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Reel Life: kooks, characters, and SF classics



Do the offerings of the city's semiofficial film fest look a trifle dull and mainstreamy? If that's how you're feeling these days, perhaps you'd enjoy a little movie called C'mon Babe (Danke Schoen), which combines footage of lemmings scurrying to their deaths with bits of song by Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Cash. "A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent"--the rich, fruity tones of the nature-film narrator alternate with Newton's lisp--"Danke schoen, darling, danke schoen."--"They become victims of an obsession."--"Thank you for all the joy and pain."--"It is not given to man to understand."--"Save those lies, darling, don't explain." The first verse of the song (which I've always thought one of the more perverse and mysterious pop hits of our time) is repeated again and again, evoking the image of its singer (Las Vegas icon, reputed mob connections) and intertwining it with grainy and off-color images of lemmings moving en masse, leaping off a cliff, hunted by birds, while other music, and that impossible narrator, also come and go on the sound track . . .

C'mon, Babe (Danke Schoen), a short film by Chicagoan Sharon Sandusky, receives its local premiere this Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers, as part of a program entitled "Sex, Politics, Good Citizens & the Art of Fitting In." The program also features the 50s camp classic Red Nightmare, Joyce Wieland's metaphorical Rat Life and Diet In North America, and films by George and Bruce Conner, among others. It, in turn, is part of a larger project at Filmmakers, the Social Science Fiction Festival. The concept behind this four-weekend festival is a bit hard to explain, though it seems pretty coherent once you "get it." The object, according to several of the people involved in putting the festival together, is to break through the bounds of "consensus reality." Brenda Webb, executive director of Filmmakers, calls it "stream-of-consciousness programming."

For example, there's a woman who puts out a magazine called The Original Donna Kossy's Kooks Magazine, which reviews and reprints the writings and ravings of authentic kooks--you know, people who are absolutely certain they're privy to the machinations of God, the government, or the communists, people who know the inner of various numerical coincidences or the date of the end of the world. Donna Kossy used to peddle her own color-Xerox postcards until the day she came in contact with her first kook and became fascinated. She'll open the festival Friday the 13th, reading from her magazine and showing kooks' videos; rounding out Friday night's program will be several films including Occult: An Echo From Darkness.

Saturday, November 4, brings David Greenberger, creator and editor of a magazine whose content comes mostly from nursing-home patients. When Greenberger, musician and mail artist, got a job as activities director at the Duplex Nursing Home near Boston, he thought he'd interview the residents on various topics, mimeograph the responses, and pass them out in the home. It turned out that the residents, although they liked being interviewed, weren't much interested in the result. Friends of Greenberger's liked it a lot, though, and over the past ten years Duplex Planet, which recently published its 100th issue, has become an underground hit.

These reprinted musings, which range from the cranky to the surreal, have made the literary fame of William "Fergie" Ferguson (Fergie on fishes: "They are very, very careful that they do not make any mistakes. Of course, they make mistakes like anyone, but they try not to. . . . Different kinds of mistakes, too many to mention") and Ernest Noyes Brookings, whose poetry has been collected in a book (We Did Not Plummet Into Space) and has been used as song lyrics by REM and others. The Duplex Nursing Home closed down last year, and Greenberger has moved to another town, but the magazine continues, its focus having widened to what the editor describes as fringe characters in general--"people who are on the fringe of your and my awareness; people you run into at the Salvation Army, street people . . ." Greenberger will read from the magazine and show excerpts from The Lighthearted Nation, a documentary about it. A screening of Otis Banton and His Spaceship the Jungle will follow.

October 21 will be paranoia night. Linda Howe's Emmy-winning television documentary Strange Harvest will explore the possibility that livestock mutilations in the western United States are evidence of visits by UFOs. It will be preceded by Robert Shea reading from his early novel Illuminatus, which charts a conspiracy to end all conspiracies, one that links Lee Harvey Oswald, John Dillinger, the FBI, and the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Also scheduled for this night are more readings by Donna Kossy--from her collection of genuine kooks' conspiracy material--and a screening of Elvis Lives, an eyewitness account of the King's abduction by space aliens.

Of course there will be plenty of more conventional SF fare: well-known writers Frederick Pohl, Phyllis Eisenstein, and Gene Wolfe (and locals David Sedaris and David Hauptschein, the latter of whom helped put this festival together) will read from their works at various points, usually accompanied by showings of short or experimental films. And the festival will offer a wide and bizarre selection of classic movies: Siren of Atlantis (1948), an offbeat Hollywood production with Maria Montez and Dennis O'Keefe; Eyes of Hell (The Mask) (1961), one of the great 3-D gimmick films; These Are the Damned (1963), a lesser-known Joseph Losey on the theme of government conspiracy and atomic war, severely cut in its original distribution; Children of the Damned (1963), the lesser-known sequel to Village of the Damned, in which the women of a quiet village give birth to emotionless, superintelligent children; End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967), one of the better survivors-of-nuclear-war films; Five Million Years to Earth (1968), considered by some to be one of the best science-fiction movies ever; and The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), the first film of Australian director Peter Weir.

What does it all add up to: campy fun or real rebellion against consensus reality? Some would consider the festival an attempt to expand the definition of art. Others may see in it a stab at exploding our conception of reality. At least it makes you think: what does it mean if the reveries of senility can be as artful as Dada, or the ravings of kooks no stranger than the normal products of pop culture?

The Social Science Fiction Festival runs this weekend through November 4 at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont. Admission to most programs is $4. For a complete schedule call, 281-8788.

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