CREATIVE SCREENWRITING article on the writing of CHICAGO HEIGHTS / THE LAST SOUL ON A SUMMER NIGHT
Named to Roger Ebert's List
of the Best Art Films of 2010
A beautiful book inspires a beautiful film
By ROGER EBERT
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, is sometimes named as a great work of fiction that cannot be filmed. Daniel Nearing demonstrates in "Chicago Heights" [renamed "The Last Soul on a Summer Night"] that's not necessarily true. The book is a collection of 22 short stories connected by the character George Willard, who comes of age there and reflects on the citizens he has grown to know. Perhaps one could make 22 short films. Nearing finds an approach that in 90 minutes accomplishes the uncanny feat of distilling the book's essence.
Anderson's Winesburg is a town with roads that can be walked along a short distance into the country. His time frame spans the century's first quarter-century. Nearing's Chicago Heights is a distant Southern suburb of Chicago, bordering on farmland. His time is the present and recent decades. His central character is Nathan Walker (Andre Truss), also played as Old Nathan by William Gray, and at that age named in the credits as Sherwood Anderson. Anderson's characters were all white. Nearing's characters are all African-American. Race is not really a factor. We are concerned with inner selves.
It's helpful, maybe essential, to be familiar with the book before seeing the movie. Anderson explains his theory of Grotesques, by which he means not sideshow freaks but people who have one aspect of their body or personality exaggerated out of proportion to the whole. Wing Biddlebaum, for example, has hands so expressive they flutter like birds, and these beautiful hands are the cause of his isolation and hatred by the community. All of the characters have some special reason they don't fit in. This attribute is why their inner thoughts and dreams never become known. They are judged by the uncaring, and will be buried never understood.
What Nearing does, and it is rather brilliant, is show us Nathan in old age, under a blanket on his bed, remembering, dreaming or hallucinating about the people he has known. A narrator explains his thoughts. Remarkably for a film of average length, Nearing touches on almost every one of Anderson's characters, and because of his meditative stylistic approach the film never feels rushed or choppy.
The film is mostly in contrasty black and white, sometimes slipping into color. Dialogue slips in and out too, as it does in the book, but we're not intended to think it's being said now. It's being heard in memory. Chicago Heights is seen as a not particularly lovely place drowsing near the prairie with the skyline of modern Chicago in the distance. Much of it was shot on location, and Nearing succeeds in establishing it as a place like Winesburg where the countryside is always in walking distance, and one can go there with one's grotesqueries and feel at peace.
When I say it helps to have read the book, I don't mean to frighten you. Perhaps you could read just a few of the stories to begin with. They won't take long, and once you understand their workings the whole film will come into focus. Nearing is not the first artist to be drawn to Winesburg. It inspired a made-for-TV film and a Broadway musical, and influenced such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Salinger. It is a beautiful book, and has inspired this beautiful film.
Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune:
Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short-story collage "Winesburg, Ohio" provides the blueprint for this visually arresting feature, shot on high-def digital black and white, with a few choice bursts of color. The director and coadapter, Daniel Nearing, and the producer-cinematographer, Sanghoon Lee, relocate Anderson's lost and lonely characters to a Chicago Heights boarding house and environs, where layfolk and churchfolk alike struggle with their demons. The gospel score, fine and vital, is by Chicago Heights minister Raymond Dunlap. Giving Anderson's stories a free-handed African-American spin, Nearing acknowledges he was after a hybrid, a personal and poetic response to a book he loved. In the end he may have hewed too closely to the source material in structural terms. But some of the images startle, whether it's a close-up of a forlorn face cast in half-shadow, or a simple, evocative daylight exterior of a Chicago Heights street that has seen better days, but still provides a way out of town for its most restless souls.
Time Out Chicago - Film of the Week
A hit at last summer’s Black Harvest Film Festival and a labor of love in every sense, Chicago Heights audaciously attempts to film Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 anthology Winesburg, Ohio in Chicago Heights, the predominantly African-American southern exurb where, we’re told, the city meets the country. The film itself is something of a hybrid, at once distinctively literary—employing chapter headings, it preserves Anderson’s episodic structure and narrational voice—and boldly visual, the sort of shoestring-budgeted, mainly black-and-white-photographed, quasi-documentary independent production one associates with filmmakers such as Shirley Clarke (The Cool World), Kent Mackenzie (The Exiles) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep). The movie’s unusual rhythm takes some getting used to—perusing the book couldn’t hurt—and the acting is variable. But the film, loosely structured around a boarding house and its inhabitants, successfully conjures a sense of quiet desperation among the town’s residents: a preacher coping with temptation, a stranger dealing with the ravages of age, a man still grieving over a failed marriage, the boarding house’s dying proprietress and her struggling-writer son, who’s tempted by life in the city as well as his writing teacher. The focus on archetypes comes straight from Anderson, and the film’s portraiture suggests a strange hybrid between past and present—apart from passing El trains, there’s little sense of the outside world. Interspersing the occasional color sequence to suggest ecstatic memories of youth, Chicago Heights may be rough around the edges, but it’s moving all the same.
- Ben Kenigsberg
“The crisp black and white photography (with brief flashes of vivid color) and compositions are absolutely stunning, revealing true beauty within Chicago Heights’ rough, rugged edges.”
Phil Morehart, The Chicago Journal
“Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson's classic 1919 collection of interconnected short stories, is ingeniously transposed to a predominantly African American community in present-day South Chicago in this gorgeously photographed, beautifully scored tour de force.”
Marty Rubin, The Gene Siskel Film Center
“This stunning adaptation of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio... is an aesthetic and political knockout, transforming Anderson's dated community narrative of rural white America into an avant-garde, nonlinear black-and-white film set in the present-day African-American Chicago Heights. The film's vignettes are unstable and surreal, and it's unclear whether many characters — a pastor, a teacher — are real or imagined in the mind of an aging writer. Chicago Heights is both profoundly affecting in its own right and as a beau ideal of detournement.”
Monica Westin, Flavorpill
[They] took my favorite book of all time, which is almost universally understood to be unadaptable, and made a magnificent film out of it.
One of the central tenets of Anderson's book is the idea of "grotesques": people are grotesques, meaning that they're essentially normal except they have one thing, one idea that they've seized on, that is all out of proportion, that makes them act unreasonably. It's an utterly literary concept, one that doesn't have a corollary in film, but Nearing and cinematographer Sanghoon Lee came up with a filmic translation, shooting much of the film in wide-angle closeups, from canted, often disorienting angles; we can see into their pores, if not into their souls, and the hot Chicago summer is tangible in the sweat that's always glistening on their foreheads. The bulk of the film is shot in high-contrast black and white, although certain scenes burst into color out of sheer necessity.
I'll admit that my admiration for the film stems from the love that Nearing and I share for the book: it "got it right," which is an attitude I try to put behind me when judging adaptations of books that I like, but this goes beyond "like." I love the film because in its excisions and composites, it recreates the way my memory works: elusive moments, tiny details, and impressions are what I tend to retain, while the specific words and larger context often disappear. That method of memory is here, onscreen, reproducing the small details and larger impressions I retained from the book, or from my childhood. Chicago Heights preserves the spirit and dreamlike feel of Anderson's book, recognizes which elements would work on screen, and reimagines other elements to work in the radically different medium of film.
Michael W Phillips, Jr.