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Chicago Film Diary-Dispatch: A Weekend in Two Eyes 

Friday 11/22 

3:39pm 

Bus late. Missing Three Times. NK 

Bus pulling into Chicago. The skyline shines in the pitch-blackness and I’m reminded of the weirdly digital helicopter B-roll of Twin Peaks: The Return. Bright yellow windows wrapping around an invisible axis 500 feet in the air. And we’re hurling towards it at 80 mph. (Our bus driver was aggressive on the road) —MB 

 

8:15pm 

It’s hard not to think of News from Home and no no sleep while riding the train, despite the fact that New York is a thousand miles away and Tokyo five thousand more. Akerman’s film teaches me to feel the rhythms of the train and the modulations of its riders shifting quietly, almost automated. Tsai’s video, on the other hand, is an impossible vision of a mechanical eye, one train filming another as it flies through the Tokyo skyline, a steel ghost with windows glowing as it worms through the air above the city: green yellow fluorescent grey. Akerman sees how the train directs its passengers and the emptiness around them. Tsai sees the train directed by its city and the still things it speeds past. —NK 

We stand across from the sliding door and watch Chicago go by. The city as self-portrait. News from Home. I always think of Akerman’s reflection on mother-daughter relationships when I’m in a big city. Not only the sense that I’m being dwarfed by a city too large to notice my arrival, but because I’m making my mother worry too. She hates big cities and hates Chicago most of all. Staring at my reflection in the train door window. Maybe I should take a video of it, to send to my mom, to show her I’m safe. —MB 

Can no sleep kill you? 

 

Saturday 11/23 

4:20pm 

Nate says I’m mumbling and he can’t hear what I’m saying. I swear I’m not mumbling, he just isn’t listening.  —MB 

 

4:45pm 

Gene Siskel Film Center. Yesterday’s showing of Three Times was cancelled. —NK 

We get distracted by posters in the lobby (Daisies, Kenneth Anger, Lauren Bacall) and walk into the theater late.

The man sitting next to me laughs through the whole movie. A henchman throws his wife to ground in a fit of rage, the people behind me gasp, and he just chuckles to himself. At one point, Nate whispers something in my ear and the man shushes him, giving us a death glare. I feel embarrassed until that same man falls asleep a few minutes later, snoring in the front row. —MB 

Alibi (Roland West, 1929) An early sound crime melo (with some footage missing) that’s worth seeing for uncomplicated reasons: beautiful matte work and flashy set décor; an undercover drunk; a nightclub dance with a dozen mirrors; lots of stage sweat; and a sexy male lead with an expressive Horus face and long, nervous fingers. Worth studying the bag of tricks on its soundtrack: gags (a talkative bird); background noise that sets the mood (a ticking clock); sonic geography of the city (a network of policemen tapping nightsticks against street lamps to call for backup block-by-block); dialogue obscured for suspense (police silently whispering as they sneak into a house, police mumbling to put the heat on an illegally detained interviewee); soundscaping (the prison march-tap of the opening credits); and more song and dance that you might want in a cops-and-robbers movie—to my taste, for the better. But it’s nothing like a classic. Auteurist pedants will note that, unusual for the time, the director-producer credit ends as well as begins the film. —NK 

The movie, Alibi, was pretty good. An early sound film about cops and robbers, interesting for its pro/anti-cop rhetoric and the cacophony of sounds throughout. The city is loud at night. We realize it’s not that I’m mumbling more, the volume of my voice is the same, it’s that Chicago-level background noise drowns me out. —MB 

 

8:33pm 

If Yellowstone ever erupted again it would cause another ice age, I hear someone say on the Red Line. Wyoming, Montana, and surrounding states would be obliterated immediately. Then the ash would be thick enough to block out any sun for half the planet. At least. “I heard that a while ago, she says, “but it was so upsetting I forgot about it.” Thinking of the end of the world, they discuss Bird Box (“Red Box?” one of them stabs at the title) and how “Netflix films” aren’t as good as “regular films” though some are “well done,” like Gerald’s Game. —NK 

 

