We Chicagoans may think we own most of the work of genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed homes that populate the Chicago area, focusing on a concentration of houses in Oak Park and River Forest. But of course Wright designed homes and public structures all over the country.
Some of my dearest friends are former docents for the Chicago Architecture foundation. We all went through the CAF’s rigorous docent training together, studied and cooked together, and have gone on architectural adventures to many locations to see famous buildings, with an emphasis on Frank Lloyd Wright. Besides the Oak Park and River Forest locations, we’ve been to Hyde Park and Beverly to see the Robie House and other Wright homes. We’ve flown to Pittsburgh to see the magnificent Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. We’ve driven to Columbus, Ind., to see the superb collection of buildings by famous architects in that small gem of a city. We’ve been to Racine, Wis., several times to see Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters and the house named Wingspread. We’ve been to Springfield to see the Dana-Thomas house and visited Wright’s Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia..
We took another Wright adventure recently: a 2-plus hour drive to West Lafayette, Ind., to see a small, perfectly finished and preserved Wright home that was lived in by its original owner for almost 60 years, until his recent death. Samara house was named by Wright when he was working with his owner/clients, John and Catherine Christian.
Samara is one of Wright’s Usonian houses, affordable homes for middle-income families. There are about 60 of these houses in the U.S. and they are smaller and less grand than some of the famous Wright Prairie-style mansions like the Robie house or the Avery Coonley house in Riverside. But they are no less uniquely Wrightian and feature the architect’s special touches in design and functionality.
The Christian house is about 2200 square feet and sits on an acre of beautifully landscaped property in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Christians worked very closely with Wright in designing and furnishing the house and they and their heirs have been meticulous in maintaining Wright purity in design and furnishings. The house is furnished with mostly Wright designed furniture, built by local artisans.
Samara means “winged seed,” and Wright used that motif throughout the house in structure, furnishings and ornament.
Our tour group met in the lounge or living area of the house for a briefing and discussion by associate curator Linda Eales, a knowledgeable and engaging tour leader. She began by asking the 25-plus visitors where we were from and how many Wright houses we had visited. It turned out that we were with a group of Wright aficionados, many of whom had traveled great distances to see Samara.
Eales described the long process that the Christians went through with Wright to build the house within their small budget. The process went on for more than five years and the house was finished in 1956. Some of the rooms were closed during our visit; the rooms we viewed were the large lounge or living room, dining area, kitchen and guest room, as well as the arboretum.
The Christians occupied the house until 2015, when Mr. Christian died. His wife preceded him in death. Samara is a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of Samara house are available by reservation April 1 through late November. The tours last about two hours and cost $10. The house is located at 1301 W. Woodland Ave., West Lafayette, a few miles from U.S. 65. To make a tour reservation, call 765-409-5522 or email info AT samara-house DOT org.
Slideshow photos by Nancy Bishop. This article previously appeared on Third Coast Review.
I had the pleasure of seeing a fine concert at the Symphony Center last Friday and it took me back to my time working at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville in the 1980s–one of my favorite jobs ever. My main job was handling press relations for the company. Distributing press releases, arranging interviews and handling the many queries that came in from reporters all over the world about our products and stores. But my very favorite part of the job–and probably the most fun I ever had working–was the annual KFC Bluegrass Music Festival.
The first time I wrote about that here was in an essay titled “The Day I Discovered Bluegrass.” I wrote then: “I worked at KFC less than two years but returned to work at the bluegrass festival for several years thereafter. (Unfortunately, the festival didn’t survive the merger of KFC’s parent company with another giant corporation.) The festival was a highlight of my year – spending several days on the riverfront hanging out with music press and musicians, talking to festival attendees, and listening to music, music, music.”
Abigail’s clog dancing reminded me of the many clog dancers who performed at the festivals–earnest young people dressed in their Sunday best and wearing clunky clogging shoes. And I remembered the night that heavy rain shut down the festival and we spent the evening inside the adjacent hotel, drinking beer, listening to music and, yes, clog dancing, or just dancing. Friday night at the Symphony Center brought it all back.
My review of the Friday concert ran today in Third Coast Review. Here it is.
