Ebertfest 2014: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston
Taking a look at the Ebertfest schedule in advance, day three was without question what I was looking forward to the most. Featuring two classic films I had never seen before and one I hadn’t seen in years, this day felt very much in the festival’s spirit. These three films (He Who Gets Slapped, Capote and Do the Right Thing) provide three different takes on outsiders that nearly spans the entire history of filmmaking. Society often spurns people because of their background, mistakes, skin color, socioeconomic status, and these three films discusses the fringes of society in wildly different styles and plots. Two of these films focus on the anger and potential violence that can come when a person or a group are relegated as second-class citizens, while the third may provide a bit of redemption. It isn’t always a requirement to place films with similar themes together (and this isn’t exactly an obvious one), but when there is a through-line during a day’s screenings, it always feels a little more special. Also, personally, with only three screenings, day three also allowed me to sleep in a little, forego the morning’s panels and relax — maybe I’m just getting old, but staying up past midnight takes a toll on me.
I was looking forward to the first screening of the day, He Who Gets Slapped, for two specific reasons. First, it’s a film I had never seen, despite an interest in the film’s star Lon Chaney and in silent cinema. Though He Who Gets Slapped helped establish Chaney as an unlikely Hollywood star, the film has been mostly forgotten — or, at least not as highly regarded as the more extreme creature-features from the “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Here, Chaney plays a scientist who is cheated out of fame and fortune by his benefactor, who takes credit for his theories. Worse yet, the benefactor is also participating in an affair with his wife, who sells him out pretty quickly. The title gets its name after an early moment, when the benefactor slaps Beaumont in a way of belittling him and the crowd of onlookers bursts out in laughter. Beaumont then does what anyone of us would do, become a clown whose schtick involves him getting slapped for the endless amusement of adults and children across Europe. Overall, the film is best as a showcase for Chaney, who is allowed to play to his strengths — the performance is sympathetic, but brooding, both joyful and diabolical.
My interest was also due to the screening’s guests, the Alloy Orchestra, who have been to more Ebertfests than any other artist or filmmaker. Almost every festival includes a silent film or a series of silent shorts that are accompanied by a live performance from the talented trio — last year was an exception, with the silent spot going to a contemporary film, Blancanieves. Seeing a silent film with a live score is always an experience, but the Alloy Orchestra are especially talented. Their work has provided many DVD soundtracks to some of the most famous silent films, including Metropolis and “A Trip to the Moon.”
Part of what makes the Alloy Orchestra special is their instrumentation, which isn’t your typical solo organ or strings and horns sound. Instead, they employ various percussion instruments that you wouldn’t expect — a musical saw plays a prominent role in their score of He Who Gets Slapped, and there also seem to be pots and pans strung up to provide certain effects. Seeing them live is also a treat because their showcases a performance in itself, as the three musicians constantly and quickly switch from strange instruments to traditional instruments and back. There is a certain “one man band” vibe to their style.
As for their specific score for the film, it both highlights and balances its melodramatic nature with appropriately grim music. During the extensive circus scenes in the film’s second half, they play with traditional circus music, full of raucous whistles and percussion elements, but with an added moroseness that plays with the themes and plot. The fun, yet eerie quality of film play perfectly in the wheelhouse of the Alloy Orchestra, with their experience with old sci-fi films.
We then move into a film about two men who are outsiders in different ways and on different levels coming together in an unlikely friendship. Capote also stands as a worthy celebration of Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the role that won him the biggest prize for acting. In the introduction to the screening, co-president of Sony Picture Classics, Michael Barker, shared some beautiful words about Hoffman and his performance. We learned in this introduction that it was Barker’s suggestion to Chaz Ebert to show this film after the news of Hoffman’s death, and I’m glad they made the selection on late notice — I hope this sets a precedent of honoring a recently lost artist at the top of their game.
Because of the voice and the mannerism of Truman Capote, it is easy to remember and classify Hoffman’s performance as caricature, but there is a tremendous amount of depth and humanity on display in Capote. Yes, it is obviously a “performance,” tough to see Hoffman totally blend into the role, especially when you are watching the film with the specific goal of seeing the performance, but it is pretty incredible.
It’s also an atypical role for Hoffman. The actor has always been able to greatly portray sadness in his characters, but his emotions were typically delivered through anger — even when there was a certain sadness in the character, Hoffman was always at his best when he could be big and scream. In Capote, there is a quiet lingering that doesn’t show itself as loudly, but is just as striking. This is particularly good work considering how showy of a role Capote is in other ways, and Hoffman nails the demeanor, physicality (it was noted in the Q&A that the actor was something like 7 inches taller than the real man) and other qualities, too.
