Ebertfest: Day Two, by Aaron Pinkston

20 Apr

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A little behind-the-scenes: This year, instead of making the couple mile commute to and from my hotel and the Virginia Theatre, I rented an apartment two blocks away for the week. So far, it makes the experience so much more comfortable. In this vein, I made an executive decision to forego the panel discussions that happen each day in exchange for more relaxation. Overall, the panels are decent, but don’t delve into their topics quite to my liking, despite being made up of intelligent and interesting film writers and filmmakers. I also decided to take the time spent by the post-screening Q&As (because we know nothing good really ever comes from them) to spend more quality time with my wife and two dogs, who made the trip for the first time this year. Theoretically, this should also give me good time to write up my coverage in a more timely manner, though that already doesn’t seem to be the case.

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The first film of the day was the finale of Roy Andersson’s “being a human being” trilogy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. His previous two films, Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), both played at Ebertfest, so it only makes sense to complete the task. This is a film I actually intended on catching at the recent European Union Film Festival, but due to my own scheduling, went to a different screening instead. When I saw it was scheduled for Ebertfest this year, it almost felt like some divine fate, and so I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Despite never seeing a Roy Andersson film before (I vaguely remember renting Songs from the Second Floor about ten years ago, but don’t actually remember watching it) I had heard to expect an intensely bleak comedy about the human condition. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence is that exactly – a film that had me cringing just as often as it had me laughing, and always had me thinking about the melancholy group of characters. Made up of 30-odd short vignettes tied together by recurring characters and a common visual palette, it is much more slowly paced than your typical comedy. This, along with the almost insufferably wry humor, make the film vital, a wholly unique cinematic experience.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence looks and feels like no other comedy I’ve ever seen. Its rhythms feel more like a long-form improv game than a movie, with its characters and jokes looping around, calling back and reintroduced in new situations. Every scene consists on a still camera and long take, shot in a medium-to-long shot. While most modern comedies are able to punctuate their mile-a-minute jokes with cuts and close-ups, this film does the complete opposite, allowing the slow pace and unmoving environment build to levels of uncomfortable absurdity. The monotone color scheme of dull browns, yellows, and beige is so incredibly uncinematic but works in this off-kilter world.

Most of the film’s short vignettes stand alone, but really don’t work individually. Jokes are pulled from repeated lines, really only being jokes because of their repetition. For example, every person we see talking on the phone throughout the movie exclaims that they are happy the unheard person on the other end of the line is doing fine. This isn’t exactly funny, but once you begin hearing it for the third, fourth, fifth time, it hits a nerve. Andersson then begins to bring in some dark situations and so when this line shows up it is both expected and surprising.

To the extent that there is an throughline plot, it involves two travelling salesmen who unsuccessfully peddle gag gifts like vampire teeth and a horrible mask called “Uncle One Tooth.” Like the repeated line from phone conversations, they have a canned spiel that is repeated a few times over the course of the film – each time in a more inappropriate place, so while it becomes more familiar, it is also more strange. Their story is introduced after three different takes on “facing death,” which are without question the most laugh-out-loud the film gets. The final few scenes of the film hit heavy, perhaps a little too heavy. It reaches a point where its darkness passes absurdity and into increasingly horrific territory. Once it stops giving you a shield in its humor, it is pretty difficult to take.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is an increasingly odd but clear vision of its filmmaker. I don’t know if I can fully understand the film’s human philosophies through one sitting, but its disarming humor makes me eager to revisit. As Ebertfest has taken to specific filmmakers that they choose to highlight, I hope Roy Andersson is one they continue to visit, too.

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In the trailer for this year’s Ebertfest that plays before each screening, there is a clip of Roger speaking at the festival from years ago. He states that he always loves films that are able to end in a place that he didn’t expect. Moving Midway, a documentary made by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, is one such film.

Of the films on this year’s schedule, Moving Midway is the only one I had never heard of. Given the amount of film culture I consume, this usually isn’t a good sign. But remembering the roots of Ebertfest as the Overlooked Film Festival and knowing that this is one of the three films this year that was seen and written about by Ebert, I was of course willing to give it a shot.

The film is a personal documentary, beginning with Cheshire returning home to rural North Carolina, where his cousin has decided to move the plantation home where he spent much time while growing up. In doing so, the film becomes both a profile of Cheshire’s eclectic Southern family and a deeper examination of the complex metaphor that is the home. The land that the Midway plantation home sits upon has definite power within the family. Once it is to be moved, the memories that took place over the generations there will be lost, disconnected from the rich history told from year to year. The landscape has already dramatically changed with a new highway out front bringing commercial development in the area, but there is something about this structure settled on this land that has a meaning that couldn’t possibly exist elsewhere.

