This is coming to you live from New York, where I’m hanging out for the month of March. I decided I wanted to live like a New Yorker and take in as much arts and culture as I could in a relaxed way. I’m staying in a tiny but comfy apartment in midtown, near the theater district. It’s a neighborhood I know and public transportation is really convenient here. I’ll report on some of my arts adventures rom time to time.
The Shadow of a Gunman at Irish Rep
My first theater review was posted today on Third Coast Review, where I regularly write about theater and art. At Irish Repertory Theatre, a theater company I have admired over the years, I reviewed the first in their O’Casey Cycle, celebrating the work of Sean O’Casey. He was a nationalist and a socialist and an Irish freedom fighter–and one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. My first review is of The Shadow of a Gunman, set in 1920 Dublin, where the war for independence rages outside a tenement building. There’s a bit of comedy throughout, but as the play proceeds, reality sets in. And the opposing forces, the vicious Black and Tans, invade the neighborhood–and then the house. A valise left in the room in act one becomes a Chekhovian gun in act two. The acting and direction are excellent, as is always the case with Irish Rep.
I’ll be seeing the second O’Casey play, the more familiar Juno and the Paycock, next week. Watch for my review.
I have plays scheduled throughout the month but I have plenty of room for other activities. When nothing else demands my attention, I’ll go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offers a regular schedule of new films, both international and American, retrospectives, filmmaker talks and discussions. There are two FSLC buildings on opposite sides of 65th Street near Columbus Avenue. Their screening model is similar to that of the Gene Siskel Film Center, but on a larger scale.
Cold War, a love story over the decades
The first film I saw at the Film Society was Cold War, which screened recently in Chicago. It’s the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, whose film Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Cold War is a love story told across two decades in post-WW2 Poland and in several European cities. The film is told mostly from the viewpoint of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an instructor and band leader, whose lover is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an engaging and ambitious singer and performer. (I felt the film overplayed Wiktor’s viewpoint and underplayed Zula’s.) They are both members of a national musical touring company that presents Polish peasant-style works. While the company is in East Berlin for a concert, the two lovers plot to leave for the west. But only Wiktor actually escapes and thus the journey of longing begins. The film is notable for its gorgeous cinematography, shot in high contrast black and white with some glorious imagery, lighting and scenes. The story is elliptical, as Pawlikowski skims over the 20-year period in 88 minutes. Steve Prokopy reviewed Cold War recently.
In an interview screened before the film, Pawlikowski said, “The definition of art is what you leave out.” And he left out a lot, but nothing was missing. The ending is particularly beautiful—finished off with an interlude from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria.”
The Band’s Visit
I also saw this lovely play with music this week on Broadway. It’s been reviewed everywhere, so I won’t review it here. It’s called a musical but it doesn’t have egregious singing and dancing–that is, the dialogue is spoken, not sung, and dancing is done when it fits the plot. The music is performed by the musicians from the Egyptian band that visits the Israeli village and by a small pit orchestra. The play is directed by David Cromer, a Chicago theater luminary who has been highly successful in New York, both as director and actor. The Band’s Visit goes on tour this year and will be in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace in September. If you’d like to know more about the story, get a DVD of the excellent 2007 Israeli film of the same name.
And more ….
Today I’m seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney (Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again). My next article will cover that comprehensive exhibit. “Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” as Holland Cotter said in his New York Times review.
As a followup to my review and comments on Haskell Wexler’s film, Medium Cool, here’s an important short film interview with Wexler, made in about 2014, the year before he died. Wexler talks about the film and his filmmaking. He describes the mood and atmosphere in Chicago at the time, his political attitudes, racism and the antiwar movement, and how Medium Cool came to be. Please enjoy.
Haskell Wexler invented a new hybrid form of filmmaking when he created Medium Cool, released in 1969. I saw the film back then, but was probably unconscious of anything but the story and its background—the antiwar protests and police action around the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
This is the film’s 50th anniversary and I celebrated by watching the film—three times. Once by itself and twice with the excellent commentary tracks included on the DVD. (You see, Netflix, that’s why some 3 million crazy people still subscribe to your DVD service—because it’s the only way we can view foreign films and classics like this. You have 40 times that in streaming subscribers, so I hope you keep finding us profitable too.)
Wexler layers a fictional story of a loner TV news cameraman, a single mom and her young son over cinema-verité-style documentary footage of news events leading up to the convention (Robert Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, the arrival of the protestors in Chicago, the preparation of troops, police and Illinois National Guard) with the events inside the convention hall (the old International Amphitheatre) and in Lincoln Park, Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue.
Wexler started researching his film at least a year in advance and had tips that there would be a major protest action surrounding the convention. Because of his planning, he was able to have his characters carry out the plot against a backdrop of actual convention footage and street protests. The other innovation is Wexler’s use of quick cuts and sharp transitions. He takes you from A to C without stopping at B to explain, as Roger Ebert says in his 1969 review. That’s a technique we are used to now, but it was probably jarring 50 years ago.
Robert Forster plays John, the cameraman, and Verna Bloom plays Eileen. The most striking sequence is near the end of the film when Eileen is frantically looking for her independent-minded son, Harold (a 13-year-old untrained actor, whose performance is rough, natural and phenomenal). Harold has wandered away from their home in an Uptown slum (a poor white migrant neighborhood at the time) to go down to Grant Park with one of his buddies. Eileen follows him downtown, looking frantically through the crowds and marching along with the protestors on their way to the convention site. She’s in the middle of the actual police attack on the protesters. Wexler very cleverly had Verna wear a bright yellow dress, which meant she was easy to follow in the crowd.
