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Friday, October 5, 2018

Life Sentence bassist Joe Losurdo on reissuing the Chicago band’s 1986 hardcore classic

Posted By on 10.05.18 at 11:16 AM

Life Sentence back in the day, left to right: bassist Joe Losurdo, drummer Tom O'Connor, and guitarist Eric Brockman - GENE AMBO
  • Gene Ambo
  • Life Sentence back in the day, left to right: bassist Joe Losurdo, drummer Tom O'Connor, and guitarist Eric Brockman

Life Sentence bassist and vocalist Joe Losurdo says his 80s hardcore band is probably better known for its T-shirt than for its music. It's not as iconic as the Black Flag bars, but Life Sentence's logo is one of the best of the era: the word "life" is stamped in huge white capital letters on a red background (an obvious nick from Life magazine), while "sentence" appears in black lowercase directly beneath. You can still buy a Life Sentence shirt from their Bandcamp page, which also lists better-known bands whose members have worn one, including Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, Napalm Death, and D.R.I. "Some fuckin' Chinese apparel company, like, bootlegged it—it's like a fashion item not even remotely connected to punk rock," Losurdo says. "Someone sent me a link to it—I couldn't believe it. They made it look a little more Frankie Goes to Hollywood-ish. Still the same fuckin' logo, and it says 'Life Sentence.'"

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill is at war with American exceptionalism and imperialism

Posted By on 10.03.18 at 05:59 AM

Jeremy Scahill - KHOLOOD EID FOR THE INTERCEPT
  • Kholood Eid for The Intercept
  • Jeremy Scahill

There was no obvious moment when the torch passed during host Jeremy Scahill's interview with Seymour Hersh on a recent live episode of Intercepted, but it wasn't difficult to imagine one.

Like Hersh, Scahill was born on the south side of Chicago, and his worldview was partially shaped by his family's experience in the city he calls "this amazing place filled with contradictions."

The 43-year-old investigative journalist and cofounding editor of online news site the Intercept is also following in the formidable footsteps of his Pulitzer Prize-winning forebear in his choice of career. Both men have made their marks unmasking corruption and abuses of power at the highest level of the U.S. government—especially in the domains of wars and foreign policy. For Hersh, it was exposing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA's secret surveillance programs. Scahill's reporting helped uncover ugly truths behind Blackwater, the private mercenary army employed by the Bush administration during the Iraq war, and shone a light on the U.S. military's bloody covert operations and drone assassinations during the Obama years.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gone too soon: five films by directors who died young

Posted By on 09.04.18 at 06:00 AM

Jean Vigo's L'Atalante
  • Jean Vigo's L'Atalante
The Music Box Theatre and the Chicago Film Society present the 1930 film City Girl this Saturday at 11:30 AM as part of their monthly silent film series. The film's director, F.W. Murnau, died the year after its release in an automobile accident, cutting short his life and remarkable career. He left behind a substantial body of work, though. The five filmmakers below also died much too young but had only made a handful of movies each, and in one case just a single film. We're spotlighting their work.

L'Atalante
Jean Vigo's only full-length feature (1934), one of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema, was edited and then brutally re-edited while Vigo was dying, so a “definitive” restoration is impossible. (The reassembled version released in France in 1990 is almost certainly the best and most complete we'll ever be able to see—it's wondrous to behold.) The simple love-story plot involves the marriage of a provincial woman (Dita Parlo) to the skipper of a barge (Jean Daste), and the only other characters of consequence are the barge's skeletal crew (Michel Simon and Louis Lefebvre) and a peddler (Gilles Margaritis) who flirts with the wife at a cabaret and describes the wonders of Paris to her. The sensuality of the characters and the settings, indelibly caught in Boris Kaufman's glistening cinematography, are only part of the film's remarkable poetry, the conviction of which goes beyond such categories as realism or surrealism, just as the powerful sexuality in the film ultimately transcends such categories as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and even bisexuality. Shot by shot and moment by moment, the film is so fully alive to the world's possibilities that magic and reality seem to function as opposite sides of the same coin, with neither fully adequate to Vigo's vision. The characters are at once extremely simple and extremely complex (richest of all is Simon's Pere Jules, as beautiful a piece of character acting as one can find anywhere), and while the continuity is choppy in spots—a factor skillfully cloaked by Maurice Jaubert's superb score—the film's aliveness and potency are so constant that this hardly seems to matter. A major inspiration to subsequent generations of filmmakers, yet no one has ever succeeded in matching it. In French with subtitles. 89 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The House Is Black
Forugh Farrokhzad's black-and-white documentary (1962, 19 min.) about a leper colony in northern Iran is the most powerful Iranian film I've seen. Farrokhzad (1935-'67) is widely regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century; her only film seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound, and narration. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact, devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist, the film offers a view of everyday life in the colony—people eating, various medical treatments, children at school and at play—that's spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. 19 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The Conqueror Worm / The Witchfinder General
An unusually restrained Vincent Price stars as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century magistrate who took advantage of the English civil war to conduct a massive witch hunt across East Anglia. This sinister 1968 feature was adapted from a historical tome by Ronald Bassett, though director Michael Reeves (whose life was cut short by a drug overdose the next year) seems equally inspired by the stark visuals in Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath. Tigon Films, a pretender to the Hammer throne in the late 60s and early 70s, released the movie as The Witchfinder General in Britain; American distributor Roger Corman, hoping to capitalize on his earlier Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, retitled it The Conqueror Worm and slapped on some voice-over of Price reading from Poe's poem. 86 min. —J.R. Jones

