Patrick Franklin's Ebertfest Blog
Sunday, April 25, 2004
"It's a good blog," said Roger Ebert when I gave him my thanks and my farewell this evening. I sighed with relief. This was my first blogging experience and to do it officially for such a prestigious event was an honor to say the least. Blogging is quite a phenomenon. It's only in its infancy and I suspect some day that it will evolve into a new literary form as it ventures into fiction. Imagine if James Joyce had had internet access. Ulysses is pretty close to being a blog already. But anyway, it's been a grand experience. I love film festivals because you get to see so many great films that you probably would not take the initiative to seek out on your own. Or at least it would take a while for you to get around to them. I've met so many people on this filmlover's vacation, some famous, some not, most of them nice, a lot of them really nice. One filmlover named Ken comes all the way from Colorado every year. This is his favorite film festival because of the intimacy and the level of intellectual depth that the discussions can achieve. I would have to say the only festival that I've been to that's more intimate would be Quentin Tarantino's festival in Austin where it feels like you're sitting on his couch watching his favorite movies with him. The Overlooked Film Festival is a much bigger affair, selling out all shows this year for the first time, but it is still quite intimate as Roger and all of the filmmakers are really warm and accessible. Discussions of course always depend on the guests and the audience. One bit of advice I would give to future audience members is don't take the microphone just to personally thank the filmmaker for their "creativity" or "body of work" or "inspiration". It's just pretentious and you're wasting everybody's time. And never ask a question just to make a statement or hear yourself talk. Remember there are hundreds of others who really don't want to hear you talk. Get your tickets early next year (or this year really). The festival is going to be even bigger I'm sure and I hope I get to come back. Now I'm off to Chicago for a couple of days. I've never been to the windy city and figure I ought to use the free trip to take the opportunity. Ironic that I'm missing a Tortoise show back home because I'll be wandering around their hometown. I also missed Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" this weekend because I was attending a film festival. Ain't life funny that way. Just like a movie.
I was hanging out in the projection booth with James Bond, the projectionist, after the festival. He was looking at the screen through a small telescope to focus the lense for an encore presentation of Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. No wonder they call him an artist. Movie-goers forget about the exhibition aspect of filmmaking as being integral to the artistry. Bond perfects every detail. I use to work at a cineplex in college. I would sometimes thread the projector and turn it on in between selling tickets and shovelling popcorn. It was a routine thing and there was always a problem--out of focus, bad framing, bad splice, etc. One of the many great things about watching films at a film festival is that they have a professional who knows what they're doing and cares about what they're doing. It's a shame that the role of the projectionist, or film engineer if you will, has been marginalized by corporations. Bond calls cineplexes "glorified candy stores". He's right.
I love the idea of watching two different documentaries about one person, each made at a different time in their life. Today we got that rare opportunity in experiencing the life of Howard Armstrong, a little known musician, painter, poet, all around renaissance man who maintained his appetite for life all the way up until he died a few months ago at the age of 93. The films were "Louie Bluie", directed by Terry Zwigoff, which showed Howard in his seventies, and "Sweet Old Song", directed by Leah Mahan, showing him in his nineties after he found love with fellow artist/musician Barbera Ward. It's interesting because back home I work on a research project that focuses on the elderly. All day I call random homes looking for new recruits. Understably, in today's telemarketing age, most people aren't very receptive to phone calls from strangers. But, the worst is when an elderly person's response to the idea of getting involved with something is that they're too old. "I'm too old to do anything," they quite often say to me--sometimes scream at me and hang up abruptly. I want to show these people these two films. Howard Armstrong is someone who never understood the meaning of the words "too old." He was constantly growing, learning, working, playing, and seeking enlightenment. He had more youth and adventure in his nineties than most twenty year olds. An absolutely brilliant, humble, and terribly funny man, I hope that he does not remain overlooked. He should be an inspiration to everyone. After the screening, we were treated to some of his songs as performed by friends and bandmates. They were joined by Barbera on vocals and tambourine. It was a fittng interactive close to the festival as the enormous audience clapped along.
Last night was the post-fest party. There was a cocktail pianist, a bartender, young people in tuxedos serving finger food, the works. And of course right in the middle of everything was Mark Borchardt towering over everyone saying his usual "Yeah, man, yeah, yeah, man. . . " He has a tendency to pitch ideas in run-on sentences. The Boardman's Art Theatre had screened American Movie and Coven as part of the festival. Mike Shanck was also present, looking like he just woke up from a twenty year nap. Here were two very nice people, extremely fascinating, but I had no desire to even attempt a conversation. I just watched happily from the distance. Roger and his wife Chaz made it to the party but left early as they were understandably tired. Unfortunately, Errol Morris did not come to the party. I wanted to ask him about the audience's reaction to his movie. I noticed that people were coming up to him at the end of the day and saying things like "I haven't laughed so hard in my whole life" and "Where did you find these characters?" Though he was kind and gracious to everyone, I wouldn't want to believe that he should be entirely receptive to such comments. He must have enough affection for the people in "Gates of Heaven" to be somewhat offended by the notion that they were viewed solely as the butt of a joke. I fear I must be sounding arrogant or pretentious with this ongoing commentary about "Gates of Heaven" but I've been somewhat disheartened by the apparent one-dimensional reaction to this multi-dimensional film.
