19 September 2001

Best of Chicago 2001

Best Sunrise
September 12
Not that many of us might have witnessed it, but it came, and now another, and now another. Its beauty is apparent and lasting, even unseen.

Best Movie inspired by Bucktown Graffiti
Ghost World
Chicago-born-and-bred comics artist Dan Clowes was jack-legging through an alley off a side street just east and north of Damen and Division, and an enigmatic pairing of paint-scrawled words stuck in his mind. Terry Zwigoff's film of his 1998 "Ghost World" graphic novel, is both specific and elusive. Shot in Los Angeles and inhabited by semi-familiar actors, its world still suggests some of the odd bleak residue of Chicago's sidestreets and alleyways.

Best Foreign Language or Speciality Video Store
So many upstarts, so little capital. Storefronts like Blastoff Video and Big Brother, however well-intentioned, did not weather the vagaries of cash flow and customer attention spans. The not-for-profit Facets, however, continues to serve the community and nation as both a mail-order and drop-in video mecca. Where the likes of Blockbuster continue to contract their orders of speciality, foreign language and just darn good movies, Facets remains a library of esthetic congress.

Best thing about Wacker Drive construction
Orderly progress
The old joke goes, Chicago has three seasons: summer, fall, winter, road construction. How do you say, "City in A Persistent Construction Zone" in Latin? Yet the months and years of shoring up the subterranean enigmas of Lower Wacker Drive and the ring road that shunts traffic around the Loop have gone cleanly so far, with reassuring, discernible evidence that the pillars and contours of our downtown will remain solid for generations.

Best Place for Homeless to Sleep
Meigs Field
If fears persist about the proximity of this lovely commuter airfield on the Lake being a danger to downtown on the scale of Reagan National to Washington, D.C., its use as a verdant stayover for the misfortunate would not be amiss: Shelter in a Garden, anyone?

Best place to get a picture of yourself showing how you'd look if a state trooper pulls you over middle of the night and shines a fat flashlight in your face
Secretary of State's office
After a particularly nasty shock when renewing a drivers' license, several of us opened our wallets and purses to compare what we at first thought was our electroshocked inner weasels. Then we realized: the horrifically unflattering portraits of ourselves we carry around are not to shame us, or humble us, but in fact, to show the police on the job the wide-eyed weirdness we all react to, stopped in the middle of the night, perhaps guilty only of feeling guilty. The State of Illinois' current portrait cameras, whether designed or not, are an X-ray machine that consistently manifests each sitters' childlike anxiety.

Best Chicago Social opening line
Oh, take your pick
Oh, the riches of embarrassment. Reading the Onion each week is too much the repetitive giggle; some of wait for the month flash of Chicago Social, aka "CS: Chicago Social Modern Luxury." In almost patentable palaver, aped by its sibling slab, Angeleno, Chicago Social is lousy with leads that go hundreds of square feet beyond the demands of satire. Even when locally established writers drop in to write about art or theater, the writer has the same blasé loopiness, somehow matching the Social Study section, a wealth of black-and-white society photos, capturing the not-dazzling dizzied by a sudden flash. From the September 2001 issue alone, we have: "Stop wandering aimlessly through Bucktown, doling out cover charge upon cover charge only to wish you'd gone someplace else."" Where's that exclamation point, dammit! That's all that's missing to polish this gem. Or: "Chicago is indeed a city of neighborhoods." Indeed! Or: "Marwen may not be a name that trips lightly off the tongues of Chicago's art cognoscenti, but it should." It should! But let us not neglect the publisher's letter in September, a hit of wha-ha helium all its own: "We can't say we'd blame you for thinking that in 2001--a year indelibly etched into the collective zeitgeist as representative of all things futuristic, courtesy of Stanley Kubrick--people would be prowling the urban streetscape in blinding-white jumpsuits or synthetic, silvery fabrics bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mylar." Indeed!

