Glimpses of Chicago past: Siskel Center explores groundbreaking early film

by New Idiom

A chance to catch ID’s Bauhaus history on film. Bonus includes meeting Maholy-Nagy’s daughter!

The Gene Siskel Film Center’s early October program Vision in Motion: Filmmaking at the Institute of Design, 1944-70 examines one of the first art-film programs in the United States. Now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Bauhaus-inspired Institute of Design offered film classes in Chicago as early as 1942.

The Institute positioned film as an extension of photography, design and other fine arts fields. Emphasis was placed on experimentation, with results skewing towards the avant garde rather than traditional cinema.

The Siskel’s two-day-long, thirteen-film program presents a fascinating glimpse into this phase of scholastic filmmaking. An energetic air runs through the shorts, the byproduct of excited youth brimming with ideas in the face of a new artistic pursuit.

Do Not Disturb, produced by Institute of Design head Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and his students in 1945, is the perfect encapsulation of this brio. Jealousies and tensions amongst young lovers are projected using every trick of the trade: multiple exposures, reverse motion, handheld camerawork, split screen, prism lenses, rapid motion, distortions and more.

Motions, directed by Harry Callahan from 1948-49, furthers this momentum. Again, camera trick upon camera trick is thrown into the pot. But this time, they are deployed to emphasize the intersections of man, machine and nature in motion. The overboard accumulation is saved by pristine imagery,  the play of light on running water, cars superimposed upon each other as they race up and down Lake Shore Drive.

The documentary quality of these films is invaluable, capturing mid-20th century Chicago in all of their gritty beauty. Three films in particular are essential.

Chicago Morning, produced by Boris Yakovleff and eleven students in 1952, charts the early morning hours, when humanity rushes into the quiet Loop, lakefront and South Side stockyards. Studs Terkel poetically narrates this rise to life, his gravel voice adding authenticity.

The Church on Maxwell Street, directed by Yasuhiro Ishimoto and Marvin Newman in 1951, heads to the heart of the Chicago blues, translating the religious ecstasy of a raw street-side church revival into a series of beautifully framed images.

A perfect encapsulation of Vision in Motion’s documentary and experimental sides is found in Ken Josephson’s 1962 short, 33rd and LaSalle. The premise is simple: detail the demolition of an apartment building located on a South Side street corner. Josephson finds sophistication in the simplicity, however.

Remnants of lives long gone haunt the urban decay via lone shoes, discarded calendars and newspapers strewn everywhere. When the destruction begins, a movie poster for the Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida vehicle, Solomon & Sheba, adorning an exterior wall becomes a target for the wrecking ball. The metaphor is obvious and brilliant.