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:: Friday, SEPT. 25 - Thursday, OCT. 1 ::


Peter Watkins' PRIVILEGE (Classic Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Thursday, 9:15pm

Along with ironic, pretentious and fascist, Orwellian may be the adjective most carelessly applied by the literate public. Most often used as a synonym for dystopian or simply paranoid, this popular denigration of Orwell's legacy denies the great writer's meticulous critique of institutions and the quotidian means with which they legitimate undue authority. So, to call Peter Watkins the most Orwellian of filmmakers is not a matter of simply identifying his dystopian premises; it is to praise his use of documentary methods to critique how information is commonly manipulated and taken for granted. Most remarkable about his approach is that Watkins lays out the parameters of his fiction at the beginning of each film before proceeding with faux-documentary tactics (improvised scenes shot verité-style, the reading of statistics by an off-screen narrator, etc.): Every work becomes a spotlight on the viewer's own complicity in turning images into facts. In PRIVILEGE, there is more than one level of fiction at play, as the film's protagonist, Steven Shorter, is himself a creation: A hugely successful pop singer in the Elvis/Beatles tradition who becomes a rallying point for the British government, Anglican church, and major media outlets of England. The film is set in a "near future" where a centrist coalition has banned all other parties for the sake of national unity; the real subject, of course, are the contemporary politics of liberal democracies. PRIVILEGE remains a contentious film in its likening of pop culture phenomena to Totalitarian propaganda (That Watkins shot it in Britain just after the height of Beatlemania is just one instance of his daring), but it remains profound in its cartography of power, which connects advertisers to the representatives of Church and State. An unsettling, surprising, and darkly humorous work. And the songs--often redolent of mid-period Walker Brothers--are quite good, too. (1967, 98 min, archival 35mm) BS

