Sunday, April 29, 2012

'Away From the Things of Man': Ebertfest 2012

For the second consecutive spring, the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival wins the Good Timing Award: just as I'm feeling run down by the real world and alienated by the virtual one, along come a few days of moviegoing in the last week of April to replenish my spirits. It's a short three-hour drive from Bloomington, IN to Champaign-Urbana, IL, Ebert's hometown and where both his alma mater and the Virginia Theater reside. Panels on various aspects of filmmaking and film-watching are held in the mornings on the University of Illinois campus, while movies of Roger's choosing are screened at the 1200-seat Virginia during the afternoons and evenings.

Ebertfest is known for being a casual film festival: if anybody is selling anything (and there are inevitably one or two obnoxious examples), it's usually himself. Last year's Fest, with the "Roger Ebert Presents" TV troupe out in force, felt admittedly somewhat more businesslike than this year's, which was relaxed to my liking. Although on paper the 2012 program seemed slightly underwhelming (I changed my schedule and stayed for three days rather than the full five), I was pleasantly surprised by the movies I saw and met everybody I had hoped to meet.

The best place to meet people at Ebertfest (excluding the legendary annual "Karaoke Night," which I've yet to attend) are the panels, which are often given general titles like "The Personal and Political in Film" and "Far-Flung Correspondents: What's New Around the World" with no extra information or who the members of each panel are. (The festival's program and webpage lists panelists alphabetically.) The "Far-Flung Correspondents" panel, nimbly moderated by Omer Mozaffar, was an exciting, wide-ranging discussion of the state of film on an international scope. Highlights included Pablo Villaca's description of disruptive moviegoers in Brazil (i.e., an elderly audience member narrating Cast Away for another: "Look, Na-Na, he's making friends with the volleyball") and Scott Jordan Harris explaining a trend in the U.K. to show singalong musicals, and how during a screening of Grease one moviegoer sang along only to the shoo-bop-bop background vocals. ("I'm not sure what it says about this individual that his wildest fantasy was casting himself as the chorus in the movie.") My friend Andy Hunsucker, co-host of the IU Cinema Podcast, interviewed Harris after the panel, and I introduced myself immediately afterwards. In addition to film criticism, Harris has also written powerful and important pieces about ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), an illness he himself has. I was very glad to meet him and that he was able to attend.

Following that panel I was also lucky to meet Steven Boone, the great film critic and sociopolitical writer for Capital New York. (His pieces on the homeless in New York are essential reading.) I already knew Boone from his provocative columns and comments at The House Next Door (lots of Christopher Nolan-bashing that has endeared himself to the nerd legions), and from a shared anecdote by Jason Bellamy and Sheila O'Malley about their experience with him at a party hosted by Keith Uhlich last year. Aptly described by Jason as a "Jedi master," Steven in person is quietly formidable, soft-spoken yet highly articulate and eager to connect with others: he puts you in a better mood without seeming to do anything. I also met Jim Emerson for the first time and Odie Henderson for the second. After another panel the next morning, I had a lively discussion with Odie and Steven about the films of John Ford.

Their panel, "ON DEMAND: Movies without Theaters," moderated by Emerson, was more free-associative in its topics and featured a bit too much David Poland, who talks a good game but kept stepping on other people's lines. The main bone of contention was whether or not the theater-going experience is dead. Poland argued that the "numbers" suggest otherwise, that we're in the infancy of a new phase of moviegoing with the "on demand" experience as another dimension of it, not a replacement. This uncovered a secondary topic: Is the experience of viewing movies in our homes leading to the apparent deterioration of audience behavior in public? Nell Minow (a.k.a. "The Movie Mom") and another panelist whose name escapes me talked excitedly about movie theaters allowing the use of cell phones for calls and texting, a tactic Steven found to be "cute experiments" detouring from the real issue: as I understood it, his contention that moviegoers aren't interested in watching movies because Hollywood is making bad ones. "I refuse to blame the audience," he said, and while I don't completely agree, I do think there's enough of a change in marketing policy since the "Golden Age" of the studios - telling us what we want, rather than asking us - to take his point halfway.

