Archive for the 'Festivals: Ebertfest' Category
We owe Roger an enormous debt. Since we met in 1999 at the Arts Club of Chicago, Roger has been the most generous and eloquent supporter our work has had. In our visits to their festival, Roger and Chaz welcomed us into their community and introduced us to people who have become good friends. Roger came to our Wisconsin Film Festival twice, and his presence gave it a burst of energy. In Roger and Chaz we found a couple engaged passionately in the act of living in, and for, each other.
Our larger debt is to the lessons Roger taught us, and thousands of others: Writing about film can exemplify writing about life. Friendship and good humor must inform everything you do. Punishing health problems need not kill your appetite for experience, for fellowship, and for the life of the mind.
In Roger’s memory, each of us offers some personal reflections.
As with so many other people, my first acquaintance with Roger was through his and partner Gene Siskel’s television review shows. I’m not sure when David and I started watching. At first we were partly attracted by the fact that each review included a clip from the movie. TV reviewing was such a new form that the studios didn’t put together montages of shots to provide the reviewers. You got to see an actual scene as it appeared in the film, something that could give you a sense of whether or not you wanted to see the film. Later the edited-together shots from various parts of the film came to be more like a trailer than a sample. They don’t tell you much about the film. But Gene and Roger did, so we kept watching.
We noticed the fact that Gene and especially Roger would often promote films that were in release but not likely to be known to most of the show’s viewers. Small independent films and foreign films, which the pair urged people to try and see in theaters or, increasingly, on video. These were the same sorts of films that became the core of Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. Few reviewers writing for a mass audience have bothered regularly to call attention to worthy independent and art-cinema fare.
When we met Roger in the late 1990s, the first thing that struck me was that in person he seemed exactly the same on TV. On the air he didn’t put on a public persona or try to entertain us at the expense of giving us less information about the film in question. Those were the early days of the infotainment boom. As its name suggests, infotainment coverage means that the reporters and reviewers feel obliged to be as entertaining as the news (or pseudo-news) they present. I think of another reviewer in the early days, Gene Shalit, who started out presenting reasonably informative review segments on the Today Show. Increasingly, however, his eccentric appearance, with large, frizzy hair and an oversize mustache, combined with his breezy, pun-filled delivery to become a sort of comic interlude that barely qualified as a film review. In other words, the opposite of Roger.
Over the next several years, David got to know Roger better than I did. He helped squire Roger around during his 2003 visit to the Wisconsin Film Festival and wrote introductions to his books. I was in the early years of working on an Egyptian archaeological expedition, and in 2003 I was struggling to get my big project on the Lord of the Rings franchise (published as The Frodo Franchise in 2007) off the ground.
During that time I managed to go with David to the Overlooked Film Festival and enjoyed it very much. There Roger’s zeal for introducing general audiences to relatively obscure films was boiled down to its essence. The enthusiasm of the loyal attendees was contagious, as was Roger’s joy in sharing his love for the films and giving the audience access to the stars and filmmakers who were his friends.
From 2003 to 2006, I was dashing around the world, interviewing people in New Zealand, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, London, Copenhagen, and elsewhere for my book. By the spring of 2006 I had talked with 75 people and acquired the knowledge I need to write most of my chapters. Game producers and designers filled me in on the video-game aspect of the franchise; festival-heads and distributors enlightened me on the impact of the trilogy on the international independent film market.
But there was a crucial piece of the puzzle missing. My fourth chapter was to be on the rise of modern infotainment journalism, covering such topics as press junkets, the replacement of paper press kits replaced with EPKs (electronic press kits), and the rise of making-of promo films on cable. I knew how press junkets work, with their endless strings of short interviews where the reporters ask the same questions over and over–and the fact that studio employees did the filming and editing of the interviews. I had talked to cast and crew members about the Lord of the Rings junkets. (Ian McKellen: “Someone will come forward and say, ‘I know you get asked all sorts of questions. I’m not going to ask you the questions everybody else asks you, so I’m going to say, “What is the question that you’re most asked?”‘”) But I didn’t know much about how such things got established historically or how they looked from the viewpoint of the journalist interviewer. Unfortunately, nobody had written a history of press junkets.
It occurred to me that Roger was an expert on such subjects. His career as a reviewer got going in the mid- to late 1960s, when the studios were increasingly using press junkets, and he had not only witnessed but participated in the expansion of film coverage from print into television. Roger happened to be slated to visit the Wisconsin Film Festival in the spring of 2006. I asked him if he would be willing to let me interview him on such topics. Despite a heavy schedule, he agreed. The only time he could fit me in was over breakfast on April 2. I went to his hotel and talked with him for about half an hour. (David came to pick us up and snapped the photo above; my recorder is under the list of questions I had concocted. Roger has toast and coffee, back in those happy days when he could still eat.)
The result was everything I could have hoped. With his razor-sharp memory, Roger gave me invaluable historical information and insights. For example, I asked why reporters ask questions to which they already know the answers:
Because the sessions are so short, and because the nature of television is that you have to get them to say it. They get pretty stupid questions. For example, I may well know who Hilary Swank plays in Million Dollar Baby, but it doesn’t work on television unless she says, “I play a woman who wants to be a boxer.” You have to have her saying it. So you say, “Well, tell me about this character you play.”