8:46pm 

We end up in Wrigleyville for dinner and debate on whether we want to stay for the midnight movie at the Music Box, Santa Sangre by Jodorowsky, but Endless Poetry is still a sour taste in our mouths. Instead, we go to a barcade. —MB 

The jazz club that played “Rhapsody in Blue” for Al Capone has a pricey cover so we pivot a few doors down to the arcade with a skyscraper-shaped Metropolis poster and a handful of games made from 80s movie franchises. We decide to try them all, though even the easiest video games are too hard for us. —NK 

The drinks are expensive, but the games are free. We play every one based off a movie: Rambo III, Terminator 2, Aliens, Die Hard, Robocop. I’ve seen none of them so any movie tie-ins are lost on me. —MB 

Rambo III (Taito, 1989) An all-green color scheme and extremely easy, fast-paced shoot ‘em up gameplay. The first level is conventional, but the second level has an interesting use of multiple planes of action, though its mise-en-scene is incoherent. Both levels offer only explosions, whack-a-mole murders, and militaristic mass destruction (Enemies were cleared!) kept intentionally senseless and vaguely genocidal. In other words, the Rambo brand.  

Molly points out a typo in the game’s instructions: Make extra precation.

Aliens (Konami, 1990) An intense red-blue color scheme and crowded industrial backgrounds exist mostly to highlight the game’s real selling point: delightfully strange, nasty, and varied monster design. Its strobe-lit alien web of human prey might even outdo the original. The playable characters come from the movie series, as does the iconic yonic title design. 

Both Rambo III and Aliens begin with the FBI seal and a reminder: Winners don’t use drugs. 

Die Hard Arcade (Sega/Fox Interactive, 1996) The most enjoyable game so far. Full-color, a roving camera, weighty physics, and cartoonish violence in service of a series of non-sequitur showdowns against firefighters, wrestlers, terrorists, “spiderbots,” and a biker named Hog, in environments where every object is a weapon. Its unexpected transition challenges use slow-mo and repetition of “shots” from different angles to slapstick effect. The game’s version of John McClane looks nothing like Bruce Willis and its main connection to Die Hard is the location: a mundane corporate skyscraper. Wikipedia tells me that “it was the first beat 'em up to use texture-mapped polygonal graphics and has an extremely sophisticated move set by [the genre’s] standards.” For whatever that’s worth. 

Robocop (Data East, 1988) “The future of law enforcement” touts the title screen. This game keeps the movie’s flavor of American consumerism in its backgrounds but inevitably drops any hint of satire, adopting a techno-fascism as obsessed with “cop killers” as the supposedly outdated human police in Alibi are. Its buttons for single-player and two-player modes read “1 Dude” and “2 Dudes,” naturally.  Too hard for us, we never made it past the first level. 

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Midway, 1991) The intended appeal of this game must be its novelty tech—two gun controllers, very loud loudspeakers above them, and intermittent orange comic-book blasts projected on the window separating the players from the screen—because the combination of its horribly ugly sound design, static framing, and the random appearance of shooting targets anywhere on the screen made for such a dull, unpleasant experience that we gave up after about 30 seconds. Movie-related paratext is printed all over the machine and it starts up with a MPAA-style rating claiming the game is rated “R” for “Righteous” by the “Motion Picture Gaming Association of America.” —NK 

Stand in the evening light until you become transparent or until you fall asleep. 

 

Sunday 11/24 

11:00am 

We sit drinking coffee on the steps of the Millennium Park side entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago, the gift shop visible through the glass. It’s a dull irony to turn the work of Andy Warhol into gift shop fodder. That was already his joke. They're just cutting out the punchline, as clueless or as cynical as the Robocop game from last night. If they had any guts, they’d take it further and sell t-shirts of his candy-colored electric chair prints next to the VU banana socks. It’s a perversion of institutional respectability to erase his obscenity while merchandising his bad taste. These qualities are part of both the pop appeal of Warhol (still relevant), and the anti-pop problem of Warhol (now perhaps irrelevant with his continued assimilation into the mainstream). When he pushes them to stark extremes in his own compulsive perversity is often when he’s at his best, like the 1963 Lavender Disaster. —NK 

