Ebertfest 2014: Day Two, by Aaron Pinkston
The first full day of Ebertfest didn’t start off too well for me, when the campus parking lot that I typically use (because it takes credit cards) suddenly didn’t exist. So, I spent time away from the first academic panel of the day getting cash, getting change, finding a meter spot and later refilling the meter. Thank you, University of Illinois for getting rid of a convenient parking lot without offering an alternative that was similarly convenient. End rant. Anywho, this surprise runaround didn’t exactly have me in the best of moods when I rolled into the first of two morning panels for the day.
The academic panels at each Ebertfest give festivalgoers a great opportunity to discuss important topics with filmmakers, critics, industry folks and academics from the impressive list of guests that come each year. One of the greatest aspects of the festival is the incredible access to year’s guests — it isn’t unusual to just bump into the likes of Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson or (for the nerdier festivalgoers) David Bordwell. The mood set around the festival each year is incredibly inclusive and comfortable, different from just about any film festival experience you could hope to have.
This year’s two panels on the second day were titled “Challenging Stigma Through the Arts” and “Reimagining Filmmaking for the Digital Age.” The panel on stigma (from what I was able to see) was mostly a discussion on Short Term 12, which felt a bit like a gush fest, but the presence of professional social workers and therapists on the panel provided an interesting dissection of a film’s vision and the actual professional field. For the past three years, since I’ve been going to Ebertfest regularly, there has been a topic discussing something around the idea of digital filmmaking and distribution, and it is always an equally fascinating and frustrating discussion. Typically, because the academic world of film is still hesitant to move into the “digital age,” the panel feels a bit stacked. This year was a bit more balanced, with filmmakers like Steve James and Haifaa Al-Mansour, whose working styles basically necessitates digital filmmaking. Still, the group was shockingly anti-streaming, especially given the films the filmmaker panellists producing are ones that don’t reach most theater markets. There has to be a point where the industry and artists realize that a reduced experience is better than no experience — perhaps the industry-on-whole has come around to this idea, but those speaking at Ebertfest are still resistant to coming to the dark side. If you are interested in seeing these panel discussions, but can’t make it to Ebertfest (which is something you should consider correcting), they can be streamed at the festival’s website.
The day’s screenings opened with Jem Cohen’s quiet Museum Hours, which is a film Roger Ebert saw and loved shortly before passing on. This isn’t surprising, as it feels very much like a film that Ebert always championed — it is thoughtful about life and art and explores a different slice of the world around us that most would probably ignore. Museum Hours is intently focused on two different sides of beauty: fantastic works of fine art housed at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum and the surrounding life of Vienna. The film’s observational style is most apparent when observing the works of art, sometimes showing a painting in whole at first and then work inwards, looking closer at small, yet vital details that could easily be missed.
This idea is verbalized in one of the most narrative sections of the film, as a tour guide is walking through the work of Bruegel and asking a mostly ignorant group to look past the obvious. Even high art can be observed in many ways — artists give us clues for what to look at with titles and placement on the canvas, but Museum Hours explicitly looks within the frame to find other meanings and beauty.
The film also observes as an outsider, a theme that Ebert especially connected with. Vienna is a city that has been fully explored in many films, most famously in The Third Man and Before Sunrise, though the view of the outside city in Museum Hours is strikingly unusual. The camera’s wandering through the streets feel like being a part of an underground tour group that seeks out the weirder aspects. This is accompanied by one of the two major characters describing the city and telling stories, giving a greater insight with a humorous tone. At times, our narrator is describing everyday events as if he was describing a famous Rembrandt portrait. This juxtaposition is interesting and invigorating — there is beauty in high art and normal life. Art is truly everywhere.
Though it’s not quite whole, the overall narrative of the film is an unlikely friendship between museum guard Johann and tourist Anne, who is in Vienna visiting a dying cousin. Anne exists as the audience surrogate (which becomes an interesting thru-line for all three films shown on this day, all including a particular character who works in this way), an eager outsider who allows the film’s disparate stories and weird places to take hold in the narrative without feeling too esoteric. I don’t think director Jem Cohen cares too much about delivering a narrative film, but this narrative in Museum Hours is an interesting little trick. It gives an audience who needs to connect to character a way into a film with other interests.
The next film, Short Term 12, also didn’t have much trouble connecting with the Ebertfest audience — through the first three days of the festival, it seems to be the clear crowd favorite (yes, that includes Do the Right Thing). Maybe it’s just me in my urban/film reviewer bubble, but I was actually surprised that it seemed a great majority of the audience hadn’t seen the film. I understand that it was a very small release, but it was one of the most talked about independent films of 2013, making multiple top 10 lists, let alone it is currently available on Netflix Instant Streaming. On the other hand, the response isn’t much of a surprise. Short Term 12 has just the right blend of humanity, humor, pathos, character and art to work with a large group of eager cinemagoers.