Sitting one seat over from the great Werner Herzog while watching his own film "Invincible" was surreal. I'm glad I liked the movie and I'm glad I wasn't too tired to watch it. It would have been embarrassing to have nodded off and awaken abruptly to see him staring at me. "Invincible" I think is another one of my favorites from the festival. After the screening, Herzog talked a good long hour before saying good night. He wasn't anything like what I expected of a man who once dragged a ship over a mountain. I suppose I was expecting to see some sort of mad scientist-type with a lot of nervous energy shooting people down like ducks in a row. Instead, he was quite the opposite. He seemed as if he could just as easily have been a man who teaches grade schoolers to finger-paint. So calm and gracious. He had many interesting stories about his life and his films. What particularly stood out was his description of Klaus Kinski as the raving lunatic. He said that when he first knew Kinski as a child, he was living in an attic filled with leaves up to the waste, naked and often going to the rooftop to harrass the police as they walked by. What? He was also notorious for wrecking everything from houses to sets to countless rollsroyces. Why would anybody want to work with this guy? On "Aguirre, the Wrath of God", Kinski wanted the still photographer fired because he was smiling, but when Herzog refused, he threw a tantrum and wrecked the set. As things got worse, Herzog eventually threatened to kill Kinski--literally. He told him that he had a rifle and that he was going to put eight bullets in his head if he didn't cooperate. Maybe they're both crazy. Some other interesting tidbits about Herzog is that he converted to Catholicism after having been raised by a bunch of "militant aetheists" as he put it. That seems to be the opposite story for many European artists. Many are raised by tough fundamentalists (Bergman comes to mind) and have a falling out with their faith. Another surprising thing is how fast Herzog writes. He said that "Invincible" took the longest of any screenplay he's ever written and it took only nine days. "Aguirre" took only two and half. Sitting next to Herzog during the screening was Errol Morris. They are both actually old friends. They knew each other even before Morris began making movies, and it was actually Herzog who encouraged him to do so. Herzog told Morris that if he made "Gates of Heaven" that he would eat his shoe. Sure enough that is exactly what he did. The meal was filmed and turned into a short called "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe". After the discussion, Herzog stayed around longer and signed autographs. Not only a phenomenal filmmaker but he seemed to be a wonderful man, climbing his way out of the South American jungle where he's working on a film, to come all the way to Champaign-Urbana for one night. As Roger put it, like his film he is "invincible".
I didn't much care for "People I Know" starring Al Pacino, Kim Basinger, and Tea Leoni. Ebert regards it as one of Pacino's best performances but I couldn't see that at all. I felt he was acting just like he always does except this time he had an atrociously fake Georgia accent. I can criticize this because I'm from Georgia, and I'm not just saying it to be arrogant. I usually don't criticize accents but it was way off and I couldn't get past it. The film was about a publicist, based loosely on Bobby Zarem who's represented countless big name celebrities and is credited with launching the "I love NY" campaign. He's from Savannah, GA and is quite a character, but he doesn't talk like he lives on 19th century plantation. The film was something of a murder mystery but not in a generic sense. It focused more on the fast-talking, fast-moving, party-to-party lifestyle of a NY publicist, while the murder myster was sort of buried in the background. Very Robert Altman-esque in that sense. That part I liked, but I just couldn't get into it. After the screening, Bobby Zarem and director Dan Algrant joined Roger Ebert on stage. Later, Al Pacino joined us by telephone. He was at home in L.A. watching after his twins. It's a funny situation when you have one person on the phone who cannot see everyone else because they can't read anyone's body language to gauge how long they should talk. Al had a tendency to ramble. Just when he seemed finished and Roger would put the mike up to his face, he would keep going. No one seemed to mind though. It was Al Pacino.
Saturday, April 24, 2004
I liked "Gates of Heaven" a lot, which I saw for the first time this afternoon, but I was completely angered by the experience. The entire audience seemed to be laughing hysterically for the whole movie. I felt like I was watching a mockumentary. The worst part was that I didn't know who to blame--the audience, myself, Errol Morris, or Christopher Guest. A friend of mine said that there's no point in making mockumentaries anymore because documentaries now do what mockumentaries do but do it better. "A Mighty Wind" was terribly unfunny because, by Guest's third outing, his methods and performances became completely inauthentic. The first mockumentaries were authentic because there was an affection for documentaries, but now they've settled into falsehood, and documentaries themselves can be infinitely funnier. I felt as if the subjects in "Gates of Heaven" could have easily been conjured up by Fred Willard or Michael McKean, but that was not the way I wanted to feel. I was drawn to the sadness buried in this movie about lonely people surrounding this mythos of the pet cemetery. Yes, they dress funny because it's the seventies. Yes, they say stupid things because they're either not self-aware or too self-aware. Yes, their goofy because of the things they care so much about. But, very few of these things really made me want to laugh. I couldn't get into the sadness hiding in this movie because the further we got into the movie, the louder the audience laughed. I was tugging at my hair by the end. Have we been conditioned to laugh at sincerity because of the movies of Christopher Guest and his troupe? Or are we so detached from humanity now that laughter is the only way we can react to the behavior of strangers? I wanted to sympathize and empathize with these people but it was very hard to do. I felt cheated. Ebert says that one of the reasons he loves this film so much is because of the many different ways in which people can react and the many different emotions it can evoke in one viewing. I'm not sure anyone in the audience found endearing the sincerity of these people. It was angering, and I don't know if audiences have simply changed or if Errol Morris simply invented the mockumentary with this film and did not realize it at the time. If I were to watch this film in a room full of different people could I enjoy perfect silence? Would we experience as many tears as laughs? I'm confused and angry. I want to see the movie again, but not for a while. Morris said that "The Thin Blue Line", "Vernon, Florida", and "Gates of Heaven" will hopefully be released very soon in a package DVD set.
