which, among other cool things, puts on a Film Camp for kids and, for over thirty years, has hosted the Chicago International Children's Film Festival.

5. Chicago Filmmakers- Located on North Clark in the Andersonville neighborhood, Chicago Filmmakers is a not-for-profit media arts organization that "fosters the creation, appreciation, and understanding of film and video. It provides classes and workshops, sponsors screenings of avant garde or outsider films at places like Columbia College Chicago's Film Row Cinema, and puts on Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival.

6. Northwest Chicago Film Society- I love this group, which is passionately committed to celluloid. (They bill their events, pointedly, as being "programmed and projected.") They used to show films at the beautiful old Patio Theater. Recently they've set up shop at Northeastern Illinois University. Their film series is always an electric mix of (often unsung) classics.

7. The Pickwick Theater- A gorgeous art deco theater built in 1928, the Pickwick is located in the suburb of Park Ridge. It runs new releases most of the time, but it also plays host to the Silent Summer Film Festival, powered by "our Mighty Wurlitzer Organ."

8. Century Centre Cinema- A Landmark theater specializing in independent film, the Century is spread across a couple of levels of of the Century Shopping Center on North Clark Street. It's super posh, with reclining seats and a full bar and gourmet snacks.

9. Regal City North Stadium 14 IMAX and RPX- Of course, man does not live on classics and independent films alone. Chicago has multiplexes all over the place. My favorite is the Regal on Western Ave. It's a huge place, with stadium seating, IMAX screens, and RPX (or "Regal Premium Experience") screens that have all kinds of extras and next-level sound and picture quality. They also have an amazing assortment of movie-based video games out front for the kids, including the coolest Star Wars game I've ever seen.

10. Cine-File- Check out this website devoted to providing serious criticism about whatever happens to be coming up in Chicago theaters. It's an amazing resource for local movie geeks, and it provides a nice glimpse at the depth of cinema love here.

I could really keep going. Please leave a comment if you think I've left off anything important. And I would love to be exposed to something great that I don't know about yet. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Nice review of THE POSTHUMOUS MAN


One of the greatest pleasures that comes from writing a book is watching it travel through the world. I put out THE POSTHUMOUS MAN back in 2012, and people are still discovering it. Sometimes those people are cool enough to take time out and tell the world they liked my work. Doesn't get much better than that.

Check out this great, new, review of the book by Richard Vialet. It made my day.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Interview


The writer Alex Segura was nice enough to ask me to stop by his newsletter Stuff & Nonsense to talk about noir fiction and film. It was a nice conversation, and you can check it out here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926) and The Making of Gary Cooper


Gary Cooper was 25 years old when he made Henry King's THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH. He's the third name down in the credits, behind stars Velma Banky and Ronald Coleman. The story is a romantic triangle and (spoiler alert) Coop doesn't get the girl. What he got instead, was a career as a movie star. After this movie, he was on the fast track to becoming an American icon. Before long, his name moved above the title and Cooper started a decades-long career of making movies where he always got the girl. 

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH was one of the first great westerns--it's a film of magnificent vistas, compelling performances, and great spirit--yet it's not a genre piece in the way that we normally regard westerns. It actually takes as its subject the settlement of California's Salton Sink in the early 1900s and the dirty politics behind the bringing of water to the parched valley. It's suspicious of "soulless corporations" and fat cat financiers. In some respects, it plays like a precursor to CHINATOWN.

While I love so much about the movie (including the wonderful performances of Velma Banky and Ronald Coleman), I really want to talk about Gary Cooper.

One of the most compelling elements of silent films is the way they predated a lot of gender stereotypes. In the silent era, androgyny was hot. Cooper was one of the few stars to make the transition from silents to talkies, and along the way his image became more stoic and explicitly masculine. Though he rarely did macho, by the time you get to the 1950s Coop was the living embodiment of the strong and silent type. But there was always something else about him, something that he carried through his Capra films and his screwball comedies--a certain halting shyness. You see this most explicitly in his silent films.

We first see him in BARBARA WORTH as a cowboy. From the very start, though he is almost unbelievably handsome. 