Wanda
Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

Savage Nights
Highly controversial and troubling but undeniably powerful and impossible to dismiss, this French feature cowritten (with critic Jacques Fieschi) directed by and starring the late Cyril Collard follows the last reckless days and nights of a 30-year-old cinematographer and musician who discovers he is HIV-positive but continues to have sex with strangers as well as with his two more regular lovers. Based on Collard's autobiographical novel Les nuits fauves, Savage Nights won Cesars for best picture, best first picture, most promising actress (Romane Bohringer), and best editing a few days after the 35-year-old director himself died of AIDS in March 1993. These honors can't simply be written off as sentimental: stylistically and dramatically, this is an accomplished piece of work. If Collard's driven hero often seems far from admirable—unconsciously misogynistic beneath his apparent bisexual "tolerance," and, as his masochistic behavior often implies, full of self-loathing—the film seems admirably unpropagandistic in permitting spectators to make up their own minds about him. It also gives full voice to the agony of unrequited adolescent love (Bohringer's volcanic performance), and, for better and for worse, offers a treatment of AIDS that's the other side of the moon from Philadelphia—politically incorrect with a vengeance. Whether you like this or not, you'll have a hard time shaking it loose. With Carlos Lopez. 126 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Five opera films that hit the high notes

Posted By on 08.29.18 at 08:00 AM

Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
  • Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
Inspired by the Gene Siskel Film Center's screenings this upcoming week of Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Fluteall part of the theater's extensive "Bergman 100" serieswe've selected five other opera films of note. If this list seems a bit highbrow, know that we would have listed Chuck Jones's great Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon What's Opera Doc? in all five spots if we could have. But these are good too.

Carmen Jones
There's something contradictory in the notion of an Otto Preminger musical: his admirable rational/realist sensibility doesn't settle too well with the whims of the genre. But there are some fine Preminger moments in the midst of this 1954 film, an all-black pop version of Carmen—fine, that is, if you take the trouble to separate them from the clumsy segregationist context. Impeccably liberal in its time, the film has not aged gracefully, although Dorothy Dandridge's performance in the lead remains a testimony to a black cinema that might have been. In CinemaScope. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Bluebeard's Castle
After the hostile reception to his 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom, Michael Powell was virtually banished from English cinema, and most of his remaining oeuvre is a scattered assortment of TV commissions and Australian features. Made in 1963 for West German TV, this rarely seen one-hour adaptation of Béla Bartók's only opera, based on a libretto by Béla Balázs (later known as a film theorist and as screenwriter of Leni Riefenstahl's first feature), is a particular standout, especially for its vivid colors and semiabstract, neoprimitive decor (by Hein Heckroth, who also designed the sets for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman). The two performers are producer Norman Foster (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor and director) in the title role and Anna Raquel Satre as Bluebeard's doomed wife, Judith. In accordance with Powell's wishes, the English subtitles briefly describe and clarify the action but don't translate the text. 60 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Moses and Aaron
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have used Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone opera as the basis for a rigorous and fascinating exercise in elemental cinema (1975). A film about film—the meaning of long takes and short shots, of camera movement and static composition, of angles and perspectives. Schoenberg is Greek to me, but Straub and Huillet's investigation of the medium is an important experience for anyone interested in the way film represents reality—or fails to. In German with subtitles. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Don Giovanni
Joseph Losey's film of Mozart's opera (1979) has redundant trappings of Freud and Marx, as if Losey felt the need to make the material more personal. He shouldn't have bothered, because it already plays straight to his concerns: Giovanni, with his self-destructive idealism, stands in the line of Losey heroes from The Boy With Green Hair to Mr. Klein. The visual context is ravishing, with a lighting scheme that builds from the understated and naturalistic to shocking contrasts of black and white. Meanwhile, the camera moves with a preternatural grace, drawing clean, curving lines through the romantic confusions. If the film has a fault, it is a common one in Losey: the absence of an emotional support for his piercing intellectual observations. 179 min. —Dave Kehr

