At Ebertfest, where no one mutters about the color of your ticket and the 'Times' doesn't rule
Most film festivals can be summed up as a party, a marketplace, or a platter of cultural fruit and vegetables. Ebertfest, now 14 years old, is a love-in.
Chaz Ebert presides over the film screenings the way my mother used to usher people into her kitchen and fix them a heaping plate. Chaz's famous husband Roger selects the films they show with an emphasis on love and understanding. The characters in Ebertfest films are motivated by love, hobbled by obstacles to understanding. When they fight their way through problems to find some kind of clarity, blindingly beautiful things happen.
One of Roger Ebert's good friends, the maverick Australian filmmaker Paul Cox, said at a Q&A at the festival, which took place last week, "Our eyes need caressing as much as anything else."
He was talking about the blunt, all-business visual flow of contemporary mainstream cinema, where every moment is sold hard and fast. The characters who attend Ebertfest learn that they don't have to enter the theater bracing for a beating or a hustle. They're home.
The event reflects the place it lives in. Ebertfest has been staged in Ebert's hometown, Champaign-Urbana, Ill., from the start. Audiences and guests come from around the world and from down the block. There are locals who grew up with Roger Ebert and locals who simply could not bring themselves to leave after moving here. I spoke with at least 20 adopted Champaigners who told this story of love at first sight. Most are near retirement age but settled here in their 20's, 30's and 40's. At one dinner, I sat with an astronomy professor, a park ranger, and an executive who all gave off the same glow of settled happiness.
Between screenings, rather than take lunch with festival V.I.P.'s and filmmakers, I would sometimes go for long walks around town, hoping to see rather than hear about what people get so stuck on here—and for evidence of the humble Midwestern paradise that Ebert describes in his memoir, Life Itself. (Certain passages made me wonder what Terrences Malick and Davies, the masters of cinematic time travel, would do with these chapters.)
Just a block away from Ebert's childhood movie palace and the heart of Ebertfest, The Virginia Theater, is West Side Park. My festival host, Tony Olaivar, a local volunteer who shuttled me around in exchange for being able to see whatever movies I saw, had raved about the park on the drive in from the airport. He'd taken a hand off the wheel to slide me an iPhone full of snapshots of him camping in West Side with his kids. They would sleep in tents under the park's low canopy of trees.
"There's so much exploring you can do just around town," he said. "I take my kids on adventures right here in Champaign."
I grinned at a series of crooked shots of him sleeping in the tent, imagining one of his kids giggling and snapping away.
The park, like most other places in Champaign I visited, is immaculate, unfussy, blushingly pretty. There are towns that want you to know their people have made it big, and to watch your step. Champaign seems like it just wants to give you a break, for all your trouble. Bob Dylan co-wrote two songs titled "Champaign, Illinois." One, written with Carl Perkins, gives the impression that a man could happily lose his heart to a sweet gal here; the other proposes that Champaign just might be heaven.
About a mile away, the University of Illinois at Champaign campus takes over the town. It's a typical assemblage of institutional buildings siding the main quad, and a shopping district for the college kids. The school's Illini Union Hotel, where many of us festival guests stayed, seems to sit at the head of the table. This colonial style community center feels like a citadel somehow designed to invite rather than repel the hordes. Democracy is the vibe. Completed in 1941, the hotel was another great product of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration—a time I have trouble imagining now, when government blessings like universal health care are portrayed by some powerful people as a pact with Stalin-Satan.
Ebertfest volunteers range from U of I undergrads to retirement-age folks like Carlo Anzelmo, a longtime cooking instructor in town and possibly the friendliest human being on earth. "Steve! I saved your seat!" he would call out when I got to the back rows near the start of a new day's screenings. He greets people like they're back from the war.
It's all so pleasant that I thought back to my experiences covering the New York Film Festival with a bit of heartburn: an NYFF 2010 intern having a mild panic when I couldn't produce an orange ticket to get me on the line for The Social Network.
"You don't have an orange ticket. Where is your orange ticket, gotta have an orange ticket ..." she chanted, fearing the worst.
Every staffer at every festival tries to be nice and calm before the public. It's just that at the major international festivals in the big cities, where folks are trying to make life-changing deals for new films, some try too hard. Publicists whose mouths are fixed in a smile while the eyes plead, calculate, and threaten. Video crews that would murder you if that were the fastest way to get you out of their shot of the celebrity on the red carpet.
And then there's the hierarchy of film critics at the press screenings. I'll never forget overhearing the cry, "We can't start. Janet's not here yet," at the 1999 New York Film Festival press screening of Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy. Janet who? Janet Jackson?