Paired with old codger Paul McAllister, Cooper is both authentic as a figure of the western but also unblemished and beautiful. He both fits the scene and stands apart from it, which might be a good description of "movie star charisma."



Despite some heroic derring-do later in the film (he gets to shoot some bad guys), I would argue that his real starmaking moment comes in a quiet moment when Coop spots Banky and Coleman together. His reaction shots here capture the unheroic essence that always balanced out the more heroic aspects of his later screen image.






Here you have a sequence of emotions -- longing, joy, disappointment, resignation -- in a brief space, demonstrating that the same guy who looks natural on a horse (Coop was born and raised in Montana) could play it soft and sweet. It was this tension between the various, and seemingly contradictory, parts of his own personality that made Gary Cooper pop off the screen and become a great star. A certain vulnerability would always be a part of his DNA as an actor. Unlike John Wayne, and even more than Stewart or Fonda, Cooper could be wounded. This quality finds its most masterful expression, of course, in his greatest western, 1952's HIGH NOON, a movie that hinges around social rejection and emotional isolation.



Of course, Cooper almost always played heroes, and he made plenty of wholly conventional entertainments where he functioned as little more than a tall tower of masculine power. His best work, however, remains a fascinating example of how innate aspects of an actor's personality inform and shade his portrayals in subtle ways.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

PUSHOVER (1954)


For much of her career, Kim Novak was considered little more than a Marilyn Monroe knockoff. Buxom, with a husky whisper of a voice, she was generally dismissed as another pretty blonde with no real talent. Then, as the years passed, something odd happened. Critics and filmmakers started talking more and more about that rather disappointing Hitchcock film she made back in 1958 with Jimmy Stewart called VERTIGO. More and more people started talking about how good it was. Its reputation grew to the point that today it is widely considered both Hitchcock’s masterpiece and one of the very best films ever made. Along with the reputation of the film, the critical consensus on Novak shifted. Maybe she wasn’t just another fifties-era hourglass figure, after all.

An excellent second stop on this road to reevaluation is Richard Quine’s excellent 1954 bad cop drama PUSHOVER starring Novak and Fred MacMurray. The film begins with a nicely choreographed bank robbery that plays without fanfare or dialog. Two men knock over a bank, and the robbery goes off smoothly until a heavy-footed security guard makes a clumsy attempt to stop them. They shoot him down and abscond with the loot.

In the next scene we see a pretty girl in a mink coat get picked up by a man outside a movie theater. She’s Lona (Novak) the girlfriend of one of the bank robbers. The man who picks her up is Paul Sheridan (MacMurray). At first he just seems like an overly confidant ladies man, but we quickly discover that he’s actually an undercover cop. His superior officer (hardnosed E.G. Marshall) wants Sheridan to get close to Lona so they can drop the net on her bank robber boyfriend.

The cops stake out Lona’s place. Sheridan is joined by his upright partner Rick (Phillip Carey) and a hard-drinking old timer named Paddy Dolan. These guys are not the best stakeout team. Paddy likes to leave his post to zip down to a nearby cocktail lounge for a snort or two, while Rick is overly interested in the pretty nurse who lives next door to Lona. He wants to ask her out, but he’ll probably have a hard time explaining to her that he developed a crush on her while peeking through her windows with binoculars.

The big problem, though, is Paul Sheridan. Unbeknownst to his partners, he’s fallen in love with Lona. And Lona, being no fool, has quickly pieced together the situation with the cops. She makes Sheridan a proposition: why don’t they kill her bank robber boyfriend when he shows up at her apartment and keep the two hundred grand from bank score for themselves? This plan will require Sheridan to juggle his lover, his superior, his partners, the bank robber, and the neighbors all at once. I hope I’m giving nothing away by saying that his attempt to keep all these balls in the air is a spectacular failure—spectacular in every sense of the word.

PUSHOVER is 100% hardcore noir. Richard Quine also directed the excellent heist film DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, and with both films he shows a flawless grasp of the bleak world of film noir. He’s good with actors, keeping performances understated even when the material is heating up, and his handling of action and suspense is superb. Notice how deftly he moves the scenes between Sheridan and his drunkard partner Paddy as they head toward a collision with each other. Or note the excellent use of crane shots, like the one that follows three characters down a darkened city street to their doom. Most of all, notice the handling of mood—at once perfectly controlled on the surface and turbulent underneath.