After Hoffman passed away, there were many critics and podcasters who spent time recalling his their favorite performances, and Capote didn’t seem to come up as often as Magnolia or The Master or even smaller roles in something like Punch-Drunk Love. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it is because this is the role he won the Oscar for, which either makes it an obvious choice that doesn’t need mentioning or one that is already honored. Maybe it’s because Capote isn’t as hip or outstanding or memorable as something directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Stemming from that, Capote doesn’t feel like a film that many have revisited since it came out — the film is nine years old at this point, which is right between being a “new” film still somewhere in cultural consciousness and old enough to deserve reconsideration. I’m a part of the problem, too, as I haven’t thought about the film much since 2005, so for this reason alone, it’s a great thing that Capote showed at Ebertfest this year.
The greatest achievement of Capote is that it never feels like a typical biopic — coincidentally, the kind of film that starring actors win Oscars for. This isn’t a narrative about the life of Truman Capote, but a small window in time leading up to his highest regarded work. The film no doubt examines the man, often in very subtle and interesting ways, but it is strangely a film that is about a whole lot more than the man. Often Capote is a bystander to the events of the film, and even though the character is in nearly frame of the film, it has a lot more to say about the artistic process, crime and the character of Perry Smith (played wonderfully by Clifton Collins Jr., who needs more work).
Along with the film’s introduction, Michael Barker led the post-screening Q&A with director Bennett Miller. Of the week’s Q&A sessions, this was one of the more engaging and less cringe-inducing panels, particularly because of the knowledge and passion of these two men. Barker has been a part of every Ebertfest I have attended, bringing films like Take Shelter and this festival’s Wadjda, and I’ve always been happy to see him there. It’s pretty easy to characterize film company head’s as being out of touch with quality cinema, but you definitely can’t say that about Barker, who speaks both intelligently and passionately about the work he is partly responsible for us seeing. He is also great in the Q&A setting because of his personal connection to the work and filmmakers he is leading in discussion.
The final film on the schedule was my most anticipated: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which I have managed to not see, shameful as it is to admit. Though I hadn’t seen the film in whole, it is obviously one that I was aware of in terms of its plot and cultural status, so I was most interested to see how it would surprise me. I had a pretty good feeling that I would love the film, and that it would hold up today in a world that still doesn’t really know how to talk about race relations, but I didn’t know if that would soften what is a pretty radical and vibrant film. In a word, it doesn’t.
Do the Right Thing is angry, but clear-eyed. This film is clearly made by someone who is angry, has opinions, is smart, hasn’t figured it all out, but has thought a lot about the situation. I was definitely surprised by its narrative balance, as the film understands that we need each other. I fully expected the white characters, Sal and his sons, to be blatant villains, but they aren’t — they have opinions about the black people they serve pizza to every day, and many of those opinions aren’t exactly loving, but there is a recognition that they are simply cruel racists. When Buggin’ Out first stages his boycott of Sal’s pizzeria, he finds few people who are willing to go along, not because they are blinded to specific racial problems, but because they see some value.
It also doesn’t pretend that only white people derive negative opinions about other races and cultures, but that we all do and pretty regularly. Certain characters in the film stand for ideas, morals, or specific points-of-view, but they are often more than that. Do the Right Thing not only understands this specific block of New York City, but the larger example of how people think, feel and react to their environment. The two opposing messages given at the end of the film, given by the two distinct black voices of the Civil Rights Movement, shows the complexity that Spike Lee is going for — Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X thought about the same problem in two different ways and they were both right in certain ways. Similarly, neither Sal nor Buggin’ Out are completely wrong in the situation that ends up quickly escalating by the end. Ultimately, I think the film has a non-violent viewpoint and prioritizes communication, but it doesn’t condemn the characters for what they end up doing.
I don’t think the film is talked about enough in terms of its art. Perhaps the easiest way to consider the film is how the racial issues are represented, but that misses an entire reason as to why this is a vital film. At time, Do the Right Thing is basically an avant garde film, much more so than the typical narrative driven film. From the direct camera address and the monologue asides to the way music is represented in this culture, there is an extremely exciting energy to Do the Right Thing that keeps this film fresh, even as we’ve seen more and more films about racial relations. There is no doubt that Do the Right Thing is unique, it wouldn’t be considered a classic if it wasn’t, but I didn’t expect such a visually and aurally daring film.
Spike Lee is considered a great American filmmaker, but he hasn’t really been represented well lately. You could argue that he hasn’t made a great narrative film in a while (perhaps since 2002’s 25th Hour, depending how you feel about Inside Man) and he was pretty derided for his last film, the remake of Oldboy which didn’t have any of his signature voice. Also, his recent Kickstarter campaign, which is for his upcoming film about vampires, was mostly met with jeers and jokes about how out-of-touch the filmmaker is with today’s film culture and technology. Seeing him at the Q&A, however, he is still sharp, thoughtful and passionate. He may never make a film as impactful, personal or incredible as Do the Right Thing (hell, few filmmakers do), but I don’t think his unique view of the world is fully gone.
Four films will screen on the fourth day of the festival: Wadjda, A Simple Life, Goodbye Solo and Born on the Fourth of July — that’s a lot of fours.