Sunday, April 28, 2013

Our Everything: Ebertfest 2013

There was no shipwreck, and the audience came willingly, to the Isle of Champaign-Urbana, IL, for a celebration with the master of ceremonies conspicuously absent. Yet I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought of Shakespeare's Tempest, and not just because of the impact of the weather. We weren't going anywhere for a few days - the 24-plus-hour rainstorm actually kept some folks away, or delayed their arrival - but the 15th annual Ebertfest carried more than a tinge of Prospero's benediction as Roger's posthumous farewell.

I have no idea if Roger in his final months, weeks or days knew his time was short. Nevertheless, his selections for this year's festival suggest that the end of things was very much on his mind. (Even the funniest film was about a mortician.) His wife, Chaz Ebert, who once again emceed wonderfully, led off by asking us, at Roger's request, to stand and sing a version of "Those Were the Days, My Friend," with lyrics slightly altered by Ebert himself while he was in the hospital, shortly before his death. The melancholy vibe persisted through the opening films: Grace Wang's short I Remember, about a young woman who finds a note from her ex in her shirt pocket (afterward, Chaz said that she had just opened her eyeglasses case and discovered an old note from Roger); and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, a film imbued with a sense of faded memory. The appearance of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom this year's Ebertfest was dedicated (and who supplied "additional photography" to Days), livened things up somewhat. A spry 91-years-old, Wexler still moves with the gait of a gazelle and remains as pugnacious as ever. At a panel discussion the following morning about breaking into filmmaking, after hearing a young director mention that he lost 50 pounds during the making of his first movie, Wexler replied to the audience, "Don't confuse having a career with having a life."

Thursday's screenings kicked off with another short, Sophie Kohn and Feike Santbergen's To Music, which had thematic similarities before the early-afternoon main attraction: Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh. To Music included a supporting role by Paul Cox, who directed Vincent. I wish I liked the Van Gogh movie more. A documentary of sorts, Cox's film features non-stop voiceover from John Hurt, reading Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo. I knew we were in for it when, after ten minutes of hearing Hurt's narration set to images of the artist's paintings, along with at-times unintentionally hilarious subjective camerawork (a few scenes reminded me of Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead movies), I realized, with mounting horror, that the entire movie was going to be like this, and that there was more than an hour-and-a-half to go. I didn't hate Vincent like I did My Dog Tulip, the hideous animated film (with voice-work by Christopher Plummer) from the 2011 Ebertfest. (In a tweet that got me blackballed by the @Ebertfest twitterfeed two years ago - this year I got reinstated, on apparent probation - I quoted the Tulip director's professed belief that "Dogs are nothing more than piss and shit, and I wanted to make a movie that reflected this," with my own added sentiment, "Mission accomplished.") But Cox's movie wore me out so much that I unwisely skipped the next film, Patrick Wang's three-hour domestic drama In the Family, hands-down the audience favorite of the festival. I have vowed to catch up with it the first chance I get.

The day concluded, amid a torrent of rain, with Richard Linklater's Bernie, starring Jack Black in the true-story-based black comedy about a mortician's hairpin-turning friendship with a wealthy, mean-spirited widow (played by Shirley MacLaine) in Carthage, Texas. I called Bernie a little overrated in my 2012 wrap-up, but now I think I underrated the movie. It's another terrific addition to Linklater's unpredictable body of work, one that deftly weaves farce with pathos, real documentary with the fake kind, and even becomes something of a musical, drawing an analogy between Bernie's spell over the citizens of Carthage with the con-artistry of Henry Higgins in The Music Man. The festival audience, however, had a curious reaction to Jack Black, laughing uproariously during the opening scene where Bernie instructs a group of students how to prepare a corpse, as if the actor were indulging in wacky shtick. It's a serious performance, by far Black's best.

On Friday the rain turned to sleet and a few flurries, and the tenor of the films went from grim to grimmer. Oslo, August 31st was a patently cheery Scandinavian import about the harrowing day in the life of a drug addict. The movie was well-made, especially the sound design in a scene where Anders, the main character (played by Anders Danielsen Lie)l, quietly overhears various conversations in a coffee shop, and I admired the film's refusal to set up the surrounding characters as easy bad guys (or gals) to blame for the protagonist's troubles. During a confrontation between Anders and a man who slept with his ex-girlfriend, I thought, "If they have a fistfight, then this is a bad movie." They didn't. It's a good movie. But not one I particularly enjoyed or ever want to see again. Nor am I eager to revisit The Ballad of Narayama, a 1958 Japanese film in what David Bordwell described as the "Dumping Granny" genre, based on a legend where old people, upon turning the age of 70 (Ebert's age when he passed away), are taken up to the ancient equivalent of a retirement community - a cold, lonely, skeleton-littered mountain, where they stay to die. Purposefully artificial, Narayama has the look and feel of a Kabuki play, with transitions so astounding that at one point, when a painted backdrop was suddenly pulled down like a clothesline to reveal a new setting, my friend Andy Hunsucker, who was sitting with me, and I simultaneously gasped. It's a striking film, but as John Simon would say, it bummed me out, man. I passed on Julia, starring Tilda Swinton, and called it a day.

