Laughing about Crimes Against Humanity with director Jerzy Rose | Bleader

Laughing about Crimes Against Humanity with director Jerzy Rose


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Experimental animator Jim Trainor (far right) plays a U of C dean in Crimes Against Humanity.
  • Experimental animator Jim Trainor (far right) plays a U. of C. dean in Crimes Against Humanity.
Screening this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Crimes Against Humanity was cowritten and directed by Jerzy Rose, a local experimental filmmaker who spent several years making shorts before turning to features in 2011 with Some Girls Never Learn. The story centers on Lewis (Mike Lopez), a college dean's assistant helping with an investigation into a possible coven of satanists in the ethnomusicology department. A bad detective and a cad to boot, Lewis regularly condescends to his live-in girlfriend, Brownie (Lyra Hill), when he bothers to talk to her at all. Over the course of a momentous week, Brownie has an affair with a mysterious young man, gets struck by lightning and hit by a car—while Lewis gets too absorbed in his investigation to notice.

It's weird stuff—full of non sequitur asides and paranoid subplots—and often pretty funny. The movie feels at times like a game of exquisite corpse; adding to the partylike atmosphere, the supporting cast contains many of Rose's colleagues from the Chicago experimental film community, including Jim Trainor (The Fetishist), Chris Sullivan (Consuming Spirits), Lori Felker, J.B. Mabe, Adebukola Bodunrin, and Jesse McLean. (For the record, I'm friends with some of these people, though I'd never spoken to Rose before this week.) Rose will attend all three Siskel screenings with cowriter Halle Butler to answer audience questions. The other day I called him up with questions of my own; our conversation follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: There are a lot of experimental filmmakers in the movie, and they all play comic characters.

Jerzy Rose: Yeah, the [players are] almost entirely nonactors, and most of them are friends of mine. It was all written for people I knew. I thought it would be pretty surreal to put them in a movie like this.

Did you write every character with a different friend in mind?

Almost all of them. One or two parts were cast after the script was written.

I was surprised by how funny most of the filmmakers in the cast were. I wonder if making movies gave them a sense of what works onscreen.

Well, almost all these people are filmmakers, and the ones who aren't have an avid interest in cinema. I think they all have really good taste, and I trust all of them. So, I think they all knew when something was working or not . . . I think everyone could look around their social circles and fantasize about how their friends would fit in a movie. It's fun to actually put that together. But it's strange for me to watch it and see all these people in my life playing parts in an absurd narrative.

I assume that very little of it is autobiographical.

Yeah, it would be a stretch to call any of it autobiographical. I am on the staff at a college, but that's about it.

Which college?

I work at the School of the Art Institute.

What made you decide to shoot at University of Chicago?

The campus just made sense. I didn't want the story to take place in Chicago specifically; I pictured it as a "college film." And U. of C. has the most "college campus" look of any place in Chicago. It doesn't really look like the rest of Chicago. It's pretty too—the gothic architecture and all those twisty trees . . .

The gothic architecture works with the conspiracy plots. There's something ominous about a lot of those buildings at night.

They're like watchtowers, some of them. They make think of surveillance, which is the conceit of one of the story lines in the film. The administration of the campus is spying on its professors, suspecting them of this crazy behavior . . .

Where did the idea of a satanist cabal come from?

It just seemed like the most absurd thing to suspect your faculty of being. It's kind of campy, too, just over the top. It seemed like a good fit for this overstuffy college world . . . At first I just wanted [Crimes] to be a detective movie—a New Hollywood kind of detective movie like The Long Goodbye or Chinatown, but set on a college campus. But then this auxiliary plot—about the main character's girlfriend, who he's really mean to—just took over the rest of the movie, because that ended up being more fun to write.

From Roses Some Girls Never Learn
  • From Rose's Some Girls Never Learn
Would you say this is the most narrative-driven movie you've made?

I'd say it's the most conventional narrative that I've done. My short films were all narrative; I never made anything that was totally formal. I always wrote scripts for the movies, but they were more fantastical or surreal. This is sort of in the real world, even though it's still very stylized. It's similarly baroque; all my films have too many characters and too many plots. But I think this one might be stranger because it's more casually surreal.

Do you think the next thing you write will continue in this direction?

I had a lot of fun doing something that's set ostensibly in the real world. That's appealing to me, keeping all the dark and strange stuff in a recognizable setting. It's like in a [Luis] Buñuel film, where everything's practically on the level.

I feel like Buñuel became a better surrealist after making all those genre films in Mexico. Being a studio director made him familiar with aspects of popular storytelling, which made him better able to subvert them.

I love the idea of making genre films. I feel like every time I start making something, I want it to be a straight genre narrative, but I get sidetracked.

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