Tom Palazzolo: The only way to visit “Jerry’s Deli”

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally posted January 26, 2011.

Marissa Perel

How would it be possible to tell that 35 years ago there was a deli on Grand Ave. in Streeterville run by a maniac that would yell at customers like a drill sergeant? Surrounded by cops, hippies, businessmen, laborers, Jerry would grab a customer by the arm and scream, “What do you WANT?” with answers that ranged from corned beef to attempted assaults. The best-known document of this Soup-Naziesque part of Chicago’s history is Tom Palazzolo’s film, “Jerry’s Deli” from 1976. The filmmaker’s nearly 50 year career is being recognized all over Chicago these days with a recent run in Chicago-Scope: The Films of Tom Palazzolo 1967-1976 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, and an upcoming feature on January 30th at High Concept Laboratories in “The Library of Underground Obsessions,” a small press and film event sponsored by the Chicago Underground Library and Odd Obsession underground DVD and Video rental store.

Still from Ricky & Rocky;

On a blustery afternoon soon after the New Year, I took a trip to the Modern Wing for a much belated peek at the Chicago-Scope show, which came in #3 of the “Twenty Top Best in U.S. Museums” on artnet back in November. Love It/Leave It (1971; 14 minutes), and Ricky and Rocky (1972; 15 minutes), were little explosions of Americana that seemed to lay bare values stereotypical of the “American Dream” in humorous and disturbing cinema verité footage. Love It/ Leave It, was mesmerizing, a psychedelic montage of a nude competition in Indiana and footage of the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was intriguing to observe that Palazzolo really leaves no stone unturned in capturing the city, the film showed both the glamour and the horror of sex, violence, youth culture and politics of the ‘60’s. Ricky and Rocky, though less confrontational, evokes the kind of campy, claustrophobic experience of family gatherings, as the camera closes in on the couple during their wedding shower in a Chicago suburb.

Curator of Chicago-Scope, Kelly Shindler first became interested in the artist as an intern at the Art Institute’s Department of Contemporary Art, learning that the Chicago Filmmakers had preserved several of his films in recent years. She was so excited by it that she researched the films further, discovering a plethora at the School of the Art Institute’s Flaxman Library. This was a surprising jackpot discovery, considering there is no definitive archive of Palazzolo’s films. As part of the momentum of the experimental film scene in 1960’s Chicago, ignited by the Imagists and the Hairy Who camp of artists that showed work at the Hyde Park Art Center, Palazzolo’s films play between the surreal and the deadpan, conveying the grit and tension between classes and races in the city. As the Art Institute does not have a designated exhibition space for local artists, screening Palazzolo’s work is a significant moment of recognition.

still from He (1966 10 mins.)

Shindler says of Palazzolo’s films, “His work has endured and become a landmark of Chicago’s cultural heritage, like time capsules. [Tom’s] use of dissolves and double exposure creates a kind of visual music that is his own unique style. ”

“There is something uncanny in the way he captures his subjects where they’re all too real and familiar, but there’s something about them that isn’t. He fuses documentary with psychedelia while he juxtaposes social groups that make up the visual fabric of the city. Through that juxtaposition you can sense a critique of the social, political and economic climate of the time, but you can laugh along with Palazzolo’s subtle sense of outrage.”

Younger filmmakers have something to learn from the old master, who is a retired film professor from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Richard J. Daley College where he taught for 30 years. Luckily, there’s still a chance to get personal with Palazzolo as he will be at High Concept Laboratories for a talk about his films before the screening for the Library of Underground Obsessions event, which if it delivers as advertised, will serve wontons and throw a late night dance party.