Filmmakers and cities in the 21st century

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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LET EACH ONE GO WHERE HE MAY (Tiger-competition on IFFR)

Should we look at cities as transient backdrops for the filmmaker’s restless creativity or as the grounds in which the artist is firmly rooted? Chicagoan Gabe Klinger takes a look at four recent filmmakers schooled in Chicago.

In trying to uniquely situate the place from whence he hailed, the writer Nelson Algren once called Chicago a ‘city on the make’ — on the make, in this case, meaning something that seeks a higher status for itself, that attempts to rise above the others.
It has never been first out of American cities (New York City will always remain that), and it lost its ranking as second to Los Angeles decades ago. The question of what makes a city great is often measured, in relation to its density and size, by the number of brilliant people who have claimed it as their home or invested a great deal there (intellectually, economically, etc). In terms of filmmaking, Chicago has never had much of a high-ranking on this index. San Francisco, a smaller city, does better with its stable of avant-gardists and Hollywood exiles (Bruce Connor, the Kuchar brothers, and Craig Baldwin are examples). And Boston can speak to the presence of some of the U.S.’s most acclaimed documentarians (Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman, among others).
Chicago is more problematic: it’s a city of transient interest from all sides of the filmmaking spectrum. On one hand, it’s a place where big budget Hollywood movies go for tax incentives. On the other, it routinely hosts small or struggling filmmakers who temporarily seek a non-competitive environment where they can test the waters (such as in graduate school), before they move on to the next place.

Sometimes it’s the city that claims the filmmaker, not the other way around. Even if they’ve strayed away from their origins, there are some who would call Michael Mann and Haskell Wexler quintessentially Chicagoan. But the argument to the contrary seems to be that for these directors, Chicago was nothing more than a place to get one’s bearings in the world rather than a city where one makes a living or gains credibility amongst his peers. Another, not entirely distinct example can be found in the people who arrive in the city for college, derive inspiration from their community of students and teachers, only to eventually float back into another sphere. In the last decade, this has been the case for filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, more centrally in this case, Ben Russell, who grew up in California, came to Chicago to study at the Art Institute about a decade ago and has rarely stayed put since then.

For the sake of discussion, I would like to claim a few recent international examples as ‘onorary’ Chicagoans: Hong Sang-soo, Weerasethakul, Alicia Scherson (twice in the IFFR, once as a Tiger contender in 2009), Deborah Stratman (who participates in this year’s fest with walking is dancing) and Russell. Hong, Weerasethakul, Stratman and Russell are all School of the Art Institute (SAIC) graduates; Scherson received her masters from the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago, and Russell currently teaches there. In all of these instances, the filmmakers did not gravitate towards industry hubs like Los Angeles or New York, but rather came to the slower, sleepier arts environment that is Chicago to comingle with other artists who were also seeking an experiential and non-career-driven trajectory. Content in trying out different media such as sculpture, installation, and video art — a few of the strong suits at SAIC and UIC — the work of the filmmakers in question is enriched by these disciplines. Curiously, their films are also bound by their quietness (perhaps something you could very definitively say is a Chicago attribute). To elaborate: there are no obvious stabs at mastery in films like night and day (2008), syndromes and a century (2006) and turistas (2009); these are works whose traits creep up on you slowly, and unassertively, as if to say "these are some of the ideas I’m embattled with at the moment, look for a while, stay if you like, join the conversation". Of course, as self-contained pieces they are all formally precise, but part of their rigor is to also allow for the idea of being able to digress.

21st century living
Returning to the issue of cities, all of these filmmakers left Chicago after they finished college, electing to go back to their native turf to make films (Hong, Weerasethakul, Scherson), or staying to live but choosing to produce work elsewhere (Stratman, Russell). Indeed, I can think of many reasons why these filmmakers have found more aesthetic interest in other places: Midwesterners are not particularly exciting as specimens of 21st century living, and Chicago itself is aesthetically pretty diverse though the bustle of human life that concerns a filmmaker like Russell is missing in the vast urban expanses of the city. It is Suriname, of all places, that has fascinated him — after a stint living there as part of the Peace Corps, subsequently returning many times over the next several years — and which eventually led him to create his magnum opus on the places he passed through and the people who he met there. let each one go where he may (a Tiger selection this year), one of the most exciting works to emerge from any ‘honorary’ Chicagoan, is an artistic peak for Russell, who has mainly worked in short form until now (his trypps being the most notable example).

Even if one doesn’t identify as a filmmaker — Russell commented to me that he prefers to be regarded as an artist who makes films (and videos and performances) — it’s the shape of the work that defines the title. let each one go where he may is feature-length and shot on film in long, unbroken takes. In its subject matter, it nods to Jean Rouch, and in its modernistic style, it looks and feels a lot like Béla Tarr and Hou Hsiao-hsien. At least superficially, it’s because of some of these factors that Russell has been adopted by the film community, though he will likely remain in its outskirts — like Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, and many other North American filmmakers who skirt the line between art and film — because of an openness in exploring and affection for other models. This is perhaps most apparent in Russell’s curatorial work, which presents films and video pieces in alternative, non-commercial spaces, and contextualizes exhibition on his web site ( through archaic technologies such as the Kinetoscope and magic lantern (the latter is the title for a series Russell ran in Providence, Rhode Island). As curator, Russell has also taken on the role of the traveler with touring series. Making films and curating shows are activities that go hand in hand and are essential in creating the possibilities for travel. Russell has appeared as a savvy inheritor to this approach, which does not sell you on a local identity — a film movement, from a city or region, or from a certain tradition — but of a global approach to filmmaking that has the possibility to remain inexorably and necessarily intimate. The paradox is that Russell actually follows the great tradition of the Chicago filmmaker, too: looking way beyond the cornfields, exploring the world, and going (or ending up) where he may.

Gabe Klinger

Gabe Klinger is an assistant professor at National-Louis University, programming director of Chicago Cinema Forum, and a regular contributor to several journals.