EBERTFEST: Finale and thoughts
I have been busy catching up on life post-fest, emails, and sleep. I have also been putting off writing because to do so would be to admit that this amazing journey is really over, and I’m not quite ready to do that yet.
But I will. Like all good things they must progress and move on. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t precious in the moments that they occupied. It doesn’t mean that they fade into oblivion as we flow past. It only means that in the strange, serendipitous planes of time and space when me, you, and they did intersect, that in those brief moments, something changed for the better. That change permeates us, and carries us forward.
As said in the book “Rumi: The Book of Love” given to me by a dear friend: In each human being there is a meeting with the divine. That intersection is the heart.
Fair warning: the films are broken down by days, then Steak n’Shake, then final thoughts. Grab a drink.
The third day started early for the Far-Flung Correspondents (FFCs) as our panel, “Global Web of Film Lovers,” was in the morning. We had no preparation and all agreed that it is best if we just spoke from our personal experiences on the spot. The hour and a half flew by. We talked about films, cultures, internet, writing, and how all these topics intersect in our modern day society, in front of a full audience and being streamed live worldwide. I was surprised and honored to learn during and afterward that David Bordwell, Charlie Kaufman, Jim Emerson, amongst others all took the time to attend. Most of it was a blur for me. Roger told me after that it was a great success. You can watch the panel in full here.
Following the panel was Departures (2008). I watched this film for the first time in a small arthouse theater in Toronto that has since been closed, chest heaving with sobs through more than half the frames with everyone else in the showing. It was the movie that most emotionally devastated me, ever. Despite preparation, it was not any easier this time around and I had to clean myself up in the bathroom before going on the stage to do Q&A with director Yojiro Takita, Michael Mirasol, and the prolific David Bordwell.
This film, to me, is about death, but also about the living. Its emotional impact comes from not just focusing on the deaths, which would make it a hopelessly depressing film, but to use death as an opportunity, a gateway, for the living to reflect on their lives. It is a film of redemption and hope, which I saw much more clearly the second time around. During the Q&A, Mr. Takita confirmed that the whole time he was making the film, he was making it for the living. Mr. Takita also revealed that he asked the actors who played the dead what kind of funerals they would like to have, and incorporated those ideas into the plot. There are many tokens used in this film that carry significant emotional payoffs, including a yellow scarf and a stone, which is attached to a most beautiful story.
The audience was tremendously warm and receptive in this Q&A, probably more than any other at the festival, and many took the chance to thank Mr. Takita for the film. One particular man revealed that he is a funeral director and relates deeply to the film, and thanked Mr. Takita for portraying his profession so gracefully. It was a heartfelt moment. Mr. Takita ended off the Q&A with a hilarious line from the film which, well, you have to see it to believe it. The whole Q&A is archived here.
The next film is Man With a Movie Camera (1929), an experimental silent documentary, directed by Russian director Dziga Vertof. The film is accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra, a three man musical ensemble who write and perform live accompaniment to classic silent films. In my opinion, all silent films should be seen on the big screen with a live orchestra, period. It is an absolute treat – both an audio and visual feast. The film is dazzling in its own right – in gorgeous black and white, it employs no particular characters, plots, or dialogue. It is a series of images that dance with the freedom and agility of a hare. Vertof joyfully experiments with speed, cut, framing, angles, and even the direction the film is played (some footage are played backwards). It is this agility that makes the film uniquely enjoyable – if you can let go the impulse to analyze. Let the freeze frames, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, split screens, stop motion, fast motion, jump shots engulf you, and just let your mind wander. That’s what I did. I don’t particularly remember any one frame of the film, or much of what happened. I knew it was about Soviet workers and their every day life, and that there was a lot of chaos, and an eerie beauty, and a weariness that is ordinary but endearing, and I enjoyed it all. I am afraid to recommend seeing this film alone without a live orchestra simply because it was so good seeing it with an orchestra. If you ever have the chance to do so, do not pass it up.
