Howard Alk: A Life on the Edge

From January 9 through February 1, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in partnership with Chicago Film Archives and Chicago Cultural Center, presents Howard Alk: A Life on the Edge--four programs devoted to the late Chicago-based director/editor/cinematographer.

This retrospective is part of Chicago Film Archives’ initiative to shed light on the many unheralded local filmmakers. Alk entered the University of Chicago in 1944 at the age of 14, co-founded The Second City in 1956, and went on to become a brilliant and sought-after editor in the counterculture film scene until his death in 1982. Early in his film career, he became immersed in the African American perspective. Alk edited composer Ed Bland’s striking avant-garde film CRY OF JAZZ (1959) and the political documentaries AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2 (1969) and THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON (1971). Finding political and social expression within the music scene as well, he directed JANIS (1974), a portrait of Janis Joplin, and collaborated with Bob Dylan on EAT THE DOCUMENT (1972), HARD RAIN (1976), and RENALDO AND CLARA (1978).

This retrospective will paint not only a portrait of Alk’s short career, but of those complicated and turbulent times. To illuminate both the career and the times, each program will feature an introduction by Chicago Public Radio host Alison Cuddy, interview excerpts from the CFA archives, and appearances by guest speakers, including those who worked with Alk and shared his remarkable adventure.

As part of this tribute, other Howard Alk-related films, including FESTIVAL, CRY OF JAZZ, and THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON, are playing at the Chicago Cultural Center in January. For further information, please visit

Howard Alk: A Life on the Edge was produced by Nancy Watrous and Andy Uhrich for Chicago Film Archives. Special thanks to Draupnir LLC, Hugh M. Hefner Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Kartemquin Films, Albert Grossman Foundation, The Chicago Film Office. This program is made possible in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Illinois General Assembly.

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1974, Howard Alk, USA, 96 min.
With Janis Joplin

Widely considered one of the best music documentaries ever made, JANIS traces Janis Joplin’s journey from Texas small-town outcast to world-famous blues singer. Without narration, this warm, intimate portrait is built mainly on Joplin’s own words (including personal letters and a priceless Dick Cavett Show appearance) and her incandescent performances, including WOODSTOCK outtakes, a Cheap Thrills recording session, and her legendary Monterey Pop Festival gig. 35mm. (MR)

A short film portrait of Howard Alk, introduced by Alison Cuddy, will precede the feature.

Friday, January 9, 8:00 pm

Peter Kuttner and Charlie Capwell in person!
1968, William Jersey, USA, 45 min.
1972, Howard Alk, USA, 60 min.

THE SEASONS CHANGE was made to counter the official City of Chicago version of police conduct during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Bill Jersey and a large group of activist filmmakers pooled approximately 25 hours of footage, which editor Howard Alk shaped into an hour-long film, intercutting the on-camera recollections of assault victims with footage of their brutal arrests. Beta SP video.

In 1971, Sally Grossman convinced her husband Albert to find financing for a documentary about the Bauls, folk singers in rural West Bengal. LUXMAN BAUL’S MOVIE has an element of music-tour documentary, mixed with travelogue and ethnographic study. Sally Grossman’s voice-over translations of song lyrics and poetry lend the film tranquility unlike anything else in Alk’s work. DigiBeta video. (Chicago Film Archives)

Documentary filmmaker Peter Kuttner and University of Illinois musicologist Charlie Capwell will be present for audience discussion.

Friday, January 16, 8:00 pm

Jones Cullinan in person!
1969, Howard Alk and Mike Gray, USA, 85 min.

This fascinating documentary investigates police violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and the response to those events and those times among Lincoln Park liberals, Black Panthers, and the Young Patriots, an organization of impoverished Appalachian whites living in Uptowns. In his four-star Chicago Sun-Times review, Roger Ebert called AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2 “a film every Chicagoan should see…as well edited and as high in technical quality as any cinema verite documentary I’ve ever seen.” 35mm. (Chicago Film Archives)

Filmmaker Jones Cullinan will be present for audience discussion.

Friday, January 23, 8:00 pm

U.S. premiere!
Filmmakers in person!
1975, David Rothberg, USA, 42 min.
1964, Mike Shea, USA, 50 min.

We are proud to present the U.S. premiere of MY FRIEND VINCE--a film discovered only in late November, 2008. Howard Alk served a crucial role as cinematographer, editor, and on-screen participant in this portrait of Vince, a Toronto street hustler. Alk facilitates a reverse in focus as he turns the camera on the director/interviewer, exploring the “con” inherent in the making of documentary films. 16mm.

Preceded by AND THIS IS FREE, the acclaimed documentary about Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, created by Mike Shea, Howard Alk, and Kartemquin’s Gordon Quinn. 16mm. (Chicago Film Archives)

After the screening, filmmakers Mike Gray, Jones Cullinan, and Gordon Quinn will participate in a panel discussion moderated by filmmaker and University of Chicago lecturer Judy Hoffman.

Sunday, February 1, 5:00 pm

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