Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #3: Movie Round-up

There are so many people to talk to about film at Ebertfest that surprisingly the films themselves often get pushed to the side. I’ve sequestered myself away to a particular corner in the Virginia Theater this year with a lovely woman—an adjunct professor at the University—with her father and mother who come each year for her birthday, which usually falls during the festival. Happy Birthday, Nancy. We’ve talked about many subjects ranging from East Coast vs. the Midwest, our children, professional theater, and other film festivals we’d like to go to. And with my misadventures in sociability, a great schedule of films have now gone by that just must be discussed.

Tom DiCillo’s “Delirious” opened the Thursday slate of films. Starring Steve Buscemi as a damaged paparazzo, this movie is exactly what this film festival was created for. Yesterday I described it as “a movie about photographers forcing their way into the personal lives of stars with their invasive tactics.” But this is not really true. It is described by its director as a love story between two men. Not a romantic love story, but one about friendship. Yes, guys can love each other without being gay. There are several men in my life I love.

But DiCillo (“Living in Oblivion”, “The Real Blonde”) was reluctant to describe his film in any way, because that only serves to confuse or even replace the experience of the film itself. That experience is why Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is a necessary event. This was a film that went through distribution hell, possibly because description really destroys it. It is a funny, deep, and emotional exploration of what forms us, why we feed off celebrity and what is friendship and love. But even right there, I’ve lost the escense of the film. You should see it! Perhaps that is were it should be left. You won’t be disappointed no matter what genres you like. It comes out on DVD on May 6.

Sally Potter’s “Yes” is another movie that defies any conventional genre labeling. Film scholar Eric Pierson described the process of selling scripts as sort of a game that pitch artists play where they compare one movie to another. “Transformers” meets “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, or “The Godfather” meets “American Pie”. I pray no one ever uses those examples to describe a movie. Well, this simply cannot be done with the films of Sally Potter. Not even within her own filmography.

“Yes” will most likely be the most “difficult” film of the festival. Joan Allen is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who meets a Middle Eastern man working as a chef in London. He was a surgeon in his homeland, but says he is happier cutting meat to eat. But here’s that uncategorizable part. He says this in iambic pantameter, the same poetic verse used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. All the dialogue in the film is written this way. There are times when it sounds natural (as this meter is very close to the way most people speak anyway), and there are times when the poetry of the characters’ words is quite obvious.

The film is shot in a very metered and measured way as well. Potter utilizes still frames, slow motion and often less frames per second than are required to keep the images fluid. The entire experience is quite abstract and a good example of film being used as a non-traditional art form. There is even a recurring theme of cleaning ladies acting as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action of the main characters. This devise is effective in keeping some levity to the themes of the film, which range from emotional abuse to thoelogical attacks and world politics. “Yes” is a most unique film experience that can often only be found at a festival of this calibur.

“Canvas” has been the most moving picture screened so far this year. It is a semi-autobiographical movie by writer-director Joseph Greco, who grew up in Florida with a mother diagnosed with shcitzophrenia. Joe Pantoliano plays the father to Devon Gearhart’s 10-year old Chris, who struggles against the stigma of having a “crazy” mother. Marcia Gay Hardin is the mother in what has been hailed by several experts as the best portrayal of a schitzophrenic in a movie.

This is a tough one. It is hard to watch the cruelty of other people against this family, which must deal with that on top of the incredibly difficult task of dealing with the disease itself. During the panel discussion following the movie the good intentions of all three characters was mentioned. “They are all trying to do what is right in an unfair situation,” Greco said. It takes them a while to get together on doing the right thing, but it is a good lesson in perseverence. This would be an excellent family movie that could teach an entire family at once about the danger of stigma upon such cases of mental illness.