By directly looking at the stories told through his family, Cheshire considers how stories like his have built the American South and the plantation. Being a film critic first, he takes a brief look at the two most important depictions of the American South: The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. To Cheshire, both are radically inaccurate of real life, but have become so iconic that most consider them to be truth. The Birth of a Nation was so influential that the costumes worn by the film’s version of the KKK actually inspired the group’s trademark look.

Stories told through the generations are just as powerful, if just as wild. Cheshire is honestly critical of his family’s taller tales, including his great aunt’s nearly obsessive need to trace their lineage back to European royalty. When it comes to the family’s opinions on their history with slaves, the filmmaker could have been a little more probing. He leaves their words that their family treated their slaves as if they were free men without any pushback. I don’t think anyone who makes a film about their own family has to strike up a feud, but painting this particular picture and then not really examining it feels a little disingenuous.

Moving Midway, though, begins to find a new voice in the last half of the film. As Cheshire is tracing his family back, he finds that one of his ancestors had a child with one of his slave women. This opens up a pandora’s box, leading him to a new family that he didn’t know existed, dozens of African American cousins who also have a stake to the history of this place. The final act of the film offers a new hope, a growing definition of family. The ideas held at the start of the film about a clearly delineated family history turns out to not exist.

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It has become a new tradition at Ebertfest to bring in at least one film that has yet to be released theatrically. Typically, these have been films first shown at Sundance and other festivals early in the year. Recently, Life Itself, Escape from Tomorrow and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now came to Champaign. This year, Ponsoldt returned with his newest film, The End of the Tour.

Based on writer David Polsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, The End of the Tour is a fictionalized account of Polsky’s week spent with reclusive author David Foster Wallace in the mid-90s, as part of a Rolling Stone magazine interview. The film moves into the story quickly – by the third scene Polsky has travelled to small college town Bloomington, Illinois, just up the road from the site of Ebertfest (and boy did this crowd like that touch, with Bloomington being a sort of “little brother” to Champaign). From there, much of the film is the two men talking about popular culture, art, addiction, and themselves. Other characters drop in from time to time, but a vast majority of the film is between Polsky and Wallace. Sometimes they are like fast friends hanging out and chatting about whatever comes to mind; at other times, they are intellectual rivals, trying to one-up the other like in a chess match.

David Foster Wallace and his portrayer Jason Segel have gotten most of the attention, and this makes sense and is well deserved, but The End of the Tour is really a story about two men. Given the screenplay’s source, most of the film comes from Polsky’s point-of-view and Jesse Eisenberg gives a very good performance. Polsky has to be a little starstruck by Wallace, but also overcompensating to show his worth. We’ve seen Eisenberg play pompous before, but there is a little bit more of an internal performance here. As for Segel, he’s undeniably great. With his comic instincts, one would think he’d easily overplay such a quirky personality, yet he stays natural, never tries for a big moment. The two together are more than the sum of their parts. All the film really has to offer is these two bouncing off of each other, so this is important in making the film work. And Joan Cusack even shows up as a bubbly tour guide, earning extra points.

The End of the Tour is, without a doubt, James Ponsoldt’s most mature film. Though I like Smashed and The Spectacular Now, those films needed big emotional dramatic moments to work as a film. They both were strong character pieces, but each used alcohol abuse as a narrative crutch. The End of the Tour, on the other hand, can rely solely on the interplay and performances of its actors. When the film approaches a concept like addiction, it does so on a more intellectual level, without overdosing on an emotional appeal.

There are a few moments where the script dabs into a cinematic cliche to add some stakes and move the plot along. The moments are small and fairly unnecessary, which almost makes their appearance worse. The film really doesn’t need the typical scene where the editor reminds the journalist about the true reasons for the interview. The End of the Tour is best when it counteracts the typical plot driven artist profile, so these little bumps keep it from being a masterpiece. Ponsoldt is on the right track, though.

The third day of Ebertfest will have Céline Sciamma’s French coming-of-age tale Girlhood, silent film The Son of the Sheik with live musical accompaniment from Ebertfest mainstays the Alloy Orchestra, and a special screening of Robert De Niro’s directorial debut A Bronx Tale.

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