Films and filmmakers: Surrealism and horror stories

This week this cineaste* had two outstanding film experiences. One was with one of my favorite filmmakers and the other was a Halloween horror story.

* Michael Phillips called himself a cineaste in the Tribune today, so I can too. That’s a little more pretentious that calling yourself a cinephile or movie nut, but I like it.

Guy Maddin, madman filmmaker

Wednesday night Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin was at the MCA theater in a Chicago Humanities Festival event. The packed house of film students and film fans hung on his every word and appreciated his frankness and engaging humor. I have loved his bizarre films since I first saw The Saddest Music in the World. The chance to see him in person was impossible to resist.


Coleman and Maddin at the MCA. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Maddin is probably best known for two films, The Saddest Music in the World (2003), a Depression-era story about a beer baroness with glass legs played by Isabella Rossellini, and My Winnipeg (2009), an homage and “surrealist mockumentary” to his hometown. He also has made many short films and creates film installations.

As I said in my Gapers Block article, Maddin looked like a perfectly normal and sane person, but I hoped that didn’t mean we were in for a quiet evening of intelligent discussion. Then Maddin said his major film influences were David Lynch and Luis Bunuel and my brain exploded. Bunuel, the Spanish surrealist, is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, I’m going to lead a discussion on his work for my film group next month. I have recently rewatched a lot of David Lynch films, including Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The Bunuel/Lynch combination is mind-bending.

Maddin talked nonstop and was sort of interviewed by Charles Coleman from Facets. The conversation veered all over Maddin’s personal bio and film viewing and film making habits. He’s a great fan of silent films and is committed to saving or recreating lost films. Coleman showed two of Maddin’s short films, including The Heart of the World. See my Gapers Block article for more about Maddin and his work.

Maddin said he’s now reading Greek tragedies, which he thought would be boring … “but they’re like Mexican comic books!” He also lately has become obsessed with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Aren’t we all?)

Confession of a diarist

I went to see Guy Maddin because I like his work. I had no intention of writing about it. (Except when you’re a diarist or blogger, all of life is raw material.) I’ve been to a couple of author events lately that I fully intended to write about and the authors said nothing of interest. (I’m talking to you, Junot Diaz. And you, Thomas Dyja and Neil Steinberg.) But Maddin started strong and never stopped. I have 12 pages of scribbled notes in my notebook and I could hardly keep up with him. The evening was exhilarating.

Halloween horror story

It was Halloween night at the Symphony Center. The audience was a little different than the everyday CSO audience. Many were in costumes and weird makeup. Many were not. I wore my everyday costume of jeans and a Springsteen shirt.

NSB-DRCALIGARI-posterThe CSO was hosting one of its special movie night concerts. The film was Robert Wiene’s 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with site-specific music performed by the punky organist Cameron Carpenter. He played a stirring score on a massive digital organ set center stage under the giant movie screen. Carpenter says he is the first concert organist to prefer the digital organ to the pipe organ. His touring instrument is a “monumental cross-genre organ” built to his own design specs.

The film, which I’ve seen several times in the past, was a marvel to see on the big screen. It’s dazzlingly expressionistic with jagged lines, angled shapes, trees with spiky leaves, tilted walls and windows. It’s black and white, of course, but tints suggest daytime or night. The distorted sets are obviously two-dimensional, rather than real sets, but the effects are remarkable for the time.

The Dr Caligari story is about madmen and murder, delusions and deception. The expressionistic visual style surely paved the way for films like Metropolis, Nosferatu and M and inspired filmmakers like Fritz Lang and F W Murnau.

There must be different cuts of the film because its length is variously listed from 50 to 67 minutes. The CSO version was about 65 minutes. This version of the film on YouTube is 51 minutes.

In researching this, I also found a valuable archive of silent films in the public domain. Check out some you’re familiar with and find new ones, maybe even some of Guy Maddin’s lost films.

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“David Bowie Is” is fabulous:


Signage at the MCA gallery entrance. Photo courtesy MCA.

The new David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art deserves its hype. It’s a comprehensive, expansive look at the career of a man who was a singer/songwriter, musician–and far more.  David Bowie is a painter, actor, writer, designer, composer–and most important, a man who knows how to develop and maintain a brand.

I reviewed the exhibit last week for Gapers Block, so take a look. My review also appears here on

Among the fascinating displays of Bowie’s art, designs, music and costumes is a large video display of his 1972 appearance on the BBC performing “Starman” wearing makeup and a colorful quilted fitted suit. His fans loved it and others were outraged–by his appearance as well as by what was seen as inappropriate behavior with his guitarist Mick Ronson. Here’s the same video. Don’t get excited. It’s not R rated, by any means. Great song, though.

Bowie hasn’t played a full concert since 2004 when he underwent emergency angioplasty after a concert in Germany. He often performed in Chicago during his touring years. One outstanding series of Bowie Chicago performances was the full month of August 1980 when he played the lead in the play, The Elephant Man, at the Blackstone Theatre. You can see a scene from that play in one exhibit area at the MCA.

Patrick Sisson’s article in the Reader tells about that month that Bowie called Chicago home…and describes some of the places he visited and people he spent time with while he was here.

Finally, here’s a video about the Bowie exhibit that’s a good visual intro. It’s an exhibit you should not miss.

Peter Hook at the MCA: Punk lives on

It was one of those nights I’m glad I live in Chicago …. Peter Hook, bass player of the post-punk band Joy Division, has written a book about the concert and touring life of that band: Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (It Books, 2013). Hook and Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro music venue, carried on a lively discussion about that book and the life of the band the other night at the MCA theater. (That is really a nice space, by the way. Excellent acoustics and not a bad seat in the house.) The event was a sellout and the audience was mostly made up of young people (way younger than me, that is). It’s good to see that Punk Lives On.

Joy Division was highly influential in alternative rock and surely made an impression on bands like U2, Radiohead, REM and the Killers.  Joy Division played for only a few years when their lead singer, Ian Curtis, died in May 1980 just before their first US tour. The band members reformed later as New Order.

Unknown Pleasures also was the name of the band’s debut album. Hook talked in his strong Manchester accent about how the band toured around England with makeshift equipment in a broken-down van. “It generally tends to be the bass player who drives the bus,” Hook said. He observed that the bass player is often the archivist as well, which is why Hook had a collection of ticket stubs, setlists, posters and other memorabilia that appear in the book.

Hook tells about seeing the Sex Pistols as a teenager (at a famous gig in Manchester) and thinking two things: “The first was: I could do that. Because, fucking hell, what a racket. I mean, they were just dreadful; well, the sound was dreadful. “ Punk is all about capturing the spirit, Hook said. Even if it’s sloppy.

Here’s a short interview with Hook by Kimberly Austin of the Rock Book Show.

You also can see Joy Division perform a couple of their best-known songs: “Love Will Tear Us Apart”  or “Transmission”