Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston

17 Apr

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Another year, another Ebertfest! I have now attended and covered four straight festivals, and thus have written four introductions that described my history with the festival and the history of the festival itself. So, why don’t I skip all that and just get to the basics? The Roger Ebert Film Festival is held each year at the home of the University of Illinois (both my and Ebert’s alma mater). In this 17th edition of the festival a lot has remained unchanged – it is a small festival of 12 films stretched over five days at one singular location, the beautiful Virginia Theatre. In this third festival after the loss of the great critic, it seems that the festival is finally finding its legacy going forward. It has always been a celebration of films, and that hasn’t changed, but eventually it would have to move on from being a curated list of its namesake’s favorite films. This year more than any other feels like a festival molded in his spirit. Ebert would have seen only three of this year’s selections, but their intelligence, humor, and humanity are in line with what the man championed. The course of the festival will see Ebertfest favorites return with new films, some of the best international films of the past year, the amazing Alloy Orchestra, and a tribute to another recently lost film icon.

The opening night film was a strange choice in my eyes: Jean-Luc Godard’s recent three dimensional opus, Goodbye to Language. This is my first experience with the festival where the opening honors went to a film that wasn’t either a beloved classic or certified crowd pleasure – or perhaps I’m just tipping my own opinion of the film. Aside from this, to say that Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of 3D is a bit of an understatement. He even praised Rango by way of specifically citing that it wasn’t in 3D. He never failed to give credit to technological advances and creative uses of them, so it is probable that he would have truly appreciated Godard’s clever and knowing expansion of the cinematic gimmick. Then again, Ebert hasn’t been incredibly kind to the filmmaker’s more recent, more abrasive work. I’ll agree that Goodbye to Language is a better film and more positive experience than Film Socialisme, but even in my second viewing of the film, I didn’t get much out of it.

In the run-up to the festival’s opening night and punctuated in the film’s introduction, it was noted that the Virginia Theatre installed a new 3D projector (and purchased 1,400 Dolby 3D glasses) for this screening. That’s certainly a commitment. No matter your personal opinion on 3D filmmaking, whether an artistic or commercial venture, it’s undeniable that Godard does it right – joining the likes of Avatar, Hugo and Piranha. Godard seems to have put all of his energy into finding specific uses for 3D and there are some catchy results. There is one particular shot early on, where a woman is sitting in a chair in the foreground, near the center of the frame, while a man leans on a fence in the extreme foreground, to the woman’s right. As she leaves the frame, the man walks toward the camera, bringing the two planes together. The effect looks fantastic in 3D, the screen looks deeper (usually the best use of the technology) with layers of perspective. At other times, Godard places an object close to the camera so it blocks out much of the frame. The background, where the action is taking place, becomes intentionally disconnected in our field of vision. This fits particularly well with many of Godard’s New Wave tendencies of staging the frame in peculiar and sometimes narratively detrimental ways.

Even with these provocative uses of 3D, the master filmmaker can’t overcome many of the medium’s problems. Most of this is still out of his hands, impossible to avoid while glasses are still necessary to project in the third dimension. For me to watch a 3D film I must wear a bulky set of glasses atop the separate, but equally bulky set of glasses that already occupy my face. The consequence is uncomfortable and certainly not very fetching. I suspect that because I’m looking through the 3D glasses about an inch from my eyes, blurry and jumpy movement only becomes more so.

Much of Goodbye to Language is a dizzying, unintelligible mess. There were many moments where I had to close an eye or look away to avoid strengthening an oncoming headache. Can I blame Godard or Goodbye to Language for this? Not entirely, though the direction of the film caters to this particular problem with near constant movement, double-exposures and an overall extreme use. Also, his use of consumer and low-grade film equipment doesn’t help (I don’t think the GoPro has quite met the capability of good looking 3D).

While the film’s biggest strength is also a burden, that might say something about the rest of the film’s content. Thankfully, Goodbye to Language is less abrasive and funnier than Film Socialisme, which was a totally impenetrable film, complete with a seemingly purposeful lack of English subtitles. The main story of Goodbye to Language involves a man and woman who lounge around naked while debating philosophical concepts of man, dogs, and, yes, human excrement. Maybe it was all a little over my head, maybe I was too wrapped up or distracted by the film’s visuals, but I didn’t feel any energy in the dialogue or philosophies.

Most people who have talked or written about the film are sure to mention a different co-star, Godard’s own dog, Roxy. It’s a little weird that for a film with such pensive philosophical thoughts, the most compelling and gripping moments are simply a dog running around the forest, but that’s absolutely the case. Most furry friends in the movies merely go through the motions of taking commands from humans; Roxy seems to actually be acting. I can’t quite explain the difference, but there is something free in Roxy’s spirit that is compelling to watch. It’s not enough to hold the film together, but it helps.

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Following Goodbye to Language was a special tribute to Harold Ramis. This was the first time the festival had scheduled time to celebrate a recently lost film artist and I hope this becomes a trend. I would have preferred a full screening of one of Ramis’s best films (Groundhog Day would be the obvious pick, but Caddyshack or National Lampoon’s Vacation would have been great, too); instead, we were treated to clips from his career and a panel discussing the man and the work. What worked best was that his work as a director, writer and actor was treated equally and as a whole. The clip package was ultimately uninspired, but an adequate cross-section. It even included moments from his less successful work, like the panned Year One and Stuart Saves His Family.

The panel included journalists Glenn Kenny and Susan Wloszczyna, longtime collaborator Trevor Albert, and Ramis’s widow, Erica Mann Ramis. Their conversation stayed light, focusing on Ramis’s work, personal character and legacy. They told personal stories which didn’t stray into the general canned feeling of most Q&A sessions. Albert, in particular, shared a great amount of insight through his memories of being behind-the-scenes and on set for much of Ramis’s directorial work. His recollections of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, in particular, were both entertaining and substantial.

After the sadly brief opening night, the first full day of the festival awaits. In the next segment of my Ebertfest coverage, I’ll look at Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, underseen documentary Moving Midway, and Sundance hit The End of the Tour.

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