Best columnist
Richard Roeper
Pour out your heart, or at least your prose, in a three or four day a week column, eventually a voice is made, and whether it comes from deep inside or was manufactured from the outside, it holds its own truth. Those who thrive, like Mike Royko, speak only for themselves, but also, somehow for their peers and only their generation, channeling fears and faults without uncertainty. Among contemporary Chicago columnists, a combination of cheap shots and cheaper concerns make Richard Roeper (the columnist, not the televised movie expert) the logical stepchild of the now-calcified, so-predictable Johnny Deadline, the Tribune's very own Bob Greene. Think of it: a column to write about anything that takes you or shakes you, several mornings a week, and an audience waiting to agree or disagree with the little head postage-stamped atop the column. Let's take Roeper's September 11 column (filed before other events took place). Model-turned-actress Estella Warren videotaped herself, confessing her fears on a commercial flight that appeared to be going down in June. "I find it amusing that the woman who co-starred in 'Driven' would be worried about appearing on an embarrassing videotape, but there you have it." What would Roeper do when a jet was going down? "I'd scream, cry and pray, probably in that order," but he'd leave the tape turned off. "There are some things better left unsaid, and some secrets that should be destined for a non-stop flight to the next life." Or, the next column. On Wednesday, in a nod to the still-living Greene, the column had changed forever. "You could not get a cheeseburger at the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's" was the third thing on Roeper's literary mind. But he later confesses to taking notes in church, stopping, praying. "Hundreds of thousands of us will tell these personal little tangential stories... partially it is human nature to say, 'This is how this thing affected ME...'" The caps and the solipsism resound: the voice and the column ring clear.

Best Cross-Street Turf War
Roger Ebert and Blair Kamin
On September 14, the Sun-Times' Roger Ebert penned a dreamy consideration of what might be the proper fate of the plot of land on which the World Trade Center stood. While there are billionaire developers holding a ninety-nine-year-lease on that tragic locale, Ebert dreamt: "If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it, for it is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world. Let it be a green field, with trees and flowers. Let there be paths that wind through the shade... Let this open space among the towers marks the emptiness in our hearts... Give it no name.. Let students takes a corner of the field and plant a crop there.. Do not build again on this place. No building can stand there... Just the comfort of the earth we share, to remind us that we share it." The prose alone announces its gentle dream. On September 17, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin would have none of it. After properly identifying the Towers' "banal and boring" form, Kamin takes "the movie critic Roger Ebert" to task. "one can understand how people would adopt such viewpoints in the passion of the moment. But none of these ideas stand up to scrutiny. Downtown Manhattan... is almost sure to remain the world's financial capital... Setting aside a huge plot of land solely for a memorial would permanently disrupt the flow of commerce.... Though he surely means no harm, Ebert's suggestion of a cornfield is the logical--and ludicrous--extension of this idea." Back to your beat, movie man, the American way will win, towers will rise once more to the sky, and a modest proposal, an impracticable, if lyrical dream, that does not kowtow to commerce will be mocked, without humor or vision, in the pages of the oh-so-conglomerated Trib.

Best Late Night Movie House
Music Box
Sleepy, but alert. Filled with snacks, but not suffering stinky smells. The first two sensations to insure a proper post-midnight public movie experience. The dreamy baby clouds scudding overhead in the main auditorium at the Music Box complement the sweet dreams on screen and to come, but it's good ventilation and a lack of residual beer or food stench that allows the Music Box to snatch another diadem for its moviegoer crown.
Music Box, 3944 N. Southport

Best Sushi Deluxe
Mirai Sushi
So much raw fish, so little heat. Now that every restaurant in perpetual search of a trend has exhausted the notion of tuna tartare, the range of sushi, both high-and-low, suggests the genunine possibility of the onset of fish fatigue. Yet in terms of innovation and exploration of tradition, as well as value for price, Mirai Sushi never fails to impress. If there's a bad piece of fish in the sea, they must have thrown it back. Try the Kani nigiri, king crab marinated in a spicy sauce, cool and pungent in a single fresh bite.
Mirai Sushi, 2020 W. Division, (773) 862-8500

Best Chicago Chick Dick Flick
Plaster Caster
Premiering in the spring with follow-up screenings at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, Jessica Villines' portrait of longterm rock-'n'-roll phallophile Cynthia Plaster Caster makes up in uniqueness for what it lacks in comprehensiveness, capturing Cynthia's love of manhood since her days as a mere teen groupie.

Best Thai that's not cheap
Arun's Restuarant
In the early 1980s, before the explosion of Starbucks, the urban landscape was transformed by a surge of Thai restaurants in disused storefronts. Instead of the MSG and cornstarch-laced inauthentic Ameri-chinese food that made for cheap takeout, the likes of pad thai became well-known staples of refrigerator-door menus. But, like most cuisines, attention, love and know-how can transform peanuts into gold. As with Arun's Restaurant, in which chef Arun Sampanthavivat and family have created a modest, intimate enclave for some of the freshest, beautiful, memorable plates of savories in the city. Chefs from around the world make the trip to the Albany Park neighborhood, with such luminaries as Wolfgang Puck happily singing Arun's praises. A degustation dinner is your best bet for the solid wallop your pocket's going to take for this delight; Arun selects the dishes, you choose the adjectives.
Arun's Restauarnt, 4156 N. Kedzie, (773) 539-1909

11 September 2001

Northern composure

Forsaking fiction in a world of mad fact

Pure joy, pure bliss: I saw a movie called "Amelie" on Monday night that seemed to have made my movie year.

