Before the founding of the Chicago Film Critics Association, attending movie screenings had all the appeal of camping out in the Arctic Circle. Naked.
During the 1970s, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, Chicago's two pioneers of popular film criticism, operated under a firm rule that they never would discuss a movie in the screening room between themselves or other critics. They saved all that so their duels on the set of their TV show "Siskel & Ebert" would be spontaneous.
Siskel would go so far as to chide other critics for commenting on a movie within range of his ears. So, for most film critics, attending press screenings in Chicago packed all the zest and warmth of the Eloi walking to their doom in "The Time Machine."
During the '70s, you counted yourself lucky if you hit one of the few days when the union projectionist, assigned to the screening room on the seventh floor of the Chicago Theater, embraced sobriety. Once, we experienced Clint Eastwood's "Escape From Alcatraz" upside down and backward.
Many things have changed since we formed the Chicago Film Critics Association in 1988.
Because of the far-reaching influence of the "Siskel & Ebert" TV show, media outlets saw value in hiring film critics, and our ranks swelled in print, TV, radio and the Internet.
Steve Kraus, arguably one of the greatest living projectionists in North America if not the free world, now operates the state of the art Lake Street Screening Room, our home away from home, at 70 E. Lake Street. It's a different venue, a different time and a different atmosphere.
The formidable silence that once haunted the screening room has been exorcised and replaced by lively conversations and a
robust spirit of camaraderie. Critics exchange DVDs. They trade employment tips. They share mutual problems. Most important, they talk about the movies. Sometimes they square off and do a "Gunfight at the OK Corral" thing.
The Chicago Film Critics Association came into being much like an Andy Hardy production in an MGM musical. Sue Kiner, a Chicago communications consultant and a part-time film critic for WGCI radio, hand-picked five critics to serve as the founding board of directors: WGN's Roy Leonard, the Tribune's Johanna Steinmetz, NBC's Norman Mark, WGCI's Sharon LeMaire, and me, from the Daily Herald.
The awards had their first public ceremony during 1989 in the Pump Room of the Omni Ambassador Hotel. Chicagoans Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue served as emcees of the show, which attracted an intimate gathering. (Translation: Only a few people showed up.)
One of the winners arrived to accept his award for best director and best picture, and just by doing that, gave our new awards a badly needed shot of instant credibility. His name: Spike Lee. His movie: "Do the Right Thing."
Since its humble inception, the CFCA has expanded to include educational outreach programs at area colleges and libraries, and for a time sponsored a support group called "Friends of the Critics."
More important, it established a charity wing. Its first program carried the iffy title of "Send a Needy Kid to the Movies" (later changed to "A Day at the Movies") where the CFCA arranged to transport students from inner-city schools to see movies, usually at the Pipers Alley Theaters. Then, in conjunction with the Chicago schools, they participated in critical thinking skills exercises based on the viewing. This program has been funded by stars such as Kevin Costner, Robin Williams, Emilio Estevez, Steve Martin, Kevin Smith and others. One year, Costner personally graded the students' film reviews and returned them to the young writers.
But the most important benefit of the CFCA proved to be less tangible. From the stony silence and virtual paranoia that gripped the critics' world during the 1970s, a genuine community of professionals has emerged. This group of fiercely independent writers and broadcasters provides the Midwest with a unified voice in a world where the two Coasts have done all the criticizing for way too long.
That remains the greatest legacy of this Association, and the single accomplishment of which I, the last of the founding directors, am proudest.
Nov. 16, 2007