Yet Tilda, as it turned out, didn't pass on us. On Saturday the sun came out, and the mood brightened. That morning's panel on video essays, deftly moderated by Omer Mozaffar and featuring a few familiar names and faces - David Bordwell, Steven Boone, Sheila O'Malley, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Kevin B. Lee - was the best panel I've attended in the three years I've been to Ebertfest, and not just because David Poland wasn't around to start arguments with everyone. All of the aforementioned have done great work pioneering this still new form of film criticism, and I look forward to seeing what they do next. (It was nice to finally meet Sheila, a wonderful writer and critic - nobody writes better about actors - and supporter of one of my first film pieces on Matt's former website. Another highlight occurred when the esteemed scholar Bordwell, whom I met last year, introduced me to Omer as a "film freak." There is no higher compliment.)

Four movies were on the docket for the day, and I caught three of them. Blancanieves, a modern silent film and update of the Snow White myth, directed with deep affection by Pablo Berger, is, much more than The Artist, a true attempt to recreate the style of silent-era cinema while also gently undermining our expectations. Escape from Tomorrow, my favorite movie of the festival, is the Sundance-buzzed Disney World satire, filmed surreptitiously at the theme park and almost certainly doomed to a non-release. Directed by Randy Moore, who captured what I admired about the film at the post-Q&A ("I knew I didn't want to make another 'found-footage' movie" - amen, brother: several of your film's startling images are still lodged in my brain), Escape follows the beleaguered patriarch of a family down a jauntily sinister rabbit hole into a surrealist take on the consequences behind the American obsession of being happy all the time. The complaint from Sundance was the film's length, but the Ebertfest version - trimmed from 104 minutes down to 90 - felt just right to me. (If and when Escape from Tomorrow goes wide, the Cahiers-wannabees on Twitter will inevitably torpedo the film in response to its hype. I'm glad I got to see it before they ruined it.)

My final screening, The Spectacular Now (not the last movie of the Festival - noon Sunday's Not Yet Begun to Fight), almost made me bolt in its opening five minutes, one of those grating prologues from teen movies where a wisecracking protagonist (here played by Miles Teller) narrates an implausible college-application essay. Then I realized the movie was subverting the stock implausible college-application essay scene, as it proceeded to do so with one John Hughes-type cliche after another: the popular-kid meeting a bookish girl (Shailene Woodley from The Descendants), who's beautiful but nobody knows it; the pop-kid using the book-girl to help with his studies, then slowly falling for her; and so on. By the time we meet the hero's ne'er-do-well father (well-played, in an unexpected bit of casting, by Kyle Chandler), The Spectacular Now reveals itself to be a parable about alcoholism. Like Flight, only with a prom instead of a plane crash. I didn't love the movie - writer-director James Ponsoldt is better with actors than with staging (the party scenes show a bunch of actors standing around, rather than a bunch of characters standing around, if you understand my meaning). But the actors are enough. It's a good movie, one that tied into Ebert's customary response toward films about alcohol addiction (which dogged him early in his life), yet one that ended the festival on a note of hope.

I haven't forgotten Tilda. After the video-essay panel, Sheila told me that Tilda Swinton had been there, sitting quietly the entire time. Then, immediately following Blancanieves, I ran into her in the coffee area of the Virginia Theater, shook her hand and told her I admired her work. "Thank you, "she said brusquely, and started to bolt. Then, she seemed to realize I didn't want anything (I never ask for autographs or photographs), and she turned and said, more sincerely, "Thank you very much."

