Ebertfest Days 4 & 5: Wrapping It Up
Ebertfest often saves the best for second to last—and this year’s fest built a pretty solid Saturday to uphold that tradition. Up first was the engrossing Higher Ground, the assured and critically praised directorial debut from actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed), a crowd-pleasing spiritual journey tale marred only by some hamfisted (or perhaps we should say dogfisted) symbolism in the final moments and an unfortunate case of BIG SERIOUS MUSIC-itis. In the following Q&A, writer Carolyn S. Briggs—who adapted the screenplay from her very personal memoir “This Dark World”—was refreshingly pragmatic about an altogether different journey, her book making it onto the movie screen. When asked by an audience member about the closeness of the adaptation, Briggs smiled, saying of a dramatic scene in which her character’s baby ends up in an terrifyingly unusual place during a late night hippie bus crash that spurs her and her husband’s spiritual journey, “Sometimes you gotta lie your way to the truth—let me just say there was never a baby in a cooler.”
The fest’s only major technical hiccup this year preceded the next feature, Patang (The Kite) , a very Indian and very Hindi-language film that started screening sans subtitles. When this happens (and it unfortunately happens at festivals quite often) I usually assume first that, “Oh, it’s an art movie. We’re not SUPPOSED to know what they’re saying.” I am usually wrong. An old guy in the audience was a bit smarter and immediately started yelling “SUBTITLES!” until about ten minutes in, when the young Indian American director Prashant Bhargava walked in front of the screen with a microphone, announcing that they were going to restart the film. After several more awkward minutes, with the film still playing behind him while he repeated, “Please restart the film,” a few times, the film was eventually stopped, and the announcement was made that there would be another few minutes delay while they reset the projector. During this time, Bhargava offered up some interesting background on the region of India where the film takes place, and also, hey, why not, busted out a few phat rhymes—the south Chicago native is also a pretty good rapper, natch—to some of the loudest cheers heard all week. The film, once finally underway, was a startling kaleidoscope of color and style that told the story of a family coming together (and in turn, simultaneously imploding) during the annual kite festival held in the old Indian city of Ahmedabad. The family’s crackling tension—this cast of a few professional actors and dozens of nonactors never hit a false note—set amid the dazzling backdrop of a thousand “warring” kites, where kites swoop and battle each other in amazing feats of man and string, was exhilarating. The Q&A featured several members of the production, including Bhargava’s older gent Indian-born father (and one of the film’s bankrollers) who made some wonderfully sweet remarks about his pride of his son’s achievement that choked up a few grampas in the house. (OK, and me.) While the Q&A doesn’t seem to be available online, you can see Bhargava (along with charming Patang actress Seema Biswas) on a very revealing and super laid-back morning panel called The Personal & Political in Film, along with most of the other Fest filmVIPs, including Kinyarwanda director Alrick Brown, Terri star Jacob Wysoki and director Azazel Jacobs, director Paul Cox, Big Fan writer/director Robert Siegel, and more. This kind of topic is just vague enough to encompass just about anything these guys would care to discuss over coffee and a couple doughnuts. It’s an interesting group conversation, and you’ll feel like you’re right there in the middle of it.
Intermission time! What’s happenin’? Haven’ you heard? It’s a TWEEET UPPPPP! Which is apparently a thing! We missed it, but apparently good times were had by many bloggers and just plain fest folks who met up via Twitter at a local watering hole for too many libations. We decided on a nap. And when we saw their many bleary eyes returning for the next screening, we were all like, WHO IS THE SUCKER NOW, TWEETER UPPERS?!
The big attraction tonight (and of the fest, really) was Day 4 closer Take Shelter, featuring a highly anticipated Q&A with wunderkind(y) director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon, who is riding high these days with his much ballyhooed (seriously, people are doing some crazy mad ballyhooing) role in the buzzy HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” Seeing Take Shelter for the second time was a revelation—the film’s taut mix of widescreen paranoia and claustrophobic intensity was stunning—and made even more effective on the Virginia’s enormous screen, surrounded by Ebertfest’s notoriously pin-drop quiet audience. This was a magical experience for a serious movie lover. (Ca-Caw!) The following Q&A was a surprising delight—Nichols is hilariously erudite, the guy you always want telling stories at your party (a surprise for a guy whose films are so down home and rural), and Shannon was all charmingly uncomfortable, shy Midwestern pith and deadpan cornball color commentary. When asked why the two work together so well (they also did Nichol’s fabulous debut, Shotgun Stories, together, a previous Ebertfest pick) Shannon drawled that he and the director “have similar asses…” sounding like he’s going somewhere with it and then…kinda shrugged. But in a charming way. When someone asked the director if the Nichols credited for some of the film’s music was his father, Nichols explained that while his brother Ben Nichols’ band Lucero scored the entirety of Shotgun Stories, they only provided the closing credit song in Take Shelter. Alternately, he also explained why writing a scene to music is never a good idea. Check out this quirky duo and their fun/weird chemistry, and Nichols’ dissection of how a climactic scene (set at a Lions Club dinner) evolved on set, not to mention their hilarious shared take on what it was like shooting with costar Jessica Chastain, here.
Which brings us to the final screening, Day 5, a day on which Ebertfest has for the past three years chosen to feature documentaries, but this year decided on an entirely new experience and presentation for the festival—Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane was screened with Roger Ebert’s award-winning DVD commentary playing. In the program, Ebert wrote that he thought that this would be an interesting way to bring his voice back to the festival and “to allow my voice to be heard one more time in the Virginia.” A sentimental gesture that this festgoer fell for in a big way—what better way to watch a classic film than to watch it in a glorious movie palace, with Roger Ebert whispering gem after gem into your ear? It was sublime. An emotional moment followed, the screening, when a very choked up Chaz Ebert (Roger’s wife and fest host) said that this was the first time she had heard his commentary, and it was a bit overwhelming to hear his voice again. After such a heartfelt moment from Chaz, the following Q&A with the guy who produced the commentary didn’t have much to add, but, hey, how could you top that screening? Presenting a film with Ebert’s commentary was such a great success with the crowd that there were mentions of them doing it again in the future, perhaps with his lauded commentaries for Casablanca and Dark City.
Chaz mentioned that they regularly receive requests for Ebert to take his unique film festival on the road, but that they felt a special connection here in Champaign, and couldn’t imagine it elsewhere. Neither could we.