Ebertfest 2017: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston
Whereas Day Two of the 2017 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival highlighted its aims to showcase the overlooked and underappreciated, Day Three showed off its diverse interests.
The first of the festival’s three documentaries, They Call Us Monsters, opened Friday. Directed by Ben Lear (son of TV producer Norman Lear, whose doc memoir is also playing the festival), the film examines juvenile sentencing for violent crimes through four young men in a California detection center. Instead of only looking at statistics or getting the opinions of lawmakers and pundits, They Call Us Monsters primarily focuses on the people who are most affected by this controversial issues: those serving time, their families, and their victims. Also unlike most crime docs, the question of guilt or innocence isn’t a concern, freeing the film of this narrative burden so it can focus firmly on the personalities of its subjects.
The film is centered on a screenplay class as part of a rehabilitation program and the four teenagers who take part (one of the four takes a plea deal and is transferred to an adult prison shortly after the start of the film). Their assignment is to write a complete screenplay for a short film, drawing on their experiences and creativity, which will be produced by the teacher. This is a smart set-up for two reasons: we meet and spend time with these teenagers in a creative and personal environment and Lear is able to edit in scenes from the short film as a way to give greater emotional and thematic resonance at certain points. Unfortunately the film doesn’t show the complete film, but it is artfully edited.
Only once we’ve fully gotten to know Antonio, Jarad, and Juan does the film bring in the details of their crimes. For some, it may not focus enough on this aspect, but it doesn’t shy away from it either as it gives voice to one victim for one of the film’s most emotional moments. They Call Us Monsters also openly realizes that juvenile sentencing is incredibly complex from a political point-of-view by sprinkling in information pertinent to California State Senate Bill 260, which would open the possibility of parole after 15 years of time served. In the post-screening Q&A, Lear highlighted that this was his major concern—that juvenile criminals at least be given the opportunity to prove that they have matured as adults and can be positive members of society.
I don’t know if They Call Us Monsters is or cares to be the kind of social issue documentary that is trying to change your mind and that is one of its more admirable qualities. It does succeed in its more interested aims, especially as a fair and deep profile. Unsurprisingly, Antonio, Jarad, and Juan are shown as typical teenagers in most ways with typical interests and dreams and fears. This is good supplemental evidence for the scientific data regarding brain physiology of teenagers and this emotional, personal approach over jargon and numbers helps build a better connection with viewers.
Moving on, the annual appearance of the Alloy Orchestra accompanied E.A. Dupont’s 1925 silent crime melodrama Variety (also known as Varieté). I remember seeing the film years ago when I was going on a silent film kick and could only find it on VHS from the Chicago Public Library. Thankfully, Variety was restored in 2015 so it could be rediscovered as one the most interesting looking films from the late silent era.
Before I get to the Alloy Orchestra’s score, a bit on the film itself. Variety stars Emil Jannings (probably the most underrated silent film star) as Boss Huller, a famous trapeze catcher whose life tragically shifts after he leaves his wife and child for the alluring orphan Bertha-Marie (Lya De Putti, in an absolutely fierce performance). The lovers come into newfound popularity along with trapeze master Artinelli (Warwick Ward) but their act is threatened by behind-the-scenes philandering. The tale of infidelity and revenge is a wonderful mix of classic melodrama, German Expressionism stylings, and the high-action circus film, making for a remarkable and bizarre visual experience.
Shot by Karl Freund, quite possible the cinema’s first master cinematographer, Variety pushed the envelope for what a film could look like. The most eye-catching are the circus scenes, where the viewer is put into the flying trapeze act—it is as thrilling today as it must have been back in the mid-20s. What is perhaps most impressive, though, is how the camerawork perfectly captures the film’s tonal shifts. Moving from the high action to intense and still melodrama in the third act with enough visual consistency to keep the viewer invested is no small feat. Doing so with innovative style (at times Variety looks like a film noir prototype) is all the better.
If you’ve read any of my Ebertfest correspondence in the past, you know the Alloy Orchestra, the three-piece junk band that creates complex silent film scores that blend traditional and modern music styles. They are always one of the highlights of the week no matter the featured film (and they haven’t all been as great as Variety). For Variety they’ve crafted one of their most somber pieces driven by a piano theme. When the actions rises, they switch to the organ for a more traditional circus score before returning to the piano score in a deeper key to reflect the more serious emotional depths—like the film itself, the score is nimble and varied but with a consistent through line.
Finally, Day Three concluded with a primetime screening of a film I alluded to in my last post, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Like The Handmaiden, this is a film that received a lot of critical love last year and also made my top 10. For that, I didn’t feel too obligated to closely dissect Elle’s complex characters and narrative, but instead to sit back, enjoy the film, and stay attuned to the reactions around me.
Elle worked over this audience pretty good—they gasped, shrieked, laughed at all the appropriate moments. It is difficult to think of Elle as a crowd pleaser and that probably isn’t an accurate descriptor, but it is so brazen and provocative that it demands an immediate, natural response. I previously mentioned that Park Chan-wook is one of the rare master filmmakers who are able to absolutely control everything you see on screen; I don’t know if Verhoeven has that level of formalism but he has that uncanny ability in terms of controlling his viewer’s emotional response. Elle’s constantly shifting tones keeps the viewer on edge, allowing for big moments to trigger that visceral response, almost at an automated level.
As an added treat to this screening, the amazing Isabelle Huppert was present for a post-screening Q&A. I haven’t mentioned any of the other festival guests to this point, but I couldn’t possibly go without (bragging) noting her presence. It was delightful to see her talk about her career not only because her performance in Elle was without question my favorite of 2016, but because she has been an actor that I’ve admired for a long time. With Sony Pictures Classics studio head Michael Barker, the two chatted extensively about her long career, her approach to difficult roles (and she’s had a few), the great number of directors she has collaborated with, and a number of other topics. Q&As aren’t always the more insightful or enjoyable experiences but this was a real special treat and a wonderful companion to seeing Elle with a massive audience.