Parsifal
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg has given us Wagnerian treatments of King Ludwig, Karl May, and Adolf Hitler; now, he gives us a Wagnerian treatment of Wagner, which seems somewhat redundant. Syberberg uses all the tricks of modern stagecraft—abstract settings, projected images, puppets, and doubled characters—to “expand” Wagner's Grail opera into man's eternal search for social perfection. But the meanings Syberberg tacks onto the piece are inherent in Wagner's work; his additions seem fussy, didactic, and often reductive. But Edith Clever, miming to the voice of Yvonne Minton as the witch Kundry, gives a performance of great passion and authority—a brilliantly effective revival of silent-film acting techniques. Reiner Goldberg supplies the voice of Parsifal; the other singers include Robert Loyd, Wolfgang Schöne, and Aage Haugland. 247 min. —Dave Kehr

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rapper Vic Mensa: Chicago’s newest Black Panther?

Posted By on 08.28.18 at 02:35 PM

Vic Mensa helped give away 15,000 free shoes in Englewood on Sunday. - RICK MAJEWSKI/SUN-TIMES
  • Rick Majewski/Sun-Times
  • Vic Mensa helped give away 15,000 free shoes in Englewood on Sunday.

The timing of Vic Mensa's high-profile response this past weekend to a Chicago police sting operation was more than a little serendipitous.

Remnants of the old Black Panther Party gathered in Oakland on the same weekend of the young rapper's "anti-bait truck" event to mourn the recent death of Elbert "Big Man" Howard, one of the organization's founders. This week also marked the 50th anniversary of Bobby Seale's arrest in Chicago for his role in planning the anti-war protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

On Sunday, the 25-year-old Mensa looked ready to assume the Black Panther mantle—and not just because he's got one tattooed on his shoulder accompanied by the words "Free Huey."

Among the many organizations and individuals involved in the giveaway were the New Black Panther Party of Chicago and Fred Hampton Jr., the son of slain Panthers leader Fred Hampton. And over the course of a 15-minute conversation inside a scorching-hot room at the West Englewood Community Center, Mensa quoted Angela Davis and Mao Zedong and dropped the name of Huey Newton. When asked what role he might personally play in police reform in Chicago, he said, "At the end of the day, what we're doing right here is an extension of what we learned from the Black Panther Party, to police the police."

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

How the 1968 DNC protests in Chicago ‘killed’ protest folk singer Phil Ochs

Posted By on 08.25.18 at 06:00 AM

Phil Ochs during a 1967 Vietnam protest outside the UN building in New York. - MICHAEL OCHS
  • Michael Ochs
  • Phil Ochs during a 1967 Vietnam protest outside the UN building in New York.

It probably seemed like a gloomy joke when Phil Ochs put an image of his own tombstone on the cover of his 1969 album Rehearsal for Retirement with an inscription that read: "Born El Paso, Texas; Died Chicago, IL, 1968."

The grave, which also featured a black-and-white photo of Ochs—rifle slung over shoulder—standing in front of an American flag, was an obvious reference to the radical leftist folk singer's role in the bloody protests outside the Democratic National Convention 50 years ago this week. Specifically, Ochs was in Chicago to help plan and participate in the Youth International Party's (also known as Yippie) "Festival of Life" protest in Lincoln Park. He was among a core group of organizers arrested as they tried to publicize their own candidate for president, a pig.

Ochs witnessed all of the violence and chaos in Chicago while the Democratic establishment, guarded by a small army of Mayor Richard J. Daley's troops, chose pro-Vietnam war candidate Hubert Humphrey. The singer saw it as the "final death of democracy in America."