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Michael Mann's THIEF (Contemporary Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Monday, 7pm
Is Michael Mann the greatest working American director? It's true that Frederick Wiseman has a greater influence over world cinema on the whole and Clint Eastwood is more nationally valuable for his ongoing critique of the American character. Yet Mann inspires greater reverence than either of them due to the sheer beauty of his approach. An artist with an acute sense of the fleeting moment, the unnatural pace of time in contemporary life, and myriad variations of artificial light (He's likened himself to a photorealist painter), Mann is simply our greatest living image-maker. This fall, Doc Films screens a retrospective of Michael Mann's work in the wake of his most recent feature PUBLIC ENEMIES (which will be revived later in the term), beginning with his first theatrical release, THIEF. Shot primarily in Chicago, the film builds its atmosphere around the city's proletarian feistiness; it's certainly the native Southsider's most autobiographical work. In the first of many idiosyncratic takes on realism, Mann cast actual Chicago cops to play criminals and actual former criminals as cops. In doing so, he made first steps toward the great theme of his work: the uncanny leveling of human behavior under modern professionalism. James Caan plays a successful life-long thief who wants to get married and settle down. He discovers his own humanity too late (There's always One Last Score), but there are great realizations on the way to failure. Caan considers this his best performance, and he's probably right: Several of the most important scenes are two-person conversations that reach Bergman-esque levels of intimacy and recrimination. These moments of heightened self-doubt alternate with bloody gun fights and meticulously observed crimes; unlike Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann--two of his thematic forbearers--Mann seems deeply ambivalent about the macho attitudes that tend to accompany these subjects. In lives increasingly defined by professional obligation, Mann regards the decline of traditional gender roles with serious curiosity and surprising nostalgia. (In this sense, his films have affinities with those of Tsai Ming-liang.) THIEF is the first of Mann's elegies for professional masculinity, and it's sharpened greatly by the film's harsh night photography. (1981, 122 min, 35mm) BS
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Vision in Motion - Program I (Experimental)
Conversations at the Edge at the Gene Siskel Film Center - Thursday, 6pm
The Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology was originally founded in 1937 by artist László Moholy-Nagy as the New Bauhaus--an American extension of its German namesake. Though eventually renamed, the early artistic output of the school was directly in line with Bauhaus aesthetics: simple, modernist creations that collapsed form and function into a single idea. Despite not acquiring film equipment until 1942, Moholy-Nagy's scholastic vision always included cinema; he felt that filmmaking was the logical extension of painting and photography's attempts to harness light. Typically Bauhaus, this "total" work of art--understood to be the combination, and therefore pinnacle of, all previous Beaux Arts--was seen by Moholy-Nagy as the ideal means to reflect on modernity. This two-part screening takes a selected look at the filmic output of the Institute of Design's students and faculty. Program one features an excerpt of DESIGN WORKSHOPS (László Moholy-Nagy, 1944), which includes some of the first footage shot on the school's new film equipment, displaying many student-produced designs. In similar veins, LIGHT MACHINE (László Moholy-Nagy and Nathan Lerner, 1944) and DO NOT DISTURB (László Moholy-Nagy and students, 1945) show the school's early experiments with light-space modulators and psychodramatic narratives respectively. The two stand out pieces from the evening are DL #2 (Larry Janiak, 1970) and GEORGE & MARTHA REVISITED (Wayne Boyer, 1967). With DL #2, Janiak calls to mind Norman McLaren's musical experiments with film, yet with a more enthused and vibrant style, using direct application of rubber cement to the film to generate patterns. Professional editor Wayne Boyer displays his practiced eye for still frames in his nearly forgotten masterpiece. Still images of action and gesture from Mike Nichols' WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? are used to transform Edward Albee's characters into the haunting shells of people they have become, to stunning effect. Also screening is LICHTSPIEL NUR 1 (Robert Steigler, 1966) and MOTIONS (Harry Callahan, 1948-49). A roundtable discussion will be held after the screening with Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Elizabeth Siegel, and Wayne Boyer. Check next week's list for info on the second program. (1944-1970, 16mm and video, approx. 75 min) DM
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Lester James Peries' GAMPERALIYA (Classic Revival) 
Gene Siskel Film Center - Sunday, 4:30pm and Monday, 6pm
Purportedly Sri Lanka's most important filmmaker (and still active at 90 years old), Lester James Peries remains all but unknown in the US. But, thanks to UCLA's traveling "Festival of Preservation," Chicagoans have a chance to become acquainted with him this weekend with GAMPERALIYA, Peries' third feature and the first Sri Lankan film to be shot outside of a studio. Based on a major novel of the same name (and whose title roughly translates to "the changing village"), it concerns the daughter of a wealthy family whose romance with a noble schoolteacher cannot be fulfilled because he is of a lower class. Her family arranges a loveless marriage for her to another aristocrat; but in an ironic turn, an unexpected depression leaves everyone in poverty. Peries has been praised for using family melodramas to contemplate Sri Lankan society on the whole, thus bridging modern storytelling with third-world tradition. Using a pared-down style likened to that of Satyajit Ray, Peries rejected the influence of both Western cinema and Bollywood to make films that depicted the Sinhalese people after their own fashion. As the cinemas of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the Philippines remain sadly under-represented here, this screening should constitute a major discovery. (1964, 120 min, 35mm) BS
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Jules Dassin's RIFIFI (Classic Revival)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) - Wednesday, 8pm
Though not made in the US, RIFIFI is possibly the greatest byproduct of the Hollywood blacklist. Exiled to France, American director Jules Dassin landed his first film in five years (after a string of gritty late 40's noirs) when Jean-Pierre Melville gave him the script for the film. The plot is classically Melville: an old crook... honor among thieves... one last score... etc., etc. In many ways Dassin likely empathized with the main character of RIFIFI: an aging professional, suddenly irrelevant and in surroundings he can't control, with a crew he does not know, just hoping he can still pull it off. Today the film is most famous for the riveting heist sequence, a gorgeous and tense half-hour spent breaking into a jewelry store in total silence, the hushed robbers agonizing over the slightest sounds they make. Complications arise (don't they always?) and our man finds himself embroiled in the underworld intrigues of nightclub owners, junkies, and the woman he loved before he went to prison. Will he make it to the end? There is a likely-apocryphal story surrounding RIFIFI, from Jules Dassin's screening of the first cut for critic André Bazin. When the lights came up in the theater, Bazin supposedly said to Dassin: "Hitchcock makes the same film over and over, and he is Hitchcock. Keep making this film, Jules, and you'll be Dassin." (1955, 122 min, 35mm) LN
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Max Färberböck's A WOMAN IN BERLIN (New Polish/German)
Music Box - Check Reader Movies for showtimes
It's the last days of Germany's resistance to Soviet invasion, and a nameless heroine and a group of Berlin women (one of them played by Fassbinder regular Irm Hermann) are holed up in a half-shelled apartment building, clinging to each other and their unraveling senses of neighborhood and dignity. Their worst fears are realized quickly--within minutes of the film's opening the Russians have arrived, and with them comes the brutal and undiscerning treatment of the surviving Berlin women, which director Max Färberböck depicts with minimal restraint. The Russians, however, are largely figures of sympathy: one young Soviet soldier whispers angrily to "Anonyma" that Germans murdered children in his village; at another moment, an elderly German man offhandedly remarks that "If the Russians do to us a quarter of what we did to them...we'll all be dead." To save her skin, Anonyma resolves to devote herself to one Russian officer who might protect her from the constant raping she endures, and A WOMAN IN BERLIN becomes an almost-love-story between her and a stoic, piano-playing Soviet commander. A WOMAN IN BERLIN is not without fault; at times the pacing abandons the action, and almost as brutal as the treatment of the women in the film is the thudding score to which the audience is constantly subjected. [Spoiler:] A WOMAN IN BERLIN does raise an age-old question: is a dramatic film more affecting when the audience knows it is based on a personal account? Färberböck waits until the film's last moments to reveal the direct truth of its story. Published as a memoir after the war, the book was met with outrage and known as "the vile document... shaming all German women." Humiliated, the author forbid the publication of all subsequent editions and never released her name. (2008, 131 min, 35mm) LN
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Prakash Mehra's ZANJEER (Classic Revival)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) - Friday, 8pm
Block Cinema is doing us all a service by hosting this short primer on Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. It's free, too. Go, see. To watch Bachchan is to see someone embody both worldly masculinity and goofiness, un-self-conscious empathy and hurt distance, always at the same time. A few comparisons: Cary Grant, Chow Yun-Fat and, to a lesser extent, George Clooney, Harrison Ford and Simon Yam. He's man who has the unusual quality of being both feline (be it a tiger or a tomcat) and wolf-like. He's Jean Gabin and Jerry Lewis rolled into one, dead serious and giddy. There's nothing like seeing his harsh face smile. He sees the troubles of the world, and then he laughs, and then he's troubled again. Of all the world's stars right now (and, 40 years in, he still makes a half-dozen films a year on average), he presents the greatest emotional range with the greatest ease. He doesn't force feelings; he's human, as human as Chaplin. The series begins Friday with Bachchan's breakthrough role in ZANJEER, where he plays, as he often does, a wronged man: a cop framed and sent to prison by the man who killed his family. No one seems so in their element portraying a character out of their element. If only he'd made a film with Hitchcock! (1973, 145 min, Video) IV
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Christian Petzold's JERICHOW (New German)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Friday and Tuesday, 6pm

