Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Tonight at 8:30 pm, and Saturday 11 February, at 9:30 pm, WILL-TV, Channel 12, presents the half-hour documentary "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?"

It was produced by the U of I Department of Journalism's student documentary unit and is one of the several films that have come out of Professor Jerry M. Landay's course on the documentary.

This is no "Saturday Night Fever." In fact, the film investigates the lack of Saturday Night Fever in the last decades, the absence of the excitement and activities that one were so common at the end of the week, when people crowded downtown in cities across America. They shopped (it was the only free time for many), went to restaurants and cafes, lined up outside movie theaters, went dancing to Big Band music or, in still earlier days, watched live entertainment in variety or vaudeville theaters.

Using interviews, film clips, old photographs and other sources, "Whatever Happened" concentrates on downtown Champaign in the olden days, but clearly shows that this East Central Illinois town was like a host of other places. This is history, nostalgia, reverse time-travel and information rolled into one, along with revealing or amusing anecdotes.

There is a nice feeling when you see what Champaign looked like at different periods, and for some older people, a kind of warm glow at watching those "simpler" and more leisurely days.

The film answers its title question sensibly and correctly. Since the bottom line is the decline of downtowns, it addresses the reasons for this.

Saturday night went from a set of mostly public, group events that gave the community a sense of togetherness, to more individual activities. The main causes are clear. After World War II the automobile increased mobility; the migration to suburbia also destroyed the old concept of neighborhood; television kept people (especially older ones) at home; peripheral shopping centers and malls, and extended store hours, un-concentrated the public.

The film, co-produced by Jamie Flaherty and Bill Poorman, involved several collaborators who worked hard on research, interviews, photography and editing. The concept came years ago to Ms. Flaherty (who has a predestined name, since Robert Flaherty of "Nanook of the North" fame, is the father of the American documentary), as she watched, in Racine, Wis. the hubbub of locals getting ready for Saturday night entertainment.

This fine documentary also makes two indirect but most important points. As it will get on the circuit of PBS stations, it shows how indispensable a "home" and a sponsor Public Television is for works that otherwise would have no outlets. And it is a lesson to those of us who handle any kind of cameras. There is an enormous need to keep recording life and places in our communities, simple things like buildings, streets, shops, cars or people in routine activities. What today looks commonplace -- even uninteresting -- will be a precious record for future times.