Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Day 3

In my eagerness to post my Ebertfest 2010: Day 2 report, I overlooked the fact that the panel discussions started at 9:00 a.m., not 9:30. So I was a little late rolling into the Illini Union for the first topic: "Do Film Students Really Need to Know Much About Classic Films?" Populating the panel were a couple film students and some professors, including Ebertfest regular David Bordwell.

The consensus opinion seemed to be that rigid adherence to the canon is not beneficial or instructive. Considering how expansive the canon is these days, I don't know that it is this oppressive, inflexible list. Still, I think it's a mistake to avoid some of the landmarks--*cough* CITIZEN KANE *cough*--just because their statuses as the all-time greats have been cemented for such a long time. Younger viewers may balk at them, in part out of contrarianism, but I think it's important to have a foundation in the classics because their fingerprints continue to be all over what we see today.

The second panel featured Roger Ebert's "far-flung correspondents". On his blog and Twitter, Ebert has championed several film bloggers based in locations all around the globe. He extended that generosity by inviting them to the festival and having them participate in the panels and post-film Q&As. Ebert's medical problems in recent years have forced him to take a reduced role in those areas, but in showing up to introduce these guests and staying for the discussion, he emphasized how glad he is to have these people here.

The correspondents talked about their home countries and the film cultures there. While it was interesting to hear their stories, I took off early in the hope of getting over to the Virginia Theatre for a decent spot in line. It didn't happen, even with the rainy morning.
The day's film schedule kicked off with the Oscar-winning DEPARTURES (OKURIBITO). I was, and remain, disappointed that it beat THE CLASS (ENTRE LES MURS)--which I still contend is a better film--but DEPARTURES proved to be a good film, and one that went over exceptionally well with this audience.

In this gentle film, director Yôjirô Takita examines the work of Japan's encoffiners. These individuals prepare corpses for being placed in coffins and conduct the ritual in front of the departed's family and friends.

The entry point into this world is Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who loses his orchestra job and doesn't exactly know what he's getting into when he accept a want ad seeking help in departures. The character mentions that his grandparents died when he was young, his mother's funeral occurred while he was out of the country, and his father has been out of his life since he was little. Daigo has never seen a dead body, and he's not sure he's cut out for this work.

DEPARTURES is a sentimental film about how the living cope with the loss of their loved ones and have their pain eased through the ceremony that encoffiners perform, but it's not a soppy one. The film is serious and earnest, but those qualities are never burdensome or false. It's sort of shocking to see a film that treats its subject, this one in particular, directly and softly. Perhaps the film cheats by having the deceased mostly consisting of those who have died many years before their time--these are "pretty" bodies, for lack of a better way of putting it--but some concessions have to be made to the audience. I certainly wouldn't want to watch a film in which these men attend to highly decayed corpses, and I bet you wouldn't either.

As unpleasant as this may all sound, the film is respectful and matter of fact about what encoffiners do. The comfort that the ritual gives to the surviving family also translates to the audience. Takita also finds spots for humor, such as the encoffiner instructional video, to deflate any discomfort viewers may feel about a subject that many don't want to reflect upon.

The Alloy Orchestra are regulars at Ebertfest. Typically their accompaniment of a silent movie is among each festival's best moments. This year they played along to Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (CHELOVEK S KINO-APPARATOM). The three-man band's scores favor percussion, which is a perfect match for a film that often looks at the industrial and technological marvels of its day.

MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA has the organizing principle of a day in a Russian city, but this film can be seen and enjoyed context-free. It's montage, montage, montage done with such vigor and imagination that this 81-year-old film still feels fresh and exciting. The superimpositions, quick cutting, and meta qualities are mind-blowing in their imaginative use. A woman blinking her eyes is crosscut with the opening and closing of blinds. Vertov often shows his man with the movie camera in a stylistic choice that rolls the making-of material into the film proper.

Vertov's dazzling display of technique is pretty compelling. Married with The Alloy Orchestra's live accompaniment, the film is lifted to transcendent heights. If this isn't the most kinetic film ever made--it charges out of the gate and picks up speed crossing the finish line--it has to be up there among the adrenaline shots of pure cinema. That the musicians can keep up with the frenetic pace and enhance the experience of watching MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is a credit to their considerable talents.

The last film of the third day was SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, which Ebert is proclaiming to be the best film of the '00s. I liked the film when I saw it during its intial release in 2008, but I was also overwhelmed by the ambition and challenges it contains.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK writer-director Charlie Kaufman penned the screenplays for mindbenders BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. (Those three previous films all landed on my year-end Top 10 lists.) This film, his first in the director's chair, again takes place in a strange world that looks a lot like ours yet behaves differently.

It's important to make note of the person behind SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK because it's best understood as a piece of Kaufman's reflexive body of work. Kaufman takes a scenario to its most absurd limits and aggressively deconstructs it in search of the primary level of truth.

At heart SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is about examining the shattered pieces of a broken relationship and trying to find where it all went wrong. In typically Kaufman-esque fashion, here it means years of staging and re-staging mundane conversations and arguments in hopes of divining shards of revelation.

The word synecdoche means to substitute the general for the specific and vice versa. The film can be understood as the main character's failed marriage viewed through the filter of all his relationships, which he pores over with obsessive, writerly focus while missing the broader picture.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK'S tone is too mournful to call it a comedy, or what I associate with the term, yet funny elements are sprinkled throughout the film as it folds upon itself. Despite the metaphorical clouds that hover over Philip Seymour Hoffman as the playwright Caden Cotard, hope endures that the sun will emerge.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is an audacious and uncompromising film, which in non-criticspeak means it requires a lot of patience and an open mind. It sounds trite to condense the film into a statement that all anyone needs is love, but that's the simple thesis buried under this mountain of philosophizing.

Having now seen the film a second time, I find that it opens up and is revealed to be simpler than it appears to be. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK lets loose a steady roar of neuroses--loneliness, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear of disease, fear of death, fear of missed chances--but Kaufman shares these things not to wallow in them but to convey that we all have the same things banging around in our brains. The beautifully sustained final twenty or so minutes were enough to make me want to lay down and absorb all that this film has to offer.

Kaufman has resisted requests to explain the film in more concrete terms, and he continued that stance in tonight's post-film Q&A. He still had plenty of interesting and funny things to say about his movie, and I think he's correct in ducking attempts to lay out what the film means. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK was likened to a Rohrschach test, which is an apt comparison. The film isn't a puzzle to be solved but a mirror that shows something different depending on when we look at it and what state of mind we're in at the time.


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