The Symphony Center is a different place when the program veers away from classical. Few suits and ties, no designer dresses or jewelry. Plenty of jeans and khakis, checks and plaids, t-shirts with lettering, a bolo tie or two, boots and hoodies. It’s a different audience vibe when the music is bluegrass. And so it was last Friday when Bela Fleck, the banjo virtuoso, and his multitalented wife, Abigail Washburn (vocals and clawhammer banjo) took the stage for a one-hour set.
They were followed by the Del McCoury band, a traditional bluegrass band made up of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. And all five musicians did wear suits and ties, as traditional bluegrass players do.
When Bela and Abbie came on the CSO stage, they looked around at the beautiful auditorium and Bela said, admiringly, “Looks like this place needs some banjo playing.” And so they did.
Bela Fleck is gray-haired now and a little heavier than when I met him 30-odd years ago at a KFC Bluegrass Music festival in Louisville. He was playing then with a progressive bluegrass band called New Grass Revival, featuring mandolin player Sam Bush. I was doing press relations for KFC corporate, and so I got the bluegrass festival assignment. Three full September days of bluegrass, morning to night, on the riverfront plaza. I worked for KFC for less than two years, but went back several years after that to work at the festival.
Fleck and Washburn released an eponymously titled debut album, which won a 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and they’re working on a new album. Fleck is a superbly talented banjo player, focused totally on his instrument. Washburn’s effervescent personality, sassy commentary and song stylings bring energy and charm to their duo act.
Many of the songs they played were their own compositions, but they opened with a traditional folk song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” with a vocal by Abigail. They performed a song in Chinese, built on Abigail’s many tours to China and her fluency in Mandarin.
Another number performed with great feeling was “Come All Ye Coal Miners,” an eastern Kentucky labor protest song by Sarah Ogan Gunning, from a coal mining family. They also played a Carter Family song, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Their most powerful performance was on “Harland, Kentucky,” a song they composed together. Abigail, whose vocals started out sweetly and became more robust as the set progressed, announced that she was going to do something during this song that she had never done before. And she accompanied the powerful lyrics with an excellent display of Appalachian clog dancing, her heels providing percussion and punctuation for the lyrics and Bela’s picking.
The pair switched instruments frequently, with Bela occasionally playing a small ukulele banjo as well as a baritone banjo.
At one point, the pair described and demonstrated the differences in their playing styles. Abigail plays clawhammer banjo, sometimes called frailing, a rhythmic strumming style of playing. The banjo and that style of playing were brought from West Africa by the blacks who became slaves in the south.
Bela plays bluegrass banjo, notable for its fast three-finger picking, made famous by Earl Scruggs.
The clawhammer banjo has an open back, while the bluegrass banjo has a resonator back to enhance its sound. But the main difference between the two styles is picking vs strumming.
The Del McCoury Band came on for the second set, led by the bluegrass veteran Del McCoury on guitar and lead vocals. His two sons, Ronnie and Rob, play mandolin and banjo. Jason Carter plays a fabulous fiddle and Alan Bartram is on upright bass. The band performs close harmony on traditional bluegrass songs such as “Kentucky Waltz” and more contemporary tracks such as “Nashville Cats” by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Del McCoury Band has been playing more or less in its current form since 1992. They have won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award nine times. They record now on their own label—McCoury Music.
The first time I heard of Brian Doyle or his book, Chicago: A Novel, was when I read a review on my own website, Third Coast Review. I have read a lot of Chicago history and lore, and my first thought was, how did I not know about this book? I bought a copy right away.
I fell in love with the book from the first page.
“On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, because Lake Michigan is no lake at all, but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers … appealed to me greatly.”
wasI’ve been reading the book in small sips, before I go to sleep at night. The reason is, it’s only 300 pages and I don’t want it to be over. When I started writing this essay, I had only 20 pages left to read and I was sad.
Chicago: A Novel is really more the memoir of an unnamed protagonist’s year-plus spent living and working in Chicago in about 1979-80. (It’s Doyle’s history and his story.) For the most part it’s a realistic story of the characters (especially the residents in his apartment building and the dudes from the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles he plays basketball with on a nearby school playground) and places, such as Comiskey Park (he and his neighbors were Sox fans despite living a few blocks from Wrigley), blues and jazz clubs and places to buy empanadas and gyros. Near the end, there’s the story of John the Mailman, a student of dragonflies.
