13 November 2003

Blackbird flies next door

Seconding the emotion

"People for years and years have said, `Oh, comfort food is the next big thing. It never seems to really break through. It's gotta be more than meat loaf and potpie. This is comfort food from other points around the globe. It makes sense to me," Paul Kahan says on a crisp fall Saturday, sitting at one of the three heavy wooden communal tables at his new enterprise, Avec. The chef and partner of Blackbird (with Donnie Madia and Eduard Seitan) is reflecting on his much-awaited 1,500-square-foot storefront wine bar, a neo-enoteca one door east on Randolph Street, that serves a variety of intense small dishes with an ambitious cheese program, handcrafted salamis and extensive wine list.

It's a striking room, with architect Thomas Schlesser's design incorporating elements from the winemaking process, with an enormous wood-burning oven, floors that include river rock and a glass wall of bottles at the end of the deep, wood-lined space. The way the almost sauna-like room embraces diners suggests a variation on the traditional Chicago tin-wall-and-ceiling storefront.

Part of Kahan and his partners' project in staging a second act is to reward people they've worked with, such as veteran Blackbird sous chef Koren Grieveson, while keeping control. "The biggest impetus for doing this, for me, was to give Koren a place that's her own, to grow. It's her first chef de cuisine job. She'll still say I'm the chef here but she's the chef here. I'm her coach. She brings me dishes and eighty percent of them, it's like, 'This is perfect. Don't do anything to it.' She already has this huge sense of ownership."

Kahan remains an evangelist for eating as a communal act. "I always refer to this thing that I read by Alice Waters, that food is as much about the act of breaking bread and being with family and friends and loved ones as it is about the quality of the food. That was kind of the idea about this place. I hope we play good music and we serve wonderful, simple food and we have great bread that you tear to swab up the juices and it's as much about hanging out and having a good time as it is about the food."

But the food does matter. Flavors from around the Mediterranean are on Avec's menu, with plates coming okinomi style--one serving tray even resembles a sushi board. "There is a certain element of that going on," Kahan agrees. "People keep saying the `T' word, tapas, and it's not tapas. It's food for sharing, man. It's not a wine bar, it's not a restaurant. It's this foggy..." He watches traffic outside for a moment. "In Italy, they use the word enoteca, and I think it much more resembles an enoteca than anything I could describe. There's a lot of dishes here you could probably go to a Grecian taverna up on North Lincoln, or a lot of ethnic restaurants and isolate single dishes that are really warming and really incredible. But we have a whole lineup of them. I hope it works."

Kahan says people have told him, "`Man, you've got a lot of balls, there's no American wines on the list, you're serving food people are not ready for'... I think Blackbird really set a standard for a quality independent restaurant. A lot of places opened up after that. I mean, we have corporate guys coming in here right now and they're just salivating. Some guy said, `This concept is like the Starbucks of wine bars.' And I'm sure they're going to rip us off, but you know, so what? They can't--they'll dumb it down. It's not to say we're a huge hit yet or that we're even going to be, but we've been busy." Avec's kitchen is open until 1am, until recently a Chicago rarity (and one that makes Grieveson's work day a long one). And people keep on pouring in. "Repeat business early on is the sign for me," says Kahan. "Someone says hi, they've been five times in a week. People are coming back and back and back and chefs are coming back and back and back. Charlie Trotter was in here Thursday night, he said, 'I'm coming back on Tuesday.'"

Kahan has grown used to defining his terms. "We're doing American food here, you know. It's next door. Blackbird, people say it's French, well, it's not. It's American ingredients, it's our interpretation of classic cooking, Here, it's just our interpretation of dishes that people have been doing for centuries. We wouldn't call ourselves an Italian restaurant because we do a Roman-style bucatini dish. We wouldn't call ourselves a Spanish restaurant because we do octopus braised in olive oil and tomato. We play by the rules of those cuisines. We use very little butter here. It's almost all olive oil and garlic. Our pantry is really small. It's a lot of olives and figs and capers and all those kind of things that define Mediterranean flavors."

