By Brian Hieggelke
I met Chicago filmmaker Patrick Thomas Underwood in the spring of 2014, shortly after he’d wrapped production on his first feature, which he’d shot nearby in Michigan. I remember being struck by the middle period of his “education,” when, after graduating from the University of Chicago in cinema and media studies, he’d headed off to Venice, Italy, for eight years of operatic training before returning to the U.S. to pursue film, gaining an MFA from the American Film Institute. That first feature, “The Middle Distance,” is one of only two American films in the New Directors Competition at Chicago International Film Festival and the only Chicago entry. It’s a work showing a patience and maturity beyond its writer-director’s experience and has nothing to do with Italy or opera. Instead, it concerns the universal coming-of-middle-age ritual of dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a parent. Neil, an L.A. consultant-douchebag, returns to New Buffalo, Michigan, to join the younger brother who never left, James, and James’ fiancée Rebecca in finishing up the disposal of their father’s cottage. I checked in with Underwood via email to ask a few questions.
The themes in the film are drawn from life experiences that almost everyone experiences: the death of a parent, sibling relationships and the pain and pleasure of “going home.” How much of this film is drawn from autobiographical elements?
My family had a summer home in Grand Beach, which is just outside of New Buffalo. I grew up spending nearly every summer weekend there. That’s the biggest overtly autobiographical element (aside from some of Neil’s less savory habits, but we can save that discussion for another time). My only sibling is a younger sister, and I’m pleased to say that my father is alive and well.
I suppose the film is more spiritually autobiographical than anything. I’ve always had a powerful sense of nostalgia, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that my experience of it has changed. I don’t yearn for a particular time or person or place. I long for a feeling—one which, over the years, I have slowly lost the ability to feel. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
There’s no official number of how many film festivals there are in Chicago, or even a readily agreed-upon definition of how many films and events constitute a true “festival,” but in its thirty-third year, Reeling, the Chicago “LGBTQ+” International Film Festival, is definitely one of the most resilient (and the nation’s second oldest, after San Francisco’s Frameline).
“Film festivals not only continue to be relevant, despite the onslaught of choices for entertainment,” founder and executive director Brenda Webb tells me. “In some ways, they are more relevant than ever because of their curatorial role and promotional functions.”
An example of that is how small films that debut on Netflix (not heavily advertised and hyped series) never gain social traction, there’s little conversation in the larger culture, only cold, cryptic algorithms guessing what will satisfy every given view. Webb agrees. “There may be many more choices of films to see online and on television than ever before, but given the noise of overwhelming choices, audiences need to tune into which films to spend their time seeing.” Read the rest of this entry »
IFP/Chicago, one of the city’s oldest organizations to support independent filmmakers, has kept a low profile for several years, but is about to launch an ambitious roster of programs, inspired in part by the success of May’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, presently one of the Independent Filmmaker Project’s most prominent enterprises. Other support programs and networking events have grown up around the city since their founding, such as the long-running first-Tuesdays Midwest Film Festival and more recently, the new sip-and-grip comradeship CCCP, the Chicago Creatives Cocktail Party, which IFP co-sponsors.
After three years or so of dormancy, Nicole Bernardi-Reis, an independent producer and president of the board of directors (and 2014 Film 50 subject) sees now as a time for IFP to bloom. “The community changed a lot during that time, as did the resources available to filmmakers,” she says. “Currently, the film and television industry is seeing an influx of productions and revenue due to the Illinois Film Tax Credit. Hollywood is back in Chicago. Business is booming, again. Outside productions have always been an important part of sustaining the film community in the Midwest, but they are just a part.”
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The Russian Woodpecker
By Ray Pride
While it’s never been a more fertile time to produce innovative, powerful, even poetic documentaries, the marketplace is another matter. Even a movie that cost a few thousand dollars has to find a way into the distribution pipeline, gain a little awareness, to get the attention of just a few more eyeballs at a time, maybe recoup a fraction of its cash outlay. Netflix, HBO, fantastic festivals around the world: but what about on the big screen at a theater near you? Several distributors, notably Magnolia (“Life Itself,” “Iris,” “Muscle Shoals”) and Radius (“Citizenfour,” “The Great Invisible”) are combining theatrical and video-on-demand releases for their films, but there’s so much more for audiences to explore, with only a fraction of the nonfiction getting farther than the spreadsheets of programmers and the notebooks of festival critics.
Longtime film journalist (including a stint as founding film editor at Time Out Chicago) and Chicago International Film Festival programmer Anthony Kaufman returns to the Music Box with his curatorial fervor for a second round of “Docs at the Box” in June, presenting five films that represent “the full spectrum of current nonfiction filmmaking, from archival-driven and vérité to avant-garde” each Tuesday night. Read the rest of this entry »
“L For Leisure”
As moderator of the festival’s fourth edition of “Bar Talks,” I can’t formally review what’s in store in the five days of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, but I’d like to indicate the goals of the annual “Bar Talks,” four extended filmmaker/audience conversations, especially in light of the notably consistent focus on atmosphere, mood and elusive narratives in the feature and shorts programming at the twenty-second edition of CUFF, the world’s longest-running underground film festival. The “bar talks,” taking place in the Logan Lounge at the Logan Theatre, are informal gatherings of local and guest filmmakers, with conversation the intention without the ping-pong of panel-like proclaiming. The talks may run an hour, or even an hour-and-a-half, depending on how much everyone has on their mind. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
Coinciding with the City of Chicago’s jam-packed Lake FX Summit & Expo, the seventh year of CIMMfest (Chicago International Movies and Music Festival) lavishes their most expansive, ambitious programming yet, a bold first flush of spring movie festivals (Chicago Underground) and music festivals (You don’t have tickets already? Sorry.) We asked CIMMFest executive director Dave Moore about the scope of this year’s edition.
