When you drive down Neil Street in Champaign, Illinois, in April, you're likely to see a billboard for Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. And there he is, Roger Ebert, twelve feet tall, wearing a black suit and a bemused smile, giving the "thumbs up": to the festival; to his home town and his alma mater; but most of all, to the experience of movie-going itself.
I've learned from many film critics, from Pauline Kael (Ebert used to follow her as one of the "Paulettes") to Graham Greene, Harlan Ellison, David Denby in the New Yorker (another ex-Paulette), and Manhola Dargis, first at the L.A. Weekly, now at the New York Times. But most of what I have learned to value about film criticism - and a large portion of what I know about movies, period - comes from Ebert.
Ebert has said that you should do your writing as soon as possible after an experience, because while factual memory is durable, emotional memory tends to fade. I'm writing this shortly after the shock of seeing Ebert at the 9th Annual Festival. He came right through the doors of the Virginia Theater without any to-do slowly, carefully, supported by his wife, Chaz, to whom he was married in 1992. His neck was bandaged. His mouth hung slack. But most of all, he was minus those big, dorky glasses that seemed to magnify his eyes, that seemed an integral part of the pugnacious scrapper who could stare down a film giant and say, "Your movie sucked." He no longer resembled the picture on the billboard.
The local and national news had been covering the story of Ebert's festival, and especially his health, all night; no fewer than four camera crews were present. Ebert's eyes seemed very small as he navigated through the paparazzi, as if he were looking far into the distance. Coming had cost him.
But then the audience saw him. His audience; the 1,600 people packing the sold-out theater were there as much for him as the films. The standing ovation roared from the back of the theater in a wave (it would be Ebert's first of four that night alone). He took the stage. For the last eight years, at this point, he would make his introductory remarks. That was not possible this year, as his vocal chords had been disabled while he awaits another surgery to correct the complications following an operation on his salivary cancer, and the subsequent rupture of the carotid artery that nearly killed him Instead, Ebert gave the gesture for which, despite his frequently spoken frustrations about it over the years, he had become most identified. He gave the "thumbs up". No Roman emperor ever got a more appreciative response. And his eyes no longer seemed small at all. In fact, they shone.
How did a film critic, of all people, come to be so loved? I can assure you that it's not just his hometown that feels this way; it's his national audience, too. And more tellingly, it's the movie people themselves. Even when Ebert is highly critical of their work, he is so perceptive in his comments, they have to acknowledge that he's right, or that he at least has a point. They want to please him. Adam Sandler once told Ebert, "I hope some day to make a movie that you'll like." With Punch Drunk Love, he finally did.
To know Ebert by his TV show is not to know him at all. You have to read him. He was the first film critic to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and one of only three ever to have been so acknowledged. He is the only American critic to review virtually every film in major release. His essays, while without the crabby flashiness of Pauline Kael's, are marked by the groundedness of a Midwesterner, exacting writing, deep insights, and more than that, deep compassion. More than any critic, Ebert seems to understand that the movies are made by people who, with all their flaws, were trying to make a good film. He is a tireless champion of small movies of worth, and no critic has done more to leverage his influence in order to bring those films to the attention of America.
Downtown theaters like the Virginia are getting to be as rare as the generation that first packed them. Once, you could see Groucho Marx himself on stage at the Virginia. Champaign has been working to restore the theater, in fits and starts, for years; except for the odd chunk of plaster missing from the proscenium, she was looking fine. There was room for you to stick your legs out a bit. The floors were immaculate, and more importantly, so was the giant screen. Colored lights through cookie cutouts made a red and maculate spray of the ceiling. With its Wurlitzer sounds, a pipe organ rose up as if from the depths. It was put there in the '20s to accompany silent films, which were never silent at all. The organ, and the aged organist, seemed like an animatronic sculpture at Disney World, stiff and of a piece.
We were in good hands during the festival. One of our two union projectionists had been flown in from Chicago. If the film ever became even slightly out of focus after a reel change, it was fixed literally within seconds. The sound was fully digital, and when there was a feedback problem, that was fixed in just moments, too. The lamp house bulb behind the projector was bright, the matting around the edges of the screen carved out a razor-sharp rectangle.