And flavors are what will bring customers back. At one of Mario Batali's Manhattan restaurants, Grieveson watched a salad being made. "They did this really great raw salad with radishes and zucchini and asparagus, seasoned with thyme," she says. "I just sat there watching, saying, `Wow, that looks so good.' I never even thought of that. `Here you go, here is it is. I didn't manipulate this, I didn't do anything to it other than add some lemon juice.' I love that. It's taking away instead of throwing crap into food, which I think is the trick."

"It's simple food, you know," agrees Kahan. "It's pretty unadorned, it's just well-executed and tasty and it's what people really want, I think."

Avec, 615 W. Randolph, (312)377-2002

[Newcity, 13 November 2003]

01 October 2003

Reviewing "The Lisa Diaries"

"A FRIEND TOLD ME that if you masturbate right before a date, it gives you a glow.” This is Lisa Carver, punk rocker, writer and on-line diarist in reference to her wedding day. She writes often that she dislikes masturbation, but did covet the picture of herself a glowing bride in white.

Predating most “weblogs,” Carver’s notorious let-it-all-hang-in column, “The Lisa Diaries,” taken one entry at a time, was a droll travelogue across an uncharted terrain of inventive, gender-bursting sexuality. Who’s going to resist four hundred, five hundred words at a spurt that begin with terse, bright confessions like “I have been masturbating like a madwoman”? Or a writer who can reflect, “Dave and I need a wife—I’m much more like another husband. I work all the time and want someone to bring me a drink”? In Lisa’s candid dispatches about love, lust and creative relationships in the expanded collection of her reports from the open marriage bed, “ours is a tale of marital problems and solutions, just with a few more penises and vaginas than usual.”

There aren’t many writers who can pull this off, day after day. The creepy part of so many confessional diaries, political weblogs and spiraling rants found nowadays in “blogs” and “weblog rings,” is what sexless virtual circle jerks they are. It’s dispiriting that so many have so little to say at such length.

Lisa is open. (I’ll show you my weblog if you show me yours.) Her work is best when she’s concise, evoking hours of experience in a simple summa: “We fight all the time. Our latest fight, caused by his rejection of my hairless experiment and my inability to understand his skinny dying girl fantasy.”

In the online incarnation, Lisa escaped narcissism with the same punk rock zeal and attitudinal vehemence she poured into earlier vehicles, her band, Suckdog, and her classic zine, Rollerderby. The distilled intensity is daunting. Of course we want some bluster, the half-and-half in sex’s strong coffee—one writer who figures into the book has posted in her own web journal that some of Lisa’s work is “slightly embellished/fabricated, but that’s fine with me.” In measured doses, it’s tough to dislike someone who considers, “I got a haircut very unlike my usual pigtails: short, jagged bangs and long sides. It’s severe. You know what it is? The haircut of a woman who gets gone down on.” It’s not the same as Erica Jong’s notorious 1970s notion of the “zipless fuck,” it’s the zipless lips that Lisa’s got. I read the book over the course of a couple of weeks, imbibing only a few juicy rockets charging from her lifeforce at a time. Trying to read more than that is overwhelming: so much tenderness, so much raucous conflict, so much wetness. The short, sharp shock is Carver’s form.

While the entries were being posted, Lisa became aware that her relatives and acquaintances were checking in on her. It’s an idea that makes her even giddier: think of that level of exposure and/or exhibitionism, that all your friends and family might have read your mind, I mean, diary, without talking about it, that your illin’ repute might precede you. (Nice work if you can get it.) It’s unlovely enough a notion that someone would want to read anyone’s journals unless they’re brilliant and at least twenty years dead.

