Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Opening Night

Film festivals are often mad adventures in which one gorges on films and purges sleep. Getting back to my hotel room at 1 a.m. to begin writing this Ebertfest Opening Night recap--and with an eye on a panel discussion I plan to attend at 9:30--means a few things have to go: sleep and a perfectionist's research and editing. Add in that this is 2 a.m. in Ohio and that I just took a muscle relaxant to loosen up my neck from a car accident a couple months ago and, well, this could be interesting. I'm about the last person one would compare to Hunter S. Thompson, so don't expect the rest of this entry to spin off into depraved tales of Champaign-Urbana after hours.

The 12th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival kicked off with a visit from the Illinois governor to proclaim this Ebertfest Day (or something to that affect). Fine, fine, but get on with it, governor. We have two films to watch.

It's become tradition for the festival to open with a film in 70mm. Tonight's first selection was intended to be projected in that format, but apparently the print was pink. That tint would have been ironically fitting considering that the film was PINK FLOYD THE WALL. Luckily a 35mm print--and a pristine one at that--was obtained in time so that the visual experience wasn't clouded by faded layers of celluloid.

I don't think I've listened to Pink Floyd's concept album since I was in college, if not high school, and I'd not seen director Alan Parker's film until tonight. Classic rock radio has burned several of these songs into my brain, but they take on different associations, not always for the best, in this rock and roll art film.

Bob Geldof acts out the role of Pink, a rocker who has barricaded himself in his hotel room while having a nervous breakdown and overdosing on drugs. The film doesn't so much as follow Pink's storyline as it sifts through whatever Roger Waters vomits up in regard to feelings about his father's death during World War II, the relationship with his mother, his animosity toward the system/the establishment, fascism, violence, the push/pull dynamic between performer and audience, and sex, drugs, rock and roll.

For as meticulously arranged and played as the band's music is, the film is raw and messy in uncovering the pain, horror, and disgust residing beneath the clean sounding surfaces of the songs. The spilled blood, weak flesh, and sexual anxiety are like something out of a teen's nightmarish fantasy (or David Cronenberg's filmography).

PINK FLOYD THE WALL can play like an adolescent's bilious railing against the unfairness of life. That's what makes this primal scream of a film so vivid. Whether it's schoolchildren being put in a meat grinder or Pink's new identity as a fascist leader emerging from a body that looks as though it is encased inside an enormous tumor, the lack of restraint in producing these hideous but striking images is where the material draws its power.

The danger of indulging the rantings of a disaffected youth who thinks he's the only one who ever felt this way is that can seem juvenile. Spare me the moans about the uncaring teachers and crookedness of everybody, junior. There's a reason why the album speaks to those that age from generation to generation and why it seems at least a tad overly melodramatic to me.

One more note about the imagery... The most memorable part to me was when Pink is sitting alone in a clean, empty room and then is pursued by a giant animated snake/dragon. The utilization of space and scale is pretty fantastic.

As for a couple stray observations that don't have much to do with anything, how about Bob Hoskins chowing down on a pineapple sliced in half during "Young Lust"? I also thought it was pretty funny to see a big ad with Mike Schmidt beside the words "Feeling 7Up" while the fascist force beats the scattering fans. Did anyone else think Pink's posture in front of the television was reminiscent of those old Memorex ads?

If that wasn't enough grimness for one night, how about Roy Andersson's YOU, THE LIVING (DU LEVANDE) as a late night cinematic chaser? It's actually a pretty good pairing with THE WALL as both films are populated with people who think that no one can understand the hurt inside of them and despair at what this means for the present and the future.

I put the film on my list of Honorable Mentions for the Best Films of 2009. Here's what I had to say then:
Swedish director Roy Andersson follows up his 2000 surrealist comedy SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (SÅNGER FRÅN ANDRA VÅNINGEN) with more darkly humorous sketches about the dilemmas of human existence. Laughs catch in the throat, although this time a bit more optimism underlies the drollness and Scandinavian emotional coolness. Andersson favors gorgeous, deep focus compositions that establish scenes in which the jokes trickle out in unbroken shots. The meticulous craftsmanship and impeccable timing in YOU, THE LIVING show an artist in full command of his distinctive voice.
On a second go-round the film seems akin to what I remember being a theme in Kurt Vonnegut's writings. Assuming I'm not thinking of someone else or getting this completely wrong, he stressed that life is short, so it's best to be kind to one another during the time we have as it could all end tomorrow.

I marvel at the formal command that Andersson has as a filmmaker. The strong vertical and horizontal lines box in his put-upon characters. The camera, positioned at something akin to a medium wide shot (for lack of a better term) zoomed out all the way, is merciless in its probing examination of these people. Am I not mistaken in seeing that he has most of the poor souls populating his films in a kind of whiteface to make them look more sickly?

The post-film panel came up with plenty of excellent comparisons for describing Andersson's work. Elvis Mitchell likened it to a cross of Gary Larson's THE FAR SIDE comic strips and Ingmar Bergman's work. I would like to propose that although Mike Judge's filmmaking style (or rigor) is the same as Andersson's, he's the closest American director that I think is a kindred spirit.


Tomorrow: a panel (if I can make it), MUNYURANGABO, THE NEW AGE, and APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX.

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