I am, for all intents and purposes, a New Yorker, and I love movies. I like films, too, and so for the past several years, the New York Film Festival has been a must for me—as much for the glitter of Lincoln Center and the glamor of the people around as for the film programs, which were generally excellent. Being expatriated here in Chicago for the last few years, however, has yet to bring me to attend the Chicago Film Festival. Admittedly, the programming had always been adventurous, but coming as it does on the heels of the Gotham main event, it always seemed expendable. That is, until this year. New York was a big bust this year. And Chicago's Film Festival has suddenly emerged as one of the indisputably important and exciting festivals—anywhere.
There hasn't been such a spectacular or exhilarating rise to glory since the Mets, and the Gil Hodges behind it all is one Michael Kutza, a most unlikely program director. Unlike that somewhat pompous Richard Roud (who plays a similar if slightly more constrained role in New York), Kutza is really young, and easy-going—a movie nut without the ripeness showing. Kutza comes from a moneyed upper-class background, and the Film Festival is something of a hobby for him. But it is a very serious hobby, and over the years, Kutza has done a remarkable job of building up Chicago's film showcase from a provincial imitation of larger fetes to the highly-regarded event it is today.
Kutza may be a little less educated about the cinema than some other festival domos, but he knows how to look at movies, and his instincts are pretty keen and reliable. But most importantly, he doesn't sit on his ass and wait for the big names to finish their latest projects, as New York usually does. Kutza actively searches out art in the unlikeliest places and for years, the Chicago Film Festival has been the only place in the West that has regularly featured the important if obscure works from Eastern Europe and the Far East. If you want to check out what's happening in the radical fringe, or even just the plain old fringe, of world cinema, the Carnegie Theater is going to be the place to be.
The Seventh Annual Chicago Film Festival will be held from November 5 to November 20, and it will exhibit (as of this moment) some 25-30 films from eighteen countries, from the old reliable U.S., France, and Japan, as well as from such diverse corners of the world as Iran, Belgium, Bulgarian, Algeria, and Poland. In addition, there are several retrospectives and special events (an ironic comparison to New York, which has to drop all special events this year in an economy move): three evenings covering fifty years of British documentaries; four programs of animated films from Zagreb Studio, Yugoslavia, where the world's best cartoons are now being made; the world premiere of a new Soviet epic called Letters of Love (to be held at the Lincoln Village so it can be seen in 70mm), which is probably the first Soviet film to be shown first on capitalist soil, let alone Mayor Daley's.
Perhaps even more exciting (for me) will be the two homages the Festival is offering to two of the best directors now working—Donald Siegel and Franklin Schaffner (Patton, The Stripper, Planet of the Apes, The Best Man—the latter two likely to be shown in connection with his visit). Siegel has been the object of much attention of late, as American critics are finally beginning to catch up with what the French have been on to for years. Siegel's action films, from Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Baby Face Nelson in the fifties to the masterpieces of the sixties such as The Killers, Madigan, and Two Mules for Sister Sara, have formed an overall body of work that ranks with the most artistically achieved careers in American cinema. Kutza's attitude toward Siegel may be a little off the mark, but this is one more example of his superior sensitivity bringing a major coup off for Chicago. Siegel is going to be one director whom the history of film will be unable to ignore, and Chicago's invitation and homage to him is the first institutional recognition of his great talent here in America.
Of the many films to be shown, some seem especially promising, although nearly all of them are doubtless worth seeing, I am particularly excited over Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism, which is a wild combination of Wilhelm Reich's psychology, socialist awareness and outright fornication. Sounds unlikely, but Makavejev has proved himself to be a Yugoslav bartender who knows just right proportions for such knockout cocktails. (His Innocence Unprotected won Chicago's grand prize, the Gold Hugo, a few years back.)
Anyway, there's going to be a lot going on over at the Carnegie. A program of television commercials from around the world, including (unidentified) works by Richard Lester and Stanley Kubrick (everyone is making commercials these days), will be shown on Channel 11. There will be the usually evening of student films, only I am told by a reliable source that hates student films that this year's crop is pretty damn good, and that some of them are fabulous. And there is the unique competition, "Freedom is … ," sixty-second films made especially for the Festival on the title theme. Also new works by India's master director Satyajit Ray; Japan's wild talent, Nagisa Oshima; Czech director Jaromil Jires; Susan Sontag's latest Swedish intellectual exercise, Brother Carl; a Russian version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya; an Israeli comedy by their leading humorist, Ephraim Kirshon; and literally dozens of others. What's more, nearly every filmmaker will be attending the Festival and open for questions after his film, another unusual feature that Kutza has a unique talent for arranging.
Tickets this year will be $2 for everyone and complete schedules will be available shortly. Plan to attend several of the shows at the Carnegie—it's most exciting thing in town this November. If you're complaining about films that never get to Chicago, this is a chance to see some that may never get anywhere else—Kutza specializes in terrific films that are utterly non-commercial.
And Kutza seems basically untouched by all this success, perhaps because it runs in his family. Both Franco Zeffirelli and Luchino Visconti praised his judgment when he served on the Spoleto Jury last year—and Franco wasn't only referring to the fact that he and Michael share the same Italian hair stylist.