Friday, May 06, 2011

An Epic, Multi-Part Ebertfest Recap: Day One



The first screening of the 13th annual Ebertfest was scheduled for 7 p.m. (though, as I was soon to discover, none of the screenings ever actually started on time)...but, even as I made my way to Champaign's historic Virginia Theatre at around 4 p.m. to meet up with a few Twitter friends in person for the first time, I noticed a long line away going around the corner outside the theater. People were braving the rain to try to get the best seats in the house. The anticipation was in the wet, misty air!

My first day of the festival didn't begin with that evening screening, though. Instead, it began hours earlier, at around noon, when, upon Ali Arikan's invitation the night before, I decided to walk over to the Illini Union—University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's student center—and meet up with him and a bunch of others to do what anyone visiting Champaign apparently is supposed to do as a matter of course: go to a Steak 'n Shake to consume burgers and milkshakes! Which I did, in the company of, among others, three more of Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents: Michael Mirasol, representing the Philippines (even though he and his family currently live in Malaysia); Gerardo Valero, from Mexico City; and the 17-year-old wunderkind Krishna Shenoi, who comes from India but who currently lives with his family in Dubai. I was especially interested in meeting Michael, with whom I have had frequent online interactions over the past year since first hearing him speak, along with a bunch of other FFCs, at last year's Ebertfest via live-stream.

When we got to the Steak 'n Shake on Neil St., Michael was telling me about how, last year, the local media had swarmed onto that particular restaurant after Ebert had alerted people to that location on his Twitter feed. This time around, however, the coast looked clear...until we all noticed the one cameraman setting up near the entrance of the restaurant. 

Upon seeing this, Michael turned to me and his wife, Claire, and said, "Oh no, not again!" (He eventually did speak to this cameraman for an on-camera interview, though with vocal reluctance.)

As far as the lunch went...well, I wasn't totally blown away by the Western BBQ 'n Bacon Steakburger I had (though it was certainly far better than anything you'd get at McDonald's, to be sure), but the strawberry milkshake? Just look at the size of this thing!

This first day of Ebertfest would be marked by introductions to people I knew only from online interactions, in fact. Only a couple hours later, I would find myself standing in front of the Virginia Theatre, umbrella in hand, meeting with one Donald G. Carder—who heretofore had been known to me only as @theangrymick on Twitter—who was attending the festival with his wife Anne. I also met, for the first time, Moira (@PlaidGirl), Visha (@vanyc) and Greg (@litdreamer)—all of whom I would see again at various points in the next five days. (If nothing else, Ebertfest, by holding his festival in this one festival, helps foster lasting movie-connected friendships in ways that much larger festivals such as, say, South by Southwest can only dream of doing.) Along with Odie Henderson—the man the blogosphere knows best as Odienator—we all went to a nearby bar and hung out for a couple of hours before returning to the theater to try to get our seats for Ebertfest's opening night. Just before I went in, I was greeted by film critic/blogger Craig Simpson, who some of you may know as The Man from Porlock. (One of my regrets about this festival is that I didn't get as much of a chance to chat with him as I did with others. Sorry, Craig! Maybe next year?) And once I was in the theater about a half-hour before Ebertfest's first film began, I finally met in person film critic Mark Pfeiffer, who was sitting with a friend of his in what he said was his usual spot up in the balcony. (Mark turned out to be the one I relied on to offer some interesting historical context regarding past Ebertfests, I may end up sharing some of his tidbits of information later on.)

Noticeably absent from this roll call of film critics and Twitter buddies, by the way, were the estimable film critics/bloggers Jim Emerson and Marilyn Ferdinand, both of whom I was most excited to meet this year, and both of whom were unable to show up this year for various reasons. Sad face. Again, maybe next year?

And then, 7 p.m. struck. Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz came onstage about 10 minutes afterward and made some introductory remarks. Ebert himself came onstage with a white scarf; to me, he had the look of a high priest—a high priest of the cinema, at least for this event. They introduced film scholar Kristin Thompson—sans her equally distinguished husband David Bordwell, alas (laid low due to pneumonia contracted during his recent trip to the Hong Kong Film Festival)—to make some remarks of her own regarding the festival's first film. Then, the three members of the Alloy Orchestra—a group that is known for performing original scores to silent-film classics—took their places in the orchestra pit, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) began.