"It was the total, final takeover of the fascist military state—in one city, at least," Ochs said in an interview in New York shortly after the DNC. "Chicago was just a total, absolute police state. A police state from top to bottom. I mean it was totally controlled and vicious."

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Lana Turner shines as FilmStruck's Star of the Week

Posted By on 08.22.18 at 06:00 AM

John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
  • John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Lana Turner is rightfully remembered for striking performances in her mid- and late-career melodramas, but her range was wide. She was cast in early ingenue parts, traditional dramatic films, period films, comedies, and even had some horror and musical detours. Her status as a Hollywood star, though, was cemented due to roles in classic film noir. A glimpse of Turner's talents can be seen in her films available on FilmStruck, where she is currently "Star of the Week." Here are five with which to start:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Freud was making his first impact on American popular culture when MGM assembled this 1941 version of the Stevenson tale, and Spencer Tracy's good doctor is clearly suffering a bad case of repressed something or other. Under Victor Fleming's direction, it's sober and turgid but far from unwatchable, thanks exclusively to the caliber of the performances (even though Ingrid Bergman, the sluttish barmaid, and Lana Turner, the pure-hearted fiancee, seem to be playing each other's roles). With Donald Crisp, Barton MacLane, and C. Aubrey Smith. 114 min. —Dave Kehr

The Postman Always Rings Twice
John Garfield, drifting down the California coast, is waylaid by a shimmering Lana Turner and her plot to murder her husband. Adapted from a novel by America's finest pulp writer, James M. Cain, this 1946 film is a key work of the postwar period, dripping with demented romanticism and the venom of disillusionment. Tay Garnett directed, finding the pull of obsession in every tracking shot. 113 min. —Dave Kehr

Green Dolphin Street
Good sister (Donna Reed) battles bad sister (Lana Turner) for possession of a New Zealand plantation. It climaxes, famously, with Turner giving birth in the midst of a spectacular MGM earthquake (which won an Academy Award for special effects). Victor Saville directed; Samson Raphelson adapted the bestseller by Elizabeth Goudge. With Richard Hart, Edmund Gwenn, and Van Heflin (1947). 141 min. —Dave Kehr

The Three Musketeers
The MGM version of 1948, with Gene Kelly as a balletic d'Artagnan and Lana Turner, perfectly cast, as the villainous Lady DeWinter. George Sidney's engagingly incontinent direction makes it fun, though his usual problems with pacing ultimately take their toll. With Van Heflin (in an unaccountable Method funk that never matches up with the rest of the picture), Gig Young, June Allyson, Vincent Price, Angela Lansbury, Frank Morgan, and Keenan Wynn. 125 min. —Dave Kehr

The Bad and the Beautiful
Vincente Minnelli will always be known and loved for his musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon), but the melodramas he made in the 50s are no less accomplished and often more personal. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is superficially a typical Hollywood “inside story” chronicling the ruthless rise of an aggressive producer (Kirk Douglas), loosely based on Val Lewton. But under Minnelli's direction it becomes a fascinating study of a man destroyed by the 50s success ethic, left broke, alone, and slightly insane in the end. Douglas is surprisingly good as Minnelli's manic everyman and is well supported by (believe it or not) Lana Turner and Dick Powell. Scripted by Charles Schnee; with Walter Pidgeon, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, and Leo G. Carroll. 118 min. —Dave Kehr

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Crashing the boys’ club: independent women directors in the 60s and 70s

Posted By on 08.07.18 at 06:00 AM

Barbara Loden's Wanda
  • Barbara Loden's Wanda
The explosion of American independent filmmaking in the 1960s and '70s was largely an all-male affair (surprise), but a few talented women also got their hand in during this vital and changing period. The Chicago Film Society is showing one such effort, Juleen Compton's 1966 rarity The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, which has been recently rediscovered and restored, on Wednesday, August 15. We've selected another five diverse titles below.

