At Ebertfest, where no one mutters about the color of your ticket and the ‘Times’ doesn’t rule
It's a sentiment I felt while sitting through all of the Ebertfest selections and panels. Why is it so hard to market films that are so entertaining and accessible, just because of subtitles, or a hijab or a scarcity of white skin onscreen? Is it really true that in 2012, there is no way to draw millions of multiplex viewers without cataclysmic C.G.I.? On various panels, including one that I sat on, esteemed critics and filmmakers seemed resigned to the fact that Hollywood is led by wisdom of the market, however fickle and stupid it becomes as a result.
Take Shelter, a film fully stocked with white people and small portions of cataclysmic C.G.I., furthered the legend of writer-director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon. They made the equally intense slow-roast drama Shotgun Stories in 2007 before stunning critics last year with this followup.
Take Shelter is ostensibly about a man quietly losing his mind, but what makes it an Ebertfest film is its fascination with the man's marriage. With a minimum of words, Shannon and Jessica Chastain, as his wife, demonstrate the combination of chemistry, trust, and loyalty that keep a family together in the worst of times.
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining has always been criminally mislabeled a cold fright machine when it really bursts with compassion for Shelly Duvall's character, a gentle woman watching alcoholism tear her family apart. The terror in that film barely outpaces the heartbreak. Take Shelter is in the Shining tradition, going Kubrick one better by confirming that the phantasms and delusions are less interesting than the lives they disrupt. It's easy to see a personal stake in this film's selection, in light of Roger and Chaz's past six years. Cancer is the supreme terror.
The least disciplined film I saw at the fest best captures the sense of eccentric family and community at Ebertfest—and not just because the director, born and raised in Chicago, busted a freestyle rap while waiting for a projection error to be fixed. Prashant Bhargava's Patang comes on like a precocious piece of Chaos Cinema, cutting fast between shaky medium-to-extreme closeups of life in Ahmedaba, India, where folks are preparing for a traditional kite-flying festival.
Many of the images seem to have been stained unevenly with beautiful dyes or passed through prisms, mirrors and pinholes. Some simulate the grain and saturation of Super 8 footage (which a character anachronistically shoots, using a magically inexhaustible film cartridge). All of it is glossy-magazine gorgeous, but Bhargava assures us right away that this jewel-like opulence is not just for show: grand, ornate titles announce each character with swelling pride. Not the actors, just the characters they play. We're used to seeing this device in hardboiled films like Pusher or Inglourious Basterds, in anticipation of how badass our anti-hero or villain will behave. But Bhargava's titles say, "Each of these people is special and important. You will grow to love them as I do, when all is said and done."
And I did. Cinematographer Shanker Rahman's shaky camera turns out to be a smokescreen for how rigorously Bhargava keeps to the rhythms of the day, and the rhythms of life. (Early on, the musical score reminded me of Ravi Shankar's work on the Apu trilogy, the ultimate in life rhythms.) Tension between a visiting rich uncle (Mukund Shukla) and his resentful nephew (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) stews alongside everyone's excitement about the upcoming kite festival and a female cousin's flirtation with a roguishly handsome neighbor.
There are a lot of other characters who Bhargava fights to keep up with along the way, and they all get a chance to earn their gilded titles when the kite festival explodes in what I must steal from Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of another excellent anthem to call "convulsive lyricism." The entire town sends aloft its handmade kites from rooftops while, down in the narrow, shadowy alleys and cul de sacs, brutal reality continues. The long day closes with fireworks, music, dancing, and a confession of young love so sweet and true, I made up my mind right there that I was watching a great filmmaker emerge.
I thought of Patang when Chaz took the stage on the last day of the festival to introduce Roger's Citizen Kane presentation. She asked Chuck and Eileen Keunneth to stand up. They're a married couple who fell in love at one of Roger's film classes decades ago and are still going strong. When everybody applauded, they kissed, to a chorus of aawww. She then said she hoped that those of us who hadn't yet found love would find it in the near future and take that love to the movies.
Chaz brings an unrehearsed sweetness and emotional intelligence to the event, something more than just a consolation prize for those who miss her husband's wide-eyed eloquence. She reminds us that it's not about the brand, not some cult of personality that everyone wants a piece of, but an idea that her husband tries to live by. He puts "Ebert" on everything—books, festivals, TV shows—because he's proud of the name he inherited from hardworking folks and understands that its value in the showbiz marketplace can be leveraged to promote more and more worthy films, filmmakers, causes, and people. Chaz's interactions with the audience remind us that this is a giant conversation, not a visitation from the Pope of cinema.
Maybe it all started at Alcoholics Anonymous. A passage about AA meetings in Ebert's Life Itself seems to capture the free spirit of Ebertfest: "As we went around the room with our comments, I was able to see into lives I had never glimpsed before. The Mustard Seed, the lower floor of a two-flat near Rush Street, had meetings from seven a.m. to ten p.m., and all-nighters on Christmas and New Years’ eves. There I met people from every walk of life, and we all talked easily with one another because we were all there for the same reason, and that cut through the bullshit. One was Humble Howard, who liked to perform a dramatic reading from his driver’s license—name, address, age, color of hair and eyes. He explained, 'That’s because I didn’t have an address for five years.'
"When I mention Humble Howard, you’re possibly thinking you wouldn’t be caught dead at a meeting where someone did dramatic readings from his driver’s license. He was as funny as a stand-up comedian. I realized that I’d tended to avoid people because of superficial judgments about who they were and what they would have to say. AA members who looked like bag ladies would relate what their lives used to be like, what happened, and what they were like now. Such people were often more eloquent than slick young professionals. I discovered that everyone, speaking honestly and openly, had important things to tell me."
I am one of the beneficiaries of this discovery. Two years ago, writer friends of mine, including the editor of Ebert's websites, Jim Emerson, brought my writing and videos to his attention. I wrote as honestly as I could about being a homeless, slightly crazy, and self-destructive film critic. Two years later, I still wrestle with my issues openly in writing, but my friend Roger has yet to avert his eyes. He sent me an invite to this year's Ebertfest, where superficial judgments tend to fall away under the power of a shared obsession and important things to tell.