In normal times, I’d be in Toronto for TIFF. I am currently attending the modified “virtual edition” of it, but it’s not the same as being there in person. My last TIFF was in 2014 (see here and here) and I’m overdue for a return (just not this year, naturally.)
I’m thinking a lot about my first TIFF, 15 years ago. Earlier this summer, going through a slew of CD-Rs full of photos from the Oughts, I found one disc I didn’t know I had from that trip. I believe this was right before I acquired my first digital camera, so these pix are among the last I ever took with my old, trusty point-and-shoot (before it unceremoniously died.) Above is McCaul Street and the ever-distinct OCAD University building.
I’m certain I saw more films at the Paramount (now ScotiaBank) Theatre than any other venue that year, thus spending much time around this nearby stretch of Queen Street West. Club Monaco and Steve’s Music (not pictured) are still there, but I’m guessing not much else is.
My first TIFF was also my first time in Toronto (and Canada, for that matter). Although I managed to see 16 films in five days, I also made time for sightseeing. Here’s Spadina Avenue in Chinatown…
…and nearby Kensington Market. Above is a stretch of Kensington Avenue; I don’t seem to have a shot of Augusta Avenue, where I just had to seek out the building used for exterior shots in the cult sitcom Twitch City.
Back in 2005, I found Toronto City Hall fairly ugly; now, I appreciate its mid-century modern splendor. It’s sleeker than Boston’s Government Center, anyway.
University Avenue. I retain fond memories of getting iced coffee from Second Cup along this stretch and being puzzled that the straws available for use had no paper on them (particularly shocking in 2020.)
Further up University Ave: Queen’s Park, and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.
I stayed at a bed and breakfast over on Jarvis Street, across from Allan Gardens, pictured here. (Please ignore the (incorrect) time stamp.)
I was amused to see a bar/restaurant named after my hometown in Toronto at 220 Adelaide Street West. It’s long gone (as of 2007, according to Google Maps.)
I don’t recall if I went up the CN Tower back then (I know I did in 2009.) Anyway, here’s a bit of Old (the smokestack), New (the glassy high-rises) and Mid-Century Toronto (along with a seabird.) I look forward to seeing it all again, maybe in 2021.
If you’re looking for something as nearly tuned into the modern world and its growing socio-economic divide as last year’s Parasite, have I got a new film for you. Bacurau, the latest from the Brazilian director of my second favorite movie of 2016, had a brief, mostly virtual digital cinema run just as COVID started shutting everything down earlier this year. Now available to stream on The Criterion Channel (and rent elsewhere), it’s a visionary take on an established genre (best not known going into it.) As it unfolds, a fervent chaos burrows deeper and deeper into both its narrative and moral code, surfacing in often thrilling ways: a drunken rant at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain ‘80s pop song appearing out of nowhere but recalibrating the mood perfectly. I’ve seen two new movies I’ve loved more in 2020, but won’t be surprised if a second viewing pushes this to the top.
In addition to continuing my Egoyan re-watch (The Adjuster, a leap forward in style/budget/concept, even if it’s hard to care about most of its quirky characters; Calendar, a formalist hoot and the type of low budget/experimental film I wish he made more of), I revisited for the first time in two decades Kiarostami’s “Koker Trilogy”, which was filmed in a rural Iranian village over about six or seven years. Not really conceived of as a trilogy, it nonetheless tracks his move from neorealism to meta-comment on narrative and filmmaking itself. He did the latter better elsewhere (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry), but the first of the three films, Where Is My Friend’s House? remains his peak regarding the former (and it also has what is still one of my favorite final shots ever.)
Apart from Bacurau, best first-time watches included my first Mia Hansen-Løve film (which takes its time but eventually arrives at a lovely place, in no small part due to Isabelle Huppert’s always reassuring presence), Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins such a winning heroine in this) and Mr. SOUL!, a stellar doc about a forgotten early public television show/host you should know. Also liked Walk Hard (no one rips a sink outta a wall like John C. Reilly), Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend could’ve been the black Christopher Guest), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (young Paul Newman my god!) and Amy Seimetz’s first feature, which manages to be more Floridian than even The Florida Project.
Films viewed in August in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin, 2020) 5 Where Is My Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)* 10 Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007) 7 Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Love 2016) 8 Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958) 7 Bed and Board (Francois Truffaut, 1970) 6 Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987) 7 Life, and Nothing More… (Kiarostami, 1992)* 9 Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989) 8 Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz, 2012) 7 The Adjuster (Atom Egoyan, 1991)* 7 High Heels (Pedro Almodovar, 1991) 6 Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)* 9 Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961) 7 Through the Olive Trees (Kiarostami, 1994)* 7 Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, 2012) 4 Bacurau (Kleber Mendonca Filho, Juliano Dornelles, 2019) 9 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)* 8 I Used To Go Here (Kris Rey, 2020) 6 Calendar (Egoyan, 1993)* 8 Burning Ghost (Stephane Batut, 2019) 5 The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) 7 Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)* 6 Epicentro (Hubert Sauper, 2020) 7 Mr. SOUL! (Sam Pollard, Melissa Haizlip, 2018) 8
Thursday morning, Ewa yells down to the basement, “Chris, are you up?” Half-asleep, I mean to answer “yes” but blurt out, “OK!” We have a six hour drive ahead of us and want to reach Ann Arbor by 5. After a quick meal of Sugar Smacks and Polish peach concentrated drink, we hit the road. Under overcast skies, we enter I-94 South, which will take us all the way to our destination. I pop in The Last Days of Disco soundtrack while Ewa whips out a pack of Kool cigarettes, having run out of our beloved cloves. It takes a few puffs to adjust to a fresher, mint-ier flavor, but as “I’m Coming Out”, “Good Times” and “Let’s All Chant” (the latter’s repeated “WOOP! WOOP!” cries will stay in my head all weekend) fill the air, I get used to the taste.
