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EBERTFEST Day 1: Dreams and Dreaming

April 22, 2010
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Roger and Chaz Ebert at Opening Gala. Photo courtesy of Omar Moore of Popcorn Reel

As soon as the plane touched down on Champaign and endless fields of lush greens poured into my view, I was flooded with a rush of joy, and I knew this was going to be special.

This is Ebertfest 2010, the 12th anniversary of the birth of a film festival that celebrates, above all, great cinema, and the visions of a great man who appreciates them.

The selection this year is fantastic to say the least. From the classic “Apocalypse Now Redux,” to complex masterpieces like “Synecdoche, New York,” to foreign gems like “Departures,” and to the underappreciated “Trucker,” these films are evocative, thought-provoking, and challenging. They deserve and demand to be absorbed, not simply sat through. I’ve seen some of them and have missed a few, but to see them on the big screen in a gorgeous theater with a packed enthusiastic crowd is an experience that is both invigorating and uplifting.

I had a taste of that tonight with “Pink Floyd The Wall (1982),” a demented cinematic ghost track to the 1979 Pink Floyd album “The Wall,” directed by British director Alan Parker. The screenplay is written by Pink Floyd vocalist and bassist Roger Waters and that is fundamentally the essence of the film – more musical than cinematic. In a sense the film is driven by the music, screaming images overlay each other to the beat of the song, colors fall in place with the tone, and the jagged pieces of stories resonate the lyrics, and vice versa. Most of the film is scored, and it’s never unclear that this is a Pink Floyd love affair through and through. It is also a Rock n’roll love song, and a dark one at that. We see the dark side of glamour: the drugs, the booze, the groupies, the sex, the overdose, the self despair. More than anything, this is a film of anguish. It is painful to watch, at times, and the main character seems to be constantly drowning in himself. Never able to outrun himself, he cuts and destroys his own flesh and blood, almost as if he wants to cut himself out of his body which cages him.

The images are powerful and provocative, especially the ones of animated flowers that metamorph into frightening shapes and contortions of one’s worse nightmares. However, my favorite is the use of a single telephone receiver, hanging by the cord, that reappears throughout the film. Another token is the color red which is used plentifully in close-up shots of blood spatter and wine spatters. There is a lot of blood and flesh here, as Ali Arikan, one of the FCCs pointed out in the on-stage Q&A after the film. The flesh is grinded out, ripped off, and cut, deeply, on multiple occassions. What is the meaning of all this? Is it merely pain? Or is it something more symbolic?

Then there was “You, the Living (2009),” which surprised and delighted me, mostly because I had heard nothing of it going in. Not intentionally, it just somehow happened, and I’m so glad it did. This quirky Swedish number is a mishmash of 50 vignettes, some starring repeat characters, some not. The palette is drab and dreary. The people sad. Indeed these may be the saddest people you’ll ever see congregating in the saddest looking bar with bright fluorescent lights which, let’s face it, flatter no one, especially not pale, sun-starved Swedes.

This is a comedy, and you may wonder how one can laugh at these sad people going about in their sad lives. The punchline, you see, lies in the obliviousness of it all. The people go about their lives as if this is the way things are expected to be. They complain, but you don’t sense the will to change. It is a flat whine, in most cases, and you sense that they are resolute with their choices…even if they haven’t realized it yet, and our sympathy is replaced with amusement. Like the time when the man who tries to pull out a tablecloth from under a long dining room table full of 200 year old chinas get the electric chair penalty, ruled by judges sipping from pints of beer. Or the time where a sizable woman in a viking helmet is enthusiastically having sex with a skinny tuba player who complains of bank problems.

There is one scene, involving a girl who, standing in the midst of the saddest bar you’ve ever seen, at closing time, retells her unimaginable crush on Mike, a rock guitarist she met. She doesn’t do so much in words, and instead we are thrown into her imagined honeymoon with Mike, in which a most amazing framing, music, and set is used to construct one of the sweetest, most romantic imagination of young love that I have ever seen, even amidst all that awful Ikea furniture and drab lighting.

