Sean Guinan is a refreshing exception–a young man of ambition with a teeming imagination yet not another journalist who cheats. He’s not a journalist at all, actually, but he’s doing what some of those fabricators might like to do, if they had a little more talent and there were money in it. “I am a filmmaker/video artist and have been producing works for CAN 19, Chicago’s Cable Access Network, for the last six years,” announced his recent note of introduction. “Unfortunately, as Channel 19 is neither a film festival nor a local theatre company, it has no regular-basis critical forum for its programming. I am writing to you, then, in the hopes of receiving any sort of mention.”
Channel 19 is television, of course, but the papers’ regular forum for TV criticism rarely ranges as far as public-access programming. If you need to be introduced, CAN TV (Chicago Access Network Television, to be precise) is the pretty good deal Chicago made with the devil 15 years ago; it’s the studio, equipment, and five public channels the city extracted from cable operators before leasing them franchises. Anyone who has demonstrated proficiency with the equipment can show his stuff on CAN TV, which reaches 355,000 cable households–most of them tuned to something else. Nevertheless, the wide, if not wild, array of programs makes access, at least in the view of the Sun-Times’s Kevin Williams, “for those in the know, one of the coolest things going.”
Guinan, 28 and obscure, is making a major contribution to what’s cool. The tape that accompanied his note was labeled The Private Pennies of His Merry Dobbs. I popped it in the VCR and watched with the family. When the 50-minute piece was over we decided that it was hard to say just what we’d seen, but it had been made by somebody very talented. I called him.
Guinan received a dangerous education. Near North Montessori preceded the Chicago Academy for the Arts, which preceded a year at Illinois State University and another at tiny Shimer–“one of the few Socratic colleges,” he tells me. “The credo of Shimer is to get people to question the notions of reality as they’d accepted them and ask whether these were notions that needed to be trashed or rethought or retained.”
One of the questions Guinan put to himself was whether he belonged in college. “If you need a degree to go into whatever field you’re going into, you need a degree,” he says with exquisitely symmetrical logic. But Guinan didn’t think he needed a degree to work in theater, and if he didn’t need one he didn’t want one. “I wanted to get cracking!” he says.
Guinan knew nothing about video until he took classes at Chicago Access. But Dobbs is a zero-budget showpiece. Guinan wrote it, directed it, starred in it, edited it, and composed the music. His buddy Joshua Eckhardt ran the camera. The film meditates on death and whatnot, but its real purpose is to celebrate creativity.
Guinan says he left Shimer feeling a moral obligation to always seek every side of every truth. “Which influenced my work,” he says. “What I do has such an eclectic approach to it. I like to attack different styles–surrealism, realism, old musical theater, silent films. I’m interested in tapping into my own history and America’s history to find some universal truths, something in the old works and the new that are connected.” Adding to the eclecticism of Dobbs, certain crucial scenes are conducted in French and Polish, possibly to get at something deep about the immigrant experience and possibly just for the hell of it.
He confides, “I’m obviously interested in scattered storytelling, in nonconventional, nonnarrative filmmaking. I felt there was something about surrealism, something about a man with an apple for a head that spoke to something–not even to an aspect of the human condition but maybe to a way you feel on a given day after something nice has happened to you but maybe a relative has died. It all adds up to something you can’t put into a line–but something you do see in a man with an apple for a head.”
What Guinan is talking about here is capturing the moment, something reporters also try to do. Journalists fret over breaches in the wall that separates lively writing from embroidery and concoction. But what characterizes the violator is less audacity than sneaky timidity. Not even the most shameless dissembler has risked a man with an apple for a head. Or so I muse, as notions tumble out of Guinan.
He wanted to be rich and famous by the time he was 30. The acting he’d been doing wasn’t getting him there, and it also wasn’t leading him anywhere he’d willingly settle for instead. A couple years out of Shimer, he made a crucial decision. “I decided simply not to make it a priority to try to get a job, pay rent, or do any of those things my friends were beginning to do. I simply stayed home with my parents.” And he started studying video.
His father is Robert Guinan, the painter of marginal Chicago who’s become known in Chicago for being unknown in Chicago but the toast of Paris. (The parts of the Dobbs script Sean wanted spoken in French were translated for him by his father’s Parisian art dealer.) “He’s always had a sort of disdain for modern pop culture,” says Sean of his father, and Sean acquired that disdain. His hero growing up was Charlie Chaplin, and now he compares himself and his friends to J.D. Salinger’s Glass family–“We found life was not going to be as we imagined. There’s a great deal of self-pity in what we do.”
Sean still lives at home. What do his parents say about that?
There’s a pause. Guinan is possibly framing an answer that will elude complexity but not offend truth. “They’ve always said that as long as I need a roof over my head, they’ll provide it. My dad growing up always wanted to be a painter, and he felt he never got a great deal of support from his father. And he wanted to give that to me.”
The Private Pennies of His Merry Dobbs will be shown at 10:30 PM on July 20 and 27 on Channel 19. If you catch it, Guinan would be pleased if you noticed that it’s set at the turn of a century that might be the 20th–Dobbs makes silent films–and might be the 21st. Dobbs crosses the mob and is gunned down, but there’s a hint of resurrection in “the brief appearance of the old man, who may or may not be Dobbs himself,” says Guinan. “I think what I meant there is he’ll come back as history. Which is not really coming back at all.”
