a large ant silhouette on black and white film
Tetsuya Maruyama’s ANTFILM (2021). Courtesy Ji.hlava

Since its inception in 2011, the Chicago Film Society has remained one of the most valuable arts institutions in the city. The organization is run by a small but impassioned group of cinephiles whose love for the medium has allowed for numerous screenings on analog film. They’re also behind one of the most exciting Chicago film events of the year: Celluloid Now, an ambitious nine-program extravaganza running from September 15 to 18. With dozens of short films playing at three different venues, Celluloid Now will showcase artists who are “pushing analog filmmaking in bold and exciting new directions.”

Such language hints at the type of films that define much of the programming: avant-garde experiments, nonnarrative curios, dazzling formal exercises. Nowadays, it’s easy for the average person to be completely unfamiliar with such films’ existences—they’ll appear in a small shorts program at the Chicago International Film Festival, or be presented on the Criterion Channel for the more daring viewer. There’s an inherent cordoning off of such works from the general population that keeps the scene needlessly niche, and CFS is hoping to bring more people into the immediate, awe-inspiring pleasures that such films provide. “I want everyone to feel the enjoyment of being able to go out again and seeing some truly wild works,” says CFS archivist, programmer, and poster designer Tavi Veraldi.

Julian Antos, executive director of CFS, explains that his goal for Celluloid Now was to keep the event as inclusive as possible. “I really feel like there’s something everyone can enjoy in each of these programs,” he explains. “So many of these films are very direct and personal that it’s hard not to have a very human connection to them.” Take a few of the works that appear in the first program, which is titled “35mm: Industry Standard” and takes place at the Gene Siskel Film Center on September 15. There’s Jessica Dunn Rovinelli’s Marriage Story (2020), which uses dramatic reds, spoken poetry, and sex to capture how intimacy delivers both ecstasy and domestic comforts. Alexandre Larose’s brouillard – passage #14 (2013) features 39 overlapping shots of a walk taken from the director’s family cottage to a lake, and the result is a hypnotic reproduction of a memory. Even Rainer Kohlberger’s keep that dream burning (2017), one of the more abstract films here, will provide dazzling sensory overload as flickers and TV-like static transform into a stirring, grandiose epic.

Each of the nine programs in Celluloid Now has an overarching theme. The second, for example, is titled “16mm Visions”—it takes place on September 16 at Constellation. Traditionally a music venue, the space will allow for cello accompaniment during Kioto Aoki’s dance film 6018|Dance (2022). Also on the docket: a new 16mm preservation of Caroline and Frank Mouris’s Impasse (1978), which has simple but lively percussion to match its playful animations; Sasha Waters’s Burn Out the Day (2014), which provides a ruminative examination of a home burned to the ground alongside stately instrumentation; and Vicky Smith’s not (a) part (2019), whose flaring black-and-white splotches are made more invigorating because of the sparse but bracing soundtrack. In this program especially, it’s obvious how much sound can enhance the power of images.

Rebecca Lyon, who is a projectionist and programmer with CFS, notes that the weekly screenings they hold often include films that don’t make their way into traditional programming, such as educational films and trailers. “I think we’ve taken a similar approach here,” she says of Celluloid Now. “We’re screening more well-known filmmakers alongside first-timers.” One can see that in the must-see ninth program, “2x16mm: Double the Fun,” which will take place at the Chicago Cultural Center on Sunday, September 18. There will be four double-projection 16mm films, including a restoration of Razor Blades (1968) from avant-garde extraordinaire Paul Sharits. The film’s flashing images and colors will remind viewers of the enduring strength of scintillating juxtapositions. Also present is Hangjun Lee’s Why Does the Wind Blow (2012), which is taken from the Korean filmmaker’s archive of educational films, and Daïchi Saïto’s Never a Foot Too Far, Even (2012), which is the only film on the program where its projections will overlap instead of appear side by side.

Celluloid Now
The Chicago Film Society
Hosted at the Chicago Cultural Center, Gene Siskel Film Center, and Constellation; September 15-18; free-$15; celluloidnow.org

“Everybody loves to talk about Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino as analog standard-bearers,” explains CFS projectionist and programmer Cameron Worden. “But there are analog film artists working worldwide, most with significantly smaller budgets.” Indeed, Celluloid Now is lifting up independent artists from around the world, and those attending will witness how varied and thrilling the offering is. Austrian filmmaker Antoinette Zwirchmayr’s two films at the event, Oceano Mare (2020) and At the edge of the curtain (2022), possess an acute understanding of space, staging, and color to be seductively beguiling. Typefilm an armory show (2021) sees Brazilian artist João Reynaldo typing onto 16mm film with a typewriter, constructing something akin to concrete poetry. And Tetsuya Maruyama’s ANTFILM (2021) forgoes the camera altogether, using dead ants and Super-8 film to create an awe-inspiring spectacle.

Seven of the nine programs at Celluloid Now will take place at the Cultural Center, and Worden emphasizes how crucial this is to the bold vision they have for the event. Beyond offering these programs for free, this venue allows them to “try out some nontraditional formats for screenings, including a 20-minute shorts program and an ‘open mic’ where anybody who has a print of their work can show up and we’ll run it.” The former refers to the fifth program on Saturday, titled “A Miniature Screening of Miniature Films,” which focuses on 8mm films. The latter is a “celluloid open mic” which will take place on Sunday morning. Also welcome is a program later that afternoon where a “16mm projector dissection” will take place for anyone interested in learning the ins and outs of the machine. Test films will be shown during this educational program, though it should be noted that unannounced, secret films will also screen during programs one, two, four, and eight.

Lyon sums up the excitement and passion surrounding Celluloid Now neatly: “I really think our lives became significantly uglier when film stopped being the norm. So to have several days of screenings where people can just rest their eyes on all these beautiful prints feels really special to me.” If you’re looking to fall in love with film and its potential to inspire, look no further than Celluloid Now.

2022 Fall Theater & Arts Preview

A fall edition

A note from the Reader’s culture editor who focuses on film, media, food, and drink on our Fall Theater & Arts Preview issue.