Ebertfest 2016: Grandma, Northfork, The Third Man, by Aaron Pinkston

17 Apr

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One of the well-noted changes to the festival this year is the video trailer that runs before each film. In previous years, there has been an introductory film made that used a specific speech from Roger Ebert and shots from the films that were playing that year. It has always been well-crafted and poignant—but a little overkill to see it a dozen times when you’re at every film. Smartly, the festival has been mixing it up this year in an interesting and appropriate way. On the second day, the two films which had been covered by Roger were preceded by a clip from his essential program Siskel & Ebert. Alternatively, for the first film of the day, which had been released after Roger’s death, a brief speech from a previous film festival was shown. All in all, this approach is a spectacular way to honor Roger and give focus to the specific film that was being presented. The only downside in practice was seen in the third film of the night, Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man, which was presented with a clip from Siskel & Ebert when the critics talked about their favorite black and white shots—unfortunately for anyone who hadn’t seen the film, the defining shot of Harry Lime’s introduction was shown. This is a relatively minor quibble, given the immortality of that shot in cinema history and the (I assume) relative few in the audience who hadn’t already implanted in their brains.

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The second day slate of the festival opened with Grandma, a perfect example of a just outside the mainstream crowd pleaser that works really well with the Ebertfest crowd. The film is a showpiece for Lily Tomlin, an incredibly important figure in cinema history and comedy who, like so many other women in Hollywood, has been largely disregarded. It has been widely publicized that Grandma marks her first leading role on film in over 30 years, a baffling idea especially considering how great she is as Elle. In the spirit of Ebertfest, even as Grandma may not have been overlooked by critics or audiences that gravitate to smaller films, screening the film shines a light on Tomlin’s status in Hollywood (and, in that way, all the great actresses like her).

Grandma is as much about the history of its characters as what we see play out on screen. It uses its high concept (Elle’s granddaughter comes to her asking for money to pay for an abortion) to quite literally travel through Elle’s life, working through her past relationships. The characters mythologize their pasts, speaking around old times and characters we don’t meet. Elle’s long-time partner Violet is basically a co-lead of the film despite the fact that she has died—more time is spent talking about Violet than about Sage, the only other character to be present in the entire film. This is a strange way to structure a film, but it works because it keeps focus on Elle and how the memory of this person has impacted her life. Frankly, if Tomlin’s performance wasn’t as purely entertaining or emotionally well-rounded, Grandma likely struggles.

This kind of low-budget dramedy has become increasingly shaggy in narrative structure, making Grandma really stick out. Recent films like Tangerine or works produced by the Duplass brothers or Joe Swanberg are similarly small-scope character films, but are much more winding and unpredictable structurally. Grandma is almost overly structured as a series of one-on-one conversations and long-time meeting vignettes broken into numbered and titled sequences.

One of these chapters, called “The Ogre,” is the film at its most rich. The section comes about halfway through the film, just as the situation to raise the proper funds seems the most dire. Elle decides to visit an old friend, Karl, and the scene plays out without giving the audience too much context. Sam Elliott is able to come along and spruce up just about any film and he’s particularly good her in a short time. The tenor of their conversation changes subtly but quickly as the details of their shared history form. The dramatic stakes of the scene is disarmed by humor, much like the film’s overall tone, before it naturally shifts to anger and challenging emotions. And just when the scene seems played out it changes again with Karl’s reaction to the need for his money—it’s a truly shocking moment that is much more layered than expected.

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Moving on to the second screening of the day, Northfork is a bizarre film, completely original and strange. Its mix of forlorn seriousness, silly humor and wild fantasy has elements of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick and Roy Andersson. The film is set in 1950s Montana, in a community that has built a large dam that will create a flood in the valley where people are living. Two different narratives are created: one involving a group of government officials who are hired to evacuate the flood zone; the other sees a group of angels searching for the “unknown angel,” who may be a dying orphan despite their reluctance in believing so.

