I can't sleep so I lay awake listenin' to the sounds of the city below
I get dressed and walk the streets but I got nowhere to go
Tonight it's you I miss
Bruce Springsteen, “Someday”
“Hey, Maddux. Promise me this: Teach them as well as you taught us.”
It was a cheesy line and I knew it when I said it and I knew he would call me on it. The “them” I was referring to were the high school students out West who had no clue of the force of nature they were about to experience: a motorcycle-driving, leather jacketed John Belushi doppelganger with the late Blues Brother’s similar kind of dangerous energy and devastating comic timing. “Us” was the core of his first generation of student minds he molded and trained to interpret the confusing and perilous imagery of adolescence and transfer it into the language of film and video.
Chris had done his job with us and he was moving on. His wife, dog and worldly possessions were all packed into his big blue van parked in front of his just-sold house, about to begin the long drive from Southeastern Wisconsin to the Utah badlands, where he would eventually settle in Park City. It was Fall 1987, and by that time, a rather obscure film festival called Sundance was spending its sixth year in Park City. In two years, the festival would be put on the map with sex, lies and videotape, written by a 24-year-old former music video director named Steven Soderbergh. When Soderbergh’s film became the breakout hit of 1989, winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes and anointing its creator the youngest director to ever do so, it ushered in what Roger Ebert would later call “the Sundance Generation”: Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Charles Burnett, Todd Haynes, Jenni Livingston, Julie Dash, Hal Hartley, Tom Kalin, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, Victor Nuňez, Leslie Harris, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, David O. Russell, Steve James, Terry Zwigoff, Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Yates, Ed Burns, James Wan, Darren Aronofsky, Tom DiCillo, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz, Mary Harron, Neil LaBute. And that’s just the short list.
All of these directors had one thing in common: they made gritty and personal films that borrowed from Hollywood film language while at the same time subverting them. I followed the careers of most of the above listed and the auteurs who inspired them because of the teachings and passions that Chris both installed and stoked. He was a proudly blue-collar wild child of the 1960s who managed the Film and Video Department (then anonymously lumped under the rubric “Communications”) at The Prairie School, a prestigious private college prep institution in the tony community of Windpoint. He did this between 1981 and 1987, and he created his own irreverent world within the walls of an institution built by Frank Lloyd Wright and Associates to educate children of Johnson’s Wax executives. About a half a mile to the north was the verdant orchard housing Wingspread, another Wright-designed astral plane that was once the home of JW magnate Herbert Johnson and his family. A mile east of that was the Mediterranean-style villa of the late heir Sam Johnson, complete with priceless view of Lake Michigan and helicopter pad.
You remember the faces, the places, the names
You know it's never over
It's relentless as the rain
Bruce Springsteen, “Adam Raised A Cain”
The Prairie School itself was an elaborate Wrightian vision of red-brick whorls and circles, laid out like a giant Danish roll that had been slightly dissembled, with swooping round semi-lit hallways and wooden lockers with no locks. Christopher Maddux ran the “Comm” Department from a studio nestled secretly and strategically behind the school’s Performing Arts Theater. The space resembled a public access studio or soundstage from the early days of television. It had grey cinder-block walls covered by sheets of grim black curtains on metal rails. From the high ceiling hung a dense forest of parallipshere, ellipsoidal and scoop lights. There were two TV cameras hooked up to a primitive switching machine located in the “booth,” in which where sat TV screens and at least two giant WW II surplus ¾ inch editing machines.
The Boss, mid-1980s
When I first came to Prairie School in the winter of 1983, Chris would hold court early in the mornings before class from behind his small desk jammed next to a ratty, puke-green wooden loveseat. Here his students would assemble like clockwork, the invite always open yet unspoken. At least six or seven languid teenaged bodies would be prostrated around his desk like a pimpled shrine, Calculus or Earth Sciences books open, corn nuts spilled on floor, paper footballs whizzing back and forth. Chris juggled the phone like Harvey Weinstein, his lesson plans and the honorary morning donuts respectfully presented to him au gratis, all the while keeping up a constant spatter of jokes, digs, insults, hard-won praises, bon mots and hilarious recollections from his past—the darker and more twisted the better. I am thinking in particular of the one he told of accidentally using his wife’s toothbrush that morning—“It tasted all oniony,” was his horrified review as we howled and covered our faces with our books. Then Chris would flip the ever-present blue football up in the air and whip it at us.
The atmosphere in that cramped box before the institutional drudgery of the Ordinary School Day began was something I have prized every day of my life for nearly three decades. It was essentially a morning radio show with no microphones (those were packed away in little leather purses in the studio). Call it “Mad Man Maddux and His Morning Gross-Out Zoo,” where the invective and opinions and put-downs and juvenalia flew so fast and furious – like the tennis balls in the studio “gladiator” matches or the paper clips during the dreaded “Vietnam Experience”* – that one had to develop a thick skin and a fast witty tongue in order to stay afloat. Some couldn’t keep up—I often couldn’t. Chris’s very presence was pure physicality – he was lighter than both Belushis and twice as graceful when he wanted to be, even when picking me up, hefting me over his shoulder and shaking me like a rag doll – but I always admired his verbal abilities. He was quicker than an eyeblink with his words and he could be merciless on people he did not respect (mostly, phonies and their flunkies). It was like walking into the writer’s room of Saturday Night Live during the early days and finding oneself in the best comedy fighting force ever assembled. To be given an exclusive invitation to one of Chris’ epic road trips down to Swiderski Electronic Repair in suburban Chicago was like being given an invitation to one of Lorne Michael’s “White Parties.” On one of these excursions, I only remember laughing so hard I cried, hiccupped, peed, hallucinated.