An hour passes as we crawl through Chicago; by then, we’re knee deep into ABBA, listening to “Waterloo” twice in a row, each lighting up another Kool. We leave the South Side behind for the blast furnace-lit shores of Northwest Indiana. A sign announces the new state as THE CROSSROADS OF AMERICA, whereas Michigan, some 20 miles on, has GREAT LAKES and GREAT TIMES (a slight improvement over the YES! M!CH!GAN tourism campaign of my youth.) Craving more than the leftover bread and tomatoes Ewa brought along for the ride, I make her stop at a Long John Silver’s outside Benton Harbor so I can use the restroom (or “Necessary Room” as they label it) and order some fries and hushpuppies.
We return to I-94, munching on fried food, unceremoniously throwing the trash into the backseat without a care that someday, we’ll have to collect and dispose of it elsewhere. We look for ways to amuse ourselves as we roll across flat, uneventful Michigan. I spot a business curiously called ABBITT, INC., to which Ewa suggests, “Well, some of their typewriter keys must’ve gotten stuck.” We bypass a town called Coloma, which inspires me to note, “I’d rather be in a coma than have to be in Coloma.” Hours pass. We listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland and I read a chapter or two of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All. In time, I recline my seat and nearly doze off to the dreamy African choral sounds of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
We arrive in Ann Arbor right on time. I imagined Teresa, whom I haven’t seen in over two years, would be living closer to the University of Michigan (where she’s studying Behavioral Science); instead, she’s in an ugly, utilitarian 1950s apartment complex on the outskirts of town, not too far from neighboring Ypsilanti and quite close to the Ypsi-Arbor Bowl (one can spot its vintage neon sign, with four pins spelling out B-O-W-L from her sliding glass door.) The unit is decorated with Formica-heavy furniture, tan shag carpeting and thick brown window drapes (with an ancient, equally brown 70s stove)—the kind of place you’d expect an elderly woman to reside in more so than a grad student, but Teresa seems content, as does her brownish-orange cat, Virginia, forever slinking near the door wanting to escape.
After a lazy debate as whether to go out or stay in for dinner, we rummage through Teresa’s fridge and find a package of Healthy Choice hot dogs and in the cupboard, a can of generic brand baked beans. Combined with Ewa’s leftover bread and tomatoes, we boil the hot dogs, nuke the beans and have ourselves a poor grad student’s feast. Still, it’s not enough. After a run to the local Farmer Jack’s for a box of Orville Redenbacher’s Redenbutter Microwave Popcorn, we settle in for an evening of The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, which Ewa and Teresa have seen repeatedly to the point of being able to recite all of the dialogue. Ewa takes the spare bedroom, while I set up camp on the living room couch. Virginia scratches the side of it for a minute before taking refuge on her cat bed. Worn out from all that time spent on the road, I doze off immediately.
The three of us sleep past noon and hang around Teresa’s place, resting before the evening’s activities: we are to pick up her friend and U of M classmate Nate and then go out to dinner followed by dancing at Nectarine, a gay club. Ewa in particular’s excited to go there with me; it’s not my first gay club, but the first one I’ll attend with friends from my pre-coming out days. I’m somewhat anxious about them seeing this side of me, but I figure that if I’m going to go to a gay bar with anyone from my past, it might as well be these two gals I went to high school with: Ewa, my best friend and Teresa, my Junior year Homecoming date (we went as “friends”, naturally.)
Nate resides in a typical off-campus apartment in central Ann Arbor—well, typical except for walls blanketed with taped-on Abercrombie ads ripped out of magazines featuring muscular young men in their skivvies. If I’m a newbie in regards to coming out, Nate’s unquestioningly gay with a capital G: he has the requisite bleached, cropped hair and wears a V-neck white t-shirt with a rainbow-beaded necklace; he only differs in appearance from the boys on the wall in that his physique’s more that of a (shaved) bear than a jock with a six-pack (or a twink.)
I instantly see why Teresa’s friends with Nate: he’s unaffected and outgoing, especially in his incessant candor regarding his sexuality. To pass time before dinner, he shows us a porno called Comrades in Arms from some former Eastern Bloc country. “All the guys in it are uncircumcised!,” he gushes. I haven’t watched any gay porn at that point and am intrigued for obvious reasons, but the women in our group aren’t impressed. “It just feels like something’s missing for us!,” Ewa explains. Nate then puts in an unmarked VHS of amateur porn (neither made by nor starring himself, thankfully) just because he wants us to witness the moment a women loudly belches after she spends what seems like hours going down on some guy.
I feel no physical attraction to Nate whatsoever, but his openness fascinates me; it’s something I haven’t really encountered on the handful of dates I’ve had with other guys. During dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant, he even says to us, apropos of nothing, “I worry I jerk off so much that it’s making me ill!,” causing me to nearly choke on my Mango Chicken Curry.
Like the gay clubs I’ve checked out in Boston, Nectarine is dark, crowded and loud, but the vibe’s a little different—not as intense or as guarded for sure. Maybe friendlier? Or is that just because I’m an unfamiliar face on a Friday night at what’s likely the only game in town for the LGBT community? The four of us get drinks at the bar (I’m sticking to Absolut Citron and Sprite) and venture out onto the dancefloor, Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” coursing through the sound system. The boy/girl ratio is at least five-to-one; there’s a few male couples here and there and not too many obvious lesbians.
Maybe it’s the booze, but I feel far less self-conscious than I usually do at a place like this. In the men’s room, I breezily walk up to a urinal, only half aware of the spiky-haired, heavily-pierced guy waiting in line ahead of me. He says, “You just walked right past me… and you did it so well.”
“Yes, I did!,” I triumphantly respond, my back to him. When I turn around, I see he’s probably close in age to me and kinda cute, but I don’t think of extending the conversation any further; I just smile and nod. I’m in town only for the night, I’m here with friends and I’m don’t want to hook up with someone right now. Still, I exit the bathroom more than a little giddy; no guy has talked to me so… flirtatiously before.
