Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Rest of Ebertfest, Part II

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Hopefully after this post, I will finally be done with Ebertfest stuff (sorry if I sound less than completely into this, but I'd really rather move onto other things; Ebertfest was, like, a whole freakin' month ago. Damn you, Blogger and your epic service hiccup a few weeks ago!).


This was a big day: four films in one day, culminating in the highlight of the festival as far as celebrity appearances go. If you don't know by now who I'm referring to, you'll see soon enough.

After a better night's sleep than what I had gotten in the previous two evenings, I rolled out of bed early that Saturday, April 30, and took a special shuttle bus with accompanying police escort—to help navigate us through a marathon that was passing through Urbana, Ill., that morning—to the Virginia Theatre for the first film of the day, Jennifer Arnold's documentary A Small Act (2010). 

The film follows the efforts of a Kenyan activist, Chris Mburu, to try to help children in Kenya get a better education and thus put themselves on the path to a better life. Mburu himself was inspired by a selfless act of charity at the hands of Hilde Back, a Swedish Holocaust survivor who, when Mburu was a poor child in Kenya, donated enough money through a sponsorship program to ensure that he could continue his education. Mburu's own philanthropic efforts, then, could be seen as his way of paying it forward.

Things gets complicated, though, when Kenya becomes torn apart by violence after the much-disputed 2008 presidential elections—and Mburu's fight to keep his efforts going as his country is thrown into such turmoil become the most interesting part of Arnold's film. What looked to be a self-congratulatory back-patting documentary about the power of charity suddenly develops a measure of real drama that, I would assume, is something that Arnold & co. could not have anticipated at the outset of shooting this film.

Elsewhere, A Small Act is certainly well-intentioned, and the pro-charity sentiments it expresses are more or less unassailable. Personally, though, I wouldn't have minded a bit more interrogation of Mburu's brand of philanthropy, in which the determination of whether a Kenyan student will get the funding needed to continue his/her education hinges entirely on one single test. And why only select a handful of students rather than, say, a whole village of them? Arnold's documentation of Mburu's charitable efforts strike me as a bit too much hero worship for my taste—though certainly that isn't to deny the laudable heroism behind his efforts. [The film is currently available on DVD through Docurama.]

A better film about Africans struggling through adversity followed A Small Act: Life, Above All (2010). Like last year's Winter's Bone (2010), Oliver Schmitz's film focuses on a young girl, a South African 13-year-old named Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) as she singlehandedly tries to hold her family together in spite of serious obstacles: the death of a sibling, a drunken father and deterioriating mother, the looming specter of AIDS, the suspicions of a backwards village. The plot outlines may be rather familiar, and stylistically the film is never particularly adventurous; unlike Debra Granik's Gothic depiction of life in the Ozarks in Winter's Bone, for the most part, one wouldn't mistake this film's depiction of South Africa for anything but grounded and realistic. Nevertheless, Schmitz and screenwriter Dennis Foon, adapting a young-adult novel by Allan Stratton, manage to craft an affecting human drama out of Chanda's struggles without lapsing into melodramatic hysterics (a trap that eventually ruined Debra Granik's overpraised drama), and Manyaka's toughness and generosity of spirit keeps you watching. It has a problematic finish that can be read either as the heroine's own wish-fulfillment or as a forced attempt at a happy ending—but it's not enough to mar an otherwise solid film. [Life, Above All is set to get a theatrical release on July 15, 2011; New Yorkers will have a chance to see it on June 30 as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.]

A more surprising revelation came in the next film on that day's roster: Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass (2009). I didn't get a chance to see this when it got a small, much-delayed theatrical release in New York during the second half of last year, so this screening at Ebertfest represented my first encounter with it. If I had seen Leaves of Grass last year, it might have cracked my Top 10. It's that good.

Leaves of Grass, on a broad level, is about the ways all of us human beings try to reconcile our intellectual and emotional sides. Nelson starts out by presenting us with two twin brothers, both of them played by Edward Norton in perhaps one of the great dual performances in cinema. One of them, Bill, is a Brown University philosophy professor who approaches life in an overly logical manner; the other, Brady, is a small-time pot grower in Oklahoma who lives a life of carefree excess. You could say Bill represents the Apollo to Brady's Dionysus, to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche's famous formulation in The Birth of Tragedy. Eventually, though, the film's Apollonian and Dionysian impulses clash as Brady lures Bill back to Oklahoma and the Ivy League professor finds himself embroiled in all sorts of Fargo-like shenanigans when Brady's attempt to rip off a local drug lord ends in disaster. But it's not only Bill who is forced to adopt a more impulsive approach in the wake of so many dead bodies; the film's narrative also, in a way, starts to go haywire, with its second half's sudden turn toward darker, more violent and more outrageous terrain.

Leaves of Grass reminded me of one my most cherished films of recent years, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's 2003 film Last Life in the Universe. Though Pen-ek's sensibility is far more lyrical and elusive than Nelson's, his film also pits two contrasting characters—one a shy Japanese librarian who lives a life of neatness and restraint, the other a free-spirited Thai woman in thrall to her emotions and aspirations—against each other and watches the sparks that fly. The narrative in Last Life in the Universe also takes a (far subtler and stranger) turn toward a kind of intellectual abstraction, but I think the general idea that animates both these films are, at heart, the same: a humane embrace of the messiness and confusion that sometimes envelops all of us in our own lives. Sometimes life itself just doesn't operate in any logical way, however much we might try to mold our own experiences in something intellectually satisfying; it may be better to just go with the flow and see where you end up. In those ways, Leaves of Grass proves not only be to be shocking and funny, but also rather profound. [The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray from First Look Studios.]

