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by Clarence Ewing
As a group of English New Wavers once put it, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." In Pop music, monetary success and flash-in-the-pan stardom is easy. Becoming an influence, not just on other artists but on an entire era, has far more lasting rewards that can’t be measured in dollars.
Very few can make a claim to being an influence in the music galaxy, to being a “musician’s musician.” One undisputed example of this is the band Sparks.
Born and raised in California and originally performing under the name Half Nelson, Russell and Ron Mael knew they would spend their lives in music. An early and beneficial encounter with legendary producer Todd Rundgren focused their sound and gave them the best kind of start to their careers.
Russell handles the vocals, Ron plays the keys and wears the mustache. Despite the vibrant '70s California music scene, the brothers would have to go to Europe to hit their stride, a move that would land them in a bristling stew of Punk, Electronica, New Wave, Post-Punk, and Classical influences.
Through the ensuing decades, using a number of backing musicians, the duo adopted a steady, workmanlike approach to their creativity while remaining consistently inconsistent in the styles of music they created. Having managed to avoid the hedonistic traps and self-destructive pitfalls that doom so many other bands on their journey, Sparks have kept their focus squarely on their music, and that has carried them through over 40 years of collaboration.
by Kyle Sanders
Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland
"If you can't be yourself, what's the point of being anything at all?"
You know it's a sign of progress when the sight of another corporate logo splashed in rainbow colors as recognition of Pride month causes one's eyes to roll. In what should be an appreciative acknowledgement of the LGBTQ+ movement, these symbolic messages of love and unity are often seen as a half-assed gimmick meant to make a profit.
As soon as July 1st rolls around, that message is quickly disregarded and it's back to business as usual. While that may be so, it's a huge step forward considering the hostile culture from sixty years ago.
Pride might not have been a thing back then, but Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams didn’t seem to need it. Two of America's greatest writers, they were both openly gay. One was a novelist who dabbled in plays, the other was a playwright who dabbled in novels. Both were raised in the ever-oppressive South where tensions ran high with their ever-repressive fathers. Their greatest works adapted into (somewhat great) films, with characters who were complex, desperate, and flawed. It was only natural that both men would develop a friendship, now documented in Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation.
by Kyle Sanders
There are many celebrated female writers, but very few who have the eccentricity of Flannery O'Connor. Her southern upbringing mixed with an unmovable Roman Catholic faith concocted a sardonic, grotesque mentality that crafted some of the greatest Southern Gothic stories in American literature.
With such a rich and prolific imagination, it's hard to believe her writing career was so brief, having been cut short by Lupus, which would claim her life at the age of thirty-nine. Now, debuting just days before what would have been her ninety-sixth birthday, PBS' American Masters series is releasing a documentary about her life, simply titled Flannery.
Co-directed, written, and produced by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, Flannery examines the astonishing life of a self-proclaimed "shy, inarticulate" woman who yearned for "a cool, sophisticated wit." Growing up in Milledgeville, Georgia, O'Connor had an early sense of mortality as a child and a level of creativity where the profane blended with the sacred.
by Kyle Sanders
I consider myself a proficient scholar when it comes to LGBTQ history: I've learned about the early pioneers, the Stonewall Riots, and the continuing struggles that still linger. But if you had ever name dropped David Wojnarowicz in a related conversation, I would have reacted like a deer in the headlights, and looked a fool.
But a fool, I am no longer. The creators behind RuPaul's Drag Race have produced a fiery and fearless portrait of the multimedia artist and AIDS activist, which they have appropriately titled WOJNAROWICZ: F**K YOU F*GGOT F**KER.
With an in-your-face, scandalous title like that, you get an idea of what you're in for. Stitched and sewn together with archived footage, photos, and answering machine tape recordings from the artist's personal archives, director Chris McKim crafts an absorbing collage that sucks you into the gritty cesspool of Wojnarowicz's early years of hustling on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, then spits you out in the aftermath of a post-AIDS gentrified world, where Wojnarowicz's viscerally breathtaking body of work continues to be rediscovered.
written by Kyle Sanders as part of his coverage of the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival
A funny thing happened the night after I watched the aforementioned titles: they won awards at the Chicago International Film Festival!
No sooner had I performed my morning task of checking emails, that I received a list of winners from this year's fest, and surprisingly, a lot of the films I've already posted about won't be traveling back home empty handed.
Of course, with the announcement of awards, it can only mean that the festival has come to a close, and my life can get back to normal (whatever that means these days!).
This year's Gold Hugo award in the International Feature Film Competition category goes to Sweat, an entry from both Poland and Sweden, and takes place in the obsessively compulsive world of social media branding.
Our protagonist is Sylwia, a gorgeous blonde fitness instructor who uses her toned body and perky demeanor to inspire her 600,000 followers to live their best life. Her life though, is constantly uploaded to her Instagram, where she posts how to maintain physical fitness and good nutrition.
Having a brand that encourages self-acceptance and positivity can have its setbacks, and after posting an emotional breakdown, it goes viral--much to the chagrin of her sponsors.
To make matters worse for Sylwia, a stalker has showed up on her radar. The social media pressures of maintaining a positive, balanced existence begins to chip away at Sylwia's candy-colored exterior, making her question if happiness exists post-uploaded content.
Another film that took home an award this year was an entry from Japan entitled Under the Open Sky. The Silver Hugo for Best Performance went to the film's star Yakusho Koji, for his skillfully organic performance of Mikami, a former Yakuza gangster beginning his life anew after thirteen years in prison.
No sooner is he beyond the prison's gates he realizes that life as a free man is not easily acquired. With every step of applying for jobs to grocery shopping comes the stigma of being a convicted felon.
Mikami knows that in order for him to reenter society, he must change his old ways or else he will never fit in, but how is that possible when society shows no mercy towards "those who step off the path?" With the help of a few unexpected allies, Mikami sets out to prove to society he is worthy of its acceptance.
Having the perfect life is not all that it's cracked up to be, but even starting your life over has its obstacles. For all that Sylwia has achieved in her life (a toned physique, numerous sponsors to send their products to her door step, thousands of adoring fans), she's still vulnerable and isolated within her self-made empire.
For Mikami, having freedom after years of imprisonment is not so simple when living in a system that continues to look down on you. Trying to climb yourself out from rock bottom is no easy task, no matter how hard you try to scrape by. You can have it all, or absolutely nothing, and humanity will choose whether or not to celebrate or ignore you.
The Chicago International Film Festival chose to celebrate these two films instead of ignoring them. Maybe that's because the stories they tell are about the human struggle for finding a place in an indifferent world.