The average audience member at Ebertfest is considerably older than Hollywood's target demographic, friendly and eager to chat following panels or between screenings. A retired woman named Jean asked me to nudge her if she fell asleep during A Separation (no chance for that, as it happened), and also inquired if I'd ever heard of Steak n' Shake, one of the Fest's sponsors, a central Illinois institution, and the subject of a chapter in Ebert's memoirs. (My dad hailing from Peoria, all I could do was laugh.) Occasionally the senior moviegoers validated my growing belief that their constant talking during screenings is just as toxic, if not worse, than the young'uns and their texting; both groups can't seem to help themselves. (I also opted to switch seats before one film, when a drunk middle-aged woman behind me bragged about her farting prowess to her younger cohort and offered to drape her feet over my shoulders.) Additionally, I'm not sure they're always up for the more challenging fare that Roger shows them. Ebert's review of Terri, reprinted in the festival program, prompted two different sets of attendees to decipher the meaning of the closing sentence as it were a cryptic riddle from The Da Vinci Code. Jacob Wysocki, he wrote, is "more of a John Candy than a Chris Farley, if you get what I mean." "What does that mean?" one puzzled gentleman in the theater asked loudly. The next morning, at the hotel I was staying, a woman thought she cracked it. "John Candy died of a heart attack, Chris Farley died of a drug overdose - he's saying (Wysocki) has a good head on his shoulders!" she beamed triumphantly. I think Roger (who so strongly identified with Candy he suggested in his review of Splash that he and Hanks should have switched roles) was suggesting that the young actor's melancholy was in a similar vein with the star of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It's certainly possible that Jacob Wysocki is a level-headed fellow, however - he was in attendance and stayed for several of the screenings.

I saw five movies at Ebertfest this year, a more selective, less punishing schedule than what I set for myself the previous year. The opening-night selection, Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), was the only film I had seen before, and that was twenty years ago. John Patrick Shanley's directorial debut (on the heels of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck) is frequently lumped in with the string of bombs made by Tom Hanks (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The 'Burbs, Turner & Hooch) after his first Oscar nomination for Big and before he became an American Institution with Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. I was surprised to learn that the movie did not-bad box-office ($40 million) and unsurprised that it's held up beautifully, even more striking visually on the wide Virginia Theater screen. Andy called it "a Preston Sturges movie," a befitting description of a screwball comedy about a man diagnosed with an incurable "brain cloud" who quits his soul-crushing job and flees to a remote island to jump in a volcano. Shanley's script blends the silly with the profound, giving Hanks some of the most literate, stage-like dialogue of his career (his affecting monologue to the moon, thanking God for his life, being a high point) while also giving the actor room to showcase his gift for improvisatory physical shtick. Shanley's generosity also extends to Meg Ryan, remarkably versatile in three radically different roles ("Haven't I seen you before?"), as well as to an impeccably sketched Sturgeian gallery of supporting nutballs, including a noteworthy Barry McGovern as a highly dedicated luggage salesman. ("Sounds fascinating..." he responds to news of Joe's pending journey, " a luggage problem.")

Big Fan (2009), a dark comedy starring Patton Oswalt, was undercut somewhat by Oswalt's last-minute no-show (he was scheduled to appear for a Q&A following the film and introduce the 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts & Coronets on the U of I campus later that evening). It's a good film though, another study in male-loner pathology with antecedents ranging from Taxi Driver to Observe & Report. Big Fan isn't quite as dark as those movies - it toes up to the abyss before pulling slightly back - and seems to almost willfully ignore its own ramifications, namely the homoerotic fixation Oswalt's Paul has for his idol, New York Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop. But if a few plot points aren't explored or left hanging (Kevin Corrigan is wasted as Paul's sidekick, the police investigation that develops in the movie strangely unaware of his existence), it's still a movie where scene-by-scene I had no idea what was going to happen next. As he did in Young Adult, Oswalt proves he's a good actor too, all the way to his glorious climactic line.

