A Year of Unknown Books: Flickering Empire (How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry)

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film IndustryFlickering Empire
by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer
Book #12, reading during October, 2015
Final Book

This is the last book of my year-long project where I read books that other people recommend to me, and this is the perfect title with which to finish strong.  Not only is it about Chicago history, aka my amazing homeland, but is also the first book written by my spouse, Michael Smith.  Published in early 2015, I could either be an awful wife having waited this long to read it, or you could say that I saved the best for last.  Either way, the back cover has been closed, and luckily for me, the dedication to me is typed within a book (yep, that’s right) that I can honestly say was wonderful.

Admittedly, I’m not a big film history buff.  I love specific genres of film, but I’m not studying their origins, so I was a little nervous that the information would be over my head.  In all actuality, some of it was, but mainly the names of the early iterations of film equipment, but those are sparse and you can just glaze over them if you wish (because I obviously did).  The appeal for me as a film ignoramus was all of the firsts.  So much of what this book includes are facts about how things common today first came to be in the early 20th century, and in Chicago.  Because there are too many to describe, here’s list of some of my favorites:

-How seemingly disparate histories intersect, i.e. how Colonel Selig (a studio head) was financially aided in court to fight back against Thomas Edison by the meatpacking company who received bad publicity because of Upton Sinclair’s serial turned novel, The Jungle.

-That absolutely nothing has changed since 1912 regarding the intimate relationship between corruption and Chicago government and police.

-The description of early Chicago has honestly been the only one that I’ve read thus far to make me want to read about historic Chicago.  Charles Dickens, when he visited Chicago is said to have been “shook [so badly by the experience] that some commentators feel that he never really recovered his former optimism” after seeing it as a “dirty, grimy land full of thieves, con artists, and people who lived in poverty and misery…”  I don’t know, it kind of fills me with pride.  Don’t mess with Texas Chicago.

-The progression from still photos to what we view today is astounding, and once moving pictures became so, it seems unjust that so many of the early films have been lost.  It’s also unbelievable that some are merely hiding out, only to be discovered one hundred years later in an entirely different country, such as the new found Chicago-made Sherlock Holmes, unearthed in France in 2014.

-The definition of the word nickelodeon came from nickle theaters in Chicago.

-The first Sherlock Holmes film was made in Chicago, and with his famous hat, which was a creation of the filmmaker, not the actual story.

-Chicago filmed the first film adaptation of the Wizard of Oz.

-One of the disturbing realities of film history is that animals were indeed killed in the making of early Chicago film.

-Thomas Edison was actually a huge asshole (who knew?!) who appropriated the ideas of others while taking the credit on a historical scale.  As they say, history is written by the winners.

-Orson Welles studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.

-And lastly, the gripping description of one of the first African American filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Who knew that Chicago was essentially the birthplace of film?  Not I, but Flickering Empire does a bang up job of setting the scene for early film history in Chicago, and doing it in a way that is anything but textbook.  The authors set the scene for a fledgling time and place where film and city are akin in their voracity to exist and grow.  I couldn’t have planned (and I planned for nothing, as all the books were recommended) for a better title to cap my Year of Unknown Books project.

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Ain’t Your Average Apocalypse: Exploring the “Cool Apocalypse” with Director Michael Glover Smith

Exploring Feminisms sat down with director Michael Glover Smith to discuss his forthcoming feature length film, Cool Apocalypse.  This is Smith’s fourth film to date, ranging from a tobacco-slinging thief, a misguided folk singer, a cigar salesperson who stumbles onto a murder plot, to finally, a 24-hour tale that takes the viewer on a journey through the gamut of relationship ups and downs.

                                            

JM: Tell me, what is your new film about and how did you come up with the title, Cool Apocalypse?

MGS: The film is about the relationships between two 20-something couples: Paul and Julie meet and go on their first date, while Claudio and Tess, who’ve been together for years, finally break up for good. All of these characters interact with each other over the course of a single summer day in Chicago.  It’s probably best categorized as a drama but I hope it’s also funny in a realistic way – the way that life can be funny.

“Cool apocalypse” was a phrase I had read a long time ago and I always wanted to use it as the title for something.  I like it as an ironic juxtaposition of words: we think of an “apocalypse” as something that is very hot and loud and obvious, but “cool” implies the opposite of that: that it might happen with a whimper instead of a bang.  When I came up with the idea for this film, I thought the title fit.

