07 October 2005

Getting smaller every day: watching the Chicago International Film Festival

Tiny, vital movies at the Chicago International Film Festival

"I am big, the pictures got small."

Billy Wilder put those words in the mouth Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and they're getting smaller still, in a way that the acerbic Wilder might not have understood.

Festivals like Sundance, Slamdance and the Chicago Underground Film Festival, to name only a few, have, in the past few years, embraced a smaller form of filmmaking, often rough, sometimes ragged, mingling techniques of documentary and fiction while also bringing the camera discomfortingly close to one's friends. The 2005 Chicago International Film Festival has a sturdy selection of this kind of movie, with choices like Joe Angio's How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It), Mark Levin's filmmaker-in-your-face Protocols of Zion, and particularly, two Chicago-rooted projects, Joe Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth and Danielle Beverly's Learning to Swallow.

When the so-very-young Michael Kutza began CIFF 41 years ago, a just-out-of-college graphic designer, his first honoree was Norma D. herself, Gloria Swanson. It was a different world and a different festival then; a request to the festival's press office to talk to Kutza about the journey from glamour to grit got no reply. Later in the 1960s, a dynamo named Melvin van Peebles, born on the South Side in 1932, made a movie called Sweet Sweetback's Baadassssss Song. Like CIFF, Van Peebles is still unstoppable at 72, as well as in the criminally entertaining How to Eat, Angio, also Chicago-born and trained, now editor-in-chief of Time Out New York, vividly encapsulates the drive of this renaissance motherfucker: you get an inkling of what "indie" ought to mean, as much as how van Peebles fathered contemporary black movies.

But what can be done today? Technology makes it possible to be a wizard or a fool, on your own terms, in your own time. Both Kissing on the Mouth and Learning to Swallow suggest that if everyone with the energy can make a film, films will be made about people you know, and about people who are like the people you know. Learning to Swallow held mulitple pitfalls for me on a first viewing. I've known director Danielle Beverly for a long time, and its subject, Patsy Desmond, I've known for 16 years. My dread upon hearing of its production was a more ominous reaction than the one I had to last fall's sensationalistic cover story in the Reader, which presented a journalist's set of shards after the fact, or my own stab last June at writing a modest item about the opening of Patsy's now-defunct Humboldt Park gallery for Newcity. The sorts of questions I've asked documentary filmmakers, and had to ask the collaborators with whom I've worked with myself, all erupt painfully in the face of this film.

For these reasons, I can't tell you if Learning to Swallow is good or not, and wouldn't put myself in the position of reviewing it, but Beverly's documentary evokes questions that matter to me in the evolving state of film making. In the film's press kit, Beverly writes, "She was the girl who was friends with every band, who worked at the coolest hipster places, who was at every rock show dancing wildly." "Learning" comes afterwards, however, four years in Desmond's life after a suicide attempt with drain cleaner that destroyed her digestive system, tracking her coming to terms with her artistic ambition as a photographer (with much of her work previously unseen), her family, her increasing weakness and her previously undiagnosed bipolar illness. Beverly's camera is unflinching, and the mix of confusion, pain and sometimes, self-delusion, on the part of her central figure-her friend-is distressing.

Desmond is nothing if not keen on attention. "I started shooting pretty quickly after gaining Patsy's permission," Beverly says. "I'm attracted to dramatic, unfolding stories, watching a process and the transformation of a subject. So there was no time to sit back and try to get funding, or to conceptualize the entire film. I just jumped right in." Following the cinema verite examples she admires, Beverly says she worked not to plan anything. "I felt it important to keep an open mind and simply observe. And to keep my mouth shut!" the ebullient director says, adding, "Which is not an easy thing for me."

Mouth shut, eyes open, Beverly says, "I could have never predicted what Patsy would go through: a surgery that attempted to restore her digestive system, her road to physical and emotional recovery, the amazing people she met along the way, and finally her profound reconnection with her artistic self. I did hope Patsy would fulfill her desire to make it back to Chicago, and in that sense, that plan did come to fruition. But I did not have an agenda for how the story would unfold, only that I would follow it until a natural end."

Is it possible to get too close? "I don't really think about distance as a concept I should adhere to. I'm a filmmaker, not a journalist. I just try to bear truthful witness to the situation I'm filming. To listen and be watchful. I'm not afraid of human pain and am actually continually drawn to it as a documentary subject--the incredible pain of living."

While now in New York after several years in San Francisco, working on documentaries, including several PBS quantities, Chicago remains key to her work. "My time living in Chicago, particularly in Wicker Park in the early nineties, had a huge influence." She studied at the School of the Art Institute and later, attended grad school at Columbia. "Music and art were all around me in Wicker Park. I put myself through school by working at Reckless Records, Earwax and Dusty Groove. My boyfriend Eric was making music video and experimental film with his company H-Gun. Everyone I knew was doing something interesting! Actually, I met practically everyone I know from Chicago through Patsy. She was there in the center of the scene."

