- John Boorman’s Zardoz was the last film to screen at the Portage Theater before it closed abruptly this past spring.
Le Pont du Nord (Gene Siskel Film Center, April) Jacques Rivette’s 1981 film, a characteristically paranoid fantasy shot on location in Paris, received its first Chicago run this past spring. I wouldn’t rank it with the French filmmaker’s best (L’Amour Fou, Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Gang of Four), but anything by Rivette is still worth getting lost in. This featured the wonderful motif of a city map transformed into a board game, a surrealist gesture suggesting a secret order lurking beneath everyday life.
Portrait of Jason (Music Box Theatre, May) Along with Shohei Imamura’s Karayuki-san: The Making of a Prostitute, this restoration of Shirley Clarke’s cinema verité landmark (1967), about gay hustler and sometime servant Jason Holliday, was one of the year’s major documentary rediscoveries. “Nowadays Portrait of Jason is debated as an example of cinema verite because Clarke so tacitly indulges Holliday’s drama queen instincts, letting him turn a documentary into a one-man show,” J.R. Jones wrote in May. “After a while you begin to wonder how much you’re being hustled here.” Besides offering plenty of food for thought, the screening represented Chicago’s repertory programming community at its best. The presentation was a joint effort by Northwest Chicago Film Society, Black Cinema House, and the Reeling Film Festival—moreover, the Music Box stepped up to host it last-minute after the Portage Theater was shuttered unexpectedly.
Rat Life and Diet in North America (Chicago Filmmakers, July) Joyce Wieland’s 1968 experimental short (a hilarious send-up of the sort of agitprop cine-essays that were big at the time) was a highlight of the Cat Film Festival, a program of feline-related shorts curated by Chicago Filmmakers and
Chicago Film ArchivesSouth Side Projections. The selections ranged from abstract works (including three by Stan Brakhage) to comic animations—and there were enough of the latter to keep the kids in the room engaged. Thanks to those children, this was one of the liveliest crowds I’ve encountered at an experimental-film screening.
Shura: The 48th Ronin [aka Pandemonium] (Film Studies Center, June) The U. of C. Film Studies Center hosted this special screening in conjunction with the Doc Films retrospective “From Silence to Pandemonium: Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1962-1974.” That series marked some of the most commendable programming of the year, in terms of the rarity of the films selected and the insights it provided into a foreign culture. To be honest, I couldn’t really make sense of Shura (1971), a nightmarish, revisionist take on the samurai film by experimental filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto (whose Funeral Parade of Roses also played in the series), but it was certainly something different. The postshow discussion was edifying too.
Sparrows (Music Box, April) As part of a promotional tour for the book Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, film historian Christel Schmidt visited Chicago to introduce two Pickford vehicles, both of which screened from great-looking prints. I prefer this 1926 piece of southern Gothic to Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, the 1924 historical drama that played at the Portage, but each film has plenty to recommend. More importantly, Schmidt delivered some of the best introductions I heard all year, bringing silent-film history to life with wit and vigor. (On the subject of great film lectures, I also learned a lot from professor Mary Patten’s introduction to Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom when it played at the Siskel in April. Sorry, Ms. Patten, for excluding that screening from this list, but I didn’t feel like writing about that film again.)
Tess (Siskel Center, January) Roman Polanski’s 1979 adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel came to town this year in a new digital restoration, one of the most impressive I’ve seen. Throughout the screening, I could have sworn I was looking at film and not a DCP—so effectively did the remastering preserve the grain of Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography. As for the film itself, it gets better every time I return to it.
Top of the Heap (Black Cinema House, October) With his Return of Blacklight Cinema series, programmer Floyd Webb showcased the work of some fascinating and perennially neglected black filmmakers. This 1972 feature is especially fascinating and neglected. One of the rare art films to come out of the world of blaxploitation, this centers on the dream life of a put-upon black cop in Washington, D.C. Writer-director-star Christopher St. John boldly combines angry social commentary, broad comedy, and sequences of symbolic poetry. I haven’t seen anything else like it.
The Vikings (Patio, July) Richard Fleischer, who directed this breathtaking historical spectacle (1958) in wide-screen and Technicolor, is the sort of undervalued filmmaker that the Northwest Chicago Film Society is especially adept at defending. A craftsman of uncommon seriousness and compositional sense, Fleischer turned in solid, entertaining work across multiple genres. (I offered some further thought on his career here.) Not long after The Vikings screened at the Patio, Fleischer’s Violent Saturday turned up at the Music Box’s annual Noir City series. The two films provided a fine sample of the director’s range and ingenious use of the wide-screen format.
West Side Story (Music Box, February) This screened in the Music Box Theatre’s 70-millimeter film festival, one of the year’s biggest (pardon the pun) film events. The fest inspired so much good cheer that crowds didn’t mind lining up outside the theater in below-freezing temperatures for the sold-out screenings. West Side Story (1961) may not have sold out when I went to see it, but of all the prints to screen in this series, I thought it looked the best.
Zardoz (Portage Theater, May) “There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then there’s Zardoz,” J.R. Jones wrote in May. And fittingly, this revival of John Boorman’s crazy sci-fi epic (1974) marked the best of times, worst of times, and strangest of times for the Northwest Chicago Film Society. On the one hand, the screening drew one of the programming group’s biggest and most responsive audiences. On the other, it was the last film they were able to project at the beautiful Portage Theater, which owner Eddie Carranza shut down just days after this took place. The most unexpected thing about this screening was that it didn’t devolve into a celebration of camp. The audience seemed to recognize Boorman’s ambition in spite of his lapses in taste—when Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony played over the memorable final sequence, the crowd went nearly silent. That moment of collective reconsideration points to why repertory screenings are so valuable. With the right audience and ambience, any old movie can seem brand new.