doc of ages
On its 75th (or is it 67th?) anniversary, the venerable student film society looks back at an idiosyncratic history populated by rocketeer communists, rickety red wagons, Douglas Sirk enthusiasts...and, yes, documentaries. By Charlotte Robinson. Photographs by Dan Dry
Every night of the fall, winter, and spring quarters and four times a week during the summer, a projector hums away in the darkness of the Max Palevsky Cinema, home of Doc Films, the longestrunning student film society in America. With many esteemed film critics and filmmakers among its alumni and having hosted numerous Chicago premieres, film festivals, and director visits, Doc has an indisputably impressive history; just how long that history is, however, remains a subject of debate. Although Doc is often linked to an International House film group formed in 1932, Mary Woolsey Lewis, AB’44, who was a founding member along with her husband Robert Lewis, SB’39, and friend Jack Atlee, SB’41, asserted in a 1984 letter to the University of Chicago Magazine that Doc had no link to that group. According to Mrs. Lewis, the first screening organized by the Lewises’ loosely organized group was Paul Strand’s documentary about the Mexican fisherman’s union, The Wave, at International House in 1940. To gain more autonomy in programming, the group applied for student organization status, and in December 1940 the newly christened International House Documentary Film Group held its first screening, of The City, an anti-urban documentary written by Lewis Mumford.
Despite its name, which within a few years was shortened to the Documentary Film Group (necessitated by the first of many moves—this one from International House to Social Sciences 122), the organization exclusively screened documentaries for only a short time. Although the group’s intent was more educational than political, several of the founding members considered themselves to be socialists, and early documentary screenings focused on themes like labor problems, unemployment, and race relations, and were typically followed by lively discussions. And while Doc drew an estimated two hundred students to see early favorite The River, about the mighty Mississippi, receipts from documentaries alone could not keep the group afloat. In the spring of 1943, Doc began showing fiction films, often foreign ones, to pay the bills. The films of French heartthrob Jean Gabin proved particularly big draws throughout the decade.
By the time Ernest Callenbach, PhB’49, AM’53, arrived in 1947, Doc offered a mixture of documentaries, foreign films, Hollywood fare, and silent comedies. Callenbach, the founding editor of Film Quarterly, recalls, “I had probably seen Fantasia, a couple of Disneys, and a Shirley Temple movie or two and that was it when I went away to college. I’d never even heard the term ‘documentary.’” Callenbach volunteered at Doc until 1952, drawn to the organization not only by a Charlie Chaplin screening but by an attractive girl he believed to be a member. He attended a Doc meeting hoping to find her, and stumbled into a career in film criticism instead.
In Callenbach’s day, Doc still held screenings in Social Sciences 122, but the office was in Goodspeed Hall, so volunteers transported the projector between buildings in a children’s red wagon. Doc’s reputation was no more impressive than its equipment, according to Callenbach: “The sense was that we were on the fringe of crackpotism. We were interested in films in a serious way, and everyone else thought that was lunatic.” Another form of lunacy—and a continuation of Doc’s original pedagogical spirit—was provided by Chair Eugène DuFresne, PhB’46, MS’57, PhD’62, a (perhaps card-carrying) communist who lobbied for screenings of Russian silent films and, Callenbach recalls, “would give lengthy and rather tedious lectures about film and reality.” DuFresne wrote meandering film reviews for the Maroon and went on to found the University of Chicago Rocket Society. “They would go up into Stagg Field and have these little rockets on strings and run them around and around,” Callenbach says. “We all thought that was pretty nutty.”
The ranks of art-for-art’s-sake cinephiles continued to grow throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and with them grew Doc’s reputation. Sid Huttner, AB’63, AM’76, who contributed a great deal of memorabilia to the Doc archives at the Joseph Regenstein Library, took note of the new respect for cinema, saying, “Some members certainly saw that film studies would develop in significant ways.” If Doc’s profile had reached an impressive stature by that time, though, its facilities remained laughable. Two decades after Callenbach’s tenure, Barbara Bernstein, AB’70, recalls, volunteers were still using the red wagon to transport equipment, now to the balcony of the Cobb Hall auditorium (there was no projection booth). “For awhile we had only one working projector, so there was a pause between reels,” she remembers. “Film broke, came off the spindle, and unreeled down the aisle.” Despite the lamentable conditions, many legendary filmmakers paid visits to Doc in that era, including Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock, who paid his own travel expenses.
