Eve Moran, a former President of The Cliff Dwellers and student of Roger Ebert’s, puts Michael Kutza’s contribution to film and the arts in Chicago in a broad perspective.

Michael Kutza 2022

  Michael Kutza

He was only in his early 20s when Michael Kutza founded the long running Chicago International Film Festival. In this talk at The Cliff Dwellers, he tells tales from his book Starstruck of his lifelong love of films and his work to bring them and their celebrities to Chicago.  He explains how it all got started in 1964 with help from Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet and silent film star Coleen Moore Hargrove.  He also recalls many of the stars and directors who turned up over the years, and which politicians pitched in to make the whole largely volunteer affair happen again and again every fall in Chicago.

Eve Moran Introduction of Michael Kutza

Welcome to The Cliff Dwellers.  Let’s buckle up for a wild and crazy ride.  Allow me first this little introduction.  I like to call it “setting the scene.”

Film is story on a grand scale. And, we deeply need to see and hear stories.  Certainly, those coming from our own backyard.  But, more importantly, those coming from the larger world.  This experience of other cultures makes us richer in thought – and bigger in heart.

Michael Kutza is the one:

  • Who opened a wide door to world cinema.
  • Who changed the scenery and the vibe to help make Chicago an international city.
  • Who put Chicago on the map as a cultural destination, a place for an opening of mind and appreciation of international film.

Yes, Kutza made Chicago larger and the world smaller.

And the big names came.  Stanley Kramer, Bette Davis, King Vidor and Otto Preminger were among the first, soon followed by Sophia Loren, James Earl Jones, Liza Minnelli, Pam Grier, Lord Richard Attenborough, and scores of other film greats too many to mention.  The gifted, but yet unknown, were invited too.  Now familiar names such as: Bill Friedkin, Martin Scorcese and Taylor Hackford, were showcased at the festival very early in their careers.

Films came from Belgium, Italy, Argentina, India, Japan, the once USSR and a host of other countries. And yes, it was a bit bewildering when subtitles, other than English, appeared on screen. But hey, we still sat and watched to the end.  Then we went to off to piano bars on Oak street to discuss the haunting elegance in the works of Indian autuer Satyajit  Ray, or to mine the hidden depth of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff.  

Kutza was ever-present, orchestrating screenings, openings, award presentations, honors and dedications. He had a big tent that elevated the art of short films, educational films, documentaries, television commercials and animation. Kutza engaged with film students and carved out new initiatives such as the Films for Children competition and a New Director’s series.

Our own Roger Ebert, a Pulitzer-prize winning film critic in 1975 and a dear past member of The Cliff Dwellers, also played an important role. Among other things, he served the Festival as a program speaker and jury member, and readers of his newspaper reviews (myself included) were given clues as to the films that would most excite them.

Now comes the book!  Starstruck is packed with black and white photos.  Great shots of celebrities we know or wanted to know and full of little stories about Kutza’s experiences with the festival.

This book reawakens memories for me of long-gone people and places.  Telling of times:

  • When our fair city was nothing like today.
  • When there was (my goodness) a Chicago Censor Board,
  • When few foreign films were being shown or attended.
  • When public officials had to be persuaded to embrace the film arts.
  • When art was, even as it is today, at the mercy of commercial interests.
  • When the festival had Kutza constantly traveling far and away.
  • When there was no cell phone, no email and yes, no frequent flyer miles.

We need also remember that there was also no Sundance, or Toronto, or Telluride, or Tribeca when Kutza’s dream took hold in 1964, the time when this city’s young champion of film arts founded what is now the oldest competitive international film festival in North America.  And he stood at its helm for over 50 years.  This is something to be celebrated!

And so, please help me welcome Michael Kutza.