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.

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