"The only thing that is entirely ridiculous is life itself, not its individual practitioners."--Errol Morris
I walked into the Pine Lounge at the Illini Union this morning to see what was going on with the seminar presented by Michael Wiese, who's published more than 70 books on filmmaking including some that he has written. When I entered the room, there was only a modest crowd but they were completely silent. At the front of the room, two young men were seated face to face with their knees touching. As if playing Pyramid with Dick Clark, one of them, whom I recognized as a filmmaker from the area, was spewing out random associatons of ideas, adjectives, and concepts describing a movie. I gathered that it was a project of his own. The other young man had only one response for everything he said. "What's it really about? . . . What's it really about? . . . What's it really about? . . ." Half-expecting the filmmaker to burst into tears and leap into his arms the way Matt Damon did in Good Will Hunting when Robin William's refrain of "It's not your fault" finally broke him down, I realized that this was some sort of psychological exercise. I determined that the young man's story was a sci-fi piece, but we never really got deep into any connection between the story and the young man himself. After quite a few exchanges, Wiese finally ceased the exercise and explained its purpose. Naturally, it is taken from some hippie new age stuff rooted in Indian culture. Wiese said that he once did the same exercise for a full three days, stopping only to eat and sleep, and responding to the question "Who are you?" The idea is to wear out the pretenses and completely break down the barriers of the conscious mind so as to go deeper into the subconscious. He said that one time, a student completely broke down in revealing that her story was really about traumatic experiences with sexual abuse. It was an interesting seminar to say the least. I wonder how often these exercises are used, and how often they actually do any good. Maybe Steve Bing did this when he wrote "Kangaroo Jack". Though I would guess that his exercises were slightly different. He probably just went knee to knee with girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley and repeatedly asked her "Who's your daddy?. . . Who's your daddy?. . . Who's your daddy? . . ."
Last night after the screening of El Norte, director Gregory Nava told the story of how they filmed the harrowing scene in the tunnel with the horde of rats attacking David and Rosa. It took several days and three hundred rats to do it. The cast and crew were bit hundreds of times. The really interesting thing is that after the film was released, Nava received a call from Steven Spielberg who loved the movie. Naturally, one of the first things he asked was how they did the scene with the rats. That's an easy phone conversation to imagine. Spielberg is the consummate film nerd. Sure enough though, Spielberg incorporated what he learned in The Last Crusade. I guess that's why he's a good filmmaker. He's always, always learning.
"My Dog Skip" was the kid's matinee this morning. Starring Diane Lane, Kevin Bacon, and Frankie Muniz, it is based on the book by Willie Morris which is a memoir of his childhood and his cherished relationship with his dog. This is a movie that I really wanted to see when it came out. I remember Roger Ebert singing its praises at the time. I'm not surprised that he chose it for this year's festival, and I'm glad that I finally got to see it. It's a very sweet film, and it's a good example of how you don't need to talk down to kids to entertain them. There are layers to this film. Set against the backdrop of WWII, there is a darkness to it. Luke Wilson plays a character ostracized by his community because he deserted the army. He says that it wasn't the dying he was afraid of. "It was the killing." So often kids movies are sterilized and void of any depth because studios don't give children any credit. But, the movies I remember loving the most as a kid are the ones that had a little sadness to them, a little darkness, or at least something more to think about. "The Secret of Nimh" and "The Fox and the Hound" come to mind. Studios spend so much money on marketing campaigns and fast food sponsorships and toy lines, when really all they need is a story with some depth. Kids are smarter than we think. Really, they're smarter than we are. They just can't articulate their thoughts as well. After the movie, Roger talked with the director Jay Russell who said that Warner Brothers initially did not want to release the movie, but then it did really well with a test audience. Yet, even after that, they still were reluctant to release it. They did two more test screenings each one subsequently better than the previous and they were finally convinced. Russell said that this was one case where a test screening actually helped the director. After that, the "special guest" scurried out onto the stage ready to jump onto everybody's lap. Unfortunately, it was not Diane Lane. Well, Enzo (the dog who played Skip) was nice too. Enzo also played Eddie on Frazier, taking over for his father Moose when he got too old. Moose also played an older version of Skip in the movie.
El Norte was a mesmerizing film, but I can't help but think that the film would be more powerful if director Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas wouldn't toot their own horn so much. We didn't get out of the Virginia Theatre until one o'clock because of their longwinded anecdotes. Though the stories were good, I felt I was being told that the movie was amazing rather than allowing that to resonate from the film itself. Nava overexplained his own film, and that's just not good. Nonetheless, El Norte is important for many reasons. It was one of the pioneering independent films. It was one of the first, if not the only, film to capture truthfully the experience of emigrants coming from Central America to try to make it in the U.S. The film is both sad and uplifting. The part that I enjoyed most was seeing how joyful young Enrique (David Villalpando) was when he got a promotion to assistant waiter at the restaurant where he worked. It reminds us spoiled Americans that we take things for granted. I always wonder what's going on in the mind of an immigrant I see working some low-end job either at a restaurant or some other small business. I feel so disconnected because we can't really converse. I wonder why this person would travel so far and work so hard just to serve me enchiladas or moo goo gai pan. Having seen this film, I understand a little better and have greater appreciation for these people that I don't know well but would like to very much. It was truly a beautiful film--mystical.