Most of the narrative finds Lisa and Dave negotiating the rules of their open marriage, their novelties, their fights. (She calls her 2000 entries “The Year of Swapping Dangerously.”) Here’s a visit to a private sex club: “The night had begun with such promise—flogging, Saran Wrap, toe-licking. But, in the end, Dave and I did the same exact thing we’ve done at more intellectual and clothed parties—have a quick in the coatroom and slink away.” She’s sentimental and so attached to her Dave, again and again. “Sleeping with someone else is one thing, but it would be wrong to let someone else borrow Dave’s space in my heart, even for a minute.” (Awwwww. It’s an ideal she’s rampaging through, illustrating with uncommon deftness, how communication in a relationship, the sharing of dreams and fantasies, create not only an obstruction against the outside world, but make both partners more open.

But then there’s always another naughty notion. Her friends are a confederacy of sensual voyagers. She and a friend shop for a strap-on dildo. Dave’s confronted her about bad credit, cocaine and the “exotic foods” aisle of the grocery. “It’s going to be a pleasure to fuck this new, regimented person up the ass. I wanted to impress Dave with my penis,” she writes. “We decided I’d get a medium… Then Rachel reminded me of some means things Dave has done and said… and I contemplated getting a supersize instead.”

All the sex, all the time, good, bad and convoluted, always flirting with heartbreak and laughter: “Anonymous sex or competitive sex never brings you the awareness of life that comes with love. Bad sex—frenzied, unfriendly, confrontational—is not painful. Loving sex is. Especially when there are rocks under you.”

The Lisa Diaries: Four Years in the Sex Life of Lisa Carver and Company
By Lisa Carver
Black Books, paper, $16, 272 pages

[Newcity, 1 October 2003]

30 April 2003

X appeal: Bryan Singer broods mutant


Trumping the multi-character concoction of "The Usual Suspects," in "X2" (also known as "X2: X-Men United"), is a lineup of fourteen principal super-powered characters and a mix of tones that ranges from delicate comedy to sly sociopolitical commentary, in which Bryan Singer challenges his "reputation as a dark, brooding filmmaker" in what he describes as "a coming-out scene that goes, very, very, very, very, very, very wrong."

Working on a larger scale than the more austere, $75 million original--reportedly $120 million, 800 special-effects shots and 200 enhanced shots--"X2" manages to be cheeky, serious and idealistic at the same time. Despite being based on a long-lived series of comics, its emotions seem more of the real world than most studio features, a blockbuster with a conscience. "Whether you're coming out and you're gay, or you just feel completely alone in the world and reveal who you are and what your interests are, it's tough," the 37-year-old director says. "Adolescents struggle with this sense of aloneness." To describe every character would fill a column, as well as give away much of the plot's smorgasbord of eye candy. The actors include the "pent-up amnesiac rage" of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, sporting 1970s Clint Eastwood muttonchops and the dueling velveteens of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen ("What have you done now, Charrrrrrrrrrles?" McKellen gets to purr, as well as levitate and symbolically walk on water). Brian Cox, Halle Berry, Famke Jansen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn -Stamos, Alan Cumming, Anna Paquin, Kelly Hu and Aaron Stanford also join in the melee. Does it make sense? Actually, it plays like many mini-movies, exuberant in individual scenes but dizzying overall.

"The men are unusually castrated in this picture, I started to realize," Singer says with some kind of wonder in his voice. "Xavier and Cyclops are imprisoned; Wolverine is relegated to being a babysitter. It's kind of fun that way." He adds, "It's also the first time a woman [Berry] in a movie, or so I am told, has been put behind the seat of an F-16 fighter."

There's other gender bending at work. There's a comic scene with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, where, without giving too much away, he seems to bed several characters, and not only females. "That actually came from an idea my attorney had, my extremely heterosexual attorney, David Feldman," Singer says, grinning. He had the idea "that Hugh Jackman should sleep with Halle Barry. By any means necessary. I said, `It's not going to happen.' And he said, `Can he sleep with Rebecca Stamos?' And I'm like, `No, no, no.' I started thinking... Her Mystique character can be anybody. That scene evolved, it became very exciting, and also very expensive." In shooting the scene, an extra bit was filmed for the gag reel with Singer. "Yes, I got a big wet kiss from Hugh Jackman. Women, be jealous! And some men, for that matter. It's really sick, because I'm dressed in Jean's outfit. I'm supposed to be in the position to illustrate a bit we were doing, then Hugh just grabbed me and gave me a big, wet kiss. I was very disoriented and couldn't fully appreciate the moment."

