In My Backyard: Year 8

Apart from a few deep thoughts we strung together for your consideration a year ago, dearest readers, it has been a long while since we officially addressed the residents of our Champaign-Urbana backyard, the same one in which we work a lot, play some, dream a little, and sporadically fizzle out when no one is looking. Although we last drafted “In My Backyard” back in 2012, there is probably not much use in forcing a massive MFHQ brain dump in 2017 so we can retro-write the missing annual summaries. Just the same, you are more than capable of reviewing C-U Blogfidential at any time for the names, titles, dates, and stories you need to know about our shared cinema culture. Consider this post a creative placeholder that gives us an excuse to revive old and obscure copy from various sources, flesh out past moments in the Confidential history, and lead us numerically towards a brand-new “Year 12” entry scheduled after our 11th anniversary passes on Saturday, February 25. Most of this material will appear on CUBlog for the first time, providing alternate takes on certain topics du C-U.

In this initial dosage of “Backyard,” we once again page through the former community weekly The Octopus to find our point of interest. Your humble editor served in a freelance capacity as contributor, proofreader, and illustrator for the paper at the time those frisky Brew & View film festivals took place in 1996-97, but he eventually placed higher on the masthead when its publisher hired him as a production manager in 2000. With more salary came more responsibility, including late nights on Mondays and Tuesdays to paste up the final flats for the printer in Danville, so he did not again become involved in Octopus editorial on a regular basis. Once in a great while, however, he took on desirable topics that crossed the editors’ desks or developed ideas from within his own wheelhouse. To wit, the following piece traces rumblings back to the University of Illinois about the dissolution of their cinematography courses as attentions were otherwise turned to the return of Roger Ebert on campus.

You may be surprised to read so cocksure an article by that younger version of Ye Ed, surpassing in tone much of what he wrote concurrently for MICRO-FILM, but the celebrity favoritism simply pissed him off. To this day it is unclear just how those classes were replaced with ones focusing on digital tools. Is the theoretical array offered in the present by the UI School of Art + Design all there is? The university has been far more interested recently in launching an Ebert-branded cinema appreciation and ethics center based within the UI College of Media, primary organizer of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, which would include a retrofit of Gregory Hall to accommodate modern screening facilities. Fiscal headaches facing the institution at large, thanks to the Illinois state budget strife, and multiple challenges hurting Media itself, stemming from studies that question its viability, have not helped move “Ebertschool” into being; gifts can be donated directly to it and a related student fellowship program is active, though.

All this says nothing about the absence of a proper film production track in the 150-year existence of the University of Illinois, forever a bewilderment to Mr. JaPan as a Champaign-Urbana community member and cinema proponent. (To be fair, both a Department of Radio-Television and Motion Picture Production Center did exist at UIUC between the 1950s and 1970s, stressing the technical aspects but not in the service of narrative storytelling.) “Ebertschool” or else, it’s simply time to let sleeping bureaucrats and academics lie. The potential unfolded right in front of them more than 40 years ago but they have chosen a steady snooze ever since. What a loss.

With that said, it’s time to read on, MacDuff

~ Jason Pankoke



“Now Playing: You Snooze, You Lose”
As Champaign-Urbana focuses on “Ebertfest” 2000, the university edits out its cinematography courses

by Jason Pankoke

This Thursday through Sunday, several thousand moviegoers will attend Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival to sample cinema on the big screen that the famed critic deems worthy of a second chance. While Ebert and his staff will most likely succeed once again in pulling people away from the multiplexes and VCRs in lieu of downtown Champaign’s Virginia Theatre, a strange little anomaly has reared its ugly head.

The first “Ebertfest” event is a panel discussion scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 27, titled “Digital vs. Film,” calling into question whether filmmakers will continue to use traditional film stock to shoot their movies or turn to the digital video format. [This dialogue is summarized in MICRO-FILM 3. – ed.] The indie-film sector lauds digital video for its affordability, flexibility on the set, and compatibility with computer-based editing systems, allowing them to create on the fly and on the cheap.

But the fact of the matter remains that video, analog or digital, still cannot capture the visual nuances and depth that film stock can. Whatever shade of gray we’re talking, it seems that the University of Illinois wants to get to the future of cinema rather quickly. Both cinematography professor Julius Rascheff and cinema studies professor Richard Leskosky have confirmed that the School of Art & Design plans to retire their cinematography courses after this semester [and] be replaced by comparable digital video workshops.