Slept a little late this morning. Didn't leave the midfest party last night until around 3 a.m. along with Anne V. Coates, who has a noticable affinity for the color pink and is pushing eighty years of age. She can party with the best of them. What a remarkable woman. I also got a chance to meet Darren Ng, who's labor of love was the Buster Keaton tribute "The Scapegoat". Ng is the greatest artist to come out of Berkley since William Hung. (Okay, that's not really a compliment, just a joke about Berkley students whose hobbies are gaining national recognition). Ng is humble and admirable for wanting to continue filmmaking only as a hobby. Not seduced by the sudden fame, he's going to continue studying optometry in grad school and use the money he makes in his career to finance more films he wants to do for fun. If only everyone had the same ethic. As Australian filmmaker Paul Cox says in his autobiogaphy "If you want to do anything seriously, you have to do it as hobby, not as a profession." I also had a chance to talk to Anson Mount. Paranoid that he had skipped me in line at the concession stand earlier because of the jokes I made about his attire and his lateness to the panel the previous morning, I felt the need to clear the air. Truthfully, I don't think he even knew there was a blog. He said he was late because he didn't know he was on the panel. Anyway, in the brief conversation, I discovered that his parents met in my hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee. Mount who is a native Tennessean is traveling to Swanee tomorrow for a dedication of land that he and some other alumni purchased and are donating to the school there.
Just had the good pleasure of meeting the venerable Anne V. Coates, accomplished editor of Lawrence of Arabia, who said that she was going to be starting a film in October written and directed by Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, he asked Jodie Foster to join the cast but she doesn't like to do non-linear films because she finds it difficult to develop the character. Coates' son, Tony Hickox, is currently directing one of his own scripts which she says is very good, but she wishes that he didn't have "that terrible actor. . . oh, what's his name. . . Steven Segal."
Friday, April 23, 2004
After the screening of "Tully" today, Anson Mount took a second to reflect on how surreal the situation was considering his memories of staring at Roger Ebert on the TV as a youngster and hoping that he and Siskel would give "The Dark Crystal" two thumbs up so that his mom would take him to see it. I wasn't sure what to expect of "Tully" before the screening and that's probably why it turned out to be a wonderful experience. This is a storyteller's film, not a filmmaker's film. There's nothing fancy about the production at all. The camera remains unobtrusive in this story of two brothers and their father working on their farm in the midwest. The film has the effect of an agrarian poem. So much is beneath the surface. Though not as powerful or effective as yesterday's "The Son", "Tully" seems to apply an Americanized version of the same storytelling philosophy. Mount is surprisingly good in his first feature film, transcending his teen idol grin to play a more complicated smalltown heartthrob. Julianne Nicholson, playing the reluctant love interest, is electrifying as the freckly, farmgirl beanpole in a baseball tee and cut-off jeans. When cornered into contrasting Nicholson with Britney Spears (Crossroads), Mount admitted, "I would take Julianne Nicholson over Britney Spears anyday of the week." When Ebert commented on the chemistry between Mount and Nicholson, Mount said that it was present even at the audition phase and indicated that he was proud to have been the first person to make Nicholson blush. Laughing to Birmingham and expecting to get away with an inside joke, the clueless director forced him to spit out, "I licked her hand." Ebert also remarked that one could tell the script was written by a woman because the foreplay leading up to the first sexual encounter between the romantic leads was paced and subtly exciting. "Men have no foreplay in their screenplays", he said. Director Hilary Birmingham added to the laughter seeping through the gender gap, ". . . and it's frustrating."
Interesting that the first standing ovation of the festival was given to the youngest group of guys here. Darren Ng, the young director of the short Buster Keaton tribute "The Scapegoat", was joined by his brothers Derrick and Darryl and his friend Michael after the screening of the film they starred in. The audience was on their feet cheering the nervous, wide-eyed youngsters. Shooting on digital video, converting it to black and white, and giving it a few scratches, Ng tells the story of a young college student and his various campus mishaps performing the Buster Keaton role himself. Though the shots are well-composed and a deep understanding of Keaton's style is evident, Ng is actually not a film student at Berkley where he attends. There's too much affection in the movie for him to have been a film student. "The Scapegoat" is the first short film to ever be shown at the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival. (I guess it would be too easy to show short films. All short films are overlooked.) The film was a warmup for a restored print of Buster Keaton's masterpiece "The General" which was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra using clarinets, accordians, snaredrums, saws, and an odd assortment of found sound to accent Keaton's flawless timing. In the pre and post screening discussions, it was interesting to discover that the train which falls through the burning bridge at the climax of the film still rests at the bottom of that pond rusting away somewhere in Oregon. How curious it would be to walk by that site not knowing how that train got there. It piqued my interest in the touches of character surrounding us in the Virginia Theatre. Various portions of the ceiling and the proscenium have been chipped away by who knows what--maybe an ambitious filmmaker. With the side balconies and corinthian columns encrusted in gold, it would be a perfect setting for a Hitchcock homage. Maybe Darren and his crew (meaning his family and friends) can get started on that next.
