Archive for November, 2011

PostHeaderIcon When Movies Mattered

chi filmsWith the 47th edition of the Chicago Film Festival just ended, a new biography of legendary film critic, Pauline Kael, now in stores and the wave of holiday blockbusters about to break, it’s a good moment to write about movies.

As a location for movies production, Chicago has been a favored movie town since the mid-1980s. Many films, ranging from John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” and “The Untouchables” up to “Batman” and the recent “Transformers 3” used the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks as stunning visual backdrops.

For filmgoers who want to see serious films (made for adults rather than 14 year-olds), however, the situation is not as rosy. Compared  to New York and Los Angeles, the country’s two film capitals, Chicago remains an also-ran. The Chicago Film Festival in October and the Siskel Film Center’s European Film Festival each March are indispensable for staying in touch with new and established international filmmakers. The Music Box, Century Landmark and Facets Multimedia do a fine job screening the cream of the foreign and indie crop but many worthy films languish lacking distribution and never reach the Midwest.

Chicago excels, however, in its long roster of top-flight film critics; one, Roger Ebert, enjoys a reputation that spans the globe. Over the past year, The University of Chicago Press, in a gesture worthy of a publishing Oscar, has issued books honoring three of the finest—Ebert, Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

David Kehr's book

David Kehr's book

Kehr and Rosenbaum’s books collect a generous sample of past reviews and essays in hardcover, according them a well-deserved second life. These two critics revisit an era (roughly 1980 to 2005) radically different from the present, providing Chicago moviegoers, especially those born after 1980, with valuable historical insight on that period’s directors and cinematic high points.

My own awakening to film with foreign films by now-iconic directors occurred in the 1960s. That was a period many consider cinema’s “Golden Age.”  From the age of 17 to 35, I spent countless hours in the dark at Greenwich Village and Upper West Side movie houses in NY and at the American Film Institute theater in D.C. catching each new release by Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. This was also the period when a new generation of daring American filmmakers—Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme—made groundbreaking films. Movies then seemed more important. We went to see them, argued over them and formed personal opinions about their worth, a rarer feat nowadays.

A Changed World

Kehr and Rosenbaum pick up the action one generation removed from that cinematic renaissance. Reading their books makes one aware how much film culture has changed in the interval since my youth. Both critics spill much ink analyzing movies from the director’s perspective (according to French auteur theory at the time, the director is a film’s most important player)

Today, the focus turns on the opening weekend’s box-office receipts. In place of once lengthy essays, many critics now dash off capsule reviews or cast thumbs in judgment. And the internet has produced what Rosenbaum says is not two versions (paper vs. online) of criticism but two separate enterprises.

During earlier times, critics at major papers and magazines enjoyed wide sway with readers and studio execs. Ebert began his career at the Sun-Times while the appearance of alternative weeklies (like The Reader) opened the process to newcomers like Kehr and Rosenbaum at The Village Voice in New York and abroad.

Kehr, the Reader’s first film critic from 1974 to 1986, enjoyed the luxury of editorial space, allowing him to write long-form essays, a practice Rosenbaum, his successor, carried on until 2008.


Jonathan Rosenbaum

Only specialized film journals carry lengthy critiques today. Kehr laments that more than words have been lost. “When a format disappears, sometimes a way of thinking disappears with it.” Rosenbaum thinks that while cinema, meaning the viewing of films in movie houses, is dying, the current explosion of movies and criticism on the internet or in DVD form (“cinephilia”) can be a welcome development.

While the two critics wrote for The Reader, I often found their choice of films too esoteric and their writing too insider for my taste. Yet, as I read both Kehr and Rosenbaum decades later, I realized that the fault lay mainly with my less-advanced  knowledge of film figures and technique back then.

Some of the most satisfying moments came when I discovered my highly favorable opinion of the 1977 film, “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000” was shared by Kehr or my admiration for four prominent directors, Jean Renoir, Alain Tanner, Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme was reinforced.

Rosenbaum’s writing is the more challenging writer. However, essays such as “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia”, “The American Cinema Revisited” and “Film Writing on the Web” contained many cogent observations. To be fair, I’ll let Ebert have the last word. He calls Rosenbaum “a great film critic and I’ve learned so much over the years from his wise writing.”

An Inspiring Cinephile

Roger Ebert_a_p

Roger Ebert

Ebert has long been recognized as one of America’s top film critics. Unfortunately, his health travails have dominated news in recent years. In his new anthology, “The Big Movies 3,” the qualities that earned him a Pulitzer Prize are on full display: a love for movies of every stripe, an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, an amazing ability for visual detail combined with articulate writing delivered in a conversational tone.

For this volume, as with the two earlier titles in the series, Ebert, every two weeks, sat at his table and crafted 100 new essays, all while undergoing chemotherapy treatments; a true profile in courage. I’m sure viewing the DVDs of these favorites a second or third time energized him.

These 100 are not the greatest films of all time, he claims, since he finds such lists “foolish.” Rather, they are movies to which he reacted passionately. He brings each film to life, casting his net as far back as the 1936 “My Man Godfrey” and up to the recent “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

The essays’ value lies not only in helping us relive our own memories but in supplying a handy Netflix list of memorable films we missed on the first go-round.

My shopping list contains Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”, Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight”, Renoir’s “The River”, Kenzi Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” and Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “Me and Orson Welles”.