It’s the story of a guy just out of college with his first real job, working for a Catholic magazine at a Loop office. We travel with him on his bus rides to work on the Sound Asleep Bus and on his long walks exploring the city or dribbling his shiny old basketball along the lakefront. What keeps it from being a real memoir and makes it novelistic is the addition of bits of magical realism. The most important is Edward, an amazing dog of an indeterminate breed, who collects stamps and speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s the detective who—when the opening day trip to Comiskey has to be canceled because of an illness—tells the entire game, play by play, picking up the action from some radio waves in the air unheard by anyone else.
Doyle’s book is well written and full of Chicagoness. He places major and minor places in their exact places on the city map like the way “Broadway bends between Roscoe and Aldine streets” and a wonderful gyro shop over on Washtenaw. It’s hard to believe it was written by a guy who lived here less than two years.
When I was about midway through the book, I learned that Doyle, who now lives in Portland and is editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland and a widely published author, is now suffering from brain cancer. He had surgery for what he called “a big. honkin’ brain tumor” last November and also has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. There’s a Doyle family GoFundMe page to help with his expenses.
Chicago: A Novel is a love letter to the city I love. I marked so many quotable passages in the book. Here’s one of my favorites.
“Sometimes, even now, years later and far away, on steel-gray days when the wind whips and I am near large waters, I feel a bolt of what I can only call Chicagoness, and I remember, I remember … what? A certain Chicago of the mind, I suppose. And sometimes then I sit by a fire, and I remember aloud…. about the way buildings crowded the streets and the sidewalks were narrow and buckled in the oldest parts of the city, and how stores and shops leaned in eagerly toward the street…. And the swirl of snow along the lake, eddying and whirling and composing drifts deep enough to hide a horse. … And the bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice…. And the smell of sausages and kielbasa and onions and beer at games and carnivals and festivals and street fairs…. Perhaps this is true of every city, but it was certainly true of mine then, that what the world saw … was not at all the real city, and was only the gloss and sheen of a rough grace that was the actual bone and music of the place.”
Susannah Pratt, who wrote the review I mentioned, observes, “Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside.”
I finished the book last night. I didn’t want to finish it because I knew the ending—when the protagonist drove south along the lake, “past the ragged glories of the South Side … over the Calumet River and onto the interstate highway and over the Illinois border into Indiana”—would make me cry. And it did.
I’ve been writing a lot for Third Coast Review and neglecting my personal website. But a note to readers: Check out the Stages page of Third Coast Review for the latest reviews by our talented theater reviewers, as well as me. We don’t cover everything. We’re all volunteers so we have to measure out our time carefully. But you’ll see a wide range of reviews by writers with varied writing styles.
If you’ve followed my blog or my reviews, you’ll know that I like to see and review dramas that are serious and thought-provoking–or comedies that deal in black humor. However, other Third Coast Review writers like to cover the musicals and lighthearted comedies that I avoid. So come on over to Third Coast Review if you’d like a broader view of the theater world. Also Steve Prokopy, our lead film reviewer, reviews major releases as well as obscure, foreign films and arthouse releases every week. Check out Steve’s reviews on the Screens page.
You can get a recap of the week’s posts in our weekly newsletter, 3CR Highlights, which arrives in your mailbox every Thursday morning. Sign up in the lefthand column here to get your own copy or just let me know by email or comment below that you’d like to sign up.
Here are some of my favorite recent theater experiences.
An Experiment with an Air Pump at Timelime Theatre
This TimePieces Play Reading was a single-night offering this week by Timeline Theatre. The 1998 play by Shelagh Stephenson concerns science and reason and their conflict with intuition, set in two time periods 200 years apart. It reminded many of us of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. These free readings are open to subscribers and the public, so watch for the next one.
A world premiere play by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, this is a thriller set in Chicago. The play addresses police and community issues. It’s the story of a Latino man who is beaten up by an off-duty cop–and tells his story to a TV reporter. See my full review. The Wolf runs thru March 5 at Victory Gardens Theater.
The Nether at A Red Orchid Theatres
Jennifer Haley’s new play is set in a virtual world of the near future. It’s about a wealthy man who sets up a special “realm” called the Hideaway in the virtual world to entertain visitors with peculiar sexual interests. It’s well-written and directed with some good performances–marred a bit by peculiar staging. My review says it’s worth your time and thought. The Nether runs at A Red Orchid on Wells Street thru March 12.
