Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ebertfest 2009: Day 3

The two academic panels that commenced day three of the 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival couldn't have been more apropos for my film critic self. The discussions, titled Movies & Everyday Life and Film Criticism & the Internet, would seem to get to the fundamentals of what I do: thinking about the movies (and seeing them) on a regular basis and writing about them online.

The broadly titled first panel was less about how movies might be incorporated into one's daily life--something I'd propose is increasingly common due to the features and clips available for immediate access online--and more about how films reflect ordinary people and if general audiences are willing to see them. This seems to be a recurring topic for debate at Ebertfest. Much of the talk was familiar to me, especially the dragged out audience comments/questions that needed to be kept in check by Robert's Rules of Order, but it was interesting to hear Ramin Bahrani's thoughts because he's someone who thinks deeply about these issues and can articulate himself well.

(Frozen River actress Misty Upham)

The film criticism discussion suffered from having ten people on the panel. With all those highly opionated people and a broad subject, keeping focus and letting everyone get their say was a challenge. Presumably all of the critics on the panel make a living writing about films, but the current state of the profession suggests to me that for most it is a labor of love and will only become more of a hobbyist's pursuit as newspaper positions are eliminated and paying gigs dry up even more.

(Festival director Nate Kohn, Begging Naked director Karen Gehres, festival blogger Lisa Rosman)

The screening side of the festival's day kicked off with another documentary. It's arguable that everything shown at Ebertfest to this point has been a doc of a sort. Even the lone fiction narrative shown so far, Chop Shop, incorporated a naturalistic style meant to evoke real experiences, and Frozen River, screened later in the day, also possessed a feel for documentary truth. Usually the festival isn't so singleminded, so I wonder if it was purposeful this year.

For nine years Begging Naked director Karen Gehres interviewed her friend Elise Bainbridge Hill to tell her story. The unvarnished look at this woman's life reveals that she ran away from home to New York City at the age of fifteen and quickly became a prostitute and heroin addict. Eventually she cleaned up and made a home in the tight space of a converted air shaft of an apartment building. This was also where she worked on her art, whether painting or making jewelry.

At 30 Hill reentered the sex industry as a stripper in Times Square, but NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani was working on clearing out those businesses. She was eventually left without a job. Her mental condition detiorated, she was evicted, and moved into Central Park where she now lives.

Begging Naked is an unvarnished documentary with great sympathy for and dedication to the person at the center of it. Clearly the film could not have been made without the close relationship between the filmmaker and her subject, but that intimacy breeds an incompleteness in this woman's story. The film feels a lot of righteous anger at how Giuliani's cleaning up of 42nd Street left her friend unemployed and how Hill's eviction pushed her into a deeper set of problems, although it's unclear from the information provided whether the eviction was justified.

My main issue with Begging Naked is one that is far too common with documentaries. Enchanted with the subject, the filmmaker sets up the story but doesn't have enough material to shape it into an arc. Thus the film gets stuck in a loop repeating the same information. In this case that means seeing over the course of years that Hill is living in Central Park and still doing her art. It's fine to a point, but without Hill's scandalous background, I don't know what makes this an exceptional individual story or what the film has to say about homelessness and mental illness in general.

(The Alloy Orchestra's set-up)

Now for something completely different... The Alloy Orchestra's accompaniment of a silent movie is almost an annual occurrence at Ebertfest. It's one of my favorite parts of the festival, perhaps because this is the one time during the year I can experience it, perhaps because they're awfully good at what they do. Their score for The Last Command was more melodic than their typically percussive music, but it was a wonderful complement to the action on screen.

This year the trio wrote and played a score for Josef von Sternberg's 1928 melodrama about a Russian general who led the czar's armies but fled the country when the revolutionists overthrew imperial rule. In The Last Command the once-powerful Grand Duke (Emil Jannings) is now one of many scrabbling for work as an extra in Hollywood films.

It's a vibrant, beautifully crafted film that I feel like I'd have more to say about with the proper time outside of festival fever. Rather than slop together some poorly supported thoughts, I'd rather share some of great intertitles written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who went on to write some other Hollywood picture. I didn't scribble these down until the movie concluded, but I think I remembered these pretty closely:

-"You are my prisoner of war...and my prisoner of love." (The general says this to a female revolutionist who improbably reciprocates his feelings of affection.)

-"The woman belongs to me. She goes with the coat." (Uttered by a soldier who has taken the general's coat.)

-"And so the backwash of a tortured nation carries another extra to Hollywood." (How's that for describing the general's path from military leadership to one of many Russians in a stack of headshots.)

-"Is that beard supposed to be Russian? It looks like an ad for cough drops." (Hair and makeup people in Hollywood just don't get any respect, do they?)

A happy surprise was that Guy Maddin, whose My Winnipeg screened on day two, joined the post-film discussion on stage. This kind of movie is clearly something near and dear to him, so it was fun to listen to him expound on it.

(WGN's Dean Richards, Frozen River director Courtney Hunt, Misty Upham, and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker)

During the post-film discussion for Frozen River director Courtney Hunt joked that there would not be a TV series based on the film. There would not be weekly episodes built upon whoever climbed into and out of the trunk of Ray's car. The thing is that having seen the film a second time, the parallels to AMC television series Breaking Bad were apparent.

Like Breaking Bad's cancer-stricken science teacher Walt (Bryan Cranston) joining up with his burnout former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) to cook and sell meth, Melissa Leo's Ray and Misty Upham's Lila are unlikely partners in smuggling illegals into the United States through Mohawk territory. Both sets of characters are involved in the criminal enterprise out of desperation to survive and provide for their families. They all are largely unconcerned about the ramifications of their actions as long as they get paid. Walt and Ray have a set point they're trying to reach where they get out. Of course, things don't work out how any of them plan, and the suspense comes from identifying with and rooting on main characters doing despicable things in the name of their family's best interest.

Leo and Upham's performances are critical to the success of Frozen River. Seeing Upham in person at the festival presents startling proof of how she deglamorized herself to transform into the character. It would be easy to write off the film's achievement due to powerhouse acting alone, but Hunt's attentive direction and concise and detailed screenplay announces that she's one to watch as much as her lead actresses.

(Grades: The Last Command and Frozen River: B+; Begging Naked: C)

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