But the highlight of Ebertfest occurred right before Blancanieves, when Tilda led the audience in a spirited dance-along to Barry White's "The First, the Last, My Everything." I don't know if she or Chaz or someone else planned it this way, but the moment was so joyous, following a few days of dreary weather and the unfolding Boston Marathon insanity and Roger's recent death, it felt like a firm push-back against the darkness of the week. (I have to note how superbly directed and edited that video of the dance is. I love the pan down from the balcony to Tilda's bobbing blonde head at around the 3:50 mark.) It's hard to envision what the future of Ebertfest will be, other than Chaz gave every indication that it's planned to continue. "It's strange without Roger around," Matt said to me at one point in the lobby. I agreed but added that, in a way, his spirit felt more pervasive than ever. At the conclusion of The Tempest, Prospero's calls on the audience's applause to set him free. Ebertfest achieves the opposite task - by bringing all of us together, we bring back what Roger means to us still. A man whose charms will never be "all o'erthrown." Whose strength was always, fully his own.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Paris, Oklahoma (To the Wonder)

For a man accused of having his head in the clouds, Terrence Malick has maintained an earthbound understanding of how human beings think and behave. I didn't hammer The Tree of Life for its creation-epic extravaganza the way some did, because I thought the sequence worked in the context of Malick's aims. But I sympathized with the sense from the film's detractors that it threatened to overshadow the vividly-realized heart of the story -- a boy's life in 1950s small-town Texas.

With considerable help from his actors, Malick penetrated deeply into adolescent Jack's growing infatuation with his mother, a love borne of conflicting platonic ideals and carnal desires. (Those who insist it's only the former need to revisit the scenes where Jack becomes acutely aware of her physicality, leading to his sexual panic upon stealing a neighbor woman's dress.) Hunter McCracken's intuitive acting (undoubtedly guided by his director) kept young Jack's emotions achingly on the surface in every scene (as the older Jack, Sean Penn floundered a bit), while Jessica Chastain managed the near-impossible by suggesting that a real person existed beneath her son's idolatry. Best of all was Brad Pitt, whose physical performance, Tom Carson observed, came through "in his duck-to-water understanding that acting in a Terrence Malick movie is all about conveying personality via demeanor, not Malick's evanescent dialogue." For all the awardage bestowed on actors who play historical figures and the physically challenged, there is nothing more difficult for a movie star than portraying an ordinary human being. I mean it as the highest compliment to Pitt that when I watched his festering resentment toward his wealthy neighbors, or his memorable explosion at the dinner table (climaxed by grabbing a corner and moving the entire table closer to him), or the way he put a meaty paw on his son's shoulder in an awkward display of affection, I thought: I know this man.

Everything in The Tree of Life - even the cryptic parts - felt lived-in and real, so it's a bummer to report that Malick's surprisingly quick follow-up, To the Wonder, is a ludicrous, aimless dud. It's the kind of folly I can't hate, though: I can respect a director trying new things (or tweaking old things), even though almost none of them work. The Tree of Life's psychological nuance has transformed into this film's opaqueness, Brad Pitt's sturdiness replaced by Ben Affleck's puzzlement. As far as I can gather from the five shots of his face and three lines of dialogue, Affleck is supposed to be playing a studly ladies-man, a character which, Lord knows, should be right down his wheelhouse. Yet not since his J-Lo heyday has Affleck looked anything less than a hostage with an eye cast furtively toward the exits. His character - whose name is "Neil," we learn from the closing credits, but let's call him "Ben," it's as good a name as any - threatens to spring to life during a resplendent middle section where he canoodles with a local rancher played by Rachel McAdams. She isn't given much to do either, but McAdams has always been an actress with a flair for interacting. She often brings out the best in her co-stars, no easy feat here amid scenes among patented Malickian distractions like buffalo herds and wheat-fields. (As always, Malick's camera functions like the dog in Up whose own attention is diverted constantly by squirrels.) Her blonde hair glistening in the sun, his broad back in handsome repose, Rachel and Ben cook up a pleasing rapport.
As Richard Brody reminds us, however, this is not a film for "viewers with expectations, or rather, prejudices for what constitutes a movie," a more eloquent way of saying that for Malick a stock cinematic element like chemistry simply won't do. Rachel gets jettisoned in order to herald the return of Ben's original love, whom we meet at the beginning of To the Wonder, a Gallic Pixie Dream Girl* played by Olga Kurylenko, who becomes the most tiresome character in recent movies. She's the type of flighty free-spirit Jack Donaghy warned against on 30 Rock ("Never follow a hippie to a second location"), with a lust for life so monomaniacally insistent it's easy to understand why Ben might harbor misgivings. Yet Malick lavishes attention on her in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of Matthew Weiner's propping up of Jessica Pare's limited charms on Mad Men. Along the margins of the onscreen abstraction in To the Wonder is the whiff of a familiar offscreen subtext: a male authority figure playing Charles Foster Kane to an ingenue's Suzan Alexander. (At least Kane offered Suzan an actual opera. Malick gives Kurylenko nothing to work with. She cavorts like a band-camp refugee who lost her baton.)

In Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders, no doubt drawing from personal experience, depicted the clash and collusion of Euro-American culture in oddly resonant ways: Aurore Clement and Bernhard Wicki looked appropriately out of place (and Nastassja Kinski, in a stunning example of counter-intuitive casting, remarkably in place) in a movie about the dislocation of Americans in their own homeland. Malick's real-world experience, undoubtedly enhanced by his shunning of Hollywood lifestyle, somehow fails to register in To the Wonder. His Gay Paree in the early passages possesses neither an insider's knowledge nor a foreigner's wonderment. While it's refreshing to see an avoidance of the usual landmarks, the dazzling architecture on display in The Tree of Life's contemporary Austin is sadly missing in Malick's Paris, with its drab concrete statues and amusement parks.

Where Malick fares surprisingly little better is in what should be his natural habitat - rural Oklahoma, where Ben takes soil samples (or something) as part of his job, Olga plays hopscotch, and Javier Bardem's despondent priest (the third main sort-of character) half-heartedly visits the poor and the imprisoned and questions his faith. (Whereas Tree of Life features a memorable scene where young Jack silently encounters black people for the first time, To the Wonder shows Malick taking a stab at creating an actual African-American character - the jarring stereotype he comes up with making you long for his previous respectful distance.) Oh, how Javier questions. Only his character isn't interesting and the questions aren't compelling. This is unfortunately true of the whole film. Besides McAdams, the only person who makes an impression is Tatiana Chiline as Kurylenko's daughter, whose dislocation in the Heartland is nicely rendered. Chiline holds the screen as naturally as Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. And then Malick shoos her out of the movie, too. All that's left in To the Wonder is a God-sized hole.

(*Because "Malick Pixie Dream Girl" was already taken.)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger & Remembrance

A couple of years ago, on Twitter, Roger Ebert (known to his legions of followers in the Twitterverse as @ebertchicago) was expounding 140 characters at a time on arguably his favorite topic other than movies: evolution. More precisely he was targeting its opposite, creationism, a subject he bashed as he always did, with merry matter-of-factness, a scoff that stopped short of a sneer. I don't remember exactly what he wrote but I think it had something to do with an article he'd just read claiming that creationists were filling their ranks with more intellectuals. Unsurprisingly the public intellectual in Roger scoffed, at once appalled yet amused. I don't know what prompted me to respond - for a moment, I hesitated - but reflexively I tweeted back: "90% of creationism is half-mental."

It was a nebulous joke I'd tried out before, unsuccessfully, with professional Darwinists possessing a more evolved sense of humor. For Roger, though, who decades ago cut his teeth as a sportswriter before finding his true calling, my appropriation of a famous Yogi Berra-ism hit the sweet spot. He retweeted it. Then he started rummaging through my blog, linking first to a review I wrote on a new oral biography about Robert Altman (a filmmaker he championed dating way back to M*A*S*H), then to a silly-fun March Madness-related "tournament" I put together that pitted Altman's movies against each other. Getting his attention, garnering his praise was a thrill: as a blogger, on the very rare days when your Sitemeter hits skyrocketed, you knew Ebert had everything to do with it. But as I sit here typing these sentences, reflecting on Roger's life and death, what makes me happiest is the thought that, on at least one occasion, I told a dumb joke that made him laugh.

Needless to say, over the last few years, whenever Roger "laughed" it was internalized, like all his other thoughts and feelings. Yet partly because of his well-known persona and partly because, after losing his voice, he came to express himself on the page, and in the virtual world, more vividly than ever, there was never doubt what he thought and felt about anything. While this was an essential and enviable asset for Roger during his life, it presents a conundrum, in the wake of his death, if you were to ask me if I knew the man. "I hate those 'In Memoriam' pieces in which the writers overstate their closeness to the deceased," Jim Emerson writes in his tribute. So do I. That's why yesterday, I half-regretted posting on Facebook and Twitter, "Hero, mentor, friend, inspiration," knowing that the middle two of those descriptive terms are shaky at best. With Roger, I suspect that's similar for many of us. I could say, "Yes, I knew him," or "No, I didn't," and both answers would be true.