SeongYong Cho, Omer Mozaffar, Charlie Kaufman, me, Michael Mirasol. Photo courtesy of Roger Ebert

And those are just the films for day one! Before the showings, I attended the Opening Gala at the University of Illinois President’s House where on an outdoor patio with sweeping views, I met all the Foreign Correspondents, Roger, Chaz, and Charlie Kaufman, who was being told by Roger that I tweeted about him just as I walked in (*facepalm*). That is another story that I’ll save for another time.

Roger and Chaz carry an amazing energy and presence in person. They are the perfect team, and Chaz even jokingly dubbed them the “comedy act” when Roger was scribbling and passing her notes as she was giving the welcoming speech. They kindly highlighted the Foreign Correspondents at both the Gala and the theater, making us stand up and getting recognized. It is an absolute honor, and the attention is something I may have to get used to in the next few days, being as private as I am. In the bathroom after “Pink Floyd”, some patrons came up to me and recognizing that I was a Foreign Correspondent, excitedly asked me what country I was from. I had to tell them that I was not as exotic as I seem, probably, and hail from their lovely neighbor Canada, as oppose to my fellow friends from faraway lands of Turkey and The Philippines. We had a good laugh about that. It was a good moment when I looked around at a roomful of smiling faces radiating welcome and friendliness, and beaming with a love for cinema. It is a moment that I’ll always treasure.

At the Opening Gala, I also met one of my favorite characters through Roger – Tom Dark. He is tall, with white mustache and hair, dressed in shorts, cargo vests and sandals, and one of a kind. I spotted him while sitting during the speeches. Something made me look up, and about 50 feet away directly in front of me, standing on the lawn all by his lonesome, is a man that glowed in white carrying a notebook. All I could see was his moustaches, and I knew in that second it was Tom, even though we’ve never met. We found that we were kindred spirits right away, and had an amazing conversation about dreams, and dreaming, at the end of the night. He told me about his charmed life with Cat, his wife, and his horses, at a magical ranch in New Mexico. He’s a born storyteller.

I fell asleep exhausted, dreaming of everything that felt so perfectly right, if shapeless at the moment.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2010 9:20 AM

    Vivid reportage–next best to participating!

  2. April 22, 2010 11:49 AM

    Yeah, I watched the Pink Floyd Q&A session online with Tom Dark. He seems to be quite a character–in the best sense of the word!

    I’m definitely saving up for next year. This post has made me want to go even more.

  3. April 22, 2010 2:15 PM

    I love how people don’t guess you’re Canadian! That’s why you’re quintessentially Canadian. So great. Toronto repreSENT! Give Ebertfest my best, Grace! All us Toronto film-dorks are with you all the way.

  4. Donald Roy Miller permalink
    April 22, 2010 4:11 PM

    Grace,
    I was delighted to see you listed among the panelists and special guests at Ebertfest. You certainly deserve to be there. I hope you have a wonderful time.

    You have lived such an interesting life and brought so much life-affirming joy to your readers (and probably everyone else who meets you). I hope this journey of yours continues to be such a splendid journey.

    Yours Truly,
    Donald Miller

  5. Donald Roy Miller permalink
    April 22, 2010 4:19 PM

    A lovely photo of both you and your friend Roger, something I’m sure you will always treasure!

  6. April 24, 2010 12:58 AM

    Hi Grace. I’ve enjoyed seeing you here at EbertFest this week.

    You did great at the panel discussion this morning. I was in the audience sitting with RE Journal friend Dave Van Dyke.

    You did great at the Departures Q&A too. Probably the most beautiful film that I’ve ever seen.

    Grace: thanks Randy. Great seeing you too. Hope you’re enjoying the fest!

  7. Tom Dark permalink
    April 27, 2010 11:09 PM

    No no, I’m not “quite a character.” I have quite a character. Grace is a most talented darling and I was delighted to pal around with her and miss her now. And I’m sorry I didn’t have time to get into things with Randy Masters, Dave van Dyke and Paul Marasa.

    “I’ve never met so many lovable people in the same place at the same time and it’s exhausting” is what I said about the Conference on World Affairs early this month. It went triple for Ebertfest. XOXOXOXOX

    Grace: BOO!

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