But the main event of this penultimate day of Ebertfest came in the form of...

Yes, that's right: the one and only Tilda Swinton came to Urbana, Ill., to talk about her work in conjunction with a screening of I Am Love (2009). For many at Ebertfest, this was clearly the big event of the festival, the climax of which the next day's one final screening would be little more than an agreeable epilogue.

I've already written a bit about Luca Guadagnino's melodrama here; seeing it again on the Virginia Theatre's large screen—a perfect medium for a film of such extremes, visually and emotionally—only made me appreciate even more not only how beautiful it consistently looks, but how its beauty—rather than being merely decorative or pictorial—works in concert with the emotions of its main character, a Russian housewife in Italy named Emma (Swinton). Guadagnino's camera roams around the various spaces she inhabits, whether coldly sterile or lushly passionate (he is, of course, assisted invaluably by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux), and finds all sorts of visual correlatives to the feelings she is unable to verbally articulate—and Swinton herself lends the character a tactile emotional transparency that helps push the film, especially during its second hour, into the realms of near-silent cinema. (I know most people think her performance in Julia (2008) is one of the greatest feats of screen acting in recent years, and it's impressive, don't get me wrong—but I rather prefer her performance here, maybe because of how internal it is by comparison to her relentlessly, if necessarily, showy turn in Zonca's film.) 

It was an inspired choice on Ebert's part to juxtapose I Am Love and Leaves of Grass, because Guadagnino's film, it turns out, also explores the same intellect vs. emotion dichotomy that Nelson's film tackles. Here, that "intellectual" side takes the form of the repression brought on by upper-class privilege, an emotional prison that threatens to contain Emma's more passionate side. When she meets her son Edoardo's friend and business partner Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), she throws caution to the wind and starts a torrid love affair...but is it love that spurs her on, or merely the thrill of breaking a societal taboo? Emma has just received a letter from her daughter, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), in which she admits to carrying on a lesbian relationship; the intrigue that this inspires in her can be seen in Swinton's face. Is the conclusion—in which, aided by the raucous conclusion of John Adams's Harmonielehre, Emma defiantly casts off her classy high-end wardrobe, puts on less glitzy suburban wear, takes one last approving look at her daughter, and escapes that prison of a fancy house—a pure feminist triumph or an ambiguous one? It's telling that, in the middle of the end credits, Guadagnino includes a final, dreamlike image of Swinton and Antonio in a cave, with Swinton slowly peering out of it. Her defiance has, in essence, brought her back into some kind of metaphorical womb, looking into a deeply uncertain future.

Nothing uncertain about what happened after the screening, though: Tilda Swinton arrived onstage to a standing ovation and treated us all to an approximately hour-long Q&A session that never flagged in fascinating anecdotes, bits of artistic philosophy and such.

Apparently the livestream still exists online, if you're willing to put up with what I assume is consistently lackluster video quality:

I would have tried to crash a VIP-only after-party afterwards to try to meet Swinton in person, but I couldn't even begin to summon up the energy to think about such a thing as I staggered out of the Virginia Theatre at around 1 a.m. after this whole long day was over.


Being that only one film was shown on the last day of Ebertfest—Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel's rousing documentary Louder than a Bomb—and that I already wrote about it here...well, I guess I can move on to my postscript.


The one thing I treasured most about my first Ebertfest experience wasn't meeting Roger Ebert in person or making the new friends that I did. No, Ebertfest did what not even South by Southwest was quite able to accomplish: reawaken my awareness of the pleasures of the cinematic theatrical experience. It had been a while since I felt real tingles of anticipation whenever the lights went down and the curtains went up as a film began...but every film at the Virginia Theatre—even films like Metropolis, Umberto D., Tiny Furniture and I Am Love that I had seen previously—felt like an honest-to-God event. It helps that every film looked spectacular on that screen; high marks to ace projectionists James Bond and Steve Krauss. Ebertfest helped remind me of what I love most about seeing movies in a theater—and in the age of movies being watched on smartphones, this strikes me as no small accomplishment indeed.

But, of course, it was tons of fun in the social department as well, the highlight coming on the night of Thursday, April 28, when I tagged along with a whole group of people to indulge in some hot karaoke action at a nearby bar. Having become quite the karaoke fiend recently, I naturally seized upon this opportunity to get in front of that large group of people to sing one of my new favorites tunes, The Cars' "Just What I Needed" (off their great 1977 self-titled debut, of which I may devote an entire blog post to in the near future).

Alas, this time around, I didn't think to record myself in the midst of what I was told was an impressive performance. So instead, here's a video of another memorable performance from that night, this one courtesy of...Chaz Ebert!

And finally, one last long, wistful look at the historic landmark of a house in which I stayed:

I never did find out, by the way, which room President Lincoln actually slept in—though that's because the host wasn't even entirely sure himself. It was nevertheless a nice place to stay for Ebertfest; if I return to Urbana, Ill., for next year's Ebertfest, I might stay here again. Hey, the price is right, at least!

And now the Ebertfest 2011 chapter of my life is closed. Moving along...

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