Destin Cretton’s debut feature really understands people and especially people in the environment of a group home of (don’t say “underprivileged”) kids without homes or families. This is obviously due to Cretin’s experience in this setting, but he gets a lot more than just the specifics right. The film understands that even at its worst, life is always filled with laughter. Though Short Term 12 certainly isn’t a comedy, there are many moments of life, even brushed up with the most dramatic moments. It would have been really easy for the film to take itself too seriously, make itself known as a capital i important film, but it rarely does, and I think that is a big reason people have responded so well to it.
More importantly, the film treats the group home residents with honesty and respect. Most of characters are marked by a specific trait, but no one is fully defined by their illness. This is partly done because the film doesn’t heap on a backstory to these kids, instead letting their experiences organically come through their current selves. This helps keep the characters from being typed or pitied, which would be the death knell.
In all, Short Term 12 does so much right that its only real misstep makes me actually upset and almost ruins the entire experience for me. I suppose in trying to build some extra stakes, the film’s main plotline introduces a young woman who Grace (Brie Larson) makes a strong connection with. After a moment when the newcomer finally opens up, Grace takes her concerns to her supervisor, a character that is obscenely mishandled. Without spoiling too much, the film becomes too much of a one vs. one conflict, with our protagonist knowing more than those in power and not being able to do anything about it. It makes the administrator character feel almost villainous, and for little reason — it certainly gives more stakes to the drama, but in a film that gives so much respect to its characters, it slips here. The fact is, this character’s perspective is absolutely valid, but he doesn’t get the time or balance to more accurately represent his side of the conflict. Really, this imbalance could be completely corrected without a few specific words that is used to up the conflict — the background that the girl’s father is a “friend of a friend” to the administrator, which obviously provides a conflict of interest that changes protocol to villainous (perhaps criminal) protection.
What’s more, Grace’s relationship with Jayden becomes a bit too tidy by the end. Grace is a flawed character and those flaws are much more compelling when they aren’t verbalized, which happens increasingly often as the film goes on. I understand the need for characters to grow, but I can’t imagine most social workers opening up to the group home members in the ways that Grace does — the alternative probably doesn’t make an interesting film, though, and Short Term 12 doesn’t make this a damnable problem. The bigger problem relates to my earlier gripe, as the connection between the two characters gives Grace absolute understanding of what is really going on. Once the reveal happens, there isn’t any surprise, and thus not much of a catharsis that should be there.
The final screening on the first full day was a welcome surprise to me, even though I had already seen it. I’m not sure why, but I remember liking Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, but then didn’t think much about it. This is yet another great aspect of Ebertfest — getting the opportunity to revisit a film in a near-ideal setting. The humble beginnings of Ebertfest, with the former name of Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, spoke to this more directly. This mission can shine a light on films that went completely unnoticed, but also ones that were seen, relatively liked, and then forgotten. Though Young Adult hit theaters less than three years ago, it seems to have been lost in cultural consciousness.
The previous time I saw Young Adult was in a nearly ideal situation, at the historic Music Box Theatre as part of a “special surprise screening,” where the audience stood outside in a long line without knowing what they were going to see (though rumors had been swirling the day or two before, with awareness that Patton Oswalt was in town). I was treated to the film with about 700 eager filmgoers in attendance, as well as filmmakers Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody and Patton Oswalt. I remember enjoying myself tremendously in the debauched dark comedy, but I later chalked up this to the perfect screening situation — this is a potential “problem” with the Ebertfest experience, as well, where it is easy to over-appreciate a film because of the situation and surroundings.
After seeing the film again, I can recognize that Young Adult is unduly unappreciated as a very bold narrative film and perhaps the best work from writer Cody, director Reitman, and star Charlize Theron. Perhaps part of the trouble is the darker hues feeling a bit unsatisfying at a first glance. The film’s main character, Mavis, is a YA novelist who is forced to face the future when her reasonably successful series is coming to a close. Instead, though, she looks to the past by returning home to her dead-end town in hopes to rekindle the flame with her high school beau. Young Adult gives Mavis every opportunity to make the right decisions and generally not be a terrible human being, but she misses every time. This is frustrating on first watch not just because of the bleak tones, but also because the film uses cliches and conventions in a way that sets unfulfilled expectations. This could lead to disappointment, but going in knowing where the film ends up highlights the audacious ambition of the film.
This screening of Young Adult also included the most entertaining Q&A of the festival, with actor/comedian Patton Oswalt. For purists, a discussion of Young Adult may have been more enlightening with Reitman, Cody or Theron, but there is no doubting the benefit of giving Oswalt a mic and letting him riff for a half hour (also just so happens that he is really good in the film as an audience surrogate). A Q&A can often be let down by the silly/stupid questions, a lack of questions from those who didn’t like a film, and the avoidance of interesting questions from the guest, but this turned out to be a hilariously funny supplement to an already funny film.
On the docket for day 3: the overlooked silent film He Who Gets Slapped (with live musical accompaniment), a Phillip Seymour Hoffman tribute with Capote, and the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.