Mentally exhausted by this point after the morning panel, the emotional high of “Departures”, and the thought-provoking silent film, there was only a brief reprieve for dinner before readying myself for Synecdoche, New York (2008). Masterpiece.
What? Major piece. Yes. I was just saying. This is my second time seeing this film, and I must say each viewing brings more clarity. Not clarity in terms of plot, but emotional clarity. First viewing took place in my living room, and afterwards I curled up on the couch for a long while, pondering about everything that constituted my life and the person I was, and am, and may be. There was a pit in the back of my stomach that seemed to fall into a deep dark tunnel, and the rabbit hole quivered with allure. Wrapped up in my soft pale blue blanket, everything felt cool and clammy. Through the ivory curtains, the dusk lights glowed. There was no safety in sight.
I knew then that I will watch the film again. When Roger told me it was playing at Ebertfest, I knew that would be the occassion. It was a very different experience seeing it on the big screen with 1500 audience members. The humor was amplified. The sadness was…lighter (some invariably laugh where I find no humor), and I’m not sure if it’s better this way, but it was definitely memorable. The audience reacted with a complexity that matched that of the film. Some were befuddled, I could see on their faces. Others were deep in thoughts. Still, others were sad, confused, surprised, eager to discuss. This film provoked a spectrum of deep emotions in a spectrum of individuals, and I cannot think of a more accurate definition of a masterpiece than that.
Writer and director Charlie Kaufman said in the Q&A that he made “Synecdoche, New York” to reward multiple viewings, that he didn’t want to give his take on the film, because he has already made his piece, and now wants to leave it up to others to receive it with their own individual interpretations. This is perfectly sound to me. Melissa Merli, the tireless and sharp News-Gazette journalist, sums up the Q&A here.
Kaufman further remarked: ” The most depressing thing to me are happy movies that are lies.” This, to me, speaks everything to his essence as a filmmaker – a seeker of truth. He recognizes that humanity has many facets, some unsightly, all complex, all interesting, and he doesn’t shy away from exploring each and every one of those that interests him. Sure, there are happier things to discuss than death and illness and loneliness, you say. Sure, there are sunnier moments in life, but those are often fleeting, relatively speaking. True happiness are, for most people, moments of ecstasy. Loneliness, mundanity, anxiety, stress, these are prolonged states of being that frequently last longer than we wish. I realize you can argue this the other way around, and then you would be living a better life than most and probably should be off continously being happy instead of reading this.
Why is the house burning? Why doesn’t Olive forgive Caden? Why is the apartment always being cleaned? Why is the world a stage? Why is there a play within a play? Why are petals falling off of Olive’s tattoo? I have my own thoughts on all of those, and they are mine alone. You have yours, and that is a gift. I asked Kaufman if he ever considered making a happy movie that is not a lie. He replied without missing a beat: “Yes, if it felt truthful to me, I would.”
Saturday morning brought I Captured The Castle (2003), a film that I first heard of when Roger casually mentioned in an email that he put me on the post-film Q&A panel. “Thought it may be your kind of movie,” he said. I paused for a few seconds and then looked up his review. The reason became evident after the first sentence: “I Capture the Castle is the kind of novel dreamy adolescents curl up with on rainy Saturdays, imagining themselves as members of a poor but brilliantly eccentric family living in a decrepit English castle.” If you have read me at all, this is clearly something I did often, if not weekly, as a dreamy adolescent. Except the castle was not always English. My taste varied.
Directed by Tim Fywell, the film is, at its heart, a whimsical coming-of-age story of young women. It is set in 1936 with the Mortmain family living in a broken down English castle. The father James, played by Bill Nighy, is a novelist with a one-hit masterpiece that has failed to write anything ever since. The step-mother is an eclectic artist who enjoys standing naked in the open air. The two daughters, Rose and Cassandra, are of marrying age, naive, and curious about adulthood. Then arrived two young, rich American men, and it’s not hard to imagine what happens next, except everything don’t work out exactly like clockwork, and there within lies the loveliness of the picture.
