Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Vanishing Chicago: The Nortown

A couple of Saturday mornings ago, I was in my usual neighborhood breakfast place, munching on an omelet and flipping through the Sun-Times when I ran across an article about the demolition of the Nortown Theater. It had been closed for some time, sitting on Western Avenue just south of Devon like a decaying specter of glories past. It opened in 1931. It closed 59 years later. Sometime between, I went there a few times. Not all of the times were pleasant, though.

I've told you before about my best-ever day of moviegoing. Now let me tell you about two of the worst, both involving the Nortown.

Todd was one of my best friends my freshman and sophomore years of high school, but he and his family moved out to Naperville before he started his junior year. Still, he came into town from time to time, and one of those times he suggested catching a midnight double feature at the Nortown: The World Series of Rock & Roll and Yessongs. Sounded like a good idea at the time.

It was winter. Snow had fallen (as it tends to do in winter in Chicago). The streets were a cold, damp mess. One of should have known that parking alongside the poultry processing plant at Leavitt and Grand (long since torn down and not the site of--surprise! --a condo development), with its sloping sidewalks wreathed by potholes, wasn't such a good idea. But neither of us thought a thing about any of that until we got into dark green station wagon and...went exactly nowhere. Because the station wagon was now stuck in the snow.

I got out, got behind the station wagon and pushed as hard as I could. The back wheels shot gray slush all over my jeans, but then they caught and the station wagon rolled free. Had I been even slightly sensible, I'd have gone back inside at least to change my pants, if not cancel the whole excursion. Instead, I got in the car and the trip to the Nortown got under way.

The World Series of Rock & Roll turned out to be little more than a haphazardly assembled series of music film clips, while Yessongs was a deadly dull concert film in which the members of the group barely moved onstage; I wasn't totally convinced that they were actually alive.

To sum up: I was wet, I was cold, I was aggravated, and the movies sucked. Other than that, everything went fine.

At least it wasn't the Nortown's fault (nor Todd's) that the evening turned out to be a bust. Not that time, anyway.

A few years later, another high school friend, Juan, came to town and wanted to catch a movie. After graduation, Juan had joined the navy and came back on leave. He even offered to pay. How could I refuse?

Hindsight being 20/20, we should have done something else--anything else--except go to the Nortown for a screening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

It wasn't just that I hated Temple of Doom--labored "comedy," a screeching "performance" by Kate Capshaw (which must have made quite an impression on Steven Spielberg, since he later married her), disturbing violence (a still-beating heart is ripped out someone's chest) and abundant borderline racism. (And yet, Temple of Doom has a 7.3 rating on figure.) This time, it really was the theater itself.

Since that previous trip to the Nortown, its auditorium had been split into smaller theaters, as so many older, larger theaters in Chicago were in the 1980s. The Nortown now had three screens, all with brand-new seats. And that was my problem--the seats, though new and comfortable, had been placed in rows too narrow for anyone over six feet tall. I'm six-foot-three. My knees pressed hard against the back of the seat in front of me. This was a problem.

I wound up spending the length of this movie that I wasn't enjoying in the first place with my legs stuck out into the aisle at an extreme angle that made them start cramping almost immediately. Two-plus hours later, they were stiff and sore, but that didn't stop me from getting away from the wretched movie as quickly as those stiff and sore legs could carry me. I vowed to never go back to the Nortown again.

I needn't have wasted the vow. The Nortown closed in 1990. It served briefly as a church (as so many other former Chicago movie theaters have) and a community center. For the last few years, it had been empty.

The developer who now owns the property was quoted in the Sun-Times article as having been interested in rehabbing the building, but it had deteriorated too much to be saved. For once, I don't doubt the developer's word. The last time I was up there, the Nortown looked pretty rough, though I did stop to take some pictures (including the stylized comedy/tragedy faces adorning this page). I expected it to come down sooner or later. It turned out to be later.

Even though the Nortown and I didn't have the friendliest personal history, I'm still sorry to see it come down. Our city has lost so many architecturally and historically interesting and important buildings to condo developments, so it's sad to see another structure with a unique personality and rich history reduced to dust and rubble.

