Friday, July 21, 2017

Jane: Abortion and the Underground relives the bad old days of covert abortions

Posted By on 07.21.17 at 12:30 PM

  • courtesy Women Make Movies

Back in 1992, just after she'd published her first book, Feminist Fatale, and became the de facto spokeswoman for Gen X feminists, Paula Kamen appeared on a panel about feminism past and present. One of the other panelists mentioned Jane, the Chicago abortion collective that ran from 1969 until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

"I didn't believe it was real," Kamen says now.

And even now it seems sort of fantastical: a group of young Chicago women, a mix of activists and housewives, who worked together to arrange illegal abortions for women in apartments in and around the city, eventually performing the procedures themselves after their doctor bailed on them. As far as anyone knows, they never lost a patient. Clients found them by calling a number and asking for Jane.

But it was real, the only such service in the U.S., and Kamen set about tracking down former Jane members and clients to find out more. The result was a play, Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which will be revived at a staged reading on Monday evening followed by a panel discussion. Proceeds will benefit the Chicago Abortion Fund.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Our Time Will Come is a subtle, moving study of Hong Kong’s WWII resistance movement

Posted By on 07.12.17 at 03:24 PM

Zhou Xun and Deanie Ip in Our Time Will Come
  • Zhou Xun and Deanie Ip in Our Time Will Come
Revisiting Andrei Tarkovsky's sci-fi classic Stalker this past weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I was struck by Tarkovsky's audacious anticlimax, which I now consider crucial to the film's unique power. After more than two hours of following the three principal characters as they search for the mythical Room—which is believed to grant the innermost wish of whomever enters it—Tarkovsky declines to reveal whether the characters actually go inside the Room once they find it. This elision strengthens rather than weakens the film's central theme of faith. Throughout Stalker, Tarkovsky raises the possibility that the Zone (which houses the Room) does not contain magical powers, as the title character insists. This forces viewers to question whether the characters' quest is worthwhile or not—effectively making audiences undergo their own spiritual journey. By not showing whether the characters have their wishes granted (or even choose to ask for them), Tarkovsky makes viewers complete the story in their imaginations, their resolutions dependent on their own sense of faith.

Hong Kong director Ann Hui (Boat People, A Simple Life) achieves something similar in the conclusion of her latest film, Our Time Will Come, which is currently playing at the River East 21. Our Time tells the story of several members of the Hong Kong Resistance during World War II. It ends with shocking abruptness, denying viewers a definitive sense of victory or defeat. In the final minutes, Hui presents two Resistance members agreeing to carry out tasks for their movement as they stand on a beach at night. Rather than show the results of their missions, Hui cuts to an image of the Hong Kong skyline of today; she then shows a taxi driver in the present (who had appeared in interview segments throughout the film) getting in his car and going to work. With this conclusion, Hui and screenwriter Jiping He downplay the acts of individual Resistance members to consider the history of Hong Kong as a whole. The taxi driver, who had assisted the Resistance as a boy, clearly carries memories of the movement in everyday life; his present-day remembering, Hui and Ho seem to be saying, is just as important as the actions carried out by the Resistance in the past.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

In Young Radicals Jeremy McCarter ponders the similarities between 1917 and 2017

Posted By on 06.29.17 at 08:00 AM


One of the strange and wonderful things about history is how the same basic facts can take on an entirely different meaning depending on when you happen to be examining them. As a case in point, Jeremy McCarter began writing his new book Young Radicals, the story of five activists who spent most of the 1910s advocating and often agitating for dramatic social change, back in 2011, in the middle of the hope-and-change Obama era. He finished last fall. On the morning of November 9, he realized that he would have to rewrite his entire introduction to reflect the outcome of the presidential election.

"Had Hillary won," he says, "this book would be an account of a moment of great promise in American life. It would be a way to recapture some of the optimism of those exciting years right before World War I. It certainly looks different now, even though the core narrative of the book didn’t change."

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

It’s the end of the world at the Museum of Science and Industry and we feel fine

Posted By on 06.22.17 at 03:42 PM

The original cover design that started it all. - MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY
  • Museum of Science and Industry
  • The original cover design that started it all.

It seems slightly unbelievable now, but the scientists who developed the nuclear bomb didn't want it to be used in an actual war. After the first test bomb exploded in New Mexico in July, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos lab, said he was reminded of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Later that month, 70 scientists who'd worked on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the bomb, signed a petition begging President Truman not to use it against the Japanese.

Well, we all know how that went.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

‘An Evening at the Pekin Theatre’ re-creates the country’s first black-owned music hall

Posted By on 06.15.17 at 01:32 PM

Onstage at Chicago’s Pekin Theatre, the first black-owned theater in the country - COURTESY ILLINOIS HUMANTIES COUNCIL
  • courtesy Illinois Humanties Council
  • Onstage at Chicago’s Pekin Theatre, the first black-owned theater in the country

"If you go to the corner of State and 27th now," says Chicago historian Tim Samuelson, "you find a bunch of dirty parking lots. But if you went there in 1905 or 1906, you would find something very different: the Pekin Theatre."

The Pekin was Chicago's—and the country's—very first theater owned and operated by African-Americans. As Samuelson describes it, it was an African-American version of a Broadway theater in the heart of Bronzeville and the anchor of a business and entertainment district called "the Stroll" that extended south along State to 39th Street. The Pekin's shows had singers and dancers and comedians and, most importantly, bands that played ragtime.

