James Fotopoulos: A Retrospective
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) – Friday-Sunday
The second and final weekend of James Fotopoulos in Chicago is a three-day retrospective taking place at The Nightingale. Whereas the first weekend focused on Fotopoulos’ early films, all of which are distributed by Facets Video, this weekend presents a mix of the underground auteur’s early and more recent work, each night offering a pair of feature-length films based on this dichotomy. Also unique about this weekend’s screenings is the wide variety of themes and genre experimentations; though not a complete retrospective, much can be gleaned about the prolific director across the three nights. The Friday films draw heavily from their respective inspirations, either literally or figuratively. CHRISTABEL (2001, 74 min, 16mm and Digital Projection) is something of an experimental adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s eponymous narrative poem. In the film, which is structured like the text—two half-hour segments on video and two 16mm conclusions, presumably mimicking Parts I and II and the Conclusions to Parts I and II, though without having recently read the poem or seen the film projected, I’m not entirely sure which aligns with which—an array of layered effects intensifies Fotopoulos’ transformative vision. DIGNITY (2012, 82 min, Digital Projection), which “uses the minimal structure of a sci-fi B-film,” similarly appropriates an already established form with subversive intent. The contrast of low-grade cinematic techniques with highfalutin ideas “ranging from the stoic writings of Marcus Aurelius to the fantasy prison drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi” challenges one’s notion of genre cinema and its capabilities. Saturday’s program explores domestic spaces: FAMILIES (2002, 97 min, 16mm) “meditates on the mundane existence of human and animal life” using uncanny black-and-white 16-millimeter cinematography that closely resembles old—and eerie—family photographs, while THERE (2014, 103 min, Digital Projection) takes a different approach, as it follows a disturbed veteran and the people in his life whose respective dysfunctions fuel his own down a dangerous and paranoid path. (Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg appears as a guard.) This is the most visually striking duo of the bunch; FAMILIES’ masterly chiaroscuro and THERE’s Wong Kar-wai-esque cinematography succinctly exhibit Fotopoulos’ range. THE NEST (2003, 78 min, 16mm) and THE GIVEN (2015, 75 min, Digital Projection), the star of whom, Sophie Traub, also appeared in Spencer Parsons’ delightfully morbid BITE RADIUS, are more loosely connected, though both center around a female “protagonist” going down a rabbit hole, so to speak, à la Pakula and Rivette. The former is a veritable grab bag of uncanny effects, the most idiosyncratic being that it was filmed on out-of-date film stock. In stark contrast, THE GIVEN was filmed on digital video, the clarity of both the image and the sound as impudent in their lucidity as the earlier works shot on film are in their abstruseness. Traub’s actress character is mesmerizing, the actress herself seemingly possessed with the conceit. Something similar could be said of Fotopoulos, all of whom’s films are imbued with unparalleled aplomb. Fotopoulos in person at all shows. Kathleen Sachs
CHRISTABEL (2001, 74 min, 16mm and Digital Projection) and DIGNITY (2012, 82 min, Digital Projection) are on Friday at 7:30pm; FAMILIES (2002, 97 min, 16mm) and THERE (2014, 103 min, Digital Projection) are on Saturday at 5pm; and THE NEST (2003, 78 min, 16mm) and THE GIVEN (2015, 75 min, Digital Projection) are on Sunday at 5pm.