Goin’ to Chicago (1990): Home Sweet Home

Dave continues his dive into Paul Leder’s work with a look at arguably the most personal film of the writer/producer/director’s career.

Throughout my Paul Leder pilgrimage, there was one film that took on near mythological status:

GOIN’ TO CHICAGO (1990).

There was an odd, almost fatalistic symmetry to the fact that it was both the final picture of his that I watched and the hardest to get hold of. Like the majority of Leder’s twenty-two features, Goin’ to Chicago‘s presence in the modern world of streaming is non-existent, and distributor York Home Video changing its title to ‘Hearts of Fire’ presumably resulted in copies of its already rare VHS release to drown in a sea of Bob Dylan/Richard Marquand cast-offs. Well, save for the one I finally managed to procure…

But if the elusiveness of Goin’ To Chicago is one thing, its place within Leder’s resume is something else entirely. Cited by those closest to him as his best and most personal work, Goin’ to Chicago is also his most highly acclaimed. It won the Jury Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. However, while the film’s championing led Leder’s family penned obituary in the Los Angeles Times upon his death in 1996, his name being paired exclusively with I Dismember Mama (1972) rankles his son, Reuben.

The “infamous Paul Leder cheapies” is how Steve Daly referred to the filmmaker’s catalogue in an Entertainment Weekly article on daughter Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (1998) [1]; a description that prompted a terse rebuke in the letters column from Reuben a few weeks later:

“This term does a disservice to a fiercely independent filmmaker who struggled his whole life to make movies that defined the best in human beings. The movies you cite (I Dismember Mama, Ape (1975)) were his trade-offs to be able to self-finance movies like Goin’ to Chicago. [My father, Paul] was more than a mentor to Mimi, Geraldine (a Warner Bros. casting director), and myself, but an inspiration to all of us to use our craft to make a difference in this world. He imbued ‘his’ films with hope, honesty, and love. And that’s the way he should be remembered.” [2]

It’s certainly the case with Goin’ to Chicago.

Ending with the “hope, honesty, and love” that Reuben refers to, we’re left to negotiate despair and hatred first and foremost. Set during the run-up to the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, Goin’ to Chicago takes us through the horror of two tumultuous assassinations: Martin Luther King in April, and Bobby Kennedy in June. With President Lyndon Johnson announcing that he doesn’t intend to run for a second term, Senator Eugene McCarthy is the great hope of the people. Seeking the Democratic presidential nomination on an anti-Vietnam war platform, a young army of supporters have mobilised to ensure his place on the ballot. Ellie (Eileen Seeley) is one of these, and along with her friend Eddie (Guy Killum), they’re committed to assisting in McCarthy’s campaign for peace.

The same cannot be said for Ellie’s estranged boyfriend, Aaron (Gary Kroeger). A Berkeley graduate like her, the wanton carnality of a free love lifestyle in Europe beckoned, and the five year relationship he’s fostered with Ellie has all but fizzled out. Meanwhile, back at home, Aaron’s grandmother, Helen (Viveca Lindfors), strikes up a friendship with Eddie’s namesake father (Cleavon Little), and the two elders begin to find comfort amidst this period of raucous social upheaval.

The utopian dream in Goin’ to Chicago comes courtesy of a pivot delivered by Bobby Kennedy in  newsreel footage. It’s a speech etched into history, appealing for an end to division in exchange for compassion, and a unity between black and white. Depressingly, Kennedy’s ideas are something that we seem to have moved further away from as a society, but its use here allows us a fleeting glimpse back to a time where leaders spoke of what unites us as opposed to what drives us apart.

Leder’s cleverness lies in the connecting tissue between the politicians on television and the public at home. After all, he’s an optimist, remarking once how he believes in the improvement of the human race. His message in Goin’ to Chicago is simple yet powerful, and mulled over most poignantly by a regretful Aaron; now back on U.S. soil and surveying the cemetery in which he’s just buried a family member. “They’re depending on us to give their lives meaning. If we can’t hear them, we’re more dead that they are.”

A jewel in Leder’s crown, Goin’ to Chicago might struggle for broad appeal, but the sentiment behind the picture is ferocious. As a man whose wife survived a concentration camp, and as a medic himself who assisted with the liberation of Buchenwald, Leder’s film carries weight. As the author Ba Jin wrote: “Only by not forgetting our past can we become the master of our future.” Alas, despite Goin’ to Chicago‘s festival honours, the press were generally nonplussed. Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times was moderately positive. He acknowledged that the film wasn’t to his taste but, “like it or not”, he could “salute the picture’s heart-on-sleeve love of idealism and commitment” [3]. Bill Cosford in The Miami Herald, though, found it wholly passé. Ahead of Goin’ to Chicago‘s bow at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, he called it “an embarrassment for all concerned, including the festival.” [4]

Granted, Goin’ to Chicago comes with some fiscally related flaws and the occasional moment of clunky exposition, so to call it a completely successful homage to Italian neorealism might be reaching. However, considering the disrespect afforded to Leder over the course of his career, then perhaps we owe it to him to let this affirmation from his son stand:

“Dad admired Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and he’d take Mimi and I to see them as soon as their movies hit the local arthouse. He tried to duplicate the social conscience of those movies, and Goin’ To Chicago is perhaps a reflection of that.”

Amen.

Poster courtesy of Reuben Leder

[1] Making an Impact by Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly, 8th May 1998.
[2] Letters: ‘Leder of the Pack’, Entertainment Weekly, 29th May 1998.
[3] ‘Chicago’ A Flawed Look At The ‘60s by Michael Wilmington, Los Angeles Times, 23rd August 1991.
[4] Goin’ to Chicago Is A Wasted Trip by Bill Cosford, The Miami Herald, 9th November 1990.

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