Naturally, we watched the recent "complete" version that premiered last year at Berlinale and which I saw during a two-week run at Film Forum. Thompson, as one would expect from a film scholar of her caliber, got into the nitty-gritty about how the extra footage that was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008 ended up there in the first place (apparently, Argentina and many other South American countries were considered a big market by the German film industry at the time, so they often sent prints of their films there). For me, the extra footage—which includes one extra scene that adds an extra level of menace to a side character that, in previous versions, didn't seem play all that important a role to the action—neither diminishes the film nor makes it a much greater work; it's just longer now, but by no means is it any more sprawling. For a work of this scale, it's astonishing just how tightly constructed it is, really—especially in its third act, appropriately dubbed "Furioso" in this complete version.

The big news with the screening of the complete Metropolis at the Virginia Theatre that night was two-fold:

1. The digital print furnished by Kino International struck me as far more superior to the print I saw at Film Forum last year. With the latter, I was always aware I was watching a digital print; the one I saw at Ebertfest struck me as sharper and far more convincingly film-like. It can't be the larger screen deceiving my eyes, it can't be!

2. This is my first time seeing the famed Alloy Orchestra perform one of their of original silent-film scores live. Oh. My. God! My memory of seeing Gottfried Huppertz's original score accompanying the digital print seen at Film Forum is admittedly fuzzy, but I don't recall it having the same starkness and vividness of sonorities as this particular score conceived by members Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller. In the film's first shot of the underground workers joylessly marching out of their jobs, all that their score called for were steady timpani thwacks—but the effect was as chillingly empty as the image surely calls for. Even more romantic moments that might have called for a more sweepingly upbeat approach—the moment the real Maria (Brigitte Helm) kisses Freder (Gustav Frohlich) after her rousing speech to the workers—still maintained an unsettling, almost doom-laden modernistic flavor to them. It was thrilling to hear this score accompany this, one of the grandest follies of the cinema, and still as amazing an achievement of the human imagination as ever...and if you missed it at Ebertfest, or last year at the TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles, you most likely won't be able to hear it! (That said, in a Q&A session after the screening, Terry and Roger said that this score was available on the Alloy Orchestra's website, but separately, not as an added soundtrack on home video. You'll have to sync the soundtrack to the film all by yourself.)

Apparently, it's rare for Ebertfest to feature two films on its opening night. But Ebert was one of the judges of the Narrative Feature Competition at South by Southwest in March, and apparently he was so smitten by Robbie Pickering's award-winning Natural Selection that, according to Chaz, he felt he had to try to get this film into his festival, without question.

I was not as big a fan of Natural Selection as Ebert and the other judges were, and I wrote so in this House Next Door dispatch. Nevertheless, when I discovered that Ebert had made this a last-minute selection in this year's Ebertfest, I figured I might as well sit through the film again to see if I could perhaps warm to it more. Let me put it this way: It wasn't an entirely unfruitful endeavor.

Perhaps the best way to look at the film is as a story of one woman's female empowerment (and it's real female empowerment, too, not the Zack Snyder/Sucker Punch male-fantasy bullshit) rather than as the facile satire of religious hypocrisy that it threatens to be in the film's choppy opening 15 minutes. Even in those opening moments, you can sense, in Linda West's behavior and facial expressions, a deep dissatisfaction with her lifestyle that she's possibly been repressing for years. Of course, even around supposed long-lost son Raymond (Matt O'Leary), Linda tries to hold onto that good-girl Christian image...and part of the fascination of Natural Selection, on a character-based level, lies in trying to determine just how much she truly buys into the goody-goody image. Is she secretly ready to cast it off, and is Raymond the one to help her finally do so? The brilliance of Rachael Harris's deservedly praised performance as Linda lies in her empathetic refusal to condescend to her character (unlike the way Pickering often condescends to the rest of her clan—though he said he intended nothing of the sort in the Q&A with him and Harris following the screening). You might find fundamentalist Christians of her ilk insufferable—and with the public prominence of groups like the Tea Party movement, it's arguably difficult for rational people not to find such behavior insufferable, on some level—but her brand of fundamentalism seems to come out of a heartfelt desire to do good—even for those (like her husband, we come to discover) who really don't deserve her charity.

I still can't say I'm crazy about Natural Selection, but I'll concede that there are elements in it worth celebrating. It sure as hell wasn't Metropolis, though...but then, what is?

And thus endeth the first day at Ebertfest.

Coming up next on this epic, multi-part Ebertfest recap: Two movies with dogs in them, another go-round with Lena Dunham's post-graduate malaise, and a raucous night of...what else? Karaoke, of course!



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Randy Masters said...

Hi Kenji. I enjoyed your recap of your first day of EbertFest.

It was my first time seeing Metropolis. Wow.

I had a different reaction to Natural Selection. Of course, I am a Midwesterner and a conservative Christian and a Tea Party type - none of which I find "insufferable". :) So, we are going to see the movie differently. My take is at: