Burned Out: The Nitrate Legacy

Sabotage_NitrateAlfred Hitchcock frequently cited Sabotage as the film that forced him to refine his technique: suspense above all—or at least, up to a point. It was a mistake, he later reckoned, to mix suspense too closely with sentiment, to tighten the noose while remaining indifferent to the neck. In the film’s most (in)famous sequence, a bomb explodes on a London bus, the work of a terrorist who plants the device on an innocent boy. “I broke the rule,” Hitchcock said, “that the hero is always rescued from danger at the last minute … There were yowls of protest from everyone, especially the mothers.”

This fatal indifference is actually crucial to the effectiveness of Sabotage, which possesses a straight-ahead ruthlessness that Hitchcock’s other British films generally lack. There’s no time for music hall routines or local color here. Not that Sabotage lacks for black humor. All this bus hubbub unfortunately overshadows a wicked irony embroidered into the script; when the boy climbs up to the bus, the operator stops him and informs him that he cannot bring two reels of nitrate film onboard. It’s flammable, after all. Continue reading

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The True Story of Tinted Talkies: An Interview with Anthony L’Abbate

ONE HOUR WITH YOU 002Our new season begins on Wednesday with One Hour with You. If you’ve never seen it, you have a wonderful, adult, emotionally resonant musical to look forward to. If you have seen it before—say, on Criterion’s budget-line Eclipse DVD or in a 16mm print at the old LaSalle Bank Cinema—you haven’t really seen it either.

That’s because Universal’s 35mm print is tinted. Derived from a restored negative from UCLA Film and Television Archives, this version doesn’t include any new scenes, but around half of the footage is tinted sepia or lavender. (The remainder of the film is black-and-white.) That makes the print unusual in 2013, but hardly so in 1932. Continue reading

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Western Vernacular

Lone Ranger
The Lone Consensus
For box office watchers, last month’s failure of The Lone Ranger offered an opportunity for city slicker schadenfreude and quick-draw conclusions. Boasting a combined production and marketing cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million, The Lone Ranger has no absolutely chance of turning a profit or kick-starting a new summer franchise. Nevertheless, its failure hardly imperils the future of its studio, as prior runaway productions like Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate once threatened to do. Industry consensus says that Disney will simply take a nine-figure write-down and steer clear of committing that much money to an unproven brand again, at least for a while. (The same lesson was presumably learned last year in the wake of John Carter, but The Lone Ranger had already left the station.) Continue reading

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What Makes a Print Archival?

Early on in my career as a film exhibitor, I fielded a straightforward and slightly irate question from an audience member. The night before, my college had screened a rare Maurice Tourneur film in a soft, middling 16mm print, which we had advertised, correctly, as an ‘archival print.’ Shouldn’t an archival print look better than that, he wondered? Shouldn’t it look, if not wonderful, at least good?

The answer I fear I gave this man, tautological but also correct, was that an archival print simply meant a print obtained from an archive.

Film Vault

Archival prints are special, but if programmers hope to train audiences to salivate at the mere words, they have another thing coming. The fact that a print can be described as archival doesn’t necessarily translate into a more luminous or detailed image, a scratch-free print, or, for that matter, a better movie. In truth, the real distinction comes down to the fact that the programmer probably had to negotiate for the right to screen the print, document the venue’s film handling workflow, attest to a sterling record with borrowing similar artifacts for peer institutions, and sign an intimidating loan agreement. This compared to the relatively simple process of booking a film from a studio or an indie distributor, which can often be accomplished with a simple phone call. It’s an inside-baseball commendation, a process-oriented triumph whispered about by fellow connoisseurs. Continue reading

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Lance Henriksen and I

Guest post by Alexander Bohan

Thanks to Chicago filmmaker, projectionist, film historian and NW Chicago Film Society volunteer Alexander Bohan for sharing these scans of Lance Henriksen’s copy of the Dead Man script (click on the thumbnails to enlarge), and for sharing his experience getting to know Henriksen through his films and in person.


As an adolescent I became engrossed with the travels of Captain James T. Kirk and the Enterprise, the novels of Verne and Welles, and the absolute wonder of cinema that is 2001: a Space Odyssey. But as I grew older I began to see how my beloved films were used to convey the larger questions of life, namely, what does it mean to be human?

Lance Henriksen has devoted his life and his craft to answering this question. Henriksen is perhaps best known as the sympathetic android Bishop in James Cameron’s cinematic comic book – Aliens. Bishop exuded a boyish-like curiosity paired with an unexpected air of innocence and inexperience while being very intelligent and observant; like me, he too was naturally curious and yet socially guarded.
deadman-byrd-hurt-wincott-henriksen-1 Continue reading

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Sylvia Sidney: A Lovely Crook for Reforming

Thanks to Neil Cooper for sharing this clipping with us.

Miracle Man_Sidney_Morris

Miracle Man

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How Many Reels Is That One Again?

13A_Heat LightningWe’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but can we draw any conclusions about a movie from its running time alone? More than just numerical data, a film’s running time often offers substantive clues to its presumed audience, production circumstances, and formal strategies. Speaking personally, I tend to be suspicious of any film longer than 75 minutes, unless it has the reckless chutzpah to exceed 160.

Our Wednesday feature, Heat Lightning, illustrates this doctrine perfectly. It lasts a scant 63 minutes, and boasts richer atmospherics and more finely-drawn major characters than many movies twice its length. Heat Lightning is economical in its construction, but also terse, blunt, and sketchy in its poetics. (And another bonus: for a programmer’s balance sheet, the fleetness of a short feature like Heat Lightning also translates into substantially reduced shipping costs—one clunky 35mm Goldberg shipping canister rather than two.) Continue reading

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Chicago Cinema and the Glass Ceiling

Talmadge_SimplexMacho Criticism (From the Seat of His Pants)
Last week WBEZ’s Alison Cuddy interviewed our Executive Director Becca Hall about ‘Chicago’s stunning lack of female film critics and abundance of female film programmers.’ This disparity should be readily apparent and familiar to any sentient person, but its roots and effects merit further discussion.

For better or worse, the dialogue undergirding film culture, here and elsewhere, is usually set by men. It’s something that you can feel acutely when reading a rave review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s hateful exercises in macho posturing or watching the contrived critic’s roundtable on the Pulp Fiction Blu-ray. (In the latter, Stephanie Zacharek provides a voice of reasoned dissent as the middle-aged boys club recites their favorite quotable moments from Tarantino’s anal anxiety breakthrough.) When critics try to address these issues head on, they often make matters worse, as when Mike D’Angelo stuck a blow against “robotic objectivity” in a recent Cannes dispatch. D’Angelo proudly attributed his preference for Blue is the Warmest Color over Behind the Candelabra to the fact that he’s “a straight male who’s indifferent to guy-on-guy action but had to keep adjusting his pants during the lesbian picture.”

The world of film critics (and film enthusiasts generally) suffers for its gender imbalance, much like related subcultures like record collecting. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, where the insular atmosphere discourages many women from participating in the first place. Continue reading

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Searching for Efraín Gutiérrez – An Interview with Chon Noriega

AmorChicano_PosterMuch has been written of the enormous strides made by genuinely independent cinema in recent years. In 2004, nearly every review of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation cited its “budget” of $218 and touted its desktop iMovie roots as a harbinger of things to come. Theatrical distribution for no-budget personal documentaries didn’t last long. YouTube would launch within six months.

Nevertheless, digital moviemaking has been embraced as a uniquely democratic avenue, the kind of game-changer that fundamentally alters who makes and consumes media. The ease of digital production and dissemination cannot be denied, but neither should we assume that the film era presented insurmountable barriers to entry. If anything, the disappearance of analog workflows makes the achievements of the past all the more impressive. How did aspiring filmmakers ever master exposure, A/B roll cutting, synchronization, and magnetic sound recording? These technical hurdles were real, but they hardly stopped a flood of alternative media, dissident art, regional filmmaking, and genuine oddities from reaching the screen.

Efraín Gutiérrez is one of the least likely, most bewildering figures of the celluloid era. With minimal capital and technical experience, Gutiérrez managed to produce and distribute three features and one short film in the latter half of the 1970s—the first films to depict the Chicano community from the inside. The details of Gutiérrez’s career became the stuff of legend, particularly after the filmmaker’s 1980 disappearance. Some speculated that he’d been a drug runner or a hit man and financed his films through illicit means. The sympathetic critic Gregg Barrios made a case for Gutiérrez as a pioneering Chicano filmmaker while acknowledging the consensus view that his films were “sexist and racist diatribes that should be ignored and forgotten.” Continue reading

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The Anti-Restoration of Portrait of Jason: A Conversation with Dennis Doros

POJposterWhen Portrait of Jason opened in 1967, there were no LGBT film festivals. Major newspapers and respectable citizens referred to gays and lesbians in appallingly derogatory language. Civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin had been shunted to the sidelines by Adam Clayton Powell, for fear that this homosexuality would undermine the movement.  To be black and gay meant a life on the margin of the margins.

And here was Jason Holliday talking for nearly two hours about his brave, bawdy life before the camera.

There was some precedent for Portrait of Jason in Andy Warhol’s flurry of talkies, particularly the Ron Tavel-scripted Fire Island gabfest My Hustler. Warhol also made film portraits of uncomfortable intensity—Edie Sedgwick going about her daily business in The Poor Little Rich Girl, for example.

The debt to Warhol is economic and logistical, not just aesthetic. The unprecedented mainstream interest in Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls strained the passive distribution capacity of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which booked mostly college showings and underground establishments. To break into first-run theaters coast-to-coast, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and Louis Brigante created the more commercially-minded Film-Makers Distribution Center. Portrait of Jason would be handled by the new FMDC, a potential cross-over hit in an era when Hollywood had largely missed recent upheavals in American taste. Holliday even cut a comedy LP. Continue reading

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