(Compare this to the experience of movie-going in my town of Bloomington, Indiana, at Kerasotes theaters. Maybe your experience is similar. Full disclosure: because I write about movies for WFIU public radio, Kerasotes lets me see movies for free, for which I am very grateful. But because I have told them of these problems every time they occurred for the last two years, I feel free to at least nip the hand that feeds me, and say that the state of projection in our town is abominable. I used to keep track, but have long lost count, of the focus problems, the aperture plates out of alignment, the dim bulbs, the crooked projectors, the missing cueing tape, the scratches, the blown-out surround speakers, the hairs in the gate, the film breaks, and the bad splices. I sympathize with the folks at the theater: so many theater chains ask the impossible. The films are often built and projected by ushers and assistant managers making a little over $6 an hour, who are expected to be downstairs selling popcorn and sweeping floors minutes after starting a movie. However, for the price of admission, you are entitled to perfect projection; but only if you're willing to get out of your seat and demand it. And because you have missed part of the film, you should see the manager afterwards for a rain check, to see your next movie for free. They'll give you one, and eventually, your theater chain will start listening to you. These things can be changed.)
A few words about the festival movies themselves. Most of the thirteen films were selected by Ebert because he felt they didn't get the audience they deserved. Moolaadé, for example, was picked by Ebert as the best film at Cannes in 1994, but it never came anywhere near Indiana except as a worn-out VHS projected by our invaluable multi-purpose Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington. I saw the film there, and was powerfully affected by it. It indicts the barbaric practice variously referred to as "purification," "excision," or "female circumcision" - removal of the clitoris by a knife. The practice is still common in some regions of Africa, where it is mistakenly thought to be proscribed by Islam.
This description might make Moolaadé sound like a film you wouldn't want to sit through, but I promise you, Ousmane Sembene, the film's director, the eighty-year-old father of sub-Saharan cinema, makes his point with gentleness and even humor. His picture has an even greater impact when seen as it was meant to be seen: on film. The colors of citrus and sand seduce you, the susurrations of gentle breezes, the pounding of millet, and the laughter of children put you into the rhythm of this tiny village in Burkino-Faso.
A panel discussion followed, a
s it did after each of the films. Fatimata Coulibably, who plays the heroine in the film, Collé, took the stage. In the film, she reveals her body. Coulibably explained that this is profoundly shocking to Africans; the film has scarcely been seen there at all. In the nude scene, we see Collé, who endured the mutilation as a child, having excruciatingly painful sex with her husband (that's the life-long effect of circumcision, if the girl doesn't bleed to death first). Coulibably, a ravishing woman of powerful personal presence, explained that she herself endured the procedure, and that sex scene mirrors her own experience.
Maverick directors, and great friends, Paul Cox and Werner Herzog were on hand to discus their films as well. Cox's film, Man of Flowers, is close in subject and tone to Chabrol's film of Patricia Highsmith's Cry of the Owl. It concerns a mild and deeply lonely middle-aged man whose repressed desires are called into the open with violent consequences. The film is mysterious, with an almost surreal beauty: "Film has more to do with painting than with theater. Maybe we should trust our dreams more," Cox said afterwards. He continued, "When we are children, we are totally scarred. We have to go to school. And by age four or five, education has conditioned us to forget who we are. I thought we had a future, and that the human race had a chance. I've seen the human race decline into something horrible. I am greatly disturbed by our lack of a future." Addressing Ebert, who sat in the back of the theater in a La-Z-Boy carted in specially for him, Cox called him a hero: "You have inspired me and other independent filmmakers to keep fighting the good fight."
Herzog's film, Stroszek, lightened the mood. The film is one of Herzog's best, though not commonly seen. It's a retelling of Woyzeck, which he made just previously with Klaus Kinsky, and while ultimately serious of purpose it has a winning and off-kilter sense of humor. The film, like Cox's, is largely about loneliness. Cox and Herzog took the stage together: "So, Werner, have you ever put a car chase in one of your films?" Herzog: "Not to my knowledge." Herzog explained that Stroszek was filmed in twelve days; Cox's film was made in three weeks. In both cases, nobody slept, and both men said that the experience was one of the best in their lives. Cox: "You have to remember to laugh at yourself, or you've lost it. Humorless people are awful."