John Candy or no, Jacob Wysocki's performance as the titular Terri (2011), a pajama-clad, socially maladjusted teenager, is a well-drawn part of a larger duet with John C. Reilly's lightfooted turn as the high school administrator who tries to help him. As a character study, Terri is rather patchy: I can understand the developments of the movie's third-act while still wishing it had eliminated the most tiresome of its principals (you'll find out who) and gone in another direction. But it's ultimately a gentle little comedy, one that I'll no longer confuse with that John C. Reilly/Jonah Hill flick directed by the Duplass brothers.

Wild AND Weird was the general title given to ten short silent films screened in unison with musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. I was underwhelmed by the Alloy at last year's Metropolis, which paled in comparison to a new classical score performed by the Indiana University Orchestra I'd experienced only two months earlier. (During the post-Metropolis Q&A, the members of the Alloy expressed annoyance that their arrangement wasn't featured on the movie's DVD, arguing "Ours is better." No, it isn't.) But their Foley-style was much more suited to the silent shorts, including The Red Spectre (1907), which looked like a Meilies film but was actually directed by contemporaries Ferdinand Zecca and Segundo de Chomon. Many in the Ebertfest audience disliked the films and thought the screening went on too long (not good for only 80 minutes). I enjoyed it until the end, where the last two or three surreal shorts played too much like something out of David Lynch's private library.

The thunderously-acclaimed, Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film A Separation (2011) concluded my Ebertfest experience, a rare example of a creative work that is as monumental as advertised. (Lena Dunham's Girls, I'm not looking at you.) I've read descriptions of Asghar Farhadi's film as a documentary of Iranian life, when to me it plays like a legal thriller (one without lawyers, which leaves us with no filter to fall back on) that reveals aspects of a culture through genre conventions. For the most part, those conventions are ingeniously hidden from view, absorbing us entirely in a world that is largely alien through characters whose motives are conflicted and completely identifiable. It's a film about well-meaning yet intractable men (one played, with one layer skillfully on top of another, by Peyman Moadi), and different types of women: one attempting to live by the traditional patriarchal theocracy (the haunted Sareh Bayat), another looking westward and functioning as the film's conscience (Leila Hatami, who resembles a Persian Isabella Rossellini), and a third, an educated adolescent daughter (Sarina Farhadi) who functions as hope for the future. (Her climactic decision is, I think, less open-ended that it seems, but I'd be willing to discuss it in the comments, along with anything else to do with this remarkable film.) As A Separation unfolded, the woman next to me who'd worried about falling asleep sat in rapt attention, along with the rest of the hushed sell-out audience, with her body leaning toward the screen, lending credence to Boone's theory that a truly good movie will prompt a good audience response, just as bad movies are more likely to create a bad one.

Steven Boone himself, and Scott Jordan Harris, and Pablo Villaca, and so many others serve as fine examples of Roger Ebert's generosity of spirit over the years. Listen to them at Ebertfest, talk with them in person, watch Roger's film selections and watch Roger himself, for all his physical challenges, attend as much of the festivities as he can, and it's pretty clear that something special is going on and that it's an honor to be a part of it. It also makes perfectly clear how irrelevant the criticism directed at Ebert online is - the snarky tweeters ridiculing his errors and dismissing his abilities and taste fail to account for the fact that on an average day Roger, despite being heavily medicated and facing an assortment of other obstacles, writes more interesting pieces than any of them at their best could ever achieve. Roger Ebert is the increasingly rare film critic who is attentive to the finer details - the small films worth rooting for and so forth - without losing himself in them. He keeps his eye on the big picture: that it's in the sharing of those films and accompanying experiences that enables us to connect with each other. I'm grateful for my occasional contacts with him over the years, and that he's created a film festival that provides a happy respite - in Tom Hanks's stirring final words to Meg Ryan, a refrain that cements the link between Joe Versus the Volcano with The Lady Eve - "away from the things of man, my love; away from the things of man."