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Barry Gifford's memoir-in-disguise

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In the 1950s, long before he moved to Berkeley, the young Barry Gifford—then known as Barry Stein—resided in a hotel in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood with his mother and his father, an organized crime associate of that city's "Outfit." The kid didn't lead an ordinary life.

Novelist-essayist-poet-screenwriter Gifford, notable for his collaborations with David Lynch—the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990) and Lost Highway (1997)—tries something entirely different in Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago. Adapted from a volume of short stories also titled Roy's World and directed by indie filmmaker Rob Christopher, the movie gives Gifford another name and adds fictional details to what is essentially a memoir in disguise. The boy in question is simply named Roy, and his story closely parallels the writer's own history.

Gifford's father, like Roy's, spent a lot of time away from home. He preferred places like Miami, Havana, New York and Acapulco. But when he was in town Adolph "Rudy" Stein could usually be found in his pharmacy, across the street from Chicago's landmark Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue. Rudy ran a bookmaking operation in the drugstore's basement. Meanwhile Roy/Barry and his mother, a former model several years younger than her husband, toughed it out in the Chitown fast lane, and then, after the divorce, in the considerably slower lane of Rogers Park on the far North Side.

An impressionable, creative, ambitious kid in the big city, caught between a loving mother and a shtarker father, trying to figure out what to do next. With a setup like that, we might expect this coming-of-age tale to drown us in little Roy's tears, but that's not Gifford's style. Roy's World, the movie, is far from a routine gangster yarn. Introspective and judiciously sentimental, Gifford's homage to his old hometown nevertheless carves out its territory with the author's customary coolness. This is no thumbsucker.

Chicago-based director Christopher gets under the skin of the City of the Big Shoulders with a luxurious combo of period footage plus in-character voice-overs by actors Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor. Animated sequences by Lilli Caré and Kevin Askew, working in sync with Jason Adasiewicz's sophisticated '50s-style jazz score, reinforce the mood. The effect is fully nostalgic yet magically wised-up, like Roy himself.

And always, bubbling under the fun of the kid's-eye view of joy rides and Cubs games, is the unspoken possibility that at any moment one of Rudy's pals, or even the man himself, could wind up on the front page of the Sun-Times in a half-tone black-and-white tabloid crime-scene photo, slumped behind the wheel of a Cadillac. When Roy asks one of his father's friends what Rudy does for a living, he is told: "He talks to people. Your father is a great talker."

Meanwhile, precocious Roy likes to sketch and go to the movies, and we suspect he can't exactly find time to go to school. There's a poetic, almost Proustian flavor to his observations of the people around him. The "Bad Girls" segment is a creamy-dreamy interlude in which Roy comes to the conclusion that "women actually like sex." These glimpses of his wonder years are "as close to an autobiography as I want to get," insists Gifford on the phone from his Berkeley office. "It's the history of a time and place that no longer exists. Roy's World is the foundation and legacy of my writing." It's also a gratifyingly candid portrait of the artist.

"Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago" streams one day only, Friday, Sept. 18 for a full 24 hours, as part of SF DocFest, with a live Q&A featuring Gifford and Christopher at 7:45pm. Visit sfindie.com for details. Later, on Sept. 23, the two men deliver a City Lights Bookstore virtual lecture on the book that begat the film, the newly revised "Roy's World: Stories 1973-2020." The event is free; register at CityLights.com.

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