The second panel discussion this morning was inspired by the fiftieth anniversay of the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision in Topeka, Kansas which overturned the 1896 Plessy vs. Furgeson case which coined the term "separate but equal". Tim Reid, who directed "Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored" was a featured panelist. Some of you might know him better as the character Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinatti, but he's spent a good portion of his career rotating roles on projects. He had a lot of interesting things to say about the media and presentations of African-Americans. He didn't regurgitate the usual hodge-podge about stereotyping but rather offered intellectual insight about "perception" and "reality" in general. In his words, reality is defined by perception and "reality television" is a big joke. It's a lie. He quite eloquently said that the Average Joe "looks retarded". He had as much if not more criticism for black Americans for allowing other people to tell their stories for them. Another panelist, Hadjii, a fellow UGA alum, who is a young African-American screenwriter, had a lot to say about his experience in his education and his view of the three types of people in the film industry: the artist, the entertainer, and the businessman. Charging that segregation still exists but on an axis of quality rather than race, he concluded by saying that most of his real education has come from his own efforts not the school system and that he's still learning everyday things that he wishes he had known a long time ago--even at the festival. "Ignorance is bliss and I'm having a miserable time", he said.
David Poland of Music City News said today that the entire reason for the split of Kill Bill into two volumes by Miramax was because that the film(s) went way over budget and the company needed to make back its money in DVD, confirming all suspicions instigated by the timely release of the Volume 1 DVD right before the theatrical release of Volume 2. That's one stunt they didn't need Yuen Woo Ping for.
Interestingly, Mickey Cottrell, accomplished publicist who's currently promoting "Tarnation" and "What Alice Found", said this morning that he had been a monk for ten years. Talk about going from one end of the spectrum to the other. Strange though, it seems many people involved in the entertainment industry have had more than fleeting interests in religion. Martin Scorsese and Michael Moore both originally wanted to be priests. I suppose passion is passion and as long as you've got a house full of people facing in one direction, then who cares how you're getting them there. Cottrell offered a lot of specifics about his job. Upon being asked a question by a representative from American Airlines, he said that there were four phases to the publicity process: (1) production--This would be the unit publicist, who coordinates public affairs during actual shooting; (2) festivals--obviously important, this is where you try to get the film picked up; (3) distribution--after its been picked up, the film needs to have an audience; (4) awards campaign--of course, after the film has found an audience, you need to make sure they keep thinking about it. Cottrell is a very busy man. He's also currently helping the 86-year-old Don Herbert get his original series "Watch Mr. Wizard" onto DVD. That's good news for us who forgot how to make baking soda bottle rockets.
I'm thoroughly impressed by the number of elders making up the audience here at this festival. Incidentally enough, the Ebertfest is an annual stop for a group called the Elders Hostel which organizes a national tour for senior citizens to attend various cultural events around the country. The squad of white-haired film enthusiasts brought a refreshing change of scenery to the panel discussions this morning. The usual lot of well-dressed hipsters warming their chins with expensive coffee must have been sleeping in. The elderly patrons were particularly involved in the discussion with the publicity panel criticizing their assumptions about the 55 and over market. I admit that they might as well have been criticizing my own assumptions. I'm completely blown away by their interest in this festival and how warm they have been to these challenging films. Where you might expect them to walk out of a film like "Tarnation", a frenetic musical documentary about a homosexual, they were actually really moved by it. One particularly animated lady said to the panel which included David Poland of Music City News, Bobby Zarem ("I Love New York" campaign), and Mickey Cottrell, the world-reknowned publicist here promoting "Tarnation", "We're not a bunch of old fogies who just want movies that don't have the f-word."
Tim Reid, director of "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" told a funny story last night about searching for a usable cotton field for the movie. After a long and arduous search, they finally found a field in South Carolina. However, all of the cotton had already been picked. Having been able to purchase the picked cotton, the idea then was to hire the migrant workers who picked it in the first place to glue it right back on the stalks. Well, the problem with this was that the migrant workers had already moved on, hence the word "migrant". With such a huge task that was going to require a lot of people, they were presented with an impossible feat to recreate this cotton field for many important scenes. What they did was put an ad in the town paper looking for people to come help with the project. Well, not just a few people responded. Nearly the entire town showed up to pitch in. The funny thing is that they were all white. Reid says that he was virtually the only black person there. Such an ironic twist that he should be overseeing these hordes of white southerners reattaching the cotton to the stalks at four in the morning. What an image.
I learned yesterday that supposedly the number one group of professionals offering independent film financing are dentists. So is that the secret life of a dentist--movie producing?