The early to mid ’70s—widely considered to be Doc’s golden era—was dominated by a group of dedicated and opinionated young men, many of whom went on to forge careers as filmmakers and critics. Aaron Lipstadt, AB’74, onetime assistant to cult filmmaker Roger Corman and now a director of television shows including Law & Order and Medium, says his time in Doc “led directly to my making the choice to go to graduate school in film rather than law school.” The Doc members of Lipstadt’s era were proud auteurists—devotees of Cahiers du Cinéma and of American critic Andrew Sarris, who championed directors who were then disreputable (at least among cinéastes) like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Douglas Sirk. Film critic and former Doc Chair Dave Kehr, AB’75, remembers, “We were against Pauline Kael and everything she stood for. We thought movies were art and we wanted to take them seriously and were not interested in enjoying them as trash.”
While it wouldn’t be inaccurate to accuse the auteurists of being film snobs, they were also populists in a sense. They rallied behind low-budget American filmmakers and against the idea that only foreign directors like Bergman and Fellini were significant. Henry Sheehan, X’77, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a Doc member off and on throughout the ’70s, asserts, “There was a sense, not of being beleaguered, but being entrusted with a film heritage.” Doc furthered the auteurist cause with a film magazine, Focus, founded in 1967, but by the time Sheehan’s relationship with Doc came to a close in the late ’70s, Focus—and focus—had fizzled out.
“When I left, they had a Frank Capra series,” Sheehan says with a true critic’s disdain. “People I started out with would look down on a Frank Capra series.” But Doc has soldiered on for the last three decades, even if its membership has lacked an obvious philosophy around which to rally. Marc Evans, AB’89, a vice president at Paramount who has worked on films like Spider-Man and Zodiac, says of his 1980s stint at Doc, “I think auteur theory reigned then and to this day.” The organization’s lack of vehemence since the ’70s might say less about its membership than the fact that popular opinion has largely come around to the auteurist viewpoint. Doc’s eminence is finally evident in its facilities, too. The group’s current home, the Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall, was built in 1986 and is a state-of-the-art auditorium with two 35mm projectors, a 16mm projector, and Dolby Digital and Digital Theater Systems audio systems.
Doc continues to follow the long-established model of screening more challenging films as part of its weekday thematic series while offering crowd-pleasers like Happy Feet and Casino Royale on the weekends to enhance profits. Even with an enticingly low five-dollar admission fee, however, it is increasingly difficult to compete with the entertainment options modern technology has made possible. After running into some financial problems last year, Doc implemented a budget policy that bars programmers from spending more than their series are expected to earn. The group has also started a newsletter and has conducted surveys to better understand its audience’s needs.
Doc’s 75th anniversary, no matter how contested its accuracy, provides one more way of attracting patrons, and the organization is taking advantage. Anniversary events kicked off in January with a screening of The Fountain and a Q&A with the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky. In the following months several professors presented their favorite films, including Red River (Robert Pippin) and The Grapes of Wrath (William Wimsatt). In July, Kyle Westphal, ’07, Finance Chair, and Alexis Becker, ’08, Librarian, will co-curate an exhibit of Doc’s archives in Special Collections at the Regenstein Library. Westphal is also writing a history of Doc, which he hopes to publish as a book. But when the dust settles from the anniversary celebrations, what will remain is a sense of dedication to Doc’s rich history. “As a longstanding member of the University of Chicago community, it’s equally important that we lose touch with neither our student base nor the Chicago film community,” says Fred Pfeiffer, ’07, current co-chair along with Yana Morgulis, ’07. And purists wary of the talk about budgets and surveys should take heart: a Douglas Sirk series is on Doc’s spring calendar.