At least this condo development may also include a movie theater to serve the area's large Indian and Pakistani populations. Even if the Nortown itself is gone, its cinematic tradition at that location may live on.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review: Killer of Sheep (1977)

On the long commutes to and from work, I carry a book with me to pass the time. It's not usually a novel or an in-depth nonfiction work, mostly because I read all day for a living and can't take staring at page after page for extended periods of time. (And with all the work on tracks and stations that CTA is doing these days, the periods of time are extended indeed.) Short story collections are good for such long rides, as are books that don't necessarily have to be read in sequence to be enjoyed, like Max Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide.

Lately, one of my travel companions has been The A List, a collection of essays on 100 essential films by members of the National Society of Film Critics. This is not to say that these are the 100 greatest movies ever made. In his introduction, editor Jay Carr admits "no single member agrees with this list in its entirety." How could they? Everyone has his or her own individual tastes in movies; what excites one viewer will bore another. The A List includes several of my favorite movies-- Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, Night of the Living Dead and Pandora's Box--as well as a few movies I like, but don't agree with including--Enter the Dragon (a lot of fun, but not at the top of my list), Modern Times (I'd have chosen City Lights or The Gold Rush over this) and Chinatown (probably the only film in this book that I can honestly say I outright hate).

I'm familiar with nearly every film included in The A List, either because I've seen them or at least heard of them--hell, I own copies of about half of them. But there was one title that I didn't know either by sight or reputation: Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. I had heard of Burnett and some of his other work, like the excellent To Sleep with Anger or the documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, but Killer of Sheep was foreign to me.

There are reasons for this. Even though Killer of Sheep, originally released in 1977, was selected for the National Film Registry in 1992 (one of the first films chosen, in fact), the movie has been out of circulation for years and has never been available on video, at least partly because of music rights (an issue that has held up the release of many movies and TV shows over the years, like SCTV, WKRP in Cincinnati and Witchfinder General). Burnett didn't employ a generic instrumental score, but specific songs for specific scenes by artists like Paul Robeson, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong, no doubt making it expensive to reissue.

The nature of the film itself probably didn't help. Killer of Sheep was shot in black & white and doesn't have nything you could even charitably call a plot, but instead strings together vignettes displaying life (or what passes for life) in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, centering around African-American slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his family, friends and acquaintances; it doesn't end so much as it stops observing. In a decade that gave birth to Blaxpoitation, Killer of Sheep must have been an impossible sell.

Consequently, this movie was well on its way to becoming a lost film, a fate that usually befalls much older works (including many silent films) whose film stock degenerates to dust or gel. Fortunately, though, the UCLA Film Archive, with funding from multiple sources (including my favorite cable channel, Turner Classic Movies), restored the print and untangled the music rights so that Killer of Sheep could gets its first proper nationwide release 30 years after the fact.

In Chicago, Killer of Sheep opened in the classic Music Box Theatre, and when I went to see it there it wasn't playing in the generous main auditorium (one of the few old-school movie houses to escape being carved into smaller screens), but in the smaller, more intimate side screening room. I hadn't seen a movie in that room since an ill-fated viewing of the beautifully restored print of Metropolis several years ago. I'd just come from having drinks with my best friend and the woman I was head-over-heels (or was that head-up-ass?) for. She talked about the man she'd fallen in love with (not me); I asked my best friend for his take on the situation; he told me hard truths; I cried most of the rest of that evening, and nearly all the way through Fritz Lang's silent classic.

There were no tears in the mostly full screening room this day, though--only nods of appreciation at what Burnett was going for. He wasn't trying to tell a story, at least not in the conventional sense, but to show an oppressive way of life that sucks the will and hope out of all who have to live it. Stan comes home exhausted, can't sleep and barely has the energy to talk to, much less dance with, his wife. The neighborhood children (including Stan's son and daughter) play in the alleys and empty lots, having rock fights from behind plywood shields and leaping from one rooftop to another, risking certain death if they fall.