Little tears sting my eyes throughout. I join friends from New York at a party for a film set in Los Angeles. We talk about what we have seen. I think of questions to ask the director of "Amelie" today.

I sleep on it. I wake a little after 10 on Tuesday to the words of my roommate at the Toronto International Film Festival. I'm supposed to interview David Lynch in a couple of hours, talk about the psycho-mayhem of "Mulholland Drive," a movie of glittering absurdity.

But CNN is on in the living room. My colleague, Steve, and I watch the footage from New York. We're kibitzing in a void, not really listening to each other, just commenting and theorizing so gravity does not pin us to the ground. Toronto local lines work, I can get on-line. Cell phone, forget about it. I have to assume my friends are fine. None of them live or work near the World Trade Center.

Steve and I watch the footage, ash-covered emergency vehicles slaloming between pedestrians, spilled into the street, faces mostly blank, some bloodied, all urgently getting away: from danger, from cameras, from mad fact.

The philosopher George Steiner has a new book out. He continues his argument of many years that language is no longer possible, and has not been in the time that has spun out since the Holocaust. I can't follow all his reasoning. But fiction I am concerned about today. Yesterday, audiences were shaken by Tim Blake Nelson's Holocaust narrative, "The Grey Zone." I decided to wait. I wanted joy, not gloom. Distraction, craft, the diversion of art: not the diversion of tragedy to fiction.

I blow off two morning screenings. The best movies at this year's Toronto festival have been about happiness, the search for truth, the search for simple beauty. Jill Sprecher's fine "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" is one of the best of that bunch. But all conversations today will be about One Thing that does not involve Love or Happiness or things that we want to see in capital letters, such as America Under Siege.

Will David Lynch still want to talk? Will the director of "Amelie," Jean-Pierre Jeunet, still want to discuss the notion of on screen happiness and bliss later this afternoon?

On-line for only seconds, my AOL Buddy List lights up with names: New Yorkers who are safe, for now, in their own homes, describing the din of voices and vehicles outside, the idea there is nowhere to go. A journalist I know was on her way to get passerby reactions after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. She forgot her police pass. She went back home. The second airliner hit. She is staring at the TV, ready to collect "local color." But stays on line. But stays indoors. "I'm fucked up," she says, the deadpan of typed words as ashen as the faces on CNN.

Others ask me to pass messages along to friends at the Festival. Mike saw the first explosion from his kitchen window across the river. Andrew is okay. Tell Scott's friends the Bowery still stands.

Canadian television goes to their own commentators. "We go now to a sociology professor from Grimsby."

Grim. Grimm's fairytales: they're just stories that go bump in the night. But who wants to go into the dark today? Movies, movie archetypes, they all seem unworthy at the moment. I don't want to find myself at a great movie, I won't be able to concentrate. I don't want to fall into a crap movie like the Steve Martin dud, "Novocaine," because life is just too short. Even the Bosnian war black comedy, "No Man's Land" is inappropriate. I want to watch the images on the tube, like I did during the L.A. riots. However shabby the analysis, however unclear the activity, however shaky the camera, this urban topography, the New York I know and love, is familiar. The fear on the faces is not. The Terror Porn replays. The airliner pierces the second tower again, again. Can narrative contain chaos? A little girl is the only one who remembers to cry. Her mother wipes ash from her small ruby cheeks with bottled water.

"I'm as close as I can get without being shooed away," someone says on a cell phone to the Canadian equivalent of CNN.

It's all too true to be good. The American CNN commentators invoke Tom Clancy. They wonder where the president is. Pulp fiction is their touchstone. Steve and I mention names like George Romero, watching the shots of the streets of Manhattan where no one walks, only runs, only gallops. We start to compare the events to other apocalyptic fictions, but stop suddenly, a silent compact: let's talk about family, friends, what will become of civil liberties in the United States.

I may be in Canada a long time. I wonder what country I'll be returning to.

[Newcity, 11 September 2001; appeared in a slightly different version in indieWIRE Daily, 14 September 2001.]