Woke up this morning still thinking about “The Son”. What a powerful film. I remember distinctly how the camera constantly looms over Olivier Gourmet’s shoulders like a gray cloud, following him up and down stairs, peering around corners with him. It adds so much suspense to the simplest of things—a magnificent film. The last film we screened last night was “Once Upon A Time. . . . When We Were Colored”, directed by Tim Reid and starring Phylicia Rashad. Ebert indicated that the film had been rejected from Sundance because it was considered too mainstream. After having seen the movie, I can see why Ebert has such affection for it, but I can also see Sundance’s criticism. It felt very much like a TV movie. Ebert’s best remark, however, was “Just because it doesn’t have a bunch of guys sitting around in L.A. diners talking and smoking doesn’t mean it’s not independent.” The film is about a young black boy growing up in the deep South during segregation. Narrated in voice-over, he remembers being taught to drink from the “colored” water fountains and not to go into the “whites only” bathrooms. These are things we have seen before in movies, but where the movie triumphs is that it doesn’t dwell on the racism. It engages us with the full experience of these southerners-the good and the bad. At times, I sympathized with them. At others, I envied them. The best scene in the film is watching a group friends listen to a Joe Louis boxing match on the radio and seeing their faces settle into despair when he’s defeated by an Italian. It’s very easy to love these characters, especially Poppa (Al Freeman, Jr.), and I can see why Ebert loves this film.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Anson Mount, star of selected film "Tully" (also the boyfriend in Britney Spears' vehicle "Crossroads") showed up fashionably late to this morning's panel discussion "Shooting Films For Peanuts" (or low-budget independent filmmaking), and by fashionably, I mean he was dressed like a Beastie Boy. But, all jokes aside, he offered probably the most poignant advice at one point when he warned young filmmakers not to sell their mother's wedding bands to finance 35mm films. He stressed that if you have a well-honed script, then you already have everything you need. Digital will do just fine. Other panelists included the filmmakers behind Tarnation, The Scapegoat, El Norte, and also Anne V. Coates, an accomplished editor. When Q&A time came, the final question regrettably was from some guy showing off that he had just receive $14 million for a new feature. He namedropped a line producer from As Good As It Gets as being involved. I felt like namedropping the worm wrangler from Mortal Kombat just to one up him. His question was if he could make his movie for half the money, expecting an educated answer from a panel of people who knew only that he had a stack of papers in his hand. And somebody gave this guy $14 million. . . .
So I just found out from a sponsor named Tony that I completely missed out by skipping the Jack Valenti talk this morning. Apparently, some guy squared off with him on piracy issues with a four minute monologue on corporate excess and the usual lot. Tony described it as something of a "Springer moment". Valenti may be a slight man but I bet he can throw down. I wish I could have seen that. Okay, okay, no chairs were thrown and nobody got wedding cake shoved in their face by a midget, but apparently the feeling in the air was tense to say the least. I can imagine that debates over public domain and intellectual property theft could get heated. Valenti remains steadfast in his opposition to any sort of movie piracy saying that when an artist's work is stolen production goes down. He's not worried about the movie stars. He's worried about the paycheck-to-paycheck below-the-line workers who depend on the trail end of the revenue. Ebert has declared that he's in total agreement with Valenti's views on piracy. I think the issue is in a hazy transitional phase that defies a solid argument. At the risk of sounding like a disciple of Marx and Engels, I think in an ideal world, art would be independent of money. Unfortunately, it is not. Where I would love for art to exist only as a hobby and not as a livelihood, it does not. The problem is that people seem to think that because an artist has poured his heart and soul into a work, we owe him money. I contend that we do not. Instead, we owe him an audience. The internet facilitates that. Why does money get involved in the first place. Well, because the internet falls into place only after a system dependent entirely on money has been firmly established. The internet, being the cornerstone of the information age, presents us with a philosphical divide that ranks in importance alongside the capitalism vs. communism debacle of past centuries, except now we are throwing in the element of intangible property. Okay, enough with the pseudo-intellectual rambling. On to the nine o'clock film. . . .
I've just finished viewing "The Son" and I have a feeling that this is going to be my favorite of the festival. It's as if the co-directors, the Belgian Dardenne brothers, are applying a salve to my frustrations with contemporary cinema. Rooted in the cinematic philosophy of Bresson and the poetics of Bergman, "The Son" is a movie that says so much by saying virtually nothing at all. Dialogue is minimal. There's no music and no exposition. What we learn about these characters we learn as if we we're eavesdropping. What we hear are the tiny details which give a room its inherent psychology. The sounds of wood and metal are at times excruciating and at other times very soothing. When I first heard the bansaw in the opening sequence, I thought it was a cello. Ready to roll my eyes at a somber orchestral prelude, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the sound was coming from an instrument of a different sort and that it existed in the world we were about to enter not just on the soundtrack. This is a very moving film about a carpenter, played by Olivier Gourmet who won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for this film, who takes in teenage boys at his shop to train them in the craft. He's a perfectionist who gets everything right, down to the centimeter. Very slowly, we learn more and more about this carpenter and about a tragic experience which has left him scarred. This is all that I will reveal about the story. I wouldn't want to give you anything to prematurely contextualize all of the wonderful subtleties that you experience as you see it for the first time. I will say that it is about a man coping with tragedy in his own life and struggling with the temptations of emotional sin--rage, anger, and vengeance. Though more akin to the style of Bresson, the story is reminiscent of Bergman's "The Virgin Spring", one of my favorite Bergman films, but I must admit that "The Son" is actually more redeeming of its protagonist. After the screening, the special guests were Dan Talbot of New Yorker films, who distributed the picture, and has been responsible for decades of great films coming to America, and David Bordwell, critic and film professor at the University of Wisconsin. They also had particular interest in pointing out the similarities to Bresson--the attention to detail, to craft, to process. Carpentry is the real star of the film. The film moves at the pace of real life. Emotions are not emoted but applied. The audience is allowed to bring themselves into the experience. This is a remarkably humanistic film that challenges cinematic conventions without self-awareness. And that is not easy to do.
