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Arts in Review

A Decade Later, Chicago Overcoat Still Finding Its Fit

“YOU CAN’T STOP THE FLOOD OF MEMORIES when it starts to rain,” says Lou Marazano, played by actor Frank Vincent in the gripping crime drama Chicago Overcoat. “You either fight to get dry, or you let it pour all over you.”

In this stylish 2009 film from director Brian Caunter, Lou is an aging hitman for the Chicago mob who hasn’t killed anyone for 20 years and never rose through the ranks, but is now looking for one last lucrative job so he can retire to Las Vegas. “I don’t have any delusions of status,” he says in one of the movie's many well-written voice-overs. The screenplay is by Josh Staman, Andrew Alex Dowd, John W. Bosher and Caunter.

Lou is given another chance when authorities begin investigating mafia embezzlement of a union pension fund that threatens a crime boss played by Armand Assante, who is in prison for a short-term sentence that could stretch to 25 years if witnesses talk. The chieftain wants them murdered, but there’s not enough cash in the budget to hire a young, agile killer for the job. Lou asks for the assignment, against the initial resistance of his organized-crime superiors, who remind him that such work is a young man’s game and the pay isn’t worth the risk for him. But Lou has a daughter who’s divorced from her young son’s deadbeat, coke-head father, himself a member of another Chicago-area mafia crew in Cicero. Lou wants to provide for his daughter and grandson and move to Vegas for a fresh start.

Vincent, who died Sept. 13, 2017, memorably portrayed gangsters in the Martin Scorsese films Goodfellas and Casino, and also played Tony Soprano’s nemesis Phil Leotardo in the final season of The Sopranos. In Chicago Overcoat, his character arranges an alibi for his newly commissioned hits by reuniting with his former lover, Lorraine (Kathrine Narducci, who played Charmaine Bucco on The Sopranos).

Lou’s second hit, in which he suffocates a corrupt city alderman one night by pulling a plastic bag over the man’s head, is partially witnessed through the office blinds by cops staking out the building from across the street. Lou finishes the job and gets away, but is picked up by a patrolman while walking along the street under the ‘L’ tracks. At the police station, Lou is interrogated by a cop who remembers him from the old days and has a score to settle. Thanks to Lou’s alibi, the police have to let him go. But he has been exposed, and the mob bosses decide to have Lou killed. He ends up fighting gangsters and then cops in the film’s dramatic conclusion, in one scene with an old Thompson submachine gun nicknamed a “Chicago typewriter.”

Made for $3 million and shot on 35-millimeter film by six then-recent graduates of Chicago’s Columbia College film school when they were in their early twenties, Chicago Overcoat is a remarkably accomplished piece of independent moviemaking. (The title is Depression-era slang for a coffin.) Particularly impressive is that the young men not only got a feature film produced with recognizable stars (who also included Stacy Keach and Mike Starr), but they convincingly wrote the story from the point of view of a man in his sixties whose glory days are far behind him and who is looking for one last opportunity to regain his self-respect.

In September, the filmmakers are commemorating the tenth anniversary of the start of principal photography on Chicago Overcoat.

“We were certainly aware of what a great opportunity it was at that age,” Chris Charles, the movie’s casting director and associate producer, told Moresby Press. And now, “Ten years later, the film is still finding an audience.”

Charles said the costs of a theatrical release were too high, so the film premiered on Showtime. “It’s just so difficult to compete with studio films that have huge marketing budgets," he said. “It’s incredibly expensive to put a movie in theaters.” Chicago Overcoat has since been released on home video and through Redbox, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, and most recently, Amazon Video, where Amazon Prime members can watch the movie for free.

Have the talented filmmakers behind Chicago Overcoat received the esteem they deserve? “I’m very satisfied with the recognition it got,” said Charles, who estimates that millions of people around the world have seen the film on television. “For a bunch of guys coming out of school in our twenties and taking our first crack, I think we did ok.”

In a strange and sad coincidence, Frank Vincent died the same day this story was first posted, at the age of 78.