It was a delightful and fruitful interview, supplying that last piece of the puzzle. It also happened to be the last interview I did before finishing the book a few months later and sending the manuscript to the press.
That June, Roger had his disastrous health crisis, ending up in a coma until August. Of course, he lived on to give us a tremendous amount of insightful writing on film and his own life and his view of the world in general. But I was very grateful to have had that interview with him while he could still speak. As anyone who has done much live interviewing knows, it’s very different from interviewing by email. The conversation takes unexpected turns and generates questions that weren’t on the original list. I’m still thankful for that interview, not just for the selfish reason that it enhanced my book. I’m also glad that I got some of the valuable information that Roger had in his memory but had never included in his voluminous writings. He was a living document of modern film history, and inevitably much of what he knew never got written down. At least I captured a bit of it.
I think that interview gave Roger a better sense of me as a film scholar. We also happened to start this blog later that year, in late September. I doubt that Roger had time to read every entry, but he read many of them and helped get the blog established by linking to it. We didn’t like to pester such a busy man, but we notified him when we posted something that we thought related to his interests. (My skepticism about 3D matched his, for example.) Here’s the last time he linked to one of my entries, with his characteristic generosity and the occasional typos that resulted from the speed with which he poured out his thoughts on FaceBook and twitter:
I think he must also have realized that, despite the fact that our interview was on a recent blockbuster franchise, one of my specialties is silent cinema. I got invited to the 2007 Overlooked Film Festival to be one of the “expert group of colleagues” who were to help fill in for Roger during his recuperation. I introduced Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson and after the screening was on the panel that chatted with the three members of the Alloy Orchestra.
In 2008 the event changed its name to what most of us called it already, Ebertfest. I was now sort of the unofficial silent-film expert. I got to introduce a luminous print of von Sternberg’s Underworld, which I had never seen in 35mm, and to lead the post-screening discussion with the Alloy members. (My program notes for the event are here.) The same thing happened the following year with The Last Command. It’s a pity that the Alloy team never accompanied Docks of New York at Ebertfest, completing the survey of von Sternberg’s trio of silent masterpieces.
I missed the 2010 festival, needing to be at the site of Tell el-Amarna for my Egyptology work. But I returned in 2011 to introduce and discuss a screening of the nearly complete version of Metropolis, recently restored.
In 2012 I again needed to be in Egypt during Ebertfest, so the 2011 festival was the last time I saw Roger in person. But we kept in contact by email. That could be a delightful process,as David shows in the second half of this entry.
Werner Herzog, Roger Ebert, and Paul Cox, Ebertfest 2007.
From different perspectives, I’ve set forth my sense of Roger’s contribution to film culture. On this site we’ve covered Ebertfest over the years, and I reviewed Life Itself. In addition, the University of Chicago Press has generously made my introductions to Awake in the Dark and The Great Movies III available online (here and here). After Roger’s death last week, I wrote a brief tribute for the UW Antenna site. Still to come is a valedictory piece for Film Comment, to be available in print and online.
So today, when Roger is ceaselessly on our minds, I thought: Why would anyone want to listen to me when they could listen to him? You can hear (and watch) him in the vast video archive of Siskel & Ebert. But maybe I can bring you his voice in another way.
Combing through a decade’s worth of emails, I found some bits that seem worth sharing. A subject line “From Roger” always marked an email worth reading, and the inevitable sign-off, “Cheers, R.,” left you wanting more. I can hear him speaking these words, even in the years when he had no voice. Maybe you will too.
Apparently almost all G-rated animation will now be in 3-D! I hear IMAX will show nothing but 3-D (via digital). No more celluloid! Traditional IMAX process is dead. The vulgarians are at the gates. (2008)
Have you seen Chop Shop? I’m showing it at Ebertfest. Sort of an American indie neorealist picture. And in 70mm, a new print, Baraka. Best Blu-ray I’ve ever seen. Most critics liked Coraline even more than I did. (2009)
Just saw Ponyo. The opening undersea sequence is miraculous. Manohla Dargis was right about Perfect Getaway: A good B movie. (2009)
I hated Les Miz, of course. Falling dirges, rising dirges, ditties, boilerplate. (2013)
I am often guilty of getting carried away by films that will not stand the test of time, although I do think that The Dark Knight will continue to be interesting. (2009)
I always said I would not retire until I had a book about Scorsese. Now I do, and I can’t retire until I have one about Herzog! (2008)
I remember Scorsese saying he watched Black Narcissus at least once a day for a week. (2012)
[I wrote that Donald Richie was recovering his health:] So I hear! Walking around the room, likes the new place with English-speaking help, health on the mend. What a dear man. His film of The Inland Sea is wonderful but the book and his Journals are really special. So honest and matter of fact. (2010)
[On images in a blog entry on Andrew Sarris:] How moving it was to see the photos of old friends like Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert. Remember when the Saturday Review was eagerly awaited? I met Arthur and Marianne in 1968, on the notorious Warner/Seven Arts week-long junket which flew planeloads of critics to the Bahamas. I was a kid. They immediately invited me to their home and through them I met many Hollywood figures.
