Ebertfest 2013: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston
If it hadn’t already become clear that loss was particularly on the mind of the 2013 Roger Ebert Film Festival schedule, the third day sealed that thought. Obviously, the recent loss of Roger was already on the minds of all 1,500+ patrons of the Virginia Theater, but the film selections (with a few exceptions) really took a bittersweet tone throughout the entire week. During the festival, Chaz Ebert noted that Roger knew that his involvement at the festival would be minimal this year — though he hoped he would be able to stick it out and attend one more festival, it was unlikely, and he had come to terms with that. With this in mind, Roger’s specific selections for the festival become pretty telling and significant. By focusing on many films that deal directly with loss in all forms, he may have been conditioning us to deal with his absence and find the strength to get by it.
The opening film of day three, Oslo, August 31st, is a film I had seen before — in fact, I had reviewed its DVD release for this site. In that review, I said: “Oslo, August 31st might go down as the most acclaimed film that no one really seems to be talking about. Despite 4-star reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert and a nearly flawless critical consensus, it hasn’t had the buzz of films with the same reach and level of acclaim.” Seems like I was onto something. Like In the Family, we have a film that was openly loved by Roger and many other critics but had very little play for most of Ebertfest attendees. Another perfect entry for a festival that often champions the films no one seems to be talking about.
Coming to Oslo, August 31st for the second time, I was definitely interested to see how it’s style and tone would play for a large, mostly mainstream audience and wondered if the film’s chilling effect would hit me in the same way as my first viewing. Like most films that screen at the festival, the audience seemed very open and receptive to the film’s challenging themes (though I will admit that I was disappointed in the Q&A participant who asked director Joachim Trier to explain what happened in the last scene, tsk tsk). For me, this film really made sense this time around in one particular aspect: the idea of returning home. As I’ve said in these correspondences, I called Champaign-Urbana home for four years while I attended the University of Illinois. Through my six years since graduation, this is only the second time I’ve come back to campus — the first being last year’s Ebertfest experience. This year, however, I took more time to walk the campus, return to some of my old haunts, just like Anders does in Oslo, August 31st. I, of course, don’t have the baggage Anders must deal with, but the film really touches on the melancholic experience of returning home, wherever that may be and whatever that may entail.
One other thing that struck me during this viewing was the film’s great sense of surroundings. There are many times in the film, especially when Anders is restlessly walking the streets of dreary Oslo, where the film seems to be paying just as much attention to the nameless pedestrians of the city. There is the amazing scene where Anders overhears conversations of young people surrounding him at a cafe and he daydreams of what their lives must be like. Oslo, August 31st builds such a clear portrait of a community — it is sort of a new age version of the European “city films” of the silent era.
Next up was the 1958 Japanese masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, outside of In the Family perhaps my greatest blind discovery of the festival. When Days of Heaven is available and you wonder if maybe The Ballad of Narayama is the most beautifully shot film on the schedule, that is really saying something. Using the traditions of classic Kabuki theater in radical ways, the film explores a small community’s old tradition of sending your elders to their death by stranding them atop the Narayama mountain when they reach the age of 70. Before I get into the loaded nature of this film in regards to the festival, I want to reiterate the extreme gorgeousness of this film. Despite its very natural setting, the film was produced entirely on a stage, which gives the intricate backdrops an unnatural feel while still being extraordinarily perfect. This setting also allows director Keisuke Kinoshita to control the light in the film and he uses oddly colored skies and backdrops that absolutely shine on the big screen. Combined with the acting, costuming and production design, it was certainly one of the most interesting films to look at during the week.
The Ballad of Narayama also covered incredibly appropriate thematic ground, making it a part of the whole. Like almost all other Ebertfest films, it is primarily about family. The family unit here is a strange one, however, as they seem to stick together without really liking each other. There is so much spite and in-fighting that you can wonder if this was proto-reality television. A lot of the internal pressure comes from three particular events — the impending “rite of passage” of the family’s central figure, 70-year-old Orin, and the addition of two new wives for the Orin’s only son and grandson. Let alone the strange death tradition, with the addition of new members to the family, food and space become scarce. This, along with a strange sense of spirit and pride, drives Orin to accept her fate of climbing the Narayama mountain and fulfilling the tradition. Her son, Tatsuhei, seems to be only only person left struggling with her fate — though the fact that he is served with carrying her up the mountain to leave her may have a role in his thought. He can’t be complacent in her death, but literally the person who carries her through it. It’s hard not to think about Chaz and those close to Roger when considering Tatsuhei’s complicated emotions in the film.
It may be a coincidence that Roger Ebert passed when he was 70, but there is a poignant beauty in that while thinking about The Ballad of Narayama. The film was also Roger’s last written entry in his “Great Films” series, solidifying its importance and place at the 2013 Roger Ebert Film Festival.
The final screening of the day was Julia, a film I knew nothing about, save the constant recommendations from Netflix I have received to see it. The film stars Tilda Swinton (who was in attendance and about as amazing as you would expect) as an alcoholic who gets thrust into a kidnapping and border-crossing wild goose chase. It’s pretty easy to understand the programming behind Julia on this day at this time — after two pretty somber films about loss, why not showcase a balls-to-the-wall thriller that takes you places you’d never expect a film would go? It’s also a pretty obvious excuse for inviting Swinton back to the festival after she brought her delicate film I Am Love to Champaign in 2011. Even though I can’t wholly recommend seeing Julia, having Swinton at Ebertfest was particularly memorable.
If I were to describe the plot of Julia without giving away anything important it would be something like this: drunk woman loses job, is approached by a mildly crazy neighbor to kidnap a boy she is claiming to be her son, scheme is hatched, scheme goes wrong, things get bad, things get worse, they end up in Mexico, things get really really bad, Julia maybe has it figured out, things get even worse, Julia learns to appreciate others and the concept of family, the end. All in a blazing 140 minutes.
Julia is a weird and wacky film, that’s the best I can say it. Through many of the film’s twists and turns I kept struggling with the question if it was too over-the-top. Perhaps it reaches another level, beyond simply over-the-top to come back around and be enjoyable. I’m not sure. If you try to go into this film with a critical eye, you’ll probably undervalue the film. It’s made for you to sit back, take it all in, be surprised and shocked, and if that is how you approach the film, you may be pleased.
Stay tuned for the next entry from the Roger Ebert Film Festival, with some words on the Spanish silent Blancanieves, Kumaré, and two Sundance hits: Escape from Tomorrow and The Spectacular Now.