I return to the dancefloor, confident, exhilarated, even, worming my way through the throng, finding Ewa and Teresa at the opposite end; I don’t know where Nate’s gone (I’ll later find out that he went off with someone he met at the bar.) Donna Summer’s exuberant version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partirò)” comes on and the whole venue pulsates, seemingly on the verge of exploding.
As we jump to the beat, a tall blonde guy wearing a salmon-colored sweatshirt begins to dance right in front of me, smiling. I smile back. I don’t feel any pressure to make a move on him; perhaps if I were home, I’d feel more inclined to strike up a conversation, but it’s so loud and it doesn’t matter—I feel euphoric, as free as I’ve ever been. I’m doing the very thing that was inconceivable to me three years before when I finally realized exactly who I was and felt nothing but fear and misery about it. At last, I’m being myself and doing it so well.
The next morning, it’s time for Ewa and I to drive back to Milwaukee. My parents are picking me up there in the afternoon and we’ll return to Des Moines by nightfall. As we head West through Southern Michigan (nearly as flat and devoid of life as Western Illinois), Ewa says, “You know, Chris, Teresa and I were talking before we left. We’re impressed—you seem so much more comfortable in your own skin since the last time we both saw you.”
For this blog’s 250th post, here are 250 films I adore, in alphabetical order by title. All-time-favorite lists are always subject to change; it’s a good bet that I’ve forgotten a title or two more worthy of inclusion than a title or two here. I couldn’t even begin to rank all of these, but know that the directors with the most entries (five each) are Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson–extra impressive for the latter, who has to date directed only eight features (and I would re-watch the three that didn’t make the list in a heartbeat.)
2001: A Space Odyssey
35 Shots of Rum
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
A Christmas Story
A Hard Day’s Night
A History of Violence
A Matter of Life and Death
Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger
A Serious Man
Coen, Joel and Ethan
A Woman Under the Influence
Ace in the Hole
Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Fassbinder, Rainer Werner
All About Eve
Mankiewicz, Joseph L.
All About My Mother
All That Jazz
All the President’s Men
Pakula, Alan J.
Berman, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini
Filho, Kleber Mendonca
Army of Shadows
Au Hasard Balthazar
Away from Her
Back to the Future
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Being John Malkovich
Best in Show
Best Worst Movie
Stephenson, Michael Paul
Bigger Than Life
Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger
Bonnie and Clyde
Anderson, Paul Thomas
Brand Upon the Brain!
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Bringing Up Baby
Call Me by Your Name
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Celine and Julie Go Boating
Cemetery of Splendour
Children of Men
Day for Night
Day Night Day Night
Do the Right Thing
Von Trier, Lars
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Refn, Nicholas Winding
End of the Century
Exit Through the Gift Shop
F for Fake
Varda, Agnes and JR
Far from Heaven
Coen, Joel and Ethan
Flirting with Disaster
Russell, David O.
Gleaners and I, The
Safdie, Benny and Josh
Maysles, Albert & David, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer
Less than an hour on the United Limo bus from O’Hare, we cross the state line. A rustic wooden sign, WISCONSIN WELCOMES YOU in the shape of said state only hints at an array of tidbits on the other side: Mars Cheese Castle (with its ginormous concrete mouse), restaurants promising “Bohemian Specialties” and a couple of adult video stores. Escape To Wisconsin for Dairy and Porn!
I arrive at Mitchell Airport just after 3:00. Ewa shows up in a red Grand Am and a white T-shirt. Her hair, like Dana’s, is the longest it has been since high school, rendering her slightly less tomboyish than usual. We hug and have so much to say to each other we barely know where to begin. Within seconds, however, she excitedly asks, “So, no pressure, but do you wanna drive out to Ann Arbor to see Teresa on Thursday?” Teresa is a mutual friend from high school that was also Ewa’s college roommate for two years. I wasn’t expecting to go to Michigan, but she really wants to see Teresa one more time before she moves to Poland to begin medical school next month. Ewa’s originally from there, having immigrated to the states with her family when she was seven.
Midway to her parents’ townhouse in the suburbs, I disclose that I have a fresh pack of clove cigarettes in my bag. “Well, Chris, why didn’t you say so in the first place?!” she blurts out. We immediately tear into them and take the long way home so that her father won’t smell anything on her. We drive down Old Route 41, itself shadowed by the adjacent expressway, past ancient motels sparsely dotting the strip with names like “El Rancho” (which Ewa dubs “El Roadshow” because it’s never busy except at lunchtime when customers apparently congregate for a downlow quickie) and the “Knotty Pine” (which I’ve always called the “Naughty Pine” for the same reason.)
After we drop my stuff off at the house, we take a walk along the new bike trail across Drexel Avenue. The late-afternoon August sun dominates the sky. We break out the cloves and I ask about her recent breakup with a longtime boyfriend; I get an expurgated version as she’s already sent me an epic letter with all the details (I’ll see it when I return to Boston.) In turn, she asks me about my sexuality. I’d come out to her the previous year via another epic letter. I am her first openly gay close friend, so she has a lot of questions. She’s curious at how I know what I like, since at that point I’m still a virgin. “What do you think of Harrison Ford?!,” she asks, herself a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones; she’s watched The Fugitive at least a dozen times. It’s hard to explain (I’ve never really thought about Ford, to be honest), but I don’t feel insulted, more relieved to be able to talk so freely with someone about this.
We head back towards civilization and reach Ewa’s house just in time for her father’s arrival. A physician, his thick accent and considerable girth always intimidated me in the past; now, it’s time to have dinner with him and Ewa’s comparably petite mother. We eat in the dining room, amidst upright cabinets displaying Polish plates, butter dishes and assorted knickknacks. On the menu: individual meatloaves, plain boiled potatoes sans any hint of seasoning and green beans one can accompany with a pour of bacon grease. Roughly similar to the kinds of meals I was served growing up, and yet not (potatoes of every variety were always doused in butter and bacon grease was usually poured directly from the pan into an empty can to congeal before its disposal.) I load up on beans (and just a few drops of the grease.) Her dad questions my post-grad school plans and offers some wine. I do as best I can to convince him I know what I’m doing with my life; I decline the wine—before dinner, Ewa warns me never to accept alcohol from her father or encourage him to drink because he tends to gets drunk, and besides, he’s on call tonight!
