Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ebertfest Day 3: 45365, Me and Orson Welles, Only You

"I don't think people read film criticism. I think people read film critics." - Matt Z. Seitz

This day, the Third of Ebertfest, is my last in Champaign-Urbana for the week, though the festivities will continue through Saturday and early Sunday. Saturday's screenings include a couple of documentaries I'm not that interested in (A Small Act and Life, Above All) and a pair of fictional films that I've already seen (Leaves of Grass and I Am Love). I have no major regrets about bolting a day early, apart from missing Tilda Swinton's appearance on Saturday evening. I'll see her at our wedding, though. And it would have been nice to catch the closing film, Louder Than a Bomb, co-directed by Jon Siskel, nephew of the great Gene. I'll extend my visit next year.

Additionally, I will plan on booking my lodgings early enough to stay at the Illini Union, albeit my lateness in doing so this year may have caught me an unintended break. For reasons many C-U denizens have trouble comprehending, the annual Illini Marathon is being held on Saturday, overlapping with Ebertfest and adding another 20,000 visitors to the 14K that the Festival already provides. Traffic will reportedly be closed through much of campus, where the marathon passes through, but because the Hamptom lies just north of the race, it looks like I may be able to get home.

I've neglected to mention the panels here at Ebertfest, which have been quite enjoyable despite the punishing early morning start times. The Thursday 9 a.m. panel, titled "Personal Stories in Film," featured some interesting discussion -- particularly from Michael Phillips and Kristin Thompson -- on the tension between personal and commercial product in cinema and served as a prelude to a few of the Festival's offerings. After the panel I spoke with Thompson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, along with her husband David Bordwell (who was unfortunately ill and unable to attend), co-proprietor of the brilliant blog Observations on Film Art, and told her the high regard that readers (myself included) have for her and Bordwell's stimulating online discourses. She said that that was good to hear, that at times she and David felt like they were writing in a void. Yet when I suggested that opening the comments on their site might remedy that feeling, Thompson recoiled like I'd offered her a snake. "Oh, no no no no..." she said. It never ceases to amaze me how smart people consistently fail to take advantage of opportunities of their own creation.

The first Friday morning panel, "Ebert Presents: Reinventing the TV Show in the Digital Age," was quite good considering how hungover most of the panelists appeared. Moderated by Chaz Ebert, with Roger in attendance, the folks at the table featured the stars of the new "At the Movies," the very tall Ignatiy Vishnevestsky and the very short Christy Lemire, along with a rogue's gallery of contributors that included David Poland (whose laptop appeared to be attached by umbilical cord), Dann Gire, and Matt Zoller Seitz. However, the topic became more about the state of film criticism itself when Gire (whose name rhymes with either "fear" or "dire") went off on an apocalyptic tangent about the Evils of Rotten Tomatoes, and Matt responded with the quote that kicks off this post. After Christy-L and Iggy-V offered some climactic banter, I joined the congregation at the microphone and eventually asked the panel if they ever feel pressure to conform to the general consensus about a movie. I was pleased that Chaz liked my question so much that she asked it to every panelists down the table, though it ran time over enough for one of the Ebertfest people to warn Chaz that "Norman Jewison is waiting" for the next discussion to start.

Finally, the movies themselves began with 45365 (2009), a lovely documentary from brothers Bill and Turner Ross about a year in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio. I don't know if it was intended, but the film has an Altmanesque quality, from the large ensemble to the overlapping dialogue to frequent use of the pan-and-zoom. (I was also reminded of Do The Right Thing, in the central figure of a white DJ equivalent to Mister Senor Love Daddy.) Outside afterwards, an attendee complained that the movie didn't show enough economic hardship. I would counter that the Ross Bros are not miserabilists but impressionists; I'm not sure what other impression one could take from the quietly affecting sequence of a man's prison sentence beginning by being cuffed and chained by a polite court officer, but I definitely have mine.

The day concluded with a pair of minor films from major filmmakers, both of whom were in attendance. Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles (2008), starring Zac Efron as an eager teenager who partakes in Welles's 1937 production of Julius Caesar, is one of those movies that thinks the most authentic way to depict "The 30s" is by goosing us with nonstop Big Band music and encouraging its cast to talk archly out of the sides of their mouths like a high school production of Give My Regards To Broadway. Linklater's movie is a harmless trifle (strictly Newton Boys territory); Christian McKnight's terrific performance as Welles, more than that.

