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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.

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

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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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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Monday, August 27, 2018

An interview with Bing Liu about his powerful documentary Minding the Gap

Posted By on 08.27.18 at 09:00 AM

Liu (center) with Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap
  • Liu (center) with Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap
Opening this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a two-week run, Minding the Gap is one of the strongest American documentaries to play Chicago this year. Director Bing Liu begins with a seemingly limited subject—skateboarders in their late teens and early 20s in Rockford, Illinois—and pursues it with such diligence and curiosity that the film ends up addressing a number of major issues. Minding the Gap is at once an elegy for urban, blue-collar America and a sobering meditation on domestic violence. Liu's principal subjects, a black teenage boy named Keire Johnson and a white man in his early 20s named Zack Mulligan, were both abused as children; so too was the director himself. Following Johnson and Mulligan as they enter adulthood while reflecting on his own family history, Liu explores the lasting effects of domestic violence and the ways that young men in particular cope with them. I recently spoke with the 29-year-old Liu about Minding the Gap, his evolution as a filmmaker, and what he learned about his hometown of Rockford by making a movie about it.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Father Pfleger, top cop Johnson, and a tinge of hope for the city’s future

Posted By on 07.13.18 at 12:00 PM

Father Michael Pfleger and Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson at the protest that shut down the Dan Ryan last Saturday. - ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
  • Father Michael Pfleger and Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson at the protest that shut down the Dan Ryan last Saturday.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I must say the sight of Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson and Father Michael Pfleger walking arm in arm down the Dan Ryan at last weekend's protest march left me with a tinge of hope about the future of Chicago.

Oh God, I feel really naive just writing that.

Yes, I realize Johnson was at the march only at Rahm's permission.

And of course, I understand that Father Pfleger has generally been an ally to Emanuel, as he was to Mayor Daley—despite the major roles both have played in perpetuating the economic inequities Pfleger denounces.

But as long as Johnson and Pfleger are united in demanding that something must change to lessen the inequities in this town, I'm eager to join the chorus.

So allow me to direct them to the giant cookie jar the mayor doesn't want any of us to know even exists.

It's called the tax increment financing program, and each year upwards of $500 million or so of property tax dollars pours into it. Last year, the take was $566 million. The county has'nt itemized this year's TIF take yet.

Basically, state law allows the mayor to slap a surcharge on the property tax we pay for things we want—like schools and cops. And then that money gets diverted into bank accounts controlled by the mayor, who's pretty much free to spend it on things we might not want.

One of the worst parts of the TIF scam is that the money is not evenly distributed ward by ward. Instead, most of the money goes to gentrifying communities, even though the program was intended to eradicate blight in low-income communities.

For example, there's the North Branch South TIF district near North Avenue and the Chicago River—in one of the hottest areas of town, where Jeff Bezos is thinking of moving his second Amazon headquarters.

Since it was created in 1998, it's gathered about $89 million in property tax money.

In contrast, there's the 79th Street Corridor TIF, which was also created in 1998. Pfleger's church, Saint Sabina, happens to be located in that TIF district. It's gathered about $12.7 million.

So let's get this straight. In the same 20 years, the booming north-side community has collected $89 million and the struggling south-side neighborhood has collected $12.7 million in TIF dollars.

In what universe is that fair, just, or right?

Pfleger's community isn't the only victim of the TIF scam. TIF dollars are diverted from all Chicago's schools, parks, libraries, and police.

I tend to focus on how schools have been shortchanged by the TIF program. But the police department could also use some of that money.

Wednesday's Sun-Times had a somber story by Fran Spielman about Brandon Krueger, a 36-year-old police officer who committed suicide last Sunday while sitting in his squad car in the parking lot of the Calumet District station.

"Officers have very high rates of exposure to trauma similar to the communities in which they serve," Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the Sun-Times. "You wear your vest. You carry your weapon. You make sure you go home at the end of the night. We do everything to mitigate physical injury to our law enforcement. We have to do the same for their mental wellness."

And yet, according to the Sun-Times, the CPD's "employee assistance program has only three full-time counselors to provide mental health services to 13,500 employees and their families."

You could hire a whole lot of police counselors with just a little of the TIF cash that flows into the one north-side district.

Just to remind you, Mayor Rahm infamously closed mental health clinics in low-income, high-crime areas as part of his infamous budget, unanimously approved by the City Council in 2011.

There wasn't enough money to keep the clinics open, the mayor said.

Apparently, black people have more in common with the cops that patrol their neighborhoods than anyone realized.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

The life and death of Laverne Williams

Posted By on 04.26.18 at 06:00 AM

A family in West Garfield Park in 1983 - BOB BLACK
  • Bob Black
  • A family in West Garfield Park in 1983

Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

Laverne Williams would have turned 50 years old this year. But she was killed by a fire in her West Garfield Park apartment on January 27, 1988, when she was just 19. Before she died, she managed to pass her two younger children through the window to her brother, who was standing outside in the alley. They were badly burned, but they survived.

At the funeral, mourners talked about how devoted Laverne had been to her kids. "Laverne, she always watched her kids," said her mother, Gloria. "If she didn't have nobody to watch 'em and she goin' somewhere, she'd take 'em with. The ones who go off and leave 'em, ain't nothin' happen to them."