After dinner, I crave that hometown delicacy, Frozen Custard, so we swing by Kopp’s on 76th Street for a scoop. Then, we take a rather impromptu trip to my old neighborhood on the South Side. I haven’t been back home in over a year, but my anticipation diffuses as we drive down my street—it feels overly familiar, but tired rather than inviting since my parents no longer live there. We swing through the alley in back; our neighbors have replaced their junky old swing with a slightly newer, but still second-hand (and fairly junky) one; everything else is pretty much the same.
I awaken the next day around 11:00, racing up two flights of carpeted stairs from the basement and poking my head into Ewa’s bedroom. She’s still asleep under her cow-print blanket, arms at her sides like a mummy, her little grey cat, Taro, curled up on her pillow. Her father sits in a front of a computer screen in the next room, looking for a good deal on a used computer Ewa could take with her to Poland. His back to the door, he doesn’t notice me. I return to the basement, sprawl across the sofa bed and stare at a wood-and-brick paneled wall, pictures of Ewa’s older brother (now living in California) and his many framed accomplishments staring back at me.
In time, I walk back upstairs to find Ewa sitting in the living room, a bowl of Sugar Smacks in her lap, a mug of Turkish-style coffee at her side. We go downtown in order for Ewa to visit the Citizenship Office to get her status straightened out before going back to Poland. Once there, we empty our pockets before passing a security check—a novelty in the days before 9/11 made this mandatory for air travel. At the other end of a spacious marbled hallway, the Citizenship Office is so packed, Ewa has to take a number. She picks 10; they’re on 69, somehow. As we sit on an oak bench, I pour through copies of local alternative weekly paper The Shepherd Express and The Onion, which one can only read online in Boston.
Thirty-odd minutes later, I need some air, so I go for a walk. Compared to Boston at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon, Milwaukee’s almost a ghost town. I head west on Wisconsin Avenue towards the Milwaukee River, past Wok N Roll (a Chinese takeout place, obviously) and Grebe’s Bakery. I wonder into Walgreen’s, craving chocolate. A bum stands outside the store, selling something indiscriminate—candy, perhaps, or crack. Upon exiting Walgreen’s, I slip my Butterfinger into my jeans pocket and avoid eye contact with the street-salesperson (who is now talking to an immense, bearded man.)
I take the Riverwalk, passing under multiple skywalks until reaching Wells Street. From there, I revisit all the institutions I grew up with: The Pabst Theatre, City Hall (forever immortalized in the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley), Marcus Center For The Arts, Cathedral Square. As with my old neighborhood, everything feels overly familiar, not thrilling like I’d expected or hoped. I think back to a few years before, when I’d walk all the way from Marquette University to the Lower East Side, rummaging in one used record or bookstore after the next, blissfully bored but satiated. In Boston, I can more or less do the same thing there, so the idea of tracing this route again no longer has the same appeal.
When I return to the Citizenship Office, the front door’s locked. It had closed at 2:30, but Ewa was presumably still inside. She emerges fifteen minutes later, her status closer to being sorted out but not entirely (to her chagrin.) Ready for lunch, we drive over to The Gyros Stand in Bay View, which still has the best gyros I’ve ever consumed. I order the titular treat, along with super-thick-cut seasoned home fries and a bright green lemon-lime slushy that comes, as always, in a short, fat plastic cup.
We take our food over to South Shore Park, eating at a picnic bench overlooking Lake Michigan and the beach. Ewa only finishes half of her gigantic gyro, so she throws a piece of meat towards a seagull nearby. Seconds after this gesture, a swarm of twenty or so additional gulls materialize; they all caw and screech whenever Ewa throws them another piece of gyro meat. We take delight in this display of hunger and greed amongst the gulls, although I question whether they might start attacking us, having now developed a taste for flesh. Fortunately, as soon as Ewa runs out of meat and pita bread, the gulls quickly disperse.
By the following evening, we’re both chronically bored—contrary to what some Milwaukeeans might claim, you can only consume so much frozen custard or smoke so many cloves while driving through the outer suburbs or spend so many hours slugging down cheap coffee and frozen French fries at a George Webb’s (a local greasy spoon chain frequented by slacker college students and the elderly.) This is how I generally felt two years ago when I decided to move to Boston, hungry for disruption and change. Fortunately, Ewa and I were heading to Ann Arbor the next day.
I’m on a Greyhound Bus, en route from Des Moines to Chicago, back in the Midwest for about a month to visit my parents (who moved to Iowa from our hometown, Milwaukee, the previous year) and a few friends dispersed among three other states. Having just finished grad school in Boston and very much burned out on academia, I’ve spent “A Summer Wasting” (to quote a then-recent Belle and Sebastian song), filling my days writing in coffeehouses, biking along the Minuteman Trail and methodically weeding my way through Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I never finish.) I have no real prospects or cogent ideas as what to do next, so I’m living off my dwindling savings, prolonging the real world for as long as I can.
This six-hour express route has one stop along I-80 just outside Davenport at a large facility frequented by truckers and fellow travelers. I sit in a white plastic booth amidst the bleeps and blare of a nearby video arcade, sipping an Orange-Mango Tang juice box, eating fresh grapes from a plastic baggie and a cinnamon bagel generously spread with Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves. My bus driver’s in the booth behind me, downing black coffee and greasy Wendy’s potato cakes. After popping in my contacts in the men’s room, leaving the sink a saline-soaked mess as others line up behind me, eager to take my place, I return to the bus. It’s muggy outside and also unseasonably cool for mid-August.
