Sunday, April 25, 2004

Stay Awake All Night

By some fluke of nature I'm still awake after a very long day at Ebertfest. (I said awake, not lucid, so keep that in mind.) Rather than break down the day film by film, an undertaking best left for later, I'll pinpoint some of the top moments.

Since it's too late to order a pizza, I've come to Steak 'n Shake, which, as I write this at 2:00 a.m. (posting at 3:00), is almost full with what looks to be the post-prom crowd. The two nights I've been here I haven't run into Ebert with guests in tow. There, now the environment is set.

The night was capped with Werner Herzog's most recent feature INVINCIBLE and a post-film discussion with the legendary German director. It seems a cruel trick of scheduling that the longest film of the day comes at the end, starting at 10:00 p.m. even. Somehow, though, I felt pretty good at a point in the festival when I usually need to pry open my eyelids with toothpicks. All right, so I did start to get drowsy with thirty minutes to go. But a funny thing happened when Ebert and Herzog took the stage. I was transfixed to their conversation, and the rest of the audience seemed to be as well. Virtually no one left despite the late hour. Critic and director stayed on stage for an hour and a quarter, yet no complaints would have been voiced if they continued.

Herzog, of course, had a number of fascinating anecdotes about his childhood, moviemaking career, and experiences with Klaus Kinski. Some were familiar--the Kinski stories in MY BEST FIEND, for instance. The others, well, you'll just have to trust me. It's hard enough this time of night remembering to look for the traffic lights off to the side here, let alone recalling Herzog's long stories. Suffice it to say that he did not disappoint.

Herzog the man is what you would expect from his films. The films are him. That's also the impression I had of Errol Morris, who was here with GATES OF HEAVEN. Having renowned filmmakers like this at the festival, on the same day no less, makes it a must for the film buff. Throw in Al Pacino via telephone from Los Angeles, Enzo (the dog from FRASIER and, more relevantly, fest selection MY DOG SKIP, and previous festival guests Eric Byler (CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES director, STONE READER subject Dow Mossman, and AMERICAN MOVIE'S Mark Borchardt and Mike Shank, and you know that something special is happening. And I didn't even mention the day's two other directors, noted publicist Bobby Zarem, and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker.

OK, so the audience portion of the post-film discussions mostly range from rambling statements of appreciation/adoration to incredibly convoluted questions that no one can make sense of. One guy provided a lengthy explanation of how GATES OF HEAVEN reminded him of the novel THE LITTLE PRINCE and wondered if Morris had that in mind when making the film. Morris' amusing answer was a slyly sarcastic yes.

It's the rare opportunity, though, to see these films and their filmmakers in a great theater with a respectful and enthusiastic audience that makes Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival a highlight of my moviegoing year.

This will be my last update from the Urbana Eastland Suites' lounge. More festival info, reflections, and ephemera to come later on Sunday at the earliest.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Posting Delays

I hit the proverbial wall last night--drop dead tired and needing to sleep--so my Friday report will be delayed until late tonight or sometime on Sunday. Expect the latter. I've handwritten about much of yesterday's goings-on, but computer access and time are very limited. I blew off this morning's panel so I could get around eight hours of sleep. For another site with reports on Ebertfest, check out the local newspaper.

Friday, April 23, 2004


A couple items from the first two days that I haven't found room for previously...

TARNATION'S Jonathan Caouette mentioned that he intends for his next film to be a parapsychological horror film. He may shoot it with a new camera that uses Memory Sticks that mimic 35mm film.

Anne V. Coates told the story of the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA dailies showing up with fingerprints all over them. Producer Sam Spigelman had everyone on the camera crew fingerprinted but none matched. He then had everyone at the lab fingerprinted, but still none of the prints matched. Finally, he had those at the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York fingerprinted. Bingo! Apparently a new employee there, who was working in the dark, would periodically grad hold of the film to make sure that it was where it needed to be, leaving his fingerprints all over the film. Coates pointed out that she could still see one of the fingerprints in the print that showed Wednesday night.

Walking from the Illini Union to my car, I heard the noontime university bells playing..."Fly Me to the Moon". Not exactly what one would expect.

Two morning panels and TULLY, Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL with The Alloy Orchestra's live accompaniment, the Keaton homage short THE SCAPEGOAT, and EL NORTE are on tap today.

Ebertfest, Day 2

Day 2, the first full day of the festival, produced a brisk and wet spring morning, establishing the kind of day that makes you glad you're spending most of it inside a movie theater. Two academic discussions were held at the Illini Union. Much to my surprise, all of the good seats in the Pine Lounge were taken by the time of my arrival (about fifteen minutes before the discussions were to start). The Elderhostel attendees were out in full force, making a campus event look like it was being held at a senior center.

