Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Chicagoland": One summer does not a swallow make

      Sometimes German just sounds better. If you ever saw both the original and the dubbed versions of Wolfgang Petersen's classic 1981 submarine movie, you know that not only is the title more powerful in German than in English, "Das Boot" versus "The Boat" (say them aloud) but the dialogue is a lot more dramatic.  In the original, they're always shouting things like, "Jungs! Lasst uns in die U-Boot jetzt gehen!" Which sounds limp in English: "Hey guy, let's go into the submarine now."
      Wagner, of course, is grand and powerful in German -- "Gotterdammerung" -- but becomes a feeble sigh in English: "Twilight of the gods."
     So watching the second installment of CNN's eight-hour documentary "Chicagoland," it is probably better for me to say the old German adage, "Einmal ist keinmal; und zweimal ist immer," came to mind, than "Once is never and twice is forever."
     The first episode was dramatic and intriguing, focusing primarily on the Chicago's 2012 teachers strike through three major characters: the mayor, police superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Liz Dozier, the principal one particular South Side High School, Fenger. 
     The second installment, well, I felt like I was watching the first over again, except with Billy Dec, the fedora-wearing restaurant and club entrepreneur. I know him, nice guy. But he didn't bring anything to the show. What did he tell us? What did we learn, beyond the fact he owns clubs and wears hats?
    That's isn't the final judgment—there are six more episodes yet. I still think they're done a laudable job trying to capture this dynamic and heartbreaking city. And the shows themselves, technically, are beautifully done, fast-paced, wonderfully-photographed. But after show No. 2, there was a definite air-leaking-out-of-the-balloon quality, and it made me eager to see the third installment, in part, hoping it picks up and is closer to the excellence of the first.
     Commentary on the show from other journalists seems to pingpong from praise -- the city looks great, which is good -- to condemnation -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks great, which is bad. 
      As if both couldn't be true. The city does looks great. And the show is heavy on Rahm, who is not exactly the Man of a Thousand Faces. To me, a little Rahm goes a long way.  
     On the other hand, calling it an advertisement is unfair. What's the terrible thing about Rahm that isn't in there? That he closed 50 schools? They certainly convey that in excruciating detail. That he's a rich guy who a lot of people don't like on general principles? They go there too. My theory is that some critics just don't like looking at him so much. 
      The mayor isn't all of "Chicagoland," thank God. It isn't quite "Rahmland." What I found most interesting, again only seeing the first quarter of the eight hours are the scenes of African-American life in Roseland and Englewood. A lot of time in the first two programs is spent listening to African-American students who go to Fenger High School, their parents, teachers, principal Liz Dozier, people on the street, talking about their lives. These aren't voices you hear or faces you see on television all that much, and that aspect alone, to me, that made the programs important and worth watching.  (And another cause for complaint, this time from black Chicagoans who worry that the show suggests many African-Americans live in poor, violence-ridden neighborhoods and face difficult lives. Ahem, I hate to be the one to say it, but if CNN focused on well-off black couples walking their tiny dogs in Lincoln Park, imagine how THAT would be received. Maybe in an 80-hour series).
     Still, I wish the rest of "Chicagoland" found other areas of the city to delve into the way they explore Roseland, but they really don't. Not yet anyway. 
     At this point, I suppose I should toss out a few caveats. I'm in the first episode, briefly, though I'll leave you to decide whether being momentarily caught in the limelight has dazzled me and made me unable to respond other than to blink in blind praise.  I'm also friends with Mark Konkol, who was the producers' point man -- the Chicago Virgil showing them about the city. Konkol's the real thing, he wrote the narration and delivered it in a unique yet classic Chicago voice that I believe we're going to be hearing more of. Though Mark would be the first to tell you that being his friend wouldn't stop me from dispassionately critiquing something he had done—loyalty is not my strong suite—and I am here, I hope. As I said, I think less of "Chicagoland" after the second show than I did the first. The Blackhawks segment seemed a waste — what did it communicate? They won the Stanley Cup and the city was happy. That isn't precisely a revelation. I would have preferred to learn a little something about the team, the victory, the celebration. To me, the sign of a good documentary, of good non-fiction, is not so much its style, as what it tells you that you didn't know before and now want to tell other people. What are the fascinating details they've found and shared? 
     But wait, I guess I'm not done with ticking off my biases.  I don't loathe Rahm Emanuel -- a lot of the criticism of the show is that you see him as an active, important figure in city life, which he kinda is.  Sure, he's pissed off folks whose schools he's closed, whose pensions he's trying to claw back, but those observations only damn him if you stop there and don't peek over the financial cliff Chicago is teetering on, and he is vigorously trying to yank the city back from. The key question, to me, is whether Rahm's trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor—the Occupy/Karen Lewis accusation. They say, "Why not tax LaSalle Street for the money?" and Rahm replies if he did that, he'd drive business away and then we'd really be screwed. Which makes sense. Who's right? That call is above my pay grade, but I don't think knee jerk condemnation of the mayor and automatic sympathy to anyone with a complaint gets us any closer to the truth. Maybe they should have sat down one of Rahm's critics and had him tick off all the things that, three years into his administration, haven't gone right. 
    The show doesn't suffer because it has too much Rahm, rather, that having so much Rahm crowds out other things. My central concern, having seen a quarter of the shows, is that, trying to create some kind of narrative, we're getting too narrow a slice of the city. As interesting as Fenger High School is, and its principal Liz Dozier, I could never see them in the program again -- or Rahm, or Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy for that matter-- and I'd feel like I had seen them plenty. But they're all coming back in the third episode, and we can only hope they're used to widen the scope and go other places. It's a very big city, with all sorts of people in it. Were it my show, I'd have included a regular person character,  a bakery truck driver, a letter carrier, and some of time spent watching Rahm escorting his powerful pals through corridors again and again would be shifted to getting to know that guy. Then again, it's their story, and maybe they never intended to create a postcard of the city. A writer gets to pick his subject.
     I should probably wait until it's over to pass judgment--they're still crafting the final episode -- but then you wouldn't be able to watch it, Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on CNN (of course, it's 2014, so you can watch anything whenever you want; I wonder when the tradition of seeing programs as they air will become a quaint anachronism). It's holding my interest, and this progress report notwithstanding, I'm withholding final judgment. There's six hours to go. It's too early to really tell. Or as they say, better, in German, Eine Schwalbe macht noch keinen Sommer. One swallow does not a summer make. 


  1. I think Mark Twain said it best about the German language in the title of his essay, "The Awful German Language".
    In "A Tramp Abroad" he wrote: "I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it"

    1. German probably never sounded good unless Prince Albert was speaking it. ;)

  2. I agree about Wagner, and as always, LOVE your writing- letting air out of a balloon quality is such a great image, for example.

  3. They taught me that Gotterdammerung means twilight of the gods. Plural gods, not a Judeo-Christian framework.

  4. Besides the Mayor, are there any White people in the show? We are 1/3 of Chicago's population. Or, is Chicago portrayed as an entirely Black and Hispanic city, as the 95% of the US that is suburbanites assumes? (I don't have cable, so I'm not watching it.)

  5. "My theory is that some critics just don't like looking at him so much."

    [Raises hand]

    -- MrJM

  6. @Barry: tons of white people, including Billy Dec and all the Blackhawks fans. No latinos that I saw. If part of the city is being ignored, it's the Hispanic part. I took a harsher view than Neil:

  7. Where did some of these people go? Hey you posters -where have you gone?


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