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May 17, 2013

Weekend Warriors: The Northwest Chicago Film Society

I’m stuck in rush hour traffic on I-90 on the way to the Six Corners of Portage Park, where I’m headed to catch a flick at one of the oldest movie houses in Chicago, the Portage Theater. The place has been around for nearly a century and has shuffled through ownership in recent years, but some friends of mine have been reigniting its film tradition with a Wednesday night program. They call themselves the Northwest Chicago Film Society, they being Becca Hall (A.B. '10), third-year Julian Antos, and Kyle Westphal (A.B. '07). The crew is a staple of the Chicago film scene, and comprises some of the coolest people I know. They’re also Doc alumni (Kyle has been working on a book about its history), and Julian preceded me as that group’s programming chair a couple years ago. Although I hadn’t seen them in a while, some of my best memories of the last few years are of climbing up onto Moomers’ (their apartment, upstairs from the old Toolshed) porch and talkin’ movies and music while kicking it on their hammock.

But I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I’m late. I crank the volume on Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s new album, Brooklyn Babylon. Darcy’s new record was appropriate for this night’s outing: A concept album about an all-too-real gentrified future for Brooklyn, performed by an 18-piece jazz bigband, the music sounds like what Duke Ellington might have written if the bigband hadn’t gone out of vogue, and had instead continued to involve and incorporate influences from rock, hip hop, heavy metal, disco, etc., the rest of music history since the 1960s. Darcy calls it steampunk, and it’s really cool. Loud horns, heavy drums, and guitar, Croatian and Balkan folk melodies…basically, the perfect tunes for driving through the northwest side of a city like Chicago.

Brooklyn Babylon was an apt choice, because what I was going to witness is, by some accounts, an attempt to breathe life back into a dead practice. The Northwest Chicago Film Society screens film prints—35mm and 16mm on their Simplex projectors—in a world where most movie theaters you go to no longer show film stock, having converted to high-resolution digital projectors. The transition from film to digital was happening when I started programming Doc in 2011 (which also shows movies on film), and back then I had no idea how quickly film stock was going to be rendered obsolete as the mainstream form of movie exhibition. But it’s happened, and it’s happened within the last few years. It was a total revolution, and it went basically undetected—especially by the mainstream media—unless you were paying attention. It’s going to save the studios millions in shipping and production fees, for a few basic economic reasons: It costs thousands of dollars to make a film print, and you need to make hundreds of them for a country-wide release of every title you produce; shipping a 60–100 pound film print is five or six times more expensive than shipping a 5–10 pound hard drive; and you need to own hundreds of gigantic warehouses to store tens of thousands of your film prints.

But they still show film at the Portage: cartoons, trailers, ads, features, and random reels from archives, studio vaults, and private collections. I won’t go into its mission, and I won’t talk about the breadth and depth of its programming—you can check its blog for that (and you should, since Kyle writes some of the best film criticism and industry musings I’ve ever read). I will say that what it does is special. It’s preserving an experience that is in danger of being wiped out in the era of instant-gratification Netflix—being in a theater with an audience, talking about movie history with people who care about that kind of stuff, and actually seeing movies on the exhibition format on which they were made and intended to be seen.

I pulled up ten minutes after seven, and, by chance, I was right on time. Kyle and Julian were still prepping the pre-show entertainment when I got up to the booth—a short, along with some trailers and ads, all on 35mm—and the Portage’s manager was hammering away at the Kimball pipe organ at the foot of the stage. I hung around up there and watched Julian at work during the feature, but after a while retreated down to the back row of the theater; as a projectionist, I know about the sanctity of the booth, and I was worried that I was intruding. The Portage is big, at a healthy 1,300 capacity, but it’s more long and wide than tall—it’s not like these multiplex cinemas that have stout and steep seating arrangements. From the back, I estimated that the throw distance from projector to screen had to be at least 300 feet. The place just oozes movie theater, in a classic sense: the popcorn smells like it came from real kernels and not steam-processed junk, and you can hear the crackling of the print’s mono soundtrack and the whirring of the Simplexes. It’s old school, and it just feels like the right place to see a movie.

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