Persistence of Vision

(Ethan Tate)

As you enter the apartment at 55th and Hyde Park, the projector is on your left. Straight ahead, a canvas covered with what looks like multi-colored sponges hangs on a wall. When I ask about it, Julian Antos urges me to take it off their hands: “I just hate feeling like my home is an art project.”

Sponges aside, the apartment that Julian shares with Rebecca Hall feels like an extension of their own project–the Northwest Chicago Film Society (NWCFS), a nonprofit they and a third partner, Kyle Westphal, started in January 2011. According to its mission statement, the Society “exists to promote the preservation of film in context.” Its founders believe that film’s “ability to capture the past uniquely” is more “intelligible when it’s grounded in unsimulated experience: seeing a film in a theater, with an audience, and projected from film stock.” To achieve this goal, the NWCFS runs a classic film series on Wednesday nights for five-dollar admission at the Portage Theater on North Milwaukee.

In addition to the series up north, Becca and Julian host occasional screenings in their apartment, drawing films from their vast personal collection. Though they emphasize the difference between their living room screenings and the society’s public series at the Portage, Becca points out the new NWCFS logo she designed and spray-painted onto her bedroom door. Julian offers a cookie from the open packet of Chips Ahoy sitting on the kitchen table, brought to the previous day’s screening by one of their “favorite patrons.”

The weekly series at the Portage draws a crowd of regulars, many of whom first got to know Becca and Julian when the screenings were held on Saturdays in the now-empty Bank of America Cinema. That program, the Classic Film Series, began in 1972, and persisted in that space around the corner from the Portage as the building’s owners and the programmers changed over the years.

Becca discovered the Bank of America Cinema as a University of Chicago student through her involvement with Doc Films, the university’s student-run film society. “It was legendary among the [Doc] board in 2007,” Becca says. “Once I got to know them, I got to tag along.” She describes it as having “a really weird set up.” According to Becca, “You had to walk around to the back of the building, and there was this quaint little movie theater lobby.”

Becca soon began working at the cinema, and that is where she and Julian first met. “Julian, in my head, was that happy kid who would come with his parents and buy popcorn from me,” she says. Michael Phillips, who now runs South Side Projections and programmed at the cinema for its last few years, eventually brought Julian on to help out. According to Becca, he thought having a high-school kid around would annoy her, but the two quickly became friends. “He was like, ‘I’m going to screen this print of “The Black Cat” in my basement,’” Becca remembers, before asking Julian: “There was a live performance aspect, right? Your parents’ weird friends’ children?”

Both the programmers and patrons were conscious of the cinema’s uncertain fate. “People kept saying that every season for the last year and a half of the Bank was the last one,” Becca says. They began exploring options for continuing the series at a new location. “We were holding out on incorporating [as a nonprofit] until we found a space,” she says. They were introduced to Dennis Wolkowicz, the owner of the Portage Theater, who runs the Silent Film Society in that location. The last screening at the Bank took place on December 18th, 2010, and the NWCFS officially incorporated as a nonprofit on January 21st.

“It was clear that Dennis wanted to see us doing things at the theater,” says Becca. “His love is old films. I think he likes seeing cultural history-oriented programming happening.” In one post on the Society’s blog, Kyle describes the “archaeological aims” of programming a calendar.

“Maybe that’s what we should have called it, the Archaeological Film Society–everyone would think we show dinosaur movies,” says Julian. Neither Becca nor Julian remembers exactly what made them settle on the moniker “Northwest Chicago.” “We didn’t have much time when we were getting started,” Becca says. “I thought it was because we kept fighting and wanted to stop fighting,” Julian responds.

Julian has been collecting film since he was sixteen. The apartment he and Becca share was inherited from a former Doc Films Programming Chair, and the collection is stored in his old bedroom. The room is small and narrow, making the humidity level and 60-degree temperature easier to maintain. It barely fits two desks, a shelf that’s “half-organized,” and a closet holding canisters upon canisters.

“Julian’s just temperamentally a projectionist, he yearns to be in a small dark room with machines,” says Becca. Her interest in film preservation began when she began projecting at Doc Films. “As I was learning, I started hearing little things, sometimes from Kyle, about how because of digital technology’s rise, film stock might not be around for so long. So I was thinking about this the whole time I was learning about it, and these came together to make it seem quite important,” she said in an interview with Michael Phillips for the Chicago Tribune. “We’re still waiting to see if 35 mm, especially, continues to be available from conventional sources, so we’re looking at a lot of ways to make sure that we can keep doing that, including amassing our own film collection.”

