Film festivals are always an exhausting delight because critics and filmmakers love films as an ever-growing extension of their love of people. Even if the curmudgeons may not admit to liking people, they won’t deny their fascination with them. Each film, each panel discussion and each audience Q&A session — no matter how disastrous — inescapably infects everyone. Gossip becomes an inevitable consequence of attendance, just one more shared experience among the screenings.
This was my first Ebertfest. The annual festival, started by Roger Ebert and continued on in his memory, takes place at the gigantic and beautifully restored Virginia Theatre in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. It’s old school, with cramped seating, a balcony, ornate woodwork and an in-house organist who plays intermissional showtunes like he’s auditioning for Yes. I took the Amtrak down, leaving Chicago for the first time since I moved there from Oklahoma City last month. I’d only covered one film festival prior to this, a local Oklahoma City fest called deadCENTER for being dead center in the middle of nowhere, so of course it was interesting to see how things were run at a more established event.
Like their theatre, the attendees are old school. Cameras, phones — these are unthinkable accessories to the audience. I sat next to multiple people who had crocheted their own seat covers. Most people were local, ambassadors for their city — people that knew a guy at the police station if you needed something. Then you overhear two grandmothers discussing De Palma and Hitchcock’s male gaze. Compared to deadCENTER, a festival so new and so excited to be something cultural in Oklahoma that it overtakes the entire city for a week, EbertFest attracts a loyal niche — fitting for a film critic’s festival.
I saw three films at the fest, met many critics and made some friends. I was also bumped from an over-booked hotel, thrown out of a VIP section, accosted by volunteer security and snuck into an afterparty. I was only there for about 14 hours. Here’s hoping that next year I attend the full four days.
But let’s talk about the movies, yes?
The first film on Saturday was Force of Destiny by Ebert family favorite, writer/director Paul Cox, who has a specific visual style a few degrees off from stilted. His semi-autobiographical film, which watches a sculptor find love (and culture) during a diagnosis of liver cancer, often has an abnormal energy, like if David Lynch directed a Nicholas Sparks movie. And a Sparks film is the closest plot correlation you’ll get. Force of Destiny has all the weak parts of a romantic comedy without any comedy, all the uncomfortable romantic implications of a cancerous older white man (David Wenham, known best in the US as Faramir from The Lord of the Rings) finding love in a one-dimensional young Indian woman (Bollywood star Shahana Goswami) without any interesting approach to love or culture.
It’s all the more disappointing because it includes hints of the visual poetry it could’ve been. Moments of Hertzfeldtian It’s Such a Beautiful Day imagery flash by as home video footage of birds, light and trees is interspersed within a poetically narrated framework. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have close to the same impact because we don’t feel anything for these characters. Their relationships are skeletal and borderline offensive. An ex-wife lingers around for no real purpose, as we’re never sure why they separated or how, if at all, their relationship could improve. Perhaps she’s just there to cart around their daughter, a quirkily-dressed, two-legged hug that feels a very general sadness that her father has cancer. Well, there’s a part where she suddenly opens a car door and shrieks “My father is very ill!”, which — without the basis of character — has some of the same non-sequitur humor as something like The Room.
Some of the same awkwardness manifests in the camera movements. Cox’s visual style becomes so undercut by his narrative incompetence that the aimlessness seems accidentally inept, evoking the inartistic flailings of one-man disasters like Fateful Findings. Then something like an explicit surgery scene pulls out a liver and shocks you back to your senses. There’s power here, but not in the sloppy, slogging, tepid narrative.
After a nice lunch (and a few beers, out of defiance to Faramir’s busted liver), I got back in the theatre for movie two.
Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, is a structurally unkempt look at the Beach Boy savant’s life. Besides playing temporal hopscotch between young Brian (Paul Dano, a chubby, helpless worm in the best way) and old Brian (John Cusack, a third-rate Forrest Gump), the film’s story follows the collapse of The Beach Boys and Brian’s escape from an abusive therapist (Paul Giamatti) with the help of a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks). Neither are told satisfactorily, though both have interesting components. The film brushes by sensitive topics like caring for the mentally ill and the possible aural benefits a unique mental state could produce, but bites off so much that it can only utter a few syllables on each topic before crumbs fall down its windpipe and it chokes.
That said, it is beautiful to listen to. The scenes in the recording studio are madcap, tense and encapsulated with enough musical explanation that even those that don’t know which end to blow into a recorder can follow along. Though Giamatti and Banks are one-note characters, they hit their notes hard. Giamatti rumbles and bellows like always while Banks is all icy confidence that cracks and breaks with her huge grin. Sadly, the enjoyable bits are battered and bruised in the time eddies. The discrepancies between the ongoing story in the past and that in the present, as well as the lack of logic between time jumps, makes for a disorienting journey that may be better spent listening to Pet Sounds one more time.
Finally, the last movie of the day (sort of an interesting counterpoint of sound design to Love & Mercy) was Brian De Palma’s Blow Out.
I’d never seen the film, though I was familiar with Michelangelo Antonioni’s photographic basis, Blow-Up. A sound designer (a photographer in the original) accidentally captures what he suspects to be a murder on tape, then becomes obsessed with the truth. Although poignant in our age of surveillance and constant reliance on backdoorable electronics, it also captured a time and type of movie that, as Leonard Maltin noted in his opening to the Q&A, couldn’t exist in the time of cell phones.
The analog-driven film, with its clicks, whirs, levers and miles of magnetic tape, builds a sonic environment of mechanical cicadas always buzzing in your ears. Combined with a Hitchcockian sense of tension and misogynistic gaze, the film is simultaneously riveting and squirm-inducing. It wasn’t until the climactic scene, a patriotic parade held at the cusp of Reagan’s America, that I understood the gross injustice of it all. That’s not what this America stood for. It was an America of commodified screams, bodies and information. Conspiracy theorists were either impotent or terrorists, one or zero, on or off. And while the hyper-capitalist madness happened, corruption ran deep under the guise of simple kindnesses.
Heartbreakingly cynical and outrageously entertaining, John Travolta gives one of his best performances as an increasingly broken seeker of truth while Nancy Allen plays a sap whose willful ignorance we begin to understand. Not a happy film, but an unflinching film whose moments (especially with the panoramic, split-screened and explosive visual flair of De Palma) won’t be forgotten.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.