Sunday, November 18, 2012


My husband – David – and I seem to go overboard when buying tickets for festivals.  Last year David bought 40 tickets (20 movies x 2) for the Chicago International Film Festival.  Going to the movies became a chore after the first three.  But we did go and we saw some excellent films.  We also left in the middle of a few (we are known for leaving early if we’re not enjoying a film or a play or a concert).  This year I went crazy and bought over 40 tickets (20 lectures x 2) for the Chicago Humanities Festival that just ended last weekend.

The first weekend in mid-October the lectures took place at Northwestern University for an entire Sunday.  The next weekend we went to Hyde Park for a series of talks at the University of Chicago.  And in November we attended lectures in Chicago for two consecutive weekends.  Often we had to run from one location to the other; once in a while we took a taxi to make it on time.  David didn’t come to all of the events with me; he skipped a few because of work, or so he said.  The lectures in Chicago were concentrated in the Loop and Near North areas.  We anticipated being hungry at lunch time and took sandwiches and fruit to avoid spending time (and money) eating at a restaurant or coffee shop. 

What’s my conclusion about these lectures?  Did I enjoy them?  Did I learn anything?  Was it money well-spent? 

Yes and no.  A few talks were illuminating and entertaining.  Very few.  Most of them ranged from indifferent to bad.  The format of “conversation” – a dialogue between an author or scholar and a reporter or writer – was the worst.  Like the talk titled “The Iconic American City” where curator Katherine Bussard discussed the photography exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago Film and Photo in New York with Zoe Strauss and Paul D’Amato – a magnificent exhibit by the way.  The two artists talked mostly to each other, engaging in chit-chat and hugging, as if the audience were not there.  The sound system in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute made the entire thing difficult to understand and the same photos were projected over and over.  I noticed audience members filing out after about twenty minutes.   And that’s unfortunate because the subject matter and exhibit are worth of a good discussion.  I wanted to hear about the Photo League of New York and how photography can change the world. 

Adam Gopnik’s conversation with Neil Steinberg titled “The Table Comes First”, The Whipping Man with Matthew Lopez and Dorothy Allison’s chat with Donna Seaman fared a little better in my opinion; however, I contend that having two people on stage talk about a subject informally does not make for good performance.  It can be boring, it can veer into the obnoxious, and it does not engage the audience as much as a straightforward lecture or even informal talk will.

By far our favorite lecture was “1492: Before and After” by Charles C. Mann, author of two books 1491 and 1493.  Professor Mann displayed that rare mixture of good showmanship and valuable information.  His visual aids worked to enhance the facts he was presenting, and my husband, a friend and I left the lecture with interesting questions and a desire to read his books. Last week I purchased 1493 and am looking forward to reading it.     

I learned some very interesting facts from a handful of lectures: “The American Revolutions” by Caitlin Fitz, “The Hip Hop Pioneer” by Tricia Rose, “Freedom Papers” by Rebeca Scott, and “Icons of the Americas: Josephine Baker and Santa Evita” by Matthew Guterl.  Fitz’s presentation style was a bit dry and monotonous but her subject matter interested me personally and so, I was attentive.  Can’t say the same for some other audience members who nodded off.  Tricia Rose is certainly a captivating speaker and her subject matter, current and controversial.  Good one!  Rebeca Scott’s and Matthew Guterl’s lectures benefited from the visual aids which added to the understanding of the subjects. 

            Larry Wilmore’s presentation at Francis Parker High School wasn’t as funny as I had hoped.  There were humorous moments and a fair amount of wit on Wilmore’s part but nothing fabulous or even great as I expected, having seen him on The Daily Show several times.  John Hodgman’s conversation with Peter Sagal was a bit more amusing, breaking some rules of stage protocol when Hodgman took off his shoes and socks and even incited Sagal to do the same.  On the whole however, both presenters did not meet my expectations in comparison with Hodgman’s work on television. 

“Beyond Macondo: Contemporary Latino Fiction” with Luis Urrea and Christina Henriquez left a lot to be desired.  Again, the conversation format was not conducive to any insightful commentary but rather to small talk between the two.  Furthermore, the title was misleading since “Macondo” refers to the work of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the two writers featured are basically American writers of Latino descent.  They do not write about Latin America, not really.  For starters, Latin American writers write in Spanish (or Portuguese) while U.S.Latino authors write in English. They live vastly different lives and, therefore, write widely different stories. Conflating Latin American authors with U.S.Latino writers has been a hallmark of the mainstream academy and is a disservice to both, not to mention it confuses readers.

“Sneak Peek at Gay History” by George Chauncey engaged me somewhat.  And “Kafka’s Amerika” by David Wellbery brought up interesting albeit obscure facts about Kafka and the novel Amerika.  Wellbery weaved several topics that, although apparently relevant to his topic, eventually became confusing.

 “America’s Tongues: Three ‘Paradoxes’ “ by Michael Silverstein, again held at Fullerton Hall, was difficult to understand, an especially troublesome issue since it was about pronunciation of words in different regions of the USA.  “Ourselves as Others See Us: Latin America” with Boris Munoz, Claudia Mendez Arriaza, and Fernando Pisarro focused on US politics as seen by Latin America  circling around the same old concerns from a traditional point of view. Where was the talk about culture? 

“When Modern Art Came to America” with Judith Barter focused on the Armory Show of 1913 in New York and its Chicago exhibition at the Art Institute.  I enjoyed this lecture and learned something I didn’t know.  The slide show complemented the talk well.

“Lessons from the Ancient Mayas” presented by Lisa Lucero might’ve been the most tedious lecture I saw.  The speaker was too theatrical in contrast with her topic.  I bet a lot of the people in the audience expected to hear about the subject of the end of the world in December 2012 as prophesied by the Mayans.  I know that the description in the catalogue mentioned the issue of water and yet, I am not sure we all thought of that when we bought the tickets.

“The Other 1960s” by Kevin Boyle held my interest because of the storytelling quality of the speaker.  However, the substance of the lecture left a lot to be desired.  And as he confessed during the question and answer period, the description in the catalogue differed substantially from what he eventually presented.  His explanation?  Those descriptions are written way in advance and not always hold up when the lecturer is ready to prepare the actual talk.

The balance?  Next year I will be more discriminating when purchasing tickets.  I will read the catalogue and think before spending my money.  I love to learn.  I have a thirst for knowledge that goes back to childhood.  During the talks I took notes and, especially, marked subjects and topics I would like to look into further in the future.  I am always looking for ideas to research and write about.  This year’s festival provided me with a few intriguing  possibilities.  Let’s see what happens next year.

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