God, Arthur loved his pipe, and his sacramental martini formula. I never drank a martini except at his house, and there nothing else. The way he made one approached the psychedelic. Marianne was a costume designer. . . . They bought a house on the beach at Malibu when such things could be had for less than millions. Their Saturday open houses were gatherings of interesting people, including some (like Blake Edwards’ doctor) later immortalized in films. (2012)
[In the midst of Ebertfest, Roger took time to write:] I’ll write more later….but be sure to buy the News-Gazette before you leave town. There’s a wonderful photo of Kristin, Richard [Leskovsky], and Nina [Paley] (2009).
[When I posted this entry about the Jem movie theatre in Harmony, Minnesota, Roger commented on this picture.]
That photograph, seemingly so artless and matter-of-fact, speaks deeply to me. The color, the shadows, the girls in conversation. (2012)
Chaz and I are at Cannes, I having survived the trip in surprisingly good shape. Lots of big names, but as Frémaux says, “They have to prove themselves every time.” (2009)
In high school, I went to popular movies with dates and attended the Art Theater mostly alone. In college there was a period when I sort of stopped going to popular movies—more art films and film societies. (2011)
I have a lifelong policy of never making lists of anything except my annual Best 10. Can’t tell you how much time I saved by not compiling Halloween movie lists. (2011)
I am so happy the festival is approaching and Kristin and you and I can sit again in the same room with good movies. (2010)
[When I replied that Kristin couldn’t attend that year because she was needed for her archaeological dig in Egypt: ] And my Egyptian correspondent Wael Khairy will be in Urbana! So the balance of the earth won’t be altered. He is a very gifted film critic. . . . He has two more weeks to wait until the ban on his writing is lifted. It was imposed after he led a (successful) effort against the censors to remove the Arabic subtitles from the CENTER of the screen on Avatar. (2010)
[On the musicians in Woodstock:] I, like you, was not focused on rock in the 1960s. I had to ask Chaz who some of the performers were. These days, I know nobody. (2009)
Do you remember that nice Indian kid sitting next to you at Ebertfest? I met him through my blog when he was 15. He had been making films since he was 6. His father was going to accompany him…but unexpectedly died shortly before. His dad approved of the visit, so Krishna came with his lovely mother and sister. I love this kid. (2012)
You know where the Westerns have gone for an audience? Video games, that’s where…as long as you look for the right type of western. John Wayne. John Wayne. I think it was Montaigne who said: “Everyone needs a name like that.” (2009)
[I wrote him that watching movies is good, but maybe reading is better:] You know, I think I agree with you. I doubled my “reading” by adding audiotapes of books that don’t call out to be intensely read. I’ve listened to about 100. The single most spellbinding performance I’ve heard is Sean Barrett doing Perfume. (2008)
[I sent him a link in which David Brooks returns from an expedition into the Midwest, recalls his admiration for White Castle, and declares his new preference for Steak ‘n Shake]: Yeah, but he strays off the point pretty quickly. And I don’t know anyone who prefers White Castle to S ‘n S….although late boozy nights in my 20s often called for a bag of sliders. Californians are passionate that In ‘n Out makes better burgers than Steak ‘n Shake. I contend that the very names of the two chains dramatically contrast the styles of sexual intercourse in the two regions. (2012)
I have been honored out! Above all I need to focus on writing. Sounds harsh, but everything’s an effort these days…. (January 2013)
[The University of Chicago Press sent him my Foreword to Awake in the Dark and he replied]: I felt as if, after 38 years of plugging away, someone had understood just what I have been trying to do. I work for a newspaper, I get categorized as a newspaper reviewer. I am proud to be one. But I have also tried to stretch the limits of the form. I think of myself as being a teacher as much as a writer, and I like my forum because it gives me a lot of readers. . . .
That you mentioned Shaw took my breath away. I have been reading Shaw for 40 years, starting by reading every one of his Prefaces, from which I learned that it is quite all right to stray entirely from the subject, or approach it from an unexpected angle. In the last few months I’ve been reading his collected music criticism. I don’t know a thing about music, but that was an advantage, because I was able to focus on his language and strategy. His use of paradox and under- and overstatement is audacious, and I like the way he states even his most extreme positions as if they are simple common sense. (2005)
The last message I got, on 15 March 2013, referred to the 2013 Ebertfest schedule. It contained only one word.
On the block adjacent to the Virginia Theatre, off South State Street, Champaign, Illinois.
Tulip’s unique way of expressing delight at the prospect of walkies.
With David still recovering from pneumonia, I drove down to Champaign-Urbana by myself for a truncated Ebertfest visit. As always, the event began with a reception at the president’s home, where Roger delivered a speech via his talking computer (left).
This year, rather than kicking off the festival with a Wednesday-night screening of a 70mm print, the opening program was a screening of the restored version of Metropolis, incorporating footage found in Argentina. (David has already blogged about the new version, having seen it last year at the Hong Kong Film Festival.) I had the privilege of introducing the screening.
