The first thing that struck Tom Tomc about Keith Dukavicius was his resemblance to Egon Schiele. Like the Austrian painter, Dukavicius is gangly and naturally theatrical, and “his hair was standing straight up,” Tomc says. “In his self-portraits Schiele would distort his face a little bit, and then he looks even more like Keith. Keith looks like Schiele’s interpretation of himself.”
A decade later, Schiele is the latest in the series of personas Dukavicius has assumed over a lifetime of far-flung creative pursuits. Egon, which he wrote, directed, and stars in, is a fictional account of the expressionist artist’s relationship with his younger sister Gertrude, who modeled nude for him into her teens. It screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, August 14.
Growing up in the Back of the Yards, Dukavicius, who’s 41, staged and filmed puppet plays with his brothers and studied music. He was seven when the family moved to south-suburban Burbank, which he says felt provincial compared to his old working-class neighborhood, and he lived “in denial of my surroundings.” In his teens he discovered Brideshead Revisited—first the miniseries and then the book—and fantasized about life in 1920s Oxford. “I was intrigued by the eccentric decadence,” he says. “It seemed like a place where foppish characters could get away with their antics.” In high school he staged a croquet match in a friend’s front yard: “I looked up the official rules and I made sure everyone wore neckties and a sports coat. I’m sure two of the players wore ascots.”
At UIC his romanticism manifested in preferences for linen suits, antique furniture, and golden age cinema. An art student, he built a shrine to Orson Welles, did surrealist mime, and made paintings based on photography and film. “My paintings were in CinemaScope aspect ratio,” he says. “A classmate of mine said most painters are frustrated filmmakers. It’s kind of true.”
After a period working as an archivist at the Lithuanian Cultural Center near Gage Park and playing in a “post-R.E.M.” rock quartet called the Nameless, he enrolled in the Art Institute’s MFA program, doing large-format photography and video installations. One piece “involved 18th-century court music and dead flowers,” he says. “It was a mixture of Fellini and Purple Rain. I was confused.” He left the program after a year.
Dukavicius ended up working alongside Tomc, a fellow artist, restoring vintage posters at a downtown retail gallery across from the Art Institute. Artistically frustrated, he cultivated an obsession with James Mason, identifying with “this little bit of old England displaced in Hollywood,” where the British transplant was “never really content.” The obsession developed into an impersonation, which he would perform throughout the workday, “whether we were talking about a project or what we would eat for lunch,” says Tomc. “There was a screen separating us and I couldn’t see him. By the end of the day I was convinced that I was working with James Mason.”
Tomc thought the impersonation was strong enough to be developed into a film. “Keith is a living performance artist,” he says. “He’s onstage wherever he goes, whether he knows it or not.” Dukavicius ran with the idea: his debut film, I Am James Mason, is about a man named Keith who wakes up one morning convinced he’s James Mason and the friend (played by Tomc) who tries to set him straight. Dukavicius shot the 40-minute film in Hi-8 and edited in-camera, recording each shot in sequence and rewinding for retakes. His movie premiered at the Film Center, where he volunteered in marketing, in 2004.
A windfall that same year financed his next film project. For years Dukavicius had recorded music as the “one-man bedroom band” Keen. On the eve of the first U.S. tour of the British band Keane, he was contacted by their manager and asked to give up the name; he accepted a chunk of change to do so, the amount of which he won’t disclose, and lived off the settlement for the better part of a year. (He now records as Swoon.) He also bought a G5 computer and began working on a feature, Daniel Wong, about a Eurasian man in Chicago who becomes the romantic focus of two strangers—an Asian-American woman and a Hong Kong Chinese man. Like all of his film work to date, it was cast with friends and shot, in Chicago and Hong Kong, on the same Hi-8 camcorder used for James Mason. Dukavicius wrote, directed, scored, and edited the film, and it played to a sold-out audience at its 2006 premiere, also at the Film Center.
By that time Dukavicius had already started on Egon, inspired by Tomc’s comment about his resemblance to Schiele. He meticulously researched the title role, practicing the contorted poses captured in the artist’s self-portraits. But not only did he admire Schiele’s flamboyant persona and artistic technique—he was captivated by the “innocent eroticism” of his drawings. “They’re taboo without the creator’s knowing they’re taboo,” Dukavicius says. His Schiele is a tragicomically oblivious figure, unable to grasp why the public reacts so violently to the lascivious drawings he makes of his adolescent sister.
Dukavicius financed Egon out of pocket, again filling all of the key creative positions himself. But for his next project, Breakfast at Marly’s, a drag homage to Breakfast at Tiffany’s centering on a transvestite rock chanteuse, he hopes to work with outside producers and audition professional actors for the first time. He’s still debating whether to attempt the lead himself. “I’ve had this sad character in my head for a while, based on someone I knew from back in my clubbing days,” he says. “It’s going to be a task to pull it off. I’ve got a collection of girls’ clothes, but I’m not a weekend warrior.”v