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Reeling Film Festival 2021 Preview: Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, North by Current and Three More Highlights

“It was all very queer, but queerer things were yet to come.”—Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.”

Windy City cinephiles are sure to rejoice over numerous selections set to screen during the 39th installment of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. Thirty-three features and nine short film programs will both screen in-person and stream virtually, with only a few exceptions, at different times during the festival’s two-week run from Thursday, September 23rd, through Thursday, October 7th (you can find the full lineup here). I was able to screen five of Reeling’s chosen titles for this preview piece, and none were as purely enjoyable as Jeffrey Schwarz’s “Boulevard! A Hollywood Story,” a documentary comprised of so many plot twists and jaw-dropping instances of life imitating art that it practically warrants the Ryan Murphy treatment on a second season of “Feud.” With the perceptive eye of a detective, director/editor Schwarz uncovers a treasure trove of archives at the University of Texas that detail the long-forgotten original musical adaptation of Wilder’s 1950 classic, “Sunset Boulevard,” which preceded Andrew Lloyd Webber’s own version by several decades and was dreamed up by none other than the film’s star, Gloria Swanson. If you, like me, consider Wilder’s movie to be one of the greatest and most deliciously meta achievements in cinema history, you simply cannot afford to miss this picture, which chronicles how two closeted songwriters, Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, came to aid Swanson in making her dream project a near-reality. 

The fact they initially met the actress at her mansion on Mulholland Drive feels entirely fitting, since David Lynch famously took that street name as the title of his own 2001 masterpiece, a surrealistic spin on Wilder’s nightmare perched in the city of dreams (echoing Swanson’s own belief that the silver screen should be a “dream world”). The deeper that Hughes and Stapley get into their collaboration with Swanson, the more she appears to drift into her character of Norma Desmond, the silent film icon whose career—like Swanson’s—was cut short by the emergence of talkies. She insists on burying a chicken she accidentally crushed with her stiletto (a vignette Schwartz links via amusing illustrations with Desmond’s funeral for her pet monkey), while developing an infatuation with Stapley, which he felt was not unlike Desmond’s obsession with Joe Gillis. All that ended up reaching a wide audience was Swanson’s performance of the song “Wonderful People” during her 1957 appearance on “The Steve Allen Show.” Though it lacks the sophistication of the film’s subsequent stage adaptation, and Swanson lacks the pipes of the opera star she aspired to be, it is a poignant spiritual precursor to “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” the number that routinely brings down the house when belted out by Glenn Close in Webber’s musical. My sister was fortunate enough to catch the musical’s 2017 Broadway revival, directed by Lonny Price, whose own excellent documentary examining the parallels between art and life—Netflix’s “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened”—would make a fitting double bill with “Boulevard!”

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story” screens at 2:30pm on Sunday, September 26th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., and is available to stream from Wednesday, September 29th, through Tuesday, October 5th.

As soon as young private Sergey (Tom Prior) reveals to his forbidden lover, Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), that he loves music but has never seen a ballet in Peeter Rebane’s ravishing Cold War romance, “Firebird,” we are certain that at some point—likely in the final reel—Sergey will be watching the titular Stravinsky ballet Roman had introduced to him in a tearful close-up. If this heart-tugging payoff sounds awfully familiar, that’s because it appears to have been borrowed from Céline Sciamma’s vastly superior “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” In fact, there are shades of multiple well-known pictures centering on suppressed sexuality throughout Rebane’s film, most notably “Call Me By Your Name” and “Brokeback Mountain,” yet what makes it distinctive is the heightened theatricality of its mise-en-scène. When Roman has an illicit meeting with Sergey, red light pierces through the slats of windows resembling a jail cell. There’s also a pronounced crack in the wall that materializes between the couple when their bond appears to have been irrevocably ruptured. Even Sergey’s first steamy orgasm administered by Roman is accompanied by phallic planes roaring overhead. The sheer number of ominous fists knocking on doors signaling imminent doom verges on self-parody, but the film is ultimately grounded in an emotional reality by its performances, particularly that of Prior, who co-wrote the script with Rebane. When he reads Hamlet’s immortal line, “To be or not to be,” while ruminating over its meaning, it stands as a testament to how great art can forever be redefined by one’s own life experiences.

Firebird” screens at 7pm on Thursday, September 23rd, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., and is available to stream from Monday, September 27th, through Sunday, October 3rd.

