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Local Lit: all the criticism you can take



Displaying a dreamy logic typically found in smiley Hollywood musicals, Hodson Nell figures publishing a free journal of film essays might raise the capital he seeks to make his own movies. Last week the cerebral 24-year-old Bucktown resident hauled around 8,000 debut copies of his Chicago Film Review to over a hundred locations, ranging from Chicago State University on 95th Street to the Adelphi Theater at 7074 N. Clark.

No ads appear in the 16-page paper, but Nell plans to sell space at rates as high as $300 for a full page. Far from entertaining Citizen Kane-size delusions of grandeur, publisher Nell fancies himself a "culture worker," a notion gleaned from philosopher Cornell West. In his editorial manifesto, Nell announces that "inclusive politics, social/self awareness and irony are good markers for our stance." One of the projects he hopes his publishing venture will subsidize is a documentary on Native American identity. Nell was adopted into a military family now settled in Dodge City, Kansas, but his roots lie among the Salich Indians of western Montana.

Nell penned 6 of the 16 articles in the first issue, and other pieces were contributed by friends from the Michigan Avenue Borders, where he used to work, and the University of Chicago, where he used to study. "I myself don't read much film criticism," said Nell, who admires the late Dwight McDonald's work but admitted, "I guess I really don't know who reads film criticism." In a review of recent avant-garde films screened at Chicago Filmmakers, Nell tags film criticism as "a suspicious cultural legacy" and dubs the rubric "avant-garde" as an "old nineteenth century affliction perpetuated on us through powerful elitists."

Nell's essays tilt toward the oblique. After opening with an epigraph from Wittgenstein, he wraps up his paean to a 1926 Buster Keaton film that played at the Film Center: "I won't say much about The General, it's all been said, it speaks for itself and so on." Dante's Peak occasions a digression on Dante. Pass the Gravy inspires a deconstruction of "chickenness." And discussing Mel Brooks's The Producers, Nell diagnoses "laughter in the face of ineffable non-understanding."

Another contributor, Eli Balint, pursued graduate work in African-American and gay/lesbian literature in New York City before returning to Chicago, where he now clerks at Borders. Along with Touch and Trainspotting, he reviews Donnie Brasco ("By the end of the film I had connected with Brasco because I felt less imperious about my own moral choices") and Marvin's Room, which he finds "is really about force-feeding a rigid, moral scheme." He also writes up a conversation he recorded with a friend in a bar after a second viewing of Breaking the Waves. "I have to say that I see the film as a typical guy film based on some half-acknowledged male fantasy made semilegitimate by an artsy atmosphere," offers Jane Fragonard, who pushes Balint to weigh the sexist subtext of the film.

Another Borders employee, Tom Carrao, supplies Chicago Film Review's most impressive prose. Carrao--who hates Michael Medved and lauds David Denby--writes about Claude Chabrol's The Ceremony: "Filmed with a rigorous intelligence and nearly clinical reserve, its most startling aspect is the unguarded vehemence with which it asserts a seething class rage." He also critiques Prisoner of the Mountains, Kolya, and Sling Blade.

Carrao brings a smidgen of journalism experience to Nell's bright-eyed, fresh-faced enterprise. He authors Junk Mail, a monthly newsletter for a weekly film-discussion group he has run for the past three years. A spin-off group now meets monthly at Borders. He sees Nell's paper as catering to the same niche of film buffs drawn to his Reel Junkies get-togethers. "I guess the impetus is finding out if there are like-minded people out there who like film, but who don't find that connection in their own social circles. Their friends like to watch films but not talk about film--they think it's pompous." --Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hodson Nell photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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