Crossing the Mississippi River, a sign proclaims THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS WELCOME YOU. From there, the road stretches on, the landscape pancake-flat with endless fields of nothing, flanked by the occasional tree, decaying farmhouse, string of power lines, crop duster or road sign like NEXT EXIT 36 MILES. With Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions on my headphones, I attempt to write in my journal, but it’s too bumpy a ride, my pen involuntarily jerking all over the page.
Eventually, cornfields give way to strip malls and subdivisions. Off in the distance, I make out the faint visage of the tall, thin, severe Sears Tower. We pull into downtown Chicago a half-hour ahead of schedule. I look around the crowded station for Dana, a friend from high school; she’s currently working on her graduate degree at Loyola. I don’t see her, so I schlep my luggage outside onto Harrison Street, along with a dozen other folks also waiting for rides. A lanky, 68-year-old black man insists on divulging his age repeatedly to an uninterested eight-year-old white boy. I’m not certain that they actually know each other. The man then does a few push-ups for him, showing off his impeccable-for-his-age strength, I guess.
Finally, I spot Dana down the block walking towards me. She wears bulky denim overalls and her braided blonde hair’s far longer than it was the last time we got together, about eight months before when we met up over the holidays.
“Hey old person,” I call out.
“I’ll never be older than you,” she replies, deadpan. She is a year younger than me, but we maintain this running joke.
Pleased to see each other, but not overly excited, we don’t hug (we never do.) The punishing late afternoon sun, along with the concrete-heavy surroundings somewhat casts a pall on our reunion. We walk for two blocks, then enter the subway deep into Chicago’s bowels and take the L outbound to the far North Side. Her neighborhood consists of long rectangular blocks dense with five and six story pre-war apartment buildings. It’s also close to Lake Michigan, where there’s a number of post-war high rises along the coast (one of them was likely Bob and Emily Hartley’s in the 1970s.)
We take a manually-operated elevator up to her fifth-floor studio, during which I had to follow one rule, due to Dana’s fear of elevators: Stay Still. Her studio apartment is cramped but cozy, densely packed with her canine figurines and an assortment of Pez dispensers. Not wanting to be cooped up in this shoebox on a hot August night, we get in her Blue Tercel and drive out to the ‘burbs for an early dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. Although we have our pick of an array of cosmopolitan cuisine in this mighty city, we’re both poor grad students and it is our tradition to dine out on reasonably priced Navajo Chicken Sandwiches at our favorite chain restaurant.
Returning to her neighborhood, we look for a parking space, circling her block (and adjacent ones) over and over until something opens up. We spend at least 20 minutes completing this task, which, according to Dana, is less time than usual. After a quick freshening up, we hop back on the L inbound to Wrigleyville. There, among all the other people in their 20s and 30s enjoying a Friday night out on the town, we check out an immense store specializing in leather jackets, Doc Martens and other “alternative” clothing. Curiously enough, it also sells plenty of unpainted stone gargoyles.
We head up North Halsted over to Boystown, a “gayborhood” flanked by rainbow beacons. Lots of guys out that night—we see one young man wearing tight leather pants. This prompts Dana to ask me, “I don’t get it – why would you wear something just to show off your package when you don’t really have much of one to show off?” I honestly don’t know the answer to that. She’s still fixated on it as we consume two-and-a-half pots of coffee and a slice of cherry pie each at a nearby IHOP (this one still in its classic A-Frame design.)
As with most of my Midwestern friends, I came out to Dana in an email the year before. She wrote back, “Frankly, Chris, I was more surprised when you said you were dating a girl.” (Yes, that was a thing only two years before, and a story for another time.) Presently, I hadn’t dated much or even slept with another guy; Dana, on the other hand, was actually engaged, having met her fiancé Marc while attending the U of M in Minneapolis. It was clear our lives were heading on divergent paths. Dana, oddly enough, was who’d encouraged me to check out Boston for grad school, her having visited relatives there. I’d secretly hoped she’d even come out there for school as well. Instead, after getting her master’s in social work the following year, she’d move back to Minnesota and get married. We talked about all of this and seemingly every other little thing that came to mind, from our waitress’ hot pink lipstick to how neither of us had ever found a scone as buttery and moist as those we use to regularly get at Gil’s Café, our haunt of choice back in Milwaukee.
The rest of that weekend passed by unremarkably: we watched movies, walked along the Lake and all over the Loop, had the requisite Chicago style hot dog (topped with seemingly every condiment except for ketchup, of course) and sought occasional breaks from the relentless late-Summer heat (contrary to the popular expression, it was not all that much cooler by the Lake.) Monday morning, we took the L all the way out to O’Hare so I could catch a United Limo bus to Milwaukee. This trip took ninety minutes—roughly the amount of time it would take to drive from her apartment to Milwaukee. Our parting mirrored our meeting: no hugs, just a pat on the back, a “Stay outta trouble” and a “Maybe we’ll met up at Christmas”; we’d next see each other at her wedding.
As much as I enjoyed spending a weekend with Dana, I admit I was seeking something in Chicago that I did not find—a sense of direction, perhaps, a reason to relocate again and reconnect with the region I came from. All I felt was ambivalence, a city that was essentially a supersized version of my hometown, less than 100 miles north.
With The Criterion Channel now streaming Atom Egoyan’s first seven features (plus an eighth, actually his eleventh), I decided to start rewatching them in order—my first viewings of all except for Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter in over twenty years. So far, Next of Kin is as unique and assured a debut as I remember, Family Viewing a more ambitious but less resonant follow-up (before this rewatch, I barely recalled anything about it) and Speaking Parts less frustrating and infinitely more layered this time around. Having a blast doing this, so expect more deep chronological dives into directors’ filmographies in the future.
