Summer stock: a 16mm film series

There’s no better summer activity than viewing movies outdoors - especially on ‘real’ film.

July 11, 2013

The city of Chicago unveiled its brand new, state-of-the-art LED screen in Millennium Park a few weeks ago. Long-term, the screen could be a portal to all kinds of live cultural and sporting events from around the world. But for the moment, its primary function is to screen films every Tuesday night.

It’s great to have more outdoor movie venues in the city, especially ones that are free and come equipped with the amazing sound system at Millennium Park.

But truth be told, I still miss the old Chicago Outdoor Film Festival.

For 10 years, starting around mid-July and running through August, a series of real films, actual 35mm prints, would be projected on Tuesday nights. As dusk settled in, people would pour into Grant Park’s Butler Field, lawn chairs and coolers in hand, to watch classic films such as Born Yesterday, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rebel Without a Cause, even The Blues Brothers. But thanks to city budget cuts, this cinematic paradise, located just a stone’s throw from the lake, came to an end in 2010.

Given the expense of that series (just putting a giant screen up for eight weeks costs a lot), it’s unlikely to come back anytime soon, despite calls to revive it. But you can still easily watch movies outdoors - the Chicago Park District shows mostly family-friendly flicks in smaller parks all around the city. The thing is, all of those screenings are digital prints. Finding an outdoor fest that projects actual films on actual film stock is  much tougher. That’s why I was excited to see the line-up at the ‘Summer 2013 Screening Series’ at Chicago Filmmakers.

Starting this week, the non-profit media outlet will launch a series of different film programs, some drawing from its own archive, some in partnership with other film groups. In collaboration with the Black Cinema House, Chicago Filmmakers will highlight some of the films shown in the long defunct but groundbreaking Blacklight Film Festival.

Floyd Webb, who launched the fest in 1982 (he currently programs the Black World Cinema series at the Chatham 14 Theaters), will be on hand to introduce the films and reminisce about his experiences running the festival, which showcased the work of independent black filmmakers like Julie Dash. “The Return of Blacklight Cinema” screenings take place on the second Saturday of each month, and will rotate between the Filmmakers’ and Black Cinema’s screening rooms.

Those films are all digital, so for the “real” aka 16mm cinematic gems, you’ll have to check out the “Celluloid Stars” series in the Chicago Filmmaker’s parking lot on Farragut Avenue. Not only will you have the chance to relax to the whir of a projector, you’ll also be able to sample the eclectic range of experimental works to be found in the Filmmakers’ archive.

The first program is a collaboration with South Side Projections and exploits the insane popularity of cat videos. This mini “cat film festival” includes works by the likes of Stan Brakhage (whose Cat’s Cradle is like the distillation of your typical feline day, from a cat’s point of view), Joyce Wieland and other experimental filmmakers. Other programs in the “Celluoid Stars” series will focus on childhood, food and visual movement - all of which seem like perfect topics for summer movies. The “Celluloid Stars” series starts July 26 and takes place most Fridays nights through the end of August.

By the way, starting July 30, I’ll be hosting a summer movie series on WBEZ’s terrace at Navy Pier. We’ll screen a mix of digital and 16mm films three Tuesday evenings in a row, in partnership with the Chicago International Film Festival and the Northwest Chicago Film Society. All of the films are set in Chicago neighborhoods, and a local film celebrity will join us for each screening. More details to come - keep your eyes on our website.

Meanwhile, if you’re excited about any other outdoor film festivals, share them below.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram