The Cement Coffin: A Conversation with Geraldine Smith and Charles “Chick” Hoffman

dp convoThe following conversation occurred after our April 27, 2016 screening of The Chair (1962) and The Last Request (2016) as part of the third annual (In)Justice for All Film Festival. The panelists were Geraldine Smith and Charles “Chick” Hoffman.

Geraldine Smith is a former death row inmate who wrote two books and mentored young women while incarcerated. After her release in 2008, she founded the nonprofit organization Life Builders United, which helps incarcerated women and their children deal with incarceration and prepare for life after release.

After Charles “Chick” Hoffman graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1974, he joined the Peoples Law Office in Chicago, specializing in civil rights and criminal defense work. In 1986, he moved to the Illinois State Appellate Defender’s Office, where he represented more than 30 men and women in death penalty appeals to the Illinois Supreme Court. He also taught a seminar on capital punishment at DePaul Law School. Since the mid-1980s, Chick has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and was active in the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Campaign in the late 1990s. He also coordinated the legal efforts that led to former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuting the death sentences of all 167 prisoners on Illinois’ Death Row in January 2003.

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Charles “Chick” Hoffman (CH): This was really kind of a unique perspective on the death penalty. It’s so unusual to see something from 55 years ago, where it’s so involved with one person, their life, clemency. So much has transpired with the death penalty since then. If I could just do a brief chronology of the death penalty since then. That was in 1962, in July. In August of 1962, James Dukes was executed at the Cook County Jail in that electric chair. But after that, from 1962 until 1990, we had no executions in Illinois.

In the 1960s the DP was really disfavored. It didn’t really come back until Nixon’s law and order regime. The United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1972, it was brought back in 1976, and Illinois had its new DP statute in 1977. Under the new DP statute, from 1977 until 2011 when it was abolished, we sent 300 men and women to death row, including this beautiful lady here, Geraldine Smith, who was the first woman sentenced to death under our new statute. Of those 300 people, we executed twelve of them, all in the 1990s, by lethal injection. We sent twenty of them home from death row because they were actually innocent. 167 of them were given blanket clemency in 2003 by Governor Ryan when he determined that our death penalty system was just completely broken, and the rest got either new trials or new sentencing hearings.

I heard Peter mention at the beginning that this whole festival was kind of along the lines of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and in the context of that idea, I think the DP can best be characterized as “white lives matter.” Because it’s the starkest example of how society values the lives of white people over the lives of people of color. The DP is kind of a legacy of slavery, and most DPs and 80% of executions have occurred in the fifteen former slave states. But it’s really across the country, prosecutors are much more likely to seek the DP and jurors are much more likely to give it, if the defendant is black and the victim is white. And they’re least likely to ask for it, or jurors to give it, when the defendant is white and the victim is black. So race plays a major role in the death penalty.

A couple of interesting things, historically. The cast of characters in this film—to me it’s interesting, growing up in Chicago, I’ve been here my whole life—Donald Page Moore, the lawyer for Paul Crump, in 1972, which was ten years after this film, ran for state’s attorney against Edward Hanrahan, who was the state’s attorney who was responsible for the raid that ended up with the assassination of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Jim Thompson, the prosecutor of Crump, later on he was the federal prosecutor who prosecuted Otto Koerner, who, after having been governor, was a federal judge, and Jim Thompson sent him to federal prison for mail fraud and the typical reasons that Illinois governors go to jail.

So, that’s all I have to say. Geraldine Smith, I had the honor of representing her in the Illinois Supreme Court, which threw out her death sentence. She was released, thank God, and is now a really valued and important member of our community. So if Geraldine has anything to say, I’m going to turn it over to her.

Geraldine Smith (GS): I think it’s important that we understand the switch, and that switch is, we put a new suit of clothing on someone and we forget whether it’s good or evil. We go back to slavery and we look at the color of your skin, they put us in slavery because of it. Not because of anything we did, but because of the color of our skin. The supremacy of the whites still reigns today, because even in the courtroom, if it’s not so much the color of the skin, but who has the most money. I had an attorney that was so crooked, William “Bill” Swano. When he went down [Swano was convicted in 1991 of extortion and racketeering], the federal government was searching for all the crooked judges, he was my attorney. But he never represented me one day. But he also represented the El Rukn gang, and the money they could give him exceeded what I could give him. When the federal government came after all the crooked judges, my judge decided to use me as a human shield. “I will send a woman to death.” Twelve judges went to prison connected to my attorney. He had to have a new face, could never practice law again.

So it had so many twists to it. I was not really represented. And then my voice didn’t count. I had never been to jail, had never had any crimes or anything on my record, and yet they sentenced me to die for what somebody else said. They knew I wasn’t at the scene of the crime, they knew I hadn’t killed anybody, but it was what somebody else said to appease the beast, the hunger of that beast. So that’s how they sentenced this woman to death.

But more importantly, I was thinking about the beginning of The Last Request, the first short movie you showed tonight. And I was looking at that, this beautiful young girl dancing, and then you have this frail old woman in the cell. But the rooms are nowhere near that size. So the inhumane treatment, even though you don’t get executed, it’s the constant knowing what they can do to you. I often called it my cement coffin. I lived in that cement coffin for years. I was on death row for seven years.

And when you were talking to me earlier [referring to a pre-screening conversation with Peter Kuttner] when I first came in, you were talking about the idea that, what was the phrase?

Peter Kuttner (filmmaker, activist, South Side Projections board member) (PK): When I became involved with this project I heard a term I’d never heard before. They were talking about people coming back into society from prison, and calling them “returning citizens.”

GS: And he asked me how I felt about it, and I told him it was a two-way street. People in prison can return to society and they are now returning citizens. But for people like me, and like Mr. Crump from the film, they couldn’t make me into the thing that they labeled me. They labeled me as a dead woman walking, they called me a condemned woman, they wrote “condemned”—all those years, every tray of food they gave me had “condemned” written on it. But I refused to be that condemned woman. I refused to be something that this state was trying to make me, to make me act out, to make me become that animal in the cage. I refused to do that. I refused to take on the prison language. I refused to take on the prison action. I refused to let the state make me into somebody I was not. So in essence, when you call me a condemned woman, or you look at me as a murderer—and I know I haven’t murdered anybody, and haven’t told anybody to murder anybody—then guess what? My fight is with the state.