*On a bet, if anyone dropped the blue football, the dropper would have to crawl underneath all six rows of heavy typewriting desks with a tight wooden hanger clamped on his skull while the other players shot paperclips at them from strategic locations. Every bit as fun as it sounds.
What Chris assembled at Prairie from the unmolded clay of “Us” was a fighting force of nerd-os and twitchy misfits that handled Audio/Visual duties of the school, the Sound and Lighting at Theatrical Events and occasionally were dispatched throughout the city and its environs as guerilla filmmakers, dragging the school’s one remote camera in its hernia-popping grey case into fields and basements and the front rooms of our parents’ homes. Thanks to Chris, we became snobby film artistes before many of us could legally drive. He showed us Cabaret and Koyanisquatsi. He stood in front of us and told us: “You are the cream of the crop.” (I saw he wrote this in his lesson plan, with at least ten exclamation points added to it.) He taught us the vernacular of people like Spielberg and Kubrick and as a result I remember watching every film during that period with heightened sensitivities: “Dude, look at that great tracking shot!” “Wow, that deep focus Welles is using is amazing!” “Who edited this? Some Dede Allen wannabe?”
"It will always be Maddux's room. ALWAYS."
You can probably guess by now that Chris Maddux wasn’t your normal private-school teacher. He was a Thief in the Temple. He knew we were privileged sons of Windpoint and he set out to remind us of the way the world works and how much of that has nothing to do with the bank account you are born from. We got full of ourselves and procrastinated or compromised our visions and Chris would crack the whip on us. (I remember him dictating to me my own Semester Progess Report: ‘Dear Mrs. Duersten: Here’s why I’m a knob and didn’t finish my Communications Project…’) He also knew we were hurting terribly from our various teenage dramas, most of them involving disintegrating families and lack of father figures – from death or living absence – that were as endemic to our generation as they were to his. He walked the line between tough love and true affection masterfully. He was the living rebuke to that old adage that in order to be an effective educator, you can’t be a buddy to your students. Chris proved that wrong the moment he stepped up to his first podium.
Yeah, on the other side of the street
Yeah, you've got the look as if you own the world
Bruce Springsteen, “Wrong Side of the Street"
How on earth did he get away with it? He could speak our language and then spin around on one foot and talk the talk of school administration passionately and convincingly. In essence, here was a rock and roll kid from neighboring Kenosha who had turned himself away from the fate of most rock and roll kids from Kenosha. We met some of them one night when we were working late in the studio. Maddux invited some old friends in to show them a video we had all wrote, scripted, storyboarded, lit, filmed and edited together. They were rough biker types, some wearing Army jackets and others in bandannas and handlebar moustaches. Chris stood out among them like an alien from suburbia— yet they coalesced around him the way his students did. We realized later a lot of them were Vietnam vets, and that explained the guarded look in their eyes. That explained the Harley-Davidson and leather jacket Chris drove/wore to school some mornings. That explained the Springsteen on the studio hi-fi he blasted and sang along with in comic operatic style: “ohhh-whoooaaa-whooooahhha thuunderr roooad, OHHHH THUNDEEER ROOOADDDDD….”
I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me
Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”
We were as fiercely protective of him as he was us; we clamored around his ankles like hormonal, eager-to-please puppies. He kept us safe from the deadening bureaucracy of private school life and let us run our freak flag up a pole every time we turned on a camera. I remember discerning when the powers that be (such as they were) in the school administration were becoming worriedly aware of the tight-knit group “Mr. Maddux” (we never called him “Chris”—at least not in the early days) had developed. I was sitting in a school official’s office and he was asking me of my plans for my senior year. I told him I wanted to pursue my studies in Advanced Communications. “Oh well now,” the offical clucked dismissively, “I’m sure Mr. Maddux wants some new blood in there, Matt. Maybe you should shift your focus towards blahblahblah…” (He didn’t really say “blahblahblah” but that’s what I heard after he said what he just said.) I went to Chris and he nearly blew his stack. He assured me that nothing could be further from the truth. He told me he had made an investment in me—in all of us—and then went on to say a few things about the school official of which no polite ears should ever have to bear the repeating. He knew we weren’t all going to grow up to be filmmakers or screenwriters or MTV video directors and we knew it too; it was the investment of the soul he was speaking of, not the tools it would eventually control. Chris went that deep and could do it in a millisecond.
So when I said that cheesy, Hallmark-movie-of-the-week thing to him in the driveway—“Make me a promise” or something like that, lost to time—I realized I finally got him. He paused—no, actually, he froze in his tracks and looked at me. The bravado and imposture was gone and the man was there in the dark eyes, looking like he was about to seriously lose it. But he didn’t. He got in his van and lit out for Utah, where he would go on to perfect his educating and political talents for a new generation of nerd-os and twitchy misfits at the Park City High School. He would even found his own film festival in Park City, a quintessential Madduxian retort to the hyperactive-hyper-hype of Sundance. I smiled when I found this out. The thief was in the temple again.
He never promised me anything, by the way. He didn’t have to.
And baby there's time
Time enough to cry
With all our sad stories
And all the bad that we've done
And all the times
We've rode on for glory
Bruce Springsteen, “Spanish Eyes”