Ebertfest 2014: Day Four, by Aaron Pinkston

9 May

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Saturday at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is the most jam-packed day, with four screenings and filmmaker Q&As over more than 12 hours, so (to borrow a phrase) let’s get into it shall we?

Before each screening during this year’s festival, a short trailer put together by one of RogerEbert.com’s “Far Flung Correspondents” played. The trailer had footage from a speech Ebert made, which provided a voice-over for clips from the festival’s films — the voice-over begins: “One of the marks of civilization is to be able to somehow step outside of your own mind and your own experience and understand what it is like to be a person of another race, another rage, another gender, another nationality, to have different physical capabilities, to have different beliefs.” To Ebert, a great film allows him to do just thing. Coincidentally (or not), every clip that plays over this wonderful sentiment comes from this day of screenings, except for footage of Ebert from the opening film, Life Itself. This would give one the impression that the day would involve a pretty good cross-section of different characters from different cultures and environments, and it does with three small, simple narratives (the fourth screening, Born on the Fourth of July, is a bit of an outlier, but a happy one as a loud and bombastic capper to the perhaps more thoughtful selections).

wadjda

I had mentioned in my Day 2 recap that Ebertfest can be a great opportunity to revisit and reconsider a film in a pristine film watching experience. I made this comment regarding Young Adult, though the early screening of day four, Wadjda, may be a better example of this. I first saw the landmark film from Saudi Arabia on DVD, late on a weeknight. I went in knowing all the backstory of the film’s unusual production, and came out thinking it was a fine film, but nothing incredibly remarkable — in any case, that the story of the film was more important than the film itself. Seeing Wadjda again, in this environment, was a treat. The story felt richer, the laughter was more joyful and the presence of filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour was extraordinary.

Wadjda is a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia, which isn’t a great place for women. There are many great films from the Middle East that focus on children, which allows storytellers to examine the harsh political and social climates in subversive ways. Children don’t usually understand the intricate rules of their society, so they can openly question (even break) them without the harsh penalty that adults may receive. In Wadjda, the character subverts the strict laws, such as relegating women to cover their faces and not speaking to men in public, through her quest to buy a bicycle. Until very recently (as in, after Wadjda was released, per the Q&A), it was illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to ride a bicycle in public — women also cannot drive cars, which is an important plot point in the film. So, Wadjda’s desire for a bicycle may be a childish concern, but it has actual stakes in how half of the population is treated. This allows a fairly simple narrative to be loaded with political implications while also not being disrespectful to the culture. Wadjda is an incredibly approachable film, one that makes an emotional and intellectual appeal for change without pushing. Sometimes progressive art “not making waves” is a bad thing, but Wadjda’s hopefulness and positivity is perhaps more effective in the early stages of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

The screening provided the two most memorable moments of the entire festival: the visceral explosion from the audience when Wadjda announces her intention of buying a bicycle to her school master and Al-Mansour’s tearful reaction to the film’s unanimous standing ovation. I believe if Wadjda played on Friday of the schedule, it would have been the film most buzzed about during the week — similar to last year’s In the Family, which was relatively unknown and warmly welcomed. I’m sure there is a lot to consider when putting the twelve films on the schedule in order, and Wadjda perfectly fulfills the early morning Saturday slot, which typically goes to a family friendly film, so I can’t pass any blame. Maybe I’m just a little bit bitter that the buzzed film became Short Term 12, instead.

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Next was perhaps the most personal film of the festival, A Simple Life. A film about an aging maid who moves into a retirement home and builds a friendship with the younger man for whom she cared for many years. As the film deals with issues of aging and caring for those who have cared for us, there is no doubt the film would have an effect on Ebert, who surely found a great deal of truth and beauty. It also feels like a personal pick because I previously had no awareness of A Simple Life, nor director Ann Hui, who turns out to be a pretty prolific filmmaker in Hong Kong, in a film culture that doesn’t lend itself to female voices and simple, melancholic stories. A possible side effect of a “personal pick” is that others may not connect with it. So, while I appreciated A Simple Life, it wasn’t a film I had a strong reaction toward.

That said, given the basic plot of A Simple Life, the film could have been an exhaustive, painful viewing experience. The degeneration of health is a theme of many films which are often very heavy and tragic — when not connected specifically to aging, these themes are usually seen in horror films, not melancholic dramas. Michael Haneke’s Amour has become the standard bearer of the genre, and A Simple Life couldn’t be more tonally different. Instead of focusing on the forthcoming tragedy, the film deals with simple pleasures, like eating good food, which is often displayed as a communal activity.