The Pekin fell into a long decline in the 1910s, closed in the '20s, and has now been mostly forgotten. But this Saturday night it will rise again, at least for a few hours, in a one-night performance called "An Evening at the Pekin Theatre," presented by the Illinois Humanities Council and featuring MacArthur-certified ragtime genius Reginald Robinson.

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson used ‘America First’ decades before Trump

Posted By on 06.02.17 at 12:50 PM

Big Bill Thompson, center, and his supporters belt out “America First, Last and Always” in an undated photo. - (SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE)
  • (Sun-Times Archive)
  • Big Bill Thompson, center, and his supporters belt out “America First, Last and Always” in an undated photo.

After the U.S. air strikes against Syria in April, some questioned whether Donald Trump has abandoned his campaign platform of "America First." The phrase has elicited comparisons with language used by the American First Committee, the powerful isolationist group founded in 1940 to oppose any material support for Britain in its war against Nazi Germany. But it wasn't the first political movement to use the slogan.

William "Big Bill" Hale Thompson served three terms as Chicago's mayor, from 1915 to 1923, and then again from 1927 to 1931. In Chicago's 1927 mayoral race, Thompson campaigned against what he saw as the insidious influence of the British Empire in the city's politics. His America First slate would elect so many candidates that "the king of England will find out for the first time he is damned unpopular," Thompson said on the campaign trail. Insinuating that he might work to have the incumbent mayor, William E. Dever, sent to prison, Thompson described his opponent as "very weak, no courage, no manhood, doesn't know how to fight."

Sounds reminiscent of some modern-day campaigning, doesn't it?

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Black Cinema House honors the art of the shoeshine

Posted By on 05.24.17 at 04:17 PM

Bill Williams in Shinemen
  • Bill Williams in Shinemen
At 7 PM this Friday at the Stony Island Arts Bank, Black Cinema House will present a program of two superb short documentaries, Sparky Greene's American Shoeshine (1976) and Eleva Singleton's Shinemen (2015). Both films consider the social significance of shining shoes, particularly in Chicago. American Shoeshine offers a panoramic view, interviewing a number of shoe shiners and addressing the history of shoe shining as an industry. Shinemen, on the other hand, focuses on one individual, Bill Williams, who owned a few shine shops in town and worked for the Chicago tourism bureau for three decades. (Williams will attend the screening along with Singleton and the film's cinematographer, Ahmed Hamad.) The films both display great affection for their subjects and advance an engaging, even musical aesthetic. They present shining shoes not just as a job, but as an art form, the rhythm of the shinemen's towels providing a jaunty backbeat for the social lessons.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Terence Davies discusses the passions behind his latest film, A Quiet Passion

Posted By on 05.17.17 at 01:00 PM

Cynthia Nixon (left) plays Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion
  • Cynthia Nixon (left) plays Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion
Terence Davies is one of England's most important living filmmakers, having directed two seminal British films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). His subsequent films—among them The House of Mirth (2000) and The Deep Blue Sea (2011)—are just as rich as these, combining vividly realized settings, balletic camera movements, and exquisitely understated performances to create visions of the past that resonate in your memory long after you watch them. Davies is also an impeccable dramatist, rendering his characters' emotional pain in palpable terms and writing dialogue that flows like music. His latest feature, A Quiet Passion (which opens Friday at the Music Box), is a moving biography of Emily Dickinson and another deeply personal work. As Davies explained when I spoke to him last month, he frequently drew on his childhood memories when devising the film, and its sympathetic portraits of female characters (not least Dickinson herself) stem from feelings he had as a boy for his mother and sisters. Davies also discussed the early filmic influences that continue to inspire him and some of his working methods.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In firing Comey, Trump pulls a Nixon—again

Posted By on 05.10.17 at 05:05 PM

Demonstrators gather outside the White House the day after President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey. - AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI
  • AP Photo/Evan Vucci
  • Demonstrators gather outside the White House the day after President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.
In my desperate attempt to find the bright side in this age of Trump, I'm going to say something positive about yesterday's power play in which the president unceremoniously fired FBI director James Comey.

Think of it as progress, sorta.

At the very least, there was a time not so long ago in which the FBI director was so diabolically powerful that no president, not even one as ruthless as Richard Nixon, would have dared to fire him.

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Indie comic Visitations is haunted by the history and lore of Chicago cemeteries

Posted By on 05.05.17 at 10:04 AM

Artist Scott Larson in Graceland Cemetery with the statue that inspired his comic book character Piper Boy. - YOUTUBE
  • YouTube
  • Artist Scott Larson in Graceland Cemetery with the statue that inspired his comic book character Piper Boy.

Never mind Guardians of the Galaxy. The team of superheroes inhabiting indie comic book series Visitations are protectors of a more down-to-earth place than outer space—a cemetery. The ghostly group of pals roam a composite of some of Chicago's most famous—and allegedly haunted—graveyards.

"Visitations is a kind of history of Chicago as seen through the residents of the oldest cemetery," says the comic's creator and artist, Scott Larson, who will be giving out bite-size editions of the title at Graham Cracker Comics on Saturday as part of a Free Comic Book Day event. "I grew up here and I loved it, and I was introduced to local history at a young age," the Lincoln Square resident says. "So I guess you could say this is my way of honoring Chicago."

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