Roger’s program notes gave a good summary of the film and its latest restoration, so I talked a little about why it’s not all the odd that a nearly complete print should be found in Argentina. First there’s the matter of what happened to prints at the end of their theatrical circulation in the silent era. Films didn’t open around the world day and date the way they do now. Prints might be exhibited in one country, then move onto another with new intertitles in a different language cut in. They might be shown for years, until their useful life was over. By that point they might have reached places far away from their place of origin. They were also usually covered with scratches and lines, and they weren’t worth the cost of shipping them back to their makers. They might be buried, as was the case with the 1978 Dawson City find in Alaska, or stored in the attic of a theater, or rescued by a projectionist who tucked them away in a garage. In some cases, collectors acquired them, as happened with the Argentinian Metropolis print. Occasionally these treasures come to light, as recently happened when the Film Archive of New Zealand located several American titles, such as John Ford’s lost silent film Upstream. So far-flung places that long ago were the end of the line for prints are where we might expect them to resurface. Indeed, New Zealand’s archive also held a print of Metropolis that contained some shots not found in earlier restorations or in the Argentinian print, and these appear in this latest version.
A second reason why Argentina is not a surprising place to find a long print of Metropolis has to do with the German film industry’s strength after World War I. Despite having been defeated, the country built up its production until it was second only to Hollywood. European companies found it difficult to sell their films in the U.S.; then, as now, American films dominated their domestic market. German companies sought other areas where they could compete on a more equal footing. They were quite successful in South America, and Fritz Lang’s films were among the most popular there. Small wonder, than, that a well-worn, largely complete print should survive there.
The original score has been reconstructed, but as has become customary at Ebertfest, the Alloy Orchestra supplied their own original accompaniment. (See below.)
The thing that sets Ebertfest apart from other festivals is that it reflects the taste of one person. Roger chooses the films, and his reviews are reprinted in the program as notes. When Roger saw the acclaimed animated film My Dog Tulip, based on J. R. Ackerley’s memoir about life with his Alsatian, he was reminded of another man whose only love was his dog, Umberto D. So, having the ability to program of double feature of the two films, Roger did. Apart from the annual silent film, Ebertfest seldom shows older classics, so this was something of a departure. I had only seen a 16mm copy of Umberto D, way back in my graduate-school days, so it was great to see a 35mm print on the big Virginia Theater screen.
The juxtaposition of the two films worked well, with the grim image of old age and despair of Umberto D followed by the nostalgic but fairly upbeat My Dog Tulip. Judging by the questions and comments afterward, the latter struck a particular chord with dog lovers in the audience, and during the remainder of my stay I heard many pet anecdotes exchanged among people around me.
The film was created by a husband-wife team, with Paul Fierlinger drawing on a digital tablet and Sandra Fierlinger painting in the colors with a computer program. As I pointed out during the panel discussion after Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues was shown at Ebertfest in 2009, computer animation doesn’t mean that the computer does all the work. Far from it. A computer has to have a lot of material fed into it before it can aid in the filmmaking process. Each frame of My Dog Tulip was done by hand, and it has the look of traditional cel animation. (As with traditional cel animation, the Fierlingers use each image twice in a row, so that only twelve drawings suffice for a second of film.) There’s a deliberately rough, slightly jittery look to the outlines of the figures in the shots, helping give that impression of drawn animation.
Ordinarily I would have preferred to see the film in 35mm, but Paul and Sandra told me that the 35mm prints actually washed out some of the vibrancy of the intended colors. The digital print projected at Ebertfest definitely did the colors justice.
Matt Soller Zeitz with Paul and Sandra Fierlinger onstage after the screening
Filling the big screen
On Friday, two very well-known directors presented beautiful, color, widescreen 35mm prints that looked terrific–and huge–on the big screen. (I was sitting in the second row for one, the first row for the other, so the effect was particularly overwhelming.) I had missed Richard Linklater’s most recent release, Me and Orson Welles, in first run, so it was a pleasure to catch up with it. As all the reviewers remarked, Christian McKay uncannily impersonates the real Orson Welles. As Linklater pointed out, McKay was in his mid-30s at the time of filming, while Welles was a mere 22 during the time depicted–and yet the portrayal works, since Welles didn’t really look young, even at the beginning of his career.
The film pulls a great deal of humor out of rehearsals for Welles’s famous 1937 staging of Julius Caesar, with the director’s whims and ego dominating the proceedings, and Zac Efron’s stagestruck high-school kid providing a naive point of view of the backstage politicking. Given all the antics in the lead-up to the premiere, it’s impressive that Linklater manages to switch gears abruptly and present snippets from the production itself that genuinely suggest the impact of Welles’s revolutionary staging. It wowed New York and pioneered the way for modern-dress versions of the Bard’s works.
The on-stage discussion after the film revealed that the production, which manages to convey 1930s New York so convincingly, was mostly shot on the Isle of Man. The British island not only offered favorable production incentives, but it boasted a well-preserved local playhouse that could double for the long-since-destroyed Mercury Theater.
That evening veteran director Norman Jewison presented one of his less well-known films, Only You (1994). It’s a screwball, absurdly romantic comedy starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr., both looking very young and very gorgeous.
After Jewison moved from television into feature films in the 1960s, his early projects included two Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedies (The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers), and he returned to the genre with Moonstruck.