Got to see two early Miranda July shorts on Criterion as well (in July! That didn’t occur to me until after the fact.) Both are inessential compared to her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (which could also use a rewatch) although it’s genuinely interesting to see July run through numerous ideas (particularly in Nest of Tens) that she would fully realize (albeit in mutated forms) in Me and You…
My highest rating of the month goes to The Living End, which I hadn’t seen since 1997 when it nearly changed my life in terms of queer depiction/representation, its frank approach to gay sex and desire and Araki’s DIY spirit. It holds up far better than expected thanks to how well it captures an ultra-specific zeitgeist and also for its daring, humanizing ending. Also revisited My Own Private Idaho, an invaluable record of River Phoenix’s presence (and Gus Van Sant’s talent before he pivoted to the mainstream) and The Age of Innocence, one of Scorsese’s most improbable, successful adaptations.
As for new movies, I checked out two at PIFF’s reimagined-for-streaming edition of their annual festival. Black Bear is, in some ways, a riff on Mulholland Drive-style duality without David Lynch’s genius or flair for the bizarre, but it becomes its own thing by the end, with Aubrey Plaza here nearly as good as Naomi Watts was there. Stage Mother is far more conventional and sentimental, but entertaining and affecting thanks to great work from Jacki Weaver.
Got to a few things that were on my watchlist forever: The Sheltering Sky (as odd as you’d expect from a Bertolucci/Malkovich/Winger pairing), Kramer Vs. Kramer (Hoffman’s iconic, but I prefer Baumbach’s homage/update Marriage Story), Gaslight (the best Bergman?), two from Godard’s peak period (neither of which compel like Band of Outsiders or Pierrot le Fou) and Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, a provocative time capsule of Los Angeles, 1968 reflecting back a metropolis both tarnished and sinister even a year before the Manson Murders.
Films viewed in July in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)
David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967) 6 Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986) 8 Next Of Kin (Atom Egoyan, 1984)* 8 The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)* 7 Disclosure (Sam Feder, 2020) 6 The Amateurist (Miranda July, 1998) 5 The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990) 8 The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992)* 9 MuchoMuchoAmor (Kareem Tabsch, Cristina Costantini, 2020) 7 The Married Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) 7 Edie (Simon Hunter, 2017) 6 Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010) 6 Family Viewing (Egoyan, 1987)* 7 The Boy With Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948) 6 Stage Mother (Thom Fitzgerald, 2020) 7 Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine, 2020) 8 Kramer Vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) 7 Nest of Tens (July, 2000) 6 My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)* 8 Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) 7 Yes, God, Yes (Karen Maine, 2019) 7 A.C.O.D. (Stuart Zicherman, 2013) 4 The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)* 8 Made In U.S.A (Godard, 1966) 6 Tchoupitoulas (Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV, 2012) 7 Speaking Parts (Egoyan, 1989)* 8 Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969) 8
I’ve already written about how 1980 was an exceptionally weird year for pop culture: on the basis of such stupendous offerings as The Jazz Singer (starring Neil Diamond!) and Pink Lady and Jeff, one detects a higher-than-average collective lapse in good taste. Happily, that’s not the case regarding the year’s music—I had to show restraint in limiting it to forty tracks.
While not perverse enough to include anything from The Apple or Can’t Stop The Music soundtracks, I’ve made room for two from Xanadu without apology: Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”, because I retain so many memories of hearing it in the backseat of my parents’ Mercury Monarch, and ELO’s “All Over The World”, arguably the Xanadu song most perfectly capturing the futuristic cheese it was attempting (even more than the beloved title track, I’ll argue.)
Still, I don’t think any of these annual playlists will have as many actual number one hits as this one. At its death throes, AM Top 40 radio gave us such glories as Diana Ross’ Chic-produced eleganza, Blondie’s Moroder-produced iconic New Wave sleaze, Streisand’s Gibb-produced immaculate, melodramatic soft rock, McCartney’s kooky new wave experiment (actually a hit in the US in a less interesting live recording), and, most intriguingly, Lipps Inc.’s midway-between-disco-and-synthpop one-shot whose remedial genius will likely outlive all of its chart-topping cohorts. I didn’t even have room for worthy number ones from Queen (take your pick) or Pink Floyd, instead opting for two from the UK: one of Abba’s least overplayed (and thus, freshest) standards and Bowie’s chilling-but-catchy “Space Oddity” sequel.
As Macca knew, Post-Punk/New Wave was a big thing at the time, if not always on the charts. The Brits were all over it (The English Beat, The Cure, The Soft Boys, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, XTC, etc.) as was Australia (Split Enz), Canada (Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade), and in the USA, representatives from Akron, Ohio (Devo, Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde), Athens, Georgia (The B-52’s, Pylon) and, oh, New York City (Talking Heads). Proto New Wave stalwarts Roxy Music effortlessly adjusted to the times (the scintillating “Same Old Scene”); forgoing easy categorization, Prince on his third album crafted a New Wave song because he could and naturally it was great.
The rest is a typically eclectic assortment of post-disco both mainstream (The Jacksons pushing lessons learned from Michael’s Off The Wall into euphoric overdrive) and esoteric (Cristina’s deranged Peggy Lee cover) brushing up against a bevy of smooth pop that we now call “Yacht Rock”: late Steely Dan, brief superstar Christopher Cross, Rupert Holmes’ slick and drenched-in-irony follow-up to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and George Benson, who pioneered the R&B strain of this with 1976’s Breezin’ and this year brought Quincy Jones on board for Give Me The Night, its title track his biggest and best hit.
Freshman year at Marquette University, I commuted from home (having grown up less than a twenty-minute drive away.) Quickly becoming fed up with that, Sophomore year, I lived in a dorm; Junior year was spent in a residence hall (more like a glorified dorm for four with two bedrooms and a common space.) As for Senior year, I made the coveted but not at all uncommon transition from on-campus to off, having secured (along with three friends from the residence hall) a unit in Renee Row, a modern apartment complex where I’d have my own bedroom, an outdoor deck, and plenty of space for all the curious belongings of four male undergrads (in our case, a neon Zima sign which hung on the wall above the TV; you can’t make this shit up, it was the mid-90s.)