 

11:30am 

We make a beeline for Film, Video, and New Media. They’re showing Warhol’s Haircut No. 1 on 16mm every hour, on the hour. A projectionist has to load and rewind the film every time. How many times a day does she watch the same sluggish film?  —MB 

We stumble into a pitch-black room for a screening of Haircut No. 1, but don’t know it at the time. Text on the wall outside describes the film—“Warhol renders Daley’s features in the luminous, dramatic chiaroscuro shadowing of his painterly predecessors”—and claims it’s made up of “six single-take rolls,” but that’s not quite true. It’s a dream-documentary of a home haircut, with one introductory long-take, five long-takes of the haircut, and 5 short-takes as end punctuation. The five long-takes modulate slightly in tone, lighting (begins chiaroscuro, then the camera changes position and the lights don’t), composition, camera-subject relation, and ashtrays. Not sure what to make of it. —NK 

5 minutes in, the first person walked out. 8 minutes later, the second and third, leaving me and Nate alone with the projectionist and the film. The man gives an awful haircut. The footage is dreamy and slightly slow motion, shot at 24 fps and projected at 16 so people seem to be moving through air that is thicker than our own. It ends with the men rubbing their eyes, recovering from looking too intensely. —MB 

 

12:15pm 

The rest of the Warhol exhibit is large, unwieldy, and without a bathroom. Me and Nate agree that the giant prints of movie stars for which Warhol is best known are his least interesting works and pass by them quickly. The early work from his art school days is a joyous surprise. Line drawings of men laying down, self-portraits in drag, long, flowing lines creating soft shapes of human figures. Nate said it reminded him of Cocteau, I said Matisse. Who knew Warhol could be so tender? MB 

 

12:41pm 

Two different Cadence ads play next to early paintings that recreate advertisements. The product is some kinda constipation cure for, among other things, “irregular living,” a deep voice repeats over and over. —NK  

 

12:55pm 

A videotape ice cream ad plays on a boxy TV in the cafe. Color bars, distorted video, quick zooms. Underground Sundae by Andy Warhol. “A little change is good for everybody,” the ad’s voiceover booms. Perhaps it’s his Schwechater but it’s definitely not the hypnotic masterpiece Kubelka’s avant-ad is. —NK 

 

1:15pm 

Molly points out how Warhol’s works that use repetition, like Ethel Scull 36 Times (1963), look like photography contact sheets. Or, better yet, film strips. What would happen if you projected these paintings/prints, section by section at 24 frames per second? I think of Muybridge. —NK 

 

2:45pm 

Around an hour of screen tests and related short films play on a loop in a room with two black bulb security cameras watching from the ceiling. I’m distracted by the projectionist rewinding the huge reels of 16mm film in the back. There’s a ladder she climbs to reach the projector.  

Molly waits for Edie Sedgwick’s screen test then leaves. I don’t feel any kind of attachment to Sedgwick, at least not yet, but I’ve met many women my age who do. I remember a gifted photo-montage artist who felt the same as Molly and had even named her cat Edie. Or maybe it was Twiggy. —NK 

Rounding the corner, a giant luminescent face stares down at me. The screen tests. I watch Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Jill and Freddy Dancing, and Edie Sedgewick. Edie Sedgewick’s screen test is my favorite even though, among them, it’s quite average. I saw it for the first time 3 years ago and thought she was maybe the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. I read all about her when I got home and I’ve felt a strange connection to her ever since. Her screen test makes me tear up. The next one is of Ann Buchanan, who doesn’t blink for the whole film. I saw it last week. I leave the Warhol exhibit to see the Impressionists on the other side of the museum. Nate stays for the rest of the screen tests. —MB 

The film loop puts me in a daze. Mario Banana I: Mario eats a banana in drag, in color. An elderly couple snickers behind me. Taylor and Me has the same kind of Taylor Mead horseplay as The Flower Thief. The screen tests are harder to parse. The one of infant Pénélope Palmer recalls both home videos and some of the Lumières’ portrait films (Baby’s Meal), while Dali’s is upside down and backwards, the artist dancing some kind of pas de deux with his face and hands. After a while, the rhythms of the tests lead my thoughts down long and useless paths. Did Nico choose the Hershey’s bar with almonds? Have you seen how an oncoming tear reflects the same light mirrored in the eye above?  

Most of all, I compare the screen tests to Hollis Frampton’s Manual of Arms, which similarly has party attendees posing for their portraits. But Frampton’s camera responds differently to each subject with sensitive changes in style and approach, presumably to match each of their personalities. Warhol’s camera is constant, automatic, and unforgiving. Frampton’s is the documentary-poetry of a friend, Warhol’s the theatre-documentary of a machine.  

I wonder how much the curation of the screen tests and shorts reflects Warhol’s actual practices as a filmmaker and how much it reflects the curatorial taste of the Art Institute. —NK 

 

4:10pm

Factory Diary: Bowie and Group, 9/14/1971: 

Voice (offscreen): “You look like Burroughs’ son.” 

Silence. 

Voice (offscreen): “You look like the chap who said he was the son of William S. Burroughs.” 

Bowie (shoulder-length hair, floppy hat, twisted brim): “I look like Lauren Bacall.” 

 

3:15pm

On my way to the Impressionists, I see paintings of nude women and they remind me of L’Opera Mouffe by Agnès Varda. It’s a documentary of the body and its functions above all else, of pregnancy and of a neighborhood. Varda’s nude portraits are striking, not for their similarities to the painted tradition, but for their differences. I’ve been religiously watching Varda for the better part of a year and, of course, you talk about her art history background and inspirations, but looking at this nude I realize that I didn’t really know what I was talking about in all those classes. How do they get the skin to look like that, so smooth and soft? Film has an ability to capture things as they are, but the grain of film prevents the same smooth buttery finish to skin that oil painting allows. —MB 

 

4:55pm 

We slip into the gift shop before closing and flip through the Tati Taschen book until we’re asked to leave. 

The most exciting film object in the Warhol exhibit, we agree, is Large Sleep from 1965. It consists of two frames from Warhol’s film Sleep printed vertically (like a film strip) on a tall piece of transparent glass. The Art Institute’s placard doesn’t note the play on the title of the Hawks/Bogie/Bacall classic The Big Sleep, but we do. Large Sleep emphasizes the transparency-opacity/light-shadow patterns that film records and our eyes mistake for representational images. It projects shadows in front of and behind itself and, depending how you look at it or through it, can create different superimpositions with Warhol’s work hanging on the adjacent walls or with the movements of museumgoers on either side. An interactive film sculpture. It reminds me of Eisenstein’s glass house but I keep that to myself. —NK 

 

 

 

5:20pm 

The sun has already set. It’s a short walk to the Millennium Park Christmas Tree, which eluded us the night before. We brought kaleidoscopes and light refraction glasses for the Warhol exhibit, but had forgotten about them. Now, we trade them back and forth to multiply the effect of the Christmas lights, for our eyes only, like Jodie Mack VR in the middle of a busy street corner. —MB 

6:40pm 

North Milwaukee Ave. I’m going to pick up a sticker from a video store, Odd Obsession. I’ve never been, but I donated to their crowdfunding campaign a month ago nonetheless. “I Love my Local Video Store” reads the sticker. I don’t have any local video store to love but I love it all the same. The store had a Sex and Astrology DVD in the front display. Johnny Guitar on VHS. Godard, Varda, Brakhage, Friedrich, and, yes, Warhol. As we leave, rats stream from a dumpster in the alley and I realize I left my sticker in the store. —MB 

 

11:28pm 

We watch a video called “sharpest chocolate guillotine in the world. Valentine” by kiwami japan, a Youtube channel of wordless knife-making videos with precise editing and close mic’d sound that combine ASMR, technological novelty, useless how-to, craft braggadocio, gentle suspense, and absurd comedy. Molly falls asleep halfway through. —NK 

My shadow at evening will not darken the ground. 

 

Monday 11/25 

10:40am 

They don’t play a movie on the Greyhound home. —MB 

 

 

Category: essay

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