The Connection
I saw the Living Theater's legendary production of Jack Gelber's play (directed by Judith Malina) three times during its initial run in the early 60s, and no film adaptation half as long could claim its raw confrontational power. Echoing The Lower Depths and The Iceman Cometh, it's about junkies waiting for a fix (among them a performing jazz quartet with pianist-composer Freddie Redd and alto sax Jackie McLean), and spectators were even accosted in the lobby by one actor begging for money. Shirley Clarke's imaginative if dated 1961 film uses most of the splendid original cast (Warren Finnerty is especially good), confining the action to the play's single run-down flat. It's presented as a pseudodocumentary; the square neophyte director, eventually persuaded to shoot heroin himself, winds up focusing his camera on a cockroach. The film retains the same beatnik wit that the play effectively distilled, as well as a few scary shocks. With Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, and Roscoe Lee Browne. 105 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Wanda
Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

The Velvet Vampire
Given the genre (horror) and the budget (extremely low), it may seem perverse to say that Stephanie Rothman's 1971 film is among the best women's films ever made, but so it is—a highly intelligent, deftly poetic reimagining of the vampire myth, with the theme of fatal sexuality transferred to a female character. The vampire is neither an aggressor nor a seductress, but an abstract figure of polymorphous sensuality: her "victims" choose her, and they range from a would-be rapist to a liberated (and wittily parodied) southern California couple. 80 min. —Dave Kehr

Hester Street
Joan Micklin Silver's ingratiating little movie (1975) begins with some big ideas about immigrant culture, but these are soon and happily shucked in favor of a modestly effective domestic melodrama. In the New York of the 1890s, Jake (Steven Keats), a Jewish immigrant with five years in America, dreads the arrival of his wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), from the old country. Jake is a "Yankee" now, resenting Gitl's naivete and superstition. Photographed in a self-consciously quaint black and white, Hester Street is compromised by preciousness and oversimplification, but it makes a pleasant and efficient entertainment. 90 min. —Dave Kehr

Harlan County, USA
Barbara Kopple's 1977 documentary on a Kentucky coal miners' strike is muddled on the issues, but it earned its Oscar as a dramatic, involving story, full of tough and appealing characters. Kopple's fiercely partisan stance upsets the classic balance of cinema verite documentary, but who could fail to take sides in this timeless labor-management confrontation and still claim to have a heart? 103 min. —Dave Kehr

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Friday, June 22, 2018

What I learned about gay pride from the Mattachine Society

Posted By on 06.22.18 at 06:00 AM

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C. (October 14, 1979) - ONE ARCHIVES AT USC LIBRARIES
  • ONE Archives at USC Libraries
  • National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C. (October 14, 1979)

I would not have survived long in the Mattachine Society. The organization's own founders were ousted in its third year. Even five cisgender white men were considered too radical to run a homosexual group seeking respectability, especially one fearful of FBI infiltration. Although the society was founded in 1950 in order to declare homosexuals a cultural minority and became the first successful American homosexual rights organization, the leaders who overthrew the proud founders were determined to declare us a group just like everyone else in mainstream society. Their lack of pride in their queerness took the organization down a narrow path. It's a story I began studying in 2015 in order to produce my podcast, Mattachine: A Serialized Story in Gay History.

The conservatives of the Mattachine Society believed that, despite our queer existence, there was no special queer culture: queers had no unique identity or perspective on life. It was a form of self-protection, even as the FBI was collecting Mattachine publications and showing up on the founders' doorsteps. The conservatives wished to come out of the closet quietly, to get in line with mainstream society, and make no disruptions. Never ask too much in the way of human rights, they said, never wear clothes of the wrong gender or swish down a sidewalk, but always remain loyal to the American family values in which you can never participate. For maintain the safety of its members, they pushed out the communists and the femmes. The new iteration of the Mattachine Society asserted its homosexuality meekly.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

How two Belgian boys became the youngest kids to bike across the U.S.—in 1935

Posted By on 06.21.18 at 06:07 PM

Jacques, Pierre, and Victor de Visé during their 1935 cross-country bike trip - COURTESY DANIEL DE VISE
  • Courtesy Daniel de Vise
  • Jacques, Pierre, and Victor de Visé during their 1935 cross-country bike trip

On the evening of June 17, 1935, Victor de Visé and his young sons arrived in Chicago after pedaling 793 miles from Trenton, New Jersey, over 13 days on their bicycles. They had 2,349 more miles to go.

As Victor's grandson, I'm fairly sure that his sons—ten-year-old Pierre, my father, and nine-year-old Jacques—became the youngest people in history to cross the United States by bicycle when a month later, they reached Hollywood, where Victor was to work as a correspondent for a Belgian newspaper.

RELATED: READ ALL OF OUR BIKE WEEK COVERAGE

My father's family had just arrived in America from Antwerp, evacuating their Belgian homeland ahead of the Nazi menace. The cross-country cycling tour was my grandfather's harebrained scheme for exploring his adoptive homeland. Goodness knows what horrors they endured on the roads. Yet Chicago, at least, left a favorable impression. My father eventually returned and made a life here as an urban planner for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission who researched the city's color and health-care gaps in the 60s and 70s. (The Tribune once dubbed him "Dr. Gloom" for his views, which he shared in letters published in the Reader.) He died in 2004, having spent nearly six decades of his life in the city.

