Friday, April 19, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Day 2

As I lingered under the Virginia Theatre’s marquee avoiding the cold rain before the first film of the day, I was approached by a man with a DSLR camera and asked if I would provide some thoughts for a documentary about Roger Ebert's Film Festival.  I hesitated because I sort of feel like I’ve said all I have to say about the festival and its namesake.  (Only three days of coverage remaining to churn out!)  I blogged a little about Ebert after learning of his passing, and I’ve been covering the festival for more years than it seems possible.  What words do I have left to string together on the subjects?  Eventually I agreed to go on camera and answer a few questions.  Badly, probably.  Editors, work your magic to spin gold from those rambling soundbites.

I’ll admit that it’s easy to lack something to say on this particular day.   I started writing this early Friday as developments in Boston competed for my attention.  Wild reports were beginning to surface about what sounded like a city turned upside down as the hunt for the marathon bombers continued.  And yes, it sounded like something out of an action movie, although more and more that comparison seems increasingly lazy.

The thing is, the film festival environment is largely a haven from all this sort of news.  Sure, I attempt to keep up with Twitter between movies, but that amounts to rapid scrolling through my feed.  Otherwise the theater--and it’s just one location at Ebertfest--is a virtual bubble, as is the community of people around it.  It’s not as though one can’t keep up with what’s going on in the larger world but that it’s nice to be in a self-contained space for a little while.  Isn’t that part of the appeal of the movies, to inhabit a mental landscape where the outside world disappears for a couple hours, even if what is on the screen relates strongly to reality.?

Thursday’s four films--three features and a short--kept the real world close at hand. The festival director’s daughter co-directed the short TO MUSIC, which included Ebertfest regular Paul Cox in a small role.  The theme of becoming absorbed in art, not as a way of shutting out but enhancing life, seems ever so applicable with what surrounds the festival this year.

I’ve not shared Ebert’s enthusiasm for Cox’s films, and when it became apparent that VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH would be John Hurt reading the artist’s letters to his brother over experimental imagery, recreated period scenes, and footage of Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings, part of me despaired prematurely.  99 minutes of this?!  While some of the nature b-roll wasn’t evocative of anything in particular, tracking the artist’s development and interior life in such a manner turned out to be instructive.  Off the top of my head, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this mixture of biography and art history. Cox invites a new way of seeing Van Gogh’s work, whether through juxtaposition of the items and places that inspired what he put onto canvases or noting the gradual stylistic shifts.
Kevin B. Lee, In the Family's Patrick Wang and Trevor St. John, and Michael Barker
It’s impossible to watch Patrick Wang’s IN THE FAMILY and not be reminded of the consequences, sometimes unintended, that legislative and legal decisions have on common people, yet the film’s achievement is demonstrating in heartbreaking detail how the political is personal.  This could very easily have been a TV movie-of-the-week issues drama that backslaps viewers who share the “correct” point of view about gay rights as they pertain to marriage, visitation, and parenting.  Instead Wang is more interested in studying how good people behave when backed into corners they don’t expect to find themselves in.  Forget for a moment what the government or the law says is just.  What is the humane thing to do?

This was my second time seeing IN THE FAMILY, and I was struck again by how empathetic it is to all parties. In telling the story the way that he does Wang reveals a clear perspective on how such family struggles should be handled, but it never feels like he’s pushing an agenda.  The tension exists on an interpersonal level but lacks nastiness.  Blame is accepted on both sides.  It’s simply scared people reacting to protect what they feel needs preserving.

As writer, director, and star Wang gives the story and performances room to breathe. For the most part it’s a successful approach that deepens the connections even while a lot of the family history is inferred and implied.  Some scenes stretch out beyond their usefulness, but the length and deliberate unfolding of the plot are integral to the payoff in an extended deposition scene in the final act.
Bernie's Richard Linklater and Michael Barker with Jack Black by phone
Richard Linklater’s BERNIE capped the day with some much-needed laughs after the seriousness pervading all of the Ebertfest films to this point.   That’s an odd thing to say about a dark comedy about the real-life murder of an old woman but there it is.  Since I think I have tapped whatever words I had available for this write-up, I’ll point you to my review of BERNIE and try to refill for tomorrow.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Opening Night

Ultimately Opening Night at the fifteenth annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was not markedly different from any of the twelve others I’ve attended.  Although he can no longer be there to prevail over the proceedings, in a sense the start of this year’s fest was the fulfillment of everything he worked toward with it.  The community that has sprung up around Ebertfest and his relationships with writers and filmmakers near and far took center stage.

