For the first time in two years, the invaluable Chicago Film Society unveils a full season. What’s in store?

·6 min read
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CHICAGO — This weekend, the cinephiles running the nonprofit Chicago Film Society embark on their first full indoor season since the advent of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

The 16 programs, running through early May, are split mostly between Northeastern Illinois University in North Park and the Lakeview photoplay mainstay, the Music Box Theatre. The season features a dazzling array of silent features (”The Freshman,” “The Crowd,” “Fazil,” “The Fire Brigade,” “City Lights”); a 2003 sex thriller (”In the Cut,” Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jane Campion); and a stimulating variety of genres, directors and styles.

Two recently restored prints, on loan from the Library of Congress, include a photochemical restoration of the first all-Black musical in movie history: the 1929 landmark “Hallelujah,” directed by King Vidor.

The announcement from the Film Society frames the season this way: “After months of self-medicating with movies on Blu-ray and VHS and VCD (video compact disc) and streaming films from Silicon Valley disrupters and disreputable Eastern European servers, we’re going back to showing films the way the were meant to be seen: on the big screen, on 35mm and 16mm film, with an audience of strangers and freaks.”

Needling the $1.75 billion disaster of a short-lived, short-form streaming platform, the release added: “Quibi is dead and cinema is alive.”

The film society’s Rebecca Lyon, assistant technical director and projectionist at the Music Box, is especially keen on a couple of rarely seen visual knockouts. “The Fire Brigade,” which will be screened (like “Hallelujah”) in a sharp new 35mm Library of Congress print, comes from 1926; it’s a drama about an Irish firefighting family, and the film features two-strip Technicolor sequences.

“Tinted is always exciting,” Lyon says. “It’s just so strange and beautiful, and surprising for people who associate silent film only with black-and-white.”

The easygoing 1970 Sam Peckinpah Western “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” comes from the society’s own collection. The society print is a reportedly lovely 35mm IB Technicolor gem.

Meaning? Well, “IB” stands for “imbibition,”a dye-transfer process wherein the colors on screen are richer and more lasting than ordinary chromogenic color printing. In other words, Lyon says, “if you can get your hands on an original IB Technicolor print from the ‘60s or the ‘70s, you should! It doesn’t fade. They don’t make them that way anymore. Probably because it involves a lot of terrible chemicals.”

This is the 11th year of the Chicago Film Society’s existence, and “some of this new season represents highlights of what we saw for the first time only recently,” notes programmer Kyle Westphal, Lyon’s colleague both at the society and the Music Box.

The little-known 1979 “Rich Kids,” from “Short Eyes” and “Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” director Robert M. Young, works in felicitous counterpoint to the current Paul Thomas Anderson film “Licorice Pizza,” says Westphal. It’s not available via digital projection, and “we had to go into the film collector underground to find it. When people see it they’ll be astonished at how sensitive and precise it is. And they’ve never heard of it!”

Other films on the calendar, he says, stand as titans of film history yet they, too, are oddly scarce and elusive today. Take “The Crowd,” another Vidor title and a brilliant late-silent era evocation of the despair and dehumanization lurking under the surface of Jazz Age intoxications. It’s not streaming on any conventional platform at the moment.

“A number of canonical American silent films — ‘Greed,’ ‘The Wind,’ ‘The Crowd’ — never came out on DVD or Blu-ray,” Westphal notes. “The Crowd” belongs to “the first class of American silent cinema, and there’s a generation that hasn’t had the opportunity to see it. And see it properly.”

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The full Chicago Film Society winter season:

“The Freshman” (1925), 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29, Music Box Theatre: Set on the campus of fictional Tate University, “a large football stadium with a college attached,” this huge hit asks the question: Can go-getter Harold “Speedy” Lamb win both the big game and the heart of his beloved? Music Box house accompanist Dennis Scott offers his answers by way of the mighty pipe organ.

“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999), 7 p.m. Feb. 1, Music Box Theatre: The New Jersey mob meets a formidable adversary in Forest Whitaker in writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s collaboration with RZA. (Great soundtrack.)

“Rich Kids” (1979), 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, Northeastern Illinois University auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr: “The ‘Licorice Pizza’ of its day!”

“The King of Comedy” (1999), 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16, NEIU: Not the Scorsese one, the other one. The Hong Kong lark starring Stephen Chow.

“Fazil” (1928), 11:30 a.m. Feb. 19, Music Box Theatre: Director Howard Hawks’ spoof of “The Sheik” and other sweaty forbidden romances stars Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor.

“Hallelujah” (1929), 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23, NEIU: A landmark in Black cinema, albeit full of conflicted, antiquated notions of Black folklore as seen through a white directorial lens, this will be screened in a restored Library of Congress print.

“I Saw What You Did” (1965), 7:30 p.m. March 2, NEIU: A mid-’60s William Castle schlocktacular. Joan Crawford does not appreciate crank calls!

“Air Mail” (1932), 7:30 p.m. March 9, NEIU: A pre-Code flyboy drama from director John Ford, rarely screened or streamable today.

“In the Cut” (2003), 7 p.m. March 14, Music Box Theatre: “Unjustly maligned example of vulgar auteurism,” according to the Chicago Film Society champions of vulgar auteurism. Mark Ruffalo, Meg Ryan and lots of sweat co-star in a “wha?” thriller that may not come from planet Earth, but planet Jane Campion is good enough for me.

“The Crowd” (1928), 11:30 a.m. March 19, Music Box Theatre: A key 1920s example of Expressionist despair coupled with fervent romantic tragedy, this is the King Vidor wonder with the legendary overhead shot of the endless rows of office workers toiling away, wondering if that’s all there is.

“Sharon Couzin Shorts Program” (1974-1987), 7 p.m. April 2, Chicago Filmmakers, 1326 W. Hollywood Ave.: A presentation of local rarities thanks to Couzin, the Chicago Film Society and the Onion City Experimental Film & Video Festival.

“Bigger Than Life” (1956), 7 p.m. April 4, Music Box Theatre: A gorgeous, intense Nicholas Ray flop, with James Mason bugging out on hazardous ‘50s style prescription Cortisone, threatening to destroy the sanctity of American hearth and home for good. I love this one.

“The Fire Brigade” (1926), 11:30 a.m. April 16, Music Box Theatre: An Irish-American clan risks life, limb and ethnic stereotyping, all in the line of duty.

“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970), 7:30 p.m. April 20, NEIU: An atypically easygoing Sam Peckinpah Western saunter, straight from the Chicago Film Society’s own stash of prints. Jason Robards and Stella Stevens star, disarmingly.

“The Marrying Kind” (1952), 7:30 p.m. April 27, NEIU: All hail Judy Holliday! George Cukor directs.

“City Lights” (1931), 7:30 p.m. May 4, NEIU: Greatest final shot in film history? Probably.

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“The Freshman” opens the Chicago Film Society’s winter season with a one-time-only 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29 screening at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.

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