“Honestly, it still hasn’t sunk in for me yet,” Charles said two days later. “Frank really took a chance with us, and we’ll never forget it. We became quite close with him and his wife, Kathy, over the years, and we had plans to work together on other projects. But it’s nice to know that Frank will live on through all of his iconic performances.”

Melissa Prophet, Vincent’s longtime manager, said “He was so proud of this movie, and he had the best experience making it.”

For This Professional Musician, Talent is Only the Beginning

MARK VALENTI HAS DEVOTED HIS LIFE to playing piano. It’s difficult to imagine a harder-working professional musician than Chicago-based Valenti, who either practices or teaches classical piano 12 hours a day, every working day, with a just a couple breaks for meals or coffee. He makes his living by teaching students and traveling the country and sometimes the world performing solo recitals at universities, churches and other venues. And he does so with a single-minded sense of purpose and drive rarely seen in artists of any kind.

“My mission is to share beautiful music with people through performance and teaching in such a manner that they are left enriched without any notions of good or bad, or right or wrong, only fulfillment in self-expression,” he says.

Indeed, one of Valenti’s most salient characteristics as a musician—other than his powerful, passionate playing and indefatigable work ethic—is that despite performing well-known pieces by classical composers including his favorites Debussy, Bartok, Prokofiev and Chopin, he does not feel strictly bound by the scores themselves. As a former jazz pianist, he still plays in a more emotive, improvisational style than one would expect from a classical musician. Even when sight-reading sheet music, “I’m playing by ear,” he says. “When I see a note on the page, I’m hearing the sound, and I play to produce that sound.” An improvisational approach, or at least one that allows for interpretation, “is where the creative process begins,” he says.

Valenti, 57, didn’t start playing piano until he was 15 years old in Fairview Village, Pa., about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. He practiced so hard that he injured his hands. He later earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the Philadelphia Musical Academy and his Master of Music from Northwestern University. When he’s not practicing, performing or teaching students, he books his own appearances and manages his own travel and performance schedule, without an assistant.

“It always bothers me when people tell me I’m lucky to be able to make my living this way,” he says. “They don’t understand how hard I work.”

As of late September, he has performed 17 solo piano recitals this year, in Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Kansas, Hawaii, Texas, Virginia and Maryland. On Oct. 10, he’ll perform in Augusta, Ga. His schedule continues through the end of 2017, and he already has dates booked for 2018 and even into 2019.

No matter where he plays, he takes time to see the local sights, whether that means visiting Arlington National Cemetery, hiking in Hawaiian rainforests, or being the sole customer at a barn museum in rural Iowa.

But it’s his passion for music that keeps him going. Playing piano “is a labor of love for me,” says Valenti, who is also taking guitar lessons. He works on a 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. schedule. When it’s time for bed, he says, “I can’t wait to get up and do it all over again.”

California Typewriter a Meditation on Values that Endure

“EASE AND HAPPINESS ARE NOT SYNONYMOUS,” author David McCullough says about what we’ve lost in the digital age by no longer having to make much effort, in the thought-provoking new documentary California Typewriter. When writing on a typewriter, “Because it is more difficult, it produces a better result,” he says.

McCullough is one of several typewriter loyalists who speak on-camera in this touching film that was directed, photographed and edited by David Nichol. Also delivering paeans to an analog device ostensibly rendered obsolete by computers—but which might be making a comeback similar to the one enjoyed by vinyl records—is playwright and actor Sam Shepard. “I never got along with the computer screen,” because it’s too removed from the tactile experience, says Shepard, who died July 27. When pressing down a key on his typewriter, he liked to feel the resulting action of its levers, and to see ink bursting on the page.

Also in the film, actor Tom Hanks reveals that he collects typewriters and has more than 200 of the machines. He types letters and thank-you notes and dislikes receiving thank-you emails, which he sees as lazy and disposable. In today’s throw-away society, “a Smith Corona is like a dependable Chevy,” Hanks says. The typewriter has “a pleasant tactile action … with a soundtrack to it” made by the striking of the keys, the ring of the carriage-return bell.

