Spectacular

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Friday was the day of painfully cathartic films. Two of them dealt in grunge realism (OSLO, AUGUST 31st and JULIA), one in piercing emotional realism related in dizzying theatrical terms (THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA). Out in the real world, tragedies to rival the movies continued apace.

Saturday was the day of cutting loose. It had rained all week and now the sun was out. Chaz and Tilda Swinton led an all-audience dance, which set a giddy mood. The sight of Professor David Bordwell neck-popping to Barry White is a memory I’ll carry to my grave–as is that of Chaz onstage dancing the way you dance in the living room. Free spirits. “Dancing with Roger!” Tilda shouted while grooving with Chaz.

The films selected for today sustained that giddiness, even as they ventured into deep, dark, disturbing places.

BLANCANIEVES is a magical, morbid and melodramatic antidote to the recent rash of plasticized, trillion-dollar fairy tale movies. Pablo Berger’s radiant persona during the Q&A mirrors the dark glow of his silent/loud film.

KUMARE starts off like a reality TV stunt, punking various New Age acolytes looking for a guru; ends up saying something quite moving about belief, trust, self-perception and self-determination. Did Roger’s selection here anticipate our tireless canonization of him? That would be cool, and quite characteristic of our Movie Savior. All hail.

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW . Well, Damon Packard’s underground classic REFLECTIONS OF EVIL ventured into this thematic turf first, turning the Universal Studios theme park into a nightmare similar to the one that beseiges this film’s Disneyland vacationers. But that was a decade ago, before cinema-quality cameras were small enough to sneak into theme parks. ESCAPE’s guerilla fantasy-horror is as seamless, as feverishly inventive as BLANCANIEVES.

Writer-Director Randy Moore was reserved about criticizing Disney during the Q&A at first, until insistent questions about Disney-as-Satan prompted him to describe the company’s products as a force that invades every home, indoctrinates every child.  He characterized sneaking around in Walt Disney World as a kind of reciprocal home invasion.

Roger once mentioned that TOUCH OF EVIL was a dark and violent film that nevertheless left him feeling happy. Or something like that. I can’t find the quote presently, but here’s a familiar one that gets at why ESCAPE’s intense Freudian horror is so hilarious: “It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it.”

James Ponsoldt’s  THE SPECTACULAR NOW, Saturday’s last film, has been compared to the teen dramedies of John Hughes. I didn’t get to catch the whole thing, but from what I saw of it, John Hughes has never written or directed anything so elegantly, compassionately “kitchen sink.”

B, a volunteer at the fest (U of I economics major/future filmmaker), rushed into the Virginia theater’s back room all choked up, warning me that I was missing “a very, very moving film.” I went back into the theater to witness rare wisdom and tenderness. The beauty of its final scenes are all about the sorrows of missing out on all the good that is in your reach [he typed as the Q&A proceeded without him].

The Michael Shannon Spit Take Award

curtainsActor Michael Shannon got the biggest laugh of last year’s Ebertfest at a Q&A for the film TAKE SHELTER. Asked about what similarities between himself and his director, Jeff Nichols, he drew upon to portray a paranoid everyman, he slowly leaned into the mic for a perfect beat of silence and muttered, “We have similar asses.”

If the entire audience had been drinking water at that moment, there’d have been a thousand spit takes.

It’s too early to call the winner of the first annual Michael Shannon Spit Take Award (which is not an actual Eberfest award, just something I made up five minutes ago), but I will predict that cinema muse Tilda Swinton (who presented her film JULIA last night) will defeat director Richard Linklater (who presented his BERNIE Thursday night). Both were warm, funny and laidback, pulling easy laughs out of the crowd. But Tilda’s riff on hog-tying a child actor, aided by fest director Nate Kohn (a master of Shannonesque timing and deadpan delivery himself) brought the house down. Her line, “Nate, it’s got to start somewhere” was screenplay caliber. You can watch her JULIA Q&A here.

