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Work Is Pleasure At The Siskel

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on May 10, 2010 4:20PM

2010_5_10work.jpg A sheriff, a musician, and a professor walk into a bar--wait, that's a different post.

Inspired by Studs Terkel, in 2004 Chicago filmmaker Daniel Kraus launched a documentary project dubbed the "Work Series." In the three installments thus far he's chronicled the day to day lives of Ronald E. Hewett, sheriff of Brunswick County, North Carolina; Ken Vandermark, local jazz genius; and Rabbi Jay Holstein, a professor at the University of Iowa. Each film in the series follows more or less the same format. There is no voiceover narration, a minimum of onscreen graphics, and none of the "dramatized reenactments" that plague so many documentaries. In other words, they're extremely workmanlike. Kraus does his job, observing his subjects at work, in a way that's unfussy and doesn't draw much attention to himself.

If you think that makes for dull filmmaking, think again. Shorn of extraneous elements, this straightforward approach creates sharply drawn character portraits that resonate far beyond the stereotypes of a profession. "Like some existential episode of Cops" (Austin Chronicle), Sheriff trails Hewett as busts up an illegal video gambling parlor, speaks at a middle school assembly, and (yes) drinks coffee. Musician remains a definitive portrait of what it actually means to make a living writing and playing music. It's sobering to watch MacArthur "genius" grant-winner Vandermark blowing his heart out during a fiery solo, only to endlessly lug his gear from gig to gig (a memorable bit features a decrepit amp after a set at Schuba's.) The newest film in the series, Professor, centers on Holstein, a drill sergeant-like teacher of Judaism who whips himself into a frenzy offering background on the Book of Ecclesiastes or exploring the ethics of testing on animals. He's one bad dude you won't soon forget. ("You know that picture of the Israeli soldiers with guns? I love that--the sight of Jews with guns is very pleasing to me.")

Here's hoping that as the series continues Kraus will choose some women as his subjects. There's plenty of work to go around.

The Work Series screens at the Siskel Film Center, May 15-20. Kraus and Rabbi Holstein will appear in person at the May 15 screening of Professor. Check out a clip after the jump.