Burnett observes the casual cruelty children visit upon one another, like throwing stones and dirt at a little girl whose only crime is that she was hanging wash on the line at exactly the wrong time, as well as the more carefully considered (but no less wounding) cruelty of adults. He also inserts scenes from the slaughterhouse where Stan works, with the Judas goat leading the sheep to their fate and the employees (including the only whites seen in the film) operating the equipment and cleaning the meat hooks

There are also moments of humor for both the young and the old-before-their-time; some of those moments are downright surreal, like when Stan's daughter walks around the house and yard in a rubber dog mask. There would have to be such moments where you can laugh for a minute. Otherwise, Killer of Sheep would be too stinging to watch.

As it is, with its lack of conventional plot or character arcs, not everyone will watch this movie and enjoy it. To some, it may just look like somebody's home movie, with its sometimes-grainy black & white photography and unsteady frame. But therein lies Killer of Sheep's strength--it looks and feels like real life, even if we know it's "just a movie."

Therein lies its continued relevancy as well. Neighborhoods like the one seen in Killer of Sheep existed in most major American cities long before this movie was ever made in the mid-1970s, and they have persisted in the decades since. (Stretches of Chicago's west and south sides still look like this now.) The photography gives the movie a timeless appearance; only the cars in the movie betray its date of birth, and even that can't be used as an exact measure.

Killer of Sheep could have been shot 20 years earlier than it was--or it could have been shot yesterday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review: Once (2007)

This is a sweet movie.

I say that without the slightest hint of condescension, even though "sweet" is often critic-speak for "cute" or "inoffensive" or "blandly pleasing." Once is none of those. It's knowing and warm and embracing; you don't really want it to end, even though you know it must.

Once is also a new brand of musical, where the people bursting into song are actual musicians. Glen Hansard plays a busker on the streets of Dublin who also works part-time in his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop. One evening, a pretty Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) listens to his music, likes it and tosses a dime in his guitar case. By coincidence, she has a vacuum cleaner that needs to be repaired; when she meets him on the street the next day, she drags the vacuum behind her like a dog on a leash. It turns out that she plays music as well, and they go to the back of a music shop where the owner lets her play the pianos for sale. They play one of his songs--tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence and, finally, perfect harmony.

The chemistry between them, both personal and artistic, is obvious, but both have been wounded by life in general and by love in particular. He still plays songs about the girl who broke his heart and moved to London; she still plays songs about the man who fathered her young daughter. Even so, they haven't given up the ability to smile at individual moments of sweetness, like when he meets her mom and daughter (and the three guys who come in to watch their TV because it's the only TV in the apartment building), or when his dad listens to a tape of his music for the first time.

Once reminded me, in the best ways possible, of David Lean's Summertime, where Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi have a bittersweet romance amid the canals of Venice. As with the city in that film, Dublin becomes a character in Once, observing the developing relationship from the background. And also like Lean in Summertime, writer/director John Carney lets us watch the two leads without making any judgments on their actions or lack thereof. Sometimes his camera shakes distractingly (Once was entirely shot on digital video, sometimes giving it a documentary look it doesn't need), but more often it presents everyone in such a straightforward, honest way that we can't help falling for them, flaws and all.

There's also the music, delicate yet durable creations full of longing and hope and, yeah, sweetness. The songs are good enough to stand alone, without a movie to justify their existence. (Which makes sense: Some of the songs had already appeared on albums before, both by Hansard's group, The Frames, and on an album on which he collabotaed with Irglova; the versions in Once lean toward the immediacy of live performance rather than the polish of studio efforts.)

I saw Once in Theater One at the Davis with about half a dozen other people. On one of the adjacent screens, Rush Hour 3 was likely playing to at least ten times that many people. (Granted, Once has been out for a while and Rush Hour 3 had just opened that weekend, but it still didn't seem right.) After the end credits had finished rolling (I stayed to make sure there was a soundtrack CD out there somewhere, and there is), I wanted to sneak over to that other screen and whisper in each and every viewers' ear, "Get back in line for Once. You won't regret it." But then I thought better, as someone going to see Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker punch and kick their way through Paris would be unlikely to want to get in line for any film that can be described as "sweet."

Maybe "sweet" isn't even the right word to describe Once. Maybe "beautiful" would be more appropriate.

Or, perhaps, both words are equally apt. "Beautiful and sweet." "Sweet and beautiful."

Yeah. That sounds about right.