Reel Life: a psychotronic dream come true | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Reel Life: a psychotronic dream come true 

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If Michael Flores, grand pooh-bah of the Psychotronic Film Society, pope of the Church of the SubGenius, and steady combatant of the forces of evil in the form of the liberal police state, good taste, and the Film Center, had a dream of all dreams, it might involve a voice in the sky asking him if he would be interested in programming a film series in an intimate downtown theater that practically nobody even knew existed.

And if the voice in the dream had a face, it would cock an eyebrow and say, "Plus, it has a bar."

Just such a dream recently came true for the indefatigable 37-year-old Flores. The owner of the voice was an employee of, of all places, the Civic Opera House, and the invitation came in the form of a phone call announcing that the building's management had been wondering what to do with a little-known jewel of a movie theater buried deep in the building's broad torso. Could Flores do something?

The Civic Studio Theater itself is a strange remnant of World War II. In the 40s, says Matthew Hickey, the opera house concessions manager who proposed the revivification of the theater and called in Flores, the military took over large chunks of Chicago office space: in 1942 they installed a small, 180-seat theater in the opera house to use for screening training and propaganda films. After the war it fell into disuse and "sat dark until the mid-80s," says Hickey. The opera house renovated the space around that time, and even put a couple of small theatrical presentations into it. But it shut down again, and is now used primarily by a church group for midday prayer meetings.

The plan for the theater, say both Flores and Hickey, is to take its programming somewhere beyond the usual Film Center or Music Box art films, showing movies ranging from the more obscure works of well-known directors to those that fit into that field of filmmaking known as the psychotronic.

Flores was born in San Diego, spent a chunk of his childhood in Japan, and grew up a hippie in Atlanta. He was a teen protester in high school, and even became the high school correspondent for Atlanta's underground newspaper The Great Speckled Bird. He came to Chicago to work for an SDS newspaper, New Left Notes, and later attended the School of the Art Institute; since then he's taught, worked as a film editor, and perpetrated various SubGenius and Psychotronic projects.

The Psychotronic Film Society is dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of B-movies--slasher films, prison films, monster flicks, the bizarre on celluloid generally--and to this end publishes a magazine, It's Only a Movie, which comes out on both paper and video, and holds regular showings of psychotronic fare at various clubs around town. The group began some five years ago in the apartment Flores shared with his girlfriend, Pam Smith--head of the club's distaff auxiliary, Rampaging Women. The pair soon went public and in addition to various special events currently holds two weekly screenings: Saturdays at the Avalon Niteclub, 959 W. Belmont, at 8:30 PM, and Sundays at Crash Palace, 2771 N. Lincoln, at 6:30 PM.

A Psychotronic event might include anything from an obscure rock movie to classic exploitation trash like Shanty Tramp. Civic Studio offerings will be of a gentler nature. The series at the theater begins tonight with Love in the City, a 1953 anthology film featuring documentary bits on the title theme by Fellini, Antonioni, and other Italian directors. Tomorrow is The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, an Italian thriller directed by Dario Argento, a Sergio Leone protege who cowrote Once Upon a Time in the West. Flores says it has often been compared to Hitchcock's Psycho but was mauled in the editing for American release; he promises to show the original cut.

The Civic Studio finally gives Flores a permanent platform for his many campaigns, particularly needling the Film Center, which he views as unnecessarily snooty. "We're going to have one thing none of these other theaters have," he says slyly, "and that's a union projectionist. I don't see how all these places that support the working-class struggles of the proletariat don't have union projectionists."

The theater will keep Flores busier than usual, and besides programming it he's going to be spending a lot of time preparing for hosting the September 1992 worldwide convention of the Church of the SubGenius, a group of popular- culture enthusiasts who worship "Slack" (basically a synonym of "fun") and the "living avatar" of it, J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, a pipe-smoking line drawing that looks like a clip from a 1940s pipe advertisement. The last SubGenius convention was ten years ago, when the church had 1,200 adherents. This convention will be the first since the publication of The Book of the SubGenius, which Flores helped write and is now in its third printing. "The current mailing list has nearly 8,000 names," says Flores. "It could be pretty amazing."

The Civic Studio Theater is on the sixth floor of the Civic Center for Performing Arts, 20 N. Wacker. Love in the City shows tonight at 7 and 9:15, and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage shows tomorrow at the same times; admission is $5.50. Call 346-0270, extension 122, for more info; for details on the Psychotronic Film Society or the Church of the SubGenius, call 738-0985.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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