Because now, to prove your point, I have to stay in line. I have to stay in line with the person my parents raised me to be in the face of hardship or any atrocity that comes upon me. I had to stay that person because even now, I’ve served way over 10,000 women coming out of prison. I’ve served in one day 4100 children, and then the next year I served 3600 children. I’m doing all these things that most people out here aren’t doing. What if they had executed me? Who would be doing the work that I’m doing? I serve children coming out of the juvenile system. I just sent a portfolio like that to Chief Judge Timothy Evans, and he’s like, I did not know that this woman is over here in this broken community called Englewood doing this work. But I’m the same woman that you locked away in a cage like an animal.

And one of the most important things to me. When I first got there they didn’t have a place for a woman on death row, so they put me in this old burned-out box, and I called it my cement coffin and tried to bring life to it, to light it up, because I was determined to prove that the state was a liar. So now I’m out serving all these children and doing all these things for people, and yet I’m the first woman to get a death sentence [under the post-1977 law]. I don’t know where that other lawyer is, but I thank God that Chick Hoffman stepped up and he stayed with me all these years, for nineteen years.

Believe it or not, Mr. Crump in the movie, his word didn’t mean nothing to nobody. I was on death row, and they subpoenaed me off of death row to testify at a judge’s trial. How could my word not mean nothing in reference to me, but it meant so much at a judge’s trial? I testified at Thomas Maloney’s trial [Maloney served 12 years in prison for accepting bribes] under subpoena from death row, and I went through the torture of being in the Dirksen Building [federal courthouse] in shackles. But my word evidently meant something for his case. He got sixteen years in prison; I had got the death sentence. How do you measure good on this hand when you’re helping a white man or white woman, but it means nothing when you try to help yourself.

So the only thing that matters is that I stay the course even now. Even after spending all those years in that cement coffin, I stayed the course and I went where God needed me to be, and that’s to serve and help people.

PK: I’d like to share a little something and then I’d like to see if anyone has any questions. I mentioned early on that I’m a filmmaker, and have made my living that way for most of my life. Early in my career, when I started in documentary, I found myself in San Quentin walking across the yard with a film crew. And the first thing that happened was something that I will never forget. A prisoner from death row was in the yard at the same time we were, and everything stops. Guards, everyone shows such respect for that prisoner, for that condemned man. We lowered our heads. And it’s so ironic that people with the death penalty are being shown by the state the ultimate disrespect. What could be less respectful than ordering that you take someone’s life? And I’ll never forget that. I was honored to have that experience.

CH: The death penalty is a deliberate dehumanization, the ultimate dehumanization of people by the state.

PK: Which explains why the numbers are so different. Because of the white consciousness of people of color somehow being less—

Audience member: Animals. They described him [Paul Crump] a lot like that.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. (South Side Projections director) (MP): Yeah, they kept talking about him, and the adjective of choice was “savage.” Even his supporters, even his lawyers, were talking about how back then he was a savage and an animal.

CH: In the 1980s the Cook County state’s attorney’s office—and this is not from me, this is from a former state’s attorney, and this was published in I think John Conroy’s articles about the Burge scandal—there was a contest in the 1980s at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office called “nigger by the pound.” There was a contest to see who could get the most convictions by weight of African American defendants. That’s only 25, 30 years ago.

MP: Geraldine, I was thinking about what you were saying about how your voice didn’t matter in your case. Maybe you or Chick can answer this. It seemed really strange to me that Crump had absolutely nothing to do with his clemency hearing. He wasn’t there. He didn’t make a statement for the hearing—the lawyer reads something that he wrote separately. Was that normal?

CH: That’s very typical. We had 167 clemency hearings in 2002 when there was the movement for the blanket clemency, and none of the death row prisoners appeared at any of them. They’re not going to take them off death row to come to a hearing room. There may be instances where prisoners are brought, but it’s pretty rare. Clemency is even pretty rare these days. It’s almost unheard of outside the blanket clemencies we had here, which was really a highly unusual situation.

Audience member: I had a question. I wanted to know how is the parole board made up?

CH: They’re all appointed by the governor. I think the governor gets names, some are submitted by Democrats and some by Republicans, but I’m pretty sure the governor appoints them all.

Audience member: Because in the movie I recognized a man that I think is the father of one of my girlfriends. His name was Theodore Jones, and he was a CPA but I think he was also part of the Treasury Department of the state of Illinois. [Some info about Jones]

CH: That’s so interesting. We still have a parole board, although people don’t get parole in Illinois. They switched from indeterminate sentences, like 50-150 years, now they’re determinate sentences, where you get a certain number of years. Then you have to serve one or two or three years after you get out which is like parole, it’s called mandatory supervised release. Paul Crump was actually paroled in 1993, and unfortunately by that time he was suffering from some mental illness. He moved in with his sister, and then I believe in 2001 he was placed in a mental hospital and he died in 2002 of lung cancer.

PK: Was his novel ever published?

CH: I believe it was published. [Crump’s novel Burn, Killer, Burn! was published in 1962.] Another interesting thing when I was preparing for this—apparently there was another documentary made about Paul Crump, called The People vs. Paul Crump, directed by William Friedkin, who made The French Connection and The Exorcist. Apparently it was never shown because it was too controversial.

MP: We chose not to show that because the filmmaker later said that he thought Crump should have been executed. But it was released on DVD by Facets Multimedia.

Audience member: How many US states still have the death penalty?

CH: 31 states, the federal government, and the military have the death penalty. Nineteen states have abolished it. There’s three or four states where it still exists but the governor has declared a moratorium.

PK: Of the 160-plus that Ryan commuted, were any women?

CH: No. Governor Jim Edgar gave Guin Garcia clemency, but I don’t think there were any women when Ryan granted the blanket clemencies. After Ryan granted them, we still had the death penalty up until 2011, and fifteen more men were sentenced to death. When Governor Quinn signed the abolition bill in 2011, he just commuted the last fifteen.

PK: One more personal thing to share, and I don’t treasure this memory. Again because of my role as a filmmaker, I was in Stateville where there was an electric chair.

CH: What year was this?

PK: In the 1980s.

CH: We switched over to lethal injection in 1982, but we didn’t have any executions until 1990. There probably was still an electric chair at Stateville, but it wasn’t being used.

PK: We were in a part of the prison where there wasn’t anybody, but the room was there and the chair was there. It’s unforgettable, but not a cherished memory. I cannot imagine why we would do that. Where the death penalty came from historically.

CH: It’s always been around. The Bible, an eye for an eye.

PK: And the brothers, Cain and Abel.

