By Patrick Z. McGavin

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On July 16, 1972, the Tribune published an article bemoaning the lack of art films in Chicago. The essay was an abridged version of a master’s thesis by Medill student Neill Rosenfeld. “Chicago is a hick town,” he wrote. “So is the rest of the country, except for New York and San Francisco.” Rosenfeld tracked 30 movie theaters in the Loop and on the Near North Side; they were evenly divided between those that offered pornography and those that screened mainstream commercial releases. Only two theaters played “anything that could be regarded as art.”

At the time, Camille Cook was running a six-year-old film club for the Society of Typographic Arts, a trade group for graphic artists. Her Magick Lantern Society held most of its screenings at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “The people who were in charge of it, who attended it, were mostly graphic designers,” Cook recalls. But she felt there was a larger, untapped audience. She approached the School of the Art Institute to develop a permanent theater dedicated to screening noncommercial movies. “The National Endowment for the Arts was making grants for regional film centers,” she says. “The director of the Pacific Film Archive [at the University of California at Berkeley] called me and said this money was available. But it had to be organized through a major institution.”

Cook prepared a grant proposal, and funding–about $7,500–was secured that summer. On November 26, 1972, Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel wrote a story applauding her efforts: “This article is dedicated to the hundreds of persons who have stopped me in movie theaters, dinner parties, baseball games, and lecture halls and complained that Chicago is a cinematic hick town, that they can never find any good art films….Your problems are over.” The Film Center at the School of the Art Institute, he wrote, “will concentrate on films that make adventurous use of the medium and, consequently, have little commercial viability.” In the final paragraph, Siskel issued a call to arms: “This is a needed and ambitious project, and it needs your help if it is to succeed.”

The Film Center held its first public program on January 3, 1973. Tickets cost $1; a season pass went for $15. The screenings took place twice a week at the Art Institute’s Fullerton Auditorium. Camille Cook and critic B. Ruby Rich were the codirectors. Cook says, “The programming covered the gamut: Billy Wilder retrospective, features and shorts, historical things, foreign features. I don’t think we ever showed anything more than two times.”

In June 1976 the Film Center moved to its current space in the School of the Art Institute at Columbus and Jackson. “It couldn’t have been in a worse place,” says the school’s president, Tony Jones. “In the winter, it was a bleak corner. It isn’t near a bus route, you haven’t been able to park anywhere near there.” And it had to shut down for a week and a half every July to accommodate Taste of Chicago.

Last year the School of the Art Institute announced plans to build a new complex at the northwest corner of State and Randolph. The complex would house student residents, a Borders Books & Music, a Jamba Juice, and a new and improved Film Center. The new Film Center, which director Barbara Scharres hopes to have up and running by this Thanksgiving, will have two theaters, a gallery space, a cafe, and a concession stand. With two screens, Scharres says, programming can be expanded significantly, though “the nature of our programming is scheduled to remain the same. This enables us to reach the public better, with the kind of visibility, the kinds of amenities that people haven’t associated with the Film Center in the past. These are all the things we’ve always wanted.”

Last month Jones announced that the new facility will be called the Gene Siskel Film Center, in honor of the movie critic who died in February 1999. The official announcement prompted rumblings of discontent among film and video instructors at the School of the Art Institute and other members of the city’s film community, few of whom would go on record for this article.

No one wants to attack the memory of the recently deceased, at least not in public. “He didn’t really cover Film Center films,” complains one film programmer who asked to remain anonymous. A local critic adds, “It not only opens up the problematic nature of Siskel’s own legacy as a critic but brings into question whether the values of the Film Center, which aggressively pushes the idea of film as a serious art form, are being compromised in making Siskel something he wasn’t, namely, a cinephile.” A $5 million capital campaign has already been launched, and some see the name change as an appeal to people who never had any interest in the Film Center’s philosophy.

Jones takes credit for the name, and denies that money was ever a consideration. He insists Siskel’s own foundation, headed by his widow, Marlene Iglitzen, is not making a financial contribution. Siskel was on the Film Center’s first advisory committee, he says, and never donated any money. Iglitzen simply granted permission for the use of Siskel’s name. “Absolutely not, there’s no quid pro quo,” Jones says. “There is absolutely no relationship of my going to the board and saying this is a good idea and any kind of fund-raising activity.”

To be fair, in the Film Center’s early years, Siskel wrote about it in admiring terms. “If you haven’t been to the Film Center during its superlative three-year run, the ‘Women in Japanese Cinema’ series is typical of the center’s enterprising program,” Siskel wrote in 1975. Going to the Film Center, Siskel said, you know you’re going to see a good print of a good film at a good price.

“I started working here in 1974, two years after it opened,” Scharres says. “Gene was the critic at the Tribune. He didn’t have a television show. He had a job that gave him some visibility. He was extremely supportive of the Film Center, and showed that in a number of ways. He was a catalyst for starting the first women’s film festival. He ended up calling a lot of filmmakers, holding an impromptu meeting, using the Tribune offices to provide the site. He used to tell the story, that once the women showed up they kicked him out and took the project and ran with it. He was very pleased with that.”

But when it came to covering Film Center programming, Siskel’s record was more ambiguous. For the final 20 years of his professional life, he wrote about virtually nothing but commercial films. Part of that is attributable to the Tribune’s decision to demote Siskel in 1986 and hire Dave Kehr as its new lead reviewer. Michael Wilmington was hired as the newspaper’s lead movie reviewer in September 1993 after Kehr left for the New York Daily News. But even during Siskel’s tenure in the late 70s and early 80s, Larry Kart, John Von Rhein, and Richard Christiansen were covering Film Center programming.