Bill Nighy was scheduled to be here for the Q&A but his presence was unfortunately canceled by flight delay due to the volcano ashes. Nell Minow, Ali Arikan, Lisa Rosman and I had a lively discussion nonetheless, and it even turned into a bit of a geekfest when references to Austen and Shakespeare were brought up. To me, the bright spot that carries this film is Cassandra, who is one of those strong, full-bodied, complex young female characters that is so rarely seen on screen today. She is a writer, and from that comes her rich internal reflections and keen sense of self-awareness. Her emotional state is multi-colored, and she doesn’t always do the right thing or the expected thing, and she has her own mind and values, and she sticks by them, and she refuses to settle or becomes a cliche, all these making her a respectable human being.
So many films about first love portray the girl as either falling in love hopelessly at first sight, or has some kind of misunderstanding but invariably overcome them to achieve a happy ending nonetheless. Real life is not so crystal clear. There are muddy waters all around. Our intentions don’t always match our actions, and we can’t always predict the consequences of their interaction. But we learn from the process, and we grow, and we are better for it in the end, no matter what happens. That is an important lesson to learn for young folks and this film teaches it, making it a more worthy watch than many of the “Last Song” likes out there.
Next up was Vincent, a Life in Color (2008), a documentary about a fascinating character: Vincent P. Falk. He’s a resident of Chicago and has been performing for the patrons on every single tour boat cruising the Chicago river since 2000 in his flashy suits, which have become his trademark. Vincent would twirl and twirl, then take off his jacket and swing it over his head like a helicopter blade, and then twirl again. The man has so many suits of blinding hues that it is fascinating to see where he shops just as much as where he wears them. Vincent has severe vision impairments, and can only see out of one eye with a 1/8 visual field, which equals to about the size of a key hole in the door. Imagine living your life that way, squinting through the space of a key hole, according to the film that is what Vincent does. However, meeting him in person, Vincent is remarkably capable and sure of himself. He participated in the whole festival from beginning to end, attended all the events, and made puns whenever he could. The only time that I saw him needing help was at a crowded party when he needed a cup of ice, and I got it for him.
First time director Jennifer Burns funded the movie entirely by herself, “on credit cards,” she said. It is a labor of love that shows. The camera follows Vincent, along with close-ups of his one friend, his foster parents, and the nun who taught him how to read. The jagged pieces come together to reveal a man who is intelligent, borne with a visual impairment, and has had to struggle all his life to be normal. Perhaps somewhere along the line Vincent decided that his normal was going to be the focus of everyone else’s attention. Perhaps Vincent decided that, screw being normal, and just wanted to be happy, and the suits and shows brought him that. The film never precisely explains why Vincent is the way he is. There is no profound revelation. There is, however, a look into a perplexing, interesting human being, and it is a well-shot documentary.
The third billing of the day is Trucker (2008), which turned out to be the best film that I saw for the first time at Ebertfest, and easily one of the best of last year. I remembered when Roger first wrote about it and tried to look for it in theaters and on DVD. I was never able to find it and I can’t understand why: an unusual and beautiful female protagnist, a strong lead performance, countered by a strong supporting performance by a child actor, awesome cinematography, and perfect emotional pitch. What’s not to like? What’s not to sell?
Michelle Monaghan plays a tough, cynical, independent truck driver in her 30s. She just paid off her rig and has a routine – works hard, makes the early bonus, gets drunk with her best guy pal, and maybe a quickie in between with some random guy at a rest stop. She is methodical, organized, and no bullshit. She works and rationalizes like a stereotypical man, and men don’t know what to do with her. Michelle Monaghan is SO GOOD here. So good. With that porcelain face and delicate features, she somehow pulls off the tough facade with a frightening sincerity. You believe that look in her eyes when the kid walks up to her and she says it’s not going to work. Life doesn’t always work out the way you planned. First time writer-director James Mottern gets the tone absolutely right, and avoids obvious pay-offs and emotional jerk-offs. Like that old saying: shit happens. At least this film deals with it truthfully. Monaghan, along with Swinton (for “Julia”), should have been nominated for Best Actress last year.
