SEE STEVE PAXTON tongue-kiss a frog in George Manupelli’s Cry Dr. Chicago (1971), See Paxton’s extended death scene in which he staggers through the grass, an arrow piercing his heart, before falling face first in a stream. It’s as bravura an example of giving up the ghost as Laurence Olivier’s famed swan dive at the end of Hamlet (1948), except that Paxton is poised on the tipping point of satire. Deadpan satire, of course.
Paxton aside, there’s nothing sufficiently alluring about Cry Dr. Chicago to separate anyone from their Twitter feed on election night. Newly preserved by Anthology and programmed as part of the Judson Dance Theater’s fiftieth anniversary, it seems as lugubrious and sophomoric as it did four decades ago. That said, the movie is not without historic interest, primarily as documentation of members of the art collective, the ONCE Group who collaborated with Manupelli on what was in fact a Dr. Chicago feature film trilogy, Cry Dr. Chicago being the third and the only one shot in color. (The films are available on DVD individually and as a boxed set. Paxton fans take note: He is equally fascinating in all three, looking like a combination of a small-town college quarterback and a Pasolini Christ figure.)
The premise of the trilogy is that Dr. Chicago (Alvin Lucier), a sex-change surgeon, is perpetually on the lam, fleeing the Feds and, in Cry Dr. Chicago, hotly pursued by his nemesis, a French gangster–cum–business tycoon (Claude Kipnis). Dr. Chicago is never a pretty picture, with his moth-eaten black felt hat and ill-fitting shades, his lopsided moustache and his stringy, unwashed hair grazing his shoulders. He’s always accompanied by an entourage of nubile women, among them his sullen, chain-smoking assistant Sheila (Mary Ashley). Chicago and Sheila are most frequently seen side by side, fully clothed, in bed, while around them other women and Steve (Paxton), a mute backwoods healer, strip down to their skivvies as the camera lens zooms toward and settles near their flailing thighs.
The Chicago trilogy was directed, shot, and edited by Manupelli, who is more justly famed as the founder of the Ann Arbor Experimental Film Festival. He taught at the University of Michigan in the School of Art and Design, where the ONCE Group was partly based. Although he is an accomplished cinematographer with an eye for surreal decorative detail, Manupelli owes more than he probably would want to admit to Warhol’s mid-1960s talkies: the absurd premise, the ridiculous professionalism of the central character, the paranoid vision of the establishment, the minimal camera strategy (master shots punctuated by the occasional lackadaisical pan, tilt, or zoom), and, most notably, the improvised dialogue. In the Dr. Chicago movies, the titular Doc does most of the talking, and, to put it mildly, Lucier is no Ondine or Viva. It’s only in the area of sound recording and design (both credited to the composer Robert Ashley) that Manupelli gets the better of Warhol. But with dialogue as lame as Dr. Chicago’s, that’s a mixed blessing.