Only You has a slender plot in which the heroine, convinced that a Ouija board has given her the name of the man she will marry, abandons her fiancé to follow a man she thinks is her destined true love across Italy. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist and location shooting in Venice, Rome, and Positano give the film considerable charm.
David has been recovering well, but I didn’t want to leave him alone too long. I returned home today rather than staying through the entire festival. But it was a wonderful few days, and I enjoyed talking with Michael Barker, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, Kevin Lee, Michael Phillips, David Poland (when he wasn’t busy chasing his lively 15-month-old son), some of Roger’s “Far-flung Correspondents,” and many of the devoted audience members who return year after year to this unique event. With luck, both David and I will be there for the whole event next year.
(From the Ebertfest website)
Note: For a second year, the introductions, post-film discussions, and morning panels were streamed live, and they’re also archived online.
This picture points backward and forward. It looks back to the days when movies were shown on a big screen to hundreds of people in real time. No pausing or fast forwarding; you take what you get. Some viewers are settled in pretty close to the screen, and a few dare to sit in the front row. (Save me the center seat, fortunately still vacant.) The critic sits slumped far back, implying coolly distant appraisal. The pen is poised to note down moments of power, beauty, or stupidity.
But the big auditorium is nearly empty, and this makes the drawing foreshadow the approaching end of moviegoing. The warning signs are emerging: Visit any movie, even an Imax spectacular, in the off-hours (Monday through Wednesday, especially matinees) and you’re likely to find the house as empty as it is here. As for the critic, ready to jot down notes for a review: An anachronism these days, as many will tell you.
But wait. Isn’t the theatrical business booming? We’re told that 2009 was a banner year, and 2010 will be even better. True, worldwide admissions for 2009 totaled $29.9 billion, a new high. But the increase, according to the MPAA, is mostly due to 3D. In the US, the format accounted for 11 % of the country’s $10.6 billion box-office income, a sum about equal to the gain over last year’s take. Moreover, the number of domestic tickets sold increased only a little from recent years, to 1.4 billion. Overall, the years 2005-2009 have fallen off from the high points of 2002-2004, when attendance was 1.5 billion or more.
Nor is the international film industry expanding its audience. For the last five years or so, worldwide attendance has been remarkably flat, with only the Asia-Pacific region seeing signs of growth. Overall, it seems, 3D serves to let Hollywood hang on to its audience, and charge more.
The spurt in theatrical income helps offset the decline of packaged media. The DVD sell-through boom lasted from 1998 to about 2008, when subscription rental companies (Netflix, Lovefilm) and kiosks (Redbox et al) pushed down retail sales. The slump was accelerated by a glut of DVD releases, big-box stores offering discs at rock-bottom prices, the rise of downloading and video on demand, and, not least, a massive recession that made consumers cost-conscious. Today, many industry observers think that young people are more inclined to graze in the luxuriance of YouTube than visit the multiplex. At best, the Millennials might watch a current hit streaming on their cellphones or laptops or TV monitor. An admittedly small-scale inquiry in the recent Screen Digest (April, p. 100; here, but proprietary) suggests that most young entertainment fans don’t feel a need to rent a disc, let alone buy one. Moreover, all those sampled saw far more movies on monitors, often through shady downloads, than on theatre screens.
It’s not hard to imagine a near future when a movie opens simultaneously on the global market to satisfy its most devoted public before moving in a very few weeks to DVD, VOD, iTunes, and other digital platforms. It then snuggles into hundreds of thousands of hard drives around the world, ready to be awakened when somebody feels the urge to watch. These seem to be the two poles we’re moving toward: the brief big-screen shotgun blast, and the limbo of everlasting virtual access. You can argue that the very success of home video, cable, and the internet have cheapened our sense of a movie’s identity.
Which is one reason why film festivals are very, very important.
Apocalypse then and now
I’ve spent most of the last several weeks at festivals. The Hong Kong International Film Festival is a 2 1/2 week showcase of global cinema, attached to a major regional market assembly and spiced with local attractions and international retrospectives. The Wisconsin Film Festival is a 4 1/2 day local event highlighting US independent cinema but with a leavening of recent arthouse titles and restored classics. Ebertfest, formerly Roger Ebert’s Festival of Overlooked Films, is a topical festival held in a single venue, featuring a wide array of guests, and reflecting its founder’s eclectic tastes.
Each offers unique pleasures, and each reaffirms the value of the theatrical motion-picture experience. I’ve already written a bit about Hong Kong here and here and here, and I hope to write more about the Wisconsin event soon. For now I’ll concentrate on a few high points of Ebertfest, which took Roger’s cartoon above as its emblem. Kristin and I have been guests for many years (our posts are in the Festivals: Ebertfest category on the right), but this time she was in Egypt scouring the sands for pieces of statues. So I’ve had to blog solo.
Fortunately, we now have a vast archive of what happened in Urbana. With the generosity typical of Roger’s event, all the Q & A sessions and panel discussions were recorded and streamed. They’re available here. And for an appreciative account of what it all means, see Jim Emerson’s piece on Roger’s site.
