I’ll watch any movie shot in Chicago. I’ve lived here nearly 30 years and seeing the city on screen makes me happy. It’s great when the movie is entertaining like The Fugitive, exciting like Thief, alternately inspiring and depressing like The Interrupters, or horrifying like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. These and dozens of other great films show off the city while also having a story to tell, but there are countless others set here, which, aside from their setting, don’t have much to recommend them. I’ve seen more bad movies set in Chicago than I can recall and expect to see many more before I’m done; I like this town that much.
Tubi TV is the Salvation Army Thrift Store of streaming services. Dig through its bizarrely grouped offerings and you’ll find classic films next to 9/11 truther agitprop next to unclassifiable material which I doubt anyone has sat through to the end. Tubi is reflective of the leveling that the Internet imposes on all cultural products—everything that’s ever been made is reduced to postage-stamp-like tiles and placed with little regard as to genre, style, quality, era, or category next to other tiles. The result is a crazy quilt from which we can extract some treasures after exhaustive foraging. It was on one such search that I came across The Alley Cat (2014). Shot mostly in downtown Chicago, the film follows Jasper, a gaunt, troubled bike courier, as she tries to win a nighttime street race while confronting the demons of her past. The story strains credulity and Jasper and her pals are profoundly unlikable, yet I kept watching because I recognized the locales they race through and there was a hapless sincerity to the film that I couldn’t entirely dismiss.
Anyone can make a movie that looks like a movie these days. The technology has progressed so far that a smartphone is capable of producing a picture quality it took hulking machinery to match only a few years ago. This, along with the proliferation of platforms like YouTube, means that any kid can walk into an electronics store and become a wannabe Spielberg moments after walking out. This doesn’t mean that the percentage of people who have something worthwhile to say has increased an iota. Meathead Goes Hog Wild (2014) follows an angry young beardo who gets fired from a butcher shop and goes on a confusing rampage all over the south side. At first he tries to distribute meat stolen from his store to bewildered passersby, then, after getting beaten up and mugged, he seeks vengeance, eventually macheting an innocent store clerk to death. The acting is amateur sketch-comedy level and the storytelling is just a bunch of confrontations strung together with B-roll of the city. I fast-forwarded through ten-minute chunks just to see where the next scene would take place.
Modeled on the letters of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, the haughty but clueless narration in Canvas (2017) is comically mismatched with its hi-def digital cinematography, which makes this tale of artistic frustration look like an feature-length ad for ED meds (which, come to think of it, might be a plausible reason for the main character’s behavior.) Steven, an unpleasant eunuch-like young man, moves into a soft loft and pretends to try to become a genius by alternately squirting acrylic paint onto store-bought canvas and tormenting his Stepford-wife-like girlfriend, Christina. The story, told in flashbacks by Christina, shows the present in black-and-white and the past in color (to add to deep feelings of lost love and artistic exultation?). There’s also a love triangle with Thomas, the brother funding Steven’s quest for greatness, an attempted suicide by autoerotic asphyxiation, and much moody philosophizing. The highlight is a shot of the late, lamented Finkl Steel plant in action as background to one of Steven’s soul-searching walks.
If I have to pick a “winner” in my foray into Chicago-made low-budget fare, it has to be the aptly titled (either for its content or its audience) Fools (2016). This labyrinthine romantic uncomedy concerns two disturbed individuals finding love after accidentally brushing hands on the El. Sam and Susan both have serious daddy issues, which is used by the filmmakers to explain their pathological inability to have normal interactions with their fellow humans. This film has far fewer shots of the city to distract me from its flaws but makes up for it by having a storyline which alternates between scenes of excruciating discomfort and complete non sequitur. It’s as if the writer had tossed all the sentences of his screenplay into a bag and reassembled them at random. It’s a thing to behold. The film also gets extra Chicago cred for casting local legend Tony Fitzpatrick as Susan’s creepy father.
So why watch bad movies at all? I do most of my home viewing via the Criterion Channel, but some nights after my work is done I want something other than another masterpiece in order to unwind from the day. That’s when I turn to Tubi. None of the movies I’ve mentioned are unsung gems. They will not be rediscovered or reappraised. What they are are authentic, if incompetent, expressions of thoughts and feelings set in my favorite city in the world. I firmly believe the worst piece of art is worth more than the best piece of art criticism, so these and countless other examples found on Tubi (and other free streaming channels) have some sort of value. And if they’re shot in Chicago, I’ll probably see them sooner or later. v