The opening scene is essentially a terrorist attack on the Oval Office. Singer says that the story was conceived before 9/11. "Names have changed, jungles have turned to deserts, but the conflicts have remained the same and they will continue to as long as people of different races and nationalities and religious groups exist on this earth. To comment on it, particularly with the X-Men universe, which was born at the height of the Civil Rights movement, is inevitable and unavoidable."

There's a love scene between two characters who've held back until the middle of this second installment that plays like a riff on one of the most famous scenes in "The Empire Strikes Back." "I love `The Empire Strikes Back.' It's very much an inspiration to this, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't," Singer claims. Like "Empire," he defined his challenge as "making a second film that was more rich in character and with a larger landscape, and perhaps darker, but with humor and more romance. But when I shot that scene, I decided they would kiss on the set that morning. I shut down for about an hour, feeling that in the scene, they were talking about their relationship, not acting on it. After sitting in a field for an hour, it was like, `Ah! They should kiss!' I turned to the camera crew, I said, `You look like a bunch of heterosexual males. How many of you think these two characters should kiss? I got eleven yeses, and one, "Can they do more?" One night toward the end of the shoot, I sat down with some of my friends and watched `Empire,' which I hadn't watched in years. And there's this damn scene where Princess Leia's helping fix the Millennium Falcon and this guy comes up, he's not as roguish as he thinks..." He trails off, having described his own scene in "X2." "I'm very proud of that moment, it was spontaneous and necessary to further that journey. Thank God I'm friends with George Lucas."

19 March 2003

Going Deutsch

Christian Petzold examines the aftermath of German terrorism

WHEN I FIRST SAW CHRISTIAN PETZOLD'S fourth feature-length film, Die Inner Sichereit (literally, "Internal Security," but showing in the U.S. as The State I am In), in 2001, the possible influence of several German filmmakers seemed apparent.

Yet after a couple more viewings the look of it, plus his 2002 Something To Remind Me (Toter Mann), are definitely his own. The sort of intent, painterly gaze the theater-trained director displays is rare in contemporary European film, where any whiff of the art-house or fallen state-run cinemas generally gets shunned in favor of good bubblegum like Tom Tykwer's 1998 Run Lola Run or decadent eye-candy like Gregor Schnitzler's 2002 Til Schweiger-starring pop travesty of recent German history, What To Do In Case of a Fire. While the 1970s were fertile ground for young filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and lesser-known social chroniclers like Rudolf Thome, times change, and with them, the kinds of filmmakers who are encouraged and supported.

It's a lovely, severe and haunting telling of a few days in the lives of Hans and Klara, two 1970s German terrorists who are still on the run, burdened with a surly, solemn 15-year-old daughter, Jeanne. Julia Hummer's performance as the young girl grounds the elliptical story, and the look of the film (lit by Hans Fromm) dazzles, effortlessly emulating the brilliant hyperrealism of Hans Richter's figurative paintings. Comparisons have been made to Sidney Lumet's worthy 1988 Running on Empty, yet the family dynamics of State are more suggestive and the performances less Method than methodical. And comparisons to filmmakers still obsessed with the politics of 1970s West and East Germany, such as Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, melt away with Petzold's succession of dynamically composed yet predominantly static images.

The film works cleanly with cinematic archetypes of criminals on the run, but not romantic young lovers. Instead, we get the family—society at large?—as almost mute with fear, wearied from a life where politics could not be discussed or applied, a life lived in silence or duplicity.

