Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ebertfest Report #5: No Longer (but Still) Overlooked

The Roger Ebert Film Festival used to be called the Overlooked Film Festival. The moniker change has not changed the themes of the festival. Ebertfest still celebrates overlooked films, which encompass more than just movies that weren’t seen by large audiences. The overlooked aspects of Ebertfest go as far to include past formats that are no longer utilized by the film industry. Every year the festival screens at least one silent film and usually one 70mm format film. This year was no different.

In past festivals I’ve had the pleasure to see such wondrous silent classics as the original sci-fi classic “Metropolis”, the Buster Keaton masterpiece “The General”, one of the first color pictures ever “The Black Pirate”, and the original horror classic “The Phantom of the Opera”. And almost ever year the silent feature is highlighted by the accompaniment provided by The Alloy Orchestra. Responsible for creating a movement to revitalize silent screenings at film festivals all over the world, The Alloy Orchestra is perhaps best described as they are in this year’s festival program: “An unusual combination of found percussion and state-of-the-art electronics allows the Orchestra the ability to create any sound imaginable. Utilizing their famous “rack of junk” and electric synthesizers, the group generates beautiful music in a spectacular variety of styles.”

In the earlier days of Ebertfest, the silents were generally some sort of spectacular, but now they’ve begun to favor the more character driven dramas and romances, like “Sadie Thompson”, “Underworld”, and “The Eagle”. This year’s entry “The Last Command” (1928) continued that tradition with the story of a former Russian general (silent great Emil Jannings) who commanded during the Russian Revolution and now finds himself a sad extra in a Hollywood movie about the revolution. One thing the silents really point out to a modern film audience is just how little dialogue really adds to those fundamental stories of glory and romance that are so typical from Hollywood fare. It’s somewhat amazing what is obvious just through action and facial expression.

On the final day of the festival Chas Ebert announced that The Alloy Orchestra would return next year with their musical accompaniment to the Russian classic “The Man with the Movie Camera” (1929).


Another forgotten format yearly touted by Ebertfest is the glorious 70mm film format. The first 70mm movie I ever saw was “Patton” presented at the 4th Annual Overlooked Film Festival. From the moment the light shown down from the projection booth through that film I was sold. While bulkier than the standard 35mm stock film used in most theaters today (now being replaced by digital projection), the picture clarity and vibrancy with 70mm is so good, it’s impossible to think this format was abandoned by the industry. But tossed out it was and Ebertfest is one of the few places left where anyone can see a movie in the 70mm format anymore.

This year’s 70mm entry was a movie that it seems the format was invented for, the wordless 1992 documentary “Baraka”. The movie doesn’t follow any sort of conventional story, but it certainly develops it ideas along insistent themes. Watching this beautiful documentary, I thought of Ebert’s frequent compliment about Martin Scorsese’s camera that there are very few shots when the camera isn’t moving. By moving the camera even ever so slightly through his locations, “Baraka director Ron Fricke invites the audience into the world he is photographing. As the camera moves we try to look around the edges of the screen to see what’s around the corner or spy some activity’s conclusion as it disappears from view.

The reason Fricke wants to pull the viewer into the action of his film is because it is about us and our residency here on Earth. His camera doesn’t move across every landscape or person. Several times throughout the film the camera simply regards the face of this person or that one.

Seen in the stunning 70mm format, “Baraka” is a unique experience even in comparison to other 70mm films. Producer Mark Magidson said before the film’s screening that he and Fricke vowed to make life-affirming movies. Throughout the film you can witness much of man’s destructive nature, and yet when it is over, you have experienced something so beautiful and unique that the term “life-affirming” is about the only way to describe it.

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