Straight White Men at Steppenwolf Theatre
I just saw this and haven’t finished my review yet. But I can tell you it’s an excellent production, very well-written, performed and staged. And it will leave you with plenty to discuss. Playwright Young Jean Lee also directs this production, which runs until March 19.
You’ve probably heard about Gloria by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. It has received lots of publicity, lots of hype. The New York production was picked up and dropped as a package on to the Goodman stage. Gloria is a dark comedy about the publishing world and the ambition of its denizens. It may shock you. Actually, it should shock you. But it’s an engaging and provocative evening of theater, sure to generate conversation. Gloria continues thru February 19. My review.
A Disappearing Number at Timeline Theatre
This is how my review of this excellent play opens: “A Disappearing Number is a multi-layered, complex story of love and math over the course of a century. Timeline Theatre’s new production of the script by Complicité is mesmerizing, sometimes mystifying, and definitely worth your time and attention. Even if the math makes your head hurt. It is a joyous intellectual brain-teaser.”
The play is set in two time periods, 100 years apart, and the main thread is the story of the brilliant Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. His story is also told in the recent film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was a decent, if uninspired, film. You’ll find the play much more provocative and challenging. It runs thru April 9.
I’ve become a big fan of the writing of Mike Bartlett, who wrote King Charles III and Cock, both staged recently in Chicago, as well as Earthquakes in London. This is a chaotic, immersive play built around issues of climate change, as well as family relationships. Jonathan Berry’s direction and staging make great use of video projections and pop music. And there’s a robot and a polar bear. I strongly recommend this and you have until March 4 to see it for yourself.
Paterson, the fine new film by Jim Jarmusch, has finally opened in Chicago. And it’s getting some of the attention it deserves. It’s a beautiful film about nothing much. The life of a bus driver named Paterson, in Paterson, New Jersey, who observes the life around him on his bus and in the city. And he writes poetry in his spare moments. On the bus, while eating his lunch at Paterson’s Great Falls of the Passaic River. His wife, played by a delightful and funny actor named Golshifteh Farahani, stays at home and makes art…and yearns to be a country singer. Oh, and there’s a dog too.
I saw this film last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival and it’s been haunting me ever since. I wrote about it then and also included in my list of A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck.
Paterson is showing now at Chicago theaters, including Century City Cinema. Here’s the review by Steve Prokopy from Third Coast Review. His comments perfectly encapsulate why this is such a wonderful film.
The poems that Paterson writes in the film are by Ron Padgett, a poet whose work I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve now read a lot of his poems online and just ordered two of his books. Jeffrey Brown interviewed Padgett and filmmaker Jarmusch last night on the PBS Newshour.
w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16
It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.
This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.
But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.
The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.
Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”
Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.
My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.
Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.
The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.
So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.
Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.
Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.
Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre
Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago
2666 at Goodman Theatre
The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre
American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions
Not writing about pop culture today. I felt it was important to put some thoughts down about election results and our future. Everyone else is writing long, painful, sometimes smart and insightful, essays so I decided to just write a poem.
November 9, 2016
Another date that lives on in infamy
Like December 7, 1941, and 9/11.
81 percent of Americans live in urban areas
19 percent in rural areas.
How could there be enough old, rural, poor and uneducated
To be taken in by the orange pirate?
While the urban, young, diverse future of America
Protests “Not my president”
On the streets of our cities.
Is this “America the mean,” as my friend Charles wrote today?
Now I fear for the future of my grandsons and nieces,
All the young people who woke up today to find
They’d been abandoned by their grands,
Just like the Brexit orphans in Britain.
The question is, how much damage
Can he do in four years?
Is our Bill of Rights in danger?
Most of the world’s despots started out
Being elected to office.
Is the only date we can look forward to
November 2, 2020?
PS to the Founding Fathers:
All respect to you, Sirs, but your idea
For the electoral college should have been left
In the inkpot, never to besmirch your parchment
And our futures.
October is Chicago International Film Festival month with its glorious menu of 140 films from 50 countries, most of which I wanted to see. However, life intrudes and so I measure out my life in coffee spoons, seeing eight or ten or twelve of them.