Thomas (Benno Fürmann) needs money. His mother is dead; his "friends" have collected the debt he owed them. All his has is a rickety house and the clothes on his back. Walking with his food stamp groceries home one day, he spots a car that's driven into the ravine. Its drunken owner, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), loses his license and hires Thomas as his driver. Of course Ali has a beautiful wife--Laura (Nina Hoss), a former bartender who married Ali because he promised to pay off her debts. She's been to prison; Thomas was dishonorably discharged from the Army. It's a simple set-up: the monstrous lovers held prisoner by an innocent. Simple and tense. JERICHOW is romance without dreams. There are only goals: a husband must be cuckolded, a debt must be paid, a man must be killed. The result isn't something doomed or "fated": just a natural progression, which is even more dreadful. Sara Hall will lecture at the Tuesday screening as part of the Art of the Remake class. (2008, 93 min, 35mm) IV
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Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS (New Narrative)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) - Thursday, 8pm
For the second week of its Mumblecore series, Block Cinema screens NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS; it's a good choice, and not just because it has the definitive Mumblecore title. Yes, it's the best Joe Swanberg movie, but is it Joe Swanberg's best movie? That seems like a funny question: Swanberg is clearly the author, the driving force, behind his films. But at the same time, he can't quite be called their director. He's a filmmaker first; what he does has very little to do with direction (which is credited to him and co-star Greta Gerwig) or dramaturgy (that can be credited to cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, "the steadiest shoulder in filmmaking," Andrew Bujalski's regular cameraman and an improvisational virtuoso who can get two people into a frame like no else; he shapes the action here into drama). He's a filmmaker in the sense that he makes a film, which is something like sending out invitations for a party or arranging a walk in Millennium Park. So it's possible to say that ALEXANDER THE LAST is better directed, or that his one-scene cameo in QUIET CITY (screening on November 4) is his best acting, and still feel that NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS might be the better film. The closer you get to his contribution, the further you get away from his work. He's a matchmaker, a social worker, a half-willing negotiator; his goal, for better or worse, is the success of others. His performances, even in a movie like this one, where he shares top billing, have always been more about bringing out elements in other actors than making any sort of statement himself; to build a cinema of "real people," he's unwittingly become a character actor, both as a performer and as a filmmaker. So NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS isn't really the story of a couple, but more the story of a girl, with Swanberg (as the boyfriend) coaxing Greta Gerwig's best performance out of her and moving his body around hers in a way that allows Grunsky and co-cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke (Swanberg apparently believes very firmly in the buddy system and Kasulke, who shot Maddin's BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!, is almost an even match for the Austrian) to create the most direct images to ever appear in his films. Joe Swanberg in person. (2008, 80 min, DVCam) IV

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THE MUPPET MOVIE (Classic Revival)
Music Box - Friday, Midnight