Every year there is one film that just stands out from the pack. This year that film is Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories”. There is this trend each year from Roger and festival director Nate Kohn to pick one movie that contains a uniquely midwestern or southern atmosphere. These movies are more life studies than character studies. They capture an honest everyday American spirit that can only be found in the Midwest and the South. And they are all excellent. Some past films of this type include, “Tully”, “George Washington”, “Come Early Morning”, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”, “Kwik Stop”, and “American Movie”.

These are movies about everyday people, whose everyday life is as difficult as the greatest Greek tragic hero. And their stories are about the way they pull themselves through their lives. Not necessarily wanting more or better, but living with their burdens, living through their burdens. “Shotgun Stories” tells the tale of three brothers who find themselves in a family feud with their estranged father’s second family after he passes away. It shows how conflict escaltes without the contrivance of undue aggression. There is much more to be said about this film that I will reserve for a full-length review sometime next week. The movie is currently in limited release and is due out on DVD on July 1.

One of the features of Ebertfest that I’ve missed deeply in the past four years is their silent movie program. While silents are fairly readily avaiable on DVD and TCM these days, the thrill of seeing one at Ebertfest comes from the live accompaniment provided by The Alloy Orchestra. The Alloy consists of musicians Terry Donahue, Roger Miller and Ken Winokur. Their instruments consist of such obscure tools as accordion, musical saw and something they like to refer to as “junk percussion.” I believe they used a kitchen sink one year. Needless to say, these are no silent film score traditionalists.

This year’s selection was from later in the silent era, the 1927 gangster flick “Underworld”. It follows a criminal who takes a street vagrant on as his right hand man, but when the former vagrant and the boss’s girl fall in love, revenge is called for. “Underworld” exemplifies the maturity the silents had experienced by the time the talkies came. While the talkies destroyed for a time some of the refined technique that had been developed in silent filmmaking, the reliance on dialogue cards and psychological pathos in this film suggests that sound was an inevitable necessity to go where films were heading as an art form.

After seven films, Ebertfest served its first standing ovation this year to the documentary feature “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”. This doc tells the amazing story of Wisconsin farmer John Peterson, whose life was made to be put on film and shown at a place like Ebertfest. Farmer John is a perfect documentary subject because he is so unique. He is a quirky man with a penchant for wearing boas, clown costumes and dresses while he farms. The son of a line of farmers, he lost most of his family farm to creditors in the ‘70s and because of the strange hippie culture he attracted to his farm was ostricised from his community, being accused by neighbors of worshipping Satan. Then he got on an organic farming kick and became one of the first Community Supported Agriculture farms to serve the Chicago area, and his fortunes turned around.

This documentary lines right up with some of the festival’s past documentary entires in the way it shows us eccentric characters applying their own philosophies to how life should be lived. Both the good and the bad in John’s life is lead by his eccentricities and those of the people who surround him. And although his life is depicted as desperate at times, his story is rarely depressing and very humorous. Best of all the movie highlights the benefits of community based farms and agriculture, which offer a better way to grow food and protect the land which we harvest.

Although I said “Shotgun Stories” was the best film of the festival so far, I wrote it before I saw Paul Schrader’s remarkable film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”. Schrader has constructed perhaps the strangest bio-pic made in his film about renowned Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. The movie is strange, but it must be to match the life of this peculiar artist. For most of his life Mishima was considered Japan’s greatest author, a life which he famously ended in 1970 by commiting ritual suicide after taking a general of the North Army garrison hostage with his own private army in protest of the country’s abandonment of the Bushido Code.

Schrader’s film is nothing short of a thing of beauty that sees Mishima’s life broken into chapters utilizing different film styles and theatrical adaptations of three of his novels to tell the many facets that made up this remarkable man’s life. With production design by Eiko Ishioka (who also designed costumes for the festival selection “The Cell”), this movie is a stunning example of film as an all-encompassing art form. Schrader has called it his favorite film of his own, all though he declined to do so during the panel discussion following its screening. It would be easy to see why, since it is such a unique and majestic work. Schrader was also quite pleased to pass on the news that Criterion would be releasing a newly restored DVD version of the film in June.

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