On top of that, I’m thrilled to see that Jim Jarmusch, one of my favorite film directors, has two new films out now. One of them is Paterson–a beautiful film about a busdriver/poet. That was a special feature of CIFF. In addition, his new music documentary, Gimme Danger, about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, was just released. So first of all, a Jarmusch recap.
I have always loved the cool and quirky plots and characters in Jarmusch films, as in Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train, three of his early films. But some of his recent films–including Paterson–are a little different. Paterson, written and directed by Jarmusch, is set in Paterson, New Jersey, and it’s the name of the leading character, the bus driver/poet, played superbly by Adam Driver. The city of Paterson is also a character; we become acquainted with it as Paterson walks to work and drives his bus route around the old industrial city. And we learn about some of Paterson’s famous local heroes, including the poet William Carlos Williams.
Our Paterson stops for lunch and writes poetry in his notebook at the magnificent Great Falls of the Passaic River. As he writes, we hear him read the lines and see them scrawled on screen in handwriting. The poetry scenes are very moving. His wife, charmingly played by Golshifteh Farahani, is an artist and artisan who turns everything into a black-and-white work of art, from cupcakes for his lunch to shower curtains and garments. Nothing much happens in Paterson. It’s a celebration of the small details of life and work.
This is the first Jarmusch documentary I’ve seen and it’s masterful. We meet Jim Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, as an older, wry, self-reflective guy who meanders fondly through his childhood, growing up in Ann Arbor, and his punk rock past. Between the MC5 and the Stooges, the Detroit area was considered the epicenter of punk rock in the 1970s. The Iggy interviews are the main thread of the film, but it’s laced with elements of the script scrawled on the screen (like Paterson’s poems) plus animated scenes that recreate some of the adventures Iggy describes. (The use of animation is similar to what is done in Two Trains Runnin’, which I’ll describe below.) Great editing and massive amounts of great concert footage where we see Iggy perform, always shirtless and dervishlike. He tells how he invented and perfected the stage dive. Gimme Danger is well done and will be a treat for any ’70s rock and punk rock fans. As we watched the credits roll, my friend and I were in awe of the hundreds of clearances that Jarmusch’s lawyer had to obtain for the intellectual property, people and locations used.
These are the highlights of the other films I saw during CIFF. Watch for them. Most of them will appear in Chicago theaters in the next few months.
This is a Romanian film, directed by Cristii Puiu, and takes place almost entirely in a dark, crowded apartment in Bucharest, where a family celebrates the life of the deceased patriarch. The apartment has many rooms, opening on to a dark, central hall. People go in and out, doors open and close, conversations start and stop, in a realistic way throughout the three-hour film, which feels as if it’s filmed in real time. Various secrets emerge of family members’ pasts and the family tries to deal with the day. The film’s title does not have anything specific to do with the film or with anything in film history.
Two Trains Runnin’
This is a road documentary, directed by Sam Pollard, about two efforts in 1963-64 Mississippi. One is the freedom riders movement and the effort to register voters in Mississippi, which ended in violence and tragedy. The other is the search by two separate teams for a couple of old-time delta blues performers–Son House and Skip James. The film’s structure and storyline are straightforward, but the use of animation to show scenes where footage is not available is a nice touch. The addition of blues renditions by modern artists like Gary Clark Jr. adds a lot to the film, as does the narration by Common. The 82-minute film hasn’t been released yet. Pollard said in the Q&A following the film that he’s looking for a distributor. And yes, Pollard acknowledges that the title is the same as the title of an August Wilson play.
Un + Une
This is a French film, mostly set in India, directed by Claude Lelouch snd starring Jean Dujardin (you’ll remember him from The Artist). He plays a famous film composer who goes to India to score a Bollywood adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Un + Une is a film about relationships broken and made and has a funky spiritual aura. The film is a spin on Lelouch’s 1966 film, Un Homme et Une Femme, also shown at the festival in a restored version. Un + Une is a lovely bit of romantic fluff with an edge of poignancy.
This French film directed by Paul Verhoeven stars the magnificent actor Isabelle Huppert, who often plays women in dicey situations (as in Ma Mere and The Piano Teacher). Her performance here is fine as the highly sexualized business executive, but this was a troubling film with some violent scenes of sexual assault. Not easy to watch at times.
