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Reel Life: recent adventures of Tom Chicago

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Tom Palazzolo thrives on creative chaos. It's Wednesday afternoon, ten days before his latest feature is to premiere at the Film Center, and the elder statesman of the local independent film scene is counting a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills. "Oh, excuse me," he apologizes absentmindedly. "I want to make sure I've got enough money to get the sound print out of the lab. They demand cash. Then I have to edit some more." He pauses. "Don't worry. The film will be finished in time!"

This haphazard, seat-of-the-pants approach to filmmaking has been largely responsible for the quirky, over-the-edge quality that pervades most of the 35 or so short documentaries Palazzolo's made since the mid-60s. Actually, they're not exactly documentaries, says the Film Center's director, Barbara Scharres. "Tom projects his own fantasies onto the subjects he photographs. He's not an objective observer. Those are his own personal statements, his own individual visions." His visions of Chicago as a rich ethnic brew--always presented with a dollop or two of irony, humor, and compassion--have earned him a sizable following and the nickname "Tom Chicago." And it's a testament to the images of the city he's captured over the years that footage from his films was included in the recent PBS documentary Making Sense of the Sixties.

In the late 70s Palazzolo shifted gears and turned to fictional films. "I wanted the challenge of a longer format," he says, and then adds, "The city was getting to be dull and homogenized. The kind of people I would've been interested in filming seemed to have all disappeared. The charm had gone." Around this time he became fascinated with performance art, whose improvisational nature, sense of irreverence, and childlike desire to shock matched his own. He befriended a number of local performance artists, including Carmella Rago and Jim Grigsby, who were intrigued by the thought of working in his medium. No longer was Palazzolo the solitary observer. "I was getting a surge of great ideas from them. In a sense, we started a local culture to produce local fantasies."

The fantasies they strung together--haphazardly, of course--eventually resulted in Caligari's Cure (1982), a comic, semiautobiographical exploration of the psychological baggage of childhood and an education at Catholic schools and the Art Institute (where Palazzolo did his graduate work in art history). As its title suggests, the film is done in--and parodies--the distorted visual style of Robert Wiene's famous German silent classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Some viewers found it too intellectual, precious, and pretentious. But, Palazzolo notes with delight, it was given a one-week run at the Whitney Museum.

Added Lessons, Palazzolo's latest, is an unconventional sequel. The same protagonist, Francis, returns in a black-and-white future where conservatives have taken over and art is no longer private. "His notebook of pictures is confiscated by the authorities," says Palazzolo, in an attempt to explain the film. "He's a mother's boy, but these pictures reveal a vivid, picaresque inner life--life as a series of chance encounters. As you can guess, the film is a commentary on the NEA controversy, and it's also a critique of the nonconfrontational stance of surrealism." Both of his features, he says, are also intended to serve as teaching guides to modern aesthetic movements. Caligari's Cure was a playful tribute to German expressionism; Added Lessons pays backhanded homage to French surrealism. "It's a remake of Un chien andalou. We want to convey the gentle, dreamy, impromptu humor of Bunuel and Dali. You will notice a lot of self-references--and puns, like the title--visual allusions, and Jungian symbols."

Palazzolo's improvisational directing style would have done the dadaists proud. "We sketched out the plot, and then it was weekend by weekend," says Jack Helbig, chortling. He is one of the menagerie of collaborators from Caligari's Cure whom Palazzolo relied on again for Added Lessons. "Tom has sets built in studios all over the city. I'd get a call from him out of the blue: Jack, come down here right now and wear a jacket." On the set he did whatever struck his and our fancy. He'd shoot only once, with no complicated blocking. We made things up as we went along."

It took Palazzolo five years to complete Added Lessons--on a shoestring budget that certifies his resourcefulness. "We finally stopped when I felt like I'd explored most of what I had set out to do," he says. "I like to linger on. There is nothing comparable to collaborating with friends who share your fantasies."

Playing with Added Lessons is Hey Girls!, a new ten-minute, offbeat pseudodocumentary by Palazzolo. One day he and his production class at the School of the Art Institute decided to turn one of Heather McAdams's cartoons into a short. "I've always enjoyed Heather's sense of outrageous fun," he says, "and she had this funny strip of the various ways women can use to scare away men who hassle them."

"So Tom called me up," says McAdams, "and asked whether it'd be all right to bring his class over to my house. Sure, I said. So they came and shot. By five o'clock they were gone." Together they concocted a series of vignettes of a woman being harassed at stoplights. "They put me in costumes," McAdams says, chuckling. "Then we went out to my car. And some students pushed up and down on my car to make it look like it's moving."

What's next? "Oh. Well, um." Palazzolo sighs. "I think I ought to try my hand at writing a script and shoot from it--scene by scene. And I'll hire a production assistant and not abuse my overused friends. Everything is neat and organized. LIfe will be easier this way, won't it?"

Hey Girls! and Added Lessons will be screened at 7 tonight at the Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson. As is customary with a Palazzolo event, high jinks are guaranteed afterward. The filmmaker is toying with the idea of shooting the audience's reactions and then incorporating them into the film--so "there would be another layer of references." He's also promised that most of his partners will be on hand. Admission is $5; $3 for members. For more info call 443-3737.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Kawano.

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