That scene, however, remains off-screen in Learning, and audiences witness a different story, a different figure. "I'm finding that women respond to the film in an intensely visceral way. Although Patsy's experience is singular, it also has universality in its portrayal of one person's resilience, redemption and self-acceptance."

"It's not an easy film," Beverly says with understatement. "It is highly intimate and at times quite dark. It's a documentary and you can't change what happened to make it more palatable. I don't believe in soft-pedaling the truth."

Joe Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth comes from a younger perspective, from one like the older Beverly describes in the years she first knew Patsy in Chicago. Shot and written by Swanberg, Kris Williams, Kate Winterich, and Kevin Pittman, who are also the writers and actors, Kissing is a pleasingly laconic slice of post-collegiate life, hardly urgent, not quite slacker-ish, not about children of privilege, but about lazy afternoons and conflicts experience doesn't yet cover-with intermittent showers of fucking.

In several conversations over the past few months, Swanberg's intimated that it's a prototypical twenty-first-century "Kids!-Let's-Put-On-A-Show! "production. "In a sense, it absolutely is," he agrees. Just turned 24, Swanberg was 22 when the film was shot. "We had been out of school for about a year, and neither Kris nor I had really made anything creative in that time. So we were anxious to do something. Kate was in the same boat, so I asked her to be in the film. For all three of us, we were desperate to make a film, to be creative. The content came from our frustration with other films about people our age, and we agreed that with no pressure and nobody looking over our shoulders, we should use this opportunity to be completely open. We had no reputations to protect, no careers to look out for, and really nothing to stop us from being as uncommercial and artistic as possible, so we went for it. It was great."

Without readily available, affordable equipment, Kissing wouldn't exist. "I could not have justified borrowing money from friends or family to make this," Swanberg says. "If I didn't already own a camera and a computer with editing software, there would have been no impetus to start this project. I've never been one to glamorize going into debt in order to follow your creative vision. I'm a lot more practical than that. I'm also practical about the challenge it would be for a distributor to release a film like this. It doesn't stop me from getting frustrated that there aren't many brave souls on the distribution end of the business, but I totally understand the hesitancy to take a risk with such a small film."

Swanberg is alert as well to other possibilities in a system that perhaps does not yet exist. "What it's going to do is force filmmakers to release their own work, or it will create a lot of much smaller video distributors that function a lot more like record labels. The indie music world manages to release a shitload of records every year, and just as many bands go on tour, and there seems to be the infrastructure to support that. Nobody makes any money, but it allows the bands to keep making music." Sounding like a young van Peebles, Swanberg continues, "Film is going to start following that model a lot more closely. Filmmakers are going to have to hit the road together, booking spaces and charging admission, selling beer, selling T-shirts and DVDs, and providing a face-to-face experience that the multiplex can't offer. With a lot of these smaller films, it makes total sense to create a more intimate and friendly viewing experience than the traditional theater experience can offer. With 'Kissing,' we're still talking with some of the more conventional distribution companies, but I can only wait so long before I just want to get it out there myself. I'll probably see what happens with my next film, and if no distributor wants it, then I'll consider trying to tour with both films and selling them myself."

Swanberg's keen on how other filmmakers sell themselves, too. "I have a lot of influences, but it's usually not because of the films, but rather the personalities of the filmmakers. I love Werner Herzog, though I don't know his films all that well. He's absolutely an influence. I've had the pleasure of being in a room with him and listening to him talk a few times, and his discussions are always influential. The same is true of Barbet Schroeder. I've probably only seen about half of his films, but the stories about him, and his interviews, are extremely influential."

Beverly's influences tend back to 1990s greats. "The one film that made me realize I could shoot, direct and produce a documentary all by myself was The Cruise by Bennett Miller. I remember sitting in the theater and watching on the big screen a mini-DV documentary, about one person, shot by one person. If he could do it, so could I. Of course, now he's making narrative features, but that's another story..." (Miller's Capote is released later this month.)

"Mary Ellen Mark's Streetwise was a huge influence," she adds, alluding to one of the more wrenching movies ever made by a fine arts photographer. "I remember being ripped apart by that film, leaving the theater and realizing for the first time how a documentary was different from a narrative film. All the films of the Maysles Brothers, and the exuberance of Albert Maysles in particular, has been very motivating. Barbara Kopple too, especially her perseverance and conviction." Beverly resists filmmaking that reveals the presence of the filmmaker. "Many, many people encouraged me to put myself in the documentary because of my relationship with Patsy. But it seemed preposterous! Why would I need to be in the documentary when there was so much going on in front of the camera? It kind of drives me nuts when filmmakers feel compelled to insert themselves into their own film. Isn't the person they are filming interesting enough to watch? Because if they aren't, maybe they should be filming something different."

But Beverly returns to the more measured gaze: "Probably the greatest influence on me was, and still is, documentary photography. Danny Lyon, Nan Goldin and Larry Clark all made groundbreaking work by photographing the people in their own lives. They did it in a profoundly intimate manner, by training their camera on folks who were at their most vulnerable, and living through their darkest moments. And the results were transcendent."

[Originally appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity, October 6, 2005.]