Spending a day at the MCA

If you’re in the mood to challenge your cultural paradigms by taking a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art, do it on a Tuesday. In addition to extending hours until 8 p.m., the MCA, which is located just a few short blocks east of the Chicago Red Line stop, makes its cutting- edge exhibits and provocative installations available free-of- charge to all Illinois residents who provide their zip codes.

The scene at the museum Jan. 7 was particularly enlightening and enjoyable due to MCA Screen’s presentation of the Chicago Film Archives’ “City to See” film series, which provided a gripping and unique portrait of the Windy City on 16mm film from the 1960s and 1970s.

In all, seven short films were shown in the MCA’s Caf’ÛΩ Tuesday night, none surpassing half an hour in running time. The subjects of the films ranged from intimate portrayals of professions in Chicago during the mid-20th century, to sweeping, dramatic celebrations of the city that felt like propaganda. The constant clicking of the old-fashioned reels as the 16mm film played added another layer of nostalgia to an already wistful collection of films.

Harry Mantel’s “Marina City Waitress,” the first film to be shown and the briefest in length, and “158 W. Erie,” a film about the daily life of men at a River North firehouse, provided snapshots of occupations in Chicago circa 1970. Both films were peppered with bizarre moments; most memorably, there is a shot of a noose that quickly flashes to a sign emblazoned with the word “Progress!” These jarring juxtapositions seemed to be the norm for all of the films that were shown.

By far, the most relatable films to modern-day Chicago were Margaret Conneely’s “Chicago City to See in ’63” and Gordon Weisenborn’s “Chicago Mural: Midwest Metropolis.” These two films were the only ones to receive applause from the reserved audience members upon their finales, and this can most likely be attributed to the eloquent scripts of the narrators that wax poetic and rhapsodize on the glory of the city as sweeping skyline shots that never fail to awe flash on the screen.

The line, “Chicago is my town, my place in the sun town, and no other town will do,” is repeated so frequently in “City to See in ’63” that it transforms into a vaguely hypnotic refrain. The film begins with a young couple taking pictures in front of the Art Institute lions; already, the viewer is reminded that not much has changed since the ’60s, except for the fact that these tourists didn’t have Instagram likes in mind.

The audience appreciatively chuckled during the narrator’s tongue-in- cheek line about loving “even the sewers, the garbage cans, the green murky river.” Alternatively, “Midwest Metropolis” is an ode to Chicago as a bastion of utopic capitalism. This makes sense when one considers the film was commissioned by the S&H Company to encourage people to shop in downtown in order to receive S&H Green Stamps that could then be redeemed for products in their catalog.

The dramatic and metaphoric lines continue; “glass and steel replace palm trees” along the lake, cranes are “tall giraffes.” Pedestrians in delightful attire that would be coveted by any Mad Men aficionado are shown “window shopping in the market of (Chicago’s) imagination.”

The film closes with bombastic music and the unveiling of a mural that reminds the viewer of the advice of Daniel Burnham, noted for his Plan of Chicago, to “make no little plans.” In “City to See in ’63,” the narrator mentions, “The Lake Street ‘L’ as it winds around your heart.” This concept of the ‘L’ is expanded on in Roger Hammond’s “Rooftop Road.”

This is arguably the film that would seem most familiar to DePaul students. Snow blurs tracks as people wait on the platform in blustering winds, exhaling white clouds and leaning to check for the train, hair ruffling as it arrives. The tunnels of the Red Line and glowing lights from car windows are identical to those in 2014, and so is the feeling of peace that comes from gazing out the train window at the canvas of Chicago passing by.

The more inaccessible films revolved around an old house with religious significance and a circus. Lawrence Janiak’s “Hale House” combines imposing long shots of architecture with aggressive Hindu music and chants for a solid eight minutes. While this style was perhaps not as entertaining as some of the other films, it is understandable why the Chicago Film Archives deemed it valid as a representation of the diversity of Chicago in spite of the audience’s lagging attention and drifting minds. (One man was spotted “resting his eyes,”).

On the other end of the spectrum, Tom Palazzolo’s “Tattooed Lady of Riverview” takes place at a now defunct amusement park in Riverview Park. The story of a bearded lady who shaved her beard to marry the man she loved is interspersed with eerie imagery of rides and rollercoasters accompanied by frightening, jungle-like sounds and almost constant permeating screams.

Claiming that, “a tattooed lady is an even greater rarity than a bearded lady,” this film showcases a Chicago no DePaul student has experienced and it is a fascinating, albeit somewhat spooky, peek into circus life in the mid ’60s. Coupled with the equally excellent exhibit occurring simultaneously at the MCA entitled “CITY SELF,” which presents a portrait of Chicago as seen through the eyes of local and visiting artists, featuring the American premiere of the film “Chicago” by Sarah Morris, the “City to See” film series provided an eye-opening and enriching experience. “CITY SELF” is scheduled to run through April 13, and the Chicago Film Archives are staging a live performance Jan. 21.

Take advantage of MCA’s free admission on Tuesdays, and see the city through a different lens.