Sunday, April 23, 2017

The 2017 Summer Season of the Chicago Film Society


Chicago is a great town for cinephiles, and one of the most rewarding resources available to the local movie geek is the Chicago Film Society. Programmed and projected by Julian Antos, Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal, and Cameron Worden, the CFS is dedicated to showing movies on film, often in rare or vintage prints. When I first moved to town they were still showing movies at the old Patio Theater, but they made the switch a year or so ago to the auditorium of Northeastern Illinois University. While I miss the musty charms of the Patio, the great hall at NEIU gives the proceedings a college film society aura that adds to the sense of fun. Of course, the venue wouldn't matter if the films weren't interesting, and the CFS schedule is always an excitingly eclectic blend of genre films (westerns, musicals, noirs), rarities and obscurities (silents, overlooked classics, exploitation flicks), foreign films, and the occasional notorious flop presented for reconsideration.

The Chicago Film Society has, for my money (and more specifically for my $5 per screening), the most distinctive personality of any movie appreciation collective in town. Staff members are current or former projectionists at Doc Films, Block Cinema, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Music Box, which means that the CFS is what you get when a bunch of hardcore film junkies get together and decide that the city needs another weekly jolt of movie love. Hall and Westphal are the public faces of the CFS and their pre-show presentations of the films are good-humored, charmingly geeky, and deeply informed. 

The CFS's new season schedule has just been released, and it's got me excited to spend some warm summer nights at the movies. Highlights include Robert Mitchum's 1958 hillbilly chase picture THUNDER ROAD, Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 man-out-of-prison yakuza flick PALE FLOWER, Andre de Toth's 1953 men-under-seige western LAST OF THE COMANCHES, and Claudia Weill's 1978 feminist comedy GIRLFRIENDS.  

There's a lot more. Here's the complete schedule of events.    

Saturday, April 8, 2017

AFTER DARK, MY SWEET: A Personal Reflection



I didn’t grow up in the forties or fifties, so I didn’t discover B-movies in their original form, as the second features stuck behind classier A-movies. Nor did I discover the world of film noir the way people did in the sixties and seventies, through the  midnight movies on TV that transfixed the generation of noir geeks before me.

No, I was born in 1975, which means I came up in the eighties and nineties. Appropriately, then, I discovered noir in the distinct fashion of a Gen Xer: I found it at the video store. There’s more to this story, though, a personal twist.

I was brought up in a devout Southern Baptist house where certain movies were forbidden. It’s tempting to go for simplicity here and say that R-rated movies were forbidden, but that’s not exactly true. Only certain kinds of R-rated movies were forbidden. Anything with sex. Sex in movies was bad. Totally bad. Every time. No sex. (Even PG-rated sex scenes could change the climate in our family den. Once a bra slipped off, the air would get thin, and I would feel the sense of bodily danger you get when you know God’s wrath is about to fall.) Anything with a lot of cussing was also forbidden. You were allowed one F-word in a movie. Maybe two. After that, things got a little tense.

Violence was okay as long as it wasn’t overly gory. Dirty Harry laying waste to a bunch of punks? Cool. Slasher flicks (which, of course, might also run the risk of featuring nudity)? Not cool.

Dutiful son that I was, when I was sent to the video store to pick out a movie I tried to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls.

When I was home alone, however, I was a deceitful little sleaze. I would, on occasion, sneak out to the video store to pluck some forbidden fruit (fruit that I returned as soon as possible to avoid any late fees).

Enter AFTER DARK, MY SWEET. 1991. The poster for this film — and thus the cover for the video box — was a picture of Jason Patric and Rachel Ward engaged in sweaty physical congress. The title sounded like direct-to-video sleaze. I vaguely remembered Siskel and Ebert saying the movie was great, but greatness was not on my mind. The possibility of seeing Rachel Ward naked was on my mind.

I secreted the video into the house and watched it when no one was home.

I learned two things about AFTER DARK, MY SWEET that day.

1. You don’t really get to see Rachel Ward naked. I would love to act like that didn’t matter to me, but it did. I was disappointed. Simply as a consumer engaged in a capitalist enterprise, I felt I had not been well served. I had, after all, paid money for the expressed purpose of seeing Rachel Ward naked.

2. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is a masterpiece. It’s the best film noir of the 1990s, and one of the best films, period, of that entire decade. As a human being experiencing a work of art, I was transfixed.

Jason Patric (whose sweaty ass you do get to see, natch) and Rachel Ward are both beyond great. Patric’s character Kevin “Collie” Collins, disgraced former boxer and psyche ward escapee, was sort of my first anti-hero, or, at least, he was the first anti-hero I ever saw where I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was a man scraping up some last vestige of his willpower to do something that no one would understand. He tries to save Ward’s boozy widow from a goofy kidnapping scheme cooked up by a degenerate ex-cop named Uncle Bud (played with exquisite seediness by Bruce Dern). By the end, Collie dies face down in the dirt, gut shot by the woman he loves, but it’s all okay because he did it all for her.

And Rachel Ward taught me things about women that, at 17 years old, I didn’t know I needed to learn. She was lovely and leggy, but what made her fascinating was a sadness, a deep-seated knowledge that most dreams don’t come true. The moment she starts talking in the film, mocking Patric’s fumbling attempts at polite conversation — mocking, really, the whole idea of polite conversation — you can’t take your eyes off her. You get why Patric wants to save her, and also why he thinks she can save him. She’s the only person he’s ever met who understands his loneliness. In a way — in a beautifully noir way — they do save each other.

The film wasn’t arty, but I was aware of the director, James Foley. I was aware that I was watching a movie with a vision. Was it his?

