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Scared New World

Amid the recent industry retreat into light entertainment, the second week of the Chicago International Film Festival delivers a welcome jolt of ambiguity and confusion.

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Michael Gilio's Kwik Stop--showing again this week at the Chicago International Film Festival--is a quirky no-budget American independent feature made by a Chicago actor. It's framed by emblematic yet enigmatic shots, beginning with a high-angle shot of a sloppily overflowing Slushee machine and ending with a low-angle shot of a mobile representing the solar system that hovers over an infant's cradle. In between these significant yet cryptic bookends, what transpires in terms of genre, tone, style, character, and narrative focus is shifting and ambiguous--just as much of the world around me these days seems to be. I'm not sure whether a shifting, ambiguous world is a good or a bad thing, and I'm equally stumped as to whether Kwik Stop is a good or a bad movie. I'm inclined to say good because I like to be stumped by movies, though I know plenty of people feel otherwise. The film has no distributor, and things being what they are, it may never get one--so Wednesday night at Landmark's Century Centre may be your last chance to see it.

Not knowing where the world is going can create contradictory impulses: a desire for terra firma, which usually means a retreat to familiar standbys, or an appetite for exploration and adventure. According to Hollywood journalist Bernard Weinraub, reporting on the latest industry wisdom in the September 16 New York Times, explosions and hijackers are now out and wholesome family dramas and "escapist comedies" are back in, though it's not clear they were ever out. It's hard to know what's more grotesque about this story--that suits were already planning what kinds of movies to develop five days after the terrorist attack, before it was even clear what had happened, or the demented rationales they proposed for their choices. (Weinraub seemed somewhat demented himself when he identified Dr. Zhivago and the Sound of Music as "escapist movies" of the past and The Graduate as reflecting the "darker" realities that accompanied the war in Vietnam.) Yet there was also a genuine poignance in the fear expressed by the suits' desire to set the clock back 40 or 50 years--a desire that making or seeing a movie like Kwik Stop has no truck with.

The current need to rethink where the world is going--in terms of national as well as international agendas, personal as well as public priorities--can be well served by a fairly comprehensive film festival. We can't begin to reconceptualize the planet in any serious way unless we explore it and investigate fresh possibilities for it, and ideally a film festival is a place where we can do some intellectual and cultural window-shopping.

For much too long film has been saddled with the obligation of being either art or entertainment--as if these were mutually exclusive options or, even worse, the only options available. Why not think about films as windows or mirrors, as tools of instruction and communication, as models for thought and feeling that may or may not involve art or entertainment? For too long we've also been stuck with similar entertainments in similar Hollywood genres and with art films defined only by "style" and "mise en scene," and we've been limited to just what industry moguls choose to distribute and advertise.

Now that digital video is making available more features and shorts than anyone could possibly know what to do with, the task of sifting through more than an infinitesimally small fraction of them is far more daunting than it used to be, making it utterly absurd when critics hold forth on the overall state of the art--for how in blazes could they possibly know? To think that this ocean of work is knowable--capable of being identified, analyzed, and evaluated in the way cinema could be in the 60s--is a delusion. Yet critics, distributors, exhibitors, publicists, and festival directors are all expected to proceed as if it weren't, even though all we can possibly tell you about are a few drops in the ocean.

Does this mean anyone can explore the ocean? Yes and no, because there are still far too many gatekeepers. But a festival does allow one considerably more choices than a routine week of commercial and even noncommercial offerings. That's why I'm hoping you'll take full advantage of this one. (Lamentably, a few last-minute cancellations and substitutions have by now become a festival tradition--a problem exacerbated by the notorious fickleness of Miramax, which has pulled Pinero this week for obscure reasons having something to do with its lower-Manhattan setting.) The capsules are intended only as rough guides; films preceded by a star are regarded by the reviewer as exceptional.

Screenings this second and final week are being held at Landmark's Century Centre (2828 N. Clark) and the Music Box (3733 N. Southport). Single ticket prices are $6 for weekday matinees (Monday through Friday before 5 PM); $7 for weekend matinees (Saturday and Sunday before 5 PM); $10 for all shows after 5 PM, $8 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes that are good for everything but closing night, awards night, critic's choice programs, and special presentations are also available (up to two tickets per screening); they cost $50 (six tickets, seven for Cinema/Chicago members), $110 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), or $250 (50 tickets). The special presentations, which include critic's choice programs, are $15, $13 for Cinema/Chicago members. Tickets can be purchased at theater box offices at least one hour before the time of the screening; they can also be ordered by mail (Cinema/Chicago, 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-332-3456; Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500). For more information call 312-332-3456.

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