These Q&A things can be murder if the subjects take themselves too seriously and don’t embrace spontaneity, real conversation. I have yet to observe that problem at Ebertfest.

Nepotism done right, and van Gogh done justice.

ToMusicgoghSofia Coppola shut up the cynics decisively when her classic film LOST IN TRANSLATION proved she was a world-class director on par with her legendary father, Francis.

College student Sophie Kohn got a film into Ebertfest this year not because her dad Nate is the festival director (though you can’t say it hurt any) but because Roger saw her short film and simply loved it.

Cynical eyes might roll even faster when considering that her film was shot in the scenic south of France, is mostly wordless and features maverick director/friend-of-Ebert Paul Cox as a priest.

As Melissa Merli notes in her local news story, the film, TO MUSIC acquits itself of all charges. Sophie and co-director Feike Santbergen are the real deal. Their short makes a clear and sincere statement about how music can draw us out of our despair, into the light of fellowship. Its super-widescreen frames are precise and packed with details that tell a vast story in mere seconds. The editing helps these shot-canvases course and sing like music, especially when landing upon an astonishingly resonant stray detail.

The feature it was coupled with, VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH, is an explosion of color and movement, set to classical music and van Gogh’s words, letters to his brother Theo read by John Hurt. Paul Cox made the film in 1985, and it timelessly turns the cliche of the starving artist into something like gospel for creative people, eccentrics and visionaries.

 

American Beauty

InTheFamily3“This film is an evergreen,” said Michael Barker, an unusually soulful movie executive from Sony Pictures Classics. He was speaking to the Ebertfest faithful after a screening of Patrick Wang’s IN THE FAMILY Thursday night. He was right. I was so stunned, moved and inspired after seeing the film, I could hardly speak. Feels like it will stay with me for a lifetime.

Before the film, Barker put it even more perfectly: “This is a film that was made for Ebertfest.” If you want to know the plot, go elsewhere. All I will tell you is that, in a time when it seems as if the entire country is spiraling into chaos and hostility, IN THE FAMILY shows a simple (but not easy) way through and around America’s complex problems. It’s safe to say that M.I.T.-educated Wang is a genius at screenwriting, acting and directing on this, his first film, but this is no cold tower of analysis or style.  Wang offsets a formal rigor that could make Robert Bresson feel like a slob with an appreciation and respect for his characters. The margins of Wang’s frame are the margins of society, where beautiful, terrible things are happening in silence.

Enough of the film critic-speak. I cried a few honest cries during this movie, and was shaken with a feeling so tough to conjure up in modern times, the feeling that we are a family, all of us–a broken, dysfunctional family, true, but a family. We avoid each other on the flimsiest of pretexts, at our peril. Kevin Lee said as much to Wang during the Q&A after the screening, and he could barely hold back the tears while connecting the dots between the film’s storytelling and the social vision Roger had for this festival. Kevin further demonstrated the lesson by acknowledging that it wasn’t a prestigious film festival or publication that first brought this under-appreciated, self-distributed movie to Roger’s attention, but his personal assistant, Carol Iwata. There’s a tough, fiercely loyal character in IN THE FAMILY who reminds me of Carol. Quite a few characters in this film will remind you of good people you know.

The final scene offers hope for the small family it fretted over for three hours, but implicitly, lyrically, for our planetary extended family.  Racism, for one thing, has broken my heart many times over in America, but the final scene of IN THE FAMILY gives us all a way out of this mess. It’s so simple. It seems as if Roger cried out for this movie when he wrote these passages in LIFE ITSELF:

“I began to realize that I had tended to avoid some people because of my instant conclusions about who they were and what they would have to say. I discovered that everyone, speaking honestly and openly, had important things to tell me.”

““I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

 

Get a Life, says Badass Wexler (with Love)

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“Ebertfest Panel” by Vincent van Gogh.

There’s too much to tell.