The script was based on two novels—RAFFERTY by Bill Ballinger and THE NIGHT WATCH by Thomas Walsh—adapted by the enormously talented writer Roy Huggins. A novelist himself who also wrote many good films including the masterpiece TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Huggins took the bulk of the bad cop story from THE NIGHT WATCH and melded it with some of the cop-and-bad-girl material from RAFFERTY. The result is an ingeniously evolving plot (perhaps I should say devolving plot since things keep going wrong). The story is not a mystery, but Huggins plants clues as to where it’s going. Early on, we get a conversation between the cops that seems inconsequential, but later seems to be at the heart of things.

Rick: Money? It’s nice, but it doesn’t make the world go around.

Sheridan: Doesn’t it? Do you know anybody who’s happily married who hasn’t got plenty of it?

Rick: Sure, my old man…

Sheridan: Yeah? My folks hated each other. Fighting all the time…and always about money.   

The performances are all top notch. MacMurray is perfect as Sheridan, giving us an amoral cop who is nearly smart enough to pull off his master plan. Some people will disagree, perhaps, but I think this, not DOUBLE INDEMNITY, is MacMurray’s best noir performance.

And Kim Novak is stunning here. Firstly, and I don’t say this flippantly, she is staggeringly sexy. The filmmakers contrive to put her in so many sexy outfits it starts to get a little silly—one outfit is a sheer braless number that Quine goes out of his way to emphasize—but the essence of the character is, after all, her affect on men. She’s the kept woman of a bank robber, and she’s considering making the switch to being the kept woman of a crooked cop. She’s a femme fatale for sure, but Novak sells the role in the same way that Lona is selling more than just the promise of the greatest sex in the world. There’s always something a little sad about Novak. For a supposed bombshell, in fact, her sadness was always dangerously close to the surface. If Monroe made it seem like the party would never end, Novak made it seem like the end was just around the corner. You see it in VERTIGO, and you see it here. Her appeal isn’t just sex, after all, it’s need. I’m sexy, she seems to say, and I need you to take care of me. It’s very easy to see why a man might throw away his life trying to do just that.

PUSHOVER will be playing this Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

You can find "The Crooked Road of Richard Quine" my piece  on the noir career (and, in some respects, the noir life) of PUSHOVER director Quine (including his offscreen affair with Kim Novak) in my book THE BLIND ALLEY



Friday, August 7, 2015

Noir Worth Watching: GIL BREWER, HUBERT CORNFIELD, AND THE IRRESISTIBLE LURE OF THE SWAMP


If you're a noir geek or a fan of the late great Gil Brewer (a pulp writer's pulp writer if ever there was one), you'll want to go check out Gary Deane's latest post at his great blog Noir Worth Watching. He takes a look back at Brewer's mixed experiences being adapted for film by focusing on the Hubert Cornfield flick LURE OF THE SWAMP. Like Brewer, Cornfield isn't as well known as he deserves (Cornfield's heist movie masterpiece PLUNDER ROAD is essential noir), and Deane does a nice job of shining a light on these two forgotten masters of the cheap and dirty.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Death of Marilyn Monroe by Sharon Olds


By Sharon Olds, from THE DEAD AND THE LIVING

"The Death of Marilyn Monroe"

 The ambulance men touched her cold
body, lifted it, heavy as iron,
onto the stretcher, tried to close the
mouth, closed the eyes, tied the
arms to the sides, moved a caught
strand of hair, as if it mattered,
saw the shape of her breasts, flattened by
gravity, under the sheet
carried her, as if it were she,
down the steps.

These men were never the same. They went out
afterwards, as they always did,
for a drink or two, but they could not meet
each other's eyes.

Their lives took
a turn--one had nightmares, strange
pains, impotence, depression. One did not
like his work, his wife looked
different, his kids. Even death
seemed different to him--a place where she
would be waiting,

and one found himself standing at night
in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a
woman breathing, just an ordinary
woman

breathing.