Maybe, though it’s probably more correct to say that Foley brilliantly realized Jim Thompson’s vision. Ah, yes, I also discovered Jim Thompson that day in my family den. Who was the guy who wrote this story that was the saddest, most romantic, most thrilling thing I’d ever seen? Revisiting the film many times over the years as my love of Thompson’s novels grew, I realized that the scenes with Patric and the creepy psychologist played by George Dickerson are the most spot-on interpretations of Jim Thompson’s work that have ever been put onscreen. People think that Thompson’s novels are about psychos, or about violence. No, they’re about the last slender thread of decorum stretching and stretching until it turns translucent and you can see right though it to the terrible truth that will be unleashed the moment it snaps. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET gets that. It gets that beautifully.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

HARDCORE (1979)


Few films have influenced my own writing as much as Paul Schrader's 1979 thriller HARDCORE. It stars George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a Grand Rapids businessman and faithful Calvinist, who, as the story begins, sends his only daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis) off on a church youth trip to California. Van Dorn is a single father and he loves Kristen, but the film doesn't go out of its way to convince us of this fact. There are no big scenes between father and daughter in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This omission is important because of what happens next. Van Dorn gets a call from the the youth group in California telling him that Kristen has gone missing.

The rest of the film follows Jake in his attempt to find his daughter. He hires a sleazy detective named Mast (played by the 1970s' most important character actor, Peter Boyle), and within a few months the detective comes back with horrific news. He has found Kristen, on film in a cheap 16mm underground porn film. In perhaps the film's most famous scene, he leads Van Dorn to a porn theater and shows him the movie to make sure that the girl in the film is indeed his daughter. Van Dorn watches the film like he's being tortured, which, indeed, he is. In tears, he demands that detective shut off the projector. 

When Mast fails to find Kristen after this initial revelation, Van Dorn plunges into the squalid underworld of sex and vice himself.  
He haunts porn stores and brothels and massage parlors. He's berated by hookers and beat up by bouncers. The cops are of no use to him. Finally, he decides to pass himself off as a fledgling film producer. He meets a millionaire porn king (Leonard Gaines) and hangs out on the set of a porno. Eventually he finds a prostitute named Nikki (Season Hubley) who says she can lead him to his daughter.

The heart of the film is the relationship that develops between the middle-aged Calvinist from the Midwest and the LA sex worker. What's interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn't swerve into the kind of cliches that we might expect. The two don't fall in love or into a sexual relationship, nor does Van Dorn set out to save Nikki. She's along for this ride for the money, and he's using her to find his daughter. There's a kind of weary respect that grows between them as they accidentally fall into debates about religion, sex, and morality.

At one point, Nikki asks him, "How important do you think sex is?"

"Not very," he says. 

"Well," she says, "then we're just alike. You think it's so unimportant that you don't even do it. And I think it's so unimportant that I don't care who I do it with."

HARDCORE is a spiritual brother to TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader also wrote, and both films owe something to the screenwriter's obsession with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. All three films are about repressed men seeking to rescue young women locked in sexual slavery. Of the three films, HARDCORE is the one that is most interested in what the young woman has to say. Unlike the other two films, when HARDCORE reaches the end of its journey, the young woman in question gets to speak for herself. When Van Dorn finally smashes his way through the underworld and finds his daughter, she unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. In a way that the other two films never considered, HARDCORE at least ponders the possibility that the girl might not want to return to the world of decent people and mainstream society.

This is probably a good place to say that HARDCORE is a flawed film. Schrader is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, which is his greatest attribute, and this film could not have come from anyone else, but it's often clunky in its execution. Stalwarts like Boyle and Gaines are terrific, but a lot of the supporting performances are stiff and little awkward. Some scenes go on too long, making and remaking a point that we've already gotten -- even the famous scene in the porn theater, for instance, goes on to such an extent that you're wondering why the hell Van Dorn doesn't just get up and leave. Likewise, the violent ending is overdone, with Scott rolling over the denizens of the underworld like a bulldozer. Is there really no professional criminal in California who can stand up to this potbellied businessman from Michigan?

Yet for fans of the flawed-but-kind-of-brilliant, HARDCORE is a great film. As I said at the start, I think this movie influenced me more than most of the films I've seen. It is both overtly religious and wildly seedy. You can practically feel the filmmaker torn between these two worlds. The thing that people remember about HARDCORE, of course, is the descent into the world of sex-for-hire, but the scenes of a close knit religious community at the start of the film have a special kind of power for me. Schrader knows this world, comes from it himself, and his feel for it is deep. The scenes of Christmas dinner--with an elderly relative bemoaning the secularism of the television's holiday programming while a couple of guys debating at the kitchen table cite Bible verses at each other--as well as the brief scenes of the church youth group striking off for a Christian youth conference, all of this feels exactly right to me. It's different from what I grew up with among the baptists in Arkansas, but it is familiar in the truest sense of the word, in the sense that there's a family resemblance between strict Protestant churches.

Although Schrader wrote TAXI DRIVER, that film is filtered through Scorsese's tortured Catholicism and his obsession with sacrament and penance. HARDCORE, on the other hand, is Schrader through and through. It is about frosty Protestant repression surviving a deep dive into the steamy muck of a world without rules. In TAXI DRIVER, De Niro's Travis Bickle is a man tormented by his desire for sex, which he finds filthy and corrupt. Scott's Jake Van Dorn, on the other hand, is not tormented in this same way because he's not tempted in the same way. He's horrified by the flesh markets, and although he is weary and battered, he remains as resolute as a knight on a quest. Thus, in its weird mix of seriousness and salaciousness, HARDCORE is something truly special, a dirty movie about the triumph of repression.