Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ebertfest 2012: Day 3

Chaz Ebert and Roger Ebert
Whether it’s the selected films or the genial vibe of the event , Roger Ebert’s presence can’t be missed at the festival bearing his name even if he is no longer introducing each movie and conducting every post-film Q&A.  He made his second appearance from the stage this year to lead into the showing of a documentary about a longtime filmmaker friend who experienced his own brush with death.

Ebert’s computer gave voice to some of his words.  His wife Chaz read the rest of a lovely tribute to director Paul Cox.  From introduction through the discussion, the session was an extended feel-good moment, so I’ll try my best not to seem like a crank in writing about the film, which I didn’t care for.
Chaz Ebert, Paul Cox, and festival director Nate Kohn
ON BORROWED TIME is part career overview, part documentation of Cox’s journey from cancer diagnosis to liver transplant.  I’ve not seen much of Cox’s work, but what I am familiar with hasn’t particularly won me over.  An abundance of shots and scenes from his oeuvre are regularly dropped into the documentary, but free of their contexts and with my rudimentary knowledge of his films, it looks like so much indistinguishable b-roll.  I’ll allow that, to some degree, this is my problem more than it is the film’s.

Watching this clip show and hearing people friends and collaborators attest to his abilities yielded the similar effect of taking in a concert film featuring a band whose greatness is, at best, something I’m not convinced of, and, at worst, something I question.  No matter how accomplished the final product might be, if the basic content isn’t engaging, it doesn’t matter how eloquently it’s delivered.

I want to be clear about my ignorance of Cox’s overall body of work and biases formed based on what I have seen.  I don’t think ON BORROWED TIME is a particularly good entry point for someone in my position.  It goes without saying that those with affection for the director’s films will take more away from this than I did, but that cuts straight to my issue with the documentary.  It’s for those already in the club, not those who need to be persuaded or educated.

I suppose it points out the positive environment fostered at Ebertfest if I feel as though I must be apologetic for disliking a film.  Then again, Cox means a lot to Ebert and went through a serious health situation, so in this instance it seems like I’m being a bit rude.  So it goes, I guess.
David Poland, The Alloy Orchestra's Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue, and David Bordwell
I’ll have no such problem praising The Alloy Orchestra, which has performed at almost every Ebertfest.  The three-piece band’s accompaniment to a silent film is an annual highlight, and this year is no different.  Rather than playing with one feature, they presented their WILD AND WEIRD program of short films from 1906 to 1928. (Some of the dates I’m listing with these films conflict with the information on The Alloy Orchestra’s website.  I’ve cross-referenced with the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia, but who knows which source is most accurate.)

The program consisted of:

-DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND (Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter, 1906)
-THE RED SPECTRE (LA SPECTRE ROUGE) (Segundo de Chomón and Ferdinand Zecca, 1907)
-THE ACROBATIC FLY (F. Percy Smtih, 1910)
-THE THIEVING HAND (J. Stuart Blackton, 1908)
-FILMSTUDIE (Hans Richter, 1926) (with poetry by Hugo Ball)
-THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, 1928)

Early cinema is a big blind spot for me, so it was a treat to see these highly imaginative and inventive shorts often experimenting with special effects and animation.  Among my favorites was the comedy ARTHÈME SWALLOWS HIS CLARINET is built upon an accident that results in an unfortunate musician having his instrument pushed through the back of his skull.  Think of star Ernest Servaès as a proto-Steve Martin with an arrow through his head.  The stop-motion animated THE CAMERAMAN’S REVENGE is a sophisticated parody of melodramas in which a restless beetle couple have extramarital affairs and run afoul of a camera-wielding grasshopper.  The short amazes with the personality given to the insects. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA is a visually striking criticism of a system that chews up and spits out aspiring stars.  Surely Guy Maddin, a past Ebertfest guest, would go crazy for it if he hasn't seen it.  (Fun fact: Gregg Toland photographed it.)  As a whole, the WILD AND WEIRD program served as a fun introduction to this time in cinema history.
Nell Minnow, Omer Mozaffar, Paul Cox, and Michael Barker

Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker is a regular Ebertfest guest and is here with three films this year.  His introduction to A SEPARATION, in which he described it as a perfect film, set the bar high.  Having already seen and loved Asghar Farhadi’s film, I was inclined to agree.  (My review is here.)  Seeing it again, I’m convinced that Barker isn’t resorting to hyperbole.  It’s amazing how no moment, shot, or line of dialogue is wasted in A SEPARATION.  If a film can achieve the platonic ideal of perfection, this one has done it.

One line that stuck out to me this time was when Nader corrects his daughter Termeh during a language lesson.  She uses a word that her teacher told her was correct, but Nader argues that “wrong is wrong” and that it does not matter who says otherwise.  (I wish I’d written down the exact line.)  This point gets to the crux of the dispute between the couples and why it spins out of control.  The failure of everyone involved to own up to their mistakes inflames an already volatile matter.


-This year’s festival has had a bit of bad luck in terms of invited guests being able to attend.  Patton Oswalt couldn’t make it Thursday.  A SEPARATION star Peyman Moadi was supposed to be in Champaign on Friday, but Barker explained that he’s currently shooting a movie in such a remote part of Iran that they were unable to get in touch with him.

-Each year it’s interesting to discover what improvements have been made to the Virginia Theatre.  This time it’s a renovated men’s restroom.  It is nicer, although I think there’s even less room to maneuver in it now.  Never fear, though.  The best view of Champaign (from the urinals) remains.

-On Opening Night I was pleased that an organist was back at the festival, but unless I’ve missed him, he’s not been present since.

On Borrowed Time (David Bradbury, 2011): C-/40
Wild and Weird program (Various): B+/74
A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (Asghar Farhadi, 2011): A+/100

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