The portrayal of the nursing home is also very different here. Usually, if a film is set in a nursing home, either the staff (or the environment itself) is unquestionably evil or the nursing home is basically fine, but the character finds it disgraceful to live there. Outside of film, our society’s view of nursing homes as a place we store our old so they are out of our way is incredibly negative. Here, this is never an issue, which keeps the film simple and without unnecessary melodrama — there would be enough drama with the death of the lead character as it is, but A Simple Life even downplays that as much as possible.

goodbyesolo

The next film continues Saturday’s trend of low budgets and simple narratives with Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo. As far as filmmakers go, Bahrani is a near fixture at Ebertfest, this being his third film to play (and that’s out of four total features). Goodbye Solo concerns an immigrant taxi driver who becomes interested in one of his patrons after he requests a one-way trip to a specific peak in the Appalachian mountains, presumably to commit suicide. Their relationship doesn’t become a friendship, per se, but the two men get involved in each other’s lives. Wondering why William is planning to kill himself, Solo looks into William’s family in hopes to find a way from changing his mind.

The film is far from a mystery, and has little suspense, leaving most of the motivations unsaid. By the end, we really know nothing more about the mysterious William than you did in the opening scenes. Similarly, we don’t know why Solo has decided to take on this mission, having no real stake in this random person’s life. This could be unsatisfying, but it adds a contemplative sadness to the film that ends up taking over the film’s tone. Goodbye Solo lets the big questions about life and death settle into the tone, without the characters explicitly verbalizing the themes.

Red West, who plays William, has an incredible face for showing experience and pain, allowing the film to skip all the exposition. Many actors couldn’t pull this off — William wouldn’t exactly be a challenging role for an actor, because there isn’t much acting that needs to be done, but few would be a fit for the part. Typically, though, this type of role usually works for an actor with a known history which can blur the lines between the film and real life. West has 90 credits as an actor, but he’s hardly a known commodity, making the presence even more incredible.

Goodbye Solo is a good film that gets lost in the schedule of films that make more of an aesthetic and emotional impact — I’ll even remember the experience of films that I liked less more than this. This is perhaps part of being the ninth film in three days, and it just doesn’t have enough pop to hold on to. Personally, I prefer Bahrani’s Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, but they’ve both played at the festival, so what can you do? This will likely be a film I will revisit a few years from now and get a stronger connection.

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The final film of the long day was a welcomed departure from these small and quiet stories — Oliver Stone’s 1985 Born on the Fourth of July may not be a great film (despite Ebert’s love of it), but it is certainly loud and bombastic, perfect for catching a second or third wind. The real-life story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic (played by an ultra-young Tom Cruise) is a film of superlatives. When it is sincere, it is super sincere. When it is angry, it is super angry. When it is violent, it is super violent.

Even though it is an anti-war film, the first act really pushes its patriotism — there is a tinge of creepiness underneath the parades and go-rah sentiment, but the construction of shots isn’t far off from pro-war propaganda. When it shifts, the violence of the war and the confusion in its aftermath are heightened. This transition comes off a bit simplified in the film, from very pro-war to very anti-war without a lot of nuance. Still, it’s a pretty damning portrayal on the effects of war on those who fight and those who don’t — Kovic’s mother’s ideas of war, even after his struggles, make her the most interesting character in the film.

Born on the Fourth of July is also a perfect film for maximizing the Virginia Theatre. There is value in seeing small-set independent films and comedies on a gigantic screen with a bunch of people, but there is something else when you get an action film. The film was shown on a gorgeous 35mm print with eardrum pulsing sound (not quite the same experience as a film like A Simple Life or Goodbye Solo).

Perhaps the bigger draw than seeing the film for me was Oliver Stone’s Q&A. Stone is an interesting filmmaker — he’s made some truly great films and some troubling ones, but he always has a strong voice. Seeing him speak about his thoughts on war, the economy and civil rights was a pretty great experience, that is until a few audience members who had weird conspiracy theory questions took the mic. Alas, the trouble of pulling off a well-reasoned and intelligent Q&A always rears its head.

Note: I did not stay in town for the final screening on Sunday morning, which was a music documentary about New Orleans jazz pianist James Booker. The film, Bayou Maharajah, was produced by festival director Nate Kohn, which is a little wonky to me, but it is a film about an interesting subject that I don’t doubt is worth seeking out.

This year’s Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was another huge success. Unlike previous years, there weren’t any films I flat-out didn’t care for, though there were certainly highs and lows among the screenings. I will reiterate, if you have the opportunity to attend the festival, it’s well worth the relatively cheap price for a festival pass. Each year that we are separated from Ebert’s death, a little of the magic may be lost, but I think we are far from the time where this 12 film festival at the Virginia Theatre won’t mean something about the power of filmmaking and film-watching, alike.

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