I had forgotten that that this festival tends to be attended by an older crowd than one would expect, especially since it is put on in conjunction with the university. I had also forgotten--or simply not realized--that most of the audience is comprised of locals rather than out-of-towners. The C-U residents still seem surprised that people like me know of the event and travel distances to get here. This lends the festival an intimate, small town atmosphere that provides a large part of its charm.

But back to the panels, briefly. The first, entitled "How to Make a Movie for Peanuts", was generally interesting. Many of the festival guests spoke about their experiences, with Ebert moderating the discussion. Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, here with EL NORTE, shared anecdotes about the problems they encountered making the film. Primarily, Mexican gunmen took the negative during production and held it for ransom. Nava's father smuggled thirty thousand dollars in his socks over theh Mexican border so they could get the negative back. Anson Mount, star of TULLY pointed out that he has heard that dentists rank tops among the professions that fund independent films. Passion to tell one's story was stressed--and is quickly becoming a festival theme--as a key ingredient to getting one's film made.

Passion was also evident in the second discussion. MPAA President Jack Valenti spoke about piracy in the digital age. He delivered a speech that I expect he's given many times, but give him credit for being well spoken. (As an aside, he's very short.) The audience's questions, when they weren't combative position statements opposing Valenti's views, were pointed. All in all, it made for a lively discussion.

Onto the Virginia... I met with Jarod Musgrave, whose writing you might have come across at one point or another at DVD File. On the filmmaker spotting front, Mark Moskowitz, director of last year's Overlooked selection STONE READER, is here even though he doesn't have a proverbial horse in the race. I could have sworn I saw MY ARCHITECT director Nathaniel Kahn after the showing of THE SON (LE FILS). He introduced and participated in a Q&A for his Oscar-nominated documentary just this past Sunday at the Wexner Center, so I'm aware of what he looks like. I'll have to try and confirm this on Friday.

Today featured only three films. In other years, four films played each day Thursday through Saturday. As much as I love seeing as many different films as possible, the longer break meant I could get a decent sit down meal. Eating is underrated and, yes, overlooked when it comes to the festival. A late, late lunch (8:00 p.m.) of coconut chicken really hit the spot. It was a far cry better than last night's post-blog entry publishing meal of an orange Crush and some miniature Reese's Cups.

I should point out that I snatched, at best, five hours of sleep last night after posting here. I fear reading these reports in the light of day because they're probably very disjointed and rambling. Still, I want to get the flavor and the urgency of writing "against deadline" at Ebertfest. Perhaps it won't be great or meaningful writing, but I hope I can translate the bleary-eyed experience.

OK, the films... I sat in the front row for TARNATION but moved, for the first time in my fourth year of attendance, to the balcony for THE SON. Having seen the Dardenne Brothers' film before, I knew that I would be susceptible to getting motion sickness watching the handheld camerawork being that close to the screen. My view was partially obstructed--no, it wasn't a condition Lars von Trier set for me--by a plexiglass shield, but that was par for the course during the morning discussions. (I had the Bob Uekeresque behind-the-column seat, leaving me to hear, not see, Valenti.) I moved back to the floor and a distant six rows back for ONCE UPON A TIME...WHEN WE WERE COLORED.

OK, the films... Since I need to be getting to bed, go to the Ebertfest site for plot summaries. You can also check out the official festival blog for more information. I'd like to get in bed by 2:15--fifteen minutes from now--so I'll use this blog as I've always intended, that is, as a notebook. Here are some of the things I've jotted down about today's films.

-Portrait of three generations in this dysfunctional family that is free of the anger that typically marks this kind of confessional film.
-Emotionally naked and fearless. Director, editor, and the film's protagonist Jonathan Caouette puts himself out there for all to see to a startling degree.
-This is very much a director's and editor's film. Caouette, who made this on iMovie, proves he has the chops. This is a dazzling piece of work that proves that imagination is not limited by lack of money. (The film "cost" $218, although it required several hundred thousand dollars to clear the music and film/TV clips in it. Talk about an interesting tie-in to the argument regarding fair use in Valenti's morning talk.)
-Caouette uses music quite well, particularly "Wichita Lineman".
-His bathroom monologue near the film's end is quite moving. The rhyming scenes explaining the indentation on the upper lip and showing Caouette touching this on his mother are integrated in a remarkable fashion.

-Powerful depiction of the Christian ethos in practice.
-Seeing this for the second time I realized how little dialogue there is, but the words that are spoken pack a wallop. Seven words that Olivier says to the boy send a chill through the room. This minimal dialogue also is representative of how people slowly reveal things in conversation.
-Olivier Gourmet's controlled interior performance looks a lot easier than it must be. He is so natural, and paired with the film's style, you could be forgiven thinking that it is a documentary.
-I must have already known too much about THE SON when I saw it the first time as I didn't pick up on the thriller undercurrent that runs through it, even though it isn't that type of film at all.

