It began as a low rumble. Distressful vibrations emanated from my seat on American Airlines flight 041 — Paris to Chicago. Unlike European festivals, which are often state supported, the Chicago International Film Festival depends entirely on private sponsorship. Call it a homecoming. Call it you can never go home again. Each time I return to my entrance point on this planet (I was born and raised in Chicago and have lived in France for 28 years), I feel the euphoria of being a jet-lagged stranger in a not-so-strange land.
Whisked downtown in the nick of time by Ninos, our convivial festival driver, I stepped out of the car on to State Street and into a crowd of several thousand screaming fans in front of the venerable Chicago Theatre. First inaugurated 85 years ago, this Monster-of-the-Midway movie palace packed in at least 3,000 eager moviegoers.
Dustin Hoffman strolled onstage to receive a Career Achievement Award at this opening ceremony on October 5, followed by the Chicago premiere of Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction.
“Film is a young art form,” Hoffman told the exuberant crowd. “In my forty years of being associated with it, I have seen its de-evolution. It was before the blockbuster. Before video rentals. What film festivals show can’t exist in a market that pits commerce against art. Studio films are so expensive now. Studio executives really have to go to the computer and figure out what to make based on what it will earn the opening weekend. It’s not like when I started. Then the primary motivation was: ‘Can you do good work? Is it going to be good?'”
“The young writers, directors and actors who are putting out film in what we call the independent sphere give me hope,” exclaimed Hoffman. “There are a lot of extremely talented people motivated by a sort of anger: ‘You can not stop me commerce, you can not stop me from doing good work.'”
“Tonight’s film was not made by a Hollywood committee; it was made by two talented individuals. I come from a time before the first-opening-weekend mentality. My wife said work with the people who are as creative as you are. Work with the people who are as hungry as you are to do good work. I thank you for this award, I hear it’s two inches taller than the Oscar. I identify.”
“And this has nothing to do with anything,” added Hoffman as he left the gigantic Chicago Theater stage: “Go Bears!”
Civic pride is what it’s all about in Chicago. From gangsters to sports heroes — Al Capone to Michael Jordan, John Dillinger to John Urlacher, the Black Sox scandal in 1919 to the world champion White Sox in 2005. This year’s Chicago Bears professional football team could go the distance. In Chicago, all the arts are light-years behind its professional sports teams. They define the working-class nature of the city. Once infamous as a citadel of gangsters and crooked politicians, Chicago has always been the home of sports’ champions.
Ever since 1964, festival founder and artistic director Michael Kutza has championed hundreds of films representing every film-producing country worldwide. The city of “wild onions” (‘Chicago’ in the language of the Iroquois native Americans) is at the film crossroads of America thanks to Kutza and his 42-year tenure at the head of the longest-running competitive film festival in North America.
Sure there’s Sundance for the independent scene. Toronto is a bigger calling card for Hollywood selling their wares, but no other North American city shows consistently such a variety of films — be they independent features, shorts, or documentaries.
2006 marks the 10th anniversary of the Black Perspectives section. The “emerging artist” award went to the “best dressed man in the world”, hip-hopper-turned-actor Andre Benjamin, A.K.A. “Andre 3000”. Spike Lee presented the Lifetime Achievement awarded to actress Ruby Dee. It was an impressive evening of film clips from her illustrious career and an interview on stage by actress Irma P. Hall, attended by hundreds from Chicago’s large African-American upper middle class.
Chicago is a perpetual work in progress, the city that’s always at work. Each time I return, the landmarks are still there, the Water Tower, Sears Tower, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Hancock Center, but new buildings keep popping up. The latest under construction: A Trump Tower going up one floor a week on the site of the old Chicago Sun-Times building.
Completely destroyed in 1871 by fire, Chicago is a relatively new city where each time they build, there is no need for an archeological dig to discover Roman ruins (as is often the case in Europe). The rumble and the rubble mix and match every morning out my hotel window, a gargantuan excavation site a block big. More luxury condos going up.
Then there’s Chicago’s version of Mother Nature. We had typical October Chicago weather—Indian summer: 22 degrees C and a clear bright beautiful blue sky interrupted by snow flurries at 0° one morning. Cold. Windy. They don’t call this the windy city for nothing even though the origin of that nickname is more due to local politicians blowing hot air than the meteorological kind.
Global warming? Perhaps, but some 40 years ago come January, it snowed for 24 hours straight, dumping a meter of snow and shutting down the entire city. Nothing new for the month of January except that the Big Snow rolled into town barely 48 hours after a couple of days of balmy 20 degree weather.
It’s hard not to be distracted by the rumbling din. Be it police sirens, a whining purr not unlike a cat caught in the radiator at the festival office or the constant drone of American TV. The nightly local TV news is still peppered with murders, fires, political corruption, the war in Iraq, North Korea setting off a nuclear device or something like it, and the occasional earthquake (in Hawaii this time round). Rumble into rubble.
How can the film festival compete? Especially, as we were awarding the FIPRESCI prize to Julia Loktev’s fascinating subjective view of a would-be suicide bomber in Times Square: Day Night Day Night — a light plane piloted by a New York Yankees pitcher flew into a 50-story building in Manhattan. Stranger shades of 9/11.
This year’s top prize-winning (the Gold Hugo for Fireworks Wednesday) Iranian director Asghar Farhardi told us through an interpreter, “Now more than ever, people of the U.S. and of Iran need to get to know each other, and it’s better if this kind of understanding is not through our politicians but through our artists and culture.”
A lot of film history has passed through Chicago — be it Lumière cameraman Alexandre Promio who shot the first films in the city in September 1896, the birth of Walt Disney in 1900, Charlie Chaplin’s brief stint here in 1915-1916 at the Essanay studios along with future star Gloria Swanson. The city from which hail Robert Zemeckis, Harrison Ford, Bill Murray, Ivan Reitman, David Mamet (“Get out of here!” he told my better half and I when we informed him at the Deauville American Film Festival that we too were from Chicago), to name just a few.
The 2006 edition of the Chicago International Film Festival was the latest and most eclectic to date. Whether it was Dustin Hoffman, Liza Minnelli or Ruby Dee receiving awards, this year’s festival had something for everyone, including a mini-earthquake. I experienced for the first time ever an unintentional “sense-around” in my seat. It was Chinese torture during a Russian film called The Italian. A whooshing noise, and that same low rumble or bass vibration I felt on the airplane coming into Chicago, left me with an uneasiness and distressful fear of the future. Only to discover that this particular movie theater at the Landmark Century Plaza is situated just below a gym where fitness addicts work out daily and nightly on their treadmills. Only in Chicago.