It's unfair to call Tom Palazzolo a filmmaker. There is much more to his work behind the lens than the mere capturing of images on celluloid. And 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 consequence. 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 a recognized format and found a unique, personable style within its hemmed in, frequently rigid requirements. As a result, his images feel more like moving portraits in a gallery rather than simple pictures in motion. In this latest DVD collection from the man, we are treated to four more examples of his surreal souvenir approach. Covering topics as diverse as Chicago's Riverview Amusement Park and the 1967 unveiling of the Picasso in Daley Plaza, he encapsulates the Windy City in all its gritty, urban wistfulness. Even those outside Sandberg's big shoulders can appreciate the time travelogue-ing involved here.
The Plot & The DVD:
Instead of covering all four shorts in two sections, it makes more sense to simply describe each briefly and then offer a bit of critical overview. This way, both the ideas and the reaction to same can be considered without interruption. Let's begin with one of the most unusual in the entire set:
Bride Unveiled, 1967 (12 min) - Palazzolo's cameras are there as Mayor Richard Daley reveals the Picasso gifted to the city from the famed artist. Nicknamed "the Bride" and bad mouthed almost universally upon its unveiling, we get some of that social commentary here, as well as lots of souvenir.
Yours truly lived in Chicago from 1965 to 1976, and can remember vividly when the Picasso was about to be exhibited. Few in the town could have anticipated the oddness of what the famed cubist had to offer, or how suddenly the sentiment would turn from dislike to delight. Today, few could imagine the Plaza without the harp with an elongated face, and Palazzolo does a good job of reminding us of the original circus. Intercutting news material as well as footage of the actual celebration, it's a nice reminder of what the city was like back then. Here's hoping for a companion piece on the Chagall in the near future. ***1/2
Campaign, 1968 (12 min) - Chicago was the host for the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the surrounding hype and horror that resulted. Mayor Daley called out the cops on the various protestors and hippies attempting to influence the proceedings, and resulting riot remains a stain on the city's reputation. Palazzolo combines footage of the various youth leaders as well as press comments from candidate Hubert Humphrey and Daley to illustrate the divide between the factions.
As history, this film is flimsy. It avoids a more political approach to be a voyeur, viewing the events and then letting the viewer make up their own mind. The results can be both enlightening and aggravating. By now, the decision by Daley no longer has any logic or legitimacy. By trying to keep the city 'safe,' he made it even more unsettled. On the opposite end, while their ideas are valid, the counterculture's approach to them can be kooky at best. Did anyone really think that putting a flower in someone's rifle would turn the tide toward peace? Luckily, Palazzolo let's the viewer decide for themselves. ***1/2
Tattooed Lady, 1967 (14 min) - The aging Riverview Amusement Park (which would close shortly after filming) had been a Chicago staple since 1904. Palazzolo decides to document its dying attractions, including an elderly woman who, then, sported more tattoos than most people had ever seen in their lives.
Odd how times have changed things. Back then, someone like the subject of this short would have been viewed as a true anomaly. Heck, 15 years ago she'd still be considered a freak. Today, everyone - including young women - enjoy body art to the point of excess, making this movie a bit of an afterthought. Of course, the way she was embraced and exploited, as well as the vintage reactions to same, this the entire piece a wistful, nostalgic edge. The amusement park material is majestic - and a bit depressing as well. Things look so dour and desperate. ***1/2
At Maxwell Street, 1984 (45 min) - Going back to the same part of Chicago decade after decade, Palazzolo creates a telling collage of this famed area in transition. Meeting the merchants, street performers, residents, bums, visitors, and others hanging out, he creates a canvas of vitality within a setting that seems to simultaneous reflect the present times while remaining exactly the same.
As a former resident (and frequenter of Maxwell Street), this almost hour long look at how the city and its populace changed is a real eye opener. From the store owners who use the opportunity to both pitch their plight and their products to the never-ending parade of people, this is the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis captured in a single locale. As the fashions change and the approach broadens, we see that small areas like this are the life blood of city. Without them, the infrastructure would dry up - resulting in the death of a favored urban ideal. Oh - and did we forget to mention its place as the hub for Chicago blues?!?! ****
Overall, Palazzolo continues to argue for his credentials as an artist. His camera is focused and unobtrusive, even when he decides to go a bit overboard in the post production. He loves to overlay images on one another, creating a kind of fever dreamscape look to his finished film. When he doesn't dabble in the obtuse, he's concentrated and concrete. This is especially true of the latter two films, each of which acting as remembrances of people and places past. While there are hundreds of likeminded documentarians today, using both cinema verite and an inferred constructive criticism to expose the facts, Palazzolo is something special. From his subjects to his style, he is very much a product of his Midwestern metropolis perspective.
Salvaged for the digital format and given a bit of a movie makeover, the four short films here look surprisingly good. Sure, some of the colors are faded and there are age issues and defects to be found, but for the most part, the 1.33:1 image is good. One doesn't expect someone like Palazzolo to remaster his catalog to fit the needs of the DVD purists out there. Just having these rarities available in reasonably watchable form is good enough.
As for the sonic situation, we get standard Dolby Digital Stereo taking old technology and exposing its limits. The mix can best be described as dirty, tinny, and loaded with recording problems. There are moments of overmodulated and an equal number of aural drop outs. Still, for what they had to work with, the final product is more than acceptable.
Almost six years ago, Tom Palazzolo finally found an outlet for his massive creative canon. Transferring a few titles onto DVD, he introduced himself to the world outside his closed cult fanbase. Now, with this second collection of shorts, his reputation is secured. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, this overview of the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down can be enjoyed by novices and natives alike. Sure, some of the material is dated and Palazzolo can't help but fiddle where he can, the results speak for his power behind the lens. As a documentarian he's decent and as a filmmaker he's fine. But as a chronicler of a city and its varying lifelines, no one can top Tom Palazzolo.
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