Proving that fact is indeed more compelling than fiction, Judge Bill Gibron thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short documentaries by the renowned Chicago "chronicler."
A quartet of looks at that toddling town
It's unfair to call Tom Palazzolo a filmmaker. There is much more to his
delightful oeuvre than the mere capturing of images on celluloid. Don't call him
a documentarian, either. While he does work in the fact-based arena, his movies
are more a record of a specific time and place than a sweeping statement of
social or interpersonal import. No, call Tom Palazzolo a "chronicler,"
a man devoted to being the fly on the wall as the world trundles by. Over the
course of his long career (IMDb has him active starting in the '60s), this
director has taken the documentary format and found a unique, personable style
within its hemmed in, frequently rigid requirements. As a result, his images
feel more like moving portraits than mere pictures in motion. Thanks to the
wonders of DVD, we now have a chance to experience four of his most compelling
canvases. Mostly simple slices of life, Jerry's Deli, Rita on the
Ropes, Enjoy Yourself: It's Later Than You Think, and Down Clark
Street are cinematic celebrations of humanity and home. Individually and
combined, they create a sensational selection of stark contrasts—misery
within the metropolitan, unusual within the urban. Looking at them separately
allows for a better understanding of the tone and techniques used by Palazzolo
to achieve his endearing ends. Let's begin
• Jerry's Deli (9 minutes)
You couldn't create a character like Jerry. Seemingly centered when talking to the camera, this mercantile whirling dervish wants his deli to be the busiest, best-run establishment in all of Chicago. How that translates into his rough-and-tumble style of customer service is a mystery only this madman can solve. Hustling people in and out of the shop, screaming at them to hurry up and order, yelling at the staff to serve people fast, FAST, FAST!!!, he creates the kind of commercial chaos that makes his sandwich shop stand out among the many in the city. Though we never gain any real insights into why he's such a psychopath, we do see his store overflowing with business, foodstuffs prepared in a quick and efficient manner. In a cosmopolitan setting where time is money and lunch hours are measured in minutes, such a rapid response appears part of the game—and no one pitches a fiscal fit better than Jerry.
• Rita on the Ropes (9 minutes)
Perhaps the least effective of the four films here, Palazzolo uses the backdrop of a dilapidated neighborhood (and an intriguing, unnamed abandoned building) to emphasize the desperation of his lead character's life. Rita is a wholly fictional being, which also makes her story the least effective of those presented here. As good as he is at capturing real life, the made-up seems to escape Palazzolo. He does a decent job, and we never once falter in our faith in the material, but when placed up against the angst-ridden Jerry or the madcap collection of characters from Clark Street, this somber story has a hard time resonating. Still, this is a beautiful black-and-white experiment in visual symbolism that gets more right than it does wrong.
• Enjoy Yourself: It's Later Than You Think (22
There is something inherently curious about the elderly, an element of recognizable reality that makes them a solid source for documentation. In essence, what we are seeing is the human dynamic slowed and slipping, easily identifiable traits becoming atrophied and aged right before our eyes. When a seemingly sedentary women breaks out the guitar and kazoo, it's like she's been anointed with the waters from the fountain of youth. It's an amazing transformation, and helps with the other, more upsetting juxtapositions. As the title says, many here know that death is just around the corner, and their sullen resolve is emotionally draining.
Seeing how much fun these people have at what is really just an excuse for a political rally (the picnic is sponsored by the Democratic Party) makes one sad inside. All they want is the chance to live life to the fullest. For what we can see of the conditions they are forced to endure, an afternoon in the Chicago sun seems like an elixir they've long wanted to indulge in.
• Down Clark Street (25 minutes)
A look at Clark Street, then and now, suffers from one slight issue—the area today is rather dull. Overloaded with glass structures and unidentifiable storefronts, the image Palazzolo paints of the current Clark is fairly superficial. Thank god then that the area in the '60s was such a hotbed of film noir-like idiosyncrasies. Through the amazing monochrome lens of the director's candid camera, we see the people who used to populate Clark—a ragtag bunch of rejects who used the streets as a literal lifeline to living in the City of Big Shoulders. When it stays in the past, painting stunning portraits of people on the edge, Down Clark Street really delivers. This is not to say that the modern material is ineffective—it's just not as mesmerizing as the bums flopping along the gutter, the bars overflowing with drunken denizens, the small shop owners eking out a meager existence just blocks away from the far more commercial Loop. It's a testament to Palazzolo's talent as a storyteller that we want to know more about this amazing area and the era in which the young filmmaker lived. As in any archival study of a city, it's the details, not the overall dynamics that draw us in. Thankfully what we find is so fascinating we long to stay, if just for a little while longer.
Presented in a 1.33:1 full-frame image with lots of digital clarity, all four films offered here look pretty good. Naturally, Rita on the Ropes and Down Clark Street look the best, since they were made in the technologically advanced era of the pre-post-millennial age. Jerry's Deli has some age and grain issues, and Enjoy Yourself suffers from faded colors and an overly dark transfer. Still, for their relative rarity and homemade qualities, these films look just fine on DVD. The sonics are also on the simple side—mostly mono filtered through a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. There are moments of dialogue drop-out, and occasional overmodulation and distortion, but again, these are forgivable filmic sins. As for extras, we get a nice overview of Palazzolo's career, thanks to a text bio and filmography and, as an added treat, the filmmaker offers up his whimsical new short Bartholomew Whoops and the Bad, Bad Ball. If you can't tell by the title, it's a Dr. Seuss-like spoof of the infamous Bartman and the baseball play that may have cost the Chicago Cubs their first World Series appearance in nearly a century. It's funny in a kind of obvious way.
Engaging, visually stunning at times, and constantly offering a unique look at life in America's unsung Second City, Four Films by Tom Palazzolo will make even a non-Chi-town softie teary-eyed. Proving that reality is truly more riveting than the fabricated, this collection of modest movies should be viewed by anyone with a desire to take up a camera and create. On the outside, it appears that that's what Palazzolo did. Look closer, though—there is more here than meets the typical documentary eye. There is depth, as well as heart. Even in the most meaningless element, this director finds the solid, substantive center. What else would a chronicler of life do?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Emphasis Entertainment
• Director's Biography
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