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Ebertfest Blog: Entry 3--Another Predictably Unpredictable Day

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful reporter sees a bunch of ineresting movies, fights off some post-"Hamlet" fatigue and channels his inner Courtney Cox when he finds himself unexpectedly brought up on the stage.

I don’t know if it was the giddiness brought on by the lack of sleep after the previous evening “Hamlet” screening and Q&A extended into well into the early morning hours or what, but the first full day of this year’s Ebertfest contained plenty of odd sights and sounds--unexpected celebrity sightings, strange questions and your truly being unexpectedly pressed into service as part of the actual festivities.

Somewhat worse for wear after staying up to a ridiculously late hour to post the previous blog entry immediately after all the “Hamlet“-related festivities, I managed to pull myself together enough to make it over to the Illini Union for the day’s panel discussion on the subject of the world of independent film as seen through the eyes of directors, producers, actors and critics. Having fortunately arrived a few minutes early and having even more fortunately managed to procure a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times, I sat down in the common area with my paper and my Cheerios to indulge in the morning ritual that I detailed in tiresome detail in a previous entry. While doing so, I noticed a vaguely familiar face sitting by himself a few tables away and after a minute or two, it finally dawned on me that it was actor Rufus Sewell, who was in “Hamlet“ and also appeared in such other things as previous Ebertfest favorite “Dark City“ (which, he informed us at the Q&A, was getting a Director‘s Cut DVD treatment that he had already done interviews for) and the current “John Adams“ miniseries. Somehow, the fact that he was able to sit there without being inundated by autograph hounds or people informing him that he was the bomb in “The Legend of Zorro” was both oddly comforting and indicative of the Ebertfest experience as a whole--it is a place filled with movie fanatics of all stripes and yet they are still polite enough to give the guests their space without hounding them.

As for the panel discussions, it suffered slightly from the one flaw that such talks (of which I have participated in as a panelist in the past) have maintained over the years--there are so many panelists on the stage that the conversation has a tendency to become a little unwieldy and unfocused. Nevertheless, there were still a few nice moments here and there. The question of how long it took the gathered filmmakers to get their projects off the ground yielded some fascinating answers. Tom DiCillo said that it took him six years to get “Delirious” made, of which he spent approximately 25 days on the set actually directing. Joseph Greco , the director of “Canvas,” admitted that it took him ten years to complete his drama about a family struggling with mental illness and when it was finally set for release last fall--a time when all the studios were releasing their prestige pictures--theater space was so short that he was unable to find a place in Los Angeles to book the film until a mental-health advocacy group came in to help rent out a couple of theaters for it to play in. When Jeff Nichols , the writer-director of “Shotgun Stories,” had difficulties raising the money for his project by conventional methods, he went back home to Arkansas, raised the necessary cash through family and friends and used virtually all of that budget for film stock and camera equipment. Scottish director Bill Forsyth talked about how his debut feature, “That Sinking Feeling,” was made for the equivalent of $5000 and his method of distribution involved him barnstorming Scotland with a print of the film and playing it wherever he could find an audience. Actor Timothy Spall admitted that even though his longtime collaborator, British director Mike Leigh, is one of the world’s most highly regarded filmmakers, financiers in his own country are still leery to give him money because of the perceived lack of commercial elements--most of the money for his films usually comes from France, where his work is more highly regarded. The stories of money woes were so consistent that during the Q&A period, an older woman came up to the mike and said that she had plenty of money of her own and wanted to know how she could go about investing in a film. My guess is that she is going to go down as one of the most popular attendees in the history of the festival.

After that, it was lunchtime and while getting caught up with some familiar faces that I have gotten to know from past festivals, such as esteemed film historian David Bordwell and his wife Kristen, my festival experience took a sudden turn for the weird. As the meal was winding down, festival director Nate Kohn came up to me with a question. As we had heard last night, writer-director Sally Potter was unable to get away from the set of her new movie to attend the screening of her film “Yes,” and he was wondering if I would be interested in taking her place on stage for the post-film discussion with executive producer John Penotti. Needless to say, I immediately agreed--so immediately, in fact, that I barely had time to mull over any regrets over not having gotten enough sleep the night before or not having gotten a chance to rewatch the film since it first came out in 2005. As strange as it may sound, this is not the first time that this has happened to me at Ebertfest. In fact, the first year I attended, Ebert came out on stage to introduce the film “Panic” (a quirky drama with William H. Macy as an unhappy hit man who begins to see a therapist and falls in love with fellow patient Neve Campbell--if you haven’t seen it--try to get a hold of it right now) and informed us that the director of the film had taken ill and was unable to attend. “Instead,” he said while scanning the audience, “my colleague from Chicago, Peter Sobczynski, will join myself and David Poland on-stage to discuss the film. Of course, this is the first time that he is hearing this.”

The first screening was Tom DiCillo’s “Delirious,” a comedy-drama that charts the odd relationship between a sleazy paparazzi with delusions of self-importance (Steve Buscemi) and a friendly homeless kid (Michael Pitt) who becomes an overnight celebrity when he is cast in a bizarre reality TV show and strikes up a sweet romance with a Britney-esque pop tart (Alison Lohman). Although I had some problems with the film when I first saw it last fall--the reality show stuff is a little too over-the-top and Buscemi’s plan to get revenge on his now-famous associate for not taking him along for the ride is borderline silly--but on the whole, I found that I liked it better the second time (possibly because the wrong turns didn’t seem so startling this time around) and the Buscemi performance remains a treasure. In the post-film discussion with Richard Roeper, DiCillo talked about his struggles to get the movie made (Buscemi at first didn’t want to do the film even though it was largely written for him) and distributed, how the Catholic Church in Spain gave the film an award because it showed one damaged person reaching out of help another and even revealed how he wanted to alter the ending after completing the film--when Roeper admitted that he preferred the current ending (a sentiment shared by myself and, it seemed, most of the audience), DiCillo reacted in mock horror about how the distributors were right after all.

Next up was Sally Potter’s “Yes,” a drama about an Irish-American genetic scientist (Joan Allen) who busts out of the constraints of her lifeless marriage to a emotionless British politician (Sam Neill) by having an affair with a Lebanese man (Simon Abkarian) who was a surgeon in his own country but is now a chef in London. It may sound ordinary enough but it is an extraordinarily ambitious work that is told entirely in iambic pentameter and in which issues of politics, race, religion, sexuality , gender, body image and class are brought up and discussed in depth and without simply going for the easy answers. It is such a heady brew of ideas and images (it recalls the densely-packed works of Peter Greenaway at times) that it is almost too much to fully absorb when you see it for the first time. I know that it took me a second viewing of the film to fully grasp what Potter had pulled off and I admitted as much on-stage during the post-screening discussion. As a participant in that discussion, I can’t really offer any real insights as to how it went, aside to note that it was fun to once again appear on the stage at the Virginia to talk about film with people who are really into the full possibilities of the medium and to express my thanks to Roger, Chaz and the festival organizers for giving me the opportunity to do so..(If you want actual details about what transpired, you might want to go looking up some of the other Ebertfest blogs that have sprung up in the last few days.)

After dinner was the final feature of the day, and one of the only two of this year’s selections that I hadn’t previously seen, Joseph Greco’s drama “Canvas.” It stars Marcia Gay Harden as a woman suffering from schizophrenia who finally needs to be hospitalized when her fits and delusions become too much to handle, Joe Pantoliano as the loving husband who is struggling to keep his family together in the face of the crippling financial and emotional strains brought about by his wife’s illness and who is building a sailboat in his backyard as a way of coping and Devon Gearhart as the young son who is not quite old enough to understand his mother’s illness but who is old enough to be embarrassed when she acts out in front of his schoolmates. To be honest, this is the kind of earnest and well-meaning drama that has never quite been my cup of tea--too much clunky symbolism and too many heart-tugging moments for my taste. And yet, while it isn’t the kind of thing that I would watch again anytime soon, I will admit that the film does contain two very strong performances from Harden as a woman caught in the grips of an unknowable disease that cruelly separates her from the ones that she loves and from Pantoliano in an uncharacteristically restrained turn as a beleaguered husband and father struggling to keep both his wife and son from slipping away. Pantoliano and Greco both appeared at the post-film talk, along with producers Adam Hammel, Lucy Engibarian-Hammel and Bill Erfurth--alas, I bailed on this particular discussion in order to get some much-needed sleep.

Preceding “Canvas” was “Citizen Cohl: The Untold Story,” a short film tribute to Ebertfest regular Dusty Cohl that was put together by Barry Averich. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cohl, he was the kind of larger-than-life figure who Damon Runyon would have found himself writing about if he had lived long enough. After 20 years in real estate in Toronto, the legend goes, he took a vacation in France, parked outside a hotel and realized that he was smack dab in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival and was so impressed that he decided that Toronto needed one as well--this led to his co-founding of the Toronto International Film Festival, currently the largest-such film festival in the world. Later on, he would create the Floating Film Festival, a regular gathering that brought the film festival experience into a cruise ship setting. The short was sweet, funny and illuminating and while I have no idea if Averich has any plans to expand it into a feature, he might want to consider such a move because Cohl’s life was the kind that screams out for a more in-depth depiction.

Since its inception, he was a familiar face at Ebertfest with his ever-present cowboy hat and wife Joan at his side and everyone who encountered him--and believe me, everyone encountered him--came away with a story to tell. The one I have is kind of slight and of no importance to anyone but myself but I’ll share it anyway. Since meeting him for the first time, I would always make sure to have at least one meal at his table because his presence ensured that the conversation would be lively indeed. One time, it was a rainy day and I showed up with the black fedora that I sometimes wear. As I mentioned before, Dusty would always have his signature black cowboy hat with him and spoke in mock outrage about how someone else would dare wear a black hat. Eventually, a truce was declared--he would wear his hat at the Toronto festival, I would wear mine at the Chicago festival and we would both wear our respective hats at Ebertfest in the spirit of cooperation--and sealed with a couple of shots of Crown Royal.

Day 3 of the festival is an eclectic one indeed. The day kicks off with Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories,” an indie drama that I have not yet seen but which has toured the festival circuit to great acclaim. Next up, the great Alloy Orchestra returns to offer their often-startling musical accompaniment to another classic of the silent era--this year’s selection is Josef von Sternberg’s “Underworld,” the film that practically invented the entire gangster movie genre. This is followed by “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” the friendly documentary about the ups-and-downs in the life of an off-beat farmer who finally finds success when he goes organic. Finally, the day ends with the mind-blowing 1985 epic “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” a hallucinatory look at the controversial life and work of the late Japanese writer Yukio Mishima from the great filmmaker Paul Schrader. Schrader is scheduled to attend the screening--if he can’t make it, let us hope that there is no truth to the rumor that Renny Harin will be brought in to replace him.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2468
originally posted: 04/26/08 00:19:02
last updated: 04/26/08 00:41:53
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