The second day of Ebertfest is when things get busy — instead of one screening, the day’s schedule is pretty full, with three screenings and two morning panels (basically a 9-to-midnight day). By viewing multiple films in one day, themes of the festival start to come to the surface. Whether intentionally or not, the 2013 Roger Ebert Film Festival has had some strong thematic through-lines. With the passing of Roger on everyone’s mind, the films he programmed have been equal parts appropriate and bittersweet.
The day’s first feature, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps the biggest outlier on the schedule, though its selection aligns with previous festivals. Director Paul Cox, a close friend to Roger, has been featured by the festival multiple times — last year’s Ebertfest was dedicated to Cox, and a documentary about his career and struggles with cancer (On Borrowed Time) was the opening film of day three. Unfortunately, due to his poor health, Cox wasn’t able to make it to Champaign this year, which is a shame, because he provided one of the better Q&As last year.
Vincent is a peculiar film, part documentary-part autobiography, the film’s only dialogue comes as narration from letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. As we hear the words of Van Gogh, Cox stages reenactments and shows us the places and people that served as inspiration for one of the greatest classical painters. The film is often valuable when it ties together the artwork with the stories behind the work — as with all art, context isn’t necessary for understanding, but the pairing of letters and art help us understand Van Gogh as a person. Coming into this film I knew very little about Van Gogh and so I gained quite a bit from the film’s very personal feel. His letters explore his sadness, disconnect from the world, and ultimately his descent into madness in an extremely exposed way. There is no doubt Van Gogh wrote these letters for his brother and no one else.
All that said, Vincent is much more intellectually interesting than it is entertaining. The construction of the film, while unique, is limiting. The film is a bit of a flat-line, without any dramatic highs or lows and no real narrative semblance. The narration is also fairly flat — though there is some flair in his voice, it is mostly monotone. It doesn’t help that he sounds like the narrator for any 1980s fantasy flick. Still, if you have interest in art or Van Gogh in particular, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh is at least worth a look.
Patrick Wang’s In the Family will likely go down as the hit of the festival. If there was some sort of audience award, I have no doubt that this would easily take it, given the response of the crowd during the film and over the subsequent days of the festival. It would be a worthy recipient to these fake awards, too, in part because it seems to exemplify what the Roger Ebert Film Festival is really all about. Up until the tenth year of the festival it was known as the “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival,” with an aim to shed light on films that were undervalued, incorrectly valued or missed altogether. Even after the name change, the festival still champions films that are seen by few, many of the films shown never played in the town where the festival takes place. In the Family, which apparently came out in 2011, was completely off my personal radar. I don’t know if the film ever played in Chicago — if it did I certainly missed it.
I’m not surprised that In the Family has flown under the radar, though I hope people seek it out (the film will be out on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 25). It’s a quiet, unassuming film, never pushing a message though messages are there. At the center of the film is a gay and interracial relationship which contributes to the story in interesting ways, but rightly isn’t the main focus of drama. Characters are allowed to be people and react to situations in differing, but realistic ways. There is a famous video where Roger comes to the defense of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, saying that characters in a film have the right to be however they want to be — though the films are different, I feel that going on a bit in In the Family. At the very least, it tells a very personal story with emotional intelligence and lets its characters be Asian or gay or whatever without letting it be all that defines them. We don’t see films that approach race or sexuality in this way enough, and for that alone In the Family is extraordinary. Issue films absolutely have worth, but I was pleased that In the Family doesn’t yell at the audience while never ignoring the problems faced by minorities.
Patrick Wang, the film’s director, writer, producer, star and whatever else needed to be done, ultimately became the superstar of this festival. Since Ebertfest is a small, approachable community, as everything included in the festival takes place at one of two locations, it was pretty easy to see Wang getting a lot of attention from festival-goers. With people like Tilda Swinton, Richard Linklater and hotly talked-about films like Escape from Tomorrow at the festival, the idea that this unknown filmmaker and his film would end up being the most talked about during the festival really says something about the quality of In the Family.
Rounding out this long day was a film I was very familiar with, Richard Linklater’s Bernie. If you recall my top 10 of 2013, you’ll know it finished the year at number three on my list. The first two times I saw the film were with small audience at a matinee screening and then on my laptop when it hit Netflix streaming — now seeing it with about 1,500 people was a complete joy. It is without a doubt the funniest film of 2013, but is also a well made film with strong themes and creativity. I’ll also note that the Q&A session for the film was fantastic, even with the disappointing news that Jack Black was not able to be present as scheduled, due to weather which cancelled many flights going through Chicago. Black still made time and called in to the festival, and was charming and a lot of fun. Both he and Linklater gave a lot of fun insights to how this film came together and the real story behind the film. Learning more about the real characters and trial aren’t necessary in really enjoying this film, but was a nice bit of frosting on the cake.
One thing I paid particularly close attention upon this viewing were the dramatic moments, which absolutely work in their own way. The murder scene, Bernie’s confession and ultimate conviction still have a tinge of dark comedy but are played mostly straight. These scenes allow Jack Black’s wonderful performance (which is right up there with the best of the year, Academy-be-damned) to surprise you. Linklater also shows an extraordinary ability to hit the exact right tones through the film — it is uproariously funny when it should be, dark and shocking when it has to be. I think this might be his most intelligently and skillfully directed film, the one that takes the most risk in a filmography full of inventive and unusual films.
One other thing about Bernie that I tried to be mindful of this time around: even those people who love the film note that Matthew McConaughey’s Danny Buck is a pretty weak performance. I see where the criticism comes in here, but I’ll defend the performance. Danny Buck is a showman and McConaughey is obviously playing it up. Is he over-the-top? Sure, but I think it’s consciously that way. The townsfolk note that the only thing Buck is good at is being re-elected, and seeing him play to the cameras like he’s an old-school western lawman is apt. Seeing how the townspeople interact with him, they seem to be very aware of his B.S. and it resonated with me this time, too.
Finally, the day opened with two academic panels — I won’t talk a lot about the panels in the Ebertfest posts, but would certainly direct you to ebertfest.com, where you can watch them (along with all film introductions and post-screening Q&As). The morning’s first panel didn’t stick to much of a topic, but that can be excused by the all-stars that contributed: Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, 2013 Ebertfest dedicated Haskell Wexler and documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), who was in Champaign working on an upcoming film about the life and work of Roger Ebert. All three have incredible stories about their careers and the film industry. The second panel delved into questions about personal filmmaking depicting important or tragic events. The panelists related to questions regarding the responsibility of film and the filmmaker.
Stay tuned for the next entry from the Roger Ebert Film Festival, with some words on Oslo, August 31st, The Ballad of Narayama and Julia.