While I intend to catch some holiday releases in the Cineplex over the next six weeks, staying home with a good bottle of wine or champagne watching those classics work their magic may be the better choice.

Check these out:

Roger Ebert—The Great Movies III

Dave Kehr—When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade

Jonathan Rosenbaum—Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition

All published by University of Chicago Press,

Note: Readers can rent these titles from the publisher in e-book format for 30 days viewing for just $7.

PostHeaderIcon Humanities Tackle “Tech Knowledge”

TechKnowledgE 4

Photo by Jason Pickleman

The years from 1984-1990 were especially fertile for big cultural ideas in Chicago. I can’t pinpoint what was in the air at the time. But it gave rise to three festivals that have gone on to become vital, civic-boosting traditions. Each is now an eagerly-awaited annual event on the city’s calendar. I’m referring to the Printer’s Row Book Fair (1984), Art Chicago (1985) and the Chicago Humanities Festival (1990).

The first two festivals are celebrated each Spring while CHF, now in its 22nd year, is as much a part of October/November in town as autumn leaves, Halloween and Thanksgiving. For me, Thanksgiving actually arrives on the first weekend of November. I revel in the chance to gobble up the rich stew of stimulating opinions offered by leading speakers from around the nation and globe on an organizing theme.

The theme this year is Tech Knowledge. We all are aware how technology has impacted our daily lives. As Matti Bunzel, the festival’s director, states, “Every week something becomes obsolete. Facebook has replaced face time. Books are dead. Even the World Wide Web is in danger of becoming old hat as mobile applications make technology ever more portable.”

Trying to make sense of it all and its impact on our culture (less than a month after the death of tech hero, Steve Jobs) is a theme that is highly topical and around which Bunzel and his staff have programmed more than 80 events. For me, the Chicago Humanities Festival is a semester of post-graduate education packed into 14 days.

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

My contribution to your time management and wallet is to pick a personal Top Ten that I think will prove rewarding.  That’s most rewarding for me. So don’t treat this list as gospel but more of a handy roadmap. I won’t be going to “Technology in Sports” or “Lend me Your (Bionic) Ears” if that helps you see where my bent lies. Deliberately missing are the star events such as Laurie Anderson on November 2 or Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Franzen on November 6.

Here then is my personal Top Ten list. The program number is in parenthesis to help you in ordering tickets. The list is organized chronologically.

  1. Guns, Germs & Steel—Jared Diamond   Nov. 3 (301)

Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of that title, highlighted technology’s role in human history and the rise and fall of civilizations. His talk will address our place in history and where technology may be taking us.

2. The Next Level: Gaming, Testing & Education’s Future-Nov. 5 (400)

James Gee is an education innovator who sees video games having a valuable educational purpose: providing an immersive experience where kids navigate technology to acquire knowledge and solve problems in a way appropriate to our digital age.

3. The Breakup 2.0   Nov. 5  (404)

Ilana Gershon, an anthropologist, discusses how new media affect our behavior in our intimate relationships.

4. Grand Pursuit—A Conversation with Sylvia Nasar   Nov. 5 (408)


Sylvia Nasar

My guilty pleasure selection. Nasar is the author of A Beautiful Mind,” the biography of tortured mathematical genius, John Forbes Nash. Her new book examines the making of modern economics.  In light of recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations aimed at the inequities of economics, which have been mobilized via digital technology, this may not be tangential to the topic at all.

5. Tomorrow’s History      Nov. 5    (411)

New digital technologies have shifted original research to online archives and new tools have created immersive presentations for the classroom. David Staley, head of Ohio State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, talks about how history will be researched, written and taught in the future.

6. CSI:Picasso                  Nov. 6   (501)

Francesca Casadio is an art detective who has solved many mysteries. She will speak about her latest quest, using cutting-edge technology, to solve the mystery of Picasso’s paint.

7. A Jane Addams for the Digital Age Nov. 6    (510)

That is what Virginia Eubanks has been called. A scholar and political activist, she will reflect on her 10 years organizing for high-tech equity for poor and working class families. Does our electronic playground increase inequality and thwart social justice?

8. New Frontiers in Journalism   Nov. 9   (602)

David Carr

David Carr

New York Times’ media columnist David Carr probes how journalism will be transformed—not only its business model but how the news will be delivered in the future—with two Mother Jones editors.

9. Sherry Turkle: Alone Together   Nov. 11  (605)

Noted MIT psychologist and sociologist Turkle studies the relationship between people and technology. Is our fascination with technology degrading our appreciation of authentic encounters and human relationships?

10.The Book: Past, Present and Future   Nov. 12  (704)

Is the book dead? What happens next for bound volumes?  Anthony Grafton, a leading historian of the book, addresses whether the future holds a utopia of an entire world library at our fingertips or anguish at the loss of this iconic artifact.

That’s my ten. But I see I’ve left out City of the Future, A Personal History (and Future) of the Electric Guitar and Serious Play: Meaningful Video Games. Make plans and allot enough time to attend a range of programs to experience the festival’s full, stimulating flavor and get updated on technology’s ever-increasing impact on all aspects of society.

For non-Chicago readers: Don’t you wish you lived here?

To purchase tickets to the 22nd Chicago Humanities Festival, go to or call their office at 312-494-9509.