This interesting documentary, directed by Charlie Siskel, is the story of William Powell, the man who wrote and published The Anarchist Cookbook at the age of 19 in 1970. Although Powell says the book is distributed without any effort on his part, it’s still used today by radicals and terrorists because of its detailed instructions on how to make bombs or how to turn a shotgun into a grenade launcher. Siskel interviews Powell, who was 65 at the time of the interviews and died in July just before the film’s release. Powell, rather disingenuously, denies any culpability for how the book has been used, says he doesn’t own a copy and hasn’t read it in years.
My Journey through French Cinema
This is a loving film memoir of director Bernard Tavernier’s career in the French film industry. In a beautifully edited film montage, he recalls the actors and directors he worked with and describes and analyzes their work and his experiences working with them. This three-hour documentary may not have a very wide release, but it’s a must for all lovers of the grand French cinema of the 20th century.
Finally, I have to write about this beautiful Japanese anime film that’s not part of the film festival. It’s set in 19th century Edo, before the city was named Tokyo. It’s an historical film, adapted from a manga series, about the daughter of a famous artist. The plot is kind of episodic and there’s not very much character development, but the film is beautifully drawn and every aspect of it is perfect, including the sound. Spoken in Japanese with subtitles. The film is running this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, an important moment in history that has never received the attention it deserves as a prequel to the geopolitical changes of World War II, the Cold War and the culture wars that continue today.
The following essay is adapted from the reading I gave at Third Coast Review’s Kill Your Darlings live lit and improv series last month.
Did you ever feel you were born at the wrong time? I’ve always wished I was around in the 1930s when people were excited about politics and leftwing activism. I suspect that many of us—at least those who consider ourselves liberals — would have been Communists in the 1930s. Most liberal intellectuals and working class people did at least sympathize with the Communist Party USA then because it seemed as if they presented solutions that would help our country. And we were naïve about the cruel and violent aspects of the party in Russia. (It was not until 1956 that American leftists learned the full story of Stalin’s criminal legacy, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin.)
We certainly would have supported the anti-fascist, Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. The democratically elected government of Spain was anti-fascist, anti-clerical, anti-royalty, pro-education and yes, pro-communist.
in those years, we sat in saloons and union halls — in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, near stockyards and steel mills on the south side of Chicago – talking about unemployment, the evils of capitalism, the rise of fascism in Europe and the hope we saw in Spain. And some of us did something about it. Some of us went to Spain.
The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939. The novel thing about this war was that volunteers from America and around the world went to Spain to fight for the good cause.
That good cause was our support for the legal, democratically elected, left-wing Republic of Spain, which faced a military coup by the fascist Spanish military led by Francisco Franco. The slogan was No pasarán and a raised fist. They shall not pass.
If I had been a young woman in the 1930s, I would have wanted to be on the ship that left New York harbor in December 1936—80 years ago. That was the first ship that took American volunteers to Spain. The people who went left without telling anyone their destination or talking to anyone about it on board ship. They knew they were committing an illegal act—because the State Department had banned all travel to Spain and those who went risked losing their citizenship.
A total of 45,000 volunteers from 53 countries formed the International Brigades who went to Spain in late 1936 and early 1937. Most of them traveled by ship to France and then had to travel by train to southern France and on foot during the night across the Pyrenees to Spain.
From the US, 2,800 left but a third of them didn’t come back. The American section of the International Brigades was known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Two hundred Chicagoans were among the volunteers. I’m sure I knew some of them.
They were men with names like Paul Lutka, Sid Harris, Milt Cohen, Sam Gibbons, Charles Hall, Ed Balchowsky, Steve Nelson. And Oliver Law, an African-American who couldn’t serve as an officer in the Jim Crow US Army in World War I, but was a battalion commander in Spain. He died in battle a few months later. Aaron Hilkevitch, the last Illinois survivor of the Lincoln Brigades, died in 2008. A psychiatrist by profession, he remained an activist for left-wing causes throughout his life.
You can see some of them interviewed (and Balchowsky playing the piano) on the excellent 1984 documentary, The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Studs Terkel. The film is available to see and stream on Vimeo.