CIMMfest, especially combined with Lake FX, is starting to look like South by Southwest, which now sprawls across several weeks in Austin.
What’s inspiring about SXSW is the vast number of creative people together in one place, allowing for collaboration in artistic pursuits as well as connecting them to help on the business end. CIMMfest should continue to grow toward those goals. Like SXSW, we support as much local art as possible while bringing in great films and musicians from around the world. In short, supporting artists and creating an inspiring weekend for artists and their fans is where we want to be like SXSW. Read the rest of this entry »
Running each Tuesday through spring, Doc Films presents “Frederick Wiseman: An Institution,” ten features from the documentary elder’s expansive library. (The remaining titles are 1969’s “Law & Order”; from 1975, “Welfare”; 1977’s 174-minute “Canal Zone”; “The Store” (1983); “Blind” (1986); “Aspen” (1991); “Ballet” (1995); “Public Housing” (1997) and 2001’s “Domestic Violence.”) Behind the effort are local film critic and Odd Obsession alum Ben Sachs, thirty-two, and his wife, Kat, twenty-six. “Like Robert Bresson or Andy Warhol, Wiseman challenges viewers to look and listen harder. His films are famously devoid of identifying titles, on-camera interviews, and nondiegetic music. In giving up these staples of documentary cinema, Wiseman achieves a profound sense of immediacy,” the Sachs write. It’s their fourth curatorial enterprise since mid-2014. Ben answered a few questions about the intentions of the series, shown entirely on 16mm.
So these particular films are from Wiseman’s substantial back catalogue?
For a while now, I’ve considered Wiseman to be America’s greatest living filmmaker. In our essay for the Doc Films website, Kat and I compare him to Warhol and Bresson; and like them, Wiseman has the power to transform hard and fast reality into something wholly cinematic. His movies, for us, represent cinema in its purest state. One benefit of watching multiple Wiseman films in close succession is that you start to look beyond the subject of each one and become more aware of his methods—how he builds individual scenes and overall structures, how he transforms real people into characters.
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The city’s most teemingly eclectic film festival attains its majority with its eighteenth edition: sixty-one new features from twenty-seven countries. Highlights include the Oscar-submitted films from six nations, including Hungary’s expressive canine fable, “White God” and entries from Austria, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Spain. New work by established directors like Ettore Scola, Jessica Hausner, Bruno Dumont and Christian Petzold are scheduled. Other highlights: “The Life Of Riley,” which may not be shown otherwise in Chicago, the final film by the great Alain Resnais, released when he was ninety-one, is another one of his meta-theatrical, semi-surrealist japes. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Kutza/Photo: Emily Oscarson
By Ray Pride
Michael Kutza could be the longest-serving head of a film festival—anywhere on earth?—but it isn’t a topic he’d ever dwell on.
One warm September afternoon in an empty boardroom in the festival’s Loop offices, the Wabash Avenue El rackets directly below and street music rises up the eight floors like the soundtrack of the opening scene of “The Conversation.” Kutza says offhandedly, “He knows five songs,” including the Flintstones theme song. “Then someone gives him a couple of bucks and he starts the cycle again. He has one seasonal one for Christmas.” He pauses meaningfully. “At three o’clock, the saxophone player arrives.”
The founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Film Festival knows a thing or two about arrivals and departures. For forty-five minutes, we dished about personalities, considered whether film festivals have changed across the decades, and what fifty years in the biz means to him. Read the rest of this entry »
“Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
By Ray Pride
Along with a hundred-plus features and shorts from around the world, the fiftieth edition of the Chicago International Film Festival includes notable appearances and master classes, including Michael Moore presenting his restored version of “Roger & Me,” a film that was nearly lost; producer-turned-online distributor Ted Hope talking about his memoir-manifesto, “Hope For Film,” and Oliver Stone, with a director’s cut of “Natural Born Killers” and “Alexander: Ultimate Edition,” a fourth version of his 2004 epic, reportedly with a warm handful of homoerotic content restored to its 207-minute duration. An Isabelle Huppert tribute will trail four features, including Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” and Claire Denis’ “White Material,” both shown in 35mm. Kathleen Turner will tell her truth, and eighty-one-year-old Hollywood Renaissance bright light Bob Rafelson will show his 1990 exploration epic “Mountains of the Moon” before presenting a master class to Columbia students, a rapscallion of a raconteur when I heard him speak a few years ago.
Notable locals include the world premiere of Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan’s long-in-the-works “Algren” bio, as well as up-and-coming local auteur Stephen Cone’s “This Afternoon,” mingling his favored themes of sex and religion. Read the rest of this entry »