THESE FILM REVIEWS
are representative writings about the films of Peter Thompson.
A FILMMAKER IN THE HOLOCAUST ARCHIVES: PHOTOGRAPHY AND NARRATIVE IN PETER THOMPSON'S UNIVERSAL HOTEL
CHICAGO PREMIERE OF LOWLANDS + DIGITAL RESTORATION OF UNIVERSAL HOTEL
A HANDFUL OF WORLD: THE FILMS OF PETER THOMPSON, AN INTRODUCTION AND INTERVIEW
ACTION HEROES: 26 PEOPLE WHO MAKE FILMS HAPPEN IN CHICAGO
EL MOVIMIENTO AND UNIVERSAL
A world premiere of the first feature by Peter Thompson, perhaps the most original and important Chicago filmmaker you never heard of, showing with one of his best shorts. Over a decade in the making, El Movimiento (2003, 90 minutes) follows the relationship between Don Chabo, a Mayan shaman in Yucatan, and William F. Hanks, the Chicago anthropologist he improbably selected as his sole apprentice, showing how both men think, work, and dream. Thompson's skill as a poetic organizer and interpreter of disparate materials is even more apparent in his mysterious and provocative Universal Hotel (1986, 28 minutes), which tracks his detailed research into photographs of a freezing and thawing experiment conducted in Dachau with a German prostitute and a Polish prisoner. Apart from offering fascinating glimpses into alternative medical practices, both films are profound meditations on the passage of time.
PAST LIVES, PRESENT PUZZLES
Peter Thompson, who teaches photography at Columbia College and makes personal, autobiographical documentaries, is a major, neglected filmmaker. He's made five films, and the latest, El Movimiento, his only feature, is having its world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on January 16 and will be shown there again on January 19 -- both times with the 1986 Universal Hotel, my favorite of Thompson's shorts. (Thompson will lead a discussion at the Friday screening.)
Philosophically and aesthetically, Thompson's films are as beautiful and provocative as any contemporary American independent work that comes to mind. But they're also packed with secrets and resist being paraphrased or even decoded -- one reason they aren't better known. Another is that his first four films, all shorts, were put out on a single video by Facets in 1987 and have seldom been screened since.
The early shorts are about
Thompson's parents and about his research into the lives of two wartime
prisoners in Dachau, which took him to Europe and Central America. El
Movimiento concerns the life and work of a Mayan shaman and healer, Don
Chabo, who was born around 1915 in the Yucatan, and his only apprentice,
University of Chicago anthropologist William F. Hanks. Thompson also figures
in El Movimiento as both the narrator and a part-time protagonist,
but Don Chabo and Hanks periodically take over these functions, making
Thompson's role less clearly delineated than in the earlier films.
This is an obvious difference,
but the shorts and the feature have many striking elements in common.
All five are troubled and troubling meditations on history and epic efforts
of retrieval, concerned simultaneously with the shape of entire lives
and with fleeting experiences -- a duality that makes them both elemental
and elusive, weighty and light, concentrated and diffuse.
It's also significant that
dreams are often given as much attention as objective facts -- and are
even viewed as objective facts. In El Movimiento Thompson and Hanks
recount their own dreams at separate junctures, and Don Chabo uses drawings
and reenactments to convey the visions and experiences that led him to
become a shaman in his mid-20s, after his family had died of starvation.
All three characters seem to periodically exchange roles, adding to the
confusion between objective and subjective realities. After Don Chabo
burns candles, chants, and sprinkles water on plants, he says, "Cut,"
and at that moment is clearly the director. Earlier he looks through Thompson's
camera while Hanks addresses him, and soon after, Hanks films and addresses
Thompson. Much later we learn that Hanks's role in healing Don Chabo when
he was seriously ill led him to resume the apprenticeship he'd abandoned.
Thompson's work since the 1981
Two Portraits has become more broadly conceived and more densely
populated. The 28-minute Two Portraits -- the first part of which
describes his father, the second his mother -- consists largely of elaborate
reworkings of found materials that come across as highly objective and
detached in certain ways and extremely personal and private in others.
Universal Hotel (1986, 23 minutes) and Universal Citizen
(1986, 23 minutes), another diptych, combine objective and subjective
elements even more elaborately and ambiguously. In the first Thompson
chronicles his research into experiments by Dr. Sigmund Rascher at Dachau
in 1942, in which he nearly froze a Polish prisoner and then got a German
prostitute to warm him up; Thompson uses photographs from archives in
six countries and recounts a subjective dream set in what he calls the
Universal Hotel. The second film is a multifaceted personal travelogue
that brings us to a real Universal Hotel, in Guatemala, and to the same
public square in Siena that appears at the beginning of Universal Hotel;
at the center of the film are Thompson's offscreen meetings with a Libyan
Jew and former Dachau inmate who works as a smuggler in Guatemala and
refuses to be photographed.
play an important role in all four of these films. The notes on the Facets
video Films by Peter Thompson allude to the "father's suicide,"
though as far as I can tell, nothing in Two Portraits does. Thompson
has described the main themes of Universal Hotel and Universal
Citizen as "the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle
to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable
loss," though nothing in Universal Hotel indicates that the
"thawing" it's concerned with is emotional and not simply physical.