Norman Jewison's Only You (1994), also an inoffensive time-waster, stars Marisa Tomei as a true-love free-spirit nonsensically about to marry a boring podiatrist until she encounters Robert Downey, Jr. in Italy and believes him to be The One. Jewison's foray into Nora Ephron territory adds to this rough outline a couple of decent twists that I won't spoil for anyone, and whenever the plot starts to flatline Bonnie Hunt, as Tomei's unhappily married sister-in-law, pops in to ad-lib a nifty zinger. Tomei's comic timing, though, is a half-beat too slow for Downey (and a full beat too slow for Hunt), and the two never really connect. Needless to say, the director of In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck has done better things, but it was worth watching the movie just to see Jewison in person (both at the earlier panel and the post-screening Q&A), his memory slipping a little but otherwise looking pretty damned fit for 84 years old.

Ebert's own health sort of became the elephant in the room, one which I want to briefly address. Sitting next to me at one screening was a young woman named Jenny, who confessed that she decided to come to Ebertfest all the way from Washington, D.C. because she didn't know how much time he might have left. She apologized if that sounded badly, and I apologize if it comes across as morbid on the page, but I told her that I understood what she meant. Roger may well outlive all of us, clearly the last thing he wants is to be sentimentalized or pitied, and he won't be getting either from me. Having said that, I think it's good that people feel compelled to celebrate him now -- to celebrate movies with him, to let him know how much he means to them, has meant to them for a long time.

Plenty of articles lately have attributed the loss of Ebert's speaking voice with his "finding a voice" online, but what's never recognized is that Roger has always had an online presence. He created his own online film forum on CompuServe in the late 90s (I know, I was there [briefly]), when nearly every other print critic was pooh-poohing the Internet. As Richard Linklater reminded us, Roger has always been fascinated by technology as well: he said he met Ebert 25 years ago at a college in Hawaii, watched him use a laser-disc copy of Citizen Kane to analyze the film with students frame-by-frame. Linklater called it "my equivalent of film school."

What has made Roger Ebert so vital to film criticism for more than 40 years is his ability to employ new technology (television, laser-disc, the Internet, CereProc voice software) in such a way that he makes his real-world presence even more essential. Yet many film critics and film scholars still don't get it. They think it's an either-or scenario -- choose tradition or choose the future -- and so they become Little Dutch Boys with their fingers in the dyke. Having just seen eight movies over an exhausting three days, I can truly say that I respect what film critics do more than ever, and I'll be more understanding the next time one of them makes a mistake. But I also believe that film critics continue to be their own worst enemies, that if they would stop whining about Rotten Tomatoes and circling the wagons every time a gaggle of immature prepubescents takes umbrage at something they've written -- that if they'd stop embracing martyrdom and start connecting with a potential audience, then Yes, Virginia, some of them just may find their voices too.


Steven Santos said...

I've really enjoyed reading about your time there and hope to attend myself some time. But, I particularly want to say what you express in the last 3 paragraphs is spot-on and the survival of any serious film criticism is going to depend on how many of them get it.

Craig said...

Thanks, Steven. I didn't mean to single out Kristin Thompson earlier in the piece as an example of what I wrote later. At least she and Bordwell put themselves out there. My question is why they won't let anything come back in.

It'll be great to see you at Ebertfest sometime. Some of the New Yorkers I've encountered here are weirdly tribal; one, when I came over to say hello, nearly jumped out of his skin. That terrifying midwestern friendliness.

Adam Zanzie said...

Sounds like you had a fun time, Craig. Wish I could have been there.

I'm not sure how I'll react when (if) I ever get to meet Ebert in person. Does he talk to people through his voice machine, or does he not say anything at all when people greet him? I kept asking myself this question when I was at Sundance, in case he would ever show up (though he never did; I'm not sure he even attended Sundance this year).