Why Victor would choose to lead his sons on a 3,000-mile bicycle ride is a question I never heard a satisfactory answer to in childhood—Victor died a few years after I was born. But the great bicycle trip would come up in conversation whenever talk turned to my father's eccentric Belgian kin. Pierre, my father, told me Grandpa Victor thought a marathon cycling tour would be a nice way to see the country. Jacques, my uncle, seemed to believe the journey was motivated by Victor's essential meanness.

Looking back now with the cynical eye of a former newspaper reporter (I covered higher education for the Washington Post for eight years), I can only see the trip as a publicity stunt.

Victor de Visé had knocked around Brussels in the years since the Great War, working as a schoolteacher and covering sports for L'Étoile Belge (the Belgian Star). His wife, Madeleine, died of peritonitis after a botched abortion around 1930, leaving Victor to care for two young boys. Having lost their mother, the boys endured a cruel father. Rather than hire help, Victor would lock the boys in a closet before he set out for the offices of L'Étoile, where he worked nights. The boys sometimes awakened with bruised faces; they managed to incur their father's wrath even in their sleep. Victor sent them to live with German relatives in the summer and eventually hired a German governess.

An old saying has it that a Belgian boy is born with a bicycle between his legs. In 1934, Pierre, then ten, and Jacques, eight, bicycled nearly 500 miles across Belgium and into Germany, where, visiting Berlin, they saw what it was like to live under Hitler's Third Reich. After hearing Der Führer's shrill voice blaring forth from public loudspeakers and glimpsing a Nazi party meeting in a parlor at their hotel, Victor resolved to leave Europe. He had already traveled to Chicago once, in 1927, to cover the celebrated boxing match between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey at Soldier Field.

The cross-country journey began on a spring day in 1935 when Victor and his sons disembarked at New York Harbor after a 15-day crossing from Europe and began to make inquiries in accented French about the location of a "Hotel Eem-kah." New Yorkers shrugged; the name did not ring a bell. But Victor eventually found the hotel: the YMCA.

After a brief stay at the Y, the three set out on bicycles on June 5 from Trenton along U.S. 30, the old Lincoln Highway, a route that would take them through Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. They traveled 50 to 70 miles a day and camped on the roadside or in "sleeping rooms," typically pine shacks with dirt floors. Pierre was a slower cyclist than Victor, and Jacques slower still, so Victor would give the boys a head start each morning, Jacques setting out first and Pierre some minutes later, so that all three would reach their eventual destination at roughly the same time. In racing this is called a handicap, but it left Victor's young sons to pedal for hours on the road alone. Neither child spoke English.

On June 11, near Pittsburgh, the family became separated. Jacques had started the daily ride alone, as usual, and came upon a fork in the road. It was a bypass, offering motorists the option to steer around the city. Jacques could not read the sign, so he proceeded on instinct. Evidently Pierre chose the same road, and he eventually found Jacques—but not his father. Around noon, the two boys were spotted "wandering aimlessly about" on their tiny bicycles by J. L. Broderick, a man employed as boys' work secretary by the local Y. He addressed them in high school French and found the boys "very friendly and extremely polite" as they clutched their berets, according to an account in the Pittsburgh Press. But they didn't understand a word he said. Broderick found an interpreter, and through him, the boys explained their plight. A police bulletin finally located the elder de Visé, who was comfortably settled at the elegant Fort Pitt Hotel.

Delighted at the attention, Victor parlayed his parenting lapse into two full days of media coverage, lecturing the Pittsburgh press like a visiting diplomat. "I see another terrific war in Europe as inevitable," he told them. "It is coming soon." Victor recounted how his own parents had been burned alive when the Germans marched through Belgium in 1914.

On June 17, the cyclists arrived in Chicago having logged 800 miles. Victor dressed his tanned boys in matching argyle sweaters and again summoned reporters. The Chicago Daily Tribune covered the makeshift press conference (at which my dad was said to be 11, but his birth certificate reveals he was only ten when the trip started):

The Tribune story on the trip from June 18, 1935.
  • The Tribune story on the trip from June 18, 1935.