I knew Roger the longest, of course, on the printed page and on the TV screen. Most certainly I caught him and Siskel first on the tube in the late 1970s or early 1980s, before seeking out their written criticism. They were together as they were (I would later learn) separate: clever, funny, passionate, stimulating. I quickly became obsessed, following their show as it jumped from public broadcasting to national syndication enjoying it with my parents when it usually aired on Saturday afternoons. (Once, the indignant eleven-or-twelve year old that I was at the time, outraged that an overlong sporting event had preempted my regular viewing schedule, called the local Phoenix station and shouted, "What the hell are you taking Siskel and Ebert off for?!" and slammed down the phone.) When At the Movies - or whatever it was called by then - became a Disney production, cynics predicted that the show would become a shill for the Mouse. (An editorial cartoon depicted Gene and Roger wearing Mickey ears.) Yet in what would become a recurring pattern for Ebert over the course of his life and career, his partnership with Siskel kept evolving without changing the essence of what made it special.

On one of their many lively talk show appearances during that era, Gene paused in between trading playful barbs to confess that what he envied most about Roger was his writing ability. Gene was right: Ebert was better. And whether he was reviewing Cries and Whispers for the Sun-Times or jousting with cinephiles on CompuServe, the agility of his prose was the same. Many writers have linked Roger's loss of his voice with his use of the Internet, probably because Roger made the connection many times himself. But he had created his own virtual forum at least as early as 1995 or 1996, a pioneer in online criticism and communication. I joined CompuServe briefly around then. Sparring directly with Ebert was fun. With the proto-trolls who prowled the forum spouting venom and lunacy, not so much. After a few months I wrote Roger an email, politely telling him that I was leaving. Unexpectedly he replied: "I'll miss you!" He added that there was "a lot of silliness" online, but that he also found enough value in the virtual realm to stick around.

Stick around Roger did, putting a face to the maxim, "Life is a series of narrow escapes." In what became an intermittent 19-year correspondence, I wrote occasional questions (or assertions) to his Movie Answer Man column (one was a snarky jibe about Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic), and he would occasionally reply, either directly or in published form. (To my delight, a couple of them were compiled in the appendices of his annual Movie Handbook.) More recently, when Roger took to social media - most of our communiques the examples mentioned above - he became a regular presence I cherished. It wasn't because I always agreed with what he thought about movies. As always, he was overly generous with his four-star ratings; although, also as always, he could be surprisingly tough on a critically revered film (see Blue Velvet, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather: Part II, Raising Arizona, or last year's penetrating analysis of The Master). Nuances like these invariably escaped the notice of Ebert's own critics. I unfollowed one last year on Twitter after he made sport of Roger's review of The Tree of Life. (This very same individual sang Ebert's praises only yesterday, which suggests that either he was previously unaware of Roger's health struggles or he forgot what he initially wrote.) In the last few years of his life I came to feel that Roger, ironically, was above criticism. Which is not to say that he was faultless. It just means that criticism of the man became irrelevant.
I tried not to bother Roger during his lifetime. Part of me wishes I'd bothered him more, that I'd had the closeness with him that others had. Still, I know I'm lucky to have had the interaction I did. (I met him in person once, at the 2011 Ebertfest. I can still feel his vise-like grip as we shook hands.) I now have colleagues who knew Roger as well: Dave Frasier, a friend and biographer of Russ Meyer; and Jon Vickers, now director of the IU Cinema, whose Vickers Theatre in Michigan is mentioned admiringly in Roger's memoirs. When people ask, "What is Roger Ebert's legacy?" the answer is: We are. All the connections that he forged, in the real world and the virtual one. He was guiding us to each other all along. Leading us to what first brought him and Gene together. To shared enthusiasms. And, in turn, back to ourselves.

I'm not sure if Roger ever put together that the guy who frequented his internet forum and wrote innumerable Answer Man contributions and blogged about Altman and cracked a joke about creationism and gave him an IU Cinema hat and shook his hand were all the same person. But in a way it's fitting, since every time we connected he, while always the same person, was also in important ways (sportswriter, film critic, Russ Meyer acolyte, screenwriter, Paulette, recovering alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winner, TV personality, husband, family man, cancer survivor, social media aficionado, internet pioneer), a very different man from who he was before.
My last exchange with Roger - maybe a year ago, maybe longer - concerned a direct message I sent him on Twitter, trying to explain that all the Craig Simpsons of the past and present were me. "You probably don't remember, but I was on your CompuServe forum," I told him.

He wrote back immediately: "Many moons ago. :)"