On Ebertfest Opening Night, I was still on an airliner barreling straight through the heart of a violent storm. As my plane bucked and dodged lightning bolts somewhere between Chicago and Champaign, the Ebertfest faithful were finding rapture in Chaz’s soothing words and two poetic films, I REMEMBER by Grace Wang and DAYS OF HEAVEN by this dude named Terence Malick. There was also an epic singalong that’s already become legend.

Later that night, after I kissed the ground and dried off in Champaign-Urbana, I asked Matt Zoller Seitz to give me some idea of how the evening went. “The crowd was great. The crowd is always great at Ebertfest. There’s no bullshit here. People are here for the movies.”

Matt interviewed legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the 91 year old legend who shot major portions of DAYS. He says it went well: “We forget that this guy, whose first major work was during the 1960′s and ’70′s is actually part of The Greatest Generation. He was in World War II. Total badass, still sharp and tough as ever.”

By all accounts, yes, Wexler was badass and Chaz was giving sweet and poignant commentary and Grace was as graceful as her short film, which I’ve seen (and loved) before on a screener video but felt quite sad for having missed on the big screen. “It looked amazing,” film critic and playwright Sheila O’Malley said of I REMEMBER the next day. It must be true: Grace says that after the screenings, Mr. Wexler himself turned his camera on her for an impromptu interview–a filmmaker-to-filmmaker gesture as sweet as a forehead kiss.

The Virginia Theater, where all the Ebertfest films are shown, has a classically huge screen, so its truly inspiring to see certain films that were shot digitally for little or no money blown up so beautifully. One of Roger’s Far-Flung Correspondents, Michael Mirasol, cut together a heartfelt commercial for the festival (using “thumbs up” clips from movies) just days before Roger passed and uploaded it to Vimeo. That same little video now accompanies every Ebertfest screening, to enthusiastic applause. After Roger passed away, he added a “For Roger” graphic over a slow zoom into a characteristically charismatic pic of the man himself. The crowd melts, every time. Too bad Michael can’t be here to see the love his work is getting.

Thursday morning, Badass Wexler popped up again, on Festival Director Nate Kohn’s discussion panel titled “Sustaining a Career in Film.” Wexler, HOOP DREAMS director Steve James and Sony Pictures Classics executive Michael Barker  dispensed a truckload of wisdom, but what stuck the most was Wexler’s passionate social justice/antiwar stance. He described the tough choices he’s had to make between art, politics and commerce. We weren’t dealing with a kindly old retiree here, but the confrontational director of “Medium Cool,” still in full force.

Barker told a great story from the early 70′s about skipping school and borrowing his dad’s car when he was a teenager “from the wrong side of the tracks.” He took the car not to party or cruise for chicks but to see a film discussion panel at Southern Methodist University.  There he first encountered Roger Ebert as some kind of cineaste rockstar in shades, exuding the rebellious confidence of a boy wonder who had recently written a naughty movie (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS).

Nutritious soundbites:

JAMES: (quoting a friend) “I’ve been trying to sell out, but nobody’s been buying.”

WEXLER: “Having a career shouldn’t be confused with having a life.”

JAMES: “Roger lived life rather than reading about life, studying life. Sometimes you need to close the laptop and experience life.”

Another panel (“Reality or Illusion: A False Dichotomy?”), headed by San Diego professor and Eberfest veteran Eric Pierson, also produced many juicy quotes, but one by Ray Pride of Movie City News brought the house down: “Indie filmmakers need to learn how to write about their films like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone: ‘It’s a thrill ride of clinical depression!’”

If you missed these events, you can view them here.

The screenings that followed, throughout the day into the night, were sublime. More on those later–along with the profound reason van Gogh, a patron saint of the festival alongside Roger, has been crudely Photoshop-evoked above.

Who Could Forget?

heaven_rememberI’ve seen the two films that open Ebertfest tonight, and I’m eager to see each of them again. One is (in this gabber’s opinion) writer-director Terence Malick’s masterpiece, DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). Roger’s essay on that film emphasizes the voice that tells its potentially melodramatic story. By “voice,” I don’t simply mean the immortal narration by child actor Linda Manz but also Malick’s sophisticated way of telling his story from both under the skin of the characters and from the margins. I’d call it 21st Century screenwriting if there were contemporary examples as elegant and effortlessly propulsive. (Sorry, UPSTREAM COLOR and TO THE WONDER (Malick’s latest)–not even close.)

