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. 

1 comment:

Elgin Bleecker said...

Thanks for the list, Jake. Doc Films at the U of Chicago runs some pretty great programs, like the series of Italian crime films they showed last spring. Wish I could have seen those on the big screen.