Daughter Jeanne? She's the classic broody teen. Thus, in The State I Am In, all is behavior: what have they left to talk about? The tensions tear at this small nuclear family, traveling across a featureless continent like a lonely life raft in the Euro sea soon to come. It seldom seems didactic or willed, unlike the impression one's left with at the end of Schlondorff's beautifully acted yet rote 1999 The Legend of Rita.

While there are elements apparently drawn from the history of the Red Army Faction terrorists, the daughter is an invention, a splendid, disinclined audience surrogate who's tired of looking out the car window at a succession of landscapes. At times, Jeanne's scowl is suggestive of the melancholy of seventies-era Wenders, in films such as Alice in the Cities: so much to be gained by the image of the tossed, tangled shoulder-length hair of a teen girl innocent. The State I Am In also profoundly suggests how the legacy of one generation often means nothing to the next, and is, at best, a galling encumbrance. Jeanne lives in the present. What's history when there are pop songs to discover, boys to kiss and jeans to steal? In the first scene, on the rustic Portuguese coast, listening to Brian Wilson sing about some "sunset beach" somewhere, Jeanne has but one instinct: to bum smokes.

[Newcity, 19 March 2003]

05 March 2003

Underground Man: James Fotopoulous

At 26, James Fotopoulos has completed sixteen features and twenty-four shorts.

IT TOOK ONLY A FEW PINTS OF BLOOD to start James Fotopoulos' prolific film career.

The 26-year-old director traces the start of his "fury to do this work" back to high school. He was given free rein to make videos for student activities like bonfires or blood drives. No one else was interested. "I would shoot things so that people would be bleeding all over a room, and blood would be shooting out of peoples' chests," Fotopoulos says. "Guys would be covered in blood, and other guys would show up wearing masks. These things would be shown, and people would be completely confused as to what it was about. And then they would find out it was about a blood drive."

It was the blood of the poet that was more in question at last year's annual Robert Flaherty Seminar, a conference on independent filmmaking held each summer on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, New York. Attendees are never told what they're about to watch, and the event's curator, Ed Halter, showed Fotopoulos' 1999 feature, "Migrating Forms."

"Migrating Forms" is a movie that asks: How few elements do you need to tell a story? Fundamentally, a man, a woman, a cat, a mysterious and migrating cyst, and horrible desire that can't be killed by sex. For eighty minutes of muzzy black-and-white imagery, we're trapped inside an apartment as cramped as a desolate man's mind. Minimalist and obsessive, Fotopoulos' film rejects a romanticized bohemian outlook, gazing pitilessly upon working-class misery along the boundaries of madness.

That twisted dirge of sexual anxiety may be the most idiosyncratic feature ever made by a 22-year-old, utterly rejecting both the indie and Sundance aesthetic. Critic Travis Crawford wrote in Filmmaker magazine that it resembles a "1960s sexploitation movie as interpreted by Alexander Sokurov," the blur-fixated Russian director of "Russian Ark." Others compare his first three features, released on DVD this week by Facets, to the austere yet weird early work of the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. Fotopoulos, the veteran of sixteen micro-budgeted feature-length efforts, twenty-four shorts and a sum of works-in-progress that he won't detail on the record, shrugs off the comparisons, bluntly rejecting the tyranny of influence.

After the screening, a woman hypothesized that an elaborate prank was being perpetrated by Halter and that all the critical praise in the filmmaker's bio was fabricated. "I don't think she really believed this herself," says Bryan Wendorf, head of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, who was there. "But she seemed unaware of how insulting it was to both Jim and Ed as well as the other Fotopoulos supporters in attendance. The room was passionately divided about Jim's films and Jim was uninterested in winning over anyone. The less he gave, the angrier and more emotional his critics became. When asked about the attack, Jim commented, `They didn't break me.'"

He's waiting at an elevated stop in Rogers Park, the designated rendez-vous, with a calm smile, holding a sack with tapes of some of his recently completed work. He leads the way to an unmarked tavern on Sheridan Road called Moody's. It's a broodingly overcast afternoon, yet the place is lit only by firelight and candles. It's even darker than one of Fotopoulos' early films.