Far-Flung Correspondent Grace Wang’s short film I REMEMBER opened the event. A brief video tribute to Ebert edited by Michael Mirasol, another FFC, featured various thumbs-up from the movies and the critic’s analogue from Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA.  Four University of Illinois chorus members led a sing-along to “Those Were the Days” with lyrics Ebert customized for this night.  An Ebert-selected clip from CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT added cheerful and wistful notes reminding what the festival has given all who have been to it. One of the great films was projected in a beautiful 35mm print.   Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic and contributor to Ebert’s website ,led the post-film discussion with Chicago cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom this year’s festival is dedicated.  The theater itself showed off its latest renovations and restorations, improvements that were driven in part by the festival making its home at the Virginia.  And there guiding it all was his wife Chaz showing remarkable composure while occasionally going off script from the comments she said she would stick to while performing her duties as host.  It was not a somber night but rather a warm reminder of how one film critic had direct or indirect influences on all who were present.
In recent years fewer films have been shown from 35mm sources at Ebertfest.  If there’s only one this go-round, the organizers made it count.  Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN looked spectacular on the Virginia Theatre’s enormous screen. With its use of available light DAYS OF HEAVEN boasts one of the great achievements in cinematography.  I’ve seen the film two other times, once on DVD on a 27” TV and once from 35mm, but this viewing was something of a revelation in major and minor ways.  I’d never noticed the migrant workers in the distance throwing hammers in the upper lefthand corner of the frame while front and center are Richard Gere and Brooke Adams laying in the wheat field.  Linda Manz’s flat narration had been an obstacle of sorts for me in previous viewings, but this time I marveled at how it brings a unique tone and point of view to what could have been a familiar love triangle.

More significantly, during my third viewing of DAYS OF HEAVEN Malick’s impressionist style and signatures announce themselves in a way that unites his body of work.  His elliptical storytelling, thematic exploration of spiritual communion and separation, and use of dance and dance-like movement is all here in this 1978 film, albeit not as refined as he’s pushed them in THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER.  Clearly story is not his primary interest.  Here’s it’s about the emotional rather than the narrative experience, yet it’s fascinating to discover how sharply written this film is in advancing major chunks of plot through a choice sentence or two and revealing its essence.  Gere asks Adams who’s going to know about what they’re up to, and she responds that nobody will.  Of course, DAYS OF HEAVEN implies that while mankind may be ignorant, God is observing and can choose to keep such sinners out of or banish them from His house.
During the post-film discussion Wexler, who’s credited with additional photography, mentioned how they reproduced the locust swarm, an effect that boggled my mind while watching the film.  They shot the scene in reverse while someone in a helicopter dropped coffee beans.  Beat that, CGI.

All in all, it was a terrific way to begin the fifteenth Ebertfest.  We’ll see how this festival goes for me, though, because I suffered an injury that hopefully won’t have me hobbling around too much.  Going down the stairs I felt a muscle in my calf pop. Leaving the theater was a bit of a painful challenge, but with rest, ice, elevation, and ibuprofen, I’m hoping to stay out of urgent care and not have my festival experience affected.  The year Ebert slipped and hurt his arm during Ebertfest didn’t slow him down, so surely I can soldier through whatever this is.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Pre-festival thoughts

For the thirteenth consecutive year here I am in Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  To state the blatantly obvious, this one isn’t going to be like the others.  Ebert’s passing less than two weeks before opening night will make a significant difference in this year’s event compared to previous editions.  How could it not?  Yet from what I’ve seen of and read about the celebrations of his life, I expect this fifteenth festival to be a fitting tribute to Ebert.  Watching and discussing films for five days in his hometown seems like a good way to honor and remember the beloved film critic.

