Barry Gifford is one eclectic writer, having penned novels, short stories, essays, poetry, graphic novels, and screenplays. And, as evidenced in the new documentary about Gifford entitled ROY’S WORLD: BARRY GIFFORD’S CHICAGO, his life is nothing if not a striking and vast range of experiences too. Less documentary and more pastiche of memories, this film by director Rob Christopher shares seminal pieces of Gifford’s life with the author’s words employed to accompany them. The film feels like you’re pouring over a scrapbook, with the subject sitting right next to you, offering up fascinating anecdotes to go with the faded and haunting photographs. It’s a singular experience and it’s one of the special films being showcased as part of the Chicago Film Critics’ Film Festival this weekend at the Music Box Theatre.
Gifford’s life was filled with events both comic and tragic as he grew up in the Chicago of the 50s and 60s. He chronicled his experiences in a collection of semi-autographical tales entitled The Roy Stories in 2013. Those serve as the script here, essays read aloud by Gifford, along with celebrity voice-overs Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, and Lili Taylor. These four distinct voices provide the range for the wide swath of experiences the author recounts, from tough and brutal winters in The Windy City to the tough and brutal fallout of his parent’s divorce.
Using all kinds of visuals to showcase Gifford’s memories, from faded black and white photographs to 8 mm home movies to clever snippets of animation, Christopher puts us in Gifford’s head, experiencing the varied memories of his life. And interestingly, the sometimes scattered thoughts echo how the mind works. After all, recalling the past is never a straight line, but rather, a series of images that stick out, regardless of time and order. That’s how Christopher approaches his film. It comes across as a memory play of Gifford’s, sometimes disturbing, other times delightful.
Gifford’s evaluation of the events in his life comes off as incredibly perceptive too. He surmises that his parents should never have even dated as they were too different in age, religion, and temperament. Still, even with his mature take on how things happened decades ago, Gifford cannot quite get over the sting. His mournful detailing of the trauma in his home feels palpable here.
And all the while, Christopher matches images to Gifford’s prose with resounding precision. When the boy talks of not knowing his mother all that well, the words are matched by pictures and home movies showing her faded visage. When Gifford’s stories turn to his time spent traveling with his dad and living in hotels, Christopher echoes the boy’s sense of feeling small and unimportant by emphasizing the ginormous facades and lobbies of their residences.
The director separates the anecdotes via titles, giving his film the feel of chapters in a book. The episodes cover many titular events in the boy’s life from discovering girls in the neighborhood to his impressions of sunny Florida to his distaste for mom’s new husband. Christopher not only orchestrates a unique coming-of-age tale here, but he serves up an intricate travelogue of Midwestern America in the mid-2oth century too. Indeed, the Chicago of that time comes alive wholly, turning into as important a character in Gifford’s story as any human.
Gifford’s writing can often be dream-like, as his novel Lost Highway showcased, along with its film adaptation written with David Lynch in 1997. That sensibility informs Christopher’s film too, giving the tone an eeriness throughout. The film feels informed by the experimental cinema of the 60s as well, with the noir influences evident in much of Gifford’s writing seeping in around the edges too. All in all, Christopher has crafted a vivid and meticulous presentation of Gifford’s prose, life, and memory.
The film is only 75 minutes, but it is mesmerizing from the first moment to the last. It should inspire you to want to seek out more from this expert filmmaker, not to mention want to start devouring all the works of Gifford that you can get your hands on. ROY’S WORLD: BARRY GIFFORD’S CHICAGO will be shown at 2:30 this Saturday afternoon, November 14th at The Music Box in Chicago and it’s sure to be a treat for any Chicagoan, child of the 20th century, or filmgoer who craves adroit storytelling. Don’t miss it.