Finally Eileen and John connect and get in his car to continue the search for Harold.
The film ends with a tragic accident, which happens for no reason, as accidents do. (My sister Linda died at the age of 27 in a similar car crash in January 1970, a life ended for no reason. She died at the same age and in the same year as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.)
There are plenty of other dramatic elements to the film. One interesting segment involves a fictional story about a cabdriver who found a package with $10,000 in cash in his taxi and returned it to the owner. John visits his home to interview the driver and meets all his friends. It’s 1968, remember, and the driver’s friends (the whole cast in this sequence is African-American) are artists and activists. They accuse John of being a police spy and the conversation gets racially heated. (Some of the film is scripted and much of it is improvised, including most of this scene.)
In the newsroom, there are discussions of what it means to be a journalist today. And in one scene, John finds out that the TV station has been giving his news footage to the Chicago police. He explodes and eventually loses his job over it. And there’s Harold’s fascination with his pigeons, which he cares for on the roof of the building where they live.
The cameraman and his sidekick, the sound guy, are carrying the bulky equipment of the period. It’s interesting to imagine what Wexler might do today using a smartphone. Excellent films like Tangerine (2015) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012) were shot on smartphones. The Oscar-nominated The Florida Project was shot on 35mm in 2017.
Medium Cool is brilliant because Wexler, the director/cinematographer, starts with an idea and carries it out with style and intensity. Medium Cool is a masterpiece, a landmark film that never got much attention. At the time, it was given an X rating because of some nudity in a delightful bedroom chase scene. Because of DVDs (1995), you can see it today—and I recommend that you do.
You can read Roger Ebert’s 1969 review here. Rather than reviewing the film, he focuses on Wexler’s approach and technique, for reasons he explains.
My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it’s imperfect and isn’t on most best-of lists.
California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol (best known for music video and commercial production), is an homage to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories told by writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and the genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows his collection of 250 typewriters and tells us why he’ll ignore any email thank-you notes.
The five-member Boston Typewriter Orchestra plays concerts. One typewriter has “this machine kills fascists” lettered on its back, an homage to Woody Guthrie. (See a track from one of their concerts below.) They adapt Gil Scott-Heron’s This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into “This Revolution Will Be Typewritten.” They also play a cover of “Rain and Blood” by Slayer, a bit of literally heavy metal music.
Silvi Alcivar writes poetry for hire. She sits in public places, where people tell her their stories. She turns their stories into poems, which she types on her portable typewriter and presents to her customers. Sort of like the letter-writers who used to sit in public places and write letters for illiterate people. (See the 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station.)
My favorite character, whose life we follow throughout the film, is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who creates sculptures from typewriter parts. Originally from the Minnesota Iron Range, he now lives in Oakland. He and the repair shop owner mosey around street markets and fairs, looking for old typewriters that can be salvaged and sold or that are irreparable and can be deconstructed for parts. Mayer makes abstract and figurative sculptures, using only typewriter parts and bolting them together using the original screws and bolts. No soldering. He talks about the visual influence of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis.
At first he struggles to sell anything and to make much income from his sales. By the end of the film, he’s installing a major piece in the city apartment of a wealthy tech executive, and his work is being written about in Wired, Gizmodo and tech blogs. By the end of the film, he’s in India working on a huge sculpture to commemorate the closing of the last typewriter factory in Mumbai.
California Typewriter is simply a story of people whose lives are connected by their love for typewriters. John Mayer is inspired to write his lyrics on a typewriter after seeing Bob Dylan typing lyrics in Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.
David McCullough laments the loss of the typewriter’s analog process, which enabled us to see how important documents are created with redrafts, crossouts and handwritten corrections on different versions. That process was preserved as part of history, where a researcher could see the steps in drafting presidential speeches and policies.
We also learn about the history of the typewriter from a collector of antique models. The first working typewriter was developed by Christopher Lathem Sholes in 1869 in Milwaukee. Sholes and Gliddens typewriters, the first commercially successful models, did not work like later models with keys striking a roller, but even the very first one had a QWERTY keyboard, invented by Sholes.
We can equate today’s interest in typewriters to the passion for music on vinyl or the love for vintage cameras, with their darkroom and photo print features. Sometimes it seems as if the digital world gobbles up everything in its path too quickly. (I’m thinking of the worlds of newspapers and books too.)
But the love for the analog meets digital demand at some point, because a business needs it to survive today. By the end of the film, California Typewriter has a new website to promote its repair work and typewriter sales.
I recommend California Typewriter whether or not the manual typewriter was once part of your life. It’s a charming film, a romance with our mechanical past. I did write on typewriters, first manual, then electric, for decades. But when I first began writing executive speeches, with their interminable versions, on a Wang word processor and then on a Macintosh, there was no turning back. I was happy to give up the scissors and tape by which we reconstructed drafts, in favor of producing a clean version on a computer screen. My analog rhapsody crashed and burned when I turned on my first Mac.
A side note on the value of typewriters. Early in the film, we watch an auction house sell Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter—an Olivetti on which he wrote most of his novels—for $254,000.
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
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.