Thursday, December 17, 2009

Back to the Future: Chicago

Recently I was forced to confront the fact that my brief fall quarter sabbatical is winding to its close. In July of this year I ended the lease on the Chicago apartment I'd been renting for several years, because the likelihood of finding a decent subletter for the rest of the summer, or for the fall quarter, especially given the flood of apartments on the market, was minimal. But I have to return in January--sorry, novels!--to resume professing, so I had to head back out to Chicago to find a new apartment. I did, it's done. (My top choice, which supposedly no one was looking at, somehow rented within minutes of my filling out my forms at the realty company. Hmm. I also had to deal with the usual suspects who, either upon seeing me or hearing my voice, began going on about "good credit" and "what do you do?" and "how long have you been teaching at..." and "what do you teach?" and so on. I now can urge them, politely, to visit the Google. One elderly woman, however, seemed bent on insisting that I was starting my first gig. I did not rent her large but horribly kept apartment, naturally.) Being back in the Windy City feels like moving through a familiar yet foggy landscape; I know it well enough not to have to think about it that much, and yet it always keeps me somewhat off kilter. I also feel my melancholy rising as soon as the plane touches down on the tarmac at O'Hare or Midway. But so it is.

Commuting in either direction grows less and less pleasurable with each passing year. I'd have thought that at Newark and O'Hare that, 8 going on 9 years after 9/11, that procedures would be streamlined, but unfortunately this is not the case. Often some arbitrary element is introduced to heighten the Kafkaesque aspects of the experience. This time I had my bags searched at Newark because my electric toothbrush and batteries, which I have managed to carry across the country and to foreign countries multiple times without a problem, looked like a "knife" (???). Perhaps they were in the grip of metaphor, who knows? Also at Newark, a woman at the security gate was demanding that people have their passports or IDs readily open for inspection, the tone of her voice almost at a threatening pitch. (You have to show both anyway, so what's the big deal if you take a second to open them up? The line was moving briskly.) At O'Hare, the security lines were clotted like bad arteries, barely moving, and several people were anxious they might miss their flights. I wasn't, since I knew mine, to Newark, would be delayed. And it was! First by 30 or so minutes, then by 45 more, then we sat on the tarmac and...I was almost having erotic visions of high speed trains by the time the plane finally ascended above Lake Michigan, though I haven't read anything by J. G. Ballard in over half a year.

On the flight out I ended up watching Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), which I'd seen before, on VHS, some years ago. (That was during the summer when I decided I need to catch up on as much foreign and pre-1950s American cinema as my video and bank accounts could bear.) I also used to periodically listen to Sergei Prokofiev's cantata version of the score on CD, but I haven't done that--or listen to a CD, for that matter--in a while. Watching Alexander Nevsky this time, what struck me were three things. First, how completely Eistenstein grasped the use of space, particularly deep shots, to convey a sense of the story's intrinsically epic and heroic, almost mythic nature, and also its grandeur, exaltation, utter importance. This was especially evident in such different scenes as those of the fisherman in the water, or Nevsky's forces massed on the edges of the lake as the Teutonic Knights (i.e., the Germans) approach. Second was Prokofiev's score, which works both as an abstract musical piece, but also in stirring accompaniment to Eisenstein's images. The music in the scenes leading up to and through the slaughter of the Russians at Pskov by the Teutons, who are some of the most scary-looking villains I can recall on screen, chilled me to the core, while the post-battle passages conveyed the Russian triumph, and also, as was Eisenstein's aim, hopefulness, quite seductively. Once or twice I found myself perhaps too carried off by the music, but Eisenstein's scene-making rarely let this last long.