After a tense wait, Janet Maslin, then The New York Times' lead film critic, burst through the door and—no joke—at the precise moment her posterior met the seat, the house lights faded, as if her seat cushion were push-button.
Ebertfest has its share of celebrities and selling, but little of the urgency of the market-type festivals. It started out as part of a U of I technology event called Cyberfest in 1997 (where 2001: A Space Odyssey screened in 70mm), then branched out on its own as The Overlooked Film Festival, eventually changing to Ebertfest in 2007. Its core philosophy was championing films that never got their fair share of acclaim, in Ebert's view. This often meant booking films that were already past the starting-gate frenzy of courting distributors.
This was my first Ebertfest, but it seems it's become more spiritual and personal in emphasis, with the name change and the past six years of Ebert's winning but costly battle with salivary cancer. His essay on his friend Paul Cox, which Chaz read before showing On Borrowed Time, a documentary on Paul's life and work, captures the festival's soul: "Cox’s theme is, more often than not, the difficulty that complex people have in finding serenity and happiness. This is a difficulty we all share. It has nothing to do with a 'search for love,' although romance may be the venue, as in the masterful Innocence (2000). His protagonists are invariably adult, often in middle or old age. He has little interest in the 20-somethings who overrun the commercial cinema, because, I suspect, their problems often stem from practical, immediate reasons, or involve situations rather than the deeper currents of life."
There are some young people running around and making a mess of "situations" in this year's Ebertfest films, but in the ones I saw, a wise and generous eye kept the deeper currents in plain view. Both Azazel Jacobs' Terri and Robert D. Seigel's Big Fan, two films that seemed to conjure up the spirit of '70s maverick Hal Ashby, profiled a sensitive, guileless iconoclast. But the public pajama-wearing fat kid in Terri and the obsessive sports fan in Big Fan aren't pushing to change either society or themselves. They just won't give an inch to a society that has a problem with who they are to the core.
These are the kind of people Ebert celebrates in his memoir, which is as much a collection of biographies of his friends as it is his own story. He focuses on endearing quirks and bizarre episodes that might have been serious at the time but are hilarious in retrospect.
Kinyarwanda, a low-budget epic of the Rwandan genocide with a big-budget feel, settles so deeply into the shoes of each character—killers and victims, Muslims and Christians, teenagers and elders—that no onscreen violence is necessary to induce a sense of horror. Writer-director Arlick Brown understands that, in terms of audience involvement, delicately observed intimacy is worth a thousand bullets.
A tour de force opening sequence, which moves from a teen party in sublime sunlight to tragedy at night, unfolds elegantly, like nuclear ash falling silently on a playground. Brown is master storyteller. Only some obvious musical cues directing us to feel sad or scared bring the superior Kinyarwanda closer to the over-earnest Hollywood telegraphy of Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. But maybe a version of Kinyarwanda without its flattening score would be too intense to take. The biggest shock happened during the Q&A: The audience gasped when Brown revealed that he and his team shot Kinyarwanda in just 16 days.
Joe versus the Volcano, a truly overlooked major studio film, resurfaced in an eye-popping digital form taken straight from the original negative. A brilliant comedy about groping for meaning in a world of Tati-like choreographed absurdity and Chaplinesque visual poetry, it flopped when released in 1990. Who knew playwright-screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's directorial debut, last seen drawing a small cult following on VHS and DVD, was so solidly constructed and visually stunning? Afterward, the cinematographer, Stephen A. Goldblatt took a lot of credit for the film's look, and gave just as much to the production designer, Bo Welch, without denying that it was Shanley's strange vision that had pushed them to be so good.
Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, the foreign-language favorite of directors and Academy voters last year, demonstrates the old Jean Renoir quote, "The truly terrible thing is, everybody has their reasons." It shows what pressure everyday working families are under, every day. Economic pressure, social pressure—and in this Iranian film's context, special legal and religious pressure. These forces test the principles of a divorced middle-class couple and a committed working-class one while insidiously pitting them against each other. If this masterpiece were remade in America, it would be called Something's Got to Give. (And if, God forbid, Ho'wood's grave-robbers ever get around to a remake of Paul Schrader's Blue Collar, they should at least import Farhadi for the job.)
Sitting on the Separation discussion panel, good old Paul Cox cried out, "Why on earth can't we make something this good over here?" He joked that A Separation was budgeted at a fraction of "the cocaine budget of the average Hollywood movie." The seriousness of the joke might have been lost on those who believe American indie films fill the void. Cox seemed to be calling for films like A Separation to occupy the 3,000-screen, widely promoted status of tentpole films like The Avengers.
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.