Memory, Guinan has reluctantly concluded, is simply not good enough.
Dobbs fuses a romanticized vision of the century’s origin with a brutal view of its end. “Growing up, I always felt out of place,” Guinan says. “But I’ve since learned that when I was perceiving history I was perceiving its romantic aspects. I don’t think anyone necessarily belongs in a time other than the one they were born in. Having that ambiguity–of the turn of what century we’re talking about–allowed me to explore existing in the present, which will eventually become a past mourned and longed for.”
Herald Pulls a Fest One
Arlington International Racecourse made news when it decided to drop out of horse racing, and the news was biggest where the track is located, in northwest Cook County. Not surprisingly, the first sign that the moribund track might be able to reinvent itself as a concert venue was treated as a major story in the local paper, the Daily Herald. “Festival fever,” shouted page one the day last month’s Summer Kick-Off festival began. “Slow going,” said the next day’s paper, as rain kept crowds away. But by day three the Herald’s front page could assert, “Racecourse passes first test as a top-notch music venue.” The Herald went on to say that if the track fulfills its early promise as a music venue, “it could be a major contender and a national gem.”
What you weren’t apt to learn from the coverage, since in four days of articles I saw it mentioned only once (on a map of the grounds), was that the Herald sponsored the Summer Kick-Off. It was a newspaper promotion–call it a goodwill gesture to the community, if you prefer–presented as hard news.
According to an unsigned letter to Hot Type, this coverage was “very dispiriting” to Herald reporters. “What’s especially troubling about this entire episode,” says the letter, which has the ring of inside knowledge, “is that they refused to see the hypocrisy of their coverage, ostensibly passing it off to the news staff as an exploration of the racetrack’s new incarnation.” In fact, the festival flopped, the letter goes on, but the Herald didn’t report it.
“The attendance was abysmal,” Herald editor John Lampinen acknowledges. And he adds that prospects for the racetrack haven’t got better since. The public was “very critical” of the following weekend’s Guinness Fleadh Festival, where crowds were large but lines were long and “people felt ripped off.” Since then, Arlington’s canceled an upcoming art festival and scaled back a kids’ festival and a country music festival.
The Herald has published follow-up stories on these misfortunes, says Lampinen, and he insists his news judgment alone and not a bug in the ear from the promotions department put the Summer Kick-Off on page one. “In retrospect, should we mention we’re a sponsor? Probably so,” he says. “If we didn’t, it’s not because we had any kind of hidden agenda. I would have felt we were trying to use our news copy to promote the paper. We had a lot of promotional ads.”
I’d say the Herald identified a legitimate hard-news angle. But a good angle is just the beginning of serious journalism. Then comes hard-news reporting and hard-news writing.
Whether you admire or despise the changes Tina Brown made in the New Yorker, she didn’t leave the job undone. She quit last week with a formula firmly in place. Consider this week’s table of contents:
Technology story that’s really about the movies: “Not Rocket Science: How wrong do ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Deep Impact’ get it?”
Talk of the Town devoted to the A-list: “Rupert Murdoch’s dirty laundry.”
History piece that’s really about the movies: “The Color of War: What happened to the color footage John Ford shot of D Day?”
Another history piece that’s even more about the movies: “Moving Pictures: The author encounters the ghost of the silent-screen legend Billie Dove and reveals her mysterious liaison with Howard Hughes.”
Brit bit: “Boxing in Regency Britain.”
Now look at last week’s table of contents:
Talk of the Town devoted to the A-list: “Calvin Klein fumes; Monica’s lawyer dresses up.”
Business piece that’s really about the movies: “Multiplexities: Hollywood sells movies, but what do the movie theatres sell?”
Memoir that’s really about the movies: “Summer of Deliverance: Poet, novelist, screenwriter, and hard drinker, James Dickey played the role of sacred monster to the hilt. Now his son picks up the pieces.” You have to read it to find this out, but half the yarn’s a blow-by-blow of making a 1971 picture.
Brit bit: “A Royal Defeat: How the Prince of Wales lost Britain’s architecture war to the modernists.”
Did Brown get bored? You’d think so.
The half of the James Dickey piece that wasn’t about filming Deliverance told a familiar tale of the son haunted by the father. If I may question a tale told since time immemorial, the genre’s been worked over pretty thoroughly. I rooted through the Amazon Web site to remind myself of some modern examples: “The author remembers his wayward yet adoring father who was forever drinking what little money the family had” (Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes); “A tense family portrait of life with an abusive father” (Pat Conroy, The Great Santini); “Finds himself in a bitter battle of wills with his abusive stepfather” (Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life); “Unravels the enigma of his Gatsby-esque father, an inveterate liar” (Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception); “Drifting aimlessly through his teenage years with an abusive father and an alcoholic mother” (Bruce McCall, Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada).
As my friend A.E. Eyre points out, “You don’t think a lot of guys would be leading pretty happy lives if it weren’t for their worthless sons? Maybe a few of us should tell that story! But we don’t. That’s because we’re gentlemen.”
It’s OK again to be a dead left-wing singer in the Sun-Times. Several weeks after editor Nigel Wade blew up when he spotted a feature on Paul Robeson in his pages, the Sun-Times carried a long piece on a Woody Guthrie festival in Oklahoma. Wade personally approved the story for publication.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sean Guinan photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.