Nikolai Cherkasov, as Alexander Nevsky, in Eisenstein's eponymous film

Third, the acting, whose expressiveness, gesturality and blockiness derived both from specific conventions espoused and promulgated by such eminent figures as Vsevolod Meyerhold, with whom Eisenstein had worked, and the just prior silent movie and much older stage traditions, sometimes struck me as cartoonish. Even taking into account the differing conceptions of acting--and the striking difference from American/Hollywood approaches, such as the Method, nevertheless among some of the secondary characters, the acting verged on being unnecessarily comical. Nevsky, as the noble hero, presented the right amount of reserve, perhaps too much for a similar film today (though no US filmmakers could make such a film nowadays), but the other characters seemed sometimes almost on par with Will Ferrell or Ricky Gervais, smirking, goofy, a bit too hammy. After I settled into the story, though, this didn't bother me as much. Lastly, the fact that the film is propaganda still does not bother me at all, or rather, I think I apprised it the first time I saw it as I did this time, with an acknowledgement of how crucial its propagandistic subtext was at the time it was made. (I feel this way about other films of this sort, like Mrs. Miniver.) What I did note this time was the sinister portrayal of the Church in abetting the Germans' crimes. The creepy-looking priest--for the story takes place before the Reformation--doesn't bat an eye as the Russians are tortured, and this, I thought, was as much a slap against the Roman Catholic Church's silence on Hitler as, under Stalinism, against religion's role in bourgeois rule and oppression. I plan to rewatch October again soon, to refamiliarize myself with its visual language and narrative strategies, but also to see if it's the same film I remember as clearly as I did Nevsky.

One of the things I noticed while back in Chicago was the increase in empty storefronts in many of the neighborhoods I tend to frequent. Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown, Andersonville, and Lakeview all had even more plate glass façades bearing "For Rent" signs than when I left. There were a few stores that I could remember that have now closed in just the past 6-8 months, but a number I couldn't; so many had cycled through one particular venue near where I lived during my first stay in Chicago in 2001 that I tried to visualize what had been there just last year, and could only bring up a restaurant of some sort, or perhaps it was a deli. It is good to see that a number of longtime businesses, with affordable leases, I gather, are in place, and some of the very arts-oriented businesses that sprouted up along the Morse-Glenwood Arts corridor in Rogers Park are still operating, but I do wonder whether landlords are still holding out for high(er) rents, there simply aren't enough people with access to capital (i.e. loans) to open businesses or keep them afloat, or what. I probably should check on the economic climate rather than relying on anecdotal observation, but I was particularly surprised by how many new storefronts on Clark and Broadway were now empty.

One thing that was also surprising was how many condo buildings are still going up, or perhaps I was just hallucinating them. I thought this might depress rents in the areas I was looking at, but those appear to have fallen only a little, and not as much as would seem reasonable. I'm not sure what's going on. Perhaps the landlords have enough cash or have paid off their mortgages so long ago that they aren't really pressed to rent out units. Maybe they are in denial. Who can say? I do know that one building I lived in shortly after returning to teach at the university has now been gutted and renovated, in a moderately appealing fashion, and now the landlord wants a really unreasonable sum, if you ask me, for what could be easily found for $50-$100 less just blocks away. Eventually they'll figure this out, or the economy will improve and resolve the issue, or both. Or neither.

I also had my first encounters the new parking system. You get less time for the same amount of money, naturally. But, and I'm sure everyone else has figured this out, the new parking authorizations--vouchers?--appear to be portable. Or maybe I'm not reading them carefully enough. Am I missing something? Each machine does stamp a unique code on each ticket, yet unlike the old meters, unless the meter-reader is carefully scrutinizing the machine stamp, you don't have to stay at your original spot and either lose money or sacrifice a Muni-meter voucher for a regular meter, and thus lose money, since the entire city now consists of Muni-metered streets. I tried this several times, and even accidentally missed placing a new 15-minute voucher in my car window, yet the cop who passed by to inspect it simply glanced at all the ones in the car and walked on by. Hmmm. Maybe for once I should thank Mayor Daley?

Parking vouchers
On Clark Street, in Lakeview

Whenever I'm back in Chicago I find myself having to suppress the urge to comment, even to myself, about how cold it is. There's always a day, nevertheless, when it's impossible to do so, and that day was earlier in the week (Tuesday?), when the temperature dropped down to about 11°F, though I believe the newscaster reported that with the wind chill it was 7°F or lower. Fortunately the place I stayed was warm enough, but parking the car and walking the several blocks was a challenge, even with warm clothes and hat (buff). At some point I lost my gloves, as I always do (they simply will not stay in my coat pockets, so I may have to resort to that old childhood standard, that the wife of a professor at MIT I once temped for also found useful, which is clips or closepins, to keep them attached to the coatsleeves), which will necessitate a trip, I'm glad to say, to Uniqlo in SoHo. I am hoping that they have gloves comparable to their really cool-looking thermal underwear, which, like everything in the store, come in so many bright colors that I'm in a trance only minutes after setting foot in the door. Really, any excuse to go there is welcome. Now, how to get them to open up a branch in the Third City.

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