CH: Although God marked Cain so that nobody would kill him. I mean, the first lesson of the Bible is anti-death penalty. I had one client executed, and that’s something that I don’t ever want to go through again. That was in 1997, a man named Walter Stewart, who I had represented for about 18 or 19 years. It’s a very surreal experience. We were in the death house pretty much all day. Walter was in a cell, we were sitting outside the cell. When it got to be around dinnertime we were all kicked out of the death house. I gave Walter one last hug through the bars, and I literally could not let go. The muscles in my arms would not let me let go for a long time. Then we went out to dinner, then we were let back in the prison but not into the death house. We were on the phone with Walter from around 10 o’clock, then midnight came. He was supposed to be executed at midnight but we were still on the phone with him at 12:15 am. It was like talking to a ghost, and then the line just went dead and he was executed.

MP: I want to ask one more question. Ms. Smith, you were talking about all the community service you’ve done since you got out, but that didn’t start then. It started when you were still incarcerated. I was thinking about that when all the affidavits about Crump were being read—breaking up fights and counseling other prisoners. And you did that, you lived that. You wrote a book. Can you talk a little about that?

GS: It was easy, but it was hard because most of my contact with the other women was through a little hole in the wall, because I didn’t have any physical contact with other human beings at that time. So I’d talk to them through that little microphone-like hole that goes through so the officers can use it. I would talk to them through that. I never did come out of my cell, so I had to get kind of creative with my movement. I have no cartilage between two of the discs in my back, so they brought me out with the shackles and everything to the doctor. I asked the doctor “what is it that you can do for my back?” And he said that the only thing was to strengthen the muscles around the spine. And I asked what he was going to give me, and he said the best thing was to walk. Well I’m in this cement coffin! I can’t walk around. So I asked him, I don’t have a place to walk, and he wrote me a prescription for a treadmill. And I forced the Department of Corrections to give me a treadmill.

So little things like that, that I was fighting for, caused the women to pay attention. How is she doing that? So I met Donald Crawford of Crawford Broadcasting, and then the very next visit we had, which was a month later, he wanted me to to excerpts over the radio. This was how the radio station played a part in it, I would do these excerpts four or five times a day. And the prisoners would be like, I’m hearing this woman on the radio—how is she doing that? That went on for five years.

I’m an account executive for Power 92 and WYCA radio. When I came out, Crawford gave me a talk show—which at this time, I can offer you guys time to talk about what you’re doing. I can give you free time to put this out there over the radio because of what I started when I was in that cement coffin. I’m dealing with juveniles. I’m dealing with mothers who are in prison. I came out of prison, and two weeks later I was going back into prison through the front door, so I’m doing a lot of things to prove what a mistake they would have made if they had executed me.

PK: Who can we really not say that about? In my mind, in my heart, every execution has been a mistake.

GS: To me, it came out to me when they executed John Wayne Gacy. I was inside when they executed him. I believe wholeheartedly that the executions started speeding up once they executed him. It caused them to execute more black men after they executed him because they thought well, we executed one of ours. And then they executed Gervies Davis, even though he says they threatened to shoot him if he didn’t sign a confession, but he couldn’t even read. And they executed this man. They have a way of tricking the mind of the public, and after that the doors opened up and a whole flood of executions came out.

PK: I want to thank you and Chick for your activism. All along, as you’re doing your work as a lawyer, you’re also working in the community to help end this. And you, Ms. Smith, you’re locked up, but you’re still acting to help people. You mentioned Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who taught us that you lead by example. The Black Panther Party always talked about leading by example. And Ms. Smith, that’s what you did inside. The other women saw you and said, well if she can do it, I can do it.

GS: And sometimes it’s hard. What they have me do when I go into a prison now is to give them the date that I’m coming, and the prison goes into an uproar. There’s pushing and shoving to get their name on the list, and they steal the list sometimes and start a new list. And I remember the day I was leaving. It was in the morning, and I think the prison did this to see what was going to happen. And they released me and I had to walk up to the gatehouse. When the women saw me, some of them started running. And they’re not supposed to run. And one lady who’s still there, she’s a lifer, she beat everybody to me. But by that time the patrol car saw her running toward me, and they gave the impression that she was going to hurt me. So she ran up to me and locked her arms around me, and her momentum staggered me a little bit. Just then the patrol car reached me and the guys jumped out and grabbed her, she had fallen all the way down to the ground and was screaming and yelling “what are we gonna do without you, because you kept them off us.”

CH: Geraldine didn’t just affect the people inside. While she was locked up in her cement coffin, she recruited over 300 churches to get active in the anti-death penalty movement, and when I argued her case before the Illinois Supreme Court, there were busloads of people who came down. Don’t ever be fooled into thinking that judges aren’t influenced by packed courtrooms.

PK: You just told me that included Reverend Moss from Trinity United, who was the one who invited Michelle Alexander.

GS: It started with the senior pastor Jeremiah Wright.

PK: That’s why I feel comfortable there. I don’t believe in any of it, but I believe in what they believe about change, about social change and how we need to help each other and make this a better place. Even if there is another better place.

CH: I want to thank you for inviting me here. I always enjoy coming out. I don’t get much opportunity to talk about the death penalty anymore.

GS: And I don’t want you to forget the invitation that I gave to all of you. Sometimes the message that we bring is more welcome among the people that it has affected. You know what I mean? And I think that Englewood is among the most known neighborhoods for what the police are doing, people coming home from prison, and the pipeline that goes into it. And I think they would appreciate knowing that even a small group like this have so much interest.

PK: We were talking about this earlier. We struggled to find places on the west side. It was easier on the south side because that’s where the church is. But they don’t have much connection to the west side. I live in Oak Park, but the church was asking me to find places on the west side.

GS: I have space that you can use.

PK: I’ll definitely share that with the church. Well, thank you Chick and Geraldine, and thank you all for coming.

Kartemquin Members’ Work for Hire: The Q&A

This is the transcript of a conversation between University of Chicago Professor of Cinema and Media Studies Judy Hoffman and Kartemquin Films Co-Founder Gordon Quinn following our April 24, 2015 screening “Kartemquin Members’ Work for Hire,” which was part of our “The Streets and the Classrooms: Educational and Industrial Films in an Era of Massive Social Change” series. It took place at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.

Introduction by Judy Hoffman: Industrials were sponsored films. They were films that were funded and made for a particular reason. And they existed from the early days of cinema—there’s nothing really new about them. When I talk about industrials, you have to think about what groups have made these types of films and what is their use.

They were made for a variety of reasons. One was inter-industry communication. Industries relied a lot on film because film could travel to all different parts of the country. So you had training films, how to work with a certain new piece of equipment, also how to behave with the equipment, essentially disciplining the worker. Information for sales departments on how to sell the product, corporate image films that spoke to who we are as a corporation, what kind of culture we are to try to influence their employees into thinking that they were part of a larger community. And there were industrial films made for trade shows.

