Ashley Cooper grew up in the 90s in Chatham and Grand Crossing but also in 40s, 50s, and 60s Hollywood. Her whole family loved movies. “My aunt’s middle name is actually Lauren Bacall,” she says. Her parents often dropped her off at her grandmother’s house, where Turner Classic Movies was the preferred TV channel. She started to read up on production details and made lists of movies mentioned in books about old Hollywood to see in the future. There were no film classes in the south-side public schools she attended, so she turned to theater. Then, when teenage self-consciousness forced her off the stage, she went back to studying film, enrolling at Columbia College. For the past five years, she’s been a location coordinator for Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire.
But she still loves old films, and she’s turned that love into a series of programs called “American Ego” at Filmfront, a small storefront “cine-club” in Pilsen. I heard her introduce Sweet Smell of Success last month and was struck by the approachable way she talked and her obvious enthusiasm. The audience was a mix of old and young, white, brown, and black. It had nothing of the usual nostalgia or rarefied snobbery of the typical classic film presentation. There was nary a fedora in sight. Cooper was able to offer insight into the film’s production in the historical period it was made while relating its themes and characters to today. She talked about the cumbersome 50s film equipment and how the shoot was done in winter, contributing to the coldness of the characters. She made a 60-year-old black-and-white movie seem as relevant as if it had been shot on an iPhone last week.
The seed of “American Ego” was planted when Cooper wanted to show Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963)—a murder mystery set in a mental institution—to some acquaintances who hadn’t heard of it. Soon after, a friend took her to the Independent Programmers’ Potluck—a periodic gathering of Chicago’s microcinema operators—where she met Malia Haines-Stewart and Alan Medina of Filmfront. Filmfront’s typical programming skews more experimental, so Cooper’s idea of a series of classic Hollywood films exploring excessive ambition seemed like a good way for Haines-Stewart and Medina to offer their audience something different. Shock Corridor screened at the Pilsen storefront a few months later, introduced by Cooper.
Haines-Stewart and Medina started Filmfront with Medina’s brother, Rudy Medina, and his partner, Alyx Christensen, in 2015. The couple had met as film students at Sarah Lawrence College and wanted to create a space that invited lively discussion of film in Medina’s home neighborhood of Pilsen—one of many Chicago neighborhoods without a movie theater. Since opening, they have hosted a wide range of films, from showcases of local filmmaking to a screening of the 1922 German silent classic Nosferatu accompanied by a live improvised synthesizer soundtrack by local musicians. The through line for all their programming has been a desire to engage their community in conversation and to make what they show approachable to neophytes and obsessives alike.
They spread the word through a newsletter, social media, and word of mouth. The fact that Medina works at Cafe Jumping Bean, a Pilsen institution, doesn’t hurt. But audience members travel from as far away as Schaumburg. Cooper says the crowd for Shock Corridor filled the 35-to-50-seat space. I can testify that there wasn’t a spare seat to be had for Sweet Smell of Success. What such enthusiasm tells me is that there’s a hunger in the city for places that don’t just show movies but also try to engage their audience in substantive discussion about them. Haines-Stewart says that sometimes the talks about films the crowd disliked are even better than the ones they adored.
Filmfront has expanded some of those conversations into small-run publications printed on a Risograph printer. Their first two booklets concern film and food. Haines-Stewart and Medina are always looking for new ways to talk about movies. They were inspired in their approach by their college film professor, the late Gilberto Perez, who argued for the medium as the most accessible art form. Haines-Stewart is currently editing a collection of Perez’s writing called The Eloquent Screen, to be published by University of Minnesota Press next year.
One of Cooper’s inspirations for “American Ego” has been watching the unvarnished ambition with which some people in her industry go about their business. Our current political moment was another obvious touchstone. It’s difficult not to see parallels to today’s headlines watching J. J. Hunsucker (Burt Lancaster) spin facts to his advantage in Sweet Smell of Success. A Face in the Crowd (1957)—screening December 8 at Filmfront—is an almost too-timely evocation of the rise of a hollow populist buffoon, played by Andy Griffith, to the brink of world domination.
The last two films in the series, Baby Face (1933) and All About Eve (1950), focus on female ambition. Cooper remembers staying home with a cold one day and watching Baby Face on TMC and wondering, “Is it me or is this movie dirty?” It was—it’s the story of a woman who sleeps her way from the basement to the penthouse of a New York office building—but one example of many in which film has shown her how people used to live and how often people who lived long ago are just like us.
Cooper would like to start her own microcinema/art space in the future but in the meantime wants to find as many venues as she can to host her programs once “American Ego” wraps up in February. Her mission is to spread her love of film far and wide and to inspire the next generation the way the old movies she watched at her grandma’s house inspired her. “I love [late TMC host] Robert Osborne, but TCM could use some color.” She worries that the way classic film is presented excludes many people to whom it might appeal.
Haines-Stewart and Medina haven’t told Cooper yet, but they plan to ask her to present more movies at Filmfront in the near future. “In my eyes, she’s a film historian,” Haines-Stewart says. After talking to Cooper for an hour, I have to agree. “That’s the cool thing about film,” she says. “It has documented our history—the human experience.” v