- Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic was a standout at this year’s Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June (Music Box Theatre, November) The Music Box has come to specialize in reviving unsung American movies of the 1960s and ’70s, forgoing the usual repertory suspects for moody genre films (Harper, The Outfit), studio-funded art movies (The Swimmer), and big ol’ freak-outs with good soundtracks (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Phantom of the Paradise). This was an especially good discovery: Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) is unavailable on DVD, despite being the only movie written by Kurt Vonnegut. Based on Vonnegut’s stage play, it’s about an old-school soldier’s uneasy return to modern life after having been lost in the jungle for many years. Vonnegut’s signature writing style sounds awkward coming out of other people’s mouths, and his fantastic conceits don’t quite work on film either. Still, I was grateful to see the results of this beloved author’s onetime fling with the movies.
Heaven and Earth Magic (Nightingale Cinema, November) This year’s Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation featured an impressive mix of new and old works. A standout in the latter category was this feature-length collage animation by Harry Smith (1961), which screened from a 16-millimeter print. Seeing the movie in this format was significant, as Smith communicated so much through the texture of his images.
An Inn in Tokyo (Music Box, May) Though it centers on the character of Kihachi, the beloved ne’er-do-well of Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy and A Story of Floating Weeds, this 1935 silent isn’t as well-known here as either of those films. That might explain why attendance was lower than usual for this screening in the Music Box’s Second Saturday Silent Cinema series, which usually draws a decent crowd. As I wrote in anticipation of the screening, the Kihachi movies, with their mix of humor and pathos, reveal what a strong influence Chaplin’s filmmaking had on Ozu’s.
Kariyuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute (Gene Siskel Film Center, February) For me, the greatest revival of the year was this 1975 documentary, which the great Shohei Imamura made for Japanese TV. Profiling a woman forced into prostitution in the early 20th century, the movie is at once a sympathetic character portrait and an angry indictment of human rights abuses under Japanese imperialism. Imamura’s approach to documentary form is still astonishing—not even pretending to be impartial, the filmmaker ingratiates his way into his subjects’ lives and elicits unbelievable confessions. The results might be described as an exorcism of historical trauma.
L.A. Plays Itself (Nightingale, January) Yes, once there were movies that traveled freely between porn theaters and art galleries—and this year, we saw revivals of two of them. At the beginning of the year, White Light Cinema screened this 1972 melange of experimental cinema and hard-core gay S & M; in August, Doc Films presented Expose Me, Lovely (1976), a hard-core Raymond Chandler knock-off shot and set in New York’s underground art scene. I’ve singled out L.A. Plays Itself because it’s the more challenging film, in terms of both its formal experimentation and the sex acts depicted onscreen. This gives new meaning to the expression “suffering for one’s art.”
The Mass Is Over (River East 21, October) Nanni Moretti’s 1985 comedy was one of the best movies to play at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, despite having screened from a below-average DVD. (My only complaint is that the festival asked attendees to pay full-admission price—when Doc Films has to show a movie from DVD, they have the courtesy not to charge for substandard presentation.) This stars Moretti as a former leftist who enters the priesthood in the hopes of effecting social change on a smaller scale, only to find the job harder than he imagined. Like Moretti’s more recent We Have a Pope, this is a rare crowd-pleaser that treats both religion and radical politics seriously.
Max et les Ferrailleurs (Siskel Center, January) Claude Sautet cowrote and directed this 1971 crime film-cum-character study, which had never received a U.S. theatrical release before this year. Like Sautet’s later chamber dramas (Un Coeur en Hiver, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud), the movie explores some rather complicated moral dilemmas yet never feels ponderous. The French filmmaker, who spent much of the ’60s as a script doctor, had a knack for both narrative momentum and getting the best out of his actors. This features dynamite performances from Michel Piccoli (as an obsessive, big-headed police detective) and Romy Schneider (as the rueful prostitute he ensnares in his undercover investigation).
Mestizo (Facets Multimedia, June) This 1987 art movie (which screened as part of the African Diaspora Film Festival) was one of the most eye-opening discoveries I saw all year, as it introduced me to itinerant filmmaker Mario Handler (who was born in Uruguay, then worked all over South America before settling in Venezuela in the 1970s), author Guillermo Meneses (on whose 1942 novel the film is based), and areas of South American history I’d known nothing about. This follows the son of a white colonial administrator and an impoverished black woman as the former comes of age in early 20th-century Venezuela. The film moves daringly between political drama, sex farce, and dreamlike allegory—I considered it at greater length here.
Moi, un Noir (Siskel Center, January) The Jean Rouch miniretrospective at the Siskel Center was another one of the year’s best programs, showcasing an influential filmmaker whose work rarely plays in Chicago. Rouch trained as an ethnographer before he started making documentaries, which explains why his work feels intellectually probing and formally unconventional. This 1958 cinema verité feature about day laborers in the Ivory Coast has the subjects acting out dramatic scenes based on their own lives. An exploration of both film form and class structure, it was a major influence on Jean-Luc Godard.
No Fear, No Die (Siskel Center, November) I wrote plenty about the traveling Claire Denis retrospective when it came to the Siskel Center last month, and I don’t have much to add at present. But I want to note this revival of Denis’s second feature (1990), which was never released on DVD in this country, as a highlight of the series. An odd, postcolonial variation on John Cassavetes’s Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the movie follows best friends from different former French colonies (Denis regulars Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé) trying to make it on the underground cockfighting circuit. Like all of this major director’s films, it gains from being seen in proximity to her other work.
No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (Film Studies Center, August) This 1968 direct-cinema documentary profiled black Vietnam War veterans and African-Americans involved in the antiwar movement. As emotionally charged as it is informative, the movie provoked a far-ranging postshow discussion at the screening South Side Projections organized this past summer. I was glad to take part in it.