As you might expect, Rascheff is extremely perplexed, replying [to The Octopus] via e-mail that, “This is a premature decision and one not very kind to the students now engaged in film studies and production … it takes away a very popular and high-demand field of study.” Leskosky added per his own e-mail that, “I’ve heard things lately that only make me more confused about what’s going on,” without elaborating on the “things” he has heard. This means that your humble writer suddenly runs the risk of crying wolf by not having concrete answers.

I therefore would like to use local history past and present as my general argument for the university to not ditch its precious few film production courses and all that film gear. We know that there is no proper film school, and probably never will be unless a big influx of cash somehow makes its way to Art & Design with “re: build film school!” stamped on the envelope. Let’s also get the obvious irony out of the way — here comes Roger Ebert, arguably the university’s most public and famous alumnus and an avowed proponent of film as a creative material, and his alma mater wants to tuck away the tools of that trade. However, my point stretches beyond the issue of media.

Right now, this town is extremely lucky to have what local film culture it does. Beyond Ebertfest, we have folks like Grace Giorgio and Eric Fisher of the Freaky Film Festival, Jay Rosenstein of IN WHOSE HONOR?, Mike Trippiedi of DOGS IN QUICKSAND, John May and Brian Robertson of the upcoming SAMARIA, Doug Matejka, Linda Linn, Pete Asaro, and Charles Lawler of IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, and, yes, yours truly of the magazine MICRO-FILM, all accomplishing cinematic activities on our own through talent, dedication, and elbow grease. Five years ago, Champaign-Urbana didn’t even have this much going on, but the sum total still pales in comparison to what was happening 30 years ago.

While most people can easily cite the fictional 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY relationship with Urbana (didn’t you know that HAL was “born” here?), only long-standing professors and residents remember how that film’s era (roughly, 1967-1973) was a high point for cinema lovers in Champaign-Urbana. Upon researching local film history, I discovered that we not only had a bona fide film scene, but that it literally had a life all its own.

Propelled by the student populace, we had film societies, multiple weekly screenings, touring festivals, guerrilla midnight shows, and filmmaking excursions by the bucket load. The students’ work included many shorts and a few features, including a documentary on local events, LAST YEAR; a film about making a film, THE MAKING OF “BAD CHARLESTON CHARLIE”; a drug-bust drama, SHOT; and possibly several others either lost in time or buried in the university vaults. The steam eventually ran out as the home video revolution kicked in, effectively deflating a film scene that really hasn’t been here since.

Circa 2000, we have a minor resurgence that could stand to be raised a notch or two; it will take the community, the university, and especially student demand and consequent action to make it happen again. We certainly have individuals who get their butts behind the camera, and we obviously have friends and neighbors who put their butts in theaters to watch movies (to the tune of 10,000 butts between last year’s editions of Ebertfest and Freaky Films). Now, we need to keep the atypical cinema running through our cameras and projectors during the other 50 weeks of the year, no restrictions applied and by any means necessary – whether we use high-falutin’ digital video or good old film stock.


“You Snooze, You Lose” originally appeared in
The Octopus, Vol. 6, No. 17, April 28, 2000, p.4.
Article © 2000 The Octopus, Inc.
From the collection of the author.

An erratum subsequently appeared in
The Octopus, Vol. 6, No. 19, May 12, 2000, p.5,
in which Charles Lawler is credited as a participant of
the film IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, and has been corrected here.

CUBlog edits © 2017 Jason Pankoke

Graphics © their respective owners.
From the collection of the author.


C-U Blogfidential: Year 7*
Posts: 97 ~ Comments: 3** ~ Interviews: 0*** ~ Articles: 3
Columns: 1 ~ Reviews: 1 ~ Links: +12 ~ Publications: 1

C-U Blogfidential So Far
Posts: 725 ~ Comments: 104 ~ Interviews: 10 ~ Articles: 20
Columns: 10 ~ Reviews: 7 ~ Links: 336 ~ Publications: 8
Mailing List: 99**** ~ Facebook: 347 ~ YouTube: 33

*This should have run in 2013. We know, we know.

**Really, dearest passive observers?!?

***We had quoted fine folks throughout the year, just not in full-length format.

****This finally dipped below the century mark. Oh, joy.

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