So Chicago became a center for industrial films because we are in fact located in a particular area where there was a confluence of industry and people who came out of educational filmmaking—that was a very similar type of film. So we had people who could make these films, and we had the industries who wanted them.

There was a specific use and life of these films, and they’re what we would call today “orphan films.” They have no distribution, so they sit around. But I think they are very valuable cultural productions that talk about who we are, who we were, and how the political economy operates.

You’re not going to see a typical industrial tonight. What you’re going to see is Kartemquin Films move into making industrials, some of it co-producing with people like Chuck Olin, Dirk Wales, a number of different people in the commercial industrial area. Essentially, it was a way for us as people in Kartemquin Films to make a living so we could pay the rent and work on independent films that had very little funding at that moment in time. It was also a way to hone our craft, to be able to play with different kinds of equipment that we couldn’t necessarily afford, and it was incredibly beneficial because we met lots of different people who worked in the industry, and we got to work in situations that aren’t open to the public. We learned a lot from this experience that we brought back to our own filmmaking.

What we did for industrials was to provide the industrial film with a documentary style that lent a certain veracity to what they were promoting. So we in a sense tried to create certain truths that we felt as documentary filmmakers should be in these films, which ended up being appropriated in some way, good or evil, but were used. So we lent a certain amount of authenticity through a kind of different style and way of looking at situations. So know that you’re not seeing a typical industrial film, you’re seeing our take on it.

At this point we watched the films, then the Q&A started.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. [SSP director]: When watching these films, it’s tempting to look for the “Kartemquin touch” or something like that, and it’s unclear to what extent that exists. Can you talk about that?

Roadmap_1Gordon Quinn: It varied. In the three we saw, I would say in Roadmap to Change: The Deming Approach [about a Pontiac factory that adopts a system endorsed by efficiency expert W. Edwards Deming], we didn’t have a lot of creative control. Chuck Olin, the director, was someone that we shared some values with, and we got really interested in Deming. In Strange & Beautiful [about quality control at McDonald’s], you saw some guy’s name at the end, you know, he’s the producer. I once had to keep Judy from killing him. [laughter from audience] He did absolutely nothing but get in the way—hopefully he’s not here. But we were the crew. We were the people who shot it, went on the shoots, and then Jerry Blumenthal edited it. We edited it at Kartemquin, and Jerry had a lot of influence on the editing because the director, Janna Cosby, we became friendly with and then we pried the client, McDonald’s, away from this horrible producer. And so we kept making this same film over the next five years or so. This is the first one, this is the one we shot on film.

Judy Hoffman: I remember lots of other scenes—they were trying to develop coffee for the Hispanic market in the south and California. I just remember—you don’t understand in this one who he is, but the guy who supplies all the potatoes to McDonald’s—

Gordon Quinn: He invented the frozen french fry.

Judy Hoffman: And he’s so rich and crazy. His idea at that point was to have the second floor of McDonald’s be all french fries, and you open up a chute, the potatoes drop down, get cut, and drop right into a fryer.

Gordon Quinn: And fries were going to be delivered by helicopter. So he was just ahead of his time—now Amazon has little drones.

Judy Hoffman: It’s hard to remember what we experienced in the shoot and what ended up being in the film.

strangeGordon Quinn: There is that problem, but the other thing is that Strange & Beautiful, ok, we had more control over that. One of the things that was our principle from the beginning when we were doing all this industrial work: we did not want to sell the job. We didn’t want to deal with the client, because we were trying to do something different. So by being the crew, we didn’t have to be really taken all that seriously. We had a lot of fun on these shoots. We didn’t have to sell the job, we’d just be hired to do it.

Judy Hoffman: Yeah, and so we could work and go home and collect the paycheck and then work on our own radical documentaries.

Gordon Quinn: Our joke used to be, there’d be the excitement of getting hired, and then getting paid at the end, and if we could just cut out the nasty work part in the middle we’d be golden. But I want to get to the difference between the different amount of control we had, because in Strange & Beautiful we had quite a bit of control because we sort of figured out what they wanted. We were working with a director like we were with Chuck Olin, who we had kind of bonded with, then we edited. Jerry was editing it. And you can see his hand in the humor that is in that cut.

anaesthesiaJudy Hoffman: There were other films where we were hired because of our facility with documentary. In some ways our relationship with Dirk Wales, director of Anaesthesia for the Uncommon Surgical Challenge [about a liver transplant], we worked for his Rainbow Productions. You could hire us, and in particular Gordon and Jerry, who were doing camera and sound—I was somewhere else, loading magazines—they could trust us in the operating room, to go in there and shoot because we knew how to cover these kinds of situations. So in some arenas, even though we didn’t have total control, we were trusted, and in some ways there was a control there to shoot a certain situation the way we knew how to do.

Gordon Quinn: And we were interested. When we were doing medical films we’d get interested in what they were doing and the medical aspects of it. When we were in McDonald’s, we were in McDonald’s corporate—what I was saying was we were hired, and in two years they’d want a new version of Strange & Beautiful, so we did it over probably an eight-year period, I think we did more or less the same film. First we did it on film, then we did the next one on Betacam, and by the time we did the last one we were shooting on High 8. And every time the budget dropped—we started off at half a million dollars, not that we got it, it was the budget for the film, and every two years it would be half that. It kept going down.

Judy Hoffman: Part of the economics of it was that we all got paid. And Kartemquin, through other commercial work, we were able to buy equipment, buy Steenbeck editing tables, etc., so we were hired out, our equipment was rented—we were paying Kartemquin to use our equipment, and you would get a day rate. All of this was to keep Kartemquin afloat.

women take heart 2Gordon Quinn: Jerry had something to do with the writing on Strange & Beautiful. Janna was really the writer. We usually weren’t doing the interviews or doing the writing. That was usually left to the director. But the last film, Women Take Heart, that’s a little different, and that’s something that we still do today. So that film, about the largest study of women and heart disease ever done, until that was done, there’s this historic study, you see the guy, the Framingham study, a historic study of men, they followed them over a long period of time, it was all done on men. So all the protocols for heart disease were created for men. They didn’t necessarily apply to women. So when this hospital approached us, this doctor, about making a film, it’s like, OK, we’ll do that, even though it’s an industrial, it wasn’t for TV, it was for—this is the short version, there’s a longer version—but basically this was to explain to people the basics of what they were doing. Bill Haugse [who went on to edit Hoop Dreams for Kartemquin, among others] produced it and edited this, I shot it. We still occasionally do this. We wouldn’t use this language today, but this film fit with our mission.