Common complaints about THE MUPPET MOVIE among many critics: there are too many guest stars; too many cameos; all the humans take away the focus from the Muppets themselves. Nonsense. Two of the paramount delights of watching the Muppets are to observe how they interact with the "real" world, and how that world interacts with them. To see Kermit behind the wheel of a car or tangling with Mel Brooks' mad scientist (arguably the funniest human/Muppet interaction in the movie) is bliss. The Muppets need the outside world to exist, need those props (whether inanimate or human) to riff and build gags on. That so-called artificiality supplied by the nearly nonstop parade of guest stars is just another instrument in their toolbox of comedy. Another: Paul Williams' jaunty score, so good-natured that even a few bars will make you crack a smile. THE MUPPET MOVIE is one film where fuzzy feelings of nostalgia are entirely justified. (1979, 95 min, 35mm) RC

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Tommy Wiseau's THE ROOM (Cult)
Music Box - Saturday, Midnight
A woman announces, "Well, the results came back - I definitely have breast cancer," and that's the last we ever hear of it. A group of men don tuxedos for no apparent reason and then toss around a football. A drug dealer threatens to kill someone and then disappears for the rest of the movie. Upon awaking, a man picks up a rose from his night table, smells it, and throws it on top of his sleeping girlfriend. A recurring rooftop "exterior" is obviously a studio set, with a backdrop of the San Francisco skyline digitally composited behind the action. Accidental surrealism can be even more potent than the conscious kind, and THE ROOM is some kind of zenith of its type, the equal to anything Ed Wood committed to celluloid. Although what's on screen looks like it cost about $14.99, the actual budget was upwards of $6 million, in part because actor/producer/writer/director Wiseau shot simultaneously in 35mm and HD (supposedly he didn't understand the differences between the two formats). Now the film has become a worthy successor to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, with enthusiastic fans performing a series of rituals at each screening. Ross Morin, assistant professor of film studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, calls it "one of the most important films of the past decade. Through the complete excess in every area of production, THE ROOM reveals to us just how empty, preposterous and silly the films and television programs we've watched over the past couple of decades have been." (2003, 99 min, 35mm) RC
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Chicago Filmmakers welcomes filmmaker and cartoonist Heather McAdams on Saturday. She will be presenting a grab-bag program titled "Everything but the Kitchen Sync," which will feature a healthy assortment of films (campy trailers, ads, cowboy and country soundies, etc.) from McAdams' personal collection; her never-seen-before footage of the 1990 Chicago Gay Parade; films by Barbie Fickett and Sharon Rutledge; a show and tell of strange LPs; and, leading off the night, a live set by musician Casey McDonough (Western Elstons, Flat Five, Possum Hollow Boys).

The Nightingale presents the program Light Behind the Eyes, curated by local video artist Todd Mattei, on Saturday. Featured is work by Celeste Neuhaus, Jose Versoza, Wes Kline, Todd Mattei, Doug Ischar, Anneka Herre, and Mathias Kristersson.    

Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: James Nares' rarely screened no-wave classic ROME 78 on Tuesday; François Truffaut's early French New Wave touchstone THE 400 BLOWS on Wednesday; and Richard Boleslawski's 1935 Hollywood take on Hugo's LES MISERABLES on Thursday.    

Also at the Music Box this week: the comedy IN THE LOOP opens on Friday; the new documentary on underground poster art, DIED YOUNG, STAYED PRETTY, screens on Wednesday; the Saturday and Sunday matinee (and midnight film Friday and Saturday) is the Marx Brothers' film A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. A pre-release screening on Tuesday of Spike Jonze's new film WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is sold out, but you can bid on a pair of VIP tix on eBay (see here), the proceeds of which benefit 826Chicago writing center, until Sunday morning.    

Bank of America Cinema screens the 1939 George Marshall classic DESTRY RIDES AGAIN on Saturday. Stars Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart.    

Facets Cinémathèque screens the astrophysics-cum-adventure film documentary BLAST! this week. Director Paul Devlin at selected shows (check Facets' website).   

Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: local filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton's HANNAH FREE plays for a week; the great Edgar G. Ulmer's RUTHLESS, the great Fritz Lang's SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (see review in last week's list), and the restored version of Edward S. Curtis' 1914 pioneering documentary IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS all play in the UCLA Festival of Preservation; and the documentaries THE WAY WE GET BY (director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly in person) and KNOW YOUR MUSHROOMS (by Ron Mann) each receive a few showings.

At the Portage Theater this week: The Chicago Horror Film Festival runs Friday-Sunday; the obscure 1948 film BLONDE ICE screens in the Wednesday matinee series (1:30pm; DVD projection); and the new motorcycle documentary CAFÉ SOCIETY screens Thursday.

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CINE-LIST: September 25 October 1, 2009


CONTRIBUTORS / Julian Antos, Jason Halprin, Ben Sachs, Ignatius Vishnevetsky, Darnell Witt

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