Since our lease at Renee Row began in June, I would also be spending the summer before Senior year in my first apartment—a welcome change from the previous summer, when I had to move back home after nine months of dorm livin’. However, I couldn’t afford to take any additional credits outside the fall and spring semesters, so I had to work. I was already a desk receptionist at another residence hall (this one exclusively housing graduate and non-traditional students), but that was only 10-15 hours a week. Too lazy to have found an internship of any kind, much less one remotely related to my Journalism major (a field I was losing more interest in with each semester), I needed a second job to fill the time, and more crucially, make my rent. I figured another University job was the way to go and hoped to secure a position with the Grounds Crew. During the warmer months of the year, I’d spotted them out in the sun, mowing grass or planting flowers. Planting flowers! I could do that! It’d be an improvement over the crappy, entry-level retail and food service jobs that comprised my work experience to date.
Like the Jewish Theory and Practice course that always filled up instantaneously because it met a required Theology elective (and was also rumored to be a fun, blow-off class at a Jesuit school, of all places), that summer’s Grounds Crew was complete by the time I thought to inquire about it. Fortunately, the General Maintenance department was still looking for seasonal help. With five other students and ten adults, I spent the next three months walking from dorm to dorm, and within each dorm, from room to room fixing desks, bureaus, bunk beds and other cheap, Formica-heavy furnishings. It was almost like an informal assembly line—checking every screw in every handle of every desk to ensure it was sufficiently tightened, doing the same for each bed frame, testing all curtain rods so that they opened and closed properly, etc.
Compared to another summer of dealing with customers and stocking shelves, this appeared to be a pretty sweet gig. My uniform consisted of worn jeans, scuffed tennis shoes and a mint green t-shirt with the words “Marquette University Summer Crew” in purple print on it. This was boring, mundane work for sure. We often got everything done ahead of time, then ambled around the building pretending to look busy but not really doing much of anything. Occasionally, a few of us found a room, closed the door and played card games for an hour or two. I could handle Go Fish or Crazy Eights but could never master the adults’ favorite game, Sheepshead—once becoming so frustrated with it that I simply threw my cards up in the air and walked out of the room.
Such petty emotional injuries paled in comparison to the physical ones. I suffered two accidents that summer. The first involved a long, narrow window spring getting stuck in my near shoulder-length hair as I attempted to tighten it; luckily, it just took out a follicular clump and I had enough extra hair at the time to mostly cover it up. The second injury was more serious: a mere ten days after the window spring incident, the metal bottom of a window screen crashed into my chin as I fumbled to extract it from its frame (a laborious process that required squeezing little doodads in opposite directions to both extract and secure the screen in place.) After I was led over to both the campus infirmary and the HR department (to secure a Worker’s Comp form), I was driven to a nearby hospital (coincidentally, the one I was born in!) and received a few stitches, which I had taken out two weeks later. It was more bloody than painful, and they weren’t even the most stitches I’d ever received (that would’ve been after my forehead collided with a folding table a teacher’s aide carried on a stairwell the first day of Fifth Grade.)
Mishaps aside, as with most jobs, the sheer monotony festered into something toxic in no time at all. One day blurred into the next as my co-workers and I wandered through those immense, uniform buildings, massive living spaces entirely devoid of life for one-quarter of the year. This surrealness carried over to my leisure time: here I was, trudging through all ends of campus every day, (temporarily) no longer a student. Unlike two of my roommates, both enrolled in summer classes (the third was all the way back home in Oregon and would join us in the fall), I was at school exclusively to work, and it felt off.
One day, about six weeks into this routine, I was walking back to Renee Row in the early evening, the sun still blazing, the air deeply humid (I wasn’t regretting not getting an outdoor job at that point.) With the old Jesuit Residence coming up to the sidewalk at my right, I spotted a throng of people to my left, filing out of the library across Wisconsin Avenue. Like a thundering mob or perhaps a heard of cattle, they ran in my direction, twenty or thirty of them, all my age or younger, possibly teens present for some sort of conference or summer program.
Not only did they come directly at me, they didn’t seem to register that I was an object in their path. They smiled and laughed while also seeming vacant and oblivious. Approaching from both my left and straight ahead, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught. I slid up against the brick wall of the Jesuit Residence, my hands grasping it as one tall boy of about seventeen or eighteen crashed right into me, his eyes lifeless and glazed as if I didn’t exist. My two left knuckles bled a bit from the force of this collision as they scraped against the brick. And just like that, it was over—the boy and his mob moved on, as if an uncommonly violent breeze just passed through.
I wasn’t physically hurt (as with the stitches, I had suffered worse scrapes), but the incident left me utterly bewildered. How to explain this out-of-nowhere teen mob in such a euphoric state, decimating anything (namely, me) in its path? Had I just turned invisible, all of a sudden? Slightly dizzy and also exhausted by the heat, I made my way past the Alumni Memorial Union, over to Wells Street, around the Campus Town Apartments and up another block before arriving safe and sound at Renee Row. I heated up a frozen dinner, popped open a wine cooler and gradually put the surreal incident behind me as another day of tightening screws and card games awaited.
I call in sick the next day; I often do with this job. It’s never a big deal, it just means I won’t get paid for the day. At $5.50/hour, my funds won’t deplete that much, and I still have a few shifts of desk receptionist work to fall back on every week. I feel a bit guilty about forgoing employment for idleness every once in a while; looking back, I’m thankful I exercised that rare freedom a 21-year-old with a low stakes job retains.