Judy Hoffman: Also I’d like to point out the first film, Roadmap to Change, the Deming film, produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, it was like a combination of educational films and industrial films, and in fact a lot of these films have that kind of crossover. They’re not one or the other in particular, they intersect. Because the purpose of both the industrial and the educational film is to inform.

Audience Member 1: How many years after the Deming film did that plant remain open? [laughter from audience: the film is about the plant that produced Pontiac’s ill-fated Fiero]

Gordon Quinn: I don’t remember, but it wasn’t long. The Fiero was a huge flop. We followed the Fiero, we looked at them on the street. When you work on something like this a whole other aspect of things is opened up to you. It become a part of your life. My favorite story about Deming was, we were working with Chuck, and there’s supposed to be a scene with Deming on the floor, on the line, talking to the workers about what’s wrong, what are their suggestions. And every time, he wasn’t feeling well, maybe tomorrow, we never got to see him. He always had an excuse. And when we saw the finished movie, we finally understood. Of course. He didn’t want to be shown talking to workers about what was wrong with the plant because his view was that the problem was in the board room where he’s tearing those guys a new asshole. That’s where the problem is. But at the time, we wondered why he was being so difficult.

Judy Hoffman: I remember lots of behind the scenes stuff that we did that would never get into the finished film. That really you wouldn’t want to see. I’m not talking about the liver transplant film, I’m talking about McDonald’s, especially in the chicken processing plant where all the chickens are put into dumpsters. I mean, you’ll never eat that stuff again. We joke a lot about these films, but actually I find them really interesting as documents and as, I don’t know—they’re documentaries.

Peter Kuttner [in audience]: What’s kind of unspoken here is the history of documentary and how it changed, and the reason that Kartemquin got this work was the way that documentaries were made was changing because of the whole cinema verité, true cinema, what’s the correct term? Direct cinema? But Kartemquin was known for that, and when it changed—I started early enough so that I was on those old scripted documentaries where the script was written first and then they would tell the people what to do even though they did it every day. And this one quick thing, Gordon and Judy mentioned the trust that they built with the hospital so they could go in and shoot the liver. I was on a documentary where we filmed an angiogram, and the cinematographer felt that we needed more coverage and asked them to do it again.

Gordon Quinn: You’re absolutely right, because all of these interviews were handheld. We would walk into an office, we’d throw up a little quick light, and we’d hand-hold the interview.

Artemis Willis [in audience]: I was just going to pick up on that discussion of documentary and verité, and how much there is a tension. There’s a tension between your camera and your edits, and the, you know, the assignment. And if we look closely enough, particularly at process, I think we can really see your genuine interest in how things get put together, what’s this world around it. And there’s also a lot of visual pun in the edits: there’s this one thing in the Pontiac film where the headlight goes up and then the other thing goes up. But the interesting thing is that for some reason Strange & Beautiful feels like everyone drank the koolaid, whereas the Deming Pontiac film doesn’t. And I think it really is because you have a strong protagonist and storyline of how this transformation allegedly took place.

Judy Hoffman: We follow the whole process. It’s also an educational film.

Artemis Willis [in audience]: And also it’s very pro-labor. You’ve got this—whether it truly was, you do have this kind of thing. Whereas with the McDonald’s film, you kind of don’t have that arc and you don’t have that compelling character in it. It’s got all of these kind of schmoes all over the place. I guess my question is, how hard did you try to find some of those things to anchor it?

Gordon Quinn: What you said first about process… what I love about industrials, call them corporate videos or corporate industrials, I love process. So we would film everything. We would always film the process—how the soap got made, how the hamburger got made. But the major disappointment when we would see the finished film—I mean, Jerry cut this one—is all the process is gone, and that was always very frustrating to us.

Judy Hoffman: And these were very different films. Really, the McDonald’s film was really highly corporate. The topic is about the relationship between the supplier and the owner-operator, as well as quality control. So there’s not a character to follow, but there’s also not—it’s just far more corporate.

Artemis Willis [in audience]: Could you also just say a quick word about Encyclopedia Britannica Films?

Judy Hoffman: Sure, although I have to apologize to my students here, who have already heard this today. EB Films in some ways got their start through the University of Chicago. There was Encyclopedia Britannica that was in Britain, and it was purchased by the owner of Sears. And then there was this whole University of Chicago connection to Encyclopedia Britannica. And the formation of EB Films was partially for the purpose of creating films for the core curriculum here.

Peter Hartel [associate professor of Cinema Art + Science at Columbia College Chicago, in audience]: Altschul Films, there was EB, Jam Handy did all of the original training films. There was a huge history—

Judy Hoffman: Right, for industrial films. Handy did the auto stuff.

Peter Hartel [in audience]: He started out doing it for the military in World War 1. He actually almost invented the training film.

Judy Hoffman: I think you’re right. But to EB, the University of Chicago decided they wanted to be in the film business, then got out of it, then got back in, and then finally in the 1990s got out of it. EB Films, as opposed to, say, Coronet, which brought the studio into the classroom, EB Films was known for bringing the world into the classroom. A lot of people got their start doing work for them. EB Films got folded into Films Incorporated. The thing that was interesting about EB Films is that they produced and distributed. They had a kind of monopoly in some way. There’s a whole history, you know, William Benton, who was brought into the University of Chicago to smooth over—he was an ad agency dude—he was brought in to smooth over a scandal because Walgreen, of Walgreens, his daughter accused everyone at the University of Chicago of being communists, so they had to bring this ad agency guy in. It’s a phenomenal story that needs to be written. And I think Charles Benton, the son of William, commissioned someone to finally write a book about them. I have lots of archives that Benton gave me, but I don’t know if the book was ever finished.

Audience Member: Some of the things just seem so insane when you watch them in retrospect. I worked in spots for 20 years and it was the same way. Everyone seems so dead serious, it’s just freaky. But at the end of the day, all those people’s jobs are on the line, and when you’re making TV commercials or making industrial films and things like this, it’s dead serious because if they don’t succeed, they don’t feed their families, they don’t make their mortgage payments, they don’t pay for their cars. And so it seems insane—we live in this insane industrial world, but so much is hanging on this stuff. And it is important—it ends up being really important. But the insanity part of it almost neutralizes it. It’s really strange.

Judy Hoffman: Isn’t there something about—didn’t McDonald’s just today or yesterday announce the closing of like 800 stores? That’s a lot of jobs. A lot of low-paying jobs, but jobs nonetheless. And franchise owners—McDonald’s has a relationship where McDonald’s owns X amount and the franchisee owns X amount. When you think about all these jobs that people will lose, it’s junk food, but nonetheless it’s people’s lives.

Peter Kuttner: The training films that Peter mentioned that Jam Handy made, and Gordon talked about shooting the process, there were as many films on the training level as there were on the corporate level. So I remember spending all night at a McDonald’s making a film about how to mop the bathroom floor.

Judy Hoffman: Right. I mentioned in my intro that there were training films, safety films—these were really how-to instructional films, along with this industrials trend of let’s make a film about corporate culture, this corporate image kind of film, films for trade shows. There’s so many. If you walk over to the Museum of Science and Industry, which we used to call the Museum of Science and Ideology, I’m sure you’ll see films there now that are all really corporate films. I haven’t been there in years, but there used to be. It was all corporate sponsored, so there’d be a film about how to incubate chickens or something, and it’s done by Tyson. So you have to look at those things to be able to read how pervasive industrials really are.

Gordon Quinn: I think on some level we never took that part of it particularly seriously. Judy and Jerry in particular would make fun of me because when we were doing all this McDonald’s work, I was really impressed with how they managed things. The ultimate product was something you might not really want, but when they said quality, they meant something by quality, they meant something by consistency. It was really important to them that you’re getting the same sandwich in every store all over the world.

The other thing is you learn a lot by being in the belly of the beast. One of my favorite stories, I pointed the guy out to Judy. This is not in the film. We’re interviewing this guy, he’s head of international McDonald’s, and he starts going on about how “you know, we’re going into Japan. And you know, those people, we are going to change that country.” He said, “you know they have that short stature? Well, after we’re there, they’re gonna grow up to be blonde and blue-eyed and tall.” We were like, what planet are we on? I have nothing else to say. That can’t be topped.

Judy Hoffman: That’s part of their idea of quality control. It was really homogeneity. The postwar syndrome of lawns, the house in the suburbs, the car, the kids. Quality control? I wouldn’t quite call it that. Call it uniform consistency, rather than—there’s all of these corporate buzz-speak words that we learned about, quality control, quality assurance. The people’s council, I mean, wow. And now we have corporate speak, there are no more problems, there are challenges.

Michael W. Phillips Jr.: So who are these films for? Who watched them?

Judy Hoffman: We used to joke that they were used in torture rooms, to try to extract information out of people: “don’t show me that again! I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!”

Gordon Quinn: But that actually is a great question, because one of the challenges when we were making, for instance, Strange & Beautiful, for us and the director Janna: we keep doing this stuff, and they’d say oh, you gotta go talk to this guy and this other guy, and we could not figure out what’s the purpose of this film. Who is this film for? Finally, when we were in the editing phase, we sort of figured out what the film was for, and that’s why we made it like this. The film was both for McDonald’s suppliers, but even more important, for the owner-operators. Because they wanted the owner-operators to understand that strange and beautiful relationship. And so the point is, some guy comes to your back door with cheap tomatoes, you go to your supplier and ask why his are cheaper than yours, what can we do to work this out, because I want to still stay with you. Because the guy at your back door might not have tomatoes in the winter or whatever. So it was that trust and whatever buzzword they were using in there—that was what they wanted the film to do. But we really were clueless when we were shooting it.

Judy Hoffman: I think there’s another point to it, which is some kind of self-perpetuating situation where there are people in marketing who decide that something needs to be done so they could continue having their jobs in marketing. That’s what drives a lot of this type of film production. It’s a specific audience and purpose, but it’s also about the perpetuation of the corporate structure and purpose.

Audience Member: You said that the Fiero flopped. During the documentary, the managers you interviewed, the workers—I didn’t see any trace of cynicism at all. It seemed like they were pretty much invested in it. It’d be interesting to go back to see what happened after the letdown, the disillusionment, and maybe even find out whether Deming lost some faith in his own system.

Gordon Quinn: I don’t think he ever lost faith in his system, but that’s a really good point. One of the ironies when we were making these films is that we were also making films for unions. We were making some films that were our films about unions, like Taylor Chain 1 and 2 and The Last Pullman Car, but we were also making essentially industrials for unions. Organizing films for unions, films for AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees], films for SEIU [Service Employees International Union], films for the steelworkers, that were for them. We produced them, but they were to be used—they looked a little bit like some of these films.

Judy Hoffman: There are striking similarities. I think the term documentary, no matter what, whether it’s scripted or observational or interactive, all these terms that get argued about, there’s a lot of slippage.

Peter Hartel [in audience]: At that point, the auto industry was trying to adapt the team concept that came out of Asia actually. They were bringing it to America. I worked on the line at Detroit Diesel.

Judy Hoffman: Deming helped create that. He went to Japan for some reason [editor’s note: Deming, an expert in statistical control of processes, was brought to Japan after World War II to assist in Japan’s reconstruction, and is credited with helping to spark Japan’s “postwar economic miracle”]. What’s not in the film is the historical time period, where the American auto industry was tanking and everybody was buying Japanese cars in particular.

Peter Hartel [in audience]: But ultimately they did adopt that system and were very successful. I mean, I only buy American cars because I’m a former UAW member and I worked on the line. But it’s not just because of that. I think the American product is as good, if not better.

Judy Hoffman: There were lots of foreign carmakers relocating to the American south, in right-to-work states, that we ended up working for—Honda?

Gordon Quinn: I vaguely remember something for Honda, where I fell off the motorcycle. That was one of the high points of Jerry and Judy’s lives.

Judy Hoffman: He was tracking—he was shooting from a motorcycle and he fell off. A lot of jokes you can tell.

Peter Kuttner: It wasn’t by accident that you don’t hear any workers complaining about how it doesn’t work. I mean, part of making films is you make these choices about what to put in, and it was quite possible that were was an equal number who liked the idea, or there was even more who thought it was a bunch of bullshit.

Judy Hoffman: Exactly. We only saw in the Deming film the UAW organizing consultants. We didn’t really walk outside. In fact, there’s a kind of urban geography almost, like a situationist, where the film inscribes a certain geography. We don’t leave that area. We’re in that world, and we’re only hearing what is intended to be in the film.

# # #

This series was made possible by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Illinois General Assembly. Further support came from The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; Black Cinema House; the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Arts + Public Life, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture, and the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago; and Media Burn Independent Video Archive.

Gel Set scores Epstein’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

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Jean Epstein’s surrealist masterpiece La Chute de la maison Usher (1928, ~60 min., DVD) is the greatest film version of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest story, The Fall of the House of Usher. We realize that’s saying a lot: Americans James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber made another avant garde classic in 1928, and Roger Corman’s 1960 version is superb. But Epstein, with a little help from Luis Buñuel (who quit before the film was finished), leaves the others in the dust with this expressionist masterpiece that moves to the underwater rhythms of nightmares. The film blends the sad tale of the last of the Usher family with elements from other Poe stories, most notably “The Oval Portrait”; here, Roderick Usher’s obsession with perfecting a portrait of his long-suffering wife slowly sucks her life away. But is she really dead?