Start with the obvious. Apocalypse Now Redux was shown in a Technicolor restoration in the Virginia Theatre, a picture palace built in 1926. The image loomed, the sound engulfed you. Several people, most of them young, told me that they felt privileged to have seen the film, for once in their lives, as it must be seen. As soon as you get a home theatre that matches this presentation in sheer primal impact, call me. I’m coming over.
Editor and sound designer Walter Murch, one of my heroes, was prevented from coming by the European volcano ash. So I tried in my introduction to pay homage to what is surely one of the most complex soundtracks of any film of the period—a mixture of synthesizer, rock and roll, and layer upon layer of subtly enhanced noises. During the screening I was able to appreciate some of the daring soundfields Murch created. When Willard gets up to look out the blinds of his Saigon hotel, the sound in the left and right and surround channels narrows abruptly to the central speaker, bringing him back to mundane R & R reality. Later, most ordinary dialogue comes from the central speaker, but when Willard voices his commentary, we hear him from all three front speakers; the soft tone creates an intimacy, while the auditory spread gives it weight and authority.
A panel of commentators including Ali Arikan, Michael Phillips, and Janet Pierson did a fine job of probing various aspects of the film. Ali considers it Coppola’s crowning achievement and one of the great American films. Michael, by contrast, thought that what he aptly called the “terror and grandeur” of its opening half gives way to off-kilter and pretentious scenes in Kurtz’s compound. Janet, who had seen the film on the big screen more often than any of us, found it an enduringly impressive accomplishment in both sound and image. With the audience we had a lively exchange about the role of women in the film and the inclusion of the notorious French plantation sequence. Matt Zoller Seitz made a shrewd point about how the film shows Americans bringing along homegrown entertainments (Playmate performances, rock music, surfing) to redefine the war in familiar terms.
Despite all the shock and awe, I like the film only moderately. It’s a stunning logistical accomplishment, and it has some brilliant moments; but I think it has problems almost as soon as Willard moves upriver. I might be the only person who finds the Kilgore scenes overdrawn, almost Dr. Strangeloveish. When Kurtz bends down to give water to the wounded Vietnamese, he’s interrupted by news of surfing, and he yanks his canteen away as the VC scrabbles for it.
Heavy, heavy—as is the repeated motif of Americans strafing civilians and then tending to their wounds. Willard spells it out: “We cut them in half and then give them a Band-Aid.” Yet I still admire the utterly disorienting opening, which mixes thrumming choppers with ceiling fans and justifies what Michael Herr called it: the rock-and-roll war. Later we’ll see battles wreathed in psychedelic haze, and a hallucinatory assault on the bridge, with Willard stumbling through the dark and watching battle-fried infantrymen hurl ordnance into a void. It’s like a light show at the climax of a rock concert.
One of my favorite comments about the movie came during Dick Cavett’s television show circa 1980. Dick asked Jean-Luc Godard what he thought of Apocalypse Now. This was a period in which most of the press coverage obsessed about the film’s soaring budget. Godard remarked that Coppola had not spent enough. Cavett asked for an explanation. Godard: “Well, he spent only fifty million dollars and the war cost fifty billion. You cannot film this war on such a small budget.” That’s the way I remember it, anyhow.
From Rwanda to LA
Quick notes on two other E’fest titles. (I’ve already discussed Departures here.)
“I wanted to make a film for a Rwandan audience.” Not what you might expect to hear from an American director of Korean descent. Accordingly, Lee Isaac Chung gave Munyurangabo a leisurely pace and structure. The plot centers on two young men, Sangwa and Munyurangabo (aka Ngabo), taking what seems to be an enigmatic journey. One is Hutu, the other Tutsi. Longish takes and fairly distant framings follow them hitchhiking and stopping over at Sangwa’s home. Gradually, hints such as Ngabo’s carefully wrapped machete suggest that they are heading toward a confrontation. When the revelation comes, our attachment shifts from Sangwa and his family conflicts to Ngabo’s mission of vengeance. Chung explained that the soundtrack develops accordingly, moving from objectivity to subjectivity as we start to hear what his two protagonists hear.
The production background, explained by Chung and his colleagues Sam Anderson (co-writer and producer) and Jenny Lund (co-producer and sound recordist), was fascinating. The script consisted largely of a scene outline, and the dialogue was developed with the actors. The Americans worked with translators in guiding the performances. In some cases they drew on their own experiences. Perhaps partly because of its respect for everyday life, the film has been shown on local television and in the Parliament. It has become a Rwandan film.
My colleague J. J. Murphy has written an acute analysis of Munyurangabo. He rightly praises the sudden entrance of a bardic young man who recites a six-minute poem celebrating liberation and reconciliation. The performance wasn’t planned, Chung said, but it has become a high point of the film. J. J. also links to other enlightening interviews given by Chung, Anderson, and Lund.
If Munyurangabo’s loose structure evokes the Dardennes brothers, Michael Tolkin’s The New Age has the coiled-serpent dramaturgy of a classic psychodrama-comedy. It’s 1994, and a prosperous LA couple is suddenly without income. Facing bankruptcy, Katherine and Peter auction off their paintings, try to borrow from Peter’s father, and eventually open a boutique catering to the tastes of their friends. At the same time they slide into casual affairs and ceremonies of New Age spirituality. Ebert’s review captures the movie’s range of reference:
Tolkin gives us one richly detailed set piece after another, involving luncheons, openings, massages, telephone tag, psychic consultations, sex, heartfelt conversation, and pagan rituals led by a bald-headed woman who sees what others cannot see. Meanwhile, the material universe remains the one thing Peter and Katherine can really count on.
