18 April 2013

Meanwhile, at a public library near you

I'm in Chicago this week -- actually still stuck there due to monsoonish weather and three (3) canceled flights, so that's cool -- and I took the opportunity to visit the Chicago Public Library to hear director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist") talk about his memoir THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION.

Friedkin is a hammy old guy who parts his hair just like your grandfather. His interviewee Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting, whose voice I can practically imitate after years of listening to his great show, served as the audience's reaction shot to his taller tales. His first tall tale concerned a library book Friedkin had supposedly checked out from that library in 1951 -- a collection of plays -- and not returned until, supposedly, this very night. He waved the red book and said "I acknowledge that there will be fines." It was a stunt, but it served.

Friedkin's filmic résumé is a real fruit basket of genre and style, but from his vantage point -- still making a movie every three or five years -- what unites them is the emphasis on particular characters and the situations he finds them in. He casts his actors by talking to them, not screen-testing them, and has the stubbornness it seems to make the movies he wants to make. He expressed frustration for getting caught up in the "trivial" business of securing funding and distribution in order to make those movies. For a man whose love of film was kindled by watching "Citizen Kane" six or seven times in a row when he was 21, it is easy to be sympathetic to his frustration (even if Welles may not have been).

The library seemed like an odd venue till I learned from his talk that not only was Friedkin raised in Chicago, he spent his early years doing a lot of research as a TV director -- that research is what pushed him into film, after he spoke to a prison warden who introduced him to death row inmate Paul Crump. (The resultant documentary "The People Vs. Paul Crump" catapulted him to Hollywood, where his first feature film was a vehicle for Sonny and Cher.) The most tantalizing remnant of all this research is the body of primary sources Friedkin used to make "The Exorcist," a compilation of interviews with the real child on whom the movie was based and diaries from people who were around him (surprise!) when the exorcism was taking place. Many details have been changed to protect that child's innocence, but Friedkin let drop that he is alive, retired from NASA (?!) and has no recollection of the traumas of his youth.

The Chicago Public Library's Harold Washington Library is a reddish brown hulk the size of a city block and a mass of gleaming white marble on the inside. I was tickled to see the photo of Mayor Rahm Emanuel inside wearing his trademark smirk. I later learned that he is heavily involved in the city's One Book, One Chicago group reading initiative (but he probably still knows something we don't!) Visitors should also keep an eye out for a scale model of "the Bean," Anish Kapoor's sculpture in Grant Park (its real name is "Cloud Gate"), about the size of two bunches of bananas. I don't normally make a point of seeking out libraries in cities I visit, but I should from now on.

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