Just saw "Tarnation", the documentary which has earned a great deal of attention because of its half-a-shoe-string budget. The young filmmakers were easy to pick out at the wine and cheese affair last night because they were the only ones who looked like they should be carrying guitars and drum equipment. Producer Stephen Winter looks particularly like Lenny Kravitz. Director Jonathon Caouette stars in the film because it is composed of footage that he has been collecting since a small child. Focusing on his relationship with his mother, we see her go from a beautiful woman with a promising modeling career to a schizophrenic drug addict plagued by terrible memories that may or may not be true. Needless to say, the film's tone is bleak. It reminds one very much of Capturing the Friedman's, where the circumstances are tragic, the people are real, but the truth is buried somewhere between the frames. At first, much of the film feels like the epilogue sequence to a teen comedy where a montage with catchy music gives us updates on the characters using subtitles that sound like sentences from a childrens book. With that analogy, however, the sentences take on an eerily ironic tone. "Jonathon wanted to try marijuana. . . but it was laced with PCP. . . and treated with formaldahyde." The most engaging part of the film is seeing Jonathan, who is homosexual, as a very effeminate eleven-year-old act out made-up scenes channeled from some amalgamation of his mother and characters he's seen on TV. What's both amazing and disturbing is how good he is. Wiping away tears as he discusses being abused by men, you don't know what is acting and what is rooted in the deep disturbances of his psyche. Similarly, in a later part of the film, Caouette, as an adult, gazes through the camera at his mother for an uncomfortably long amount of time as she parades around like an attention-defecit child, laughing hysterically, and repeating bad jokes about a pumpkin she has randomly picked up. The scene is excruciating in its subtextual heartbreak. "Tarnation" inspires a sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, you have a very moving, candidly shot video portrait of a person's life. On the other hand, you have something that functions very much like a well put together photo album where we empathize with someone simply because they've opened the book for us. We've entered an era where home movies are being elevated to an art form. At the same time, the art form must enter a hazy period. Our personal memories are no longer just for ourselves but for everyone else too. Much is being made of the fact that this film was made for just over $200 and was edited entirely on iMovie. This is an accomplishment indeed, but also a portent. In time, as the general public begins to appreciate the economics and the power of this and other like films, people will see the potential in their own home video footage and hire filmmakers/editors, as they would a wedding videographer, to find some salvagable narrative in the heap of tape. "Hey, look at me! Find me interesting! Feel sorry for me!" "Artful" home movies will begin to pop up the way reality shows have recently. All it really takes is an emotional arc, clever editing, and a few good songs. Everybody's got a story. I suppose the artistry therein is finding that story. What is exciting about the digital revolution is that it brings the filmmaker that much closer to the freedom bestowed upon a writer, condensing the process, bringing the subconscious closer to the medium itself, and making the final product more like the original vision. It also gives aspiring filmmakers, as the film's publicist Mickey Cottrell said in the post-screening discussion, "no excuses". Caouette said that it will separate the filmmakers from the non-filmmakers. There can be no more people calling themselves filmmakers even though they've never made a film. At the same time, it will inspire people in need of a voice to go out and make a film without be scared of the financial aspects. I think the real challenge will be to make a movie like this without the music. "Tarnation" is part documentary, part music video, which could be considered a genre all to its own. But, I wonder if Caouette could have told this story without the musice to cue our emotions. Would it have been as good? Would it have been better.
The screening of Lawrence of Arabia as restored by Robert Harris and projected by James Bond and Steve Krauss was absolutely stunning. Watching a classic film on the big screen as it was meant to be seen is a rare treasure. I’ve collected a few such experiences by this point, including Vertigo, Psycho, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain. We don’t get many restored prints in Athens, Georgia. As I mentioned before, this is the first time I had ever seen the film because prior to this opportunity it seemed rather pointless. Well, “pointless” is too strong of a word, but I’m glad I waited. Video would not do it justice. I expected to be impressed by the cinematography, seeing the desert landscapes and sunrises in full effect, but what surprised me most was how wonderfully minimalist this epic film is. Ebert shared his affection for the Robert Bolt’s dialogue.
The special guests after the screening were Robert Harris and Anne V. Coates, the Academy Award-winning editor of the film who regarded earlier with a charming British accent that she felt underdressed for the occasion in her bright, pink blouse. (Well, editors don’t have to look good. They have to make other people look good.) Coates, approaching eighty, continues to edit films, the most recent of which is Taking Lives, starring Angelina Jolie. Ebert took the opportunity to point out the distinction between an epic in the time of Lawrence of Arabia and what is considered an epic in the age of computer-generated images. Naturally, Lord of the Rings comes to mind. There’s no substitute for what is real. No matter how detailed or how massive or how impressive a computer-generated army of soldiers looks, it is completely disaffecting because it is just human instinct to realize that those people, boats, villages, etc. aren’t really there. In Lawrence of Arabia, we can feel our feet on the sharp rocks and hot sand. There is “texture” and “presence” (the two most poignant words used) to the film that just could not have been achieved with computers. This is an amazing film which outdoes anything being “generated” today. It’s a true epic. And having experienced it, I understand why Ebert considers it overlooked. The film itself is not overlooked, but the true experience of it certainly is. How appropriate that a memorable line of the film is “Big things start small.” (or some facsimile) This is the first year (now in its 6th) that the Ebertfest has sold out all of its events and screenings. A gentleman from Lexington, Kentucky who comes nearly every year told me that the first year, the side aisles at the Virginia were completely empty. Now you have to search for a seat like looking for a wayward friend in a desert horizon, which reminds me, I have to go do that right now.