Few American films examine money and class, but this one is actually about needing a paycheck. By the end, when each of our protagonists becomes a seller rather than a buyer, we have seen a remarkably sharp dissection of a lifestyle.
In the Q & A afterward, Tolkin said that the genesis of the film came from watching a Melrose shop sink into failure. When I saw the film on its initial release, lines like “It’s not an insult, it’s an intervention” and “We need space” (psychological, but also retail) leaned me toward taking the film as satire. I still do. But Tolkin insists that it’s not. The plot dares to have two truly repellant protagonists, but Tolkin doesn’t find them nasty. “I like them.” He majored in religion in college and he takes his characters’ beliefs, no matter how shallow, seriously—not a big surprise from the creator of The Rapture.
He elaborated on some differences between novels and films. When he rereads one of his novels, he thinks, “How was I ever that smart?” but when he rewatches a film it’s the imperfections that jump out. A movie has to be more compressed and rhythmically varied than a novel—something The New Age demonstrates in its brisk montages alternating with slowly unfolding scenes. In the discussion Jim Emerson praised the film’s density of detail, Tolkin elaborated by invoking William Carlos Williams’ belief in compact expression.
The next two paragraphs include plot details you may prefer to pass over.
Tolkin’s script is indeed firmly contoured. The couple’s crucial quarrel takes place at the thirty-minute mark and launches the two major plot lines. They decide to try a separation (while sharing the house), and they launch their boutique. The development section begins about halfway through, as they conduct their love affairs and watch the shop founder. The last act presents their options: bankruptcy, suicide, low-end work.
Arguably the climax is Peter’s desperate effort to make his first telemarketing sale. Here, I think, Tolkin’s ambivalent sympathies come out. Early in the film Peter had asked a cold-caller whether he ever thought he’d be doing this as a career; it’s less a moral condemnation than glib snobbery. But when Peter has to close the sale, his self-loathing is mixed with a certain pride. The cashiered ad exec finds that he can do this. He’s on the road back.
The gorgeously designed movie, with hard blacks and saturated primaries, has a developing palette (“swatches for each act,” Tolkin says). Unhappily, I can’t study the design arc here because The New Age seems never to have had a DVD release. So much for the Celestial Multiplex. Good old 35mm pulled us through, in a radiant print.
Scholars seem now to agree that film festivals serve as an alternative international distribution system. Like Hollywood’s more formal and routinized machine, festivals bring movies to audiences. Usually the movies are current ones, and a festival is offering local viewers their only chance to see such pictures before video release.
Ebertfest shows that there’s an essential place for what we might call the repertory festival. That’s one that revives and reappraises films from earlier periods—and “earlier” may mean only a few years ago. Jumping from 1929 (Man with a Movie Camera, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra) to the 1980s (Apocalypse Now, Barfly) and the 1990s (The New Age) and then right up to 2008 (Vincent, Trucker, Departures, Synecdoche, New York, Song Sung Blue), this year’s edition reminds us that every film, old or new, is a part of history.
To come fully into history, I’m convinced, a film needs scale. Even intimate dramas attain their true gravity when spread out like a gigantic picnic on a pale blanket. It’s not the only way to enjoy cinema, certainly; but it’s one that we must never abandon. Like the note-taker in the back row and the geeks up front, everyone needs a full view.
Apocalypse Now Redux.
PS 28 April: I just discovered this piece by Steven Zeitchik, who argues that reviving classics in a big-screen event format could also be good business.
This year Ebertfest has been such a swirl of activity that I hardly know where to start. Jim Emerson’s reportage, here and here, decorated with neat photos and trim Tweets, has admirably hit the high points—the panels, the Q & A’s, and the young Web critics, or “foreign correspondents,” that Roger has summoned to his annual get-together. There’s even streaming of the panels and Q & A.
After participating in four events in rapid succession, I find that I’m still sorting out impressions. I hope to do justice to the broad swathe of doings in another entry after I get home tomorrow. For now, why not just let my impulses take over and write about my most enjoyable movie so far?
Takita Yojiro’s Departures (2008) well deserves the standing ovation that greeted him when he stepped out on the Virginia Theatre stage. I mentioned the film last year, and since then I’ve seen it two more times, not counting the splendid projection Friday. I was happy that Roger shares my affection for the movie. In my remarks before the screening, I praised the movie’s willingness to go straight for the heart. This sort of sincerity, which John Ford or Frank Borzage would have understood, is hard to come by in today’s American cinema, where emotion tends to be framed by irony or self-consciousness cuteness (500 Days of Summer). My intro did mention the comedy in the film, but I didn’t stress it enough. Watching it with the Ebertfest audience again taught me that the film cleverly uses humor to lead us into its pathos.
