Chicago Humanities Festival

The eighth annual Chicago Humanities Festival concluded its series of live

programs last weekendâ but this week it presents a series of 18 filmsâ all organized around the theme “Work and Play: How We Organize Our Time.” The series runs Friday through Thursday, November 14 through 20, at Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton. For further information, call




The story of a strike by Russian workers circa 1912 and its brutal suppression by the authorities, this 1924 film by the 26-year-old Sergei M. Eisenstein was his first full-blown feature. Though flawed and schematic, it’s nonetheless a mighty achievement for a young man with primitive equipment and no extensive training in filmmaking. Masterfully photographed by Edouard Tisse (“the Swede”), the film lays the groundwork for Eisenstein’s great Potemkin. (DD) (7:00)

Killer of Sheep

The rarely screened 1978 first feature of the highly talented black filmmaker Charles Burnett, who has set most of his films in Watts (including My Brother’s Wedding and To Sleep With Anger); this one deals episodically with the life of a slaughterhouse worker. Shot on a year’s worth of weekends on a minuscule budget (less than $20,000), this remarkable work–conceivably the best single feature about ghetto life that we have–was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as one of the key works of the American cinema, an ironic and belated form of recognition for a film that has had virtually no distribution. It shouldn’t be missed. With Henry Sanders. (JR) (9:00)


Mildred Pierce

This is the archetypal Joan Crawford movie (1945), with Joan as a housewife turned waitress who finds success in business but only anguish with her bitchy daughter (Ann Blyth) as the two of them compete for the affections of smoothy Zachary Scott. Crawford won her Oscar for this film under the workmanlike direction of Michael Curtiz, greatest of the contract directors. Good support from Jack Carson, Eve Arden, and Bruce Bennett. (DD) (1:00)

Land and Freedom

Ken Loach, perhaps the most accomplished and intelligent Marxist practitioner of social realism left in England, stretches his impressive talents in this 1995 film, depicting the Spanish civil war from the perspective of a young unemployed communist from Liverpool (Ian Hart) who joins the republican anti-Franco forces. Scripted by Jim Allen, who also wrote Loach’s Raining Stones, this is historically convincing as well as gripping–Loach near his passionate best–and, far from offering a standard defense of the communist position, it presents a detailed revisionist critique of the party’s betrayal of other leftist factions in Spain. With Rosana Pastor, Iciar Bollain, Tom Gilroy, and Frederic Pierrot. (JR) (3:30)

Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers

Les Blank’s witty and affectionate 1980 tribute to garlic as cooking aid and cure-all. (DK) (5:15)

The Apartment

I wouldn’t call this 1960 picture one of Billy Wilder’s best comedies–it’s drab, sappy, and overlong at 125 minutes. But its numerous Oscars–for best picture, direction, script, editing, and art direction–indicate that many disagree with me (including the Coen brothers, who seem to have studied it for The Hudsucker Proxy, just as Wilder studied Vidor’s silent The Crowd). Jack Lemmon at his most hyperventilated plays an ambitious clerk who tries to get ahead by lending his apartment to executives for one-night stands and then falls in love with an elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) who’s being mistreated by his boss (Fred MacMurray). Wilder cohort I.A.L. Diamond collaborated on the script of this black-and-white ‘Scope movie; with Ray Walston and Edie Adams. (JR) (6:30)

My Favorite Year

The broad Jewish comedy of this Mel Brooks-produced, Richard Benjamin-directed 1982 film is mainly used as a foil to the WASPish reserve of Peter O’Toole, who is very funny and very strange as an alcoholic movie star (clearly modeled on Errol Flynn) doing a guest shot on an early 50s TV program (clearly modeled on Your Show of Shows). Unfortunately, this promising idea turns out to be an elaborate cover for the same trite father-and-son forgiveness melodrama that American movies were pushing in the 80s, revolving around O’Toole’s relationship with an admiring/admonishing young gag writer (Mark Linn-Baker). Benjamin’s direction consists largely of giving Richard Benjamin inflections to most of the line readings; for the rest, he blandly shoots the screenplay, leaving large gaps in the narration unfilled and significant contradictions in the characters unexplained. With Joseph Bologna, Jessica Harper, Bill Macy, and Lainie Kazan. (DK) (8:45)


The Citadel

King Vidor made this 1938 film at MGM’s British studios and helped himself to a lot of local talent: Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Emlyn Williams, Cecil Parker. Robert Donat is the young doctor who betrays his calling by becoming a society hand holder; Rosalind Russell is the wife who brings him back. Though it has Vidor’s favorite theme of personal rebirth and his enduring country/city dichotomy, it lacks his usual fire (it also marked his return to a major studio, after several fertile years as a freelancer). Naturally, it was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, including best picture, actor, direction, and screenplay. (DK) (2:00)

Executive Suite

Robert Wise’s 1954 boardroom drama was a pioneering effort in a genre long since out of fashion. The president of a large company dies, and a struggle for corporate control ensues. With Fredric March, William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Louis Calhern, and Nina Foch–the kind of heavy-artillery cast that always spelled Hollywood compromise. (4:30)

Black Girl

The 1965 first feature of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. A girl from a lower-class district in Dakar goes to work as a maid for a French couple and accompanies them on a vacation to France, where her newfound sense of freedom gradually turns into feelings of isolation and invisibility. Sembene keeps his metaphors under control, and the result is a message movie with an unusual depth of characterization. (DK) On the same program, two short films by Sembene: Borom Sarret (1964), his first released work, and Tauw (1970). (6:30)


