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.
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
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
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