The first half hour handles a lot of narrative business. We need to meet the main characters and learn their situation, of course. We also need an introduction to the trade of encoffinment, the practice of preparing the body of the deceased for cremation. But if the story proceeded chronologically, we wouldn’t get this introductory scene for quite a while. So the film provides a pre-credits flashforward that serves up the process, making it palatable with a dose of humor.
We see Daigo and his crusty boss Sasaki visiting a household and arranging a young woman’s corpse. No, it’s not a woman: Daigo discovers that the corpse has a penis. Should they apply male or female make-up? This bit of comedy undercuts the solemnity of the occasion and builds up curiosity: How to resolve the situation? Cut back to Daigo two months earlier, playing the cello in an orchestra that is about to be disbanded. The end of his musical career sends him and his wife back to his hometown seeking a new job.
Since the first scene shows Daigo practicing the “sending-off” trade, we know how that search will turn out. With our superior knowledge we can enjoy all the misunderstandings that fill the first scenes in Yamagata. A misprint in the newspaper ad makes Daigo think he’s applying to a travel bureau; Sasaki hires him without glancing at his résumé; Daigo becomes disturbed at the prospect of handling dead bodies, but the generous advance makes him decide to try. Moreover, in the opening we’ve watched him skillfully executing the routines of the ceremony, so we know that he will eventually succeed. The question is how.
One of the pleasures of movies is showing us how people work. (Think of Steve McQueen running the ship’s engine in The Sand Pebbles, or the arcana of sleight of hand in The Prestige.) So the opening fascinates by introducing us, matter-of-factly, to a craft. In doing so, the scene treats the ceremony fairly objectively. A second ceremony is staged for a video demo, with Daigo serving as the corpse. Here the comedy is even broader, but we’re still learning about the procedures.
A third ceremony, involving the decomposed body of an old woman, is skipped over, but it is heavy in consequences. It drives Daigo to the bathhouse to clean up, and there he reunites with an old friend and his mother, the bathhouse owner. The third encounter also makes Daigo return to playing the cello, using the instrument he was given as a boy. In a way, the whole story offers another chance at childhood. Daigo, feeling guilty for abandoning his mother and angry at the father who deserted them, will be granted a chance to reconcile with both.
The film’s next sending-off ceremony is a turning point, for it’s Daigo’s first encounter with the dignity of Sasaki’s craft. With the young man we study the tender precision with which Sasaki tucks the dead wife’s garments around her, strokes her face and hands, and applies her favorite lipstick. The husband, initially enraged that Sasaki and Daigo arrived late, ends up moved to tears: “She never looked so beautiful.” Here, fifty minutes into the film, humor is suspended in order to present a compassionate gravity in the face of death. Characteristically, however, a certain lightness returns when in the car Sasaki and Daigo chew noisily on the snacks the husband has given them.
From a penis joke and Daigo’s humiliation at playing dead for the video, the film has led us to care about the characters. We can relax and start to appreciate the depths of what Sasaki and Daigo do. The film will busy itself with new problems—the shame Daigo faces in pursuing this craft, his stratagems for concealing it from his wife Mika, his revived memories of his father, a subplot involving another son impatient with his mother—but we are now ready for these enrichments of the central situation. Eventually too we will see the encoffinment ceremony though other characters’ eyes, as they arrive at our appreciation of its astringent tenderness.
The shrewd placement of the opening flashforward has gently pulled us into the story’s world and its key issue, the tie between the living and the dead. By the time that we return to that family and their transvestite son, the question of how to make up his face has gathered a thick array of associations. The parents’ quarrel anticipates all the other parent/ child relationships that accrue across the film, and the resolution of it, through a father acknowledging his guilt, provides a foretaste of the climax.
The unruffled exactness of Sasaki’s tradecraft is mirrored in Takita’s direction. This is classic Japanese filmmaking: Not a wasted shot, each angle precisely depicting what we need to see at any moment. After the fumbling and flailing displayed by most contemporary Hollywood directors, after filmmakers’ urge to “give a scene energy” manages to muff getting an actor out of a car, it’s a pleasure to watch powerful effects achieved delicately. How many movies can wring tears from uncurling a fist or an image of a smooth stone on a woman’s palm?
Several scenes of the dead include photos of the person in life. Early on, these are given force through simple cutaways.
Once he’s trained us to watch for these photos, Takita can let us compare death and life through more discreet revelations, as when a slight movement of Daigo’s head allows us to see a photo that remains out of focus.
Or take the moment when Daigo comes home after preparing the decomposed body. He gags when he sees that Mika is preparing raw chopped chicken, but then he frantically embraces her. The gestures begin in panic but end in desire. At this point Takita cuts to a new angle, a long shot showing the couple, the table, and the dish that triggered it all.
It’s always sound practice to tactfully recall earlier moments in a film, but the composition also completes the scene’s arc from disgust at death to ardent vitality.
The whole film’s craftsmanship is as warm and fastidious as the job practiced by the send-off experts. At the end, Daigo’s respectful handiwork, with all its dispassionate concern, turns into caresses, the intimate gestures of a son rediscovering a parent through physical contact. Modulation of movement, mood, and attitude; slight variations that become subtly expressive; the prosaic detail that cuts right through you: In this domain the Japanese cinema has no superior. Departures shows that this tradition lives on.