In the last few weeks, video copies of a recently completed documentary about the 1995 disappearance of local filmmaker Allen Ross have been making the rounds of the Chicago film community. Missing Allen was made by Ross's former collaborator, German director Christian Bauer, and includes interviews with many of Ross's friends, most of them more comfortable on the other side of the camera. Chicago Filmmakers head Brenda Webb appears, along with Barbara Scharres of the Gene Siskel Film Center. So do documentary makers Tom Palazzolo, Bill Stamets, and Gaylon Emerzian, who was the film's associate producer. One person interviewed for the film who didn't make the cut is Jack Helbig, who wrote a lengthy investigative article about Ross's disappearance that ran in this paper three years ago, 18 months before Bauer started filming. If you look carefully you'll find Helbig's name on a list of people thanked at the movie's end, but there's no mention of his story. For all the viewer knows, he might have been the one providing the daily doughnuts.
In "Where on Earth Is Allen Ross?"--which ran October 16, 1998--Helbig gave a detailed biography of Ross, who helped found Chicago Filmmakers and taught filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute. But Ross's more recent life had taken a bizarre turn, reported Helbig: he'd married Linda Greene, the founder of an oddball religious group called the Samaritan Foundation, following her to Oklahoma City and then Cheyenne, Wyoming; he'd cut off contact with most of his old friends; and then a rumor started circulating that Ross had been murdered.
It's a common enough experience in the journalism business to see a story you've lived, breathed, and slept with pop up more or less modified under a new byline or in a new medium. The facts are out there; you don't own them. But Helbig's was the only piece published about the filmmaker's mysterious disappearance before Bauer began shooting, and since it pretty much mapped out the convoluted territory, Helbig says he's disappointed that it wasn't acknowledged. "I think," he says, "at some point in the narration it should say something like, 'Before I began the film a story appeared in the Reader.'"
Film is a different medium than newsprint, of course, and Missing Allen includes two important discoveries that go beyond Helbig's story. But to watch the movie is to see the article illustrated. Here, walking and talking, are all the major characters Helbig introduced: Ross, the charismatic artist-lover-cameraman; Linda, his wife, who believed in vampires and zombies; Laury, his father, the retired Argonne scientist; Brad, his fraternal twin brother and spitting image; and the chorus of concerned Chicago filmmakers. Here, looking just as we knew they would, are his loft near Maxwell Street and the squalid houses where he lived with Linda, along with short, lovely clips from his movies: a glassy pan of the Mississippi River, an unblinking study of his dying grandfather. And here's Bauer, who made seven films with Ross and was interviewed by Helbig for his article.
As all the filmmakers and Helbig note, Missing Allen is a very personal film. It takes advantage of old footage Bauer had from working trips he and Ross took together, and the narrative is structured as an emotional search for a lost friend. We see the film crew knocking on the door of the couple's neighbor in Oklahoma City and turning up Ross's camera--left in haste by his wife and evidence that he hadn't simply skipped out. And the film crew's investigation motivated the cops to take another look at the house where, as Helbig reported, Linda's ex-husband claimed Ross's body was buried. Bauer was back in Germany editing the film when police returned to the crawl space they said they'd searched four years earlier and found Ross's feet protruding from the dirt floor. He'd taken a bullet to the head and his genitals were missing--the prescribed Samaritan treatment for vampires.
Bauer says Helbig, who was slated to work on the film as a researcher, abandoned the project at a critical juncture. Helbig says he pulled out before the work started because he was unhappy with his duties, which seemed to be shaping up as more clerical than collaborative. He says he wanted to sell Bauer the rights to his research, but Bauer wasn't interested in buying them, or in sharing information (Helbig was thinking of writing a book). Bauer also says Helbig isn't in the film because he didn't really know Ross.
Bauer put $200,000 into the production, which was half what it cost; he needs to strike another print but doesn't have the cash to do it. He's disturbed that videos of the film he sent to Ross's friends have been met with silence, and that no one is stepping forward to carry on a campaign for justice that might include letters to the Cheyenne police or a Web site. "I'm tired. I have been pushing this cart for such a long time," he says. "The goal is to find out who killed Allen."
Missing Allen won best documentary at the Montreal Festival for New Cinema and New Media, but it was rejected by the Chicago International Film Festival. Scharres, who introduced Bauer to Ross in 1988, is planning to show it at the Film Center, perhaps as soon as March. Cheyenne police lieutenant Jeff Schulz said this week that suspects had been interviewed recently, but no one has yet been charged with Ross's murder.
Reader contributor Joy Bergmann's cover story about another unsolved mystery, on the other hand, has earned her a nice little windfall. "A Bitter Pill," which ran November 3, 2000, delved into the Tylenol murders of 1982. After failing to interest two local documentary producers in the story, the author sent a copy to a friend in LA, and it caught the fancy of the friend's girlfriend, actress Megan Mullally (of Will & Grace), who wants to produce it. Bergmann got a call from Handprint Entertainment, Mullally's management company, took a couple of meetings, and received $6,000 for an 18-month option. She'll get a total of $75,000 if a movie comes of it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.