JM: Are we to assume the obvious, that the “cool” refers to the coming together of a couple, and the “apocalypse” is the breaking up?  Or could it be read another way, that out of apocalyptic chaos comes calm, like the calm after a storm, and we are to assume that the break-up of the couple will allow for positive transformation?

MGS: As far as the title goes, however you want to interpret it is fine. It’s like coming up with the name of a band: ultimately, I just think it has a nice ring to it.

JM: Where did you get your inspiration for the script?  Was it culled from memories of your 20s, or is it informed by your life now, in your upper 30s and expressed through 20 somethings?

MGS: It’s a combination of both of those things. All of the characters are amalgamations of different people that I’ve known in my 20s and 30s. I take aspects of people I’ve known (including myself, of course), and things that people I’ve known have said, and then spread them around among all of the characters. And then some things are just made up out of thin air. My philosophy is that if I feel like something fits, I’ll use it.

There’s a great French film from 1998, The Dreamlife of Angels, made by a guy named Erick Zonca. It was his first film — even though he was in his early 40s when he made it — and it’s about the friendship between two women in their early 20s. When I first saw it I thought, “This clearly represents a point-of-view on people in their 20s that was made by someone who’s older and wiser.” I hope that people have a similar reaction to my film — that they can sense that it wasn’t made by someone who is the same age as the characters. There have been a lot of low-budget indie films in recent years about “aimless twentysomethings” where the style and structure of the films also feel aimless. I want the style and structure of our movie to feel formal and elegant – but then also have spontaneous, naturalistic performances within that structure.

JM:  It’s interesting that you’ve taken personal details from your friends and from your own life.  I would think that it would help to make the experiences and dialogue more relatable, as opposed to it all merely being created out of thin air.  Sometimes, I watch films directed by men and find myself screaming out, “this would never happen in real life!” especially when it comes to parts for women written and directed by men–obviously most often in movies with sex scenes.

By writing for characters who are twenty years younger though, does it risk feeling inauthentic due to the experiences/dialogue seeming incongruous to what a typical 20 something year old may have experienced, or does it hope to serve as a cautionary tale to 20 year olds- learning from the mistakes that others have made when they were their age? Who do you envision as your prospective audience for this film?  Is it meant for people in their 20s specifically?

MGS: One of the things I tried hard to do in writing this script was to create interesting and realistic female characters. I think that the experience of being married and living with a woman for years has allowed me to be better at doing that. I don’t think, however, that the film risks being inauthentic just because the characters are younger than I am. As a filmmaker, I think I tend to be more interested in the aspects of relationships that are universal and timeless (rather than in, say, making pop culture references that might be specific to young people today) – so I hope that people of all ages will be able to relate to it. Having said that, I’m also looking forward to working very closely with the actors and allowing them some dramatic license with the dialogue. During auditions, for instance, I told one actress to put the dialogue in her own words. So instead of saying, “I really like your shoes,” she said, “Those are some sick-ass shoes.” What she said was way better than what I had written and so I consequently changed the line in the script.

JM: Do you think that actresses improvising their own lines, and again, the dialogue that you take from your own personal life, will help to make the characters more life-like and relatable, as opposed to the typical Hollywood drama or rom-com, a la Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, and Kristen Wiig characters where they still fit so predictably into the same box?Mike on Catastrophe

MGS: Exactly. We’re going for the opposite of formula, the opposite of cliche. I hope that when people see my film they say, “These are the kind of people I know in real life but who I never see in the movies.”

Michael Smith (left) on the set of his last film, The Catastrophe

JM: I once heard you say that you have to separate the art from the artist (I believe we were discussing the homophobe who wrote Ender’s Game).  Given that so much of the script is taken directly from your personal life, wouldn’t you say that in this case, the art cannot be separated from the artist?

MGS: Ha! Not really. In my opinion, this film will be successful if people see it and then, when it’s over, talk about what they think it says about the world. Ideally, viewers will leave the movie wanting to talk about people, emotions and relationships – not what they perceive to be the personality or the point-of-view of the author.

JM: But you can admit that the characters – their experiences and emotions – are manifestations of your own experiences, and therefore the POV of you, the director, is inherent throughout the film?