While Ebert is closely associated with Chicago, this festival is best served by being downstate.  It had to be a thrill for Ebert to launch his own film festival in the place where he grew up and to bring movies and filmmakers where they otherwise would have likely never appeared.  Screens are not abundant in this area for mainstream fare, let alone art and foreign-language films.  No multiplex currently operates within the Champaign-Urbana city limits.  The multiplex in Champaign recently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen soon, but for now locals will have to go to the one nearby in Savoy.  According to the movie theater app on my phone, a drive-in is the only other location within fifty miles of here showing Hollywood’s latest offerings (in season, of course).
Specialty films do have a home in Champaign at the single-screen Art Theater, just a stone’s throw from Ebertfest’s headquarters at the Virginia Theatre.  If memory serves, this was one of Ebert’s old stomping grounds.  (I seem to recall him mentioning seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s WEEKEND at this theater, but don’t hold me to that.)  The Art Theater is now run as a co-op and appears to be going better than ever.  The programming is more eclectic than what would be expected of a theater shouldering the burden of being the only place exhibiting smaller films.  It’s not just booking the latest studio dependent titles (ie., Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Feature releases), as the immersive fishing documentary LEVIATHAN is enjoying a week’s run.  I don’t have hard evidence to draw a direct line from Ebertfest to the continuing operation of and diverse programming at the Art Theater, but surely some of the credit for its success is because the festival has nurtured the area’s cinephile community.  Plenty of people like me come from out of town to Ebertfest, but it remains, first and foremost, a local event.
Having arrived a day early for Ebertfest and with nothing to do Tuesday night, I ventured to The Art Theater to see a documentary about bees called MORE THAN HONEY.  I figured I ought to check out the theater if it is a part of Ebert’s moviegoing history.  (If my memory is incorrect, at least I got to see one of a dying breed of old local cinemas.)  To my astonishment, the line was out the door to buy a ticket.  I’d estimate a crowd of one hundred attended the film, which is no small feat, and almost everyone stuck around for the post-film Q&A with area beekeepers and bee experts.
Although the MORE THAN HONEY screening was not associated with Ebert or his festival, I’d like to believe that the impressive turnout is indicative of part of the legacy he leaves Champaign-Urbana, as though he were like a Johnny Appleseed for the movies.  Ebertfest this year will surely bear that out.  This year’s passes and tickets have sold out.  One report suggests that the festival will go on in the years to come and can still be programmed, in a sense, by Ebert.  If movies can outlive their creators and move and inspire for decades onward, it only seems right that this film festival, rooted in appreciation and community rather than competition, be able to do the same.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Like so many others of my generation and younger who write about film, Roger Ebert inspired me to do it too, so I can’t help but feel kind of stunned at news today of his passing.  Growing up I followed his TV show with Gene Siskel through its name alterations (SNEAK PREVIEWS to AT THE MOVIES to SISKEL & EBERT), channel changes (PBS to syndication), and fluctuating airtimes (middle of the afternoon to dead of night).  I was curious about movies, and these guys had a lot of enthusiasm for them.  Good grief, I even copied the format of their show with the one I’ve been co-producing since 1997.

With his annual MOVIE HOME COMPANION compilations and online reviews, Ebert’s writing was more accessible, which is why he played a greater role than his co-host in shaping my ideas of how to watch, think, and write about films.  Ebert’s work was also accessible in the sense that he was welcoming in how he conversed with his audience about what he thought was worthwhile.  He was a cultural educator who didn’t speak above or down to his readers and viewers.  With his seal of approval, whether a thumbs up or four stars, he encouraged moviegoers to stray outside their cinematic comfort zones.  Following his tastes often led to rich discoveries, and not all of those rewards had to do specifically with movies.

In less than two weeks I’ll be making my thirteenth consecutive trip to Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  When I started going in 2001, the attractions were the opportunity to watch movies all day for a few days in an enormous old theater, sit in on Ebert’s introductions and post-film discussions, and see (and possibly meet) the filmmakers.  The movies and guests are still a big part of the draw, but I’ve also returned year after year because of the community around the festival.  At Ebertfest I’ve become friends with people from around the country and the world.  Coming back to this event every April can feel as much like a family reunion as a film festival.  That warm vibe around Ebertfest seems by design and strikes me as being as representative of who Ebert was as anything in his writing was.

I didn’t know Ebert, although I did meet him on a few occasions.  It’s virtually impossible to have attended Ebertfest and not have encountered the namesake at least once, whether at the Virginia Theatre, the Illini Union, or elsewhere around town.  It was no secret that Ebert was fond of Steak ‘n Shake and had established it as a traditional meeting spot for festival guests.  (In 2003 I saw him at the burger chain late at night with Bertrand Tavernier, Paul Cox, and others.)  After the last screening in 2011 I met up with some other Ebertfest attendees at the Steak ‘n Shake on Neil St. Eventually Ebert and his wife Chaz showed up and joined us.  Ebert surely loved being able to program his own festival--what critic wouldn’t?--but in this setting you could also see that he was thrilled to be able to bring people together through a shared love of movies.  As a longtime fan, I’m glad I had the chance at that moment to thank him for the inspiration he has been to me as a writer and for the event I’ve looked forward to every April.

There’s much about Ebert as a writer to admire and aspire to, but if I could emulate him in any way, it’s in the enthusiasm, generosity, and fearlessness he demonstrated. His work ethic never failed to impress, especially when he had health problems. When he was able to host Ebertfest, there was no one who seemed more excited to be there than him.  He used his platform as the best-known film critic of his time to encourage and champion writers as well as the films he felt deserved more attention.  He set a remarkable example of how to face illness.  I feel like I should find some grand way to tie all this together, but really, all that I can say is that I’ll miss him.