WORDS BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
PHOTOS BY SUZETTE BROSS
What would you feature if you owned your own movie theater?
It’s a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory feast-fest question for any film buff—but all in a day’s work for Charles Coleman, Facets’ Film Program Director. Charles selects a year’s worth of international films of the highest quality for Facets, Chicago’s non-profit cinematic arts mecca.
“I want to bring the world to your doorstep. My mission is really to demystify the concept of ‘the other.’ Viewing a variety of foreign films makes the audience realize that we have more in common with someone from across the world—and actually removes cultural polarization.
“Sometimes it is hard for the spectator to overcome a resistance to participate in what the film has to offer, or subtitles might stand in the way, but a really good film offers a door into what it is all about.
“The good news is that people want to see themselves as part of the community. As Jean Luc Godard said, ‘Cinema is the news from where you are.’”
To Charles, every film shown at Facets is about discovery for its audience. Elevating and publicizing brilliance in films is what drives him. He often chooses under-screened foreign films he feels are distinctive and original, showing “as wide a cultural spectrum as Facets can afford.” Charles takes the advice of his former co-teaching partner Roger Ebert when making his selections:
“Roger said frequently it’s not what it’s about but how it is about. Whether a film is film noir, a western, or whatever other genre, at heart it could be a morality tale or a whole host of other things—you have to find out what is really going on.
“For example, the 1988 Die Hard can be seen as an escapist movie or as the Achilles story of a man proving his own worth. The Birds is a horror spectacular for the audience but also the story of Jessica Tandy’s feeling of abandonment when her son leaves. The best movies are like that.
“A film should be made to represent what it is trying to convey. Escape films, such as the first Terminator or The Wild Bunch, are extraordinary. And I loved Jaws. Regardless of its subject, a film can be terrific. When film is a means to sell other things—the soundtrack, toys, sponsors’ products—that’s when the hype is the movie.”
We asked Charles if the current Marvel Comics blockbusters might be viewed in this same light:
“I loved comic books as a kid, and I think every child can identify with one of the mutants or the X-Men, if they were never part of a group in high school or felt that they were just a little different.
“I am actually amazed at how long it took the studios to take up these characters. Writer and artist Jack Kirby was a comic book genius. Now the Comic Cons, which used to be for fringe dwellers and self-proclaimed nerds, are now huge internationally.
“Disney and Netflix are truly leading the way, and films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther are all about overcoming supposed handicaps, and the ‘powers’ that they have are lessons for all.”
A native Chicagoan, Charles fell in love with the movies as a young person watching late-night horror movies and later seeing films by Orson Wells, Jean Renoir, and Francois Truffaut.
“In the eighth grade I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and was astonished by its scope: space, science, the dawn of man, and classical music, among many other things. I asked myself, who did this? and discovered Stanley Kubrick.
“I had no one to talk to about movies until I joined a film group while a student at the University of Chicago. I later went to film festivals on my own and to Paris, where there were 350 films opening every week at the Cinémathèque Française and other venues.
“Books are an equal passion, and when I would see a film from Mexico, I would then read Carlos Fuentes and discover books along with films from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, and so many other places where they make great movies.
“One of my favorite directors is Robert Bresson, particularly A Man Escaped from 1956. There is no overt message or bully pulpit; he demonstrates visually what he wants to say. He also said that the ear is stronger than the eye—you pick up clues along the way. He felt actors were models and only one once in a movie. He didn’t want the audience looking for a movie star.”
Charles and Roger Ebert taught a film class together at the Graham School of the University of Chicago. He worked for Films Incorporated before joining Facets.
We asked Charles about how he chooses the films he screens, documentaries, and for some more of his favorite performers and filmmakers.
Tell us about your selection process for films at Facets.
Some filmmakers have heard about Facets and want to be seen here, while other clients have been with us awhile and trust my standards. I continuously peruse information about all the film festivals, and we have shown many fine films from Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, and others in the same year as those festivals.
We recently screened Marjorie Prime, which won a major prize at the 2017 Sundance Festival. Set in the near future and starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins, it is about a service that provides holographic images of deceased loved ones.
Why does it seem like there are more documentaries offered in theaters today?
Documentaries and indie films have always been around. Before, you had to be able to afford to make them, now they can be made a whole lot more inexpensively. You have to have the means to assess them, not just show them, because they are readily available.
We recently showed two very different documentaries. Last Man in Aleppo, about volunteers giving aid in war-torn Syrian neighborhoods, was very professionally done. It won the world prize for documentaries at Sundance this year. No Where to Hide, shot in Iraq without all the superb techniques of Last Man in Aleppo, still is able to preserve an idea of what the truth is.
Some of Charles’s current favorite actors include Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Day Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Jake Gyllenhaal, whom he praised for his challenging role in the recent film Nocturnal Animals.
Who are some favorite actresses?
Isabelle Huppert is my favorite. She will work with anyone she respects and is the best example of actress as auteur. She believes that the director defines how the film is composed. She has done both comedy and drama and always dives deep into the risk pool. I also feel that Nicole Kidman is underrated.
Other favorites are Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, and Tilda Swinton.
Beloved directors from all across the globe include Lucrecia Martel from Argentina, the Dardenne brothers from Belgium, Andrea Arnold from England, and Paul Thomas Anderson, Kelly Reichardt, and Wes Anderson from the United States.
To Facets Founder Milos Stehlik, Charles is “simply one of the very best film curators in the world.”
“If you go to a museum, usually a very smart person decided for you which paintings hang there, where, and in what order. When you go to Facets, it is Charles Coleman who applied all his considerable film knowledge, experience, and eye to bring us intelligent, provocative, challenging, mind-bending films that we would otherwise never see.
“His choice of films never ceases to surprise me, and every film I see is proof that I very much needed to see it—that my life would be smaller and poorer without it. This all goes back to the power of film to shape and expand our understanding, deepen us as individuals, and connect us to others on the planet we share.
“Charles is the magician who makes that happen at Facets.”
To learn move about films at Facets Cinematheque, and the Chicago International Film Festival they created, visit facets.org.