Like her equally beloved “Mary Tyler Moore” show co-star Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman kept on working until her very last days, never shying away from projects that were unflinching in both their subject matter and vital representation. The fact Phil Connell’s “Jump, Darling” features one of Leachman’s last screen roles is enough to make this film an essential watch, yet it is also worth a look for its unsentimental portrayal of the devotion between Russell (Thomas Duplessie) and his grandmother, Margaret (Leachman), both of whom refuse to be placed in a traditional box. Margaret wants to remain in her house rather than be sent to a nursing home, while Russell seeks work as a drag queen, much to the disapproval of his longtime partner. Though Leachman is visibly frail, she is more than up to the task of delivering raw emotion as well as the occasional biting one-liner. I savored the scene she shares with fellow screen veteran Jayne Eastwood in a supermarket, which Leachman punctuates with a well-timed expletive. Though the premise of Russell and Margaret making unlikely housemates suggests a comedy on the order of “Mother,” the film is a much more somber affair, most enlivened by the drag acts where Russell gets to express his inner exuberance, especially when he gives a lap dance to his new closeted lover, right in front of the man’s oblivious girlfriend. Margaret’s love of skating parallels Leachman’s passion for acting, leading to a beautiful final moment where we see the woman lying in bed on the verge of death—and with her skates on.

Jump, Darling” screens at 4:30pm on Sunday, September 26th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., and is available to stream from Wednesday, September 29th, through Tuesday, October 5th.

The endearing British indie “Sweetheart” announces the emergence of a major talent both in front of and behind the camera. For her debut feature, writer/director Marley Morrison has crafted a splendid showcase for her leading lady, Nell Barlow, who is a revelation in her first major screen role. She plays a brooding 17-year-old who insists on being called “A.J.”, an abbreviated version of the cutesy name bestowed upon her by her mother Tina (Jo Hartley), and is revolted by her family’s preferred destination for summer vacation: the beachside trailer park she once loved in her youth. Tasked with looking after her little sister, who is essentially the “Little Miss Sunshine”-era Abigail Breslin to Barlow’s Paul Dano, A.J. shields herself with oversized sunglasses and caustic yet legitimate pessimism...that is, until a gorgeous lifeguard, Isla (a sublime Ella-Rae Smith), catches her gaze. A.J. is a rich symphony of a role—blossoming from cold and detached to lovelorn, excited, heartbroken, enraged, euphoric and finally at peace in her newfound wisdom—and Barlow hits every note impeccably. The first kiss she shares with Smith is disarmingly authentic in its awkward thrusts and misinterpreted signals, causing A.J. to flee in embarrassment, as are the bruising quarrels between mother and daughter, both of whom learn to embrace the freedom in escaping from their routine sense of self while away from home. When Barlow and Smith have their last embrace, you can palpably sense through the actresses’ eyes and the delicate nuance of their body language how their characters will be leaving this summer forever changed. 

Sweetheart” screens at 7pm on Saturday, September 25th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., and is available to stream from Tuesday, September 28th, through Monday, October 4th. 

Early on in “North by Current,” this year’s Documentary Centerpiece at Reeling, filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax gathers his family at a restaurant, one of their old haunts, where they sit in uneasy silence as J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ familiar cover of “Last Kiss” plays in the background. The moment is at once a humorous deconstruction of the documentary process—showing just how difficult it is for subjects to appear unguarded on camera—as well as a reflection of their inner grief, chillingly articulated by the song’s lyrics and triggered by the sudden passing of Minax’s niece. What seems to be, at the outset, a true crime thriller investigating whether abusive or negligent parenting resulted in the child’s death gradually unfolds into a much deeper meditation on the unspoken wounds that fester in a family to the point where they could prove fatal if kept indefinitely in the darkness. Some of the words shared between family members are scaldingly frank, such as when Minax’s mother likens his coming out as a trans man with the death of their grandchild, since in both cases, she and her husband found themselves grieving the loss of a girl. Minax’s use of narration is a masterstroke in how it allows him to have an inner dialogue with his younger self, voiced by Sigrid Harmon, whose words poetically set the tone for a film in which “time has no meaning.”

Even when streamed at home, Minax’s film is an utterly mesmerizing sensory experience, fusing foreboding photography with evocative home movie footage, original atonal flourishes with a sterling soundtrack and fragmented montages with shots that linger until they penetrate into your soul. The director repeatedly draws attention to the artifice of the film itself, such as with a staged image of his sister who is meant to look like she is holding her deceased daughter, and whose own mind is prone to cloaking wounds with illusions fed by denial. There is an amazing spontaneous monologue delivered by one of his young nieces, who observes with bracing clarity that her parents dislike one another, illustrating how very little escapes a child’s gaze. Minax makes no attempt to come across as faultless himself—his sister chides him for being abusive to her during their childhood—and he confesses that he has an empathy problem, though his film suggests otherwise. To him, sex and death are similar in how they are cosmic links to other worlds, and the same could be said of cinema. The images we see projected on a screen are moments from the past, gleaming like the light that emanates from stars long gone, yet the miracle of motion pictures brings them newfound life, providing us with a portal into the humanity of others. Few films in 2021 have affirmed this truth as extraordinarily as “North by Current.” It is one of the year’s best.

North by Current” screens at 5pm on Saturday, September 25th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. (where Minax will be joining me for an audience Q&A), and is available to stream from Tuesday, September 28th, through Monday, October 4th.

To purchase tickets and for the full festival schedule, visit the official site of the Reeling Film Festival.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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