-This slice of life in the black community during segregation is a celebration and reflection of ordinary people doing what they must to get by. It's full of pride rather than anger, which is a far different tack than we're used to seeing in film's about this period. (Actually, the lack of vicitimization echoes through the day's other two films.)
-Strongly evokes a time and place and juggles many characters well. While it's told from one person's viewpoint, this is a community's story, not an individual's.
-Tim Reid mentioned that the Hallmark Hall of Fame turned it down for being "too soft".

That's all for tonight. More to come about 24 hours from now...

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Opening Night at Ebertfest

I'll keep this brief as my bed beckons me. Also, I'm writing this from the hotel lounge computer, so I don't want to hog it, not that there's going to be great demand at almost 1:30 a.m.

Prior to the screening of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Roger Ebert talked on stage with Jack Valenti, the longtime head of the Motion Picture Association of America, for ten to fifteen minutes. Valenti has come under fire for the ratings system and the MPAA crackdown on file sharing, stances which earned him a few scattered hisses from the audience. The majority politely listened and clapped at various moments. As a special guest, Valenti received the first of this year's Silver Thumbs, a trophy that appears to be modeled on a life-size reproduction of Ebert's right hand giving a thumbs up.

The two friends bandied about a few issues, familiar stuff like the ratings system, piracy, and American films as exports. Nothing all that surprising to hear, although apparently an area theater chain is offering an "R card" that would allow parents to give their approval for their underage teenagers to attend R rated movies. The teens would receive a photo ID indicating that they were permitted to see such films. Valenti and Ebert object to the idea, for what it's worth.

There's no need for me to recap LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but I do have a few thoughts on the film. The pristine 70mm print was a sight to behold. DVD is great and all, but it simply cannot compare to the theatrical experience, especially in a case like this. In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA there are several scenes in which a key person or image is the maybe six inches tall on the screen, and that's on the big screen at the Virginia Theater. Needless to say, those portions of the picture are impossible to see at home, even if you have a big screen TV.

Computer generated effects are de rigeur in contemporary Hollywood and won't be going away, but there's something to be said for seeing the real thing. David Lean used hundreds--or was it thousands--of real extras, as opposed to their modern day CG brothers. There's a palpable difference in seeing the scope of the shots and the action actually unfolding in them. The first siege that Lawrence leads, seen in long shot, is a breathtaking sequence that would lose something with a bunch of ones and zeroes scurrying around in the background.

The classical filmmaking approach of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA puts forward a strong argument against the current trend of hyper editing. Lean creates a stronger sense of space and time through long takes of master shots and extreme wide shots. There's little room for this kind of pacing in today's mainstream films, perhaps from fear of waning audience attention spans, yet the luxurious pacing of Lean's never feels slow or drudgerous. Instead it begs to be paid attention.

Joining Ebert on stage for the post-film discussion were Robert Harris, a noted film restorationist who saved LAWRENCE OF ARABIA from disappearing forever, and the film's editor, the great Anne V. Coates. Coates was something of a surprise guest and a real treat for the cineastes in attendance. Take a look at her IMDB filmography to see the many wonderful films on which she has worked.

A couple of tidbits from this discussion...LAWRENCE OF ARABIA had a shooting ratio of 9:1. The original negative and original continuity could not be located when Harris went to restore the film, so Coates' participation was extremely important in making sure it could survive.

Time for me to hit the sack. TARNATION, THE SON (LE FILS), and ONCE UPON A TIME...WHEN WE WERE COLORED are all on tap for Thursday, as well as a couple morning panels for which I'll drag myself out of bed early.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Pre-Show Countdown

No problems getting to the Champaign-Urbana area for Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival tonight, but I have encountered a couple obstacles in posting from the road. One of the three-pronged outlets in my room has a prong broken off in it, so I had to borrow a power strip from the front desk. That problem averted, my computer won't recognize my CD-ROM drive. That'll be something to work on later tonight as I most certainly won't do what I'm doing now (dialing in long distance to my ISP back home). All in all, though, I should be good to keep the updates coming over the next four days.

The News-Gazette reports that the entire festival is sold out, the first time in its history that all tickets have been sold before the opening night. The early bird does get the worm.

The United States of Vengeance

Q: Determine what the following films have in common: WALKING TALL, KILL BILL VOL. 2, THE PUNISHER, MAN ON FIRE.

A: Two things. All will have opened theatrically in April, and all are concerned with taking revenge with one's own hands.

Taken collectively, this streak of anger doesn't exactly restore one's faith in humankind, especially when a preview audience is laughing and applauding Denzel Washington's merciless avenger in MAN ON FIRE.