The first VIP people I met getting on the elevator in the hotel were David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, two names I know very well because they wrote the text book I used in my Intro to Cinema class at UGA. In fact, my professor was a student of Bordwell’s at the University of Wisconsin. Rumor has it that Bordwell likes to take pictures at parties by setting the camera at knee level somewhere in the room and just snapping at random times. This is a P.O.V. that fans of Yasujiro Ozu would appreciate. Maybe a bit pretentious, but also sounds like a lot of fun. It’s at least better than setting up a hundred miniature cameras to pay tribute to Lars Von Trier.
Okay. Finally got a functional laptop and I can start blogging. I have lot to catch up on because a lot has happened already. I’m skipping Jack Valenti’s Q&A because he’ll probably say the same things he’s already said twice. The VIP crowd at the kickoff party was something of a test audience for bad jokes to be used at the screening of Lawrence of Arabia last night (Valenti wasn't the only guilty one). Anyway, I had the good pleasure to meet Mr. Valenti at the party. Despite being short, he’s got a lot of presence. I once saw a caricature of him in The New Yorker, and had I already seen him in person at the time, I might have mistaken the cartoon for a photograph. His body increases almost algebraically from his toes to his forehead culminating in a volcanic explosion of eyebrow. Despite this rather unfavorable physical description which makes him sound like one of the hecklers from the Muppets, he is a very warm man and took the time to chat with me. I had just recently read about a historic three-hour meeting in 1967 when he and several others debated whether or not the MPAA could release Mike Nichol’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with the words “screwed” and “hump the hostess”. That was my clever lead-in to a discussion of the ratings system and the controversy over the NC-17 rating. What Valenti had done in the sixties by copyrighting the ratings system but leaving the “X” to anybody who wanted use it was a stroke of genius thereby distinguishing serious adult films from pornography, but the gray area which is NC-17 has yet to shatter its stigma and continues to be a problem for artists seeking an audience but not wishing to compromise their work. Valenti told me that he believed that it was not up to the parents to make that decision for their children, and he later reinforced that at the Lawrence of Arabia pre-show discussion saying “I think any parent who uses the movies as a babysitter needs medical attention.” This comment was prompted by Ebert’s mention of the possibility that here in Urbana parents might be able to acquire I.D. cards for their children which allow them to see R-rated movies on their own. Valenti was disgusted with the idea. Agree with his politics or not, it’s at the very least refreshing to see an influential Hollywood figure with such a conservative outlook. The issue, take one side or the other, is problematic. As a film critic, I’ve been to many a valueless film that can be either disturbing or corruptive to the young mind, and it angers me to see careless parents bringing their children, sometimes infants, along with them, so I definitely can see his concern for the children of ignorant parents. But it is not the NC-17 films that are valueless. It is the R-rated, sometimes PG-13 films, specifically targeted at children that are warping their minds. The NC-17 rating seems to be an attack from the wrong side of the battle field. I haven’t seen “The Dreamers” (ironic that it should arrive in my town for one weekend only, the one weekend that I’m gone), but I severely doubt that the artistry of Bertolucci should be considered a liability more than the worthless but disturbing “Butterfly Effect” or any other of the weekly Hollywood fodder. Valenti’s practical point however was that his biggest concern is for the theater-owners. The NC-17, in his mind, protects them from potentially angry parents. If only NC-17 could breakthrough the stigma laid upon it by Showgirls (Eyes Wide Shut was prophesized to do that but ultimately compromised), then it might not be such a big issue. Valenti said that three films will be released this year with NC-17 ratings. Maybe this will be the year. Valenti also indicated that he would be retiring soon as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, saying that maybe its time for somebody new. “They might be different, but they might also be even better,” he said humbly.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
I have had some delays getting online. The laptop I've been assigned doesn't have wireless capabilities and for some reason internet access was immediately disabled when I tried to use it in the hotel room. Currently, I'm at the Virginia Theatre during intermission of Lawrence of Arabia. I'm writing this from the office of the managers kind enough to let me use their computers. We had the kickoff gala already (much more on that later). Lawrence of Arabia is being shown in 70mm and I'm grateful that this is the first time that I have ever seen the film. You pass by the box at the video store countless times knowing that you should watch it because it's a canonical classic, but it just doesn't feel right picking up that video jacket. Even Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies recommends not watching David Lean's epic masterpiece on his channel. I now realize what he means. This is quite possibly the largest projection, I've ever seen. James Bond, the master projectionist working the booth at this event, has declared this the most pristine print in the 6-year history of the Ebertfest, topping even last year's Patton. Robert Harris who restored the print has said that this screening even outdoes the screening that took place in the Palais at the Cannes Film Festival. Judging by the first half of the experience, I can attest that neither can be exaggerating. Never have I felt so compelled or even able to crawl into a camel's nostril. Instead, however, I will crawl back into my seat before the movie starts back up. Later.
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Welcome to the official blog for the 6th Annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. A blog is simply a "web-log", or an online journal of sorts, and "blogging", though it sounds like a short-lived dieting fad of the eighties, is the process of keeping a blog. My name is Patrick Franklin and I am your official blogger. I have been the resident film critic for Flagpole Magazine in Athens, Georgia for a little over 2 years now. I look forward to keeping everyone informed and excited about this year's events. For those of you unable to make it to fair Champaign, Illinois, I hope the vicarious experience provided by this blog will make you feel like you're actually here. And for those of you attending, I hope you're not dressed like a druglord from an HBO original movie and feel the need to comment that every film is somehow an allegory for the Crucifixion. If that be the case, I will be making fun of you. Regardless, this should be a lot of fun. Talk to you soon.
Sunday, April 18, 2004