The Last Pullman Car

A 1984 political documentary by the Chicago-based Kartemquin Films Collective, about the closing of Pullman Standard’s South Chicago plant and the employees’ futile attempts to keep it open. On the same program, the short Now We Live on Clifton (1974), about the changes wrought by urban renewal in a multiracial, working-class neighborhood. (6:30)

Raining Stones

The best Ken Loach movie I’ve seen, this energizing and subversive 1993 English tragicomedy about an unemployed Catholic man on the dole in a Manchester suburb–a scam-meister who, along with an unemployed friend, specializes in petty thefts and small jobs such as cleaning drains to support his family–deservedly won a special jury prize at Cannes and was an audience favorite at Locarno. Inspired by the real-life experiences of screenwriter Jim Allen, the plot hinges on the hero’s desperate efforts to retain his self-respect against all odds after his partner’s van is stolen. He’s supposed to somehow get his daughter the traditional white dress, shoes, veil, and gloves for her upcoming first communion, and complications and emotions escalate. The movie has a terrific payoff. With Bruce Jones, Julie Brown, Ricky Tomlinson, Tom Hickey, and Gemma Phoenix. (JR) (8:45)


Distant Voices, Still Lives

It’s hard to say what Terence Davies’s powerful masterpiece is about–growing up in a working-class family in Liverpool in the 40s and 50s–without making it sound familiar and lugubrious. In fact, this beautiful memoir, conceivably one of the greatest of all English films, is so startling and original that we may not have the vocabulary to do it justice. Organized achronologically, so that events are perceived more in terms of emotional continuity than of narrative progression, the film concentrates on family events like weddings and funerals and on songs sung at parties and the local pub. It’s clear that Davies’s childhood, which was lorded over by a brutal and tyrannical father, was not an easy one, yet the delight shown and conveyed by the well-known songs makes the experience of this film cathartic and hopeful as well as sorrowful and tragic. (There are some wonderful laughs as well.) Much of the film emphasizes the bonds between the women in the family and their female friends, although there’s nothing doctrinal or polemical about its vision, and the purity and intensity of its emotional thrust are such that all the characters are treated with passion and understanding. The sense of the periods depicted–ranging from the blitz to a mid-50s screening of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing at the Futurist Cinema–is both precise and luminous. With Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, and Lorraine Ashbourne; winner of the International Critics’ Prize at the 1988 Cannes film festival. (JR) (7:00)

The Match Factory Girl

This is the best film by Aki Kaurismaki I’ve seen. The 1990 conclusion of his “proletarian trilogy,” which began with Shadows in Paradise and Ariel, centers on a meek, morose assembly-line worker (Kati Outinen) who is brutalized by her mother and stepfather and usually ignored by everyone else. After she’s picked up and made pregnant by a well-to-do architect who coolly exploits her, she plots and executes a rather extravagant revenge. Basically a postmodernist reshuffling of Robert Bresson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this doesn’t hold a candle to the best work of either, but on its own terms it has an unmistakable minimalist elegance. (JR) (8:45)


Tout va bien

Yves Montand, a former New Wave filmmaker, and his wife, Jane Fonda, get involved in a factory takeover in this 1972 self-styled “commercial” film by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Actually, it’s only a slight step back from Godard’s hard-core political tracts, but the few concessions he does make–characters and a story, of sorts–go a long way toward making the rhetoric accessible. Jerry Lewis’s famous cutaway set from The Ladies’ Man is recycled to expose the factory’s power structure; long lateral tracks across a bank of supermarket checkout lanes make a wry comment on the ethics of consumerism. (DK) (7:00)

Retour d’Afrique

Charming and perceptive–not a bad combination for a film with a rather direct political position as its operative mechanism. Alain Tanner’s witty 1973 study of what it really means to be disengaged, isolated, and unmindful of the third-world problems that can easily crop up in one’s own backyard moves with the same narrative grace as La salamandre. Despite a tendency toward polemic near the end, this tale of two would-be Swiss emigrants to Africa (who “return” without ever having left) ably demonstrates the truth of the narrator’s observation: “Words can be an act in themselves, or they can be a substitute for action.” (DD) (9:00)


The Middleman

A moving story about a sincere college graduate (Pradip Mukherjee) in Calcutta who gradually enters a life of corruption, made by Satyajit Ray in 1975 and adapted by Ray from Sankar’s novel Jana Aranya. It has the best performances of any Ray film I’ve seen and a milieu that may remind you of both Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and John Cassavetes’s Faces. With Satya Banerjee, Dipankar Dey, and Rabi Ghosh; the effective score is by Ray himself. (JR) (6:30)


This masterful and extremely moving 1995 feature by Gianni Amelio (Open Doors, Stolen Children) is a powerful piece of storytelling that recalls some of the best Italian neorealist films. An Italian con artist (Enrico Lo Verso) tries to set up a fake corporation in postcommunist Albania in order to get his hands on state subsidies; with his business partner, he digs up a traumatized 70-year-old former political prisoner to serve as the phony president of his phony company, but the poor creature–whose memory, like Albania’s links with the outside world, seems to have frozen a half century earlier–keeps wandering away. (Finding the old man at one point shoeless in a hospital, the hero is able to reclaim him only when the wife of another patient, silently realizing her husband will never leave his bed again, offers her husband’s shoes–a beautiful bit of silent exposition that perfectly illustrates Amelio’s uncanny gifts of suggestion and implication.) The story only grows in dimension and resonance as it proceeds, becoming an epic, multifaceted portrayal of a postcommunist Europe awakened from its slumbers by TV and consumerism–as illuminating a portrait of what’s happening in the world as we can find in movies. As the title suggests, it also has something to do with America and what it represents–or used to represent–for others. With Michele Placido. (JR) (8:45)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): My Favorite Year film still.