"Victor de Visé, a Belgian newspaper man, and his two sons, Pierrot, 11 years old, and Jackie, 9, arrived in Chicago last evening on their European bicycles after pedaling 793 miles here from Trenton, N.J., in 13 days. They are guests at the home of Louis Clement, 1120 Lake Shore Drive. De Vise was once Clement's swimming instructor and tutor in Brussels.

"De Vise says he plans to make his home in America."

The Tribune account said the boys had arrived "bright eyed and fresh," perhaps anticipating that readers would question Victor’s wisdom in staging such a trip with such young boys. Victor amiably explained that Pierre and Jacques had "developed bicycling stamina by touring Europe."

After lodging with the family friend for a few days, Victor and family pressed on through Iowa and Nebraska and into Wyoming, which was "a desert, really, hotter 'n hell," Jacques recalled to me 70 years later. They continued through Utah and Nevada, sleeping on Indian reservations. Finally, after more than 40 days of cycling, the family arrived in California, their journey complete.

Victor's bragging was off-putting, but his family's accomplishment was real. Assuming that he and the boys pedaled the full distance—and neither Jacques nor Pierre ever suggested otherwise—they were almost certainly the youngest souls to traverse the nation on bicycle. When another nine-year-old boy completed a cross-country bicycle ride 79 years later, in 2014, he did it with his family riding alongside him in a bus.

Victor de Visé settled in Hollywood, taking an apartment near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine and planting his sons outside fashionable nightclubs with cigarette trays in hope that they'd be discovered. They were, and the boys reaped bit parts in various films. In 1936, Pierre, my father, landed a tiny speaking role as a bellhop in the Oscar-winning drama Dodsworth, directed by William Wyler and starring Walter Huston.

When neither the boys' film careers nor Victor's photojournalism business took flight, Victor relocated to Chicago and took a job at the Belgian consulate. Pierre, the more studious brother, earned a diploma from Waller High School (the present-day Lincoln Park High School) at 15, and an associate degree at 17. He entered the University of Chicago that fall, but war interrupted his studies, and he took a job at the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Pierre then trained his considerable ambitions on his bicycle, and through the war years, he emerged as one of the better amateur cyclists in the east.

Family photos suggest my father rode his first bicycle race in 1938, the year he turned 14. Press clippings show him placing fourth in a 40-mile road race in Baltimore in June 1944, and ninth at a race in Detroit the following month. Although I have no records to prove this or other claims, my father told me he once held the national amateur speed record for the distance of 10,000 meters. He and Jacques also claimed to have pedaled more miles on their bicycles than anyone else on the amateur racing circuit; after all, they had a 3,000-mile head start.

Not surprisingly, I grew up in a home where bicycle racing, rather than baseball, framed the summer months. Bicycle wheels hung from suspended broomsticks in the basement. Bicycle frames dangled from hooks in the garage. I owned my first fixed-gear track bike at six or seven. I owned a spoke wrench at 12. Though we lived just a mile from Wrigley Field, our preferred spectator sport lay 20 miles away, at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook. There, on Thursday nights, we would file into the grandstands for an evening of bicycle races.

I never entered a bicycle race; I lacked the reckless, daredevil spirit I recognized in the racers, who jostled and bumped like bulls in Pamplona and regularly sustained gruesome injuries. Instead, I threw myself into a routine of relentless recreational cycling, pedaling back and forth across the north side of Chicago on summer days instead of taking the el, and logging 30 or 40 miles at a time on weekend rides with my father. We would head north up Sheridan Road through the elegant North Shore toward the Glenview Naval Air Station, or northwest through the Caldwell Woods along the bicycle path that abutted the Chicago River. One summer, I commuted 36 miles daily on my bicycle to a job in Des Plaines. I loved the hypnotic rhythm, the bucolic scenery, and the rush of accomplishment that came after completing a long ride.

My father died after attaining a measure of fame as an urban scientist and seer of Chicago's demographic future. A few years ago, I set out to write a book that honored his passion and celebrated the glory days of bicycle racing in America. The book recounts the glorious career of Greg LeMond, probably the greatest American cyclist of the modern era, climaxing with his comeback from near death and miraculous victory at the 1989 Tour de France. Of all the great tours my father and I watched on television, that was our favorite. The book, titled The Comeback, came out this month. Naturally, I dedicated it to Pop.

Daniel de Visé is a Chicago native, former Washington Post reporter, and author of The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France (Atlantic Monthly Press).

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