Welcome to the latest installment ofÂ Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Let’s get real with each other here for a moment.
I’m not actually taking this road trip. You know this, right? That’s why there are quotation marks around the word “driving” in the paragraph above. I’m not actually doing this. If I were, I’d either be incredibly rich or incredibly irresponsible, or both.
So I feel like I can tell you when things I’m actually doing in my real life overlap with the things I’m pretending to do in this blog series.
For example, I was actually in Illinois for the first few hours of my “Illinois week,” which ran from last Monday to this past Sunday. I was visiting my oldest friend, who lives in Chicago with his darling wife and two children (one of whom is my godson). I was long overdue for this visit, and they just moved into a new house in the Edgebrook neighborhood, so that seemed to seal the deal.
So this week, in Illinois — the birthplace of my dad — I’m going to tell you about the things I actually did.
Picking me up after 11 p.m. on my arrival night, my friend took me to a place to get Chicago-style hot dogs. I just love the way the Chicago dog is overstuffed with toppings that fall out all over the place — the peppers, the pickle, the onion, the relish, the mustard. It was sloppy good. The next day we took in the excellent new film Fruitvale Station and prepared for a BBQ in my honor that evening, which included my friend’s classic smoked ribs and beer can chicken. Those things were even tastier than the hot dog. The third day (second full day) brought an ambitious schedule of attending both the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago (with my favorite band, Nine Inch Nails, headlining) and a Chicago Cubs game on the city’s north side. We shortchanged both activities to do both of them, but congratulated ourselves on our ambition. (Had another overflowing hot dog at the game.) The next day involved visiting with another friend in Lincoln Park, then a terrific Indian food meal with my friend and his family before a more casual evening at home. The last full day took me out of state to a terrific diner in Milwaukee, where they serve the Bloody Marys with a bacon swizzle stick. After a decadent brunch we stopped at an apple picking spot and a cheese emporium on the way back home, where another quiet evening of settling our stomachs awaited us. You could count these activities toward Wisconsin next week, but instead, let’s just return to the world in my mind when that week rolls around.
A part of Chicago I did not visit is the setting for my Illinois movie, The Interrupters. Steve James, who directed the acclaimed basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, looks into the epidemic of violence on Chicago’s south side, which became a national story a few years ago. This one came highly recommended by a new Chicago institution, the Filmspotting podcast, so it had been on my to-see list for about two years. I guess it’s not on many other people’s to-see list, as it ranks only #5541 among Flickcharters. Well, maybe I can change a few minds among the Flickcharters reading this post.
Chicago’s murder problem among inner-city young people, especially on the south side, has gotten so out of control in recent years that a coalition of former gang members have come together to put a stop to the violence. Calling themselves the Violence Interrupters, or the Interrupters for short, these mostly ex-cons have joined together to intervene with the most combustible elements in the community — sometimes literally moments before a fight begins, sometimes when the word on the street is that one wronged party is about to avenge a lost friend. Steve James documents a year in the life of these Interrupters, who are a product of CeaseFire, an initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Intervention. We meet a half-dozen key Interrupters, most notably Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, who emotionally reflect back on the times when they were in these kids’ shoes. A particular crisis point in the film surrounds the murder of Fenger High School student Darrien Albert, whose beating death was captured on video.
The setting is of course Chicago’s south side, a bubbling cauldron of tensions that arise from large incidents (murder) and small (a disagreement over a $5 bag of weed). The Interrupters makes a point of indicating that this larger issue goes way beyond Chicago or Illinois. The following pointed quote from Attorney General Eric Holder comes about halfway through: “Youth violence is not a Chicago problem. It is something that affects communities big and small, and people of all races and colors. It is an American problem.”
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Illinois movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Interrupters will battle:
1) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes). My Flickchart: #80/3562. Global: #51. I was all set to anoint The Untouchables — out of literally dozens of Chicago/Illinois films I love — as my #1 Illinois movie, and even contemplated including only Sean Connery‘s “that’s how you get Capone” speech as the entire text of my write-up. However, I was left a little gangstered out by last week’s Public Enemies, and Ferris Bueller ranks higher on my chart anyway. What’s so great about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the context of this project is how effectively it serves as a Chicago travelogue, even within the confines of only one (albeit epic) “sick” day. From fancy Chicago eateries to world-class Chicago museums to Wrigley Field to a parade down Dearborn Avenue, Ferris and his cohorts (played to perfection by Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck and Mia Sara) take a big honking bite out of the city and savor it — with a side order of neurosis in Cameron’s case. If this is the only John Hughes movie that shows up on this trip, I’m glad that at least one did.
2) Barbershop (2002, Tim Story). My Flickchart: #679/3562. Global: #5858. I was simply taken aback by how much I enjoyed Barbershop. I watched it as an assignment for an old reviewing gig, not expecting much, but emerged wanting to sing its praises. There’s something simply true about the world it creates, one in which an Altman-esque cross-section of characters meet, crack wise and share meaningful human interactions in a Chicago south side barbershop. Cedric the Entertainer is the character they marketed most in connection to this movie, which made me wary of its overall broadness. Truth be told, even Cedric grew on me, so well-meaning is this story, so optimistic is its idea of human beings’ capacity to do the right thing — at least some of the time. Ice Cube is the movie’s soul, and he anchors a very satisfying (and sometimes very funny) slice of life about a community formed around a classic tonsorial parlor.
3) Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford). My Flickchart: #970/3562. Global: #698. Robert Redford’s best picture winner (and his directorial debut) is one of those “issue movies” that likely had some difficulty transcending the exact moment in which it was made. Just as Crash seemed simplistic and dated, well, about two weeks after it won best picture, I suspect that this story of teenage death (a boating accident) and attempted suicide in suburban Lake Forest may not have aged well. There’s no doubt that it struck a nerve back in the 1980, as the Academy awarded Redford with best director and Timothy Hutton (also debuting) with best supporting actor. It does certainly feel like a quintessentially American story, about strife amidst privilege, and how the strength of family bonds can either drive someone toward desperation, or provide them salvation.
4) Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones). My Flickchart: #2779/3562. Global: #1185. I didn’t much care for Source Code. Want to fight about it? I know many people really dug this movie, but for me it was a big disappointment coming on the heels of Duncan Jones’ masterful debut, Moon. This one takes place on earth, on a train approaching Chicago that’s going to blow up — if a time-looping helicopter pilot can’t figure out how to defuse it in time. My question was, what does “in time” mean when you have a seemingly unlimited number of iterations to get it right? Numerous such logistical holes plague this movie — even more than the expected amount in a movie about time travel. Jake Gyllenhaal is okay, and Michelle Monaghan is one of my favorites, but outside of a couple nice moments together, they just can’t make this muddled bunch of disconnected sci-fi/time travel concepts cohere into something, well, coherent. Bonus points for having a title that sounds like it should have appeared on an episode of Seinfeld.
5) Little Fockers (2010, Paul Weitz). My Flickchart: #3355/3562. Global: #22505. Is that look of horror on Ben and Robert‘s faces a delayed reaction to their decision to make a third Fockers movie? A series with a genuinely strong opening installment has had predictably diminishing returns, and I guess it’s just our good luck that they can’t make Teenage Fockers for another ten years or so. De Niro’s “I’m watching you” gesture with the fingers pointing at the eyes seriously needs to be retired, and so does this saga of the hi-lariously named Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller), his wife Pam (Teri Polo) and the in-laws who get involved in an endless series of slapstick episodes. Adding kids to the mix this time does not, surprisingly, make the comedy any fresher. The movie does offer a pretty authentic example of the posh Chicago neighborhoods filled with gorgeous brownstones, however. As insipid as this film may be, it’ll always hold a special place in my heart if only because I took my son to it when he was about three months old — it was one of those 11 a.m. on a Monday morning “Mommy and Me” screenings where screaming babies are welcome.
First duel: The Interrupters vs. Ordinary People. Ordinary people vs. extraordinary people. The Interrupters wins.
Second duel: The Interrupters vs. Barbershop. A (mildly) romanticized version of Chicago’s south side vs. the one that’s painfully, brutally real. The Interrupters wins.
Third duel: The Interrupters vs. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. After a little too much realism, I need some pure escapism. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off wins.
The Interrupters finishes second out of the six movies.
Steve James, heralded directed of Hoop Dreams, again proves how intimately he can involve himself with his subjects in this harrowing, inspiring documentary. Both of these great films are primarily about African-Americans, and James is white. While this alone should not be a stumbling block to him making a good film, it might stop the film short of being great, because these kind of films — especially The Interrupters — require him to get the participation of his subjects without self-censorship or hesitation. In the case of this film in particular, many of the subjects would be understandably reticent about appearing on film, talking about their violent pasts (and presents), and potentially making themselves targets of police investigations. That he’s a white man, essentially an outsider to their world, makes the degree of difficulty even higher.
Yet there are very few blurred out faces in The Interrupters, very few moments when the camera specifically avoids the face of the person who’s talking. The fact that there are some moments, however, demonstrates just how many others freely and willingly gave of their most personal selves to see this documentary reach audiences. That alone is an invigorating testament to how much these people really want to put an end to the violence that controls their lives.
The Interrupters is full of jaw-dropping sequences, when it appears the participants or the film crew themselves could get caught up in real violence. One scrum on a Chicago street is caught as it’s happening, with various participants scrambling for a butcher knife, and no certainty that one won’t sink the weapon into another’s midsection. That’s the everyday reality of life on the south side of Chicago.
However, the film really convinces us that with the dedicated focus of these heroic individuals, the everyday reality really has the potential to change. The “character arc” of one gang member in particular embodies that hope. When we first see him, he won’t even come to lunch with Cobe Williams, the violence interrupter who has assigned himself to this man’s case. He even seems like he might be going for his piece. Over weeks of diligent persistence, however, the man steadily changes, to the point that by movie’s end, he has his own solemn resolve to change his ways, a world weariness that is the first step to changing his own life. While not every case study has this success rate — and while there’s no way to know whether the person in question might fall back into old habits — the work of these reformed gang members is undeniably hitting its mark in some cases. The fact that the world can now see their humble work, and appreciate how far the interrupters have come from their own violent pasts, makes this not only a great film, but an important one.
Welcome to Wisconsin, home of cheese, beer, brats … and serial killers. Well, at least one, anyway. I’ll be watching the 2002 film Dahmer, which attempts to get inside the head of Milwaukee native Jeffrey Dahmer. Not the most fun place to be, I’m sure.