Richard Pena, the Film Center’s director from 1979 to 1987, organized major, pioneering retrospectives featuring the works of Budd Boetticher, Andrei Tarkovsky, Raul Ruiz, and Manoel de Oliveira that Siskel never even bothered to attend, much less write about.

But Pena harbors no ill will toward Siskel. “Personally, during my eight years, he was never anything but supportive,” Pena says. “I can’t say he wrote about the Film Center as much I would have liked, but he had a lot of other duties. When there was something I needed, he was there. Siskel didn’t know about Hong Kong cinema, Jean-Marie Straub, and some of the other programs that we did, but the notion of taking cinema seriously as an art he helped contribute to. His taste wasn’t totally my taste, but then not many people’s are.”

Pena left the Film Center to become chairman of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, which is run by the Film Society for the Lincoln Center. The society’s permanent theater, the Walter Reade, was named after a key art house distributor in the 1950s who bequeathed a significant sum before he died.

Scharres became the Film Center director in 1988. From 1986 to 1998, Siskel wrote exactly one review of a Film Center program–the French documentary In the Land of the Deaf, in 1994. By contrast, in his seven years at the Tribune, Kehr wrote more than 100 reviews, essays, and stories devoted to Film Center programming. In his five full years at the Tribune, Wilmington referred to Film Center offerings in an astonishing 341 articles, reviews, essays, and columns. Siskel never wrote a single word about vitally important Film Center fare such as Jacques Rivette’s The Nun, Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep, Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument, Werner Herzog’s documentary Echoes From a Somber Empire, or such work by local filmmakers as Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn’s Golub and Greg Glienna’s Meet the Parents. Siskel did show up at the Film Center, however, when he and Roger Ebert moderated a discussion of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, their choice for the best film of the 80s.

An artist’s rendition of the Film Center marquee has Siskel’s name stretching three stories above the street. Does this belittle the contributions of Scharres, Pena, Cook, Rich, or Alissa Simon, who have been responsible for the Film Center’s importance? “In naming the Film Center after Gene, they’re not saying these are the kind of movies or programming that Gene championed,” Michael Wilmington says. “Gene Siskel was somebody identified with film and was very helpful during an early, crucial part of their existence. Even if he never did anything after that, his help was very important to them. Whatever arguments could be made about Gene’s commitment to art cinema, I don’t think you can argue about his commitment to movies. He saw a lot of movies. Admittedly he saw mostly mainstream movies in the latter part of his career, but that’s because his major outlet was the television show. There are often pressures on a first-string film critic not to cover places like the Film Center.”

The Film Center’s programming is largely culled from film festivals–Scharres regularly attends Cannes, Toronto, and a number of smaller regional festivals. In recent years the Film Center has advanced the careers of Iranian masters Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the great Taiwanese filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, and lesser known Fifth Generation Chinese mainland directors such as Tian Zhuangzhuang. Siskel was out of touch with this world. He went to Cannes once, in 1990, not for the Tribune but as part of a team for CBS This Morning.

Siskel was a television star. But Roger Ebert says he never forgot his early involvement with the Film Center. “Whenever we did a speaking engagement that involved an honorarium, Gene always specified that the money go to the Film Center,” he says. And the team of Siskel and Ebert used television to promote all sorts of films, Ebert says. “Gene and I were very supportive of an alternative cinema. We went out of our way to review documentary, classic, foreign, and other kind of films on the show. That was not always a positive thing in terms of ratings. He fought for including films that were only playing two cities, films that would have received no national television if it hadn’t have been for our show. We’ve heard from various directors and distributors–we helped specific films get released. One False Move was a very good example. That would also include subtitled films and documentaries.”

So Siskel’s reputation among aficionados suffered because he was more accomplished on television than he was in print. His supporters will remember how confident he was in his own standards. Thea Flaum conceived of Siskel and Ebert’s first TV review program, initially called Coming Soon to a Theater Near You, in 1974. She’s now an independent producer and member of the Film Center’s advisory committee. At WTTW, Flaum says, she and Siskel were also involved with a monthly program called Nightwatch, dedicated to more marginal titles. “I can tell you that Gene absolutely believed that there was a large, popular audience for these kind of films. He was firmly committed to it. His notion was that if you just exposed the work to people, they would come,” she says. Camille Cook left the Film Center in 1981. “In my tenure, the only thing I feel qualified to talk about, he was always very supportive,” she says.

Tony Jones says that when he proposed changing the Film Center’s name the Board of Trustees of the Art Institute, the Board of Governors of the School of the Art Institute, and the Film Center’s advisory committee all applauded enthusiastically. He hasn’t heard any negative feedback. “People were ecstatic about it, they said it was a great idea,” says John Iltis, chairman of the advisory committee. “People will criticize no matter what you do,” Flaum says. “This is one of the instances in life where the naming of the institution and the life and work of the person are an almost perfect fit. I can’t think of a better person to name it after.”

Jones says $1.6 million has been raised so far. Ebert is the honorary chairman of the capital campaign. Last month on his syndicated TV program, Ebert showed the artist’s rendering of the marquee and offered basic information about donating to the fund. Chicago Film Festival founder Michael Kutza was home watching television when he caught that portion of the show. “The banner with Gene Siskel’s name was the size of the Oriental Theatre,” he says. “Gene’s symbolic of film, he’s symbolic of Chicago, he died tragically young. I have no problem with the naming. That’s how the wings of museums are built.”

Ebert agrees. “The people that are critical, I think they’re being pretty ungenerous. We’re going to have two full-time cinematheques in the middle of the Loop. They don’t build themselves, they don’t pay for themselves.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Film Center Gazette cover; Gene Siskel uncredited photo.