Thompson emerges clearly as a character in Universal Citizen, which
alludes to his wife and their adopted Puerto Rican daughter in Chicago,
but here too the things we aren't told about the characters seem just
as important as the bits of information we get; indeed, in spite of their
confessional aspects, all five of Thompson's films are dominated and even
structured by these absences. We never discover the reason for his interest
in filming the smuggler, nor do we learn why he's fascinated with Rascher's
experiments, apart from the allusion to emotional thawing.
Furthermore, the subjectivity in these films is itself subjective. Writing a few years ago in the Reader about Universal Hotel, Fred Camper noted that Thompson accompanies the still photos of the German medical experiments "with a narration so mechanical that it implies no degree of emoting could capture SS-perpetrated horrors," and it's easy to see how he could conclude that. But I think Thompson's uninflected offscreen voice reading his own texts in Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen, in the first part of Two Portraits, and in portions of El Movimiento evokes Robert Bresson, in that he's suppressing overt emotional expression to make room for other kinds of emotional expressiveness, such as rhythm and the meaning of the words. When he was a young man Thompson toured Europe as an accomplished classical guitarist, and his concise writing and concentrated delivery have a power that's highly musical and that's affecting precisely because it isn't embellished by anything resembling acting. I doubt it's a coincidence that the least accessible of his films is the second part of Two Portraits, the only film in which his voice isn't heard.
The first thing we're told
in El Movimiento, quoted from a 1562 chronicle, is that the name
"Yucatan" -- where practically all of this film was shot --
derives from the inability of the Spanish explorers and Mayan merchants
to understand each other's language. When the Spaniards asked, "What
is this place called?" the Mayans responded, "We do not understand
your language," the short version of which is "Yucatan."
As we hear this we see successive 360-degree pans around 360-degree still
photographs of the Yucatan village where Don Chabo lives (the end of the
last photo shows Thompson facing the camera), implying a slightly less
skeptical view of the capacity of language, in this case film language,
As the end of Universal
Citizen and the beginning of El Movimiento make clear, Thompson's
films are based on metaphors that make clarity and obscurity opposite
sides of the same coin. "We don't have a path," Hanks says,
paraphrasing Don Chabo toward the end of El Movimiento. "Just
a few brief clearings in the woods. The rest of the time we're lost and
looking for things that can't be seen." The title of the film is
explained in a sequence in which Hanks is taking a shower and telling
Thompson that Don Chabo accepted the premise that the overall movement
of his work as a shaman and healer could be filmed even if the work itself
couldn't be. The use of the word movimiento reflects this fascination
with simultaneous clarity and obscurity in that Spanish isn't the native
tongue of Hanks, Don Chabo, or Thompson; Hanks also says that he didn't
know any Spanish or Mayan when he first encountered Don Chabo during his
A sense of mediation, translation,
and continual refocusing is apparent in this project from the outset.
Hanks has to serve as an interpreter of Mayan for Thompson as well as
for us, and Don Chabo's selection of Hanks as his only apprentice implies
a compatibility between practicing anthropology and practicing folk medicine
that Hanks can't accept. Ideally Thompson -- who uses an innovative rotating
overhead camera that implies a holistic vision -- might serve as a mediator
as well as chronicler of this troubled apprenticeship. But as the film
periodically shows, the filmmaker isn't any more capable of taking in
everything than the teacher or his pupil; the difficulties in his own
shifting relationship with Hanks are also taken up toward the end of the
What we see of Don Chabo's medical practice is straightforward and fascinating. We watch him treat a sick baby with plants and prayers that are part Christian and part pagan, refuse to help a woman who wants him to cast a spell on another woman (explaining that he doesn't do evil, he only cures people), advise an old man that there's no medicine to cure his aches and pains, try to teach Hanks how to read crystals before concluding that it "isn't the time yet for him to understand," and perform an exorcism for a young woman whose mother claims she's been kidnapped by Satan. Throughout these and other episodes he appears no more foreign, mythical, or out of the ordinary than Hanks or Thompson; if anything, he's more lucid and transparent, perhaps because he appears to have less to hide. Thompson has pointedly made the pagan elements every bit as consequential as the Christian ones, deepening the impression that this is a mystery story without a solution, albeit full of illumination.
For a short biography of