This weekend saw the passing of Milos Stehlik, cofounder of Facets Multimedia. I don’t have the space in this post to enumerate all the ways that Stehlik influenced Chicago film culture—such as his championing of films and filmmakers from around the world (especially eastern Europe), his role in establishing the International Children’s Film Festival, and his contributions to WBEZ—so instead I’ll briefly note how Facets Multimedia has influenced me.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I read eagerly about the film programming at Facets Cinematheque before I was actually able to go there. I learned about such masterworks as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary, and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore as a result of their highly publicized Chicago runs, which Facets hosted. Later I expanded my knowledge of world cinema by borrowing video cassettes from my college library that had been released under Facets’s home video label. I’m particularly grateful for Facets’s VHS releases of Dušan Makavejev’s films, which were pretty much the only way you could see them in this country before the Criterion Collection put them out on disc. Not long after I moved to Chicago, I had the honor of meeting Makavejev at a Facets-hosted master class, during which the great director spent hours telling stories about his life and films. That he seemed so at home there speaks not only to his inherent joy of storytelling, but his respect for Facets as an institution.
After I became a critic, I had the pleasure of working with Facets Multimedia in a few capacities. One summer I served on a jury for the International Children’s Film Festival, a wonderful opportunity to talk about movies with a mix of educators and film professionals. I also taught three courses for Facets’s now-defunct “film school” program, which gave me the chance to share my love of Polish auteurs, Alain Resnais, and James Whale with other passionate individuals. I still enjoy watching and writing about the films that screen at the Cinematheque, most recently Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer, the sort of defiant low-budget filmmaking that Facets (and specifically programmer Charles Coleman) has always taken risks on.
Many people continue to learn about Facets by watching movies released by the organization’s home video label. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies that Facets released for home viewing at some point.
Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator An early (1967) film by Dušan Makavejev, the master of the eastern European dirty joke (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Montenegro). The passionate affair of a telephone operator and a Marxist rodent exterminator is intercut with lectures on criminology and sexology, with occasional cooking lessons. It’s very funny and, with its ragged arrangement of warring styles and ideologies, very original: it’s like a smutty, sticky-fingered Godard. —Dave Kehr
The Murder of Fred Hampton Chicago native Howard Alk helped found Second City in 1959 and made a name for himself in the 60s and 70s as a documentary cinematographer, editor, and director. His debut feature, American Revolution 2 (1969, codirected by Mike Gray) looked at the Black Panther Party in Chicago; this follow-up, a profile of Panther leader Fred Hampton, unexpectedly turned into a true-crime story in December 1969 when Hampton and another Panther were fatally shot during the Chicago Police Department’s notorious raid on a Panther crash pad in on the west side. The documentary (1971) presents Hampton as a charismatic figure given to violent revolutionary rhetoric, but after his death the focus shifts to Cook County state’s attorney Ed Hanrahan, whose report exonerating the police department was treated as gospel truth by the Chicago Tribune but belied by a wealth of physical evidence at the scene of the crime. As a first draft of history, this is invaluable, though its topical relevance has hardly diminished. —J.R. Jones
The Decalogue Krzysztof Kieslowski’s major work (1988) consists of ten separate films, each running 50-odd minutes and set mainly around two high-rises in Warsaw. The films are built around a contemporary reflection on the Ten Commandments—specifically, an inquiry into what breaking each of them in today’s world might entail. Made as a miniseries for Polish TV before Kieslowski embarked on The Double Life of Véronique and the “Three Colors” trilogy, these concise dramas can be seen in any order or combination; they don’t depend on one another, though if you see them in batches you’ll notice that major characters in one story turn up as extras in another. One reason Kieslowski remains controversial is that in some ways he embodies the intellectual European filmmaking tradition of the 60s while commenting directly on how we live today. The first film, illustrating “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” is about trust in computers; the often ironic and ambiguous connections between most subsequent commandments and their matching stories tend to be less obvious. (One of the 60s traditions Kieslowski embodies is that of the puzzle film, though he takes it on seriously rather than frivolously, as part of his ethical inquiry.) The fourth (“Honor thy father and mother”), for instance, one of my favorites, pivots around the revelation of feelings between a young acting student and the architect who may or may not be her real father, and the eighth (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”) focuses on the investigation of an American Jewish academic about why she was denied sanctuary from the Nazis when she was a little girl. (Episodes five and six were expanded into A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love, which ends more effectively than its shorter version.) One of Kieslowski’s best ideas was to use a different cinematographer for each film (with the exception of the third and ninth, both shot by Piotr Sobociński, who also shot Red), though the script—which he spent a solid year preparing with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, his regular collaborator—is more important here than the mise en scène, which isn’t the case in Kieslowski’s later films. Each segment is shaped like a well-constructed short story, often with a sardonic twist at the end, and though the performances—by many of the best actors in Polish cinema—are powerful, the direction is mainly a matter of realization rather than stylistic filigree. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Outskirts A handful of farmers in the Urals band together to hunt down, torture, and murder the men who took their ancestral land, pursuing their exploiters upward through a chain of command and forward in time through a compressed political history of the region. In this nuanced black-and-white parody of cinematic styles and techniques, the horrifying and the hilarious are inseparable—farcical pacing and subtle and not-so-subtle visual jokes don’t quite provoke laughter because of the sobering violence, but the tonal complexity is uncanny. Though the allegory seems thinnest where it’s most obvious—at the end—the immediacy of the precisely crafted imagery and sound is striking throughout. Snow flurries fly from the screen, a character’s fur hat is almost palpable, the mention of the wetness of someone’s wool coat raises gooseflesh, and the exaggerated creaking of a gate as the men enter the home of an enemy one of them will brutalize offscreen while the others play chess is at once a tension-breaking absurdity and a grittily realist detail. Written by Alexei Samoryadov and director Peter Lutsik (1998). —Lisa Alspector
Los Muertos A taciturn ex-convict (nonprofessional actor Argentino Vargas) leaves prison after a 20-year sentence and crosses a tropical forest by boat and on foot to find his daughter. This 2004 feature is the second by Lisandro Alonso (La Libertad), a singular and essential figure of the Argentinean new wave; he’s not quite the minimalist some claim, but he can make the simple act of filming feel so monumental that storytelling seems secondary. The hero’s crime, though indicated in the film’s title and opening shot, is acknowledged only fitfully in the spare dialogue, and his killing and gutting of a goat is shown with the same matter-of-factness as his visit to a prostitute. Vargas and the wilderness are such great camera subjects that a sense of quiet revelation is nearly constant. —Jonathan Rosenbaum