In his 4-star review Ebert called Northfork “visionary and elegiac, more a fable than a story … a portfolio of spaces so wide, so open, that men must wonder if they have a role beneath such indifferent skies.” This is a prime example of what I like most about Ebertfest—the chance to see a film that Ebert loved and championed with his direct recommendation, even when it doesn’t connect with me. There is no doubt that Northfork is a unique film with an offbeat sensibility that should be championed. I particularly agree with the final thoughts of Ebert’s review, that it is less of an entertaining film so much as an entrancing one. There are small moments and big ideas that work in Northfork, but I struggle to connect them. Because of both its strange nature and its thoughtful presence it is the exact kind of film that will be absolutely loved for those it does connect.

The film is full of philosophy and biblical allusion. Aside from the angel characters, there are references to the stories of Moses, Noah and the rapture—and likely many others that I’m ignorant to (the Bible really isn’t an area of my expertise). Northfork is incredibly playful with these references and themes, but also enigmatic. Because of the fantastical elements, characters that should be more grounded have unidentifiable motivations. They seem to only exist to serve the dreamlike quality. One particular character I found frustrating was Father Harlan (played by Nick Nolte), the priest in charge of caring for the dying child. His narrative purpose involves finding adoptive parents for the boy, which is quite silly in any normal grounded narrative, played stonely serious as Nick Nolte is usual to do. It only makes any sense as a parable, and it is probably excusable when read in this context, but the film’s blending of the serious and the fantastical made it difficult for me to understand the emotional stakes.

A great benefit of seeing a film like Northfork at a film festival like Ebertfest is watching on film—an opportunity that we all know is becoming increasingly rare. Ebertfest presents its films as often as possible on film and the exhibition is always pretty amazing. In the case of Northfork, director Michael Polish made an astute observation that I was certainly feeling during the screening: Northfork isn’t a particularly old film (it was released in 2003) but seeing it projected on film made it seem much older. Part of this is the technical fuzziness of film, thoroughly enhanced by the dreaminess of the film and the unconscious existential crisis all film lovers are experiencing as they become more accustomed to digital projections (that’s scientifically accurate, I’m sure of it).

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The final film of Thursday night at Ebertfest was the certifiable classic and notably one of Roger Ebert’s all time favorite films, The Third Man. I really like the film’s inclusion and wish the festival scheduled one films from this era (really anywhere between 1930-1970) every year. The festival always includes a silent film, hyped as an event with live musical accompaniment, but doesn’t often visit this large chunk of time with countless great films. The last time a film from those 40 years of film history was shown was in 2011, my first year covering the festival for the site, when the closing film was Citizen Kane shown with Roger’s DVD commentary track. My first Ebertfest experience was seeing La Dolce Vita and it remains one of my favorite theatergoing experiences. There is just something about seeing a classic film in an old theater that works, and I hope this is the start of something for the festival. As Roger himself said in his “Great Movie” review, published in 1996: “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.” I think there is something to that generally, too.

As for the film, there isn’t anything I can say about The Third Man that hasn’t been praised a million times. The zither, the dutch angles, the beautifully photographed streets of Vienna and the mischievous intrigue are all worthy of the praise. I’ve seen the film a number of times, but never in a movie theater—like most great films, there is an exponential effect of seeing the film in a theater, with the music completely filling out the large room and the flicker of the screen the only thing in view. I honestly rarely romanticize the theatergoing experience to this extent, but this is really what makes Ebertfest great—this theater with this crowd with movies like The Third Man. I’ve never been slow to realize that fact.

An extra bit of fun with the Third Man screening was the post-film Q&A with Angela Allen, who served as a script supervisor for the film and was present at many aspects of the film’s production. With film critic Michael Phillips and festival director Nate Kohn, Allen talked on the rumors and process of shooting the film and was truly a great supplement. Mileage widely varies on Q&As, especially in the film festival environment with very positive vibes (that’s not a knock, just the case), but this was a supremely good experience.

Next up at Ebertfest is Palestine-Israel peace documentary Disturbance of Peace, silent score accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra for L’inhumaine, and a primetime screening of Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou.

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