The unflappable and articulate filmmaker speaks with engagingly intense detail about work from Raoul Walsh to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and his special fascination for the subversive formal characteristics of John Ford's Westerns, overlooked by most critics because of that director's seldom-questioned place in the pantheon of greats. But "I was never a film fan," he says. "I started in film so young, I was sixteen, it was all very much other technical things. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted and then it was a matter of executing it. Almost all of it is technically rooted. I never looked at a film and said, I want to make films like that person." His high-school filmmaking career took an unexpected turn when he had his way depicting a charity walk. "I had legless people trying to walk, and people on crutches, and people vomiting. I think someone humiliates one of the people on crutches because they can't walk. At that point, the physics teacher complained, and said that what this guy is doing is not proper for the school. And I was fired. But when I look back, that was a very good experience. Filmmaking is such an expensive medium, and requires so much orchestration. So a lot of people don't start out when they're young."

Still, there are sweet parallels to the work of others, such as the climactic pastoral idyll of the punishing, self-lacerating "Zero." The images are as gentle as the rain at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev," and the use of optical tinting suggests the work of experimental veteran Stan Brakhage. (A local art critic was offended by the film, lecturing Fotopoulos that you can't mix exploitation-level production with experimental technique; the same writer has come over to his side as the work has grown more ambitious and divergent.)

These movies are way behind Fotopoulos' constantly evolving--or mutating--output. Technology makes it possible to shoot an enormous amount of footage, or to produce a large number of works, but the means of distribution hasn't caught up with the means of production. It's strange talking to this young, steadfastly normal-looking and uncommonly assured man about "Migrating Forms," 2000's sinister pseudo-gangster "Back Against the Wall" and 1997's "Zero," a morbid, grating 16mm one-man descent into a sexually obsessive hell. For him, they're the distant past. These early movies take what could be seen as "bad" stylistic practice: a Warhol simplicity or a B-level horror-movie aesthetic to demonstrate sociopathic, illogic or ritual behavior. The soundtracks are filled with droning sounds, or synthesizer loops, making use of the limited, notoriously muddy sonic range of 16mm optical sound. (There's a DVD extra of pages from his notebooks, including one spread where he notes a budget of $550 and has scribbled a reminder to himself to pick up a "gizzard.")

The Chicago Underground Festival has given grants to Fotopoulos, as well as slotting "Back Against the Wall" as 2001's opening-night attraction. Festival director Wendorf introduced the work to Facets Video's programmers, and asserts that Fotopoulos "is by far the most interesting independent filmmaker in Chicago and one of the most exciting young filmmakers in the U.S." When asked to elaborate, he makes a precise point: "Most indie filmmakers are only independent in terms of their financing. Jim is a real maverick, with a strong sense of the history of cinema, from Dreyer to Brakhage to John Ford." What's different about his work, then? "He approaches film almost as a form of psychic alchemy. He's exploring his own interior states and examining his relationship to the world."

In recent video excursions, such as 2002's ninety-minute "Hymn," a sexually explicit, luxuriantly colored, multi-layered video work more suited to art galleries than art-house cinemas, he creates a hypnotic investigation of conventions of sexual representation as well as repetition in pornography. The work is painstakingly detailed and languorous. "The people who like the more narrative films generally don't like the video work. Very few people like both. They're so different."

"His unwillingness to limit his audience's reaction to his work by explaining what it means is what frustrates lazy viewers," Wendorf adds, which is also the legacy of filmmakers like Lynch and Cronenberg. "The meaning Jim finds in his work is for him and he finds it in the process of making it. What others see in it when it's finished is up to them, and I don't think Jim thinks there are wrong interpretations. He isn't dealing with metaphor in any traditional sense. The tumor on the woman's back in `Migrating Forms' doesn't represent anything beyond what it is. What that means to me as a viewer has changed many times through repeated viewing of the film. I don't think that there is a correct way of reading his films. Like life, the meaning changes from one moment to the next."