MGS: Yes, but I would say that the film is personal, not autobiographical. To me there is a crucial difference between those things. I’m not interested in making the kind of art that is like an extension of my diary.

JM: How does Cool Apocalypse differ from your other three films?

MGS: I think everything I’ve done before this was the work of an amateur. Before, I was making movies to learn how to make movies. Cool Apocalypse is the first film I’ve made where I feel like a professional. In particular, I’m very excited about collaborating closely with the actors this time. Even something as simple as having the actors improvise during the auditions – that’s not something I would have had the confidence to do before. But it’s something I now look forward to continuing with throughout the entire process of rehearsing and shooting this film. We are going to treat each scene like a little one-act play and just go over every little moment again and again until everything feels authentic.

JM: When can we expect to see this film on the big screen?

MGS: We finish shooting in late August and then we’ll work on post-production throughout the fall. I hope to have it ready for a film festival premiere in early 2015.

JM: Awesome, I can’t wait to see it!  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll have to do a He Said/She Said after it premieres…

 

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It’s a Catastrophe! An Interview with Director Michael Glover Smith

Having been casting director, food gal, executive producer and all around moral support for the 2011 short film, The Catastrophe, I feel a certain kinship to this film. After having seen it about ten times, I am still left with questions regarding writer and director Michael Glover Smith’s intentions.  So why not ask?  Smith was gracious enough to pimp his movie a little and give me some face time, a.k.a. sitting across the dining room table Sunday morning in our jammies over coffee.

JM: Could you please describe The Catastrophe in one sentence, and I’ll leave it up to you whether you’d like to describe the plot, the story, the general feeling, etc.?

MGS: This is tough but, in one sentence, here goes: The Catastrophe is a dramatic story, told in poetic, dreamlike images, about a man who has the gradual, dawning realization that he may have made the wrong decisions in life.

JM: I know that this story is based off of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe, but have any of your own decisions in life or lack thereof influenced your adaptation?

MGS: Yes, I fell in love with this Hawthorne story, which was written in 1837, but I would have never used it as the basis for a film if I hadn’t felt a personal connection to it and seen a way to make an adaptation that I felt was relevant and contemporary. I always say The Catastrophe is a cautionary fable about the dangers of not doing what one should be doing in life.  But it’s not like I’m Zeus criticizing the character from on top of Mount Olympus.  It’s more like commonsense advice I’m also giving to myself.  You know, “Don’t waste your time doing things that aren’t important. Don’t do anything just for the money.”  It’s personal in that sense.

JM: Have any other directors influenced how you wrote/directed this film?

MGS: In terms of specific shots and specific effects, yes, but not in terms of the end result.  I did show a lot of different film clips to Justin Cameron, our brilliant director of photography, as visual references for the kind of “feel” I wanted to go for in certain scenes.  For example, I showed him the interrogation scene from Zodiac in order to communicate how I wanted our opening bathroom scene to start out distanced and objective but then become increasingly ominous and paranoid-feeling as we steadily bring the camera closer to the actors and the shots become more and more subjective.  But obviously, our film as a whole bears no resemblance to Zodiac.  I did a similar thing with the hanging scene; we watched parts of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and talked about using lots of close-ups to fragment the human body the way Bresson did.  Also, I dedicated the movie to Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, two unfairly imprisoned Iranian filmmakers, but that was more a show of political solidarity than anything.  If any Iranian director could be said to be a stylistic influence on this movie, it would be Abbas Kiarostami; I was thinking of his films when I was writing the script because I knew I wanted to have a lot of scenes of our protagonist driving in his car and talking on his cell phone.

JM: When you write and direct a film, do you keep a certain audience in mind?

MGS: I used to try and have a general audience in mind but I think that kind of thinking has gotten me into trouble.  In the past, I would always second guess myself and think, “Well, if this film isn’t successful, it’s because I wasn’t thinking commercially enough.”  So I would rely on formulas and genre conventions to communicate ideas in a shorthand way, knowing that those things had worked in other movies (I’m specifically thinking of the use of faux-documentary interviews in my previous film At Last, Okemah!).  When you try and second guess how a general audience (i.e., a faceless blob of people) will respond, I think you also sacrifice some of your own understanding of what you’re doing.  So, with The Catastrophe, I decided to just go with my gut every step of the way.  Whether it was writing, directing or editing, I kept thinking, “This feels organically right. This makes perfect sense to me even if it might seem weird to others.”  Or to put it another way: I considered myself to be the audience.  I finally made a movie that completely satisfied me personally, which makes me feel like it will have the same effect on others, even if that’s a very small group of people.  I’ve come to realize I would rather completely satisfy a small group of people than partially satisfy a lot of people.