Steve Bogira's story about Laverne's death, "A Fire in the Family," was ostensibly about the high incidence of fires in West Garfield Park: many apartment buildings were old and uncared-for, and residents had to resort to portable heaters and leaving ovens and stoves on to stay warm in the winter. It was, in fact, a kerosene heater that had caused the fire that killed Laverne Williams. But the story very quickly expanded into something much more.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Akira Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den is the most beautiful movie in town this week

Posted By on 02.02.18 at 11:47 AM

  • Dodes'ka-den
Dodes'ka-den (1970), which screens from 35-millimeter this Sunday at 7 PM at Doc Films, might be described as Akira Kurosawa’s most Italian film. The exuberant, if grimy, depiction of lower-class life sometimes recalls Pier Paolo Pasolini, while the episodic structure, broad humor, and sentimentality evoke the films of Federico Fellini. And for some of the exterior shots, Kurosawa and crew members painted their physical surroundings so that they would appear especially colorful, a technique that Michelangelo Antonioni had tried out in Red Desert (1964). Yet for all these commonalities, Dodes'ka-den remains intensely personal; its central theme of finding refuge in dreams reflects the joy Kurosawa experienced in making movies. It’s not a perfect work—some of the episodes feel simplistic or overly sentimental—but it contains enough splendorous moments to make it worth seeing, especially on celluloid.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

New report spotlights debt afflicting women in low-income black and Latino communities

Posted By on 01.31.18 at 10:20 AM

  • COFI/POWER-PAC Illinois

A new report conducted by Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew-Policy Action Council (POWER-PAC Illinois) focuses on the kinds of debt crippling parents face in very low-income communities in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois. The report, called "Stopping the Debt Spiral," is based on surveys conducted by POWER-PAC members—themselves mostly low-income women of color—throughout 2016, and includes policy recommendations and information on campaigns already in the works to resolve some of the inequities discovered in the surveys.

Nearly 80 percent of 304 people surveyed were women. Nearly 60 percent said they lived on a household income of less than $15,000 per year, and two-thirds said they had no savings. Most respondents were between the ages of 31 and 60; half were single, 53 percent were black, and 37 percent were Latino. Almost 60 percent were Chicagoans, but POWER-PAC also surveyed parents in East Saint Louis, Elgin, and other communities. Most respondents felt trapped by credit card debt, car payments, and student loans, but those with the lowest incomes were also significantly burdened by past-due utility bills and city tickets.

Rosazlia Grillier a POWER-PAC member for more than ten years, says it was important that the survey was conducted by people who were themselves familiar with the problems it was trying to quantify. "Families that we work with and are part of our organization were being negatively impacted the most," she says. "We hosted a number of forums where we went through the actual survey with folks. We also took it to the street, we knocked on doors in our own community to build those relationships, so [respondents] could feel comfortable with giving honest answers." POWER-PAC emerged out of Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a nonprofit that trains low-income parents for civic and political participation and community organizing.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

How The Florida Project works wonders with cinematic time

Posted By on 10.20.17 at 01:50 PM

The Florida Project
  • The Florida Project
A pivotal scene in Sean Baker's The Florida Project comes near the end of the film. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is eating breakfast at an Orlando hotel near the one where she lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker presents the little girl in close-up as she samples each item she took from the dining-room buffet and makes some cute comment about it, and he uses jump cuts to skip from one sampling to the next. The scene is subtly jarring, as jump cuts and close-ups haven't been crucial to the movie's visual grammar up until this point. With the conclusion only minutes away, it seems a little late for Baker to be introducing new visual ideas into his filmmaking. Yet the sense of starting over feels just right—throughout its duration, The Florida Project seems to be discovering itself, figuring out its structure as it goes along. That Baker would suggest that the picture's only beginning just when it's about to end is consistent with his aesthetic project.

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How Chicago’s Section 8 voucher voting bloc could sway local elections

Posted By on 10.20.17 at 10:56 AM

John Stevens ran for alderman of the 42nd Ward (which included Cabrini-Green) in 1969. But the Democratic machine held a tight grip on the projects and he lost to a white candidate who didn't bother campaigning. - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • John Stevens ran for alderman of the 42nd Ward (which included Cabrini-Green) in 1969. But the Democratic machine held a tight grip on the projects and he lost to a white candidate who didn't bother campaigning.

In this week's cover story, I reported about "the Chicago Housing authority's sleeping giant"—the 47,000 households participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program (also known as Section 8)—and attempts of those residents to organize a representative group.

One thing that became clear during the reporting of the story is that this population is a significant (and significantly overlooked) voting bloc in Chicago. These households share interests, grievances, and experiences as surely as other demographic groups like women or homeowners or young professionals. If organized and mobilized to turn out to the polls as a bloc, voucher holders could hold significant sway over not just the government agencies shaping their lives, but over the broader political landscape of the city.

Of course many voucher holders are already voting, but I began wondering about the potential of their collective power. What would happen if candidates spoke to them as voucher holders the way they speak to union households? By analyzing Chicago Board of Elections data and voucher distribution data first reported by the the Sun-Times and BGA last year, I found that ten wards have a high enough voucher population to have decided their 2015 aldermanic races.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

This Mother’s Day, groups rally to support incarcerated moms

Posted By on 05.12.17 at 11:57 AM

  • Alexis Mansfield / Facebook

Ahead of Mother's Day this Sunday, a coalition of local groups has organized a variety of ways to bring immediate support to incarcerated moms and bring attention to the impact that imprisoning the primary caregivers of minor children has on families and communities.

On Friday, demonstrators will gather at noon at the Thompson Center for a rally in solidarity with incarcerated mothers. On Saturday at noon, a vigil and toiletry drive will be help in front of the Cook County Jail. Then, on Saturday May 20, two busloads of children and their caregivers will be taken to visit their moms at Logan and Decatur prisons in downstate Illinois, where more than 80 percent of the some 2,000 inmates are mothers of minor children.

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