By this time, I was feeling unwell from the lack of sleep and food (did an interview after “I Captured the Castle” and missed lunch), had to get some rest and was sad to miss Barfly.
The last film of Ebertfest on Sunday morning is traditionally one followed by a live music performance. This year, the choice is Song Sung Blue (2008). In many ways, this is a perfect little number to end the Festival. It is haunting, bare, and violently realistic. It is also a love story. We meet Lightening & Thunder, also known as Mike and Claire Sardina, who are music performers in Milwaukee. They were a double act both on stage and off, and were wildly popular on both. They loved each other, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health. They were struck by tragedies — crazy, untimely tragedies — and they dealt with them the best way they could. They were dreamers, never fans of the 9-5 jobs, and had their eyes on Vegas. They loved each other and their families, and were loved in return. In many ways this is an ordinary story, a story that many of us have experienced in parts.
The remarkable thing here is the film-making. This is director Greg Kohs’ first independent feature length documentary, one he shot over 8 years. In many ways, Kohs became that invisible eye in the room that holds the key to a great documentary, where the subjects let their guards down and let you in. L&T did. Thunder attended the screening and in the post-film Q&A, you can see how much she trusted Kohs. They speak to each other like family. After the film, Thunder came on the stage and performed. She ended the show with “a little upbeat number by ABBA.” The audience went wild. Roger and Chaz started grooving. Everyone was on their feet. Arms in the air. Thunder grinning like a little kid singing her heart out.
And that, my friends, was how Ebertfest 2010 ended – in triumph.
This post would not be complete without mentioning the Neil Street Steak n’Shake, which I frequented 3 times in 4 days with the FFC gang, and the Eberts came along for the last one. Post-Apocalypse (Now Redux), I took my first foray into the bliss.
The steakburger, I have to admit, is DELICIOUS. Juicy, tender, well-cooked but not burnt, with good amounts of toppings and a chewy bun. My favorite, though, are probably the onion rings which were fried to a golden crisp in perfect batter and huge servings. The milkshakes looked as good as they tasted. I chose mint cookies n’cream partially for the color (don’t judge), and wasn’t disappointed by the taste either. However, it was simply too huge for me to finish. I forgot everything in the states is supersized.
A sizable group of us took over a long table. Included in the group were four highschool students who took time off school and travelled by themselves across states (I forget where…sorry) to Ebertfest in order to attend, as well as Jackson Savage, a 15 year old from New Mexico whose awesome mom agreed to accompany him here. They were an energetic bunch and kept on repeating how excited they were to be here. Jackson, in particular, was wise beyond his years and told me that the writings of some of the FFCs have helped his “emotional evolution.” “Your what?” I stared at him, “I didn’t even know what that meant when I was 15.” And that is true. He will go on to sizable things. On the other end of the table is director James Mottern, who had no idea, along with everyone else, what poutine was. Poutine! The epitome of Canadian foods! Here is everything you need to know about Poutine. Looking around the table, this is movie-appreciation as it should be – filmmakers, critics/writers, movie appreciators, fans, regardless of age and culture, united by a pure, unadulterated joy for cinema…and a good burger and shake.
If you told me 10 days ago that I will meet some of the warmest, most welcoming people ever who will make me feel like home in Champaign, Illinois in 5 days, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I did.
If you told me 10 days ago that I will meet a handful of amazing people who will become life-long friends in 5 days, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I did.
If you told me 10 days ago that I will not only get to watch one of my favorite films with the director, but to talk with him both on stage and off, and so kindly receive a parting gift from him, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I did.
If you told me 10 days ago that I will be discussing cinema, life, and philosophy with some of the most brilliant writers of our times, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I did.
There are so many things that made this past week so special to me. I won’t bother with words (you see, I do have a sense of humor). Those of you who were there know how I feel. Those of you reading now, I hope you sense it as well. It has been an absolute pleasure. Until next time, Champaign IL.
Oh, and I wouldn’t have believed that I could ever eat a burger and a milkshake at 2am and then go to bed and sleep like a baby…but I did! And it was a masterpiece.