Three Works About Work | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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Three Works About Work

Daniel Kraus—editor, horror novelist, and filmmaker—screens his documentary series about people doing their jobs.


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Kraus decided to make his third "Work" film about "the life of the mind," and he could think of no better subject than Professor Holstein. Professor opens with Holstein's introductory lecture in the room where Kraus heard it as a student 14 years before. "I'm old. This is my 38th year doing this—I'm irascible," says Holstein. "I do not like misbehavior in the classroom. . . . I will yell at you for yawning. Don't take it personally. It's not my ego talking to you. It's me trying to get you back on track. You understand? If you sit there bored out of your mind while I'm talking, you will suck up my energy and I'll be a dead man by the third week of the semester."

But, he goes on, "if I can get you interested enough so that you give me an energy return, it is a feeling the likes of which there are few others in the world. . . . Every so often I say something, it triggers a response, even in a room like this, and I feel this wave of energy. You will do almost anything to get this. If I could take a pill, I would take the pill. If I could take the pill and I was told it would shorten your life by ten years, I would say, 'give me the pill.'"

Holstein, who's been teaching at Iowa for his entire career, sees it as a place where he's needed. "Many of my students from small towns in Iowa have never knowingly seen a Jew," he tells me. "That is why, in spite of the problematic nature of lecturing to hundreds of students, I continue to teach large classes.

"Large-enrollment classes present a great opportunity to a professor of Jewish studies, lecturing to what is almost completely a Christian student body, many of whomhowever unknowinglycarry some unfortunate baggage about Jews and Judaism around with them."

Shaven-headed and fit at 72, Holstein delivers his lectures with the cadences and profanity of a drill sergeant. A marathoner, he runs hard, lifts weights, and tests his marksmanship by firing at cans with his son Joshua, an army veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This high-intensity approach has served me well in my classes, all of which are heavily enrolled," Holstein says. "While there were parts of the film that made me squirm, on the whole I gained some appreciation of what it is that I do and why my classes are so popular."

For his purposes, Kraus says, "it doesn't matter that what Vandermark plays is jazz, or that what Holstein teaches is religion. What matters is the work." He's asked if Studs Terkel's Working was an influence. "I was in touch with Studs shortly before his death," says Kraus. "He expressed regret that he did not have the health to somehow help me out with the series. But, of course, though I'm profiling mainly anonymous workers just like he did, I'm doing it with the opposite approach. Studs was all interview, and I don't ask a single question."

In Kraus's films, as in Wiseman's, we know only what the camera tells us. "They're like photo essays in a way," Kraus says. "What happens before I turn my camera on and what happens after I turn my camera off isn't really grist for the mill." In Vandermark's case, we don't learn that back in 1999 he received a MacArthur "genius" grant. And there's nothing in Sheriff to suggest that in 2008 Hewett would be charged with embezzlement and obstruction of justice, plead guilty to a federal obstruction charge, and get 16 months in prison.

Between the shooting and editing of Professor, Kraus wrote the first draft of his second novel, Rotters. It's about a grave-robbing Chicago teen sent to live with his father in Iowa, and Random House is bringing it out next spring. And he's already shot his fourth "Work" film, Preacher; Kraus says Bishop William Nowell, a Pentecostal minister in Charlottesville, Virginia, was his first subject "to totally come in over the transom." He read a newspaper profile a friend had written about him, sent for some video clips, and "was totally taken by how quiet and gentle he was outside of work, which contrasted so vibrantly with his wild passion once he really got going on a sermon."

The editing of Preacher will have to wait until he finishes his third novel. "As a vacation from the books, I make the movies," Kraus says.   

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