The other film showing, I REMEMBER, is a short by my friend Grace Wang, told from under the skin, in the moment. It’s about memory, intimacy and loss. Grace manages to seduce the eye and ear with an assuredness similar to Malick’s on DAYS OF HEAVEN–except in one small apartment rather than any expanse comparable to DAYS’ Texas Panhandle.

Roger’s Favorite Shark

large_yHTCvoGcMABMRMIBZmspPxGHEcLJust a random thought: It would be nice if Ebertfest one day programmed a double feature of JAWS (1975) and JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987).  Roger Ebert’s reviews for these two films, taken together, give you the breadth of his film writing. He was great at meeting a movie at its own level. He met JAWS* with open arms:

The story, as I guess everyone knows by now, involves a series of attacks on swimmers by a great white shark, the response of the threatened resort island to its loss of tourist business, and, finally, the epic attempt by three men to track the shark and kill it. There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meanings in such an archetypal story, but Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all. Spielberg is very good, though, at presenting those characters in a way that makes them individuals.

He met JAWS: THE REVENGE with a harpoon:

Since we see so much of the shark in the movie, you’d think they would have built some good ones. They’ve had three earlier pictures for practice. But in some scenes the shark’s skin looks like canvas with acne, and in others all we see is an obviously fake shark head with lots of teeth.

The shark models have so little movement that at times they seem to be supporting themselves on boats, instead of attacking them. Up until the ludicrous final sequence of the movie, the scariest creature in the film is an eel.

Including a movie Roger hated in a festival devoted to films he adored would be kind of perverse, but after you’ve read his hilarious review of J:TR, it’s impossible not to enjoy its horrific awfulness.

Escape_from-_Tomorrow-thumb-500x270-57653Speaking of perverse, this year the fest screens an acclaimed movie that’s about a thrill ride gone horribly, sometimes obscenely, wrong, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW.  I’ve been looking forward to this Disneyland-set fantasy-horror film since Far Flung Correspondent Michał Oleszczyk raved about it from Sundance: “Ultimately, the film is about the terror of ubiquitous entertainment.” The critic Anthony Lane once said, of relentless showbiz ploys to keep consumers riveted, “There is nothing so boring in life, let alone in cinema, as the boredom of being excited all the time.” I suspect that ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW explores that idea to some extent.

I also suspect that the corporate desperation to constantly thrill the dollars out of you is the only reason something like JAWS: THE REVENGE got made. And thank God it did. We would never have been able to read the following, from Roger:

What happens at the end? Ellen Brody has become convinced that the shark is following her. It wants revenge against her entire family. Her friends pooh-pooh the notion that a shark could identify, follow or even care about one individual human being, but I am willing to grant the point, for the benefit of the plot.

I believe that the shark wants revenge against Mrs. Brody. I do. I really do believe it. After all, her husband was one of the men who hunted this shark and killed it, blowing it to bits. And what shark wouldn’t want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?

*Also covered in his Great Movies series.

 

 

A Boy’s Adventure, an Understanding Heart

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A visual “thank you” to Roger, from Krishna Shenoi.

Hello. I’m Steven Boone, the knucklehead Ebertfest selected to blog about the event from start to finish this year. None of my future posts will be even half the length of this one, promise. I just want to tell you a few things to set the tone.

Last year’s Ebertfest was my first. It was great to see Grand Poobah Roger and his soulmate Chaz again after our first meeting at a TV convention almost a year and a half prior. If you’re on this site, chances are you’ve already heard it a thousand times, a thousand different ways: The Eberts are real sweeties.