One Friday, the day after the Fourth of July, I blow off work and spend the afternoon hanging out with my mom (whom often has Fridays off from her retail job.) We drive out to Southridge Mall, eat lunch at the food court and then go over to Half Price Books where I pick up a handful of used vinyl records from the dollar bin. By that summer, I’ve amassed a minor collection of the stuff, ranging from such staples as the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and peak early ’70s Elton John to somewhat forgotten ‘80s works from the likes of Yaz, Missing Persons and New Order. That day, I purchase Everything But The Girl’s 1986 LP Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a title that would soon prove prophetic.
That evening, my friend Jen calls, wanting to go out. I’ve just spent the previous day with her—the entirety of it, in fact, attending Summerfest and the Violent Femmes concert. After all that, I’m kind of tired of hanging out with her, dealing with her mood swings and her intensity, but she’s still my friend. Besides, I have nothing better to do than sit around with my roommates and watch a cable-TV documentary about the History of the Bikini. I’m still some distance from coming out, but confident that I have no interest in this particular subject.
Within an hour, Jen picks me up. We are to meet Diana, another friend from high school at Sunset Blvd., a newly opened coffeehouse on the East Side. We ramble along the misty streets, windows rolled down all the way because the A/C’s broken. We listen to Jen’s Stabbing Westward CD. Like a lesser Nine Inch Nails, the music’s all minor key arpeggios and industrial dead-beats. Track three, their big alternative radio hit, keeps skipping. Jen pounds the steering wheel with her right fist in time to its insistent stomp. She’s mostly lost in the music, at one point even flooring her burgundy Toyota Camry and running a red light at a deserted intersection. The mist is so light Jen rarely has to use the wipers, though still concrete enough to feel as my right hand dangles outside the passenger seat window.
I could go for a hot fudge sundae with double the fudge and triple the whipped topping, but The Chocolate Factory closed at 10, it’s now almost 11, and we have to pick up Diana. Jen wears a pink XXXL Budweiser shirt and a denim blouse, while I’m in my black Snoopy World War I Flying Ace tee and olive cargo shorts. The mist prevails but the temps have dropped a few degrees since we left my place. Jen goes on about her three-month-old pet rabbit which she acquired at a rural roadside stand that was giving the damn things away for free.
We walk into Sunset Blvd. It looks thrown together with kitschy 1950s-style tables, walls done up in bright green paint and exposed brick and amateur artwork. PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love echoes through the brightly lit café. I order a Lime Italian Soda, Jen gets a Chocolate Malt. Diana sits in the right corner with ten other girls and guys on chairs and a couch arranged in a sloppy circle surrounding a table littered with Friends-style oversized coffee mugs and cobalt blue highball glasses. A cloud of sweet clove cigarette smoke wafts above them; within a few years, the place will close, unable to survive a citywide indoor café smoking ban.
Diana’s group is deep into Vampires, a D-and-D style role-playing game, with cards spread out everywhere. Most of them consult strategy-filled notebooks and scan as “Goth”, decked out primarily in black and dark red clothing, Manic Panic’d hair and a panoply of Doc Martens, chain mail jewelry and unusual piercings. So intense is their discussion that Diana doesn’t even register our arrival at first. Waiting for our drinks, we walk over to them. Upon our presence, Diana, tiny with her long brown hair put into a ponytail, suddenly jumps up, hugs us and yells, “Hey guys! I missed you so much!!!,” interrupting the pudgy bespectacled guy with the jet black hair going on and on about how Lollapalooza in its sixth year had lost its sting.
Allowing our friend to finish the game, Jen and I grab the only vacant table and proceed to play five games of Connect Four. By the third one, I’m getting tired of dropping red checkers into plastic slots, but Jen remains oblivious to this. I think her meds are taking hold; she seems preoccupied, her face lost in some faraway state of “Jen-dom”. As we finish our fifth game, the gathering of Vampires begins to disintegrate. When closing time arrives at Midnight, Jen and I head out with Diana and fellow Vampire player Alice, whom she knows from Dance Camp. Alice has the requisite blood-red lipstick with matching hair, but also a breezy, floral-print blouse, cutoff jeans and a giddy, almost wide-eyed demeanor. Up and down Murray Avenue, the streetlamps glisten with moisture from the mist and everyone wonders what to do next. No one’s ready to go home or walk two blocks over to Ma Fischer’s, a diner that’s the only place guaranteed to be open this late apart from bars that all card (I’m the only one of legal drinking age in our quartet.)
We leave the café and drive a few blocks to Lake Park, where we park illegally on the street. The park and the adjacent golf course closed hours ago, but everyone goes there after dark anyway. I take in a clearing sky peeking out through the cityscape and the suddenly sweet summer air. We stroll past Bartolotta’s Bistro, down the ravine, across Lincoln Memorial Drive and over to Lake Michigan. We arrive at the beach’s northern end where the sand’s overtaken by rocks.
Jen and I are a bit paranoid—no one’s allowed here this late at night and we keep looking over our shoulders for cops; however, Diana and Alice do not seem to share our concern. The four of us wander onto the rocks, which extend North along the shore for what seems like miles. We aren’t entirely alone, hearing other voices in the dark and the occasional car zipping along Lincoln Memorial Drive. The vastness and stillness of the Great Lake ahead of us and the increasingly starry sky holds our attention.
We sit on those rocks for at least an hour. In time, we impulsively begin singing Tori Amos songs, mostly from Little Earthquakes: “Silent All These Years”, “Winter” and “China”; Diana admits she once thought the latter was corny, but now, she likes it. Actually, what we were doing was pretty corny in itself, the four of us warbling, “Why do we / cru-ci-fy ourselves /ev-er-ry day” under the stars, waves gently crashing against the rocks, Lake Michigan before us devoid of any perceptible boats or ships. Still, for one hour, my frustration with my job, with Jen, with feeling like I was in a continual state of limbo just dissipates. Such things suddenly feel petty and unimportant. Although I have another six weeks of working in the dorms ahead of me (including the two injuries I mentioned above), this night somewhat cleanses my soul. It reminds me what magic (or perhaps a better word would be beauty) one can discover when one’s not even seeking it.