The protagonist of Stroszek is played by Bruno S., a man discovered by Herzog when S. was homeless. S. is the son of a prostitute who didn't want him. At the age of three, he was put into a home for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. Terrified, he did not speak until the age of nine, at which time he was put into a correctional facility. His bed-wetting, and subsequent public humiliation, depicted in the film were based on fact. Herzog, who was driven half crazy by the ravings of Kinsky, singed up for another difficult ride with S. because Herzog is attracted to the very edges of the cinematic map, to bring forth what he calls "ecstatic truth". "It's raw life," he said that night, "nothing in between. That's why the film doesn't age." He next spun a yarn about his own rock bottom experiences so fantastic that David Bordwell, the outstanding film scholar on hand to ask questions, was left speechless for fifteen minutes.
In the end, Herzog echoed Cox's sentiments: "Our technological civilization will not last on this planet. Our existence is, clearly, not sustainable. We're going to be the next ones to become extinct. And that's okay. Let's enjoy each other while we can; make friends; go to the movies." After the discussion, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Herzog. Does he really believe that we are doomed to extinction - that mankind has no chance of turning it around? He said it's not just the pollution. It's that our many races have mixed genes so thoroughly that we now have a "monoculture," putting us at great risk of a disease wiping us all out at once. Yes, he said, that's really what's going to happen.
On a brighter note, Joey Lauren Adams, the lead actress in Chasing Amy, presented her film Come Early Morning, her first as writer/director. It's a lovely thing, with a luminous performance by Ashley Judd, as an alcoholic who holds it together at work but pushes men away. Adams was self-deprecating, giving all the credit for the film to her cinematographer, to Judd, and to the marvelous actor Scott Wilson, who was also on hand (Wilson didn't let her get away with that). Adams explained how close Judd's character was to her own life at the time. She hadn't worked in years. The pivotal moment came at a bar, when someone said, "Hey, weren't you in Chasing Amy? What happened?" Adams, tired of the lack of roles for women that she could "do anything with," decided to make her own movie. May she makes another one soon.
Two other highlights: Sadie Thompson, a Barbara Stanwyck silent, for which she won her first Oscar, was projected in 35mm and accompanied live by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. It's a key film, coming right on the cusp of the sound era; it represents the mature achievement of the silents. The film is incomplete; the final reel is a patchwork quilt of still images and recreated intertitles. And yet it plays like gangbusters, funny and psychologically astute, with a great performance by Lionel Barrymore as the sexually-impacted heavy. Chaz Ebert, who introduced the film, said she could hardly sleep the previous night just thinking about the orchestra. Joseph Turin, the composer, and Steve Larson, the conductor, explained the challenges and rewards of syncing a live performance to an existing film. They did a marvelous job; what a way to see a silent! And then La Dolce Vita, the greatest of all Fellini films, was shown in full Cinemascope, consuming every last inch of the Virginia's screen capacity. Its three hours, packed with life in every frame, simply overloaded the senses.
Finally, a note on the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. I will say nothing of its plot or execution, except that it is dark, dark, dark. Coming back to my senses after screening it, I realized that my strongest emotion was anger. Anger that the critical community in America is obviously not functioning, or an alert moviegoer - I think I'm one, I'll bet you're one - would have known that there was a major work that simply has to be taken into account. Ebert, who championed the film at the time, can't be expected to do it all by himself. It doesn't matter what the film's about, or even how it's about; it's not important whether you will like it. It is simply a film that must be seen by anyone who cares seriously about film.
This was a very special year for Ebertfest. With Ebert unable to help organize, or to host panel discussions, those who loved him pulled it together anyway. And his presence was everywhere. The festival is a marathon that totally wipes you out. It also leaves you exhilarated, full of hope for the future of the movies, because of those who cared enough to select the best and present them like they should be seen, and because of those who made the trek to see them, and gave back with their thunderous applause.