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Spaces of Disappearance Plastic Fun from Virtue (self-released) Add to Collection
written by Kyle Sanders, reporting from the 58th Chicago International Film Festival
Barely a week through the Chicago International Film Festival, and I feel as if I'm slacking! Then again, my goal for reviewing films this year was supposed to involve a little organization, but as any press accredited film critic would probably tell me, watching festival flicks in the order of my choosing would NOT go so smoothly. That being said, I'm four films in, and while they aren't exactly how I'd planned to watch them, these films share more similarities than I initially gave them credit for...
Art and Pep
First things first, a Chicago-oriented documentary about one of Chicago's popular gay bars owned by a pair of Chicago activists: Art and Pep (U.S.). Since opening Sidetrack in 1982, Art Johnston and Pepe Pena had the goal of creating a welcoming space for the gay community of Northalsted (formerly known as Boystown). They had no idea it would become a haven of joy and solidarity through 40 tumultuous years, with its humble beginnings during the AIDS crisis and persevere through the uncertainty of the Covid pandemic. In between that time, they found themselves becoming local civil rights leaders, co-founding Equality Illinois while expanding their meager bar into an iconic Chicago establishment.
One Fine Morning
Next up, a romantic drama from Cannes winner Mia Hansen-Love (Father of My Children) entitled One Fine Morning (France). Starring Lea Seydoux as Sandra (with a scowl that could rival Falconetti's pout and a Jean Seberg bob to match), this film is about a widowed young mother raising her daughter alone while also tending to her sick father. As his health deteriorates, Sandra is faced with finding an affordable nursing facility that will provide good care. With her relationship to her father deteriorating, she reconnects with an old friend, Clement (Melvil Poupaud, a co-star from one of last year's festival titles, Summer of '85). Despite his being married, Sandra's friendship with Clement builds into a passionate affair, which only causes more grief in her already complicated life.
I also sat in on a press screening of EO (Poland), a dramatic rendering of the best and worst of humankind, as seen through the silent eyes of a donkey. After being legally released from performing in a circus, Eo finds himself on a journey through ever-changing handlers and environments: from horse farms to soccer matches, and from the open wilderness to a wealthy gated villa. With an uncertain future ahead of him, Eo bears witness to it all with an unknowable gaze that witnesses both affection and aggression.
The Return of Tanya Tucker - Featuring Brandi Carlisle
I concluded this this batch of screenings with another documentary entitled The Return of Tanya Tucker - Featuring Brandi Carlisle (U.S.). Everyone loves a comeback, and musician Brandi Carlisle felt no one was more deserving of one than country singer Tanya Tucker. A trailblazing legend who began her singing career as a teen, Tucker defied the standards of women in country music, developing a hell-raising reputation more commonly associated with the likes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Despite slipping from the spotlight in recent years, she is championed by Carlisle, who is determined to have Tucker return to the music scene with an album of songs to match her extraordinary career.
As different as each film is, there is an underlying theme of defining one's legacy--how our lives mattered, our contribution to the world, and what we leave behind. In Art and Pep, there is not just a history of love between the two bar owners, there's a history of community they helped to define. What they built together was never just for themselves, but for their neighborhood and to a greater extent, the city of Chicago. They didn't just open a gay bar either, they fought like hell as "Pitbulls for Gay Rights," to keep their community protected and intact, regardless of any struggles or obstacles to come.
Aside from the plot involving a doomed affair, the real drama from One Fine Morning comes from defining Sandra's relationship with her father. Throughout this film, Sandra must come to terms with her father's illness, a disease that has left him without eyesight, and soon, his mind. As her father is transferred from one facility to another, Sandra must deal with what he's left behind, cleaning out his home and deciding what to keep and what to throw away. There's a particular challenge with her father's extensive book collection. As she explains to her young daughter, the father she knew is within those books: the titles he chose to buy and the pages he turned through. Those books are the only connection remaining of the father she knew, and those books are the legacy she will inherit and later pass on to her own child.
The Legacy of EO is a little more complicated. Without the ability to speak in human language, Eo's worth is defined by his worth to others. At the start of the film, he has purpose as part of a circus performer's act--the only human in the film who shows real affection and love for him. To everyone else, he's a prop, either for carting off various items, a symbol of luck, or--in one unsettling scene--the cause of a soccer team's defeat. If he's not being corralled or carted off with other livestock, he's put out to pasture or considered for euthanasia. His lot in life is determined by whoever stumbles upon him and what they decide he should be used for--as an animal, he gets no say in how his life should be lived.
Similarly, Tanya Tucker sees herself as that old gray mule who just ain't what she used to be. One of the first things she says into the camera in The Return of Tanya Tucker is "Say a prayer, I need it." As this documentary documents the making of her comeback album, she defends and validates her past, accepting that in order to become a success you have to survive a lot of failures. Yet she feels completely uncertain of who she is in the present, and what she'll be remembered for long after she's gone. As Carlisle reassures her, the goal of this new album will be to show younger country music fans "where [that] music comes from," to show new audiences the source of the sound they've come to love and to give Tucker something to leave behind for new audiences to find and appreciate. By the end of this documentary, it's clear that Tucker's prayers get answered.
As we reflect on where our lives have taken us, we often find ourselves wondering how we'll be remembered or forgotten. It's human nature to want to believe we mattered at all in the life we lived. For some, the answer is pretty clear (despite contemplations of retirement, Art and Pepe's Sidetrack bar will continue to provide a service to the LGBTQ+ community), and to others, the future is not so certain (Eo's journey may never make sense to him). Legacy can be defined by the things you leave behind for others to possess (the books of Sandra's father in One Fine Morning), or the paths you cleared for others (Tanya Tucker will always be an influential female voice in country music). This collection of films show us that while life is short, you make the most with what you have, and always find a way. The legacy you leave behind starts with the paths you choose in life.
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