Ray Privett of Facets calls Fotopoulos' work "uncompromising and obsessive, with rare power and passion." He admits they're not for every viewer, but thinks that some will find themselves "in a sort of devastated awe."

Fotopoulos says that he's had to make unspecified choices in life in order to devote himself to the work. He bluntly told another Flaherty attendee that "My purpose is to use this medium to balance my relationship between good and evil." He believes the actual concept of "freedom" is seldom practiced by contemporary artists. Much of it comes from his belief that the freedom to do anything you want can be mistaken for the freedom to do what you think others expect of you. You make certain sacrifices, and modern technology allows you to immerse yourself in a world of your own creation. "The misconception is that I am doing this stuff blindly, doing this stuff with no sense of a continuing progression."

Does that mean he's not thinking in terms of a career, that in fact his work can only become more sophisticated, ambitious and even less commercial? "You're constantly trying to be involved with producers, trying to be involved with bigger budgets and so forth," he says. "You're always doing it, but in the meantime you can't stop doing the work. I don't like to talk about that too much, that aspect of it, but each year things have been getting better. More people have been hearing about the films and I've been getting more credibility. It helps your reputation, getting bigger things going. Developing your reputation is one of the key things."

To Fotopoulos, filmmaking is as simple as starting a sentence and finishing it. "You create your own context for yourself. You say, `This is what I do, you have to pay attention to it.' It's a little bit slower but you just have to give up or go anywhere, just continue what you're doing. An interesting problem with the film world is that at best, my work can only exist on the periphery of it. Most films, what they're about, I find pretty disgraceful."

Fotopoulos is suspicious of film schools, their cost and their dogma. (He spent a year at Columbia.) He's often made remarks like "The film world is a very tricky and sometimes evil place." Many so-called indie films are as limited in their means as Fotopoulos' more astringent work, your basic "three-guys-in-a-room" movies, where characters have lengthy conversations about their romantic or economic failings while the filmmaker demonstrates very little formal control or innovation.

"Most people shouldn't be making films, it's true," Fotopoulos exclaims, starting to explain his own concerns. "The indie film thing, that's been around about ten years, hasn't it? I was in high school. I see a lot of those films now on cable and they're really embarrassing. It's all the same actors, with goatees. It's very simplistic, it's not an evolved way of thinking about how things are."

Even at 26, an outside observer might want to consider his work formative, especially considering his experimentalist bent. It's one of the forks the conversation doesn't take. It's not a fruitful concern for someone so prolific. He reaches for the universal instead. "The films that are coming out, I made from ages 18 to 20. These new works, the video works, to say they're still formative... The thing is, my view toward the medium is that it's very young--it's only a hundred years old. Video's probably going to eclipse it. But if you recognize how complex things are around you and then you understand the multitude of things you can do with film or video, you can form this very surgical process on those things you don't comprehend."

So does that make the young prodigy a consummate auteur or an ambitious filmic shock-jock? One of the young director's most articulate champions is Ed Halter, who writes widely on alternative film, as well as heading the New York Underground Film Festival. He situates Fotopoulos' fixations this way: "Obsessed with the philosophical problems regarding sex, violence, extreme psychic states and unnerving atmospheres... Fotopoulos' films wed a youthful fixation with the overpowering nature of primal drives to an uncommonly mature certitude of vision and technique."

The day of the interview, dusk falls. The wind bites. Fotopoulos muses, "I don't know if I'll stay here. I can get shows in Rotterdam, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, at Anthology Film Archives in New York, but I still can't get a show in Chicago. Chicago doesn't have that kind of interest. Can you be any kind of filmmaker here? I don't know."

The sky is gray as Ilford film stock. He has more to say. He could talk all night. The gusts off the lake, a block away, are harsh. He goes. He'll start work with a new video editor the next day. Three more feature-length pieces will be done before the DVDs hit the streets the first week of March. The future is now. Work, always.

[Originally appeared in a different form in Newcity, 5 March 2003.]