If I had gone to Spain, I would have been a photographer or a journalist, or perhaps a driver or nurse. Very few women were in combat. Most of the volunteers I would have met were from New York or San Francisco. They were mostly urban working class. About a fourth were Jewish, about 90 were African-American. Many were the children of Eastern Europeans who came here after World War I. They left to escape political repression and economic distress in their home countries.
In many ways, the Spanish Civil War was a culture war—urban against rural, modernity against tradition, freedom of expression against repression of ideas.
The International Brigades were sent out to the front lines with poor quality equipment, no uniforms—often little food or water–and little or no training. Some of them had never handled a gun before.
But the internationals were shock troops for the Republic. That’s one of the reasons their death toll was so high. Their remains are on battlefields named Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, the Ebro River.
Fascist Germany and Italy contributed weapons, warplanes, warships and 100,000 troops to the Nationalist cause—the fascist or Franco side. Russia and Mexico contributed some weapons and advisers to the Spanish government—the Republican side–but it was minimal compared to what Germany and Italy did. What did the US do? Nada. The US, Britain and France refused to support the Spanish Republic. They wouldn’t even sell them munitions or oil, even though Spain had plenty of gold to pay for them.
The war ended in 1939 as the fascists gradually rolled over all of Spain. Barcelona and Catalonia, the heart of the Republican cause, fell in January and February–and Madrid in March. Franco declared victory; his government was recognized by the good old USA. Democracy died in Spain. Franco ruled as the dictatorial Caudillo until he died in 1975.
The veterans of the Spanish Civil War continued to be political activists who later supported the civil rights movement and antiwar movements. The last American veteran died in February. He was Delmer Berg, who died at 99.
I tell this story because I believe we need to remember the Spanish Civil War and teach our kids about it. Why was it important?
- It was the prequel to World War II and the Cold War. And it prefigured the culture wars of today.
- The American volunteers went on their own dime to Spain. And most of those who returned were ostracized and threatened by the US government, the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for the rest of their lives.
- The war inspired many artists, writers, journalists and photographers. George Orwell wrote a memoir Homage to Catalonia about fighting with the POUM, the anarchists, a splinter group of Marxists. Ernest Hemingway covered the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance and gathered material for his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- Photographer Robert Capa shot some memorable images, including the iconic image titled “Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier being shot down.
- Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spaniard, was kidnapped and executed by the Franco thugs. His body was tossed in a mass grave and his remains have never been found.
- There were many others. Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Andre Malraux, Salvador Dali, Martha Gellhorn, Willy Brandt, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, Emma Goldman, Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos were involved in various ways.
- Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, captured the aftermath of the vicious aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 by German bombers flown by German pilots. About 1,650 people were killed, mostly women, children and old men, because the other men had gone off to fight the fascists. The bombardment of Guernica became a world symbol of the horrors of war.
- Picasso had left Spain and refused to return or to have his art displayed there as long as Franco was in power. Guernica’s home for years was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I saw it in the 1970s. Then recently I saw it at the Museo de Reina Sofia in Madrid, where it is now permanently installed.
Back to the present, I think we should vow to celebrate this moment in history by becoming knowledgeable about the Spanish Civil War. Here are my suggestions for how you might do this.
First of all, explore the resources of ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights, as well as the history and legacy of the Spanish Civil War. You can sign up for ALBA’s mailing list here.
Readings about the Spanish Civil War
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The story of Robert Jordan, an American, who goes to Spain to fight with the International Brigades.
- Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction (2005). A good resource for a basic history and timeline of the war.
- Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (2016). An engrossing history drawn from the letters and diaries of the participants.
- Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1994). Carroll had the advantage of interviews with some of the living veterans of the war.
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell’s memoir about his time fighting with the POUM in Spain.
- Cary Nelson, ed., The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems About the Spanish Civil War (2002). An excellent collection of poetry edited by a UIUC professor and published by the University of Illinois Press.
- Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961, rev. 2001). This is the definitive history of the war by the distinguished British historian.
Films about the Spanish Civil War
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, dir Sam Wood (DVD, 1943). It was a box office hit and nominated for nine Oscars. The bridge-detonation scene is based on Hemingway’s actual experience.
- The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, dirs Noel Buckner and Mary Dore, narrated by Studs Terkel (Vimeo, 1984).
- Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War, dir Julia Newman (DVD, 2002)
- Land and Freedom, dir Ken Loach (parts are on Vimeo, 1995). This is a dramatized history of the war with actors portraying participants but also making use of documentary footage. I have not been able to find this film in one piece (probably because of copyright restrictions) although it’s possible to watch 9- or 10-minute sections of it on Vimeo.
- Plus Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Butterfly’s Tongue, Hemingway and Gellhorn, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca and more.
In conclusion, remember this for today’s protests: No Pasaran!
So you didn’t get tickets to the great behemoth from Broadway…or you have to wait five or six months to use your tickets? If you’re a theater fan, take advantage of all the great shows that have recently opened on stages large and small. I’ve been having a great time checking out the new productions. Here are my favorites so far.
The Last Wife at Timeline Theatre
This is the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Wait, don’t check her Wikipedia page yet. The new Timeline production will give you some insights, both fact and fantasy, into her life as a feminist before her time. Kate was a woman of intellect and strength who carried out a sort of “school for queens” in Henry’s household. She was grooming his two daughters, Mary and Bess, for their ascensions to the throne. That’s right. Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen.
The play by Kate Hennig, a Canadian theater artist and playwright, premiered last year at Stratford, Ontario, and this is its first US production. It’s a very good production indeed with fine acting and a crisp, smart script, plus modern dress and decidedly modern language. The Last Wife runs into December. Here’s my review.
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
Don’t avoid this play because you think it’s about boxing and you hate boxing. Well, yes, it is about boxing but so much more. It’s about one moment that changed the life of the great Emile Griffith, a talented hat designer, entertainer, bisexual and an impressive fighter. You won’t see any punches in this play. Charles Newell’s direction, plus stage design and lighting, reimagine the fight scenes. Body percussion is used very cleverly to simulate fights and create tension. But brain damage and “dementia pugilistica” are part of the story.
Man in the Ring is a moving, even haunting journey through the life of one man, played as his older self by Allen Gilmore, one of Chicago’s finest actors, and as the young fighter by Kamal Angelo Bolden.
The play has a very short run for some reason. It just opened last weekend and closes October 16. Check out my review and then call the box office.
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Yes, this is another reinterpretation of Uncle Vanya. It’s getting so Chekhov is reimagined almost as often as Shakespeare (and the Russian’s oeuvre is much smaller, so how far can this go?). This is Aaron Posner’s retelling of the Uncle Vanya story in modern dress and language, set at someone’s country home somewhere east of here. If you saw Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre last year, you will immediately want to see this too. Bird was a retelling of The Seagull and it was delightfully smart and funny (my 2015 review). Life Sucks (an accurate summary of any Chekhov play) is warmer and sweeter but equally delightful.
My review describes the play like this.
Life Sucks is Posner’s sort-of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, that often-performed masterpiece in which members of the rural bourgeoisie loll about, falling in love with the wrong people and longing to change their miserable lives. What is the play about? Love, longing and loss, as the characters tell us in their prologue. The basic elements of the human condition.
The Lookingglass production and staging are excellent and the performances are terrific, especially those by Chicago favorites such as Philip R. Smith, Barbara Robertson plus Eddie Jemison, Penelope Walker and Chaon Cross. The play runs thru November 6.
True West at Shattered Globe Theatre
Sam Shepard is one of my favorite playwrights and Steppenwolf Theatre has staged some masterful productions of his work, including their seminal production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I remember that production vividly so I went into this performance with some trepidation. But Shattered Globe does an excellent job in staging this violent and vivid play and almost grabs the Shepard dynamite. Lee is the older, bolder, meaner brother and Austin is the quieter writer — and then both brothers change.
The story of two brothers of course reminded me of my own two sons. There’s a different dynamic in a family, I think, when there are more than two brothers. So my review begins this way.
Anyone who had rowdy brothers or raised a pair of sons will feel a chill of recognition at some point during Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of True West, Sam Shepard’s classic play of brotherly rivalry.
The duality of emotion lies in wait in every aspect of our tense two hours with brothers Lee (Joseph Wiens) and Austin (Kevin Viol). They compete and collaborate, love and hate, drink and work, reminisce and prevaricate.
True West runs until October 22 at Theater Wit on Belmont.