By Susie Allen, AB’09
Photo by Jason Smith

[Doc Films] is a unique … and a very important institution. It’s really cool to be able to be part of it and carry on its legacy. But what keeps me going back are the movies themselves.”
—Evan Chung
AB’08

Evan Chung stood in front of the boisterous crowd at Max Palevsky Cinema and began his tale of woe.

The moviegoers had come for a screening of the ’90s blockbuster Space Jam—admittedly not a highbrow offering by the standards of Doc Films, the nation’s oldest student film society. But the group’s year-end screening has evolved into an all-out celebration of movie excess and kitsch, and the audience expected to see a special surprise guest.

Chung, AB’08, had bad news for them. The guest, Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull, had suffered an injury during a performance and could not attend this year’s basketball-themed finale.

He paused. “But we shouldn’t dwell on our problems,” Chung said. “There is a much larger issue here: Benny the Bull was hospitalized!”

With that, Chung cued up a photo montage featuring pictures of Benny in action as Green Day’s misty anthem “Time of Your Life” played in the background. The audience cheered wildly, ready for a night of big-budget cinematic overkill.

From the artsy to the campy

Since its roots in the early 1930s, Doc Films has sustained a sense of moviehouse innovation and creative fun that has won the admiration and loyalty of students, community members, and Chicago cinephiles. Entirely student-run and staffed by volunteers, the series is widely known for screening an eclectic mix of popular and art-house films. The series’ Chicago premieres have included Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and the 1966 film Masculin féminin by French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard.

It may be that solid reputation as a champion of daring, cutting-edge films that gives Doc organizers the license to indulge in campy screenings like the Space Jam gala.

This was the third year that Doc Films has ended its season with what Chung calls a “big, bombastic blockbuster” from the ’90s. The tradition began with Jurassic Park in 2008 and continued with Independence Day in 2009. The screenings are a zany way of celebrating the end of an ambitious academic-year schedule that includes movies every night of the week, as well as special events and premieres.

The end-of-year blowouts were never intended to become an annual event. After The Land Before Time attracted a large crowd, Chung began to realize that Jurassic Park, the last film in his dinosaur-themed “Cinemasaurus” series, might do the same. To add to the excitement, he booked an orchestra to play the film’s theme, and invited Prof. Paul Sereno to speak. “The turnout was beyond our wildest dreams,” he says. With that, a tradition was born.

The trick, Chung says, is finding a movie that works well on the big screen but also invites viewer nostalgia. Mrs. Doubtfire has nostalgia, but doesn’t improve on the big screen; Lord of the Rings is too recent to have sentimental value. “There’s a balancing act,” he says.

‘I believe I can fly’

Nostalgia was a common theme among the students who turned out for Space Jam. As the night went on, the audience sang along to the movie’s theme song, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”

“The soundtrack was one of the first CDs I owned,” said Ilya Shwartzburg, AB’10. “‘Fly Like an Eagle’? Permanently burned into my brain.”

“It was one of my favorite movies as a kid, so to see it on the big screen is great … There’s nostalgia for sure,” agreed third-year Liane Rousseau.

For some, seeing Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes on the big screen had even greater significance. “It’s a very important historical—no, religious—event,” said one student on his way to the theater.

“This is a sign they should make Space Jam 2,” observed another who saw the line for the event winding out the door of Ida Noyes Hall.

A Unique Institution

Though Doc has never been hesitant to embrace the goofy side of cinema, it’s more than fun and games. Visitors to Doc have included everyone from Spike Lee to Woody Allen to Alfred Hitchcock, and alums who helped organize the series include New York Times film critic Dave Kehr, AB’75, and Paramount President of Production Marc Evans, AB’89.

No less than Roger Ebert has praised Doc’s commitment to screening legendary directors’ films unavailable even on DVD. “It says something about DVD producers, but even more about Doc Films,” Ebert wrote in 2008.

“It’s a unique institution and a very important institution,” agrees Chung. “It’s really cool to be able to be part of it and carry on its legacy. But what keeps me going back are the movies themselves.”

Originally published on July 12, 2010.