 

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Kyle, who works at the George Eastman House, the museum of photography and film in Rochester, New York, writes regularly for the Society’s blog. He has devoted a series of posts to the importance of 35mm as it relates to their mission. In a blog post titled “Programming: How To Do Things With Films”, Kyle writes that “the industry-wide switch from 35mm to DCP exhibition is expected to be completed in the next two years.” The Digital Cinema Package, according to a February article in The Atlantic, is “a collection of media files with specifications set by the Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture between Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, and Warner Bros.”

The cost of the equipment used to project these files amounts to over $75,000–a bill impossible for many small theaters to foot. “These exhibitors are clinging to 35mm because it allows them to use existing projection equipment with minimal and rather predictable maintenance costs. It’s an incidental objective,” Kyle writes. “Showing films in 35mm is a mission on a different level of magnitude for repertory venues.”

In the interview with Phillips, he explains that the “film history that we’re often interested in, this very material physical sense of film history, is where you’re learning something not just by seeing it on screen but by actually holding it in your hand, winding through it, and making, in many ways, artistic decisions about how to present it.”

These decisions are evident in the Society’s choice of venue–“We talk about different series that’d be good for the Portage, or good for Cinema Borealis,” says Becca. The Borealis is a small independent screening room in Wicker Park. They talk about a recent five-hour program they screened there called “TV on Film,” explaining how 16 mm prints were used in television broadcasts. Julian recalls a screening of “The Incident,” a 1967 movie, featuring a young Martin Sheen, about young punks taking over a subway car. Because of the Borealis’ proximity to the Damen “El” station, “you could hear the train going by.”

“At an older theater it becomes a different kind of experience,” Becca says of the Portage and Bank of America. She describes the films in that series, a series which continues “in spirit” at the Portage, as “classic but obscure.” Former Bank of America Cinema programmer Mike King wrote in a goodbye tribute posted on Cinephile, a website devoted to Chicago independent cinema, that the series was a testament to the fact that “in order to fully grasp American film history, you have to venture well beyond the canon.”

He goes on to write that though the Bank showed “mostly old movies to mostly old people, the Bank [was] no nostalgia house.” What’s special about the movie-watching experience at the bank or Portage does not only have to do with the choice of film, or even just the fact that it’s on 35mm: “Take a film like ‘The Lady From Shanghai,’” King wrote. “When it plays at Doc Films at the University of Chicago, the undergrads laugh straight through it, to prove how smart they are. Go see it at Gene Siskel Film Center, and nobody laughs at all, as if they are humbled by how smart the film is. At the Bank, people would laugh along with the jokes. But also chuckle at first hearing Orson Welles’ wretched fake Irish accent. Because it’s funny.”

The NWCFS’s mission statement speaks lovingly of “the creak of the seats, the smile of the concession stand girl, the ripped edges of a ticket.” It continues, “going to the movies should mean more than watching a consumer product violently cajoled into filling a theater screen….We believe that it is an experience–aesthetic, material, social, and moral–worth preserving.”

Now, however, the Portage is threatened. CBS 2 reports that a North Side church, the Christian Tabernacle, has offered $2 million for the building, which contains the theater and a few storefronts. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave the theater “preliminary landmark status” in early April, and the Zoning Board of Appeals met on April 20 to address the issue. According to the Portage’s website, the church proposes “to convert the theater into their worship space, remove the marquee, alter the auditorium, and eliminate the storefronts and half the apartments.”

Community members and 45th Ward Alderman John Arena are rallying around the historic theater, writing letters to the Zoning Board of Appeals protesting the church’s request for a special use permit to allow for religious services in the theater. The Portage’s website urges community members to attend the Board’s June 15 meeting where the proposal is to be considered.

 

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But for now, Julian has just found his “intermission reel”–a collection of old advertisements for concessions he’s spliced together–and he wants to watch it. The apartment’s screening area is currently doubling as a bedroom for one of their roommates; a button-down hangs next to the screen and a desk is in the corner. The couches sit on a stage left by the apartment’s previous occupants. There’s a crash as Julian loads the film. “You scared the cats!” Becca yells from the couch.

“I feel like it still hasn’t sunk in for the general public yet, that there’s a person literally making the show happen,” she says. On the website, they’ve collected pictures of projectors drawn by projectionists. Their answer to the anticipated question –“Why this project?” reads: “Because the future of the medium is particularly uncertain these days, we’d like to record a sense of the skill and affection involved in every level of the trade.”

Becca talks seriously about her “fantasy,” that someday “repertory screenings will get their due;” that listings, the general public, and film critics will acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining certain prints, the particular choices programmers make, the combination of visceral experience and cultural history that lend these films a unique value beyond the stories they tell. “But we still believe in concessions,” Julian jokes. “Popcorn is economically important.” Becca adds that the Portage serves beer, wine, and hot dogs. “People don’t know that!”