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Though a world-famous Chicago newspaperman and a pioneering Chicago attorney don’t rise to power on sweetness alone, you could just tell that, even when they were young go-getters, they must have tempered their phenomenal talents with an essential kindness and concern for others. When they found each other later on in life, that sweetness blossomed and became their great project: Ebertfest is a place were Roger and Chaz cultivated a love and respect for cinema, sustained by their love and respect for each other. To borrow a phrase from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and the Old Testament, they showed us, through the movies, how to develop an understanding heart.

Still, as the festival closed, I had some regrets. Rushing to catch my plane home midway through a closing-day screening of CITIZEN KANE (with Roger’s inimitable audio commentary keeping the packed house spellbound), I felt bad about having spent most of my non-screening time wandering around Urbana-Champaign alone. I’m a lifelong loner. Big gatherings have always sent me running. The spotlight, even at such a laid-back, homey event as Ebertfest, sears my flesh like sunlight on a Darkseeker.

So I squandered the opportunity to connect more with my Ebert family of writers. These are Roger’s Far Flung Correspondents, the film essayists he published and promoted as if they were his favorite grandchildren–and yet always treated with the respect due an accomplished colleague.blog955

My homeboy Odie Henderson put it perfectly in his heart-busting Irish wake-style tribute to Roger: “Roger knew and embraced my refusal to be too serious, and his support of me and those like me provided validation and confirmation for us to find, use, and be proud of our own voices.”

Those voices had flown in from all corners of the Earth, and, having been to the festival a few times before, tended to travel in packs. They had a shared history. They partied and sang karaoke together. They ate lunch together. They sat in rows near the front of the Virginia Theater while I stationed myself in the back. Time ran out, and I only got in a few brief but unforgettable encounters.

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Some of the family. I flash a peace sign that looks like a gang sign. Thumbs, dummy!

One such encounter was with Krishna Bala Shenoi and his mom.  Krishna is more or less me when I was a teenager– except Indian and a genius. He worships Steven Spielberg and makes beautiful artwork, illustrated stories, animations and short films. Spielberg himself has praised Krishna’s lovingly rotoscoped tribute to the director’s classics.

Roger introduced Krishna to the world online a few years ago, and Krishna’s mother keeps his head on straight in the face of worldwide praise and high expectations for him as a film artist. In person, he’s just a humble and gracious young man who could speak eloquently for hours about the films in his life. And we almost did. I lost track of time enthusing over his mom’s favorite, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. We got naturally high on memories of seeing JURASSIC PARK and BACK TO THE FUTURE for the first time.

Earlier in the festival, I had a similar thrill over breakfast with David Bordwell, the great film scholar whose essential FILM ART I’d read alongside Roger’s movie books when I was Krishna’s age. Just minutes after my friend and mentor Jim Emerson introduced me to Bordwell, we talked movies with the enthusiasm of old pals. What greased the wheels was the discovery that we both thought  SHADOW OF A DOUBT, not VERTIGO, was Alfred Hitchcock’s supreme masterpiece. We geeked out over the reasons why.

When Bordwell analyzes films, he doesn’t frown and scratch his chin like a professor; he beams. Despite his neat gray beard, his face assumes the cherubic character of a 12 year old boy devising some ingenious new route for his electric train set. On stage at the festival some time later, he took infectious delight in telling us about the handmade special effects in a series of silent era fantasy films that had just knocked our eyes out. Not even Krishna is as young as Bordwell is when he’s in this mode.

Bordwell’s boyishness reminded me of Roger in his heyday–his heyday being roughly 1967 to last Thursday. There are dozens of publicity stills out there capturing Roger’s beatific smile, his equally keen and kind eyes, but I prefer the snapshots that one of his finest literary descendants, the ethereal Grace Wang, took of him in black and white.

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What a playful soul. That’s the spirit of Ebertfest in an image, and every time I’m feeling a little shy at this year’s inevitably teeming edition of the festival, I’ll steady myself with the memory of those eyes, brimming with the mischief and love of somebody still brand new to the world.

See y’all on the 17th.