Friday, April 23, 2004

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...

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