The premise of Tony Scott's film puts Washington's Creasy, an alcoholic former Special Ops soldier, in protection of a Mexican businessman's daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning, not as cloying here as usual, although she still comes off as some kind of alien or futuristic Hollywood genetic experiment rather than a child). Initially he rejects her desire to be friends, but eventually he warms up to her and finds a reason to keep living. Inevitably she gets abducted. Creasy vows to kill everyone involved in the plot to take her from her family.

And strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger he does. Creasy may read the Bible, but he is also one pissed off mofo. Christopher Walken plays a colleague who relates that Creasy possesses an artistry for death and that his rampage in Mexico City will be his masterpiece. Creasy certainly holds no qualms about being as brutal as possible in extracting the information he wants from the bad guys and then disposing of them. As he prepares to kill the leader of corrupt cops, Creasy remarks, "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting." As played by the likeable and charismatic Washington, Creasy wields a dark sense of humor about exacting revenge. The audience is supposed to share Creasy's pleasure in doling out his brand of justice.

There's something very troublesome about this trend of stirring the audience's taste for vigilanteism. It's not so much the acts of gaining revenge but the pernicious satisfaction in reveling in it. Instead of understanding Creasy's actions from a distance, we're supposed to applaud him for them and callously engage in them.

Considering that I'm a big supporter of Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasies KILL BILL VOL. 1 and VOL. 2, it might seem odd that I'd object so strongly to MAN ON FIRE. Yet Tarantino's films couldn't be more different from MAN ON FIRE and these other new vigilante pictures, not the least of which being that they occur within a movie universe as opposed to the others' real world settings. KILL BILL also has a moral code--call it the way of the samurai--whereas these other films are merely about satisfying bloodlust that the system can't. KILL BILL thrills the viewer with dazzling fight sequences. That the Bride kills her adversaries is almost secondary. (Obviously it's important to the character, but whether her opponents die is of less significance to the viewer.) In MAN ON FIRE and THE PUNISHER, the complete obliteration of the villains is to be enjoyed with the sadistic glee the heroes display. The murders--and these killings are most certainly that--are the only payoffs.

As for an overall take on MAN ON FIRE, it's thoroughly watchable even though Scott's hyper editing and deployment of subtitles like advertising text come across like desperate tactics to energize the film. In the nitpicking department, why is Creasy's name said about a million times in this movie, especially in the first hour? It's almost comical to the point of distraction. (Plus, it's pronounced in various ways: creasy, creazy, gracie. And what's up with the accent of indeterminate origin used by Radha Mitchell as the willowy American mother of Pita?) Washington is a commanding presence, and it's hard not to like him even if you object to his character and the film as a whole. I have strong reservations about the film's philosophy. Coupled with the overblown style, this isn't a film I can get behind artistically or politically.

Assuming I read one of the opening notes correctly, the film claims that in Latin America an abduction takes place every hour. It seems hard to believe, but okay, I'll go along with that. What I can't believe, though, is "a very special thanks to Mexico City, a very special place", a bone preceding the end credits that is thrown to the city. Did the filmmakers feel the need to apologize considering that the picture they paint is of a dangerous place riddled with corruption in all levels of Mexican society and government? Films don't need to be visitor's bureau pieces for their settings, but MAN ON FIRE strikes me as an unfair portrayal of the city and its people. That note tacked onto the end of the film appears that perhaps the filmmakers realized the same after the fact.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Elephant redux

I've been racking up the films but haven't written much of late. I have some capsule reviews that I'll get around to posting eventually. I did want to revisit what I said about ELEPHANT as I "figured it out" after I wrote the preceding entry. The key is seeing that many of the other students have their own problems but choose different ways of dealing with them. The scene most crucial to the film is the gay-straight alliance student meeting. Although their topic of conversation is how or if you can tell who is gay just by looking at them, it may as well be how can you identify by appearances who might lash out in violence.

ELEPHANT offers no answers to the reasons for school shootings, but this assessment on Slate, arriving on the Columbine anniversary, provides potential reasons. It's an interesting read, especially in light of the fact that I just finished reading Erik Larson's THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. One of the main characters in this non-fiction book about the 1893 World's Fair is a psychopath. The book illustrates the word's meaning beyond the connotations of craziness and insanity. In the Slate piece, one of the killers is also designated, ex post facto, a psychopath. In light of what the book taught me about psychopaths, this conclusion seems to be a plausible answer for the Columbine tragedy.

(I know that I have blurred THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY into all of that and could be giving a wrong impression of the book. It's a fascinating read about the nation aspiring to something greater and all of the innovations that came out of the fair.)

Starting tomorrow, I intend to write updates from Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival while in Champaign-Urbana. Even if my desktop computer were to fail in transit--not that there is any reason it should--the hotel has a computer available to guests. It should be a lot of fun, and hopefully writing in the midst of the festival will produce better results than past attempts to summarize the experience after returning home.