I guess this year I would have most wanted to be at Ebertfest to a) meet any of you guys who were there, b) try to meet Ebert, or c) attend Jewison's Q & A. Sounds like he's still fun to listen to at 84, though I hope his memory isn't slipping! I've always hoped he'd try to find time to make another film since his last movie, The Statement (2003), was just kind of "meh". It was fun seeing Michael Caine playing a murderous Nazi war criminal in that movie, but there wasn't much of a point to it all.

Aww, I like Only You! Though I must confess part of my admiration for it stems from the fact that I more orless grew up with it... it came out when I was 3 years old, and my parents used to watch it endlessly on home video. For some reason the fortune teller always crept me out; I guess it was because of the way she menacingly pulls Faith towards her after Faith tries to flee the tent. Actually, as a romantic comedy, I sort of prefer it to Moonstruck, a movie I enjoy but which I've always found to be pretty smug -- the John Patrick Shanley screenplays basically exonerates Cher's infidelity by revealing the Danny Aiello fiancee to be a momma's boy. Only You deals with the infidelity theme more appropriately, I think: Faith realizes that her fiancee is not the man she's looking for, and simply calls off her wedding. Jewison's homages to William Wyler and Summertime-era David Lean are cool, too.

It's not really grade A- material and in terms of Jewison's 1990's output it's got nothing on something as excellent as The Hurricane, and yet I still have a sneaky affection for it -- it's as good as most modern-day romantic comedies get. My mother considers Moonstruck, Only You and Dinner With Friends to all be among her favorite movies, but I'm always telling her that Jewison's serious material is even better. I still can't get her to finish Agnes of God because it disturbed her too much!

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. Ebert gestured when I spoke with him, and I saw him use a pen and pad with Norman Jewison (whose warm embrace of Roger and calling him "My old friend" was one of the Fest's most touching moments) before the panel session. He used his voice machine during his introduction of the Festival; that was the only time I saw him use it.

Actually, as a romantic comedy, I sort of prefer it to Moonstruck, a movie I enjoy but which I've always found to be pretty smug -- the John Patrick Shanley screenplays basically exonerates Cher's infidelity by revealing the Danny Aiello fiancee to be a momma's boy.

Only You is a romantic comedy; Moonstruck is a screwball comedy, an all but extinct genre killed by Nora Ephron, Meg Ryan, Nancy Meyers, and Julia Roberts. Each character finds his or her right partner -- Cher with Cage, Aiello with his mother -- and welcomes each other into the family. Nobody's left out in the cold. "Exonerate adultery?" C'mon, man, this isn't Unfaithful.

Craig said...

Also, Adam, far as Ebertfest goes -- there's always next year. Bellamy's already half-committed. Seeing you and Steven there would be very cool too.

Adam Zanzie said...

Lol... I haven't even seen Unfaithful (can't stand Adrian Lyne). Still... I've always thought it was cheap of Shanley to lift some weight off the emotional burden of Cher's choice by making Aiello a momma's boy. He chooses his mother, but at the same time it's rather pathetic that he'd make such a choice; whenever the movie ends, I can't help but focus on him cowering in the corner of the dining room while Cher and Cage are rejoicing. While the grandfather does come over and invite him into "the family", to me it's always been of little solace.

Shanley handles that love triangle between Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney far more effectively, actually. I love the moment when Dukakis tells Gardenia to "stop seeing her" (his mistress) and, after pounding the table, he gives in. The movie's definitely a screwball comedy, as you say, but somehow I wish the whole movie were as gripping as that one little moment.

Might be able to attend Ebertfest next year; hopefully the Spring 2012 semester won't hold me back.

Craig said...

I always took it that Cher and Aiello were wrong for each other from the start (It's pretty obvious he's a mamma's boy from the start), that she's settling for the hum-drum, yet a hum-drum individual depicted more like a person than just a choice (like the easily disposable podiatrist in "Only You"). That's part of the fun of the movie -- undercutting the "stay with your own age group" reasoning of most romantic comedies (Nancy Meyers's, more recently) and pairing Cher with a guy 17 years her junior.

I do agree that Gardenia, Dukakis and Mahoney are wonderful, as are Julie Bovasso and Luis Guss, and Feodor Chaliapan's priceless doubletakes as the grandfather. ("I'm confused.")

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