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Film Notes: 33 unique universes

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The trouble with writing about experimental films is that you can't compare them with each other very usefully," wrote Roger Ebert in 1967, back when Chicago's alternative film scene received regular atten-tion in the daily newspapers. "Commercial films all exist in more or less the same universe. They want to communicate, and they may also want to inform, entertain, influence, or sell soap. Not so with experimental films, where the makers have to please only themselves."

In a four-day festival beginning next Thursday, the Museum of Contemporary Art will screen 33 experimental films made in Chicago between 1959 and '95, representing 33 unique universes, as part of its current exhibit "Art in Chicago, 1945-1995." The mix of hybrid documentaries, myth-inspired narratives, and optically manipulated reveries honors the unwieldy diversity that once exasperated Ebert.

The Magick Lantern Society, one of the first presenters of experimental films in the city, was founded in 1966 by Camille Cook. It screened films at the Tribune Tower until a projectionist supposedly complained about "blue" movies. A more tolerant Museum of Contemporary Art offered the next venue.

By 1973 Cook's program evolved into the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute.

In reaction to the Film Center's tilt toward features and narrative, Filmgroup (later Chicago Filmmakers) started to showcase experimental shorts at N.A.M.E. gallery. And when that organization began to screen political documentaries and other types of films, avant-garde purists started their own groups, like the Experimental Film Coalition and later X-Film.

For the MCA series, Ines Sommer, a film-maker and former programmer at Chicago Filmmakers, has assembled a variety of work into six programs that resist any easy classifications.

Given the avant-garde's alleged insularity and narcissism, some may be surprised to find a lot of humor in these films. In Thomas Trismagistus (1967), John Heinz cast another Chicago filmmaker, the versatile Tom Palazzolo, to mock the pretentions of Gregory Markopoulos, the first filmmaker hired to teach at the School of the Art Institute. Others make sport of movies outside the avant-garde orbit. In Scratchman (1983), cartoonist Heather McAdams scratches silly doodles on found footage of Secretary of the Army Clifford L. Alexander Jr. "Kiss me, kiss me, you fool," she inscribes on the emulsion of her vandalized valentine. In Sharon Sandusky's C'mon Babe (Danke Schoen) (1988) repetitive samples from the Wayne Newton tune accompany increasingly macabre clips of suicidal lemmings lifted from a nature movie. Mysterious self-destructive passions are the raw material for Wayne Boyer's George and Martha Revisited (1967), an eight-minute reworking of the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The most original specimens of experimental filmmaking in the MCA lineup suggest no particular lineage. Separated by three decades, Lawrence Janiak's masterful Adam's Film (1964) and Ariana Gerstein's Cycles (1994), with its mesmerizing grids of birds, are highly recommended. Yet they don't fit into any single Chicago school. To borrow Ebert's expression, the best experimental filmmakers "have to please only themselves," which may not please those hunting for art historical hooks.

The six-part series "Made in Chicago: Independent Films" starts with a program of shorts, including George and Martha Revisited, at 8 PM on Thursday, January 16. Subsequent programs are screened at 8 PM on Friday, January 17; 4 and 8 PM on Saturday, January 18; and 4 and 7 PM on Sunday, January 19. Admission is $6, $4 for students and seniors. The MCA is at 220 E. Chicago. Call 312-397-4010 for more information. --Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Drum Struck" (1991) by Greg Nickson.

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