The film will be paired with a new score composed and performed live by Gel Set, the one-person darkwave synth brainchild of Chicago-based musician Laura Callier. The Chicago Tribune called Gel Set “ambient and dark, with minimal, airy vocals over hazy synths, samples, and drum machine beats,” and Bullett Media says “If Carrie didn’t go to prom and stayed locked in that prayer room writing murderous love songs through the collapse of civilization, she’d sound something like Gel Set.”

Where: Southside Hub of Production, 1448 E. 57th St.
When: Friday, October 30, 2015 at 8pm (doors 7:30)
How much: $8 admission, or $5 if you wear a Halloween costume

All of our programs are supported in part by a grant from The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Animated Folktale Films, May 21

anansi
As part of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts’s Family Saturday for May, we’re showing a fun program of animated films based on folktales and myths from around the world.

Learn how the moon came to be in the sky in the Ashanti story Anansi the Spider (1969, 10 min.), how the spirit of the sun came to the Pueblo people in Arrow to the Sun (1972, 12 min.), how a brave boy solved the problem of a frightening dragon in the Japanese tale The Dragon’s Tears (1962, 6 min.), what happened when a pesky blue jay stole the sun in the First Nations story The Hoarder (1969, 8 min.), and who won when a bunch of monkeys fought over the moon in the Chinese tale Monkeys Fish the Moon (1983, 11 min.).
Total program time: 47 min.

Where: Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.
When: Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 2pm
How much: free

Films courtesy of the Chicago Film Archives.

Revolution on Film: The Q&As

travis and peter

In 2013 we curated four screenings to accompany AfriCOBRA in Chicago: Philosophy, an exhibition of art by the Chicago-based Black Arts Movement collective AfriCOBRA. The exhibition and screenings occurred at the Logan Center for the Arts. There’s a plethora of wonderful videos and transcripts at their media page. For ease of use, here are direct links to the conversations that occurred after our screenings.

  • Textile artist Robert Paige speaks at the Logan Center for the Arts after a July 12, 2013 screening of Medium Cool, in which he appears alongside AfriCOBRA members as part of a group of black revolutionaries. Audio | Transcript
  • Poet Amaris Selah speaks after the August 2, 2013 screening “Revolution on Film: Black Power Poets” at the Logan Center for the Arts. Audio | Transcript
  • Artist and Vietnam veteran Travis and filmmaker Peter Kuttner speak after the August 9, 2013 screening “Revolution on Film: Black Veterans” at the Logan Center for the Arts. Audio | Transcript

Dharma Vision: Toward a Buddhist Aesthetics of Film, June 30

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From the evacuated compositions of John Cage to austere designs of Isamu Noguchi, the influence of Buddhist aesthetics on modern art has been well documented. Why, then, is there such a dearth of scholarship on a Buddhist aesthetics of film? Aside from writings by Stanley Cavell, David Bordwell, and others on Yasujiro Ozu, there has been little attention given to films that endeavor to translate Buddhist aesthetic concepts (mono no aware, wabi-sabi, etc.) to the grammar of cinema. And yet, it seems that the avant-garde cinema—which frequently undertakes meditative projects that elicit questions about (im)materiality, repetition, and the passage of time—would be uniquely suited to cultivate a Buddhist aesthetics of film.

Dharma Vision offers a survey of Japanese, Korean, and American avant-garde/experimental films that transcends a superficial engagement with Buddhist concepts in an attempt to ask: what does a Buddhist aesthetics of film look like, and how might Buddhism help cinema come to terms with its death/rebirth? Based on Alan Watts’s theory of yin/yang, Form and Void (John Campbell, USA, 1995, 4 min., 16mm) is a Rorschach test comprising inkblot patterns that fluidly shapeshift between strands of DNA, animals, plants, and mandalas. Similarly, Buddha Again (Takahiko Iimura, Japan, 1970, 16 min., 16mm) features a looped study of a miniature stone Buddha found in a Katmandu temple. Sacred Art of Tibet (Larry Jordan, USA, 1972, 28 min., 16mm) is a hallucinatory fever dream of neon Tibetan mythology that poses questions about the western reification of Buddhist iconography. Featuring a soundtrack inspired by the Eiheiji monks, Cinema Metaphysique Nos. 1-4 (Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, South Korea, 1966-1972, 13 min., 16mm) offers a meditation on the dialectics of movement/stillness and noise/silence. Of N:O:T:H:I:N:G (Paul Sharits, USA, 1968, 35 min., 16mm), one of the premier structuralist “flicker” films, Sharits said “I am not at all interested in the mystical symbolism of Buddhism, only in its strong, intuitively developed imagistic power… the mantra is often nearly pure nonsense.”

Where: Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan Ave.
When: Thursday, June 30 at 7pm
How much: free

This event is sponsored by South Side Projections and the University of Chicago Center for East Asian Studies.

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Stop Making Nonsense: Japanese Surrealist Films, 1960-1964

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Tokyo in the early 1960s was a breeding ground for a new wave of Japanese avant-garde art. This program surveys the landscape of experimental cinema in Japan during this moment, including films that were made by members of the famous “Group of Three” and the Nihon University cinema club. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Complexe (1964, 15 min., 16mm) centers on a man whose mundane walkabout metamorphoses into a surreal dreamscape in which manic pace of modernity is channeled via stop-motion animation and erratic editing techniques. To quote Donald Richie: “If there is any such thing as a popular avant-garde film, this 1964 picture is it.” Made with the Nihon University cinema club, Motoharu Jonouchi’s Pou Pou (1960, 22 min., 16mm) blurs the line between life and death as a group of children perform a burial ritual in an attempt to escape the monotony of quotidian existence. Takahiko Iimura’s Ai (Love; 1962, 10 min., 16mm) features erotic close-ups of fragmented body parts with sound by Yoko Ono, and Jonas Mekas likened it to Stan Brakhage’s Loving and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. Directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi in collaboration with surrealist painter Kazutomo Fujino, An Eater (1963, 24 min., 16mm) is a grotesque (and graphic) comedy about cannibalism. The film foreshadows the fusion of slapstick gags and macabre humor that would come to define Ôbayashi’s 1977 masterpiece Hausu (House).