The movie’s title refers to a typewriter-repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., owned by Herbert L. Permillion, III. He and Kenneth Alexander, both expert technicians and typewriter devotees, struggle to keep the shop alive as demand for the machines has shrunk to just a small subculture of people who still love them. Having taken out a second mortgage and fallen deeper into debt to stay in business, Permillion considers selling the small building but decides to keep going, ever hopeful that things will turn around.

For at least one man, typewriters are no longer a means to write, but an inspiration for creating art. We meet Jeremy Mayer, an artist who takes apart discarded typewriters and uses their components to build sculptures of animals and people.

Musician John Mayer also appears, talking about the impermanent, almost phantom nature of digital writing, versus the lasting physical presence and value of something typed on paper. When banging out stream-of-consciousness song lyrics on a typewriter, he doesn’t have to worry that his muse will be interrupted by squiggly red or green lines appearing under the words from a computer’s spell or grammar checks, which would compel him to stop and correct the errors rather than continue exploring his thoughts, possibly blocking some insight or turn of phrase that could have gone into one of his songs.

Far from a mere exercise in nostalgia, California Typewriter makes the point that in the era of digital technology and virtual versions of things once real, we are losing skills, pride in our work, lasting records of our achievements and even our humanity, as machines stop serving us and we increasingly surrender to their control. California Typewriter is a beautiful film that will make you rethink the choices available for living your life—and most likely leave you wanting to buy an old typewriter for yourself, and to start using it. 

Follow Moresby Press on Twitter: @MoresbyPress


What is ‘Blockchain,’ exactly?

Aug. 31, 2017

A term that’s been appearing more frequently lately but often without clear explanation, “blockchain” is a technology intended to create trust between strangers so they can exchange things of value over the Internet, without the involvement of third parties. According to its proponents, blockchain is going to change the Internet and the world.

Think of it as a publicly available digital ledger of anonymous transactions assembled chronologically like a chain of blocks, with each time-stamped block, or digital file, representing a transaction or group of transactions. Once written, each block is permanent and can’t be edited, thereby building a trustworthy record.

Blockchain originated as the underlying technology for the digital currency bitcoin. The “cryptocurrency” has been used to buy and sell illicit goods and services on the Internet black market, but is now expanding into mainstream commerce.

Bitcoins, which are really not coins at all but rather encrypted digital files perceived as valuable because they can only be created by solving extremely complex math problems, are just one example of digital properties that can be tracked and exchanged using blockchain technology. Blockchain verifies the value and ownership of digital properties from cryptocurrencies to documents and even songs, on networks of millions of computers, without the need for centralized authorities. In a sense, the digital record the blockchain creates is the authority, and the source of the trust it inspires.

According to its champions, blockchain technology is poised to spread beyond finance and to establish trust for people exchanging anything of value over the Internet, heralding a new era in how business interactions, food-supply chains, contracts, land titles, intellectual property like music, and even voting and journalism are stored, authenticated, moved, documented and archived, using advanced cryptography. Unlike traditional intermediaries such as banks, credit-card companies and online retailers, blockchains can’t be hacked, thereby making digital transactions safer and more secure, while also protecting privacy.

Don Tapscott is a leading authority on how technology affects business and society, and author of the book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Underlying Bitcoin is Changing Business, Money and the World (Portfolio, 2016), written with his son, Alex.

Blockchain “is the next generation of the Internet,” Tapscott said in a 2016 TED talk. The innovation “holds vast promise for every business, every society, and for [all people] individually. For the first time now in human history, people everywhere can trust each other and transact, peer to peer.”

According to Tapscott, blockchain could wrest power and wealth away from intermediaries and give that leverage back to the people. The increased prosperity that blockchain might create could help alleviate income inequality and the anger, divisions and other problems that such unfairness has inflicted on people around the world. 

 

Don Tapscott, a leading authority on how technology affects business and society, during his May 2016 TED talk on blockchain technology.


 

Shadows the Sizes of Cities, A Novel

GREGORY W. BEAUBIEN

Young travelers, murder, a love triangle, and the legacy of a father’s sins

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