Chris Hefner with the zeppelin model from The Pink Hotel
Chris Hefner with the zeppelin model from The Pink Hotel

Last summer, sometime during the five weeks he spent stringing Swedish moss on a 950-square-foot expanse of chicken wire for Olafur Eliasson’s Moss Wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chris Hefner heard an NPR piece about the legendary last meal of French president Francois Mitterand: a tiny songbird called the ortolan that’s force-fed, drowned alive in Armagnac, plucked, seasoned, cooked, and then devoured—bones, innards, and all—by gourmets with napkins draped over their faces.

There are two traditional explanations for the napkin. One is that it captures the aroma of the dish. The other, as the narrator puts it at the beginning of Hefner’s debut feature film, The Pink Hotel, is that it hides “the glutton’s face from a fierce and terrible God.”

“The abject cruelty that illustrates is similar to the point I’m trying to make with the movie,” Hefner says, “about people living in an extremely decadent manner, who have to pay.”

Shot on black-and-white Super 8, with old-timey stylistic flourishes, The Pink Hotel—which premieres Friday, April 9, at the Music Box—is a sort of surreal fun-house reflection of early MGM talkies like Grand Hotel, the 1932 movie set at a posh Berlin pension. It’s wartime. Invited to a New Year’s Eve party that never materializes, the jet-setting denizens of the pink hotel munch ortolan and engage in other acts of gross consumption, chase ominous noises down winding corridors, and plot acts of sabotage as the hotel mysteriously disintegrates around them. A superimposed zeppelin model periodically rumbles across the skyline in a brazenly ragged effect.

Hefner takes every opportunity to highlight artifice in his work. Mainstream directors “spend so much energy making the medium invisible,” he says. “They don’t want to see things coming apart. It reminds them that they’re on a path that won’t last forever. . . . I work on the opposite end of the spectrum. Everything looks fake. You see the medium readily. The image jumps, it’s high-grain, the exposure is harsh. There’s this understanding that this is an object, like you and me. It’s got a life span. It won’t be around forever.”

The pink hotel in The Pink Hotel is inspired by the Edgewater Beach Apartments at 5555 N. Sheridan. Hefner, now 26, has been fascinated with this lakeside art deco icon since he came to Chicago to study film at Columbia College in 2002. It’s the last remnant of the once-sprawling Edgewater Beach Hotel complex, built in 1916 and for years a luxury destination, hosting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Franklin Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe. Its star began to wane when Lake Shore Drive was extended north past Foster in 1954, cutting the hotel off from its private beach, where big bands and circuses had performed. The hotel closed in 1967 and was demolished, leaving only the Apartments, which had gone co-op in 1949.

The Edgewater’s history sparked the idea for a film about transience and decay. “I started to draw connections between this hotel and the idea of an empire—a society that has this grandiose way of doing things, and those things start to fall apart,” Hefner says. “There’s this icon that the most important people involved themselves with for decades. How quickly it would disappear.”

The Edgewater Beach Apartments condo board turned down Hefner’s request to shoot in the building that inspired the movie, but he found a surrogate of similar vintage in Hyde Park’s Windermere House, filming its exterior as well as the hallways and elevator of the 12th floor, which was rumored to have been occupied by Muhammad Ali and his entourage in the early 1960s. Hefner also shot at the Reversible Eye, in the MCA warehouse basement, at the Music Box, and at the Willowbrook Ballroom on Archer in Willow Springs, said to be haunted by Chicago’s most famous ghost, Resurrection Mary. He biked to the sites, fitting all his production gear in a backpack and saddlebags.

Most of The Pink Hotel‘s $10,000 budget came from Hefner’s own pocket, supplemented by fund-raisers like a shadow puppet show and a performance by Daniel Knox, whose Tin Pan Alley-style ballads are on the movie’s soundtrack. Hefner plays musical saw and melodica in Knox’s backup band.

He assembled his volunteer cast and crew from MCA coworkers and the loose-knit community of musicians, artists, and aerialists that revolves around the Reversible Eye Gallery in Humboldt Park. “We’d build the Eliasson stuff, then go over to the Reversible Eye and build the sets,” he says.

Hefner grew up outside Kalamazoo, where his parents were avid antiquarians. (They now sell antiques at a shop near South Haven.) He recalls having had “a lot of anxiety, a really rough time relating to my peers,” until, at age 12, he began attending the Southwest Michigan Visual Arts Academy, where he studied painting, photography, design, and performance after school. “I completely entered that world,” he says. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without that place.”

He started shooting photos when he was 13 or 14 years old, and the ornate frames he constructed for them from found materials grew into installations. When he began making short experimental films, he built nickelodeon-style housings in which to play them back, using old screens and amplifiers and, on one occasion, a stand made from deer hooves.

Though he speaks highly of his professors at Columbia, Hefner was frustrated by the prevailing commercial aesthetic among his classmates. “Eighty percent of the people in class wanted to make The Matrix or a Tarantino movie,” he says. “That stuff drives me crazy. I was excited about the films of Joseph Cornell and Guy Maddin,” which share a homemade, dreamlike quality. Hefner has cultivated a friendship with Maddin, 54, who’s based in Winnipeg, corresponding with him and exchanging work. “We go back and forth and dork out,” Hefner says.

“We’ve found we share a lot of excitements!” Maddin commented by e-mail. “I like corresponding with Chris because I always learn something new from him!”

After graduation in 2006, Hefner started working freelance for the MCA, setting up and breaking down exhibits. (He calls himself an “art carnie.”) Meanwhile he continued to produce a steady stream of shorts and installations, which he’s exhibited at Heaven Gallery, the Finch Gallery, and Swimming Pool Project Space. This summer he’ll work in Winnipeg as a camera operator and film diarist, shooting behind-the-scenes footage, for Maddin’s movie Key Hole. After that, Hefner plans to take The Pink Hotel on a European microcinema tour, with a different musician performing a 20-minute overture in each city. The tentative plan calls for Knox to play in London and the film’s composer, Tommy Jansen, in his hometown of Oslo.

Hefner turns his aesthetic of decay on romance in the film he’s writing now, The Poisoner, about a woman who answers a classified ad to marry and slowly kill a man. “Objects, animals, and people exist on this continuum of growth and erosion,” he muses. “It’s attractive to think of things connected that way. It’s upsetting, but it’s also calming.”   v

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