Post-screening discussion with programmer Harrison Sherrod and SAIC graduate student Kara Jefts, who will situate the films in the larger context of Japanese avant-garde art in the 20th century.

When: Thursday, June 4 at 7pm
Where: Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan
How much: Free

Sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago.

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All of our programs are supported in part by a grant from The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

IFAFF: The Chair & The Last Request, April 27

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As part of the (In)Justice for All Film Festival, which runs April 21-30 at locations around the city, join us for a screening of two films about capital punishment, followed by a panel discussion.

The Last Request (Emanuele Secchi, USA, 2015, 5 min., DVD)
A woman sits on an electric chair waiting to take her last breath. She has been given time only to consume her last request…

The Chair (Robert Drew Associates, USA, 1962, 78 min., DVD) | watch trailer
After the murder of a security guard during a botched robbery at a Chicago meatpacking plant in 1953, Paul Crump was sentenced to death while his four accomplices received prison sentences. During the trial, Crump said that he was tortured into confessing to the murder. Nine years later, as Crump’s execution date nears, The Chair follows the tireless efforts of his lawyers to save Crump by convincing a parole board that their client is rehabilitated, at the time an unprecedented argument in Illinois. Filmmakers Robert Drew, Gregory Shuker, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker allow viewers to experience this high-pressure chain of events along with Crump, the prosecutors, and his defenders, opening a window into the politics of the American prison system.

Where: Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan
When: Wednesday, April 27 at 7pm
How much: free
 The Chair
 Directed by Robert Drew
 1962, 78 min., DVD | View trailer
Wednesday, April 27 at 7pm
Co-Prosperity Sphere
3219 S. Morgan Ave.
Admission: free

The Chair (1962) with panel discussion, April 27

Chair Crump closeup
After the murder of a security guard during a botched robbery at a Chicago meatpacking plant in 1953, Paul Crump was sentenced to death while his four accomplices received prison sentences. During the trial, Crump said that he was tortured into confessing to the murder. Nine years later, as Crump’s execution date nears, The Chair follows the tireless efforts of his lawyers to save Crump by convincing a parole board that their client is rehabilitated, at the time an unprecedented argument in Illinois. Filmmakers Robert Drew, Gregory Shuker, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker allow viewers to experience this high-pressure chain of events along with Crump, the prosecutors, and his defenders, opening a window into the politics of the American prison system.

It’s screening as part of the (In)Justice for All Film Festival, a ten-day opportunity to see engaging, life-changing feature films, shorts, and music videos in venues throughout the area. Check out the full lineup!

 The Chair
 Directed by Robert Drew
 1962, 78 min., DVD | View trailer
Wednesday, April 27 at 7pm
Co-Prosperity Sphere
3219 S. Morgan Ave.
Admission: free

Frame of Reference: An Evening with Christopher Harris, Feb. 26

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Christopher Harris’s award-winning experimental films have explored post-industrial urban landscapes, black outlaws, the cosmic consequences of the sun’s collapse, a child’s nightlight, and a theme park performance of Christ’s Passion. This program of short works is a survey of Harris’s artistic output since he burst onto the experimental film scene with his MFA thesis film, still/here (screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, February 25). Spanning a dozen years, the works comprise multichannel video installations, formalist explorations of the possibilities of celluloid, and non-narrative examinations of sexual desire, racial identity, and film history.

Stick around for a Q&A with Harris moderated by Terri Francis, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and author of, among many other things, “Between Documentary and the Avant-garde: Exploring the Visual Poetics of Ruins in Christopher Harris’ still/here (in Black American Cinema: The Contemporary Scene, 2012).

Sponsored by South Side Projections, Black Cinema House, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with “Radiant Visions: Media Art from SAIC, 1965 – Now,” a month-long series of films and artist appearances celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Visit siskelfilmcenter.org/radiantvisions for more information.

Where: Black Cinema House, 7200 S. Kimbark Ave.
When: Friday, February 26 at 7:30pm
How much: free

Program details

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish
(2014, 17 min. total, three-screen 16mm to HD installation + split screen 16mm to HD installation)

A three-channel video installation and a split-screen video installation in response to an 1850 daguerreotype of a young American-born enslaved woman named Delia, who was photographed stripped bare as visual evidence in support of an ethnographic study by the Swiss-born naturalist professor Louis Agassiz, who held that racial characteristics are a result of differing human origins. (Orlando Museum of Art)

28.IV.81 (Descending Figures)
(2011, 3 min., 16mm-to-HD)

“Footage Harris shot at a performance of Christ’s Passion, staged as an attraction at a Florida amusement park. Harris’ use of the pure filmic light continually disrupts these faux-holy scenarios from coming into being. This flimsy display of devotion is shown up by something genuinely overpowering, or at least recognizably real.” (Michael Sicinski, CinemaScope)

28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark)
(2009, 3 min., 16mm)

“A lovely miniature edited in-camera, in which Harris manipulates light around a child’s mobile so that a hanging nightlight with plastic silver stars becomes a glinting ersatz sky.” (Michael Sicinski, CinemaScope)

Sunshine State (Extended Forecast)
(2007, 8 min., 16mm)

“Somewhere in a quiet outer suburb of the Milky Way galaxy, we live our lives in the pleasant warmth of our middle-of-the-road star, the Sun. Slowly but surely we will reach the point when there will be one last perfect sunny day. The sun will swell up, scorch the earth and finally consume it.” (International Film Festival Rotterdam)

Reckless Eyeballing
(2004, 14 min., 16mm)

Eyeballing’s dominant motif is the image of Pam Grier from her Blaxploitation apex, with an unusual exchange of gazes—hers out at us, and the men in surrounding footage back at her. Harris is quite explicitly exploring the racial dimensions that Laura Mulvey left implicit (to put it kindly) within the Male Gaze question, sending Foxy Brown into the cinematic apparatus as a kind of test case.” (Michael Sicinski, CinemaScope)

Halimuhfack
(2016, 4 min., 16mm-to-HD) World Premiere
A performer lip-synchs to archival audio featuring the voice of author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston as she describes her method of documenting African American folk songs in Florida. By design, nothing in this film is authentic except the source audio. The flickering images were produced with a hand-cranked Bolex so that the lip-synch is deliberately erratic and the rear projected, grainy, looped images of Masai tribesmen and women recycled from an educational film become increasingly abstract as the audio transforms into an incantation.

About Christopher Harris
Harris’s work has screened at festivals, museums, and cinematheques throughout North America and Europe including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Viennale, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Leeds International Film Festival, the San Francisco Cinematheque, and Rencontres Internationales Paris, among others. He is currently an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Canyon Cinema.