JM: When you write and direct a sex scene, do you feel like you do it from your personal perspective, a [general] male perspective, or something all together different?

MGS: That’s a great question. I think it depends on the specific film because, in terms of perspective, sex scenes can be as varied as murder scenes or any other type of scene.  In the case of The Catastrophe, we are telling a story that sticks fairly close (but not exclusively!) to the perspective of our main male character.  So, I wanted there to be a certain ambiguity in the sex scene between these other two characters.  I wanted the audience to ask themselves, “Is this happening for real or is this the paranoid fantasy of the main character?  Is this merely what he fears his girlfriend is doing while he’s on the road for business?”

JM: What do you aim to achieve by showing us nudity, male and female, and a sex scene?

MGS: Well, I wanted to achieve two things: I wanted to depict the sex act in an honest way and I also wanted it to be somewhat blunt and shocking.  In regards to my first objective, I feel like there’s something dishonest about not showing nudity in a sex scene.  You know, sometimes you’ll see a Hollywood movie and the actress will have a bra or a shirt on during the sex act, and that can take you out of the movie completely.  The first thing you think is that the actress obviously has it stipulated in her contract that she won’t do nudity.  This, of course, is not the kind of thing you should be thinking when you watch a movie.  In regards to the second objective, it goes back to what I was saying about the protagonist’s paranoid fantasy.  If you believe that’s what the bedroom scene in my movie is, I don’t think there is any better way to indicate that paranoia and that fear than by showing you the penis of the “other man.”  And I think I was successful in these objectives because both of the actors (whom, I should add, I think are very brave performers) really liked the scene when they saw it and felt that it was artful and not gratuitous at all.

JM: As the movie comes to its end, it leaves the audience hanging because not much has been realized by the characters/is not a finished story.  Do you feel that because the film is the first part of a longer script, it will be more difficult to be taken seriously by the audience?

MGS: First of all, you should always leave the audience wanting more – better that than overstaying your welcome!  But it’s a fifteen minute film so there’s only so much you can accomplish.  I did want to show that both Dominicus and Carlie, the male and female protagonists, have realizations in those fifteen minutes.  It’s not as dramatic of an arc as what I could show in a feature but I think you actually do see these characters change in a realistic way.  In the case of Dominicus, I liked the irony of his situation: here’s a guy who is always on the road selling cigars to make enough money so that he can get married.  But the very thing that’s allowing him to make money is the same thing that’s pushing his girlfriend away!  This is the realization that his character comes to.  With Carlie, it’s different; she’s pissed off that he’s always on the road but then comes to a realization that she doesn’t need him to be happy and that she can imagine a life without him.  Now, because the movie is somewhat abstract (transitioning from black and white to color, having a dream sequence, having a character recite a poem, etc.), I know that some people are not going to think of this as being an “actors’ movie.”  But I do think that both Peyton and Marla, who play the leads, successfully show their characters evolving in just a few short scenes.  I am very, very proud of the work they did in this film.  Hopefully, we will get the chance to make the feature-length version of this script and tell the whole story.

JM: At the end of the film, Carlie does something with her face (I won’t spoil the surprise) that makes me think that she is actually not happy, and in that way I do not read it in a way that she feels that she can exist without him.  Can you comment on that as a possible interpretation?

MGS: If that is the way you feel, I’m not going to say you’re wrong.  I wanted Carlie’s gesture to be ambiguous and evocative but I never even discussed what it meant with Marla, so I’m sure she had her own interpretation of what it meant.  The important thing is that she’s had an epiphany and epiphanies can be scary.  They can have positive and negative consequences.  The ultimate meaning is up to each individual viewer.

JM: Thanks Mike, and we’ll see you at the Illinois International Film Festival on November 19th for your Chicago premiere!

Director Info: Smith is an independent filmmaker and Film Studies instructor based in Chicago, Illinois and currently teaches film studies/history at four (yes, four) colleges around the Chicagoland area.  The Catastrophe is Mike’s third film.

For information on the film, please check out The Catastrophe’s website and trailer on You Tube.