Ebertfest 2017: Day Four, by Aaron Pinkston
I always have mixed emotions about Saturday at Ebertfest. It is the busiest day, with an extra matinee screening—and who would complain about more movies? But considering I’m already exhausted from the week, tired of eating garbage food for every meal and missing home, the end seems sweet. Thankfully, the festival will end with a bang for me, with two profile documentaries, a 90s fantasy well worth revisiting, and my first viewing of a Hal Ashby classic comedy.
First up was one of those docs, Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, from the co-director of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Rick Goldsmith sure does love long titles). As an avid sports fan, I’m unhappy to admit that I’m pretty ignorant of women’s basketball. The fact that I can immediately recognize the name Chamique Holdsclaw tells you something about her place in the sport. And yet, Mind/Game tells me I don’t know much of her story.
A basketball phenom from a young age, Holdsclaw was aggressively recruited out of her Brooklyn high school to play at the University of Tennessee program, coached by legendary coach Pat Summitt. At the time, she was receiving Michael Jordan comparisons that weren’t exactly off base—she was clearly the best collegiate player early in her career, leading the Lady Vols to three consecutive national championships and the very first 39-0 perfect season in the league’s history. At only 57 minutes, Mind/Game zooms through this information efficiently and effectively, setting the table well to dive into its subject’s personal struggles and redemption.
Amid a number of traumatic events in her family, Holdsclaw found herself struggling with her mental health whenever off the court. Mental health issues are still a stigma among high-level athletes whose job is to be unbreakable machines. As Holdsclaw finally sought help, she risked ridicule from the media, her fans, and even her employers. Muddying the waters, Holdsclaw recognizes that her bipolar disorder has helped make her a better basketball player because her drive to find the highs made her more aggressive and determined. That could seem like a positive way to spin her anger into something productive, but the real effect is ignoring and compartmentalizing the problem.
Because of its length, Mind/Game sits between a fully fleshed documentary and a short subject. It could certainly expand on the social issues of athletes and mental illness instead of its maintained focus on Holdsclaw’s journey. That said, the doc is a complete and well-balanced profile. Holdsclaw’s story is absolutely worth telling and Mind/Game tells her story pretty well.
Moving on, I’m electing to go out of screening order to first touch on the day’s other profile documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Detropia), the film moves through the many productions of the prolific TV personality. It is an excellent primer for the importance of Lear’s legacy—in just about 90 minutes I went from passing knowledge of his work to a complete understanding of how he shaped the medium and how the world would be drastically different without him.
For those unaware, after years of writing and producing variety shows for the likes of Martha Raye, Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, he went on to develop an historic run of popular television programs including All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Good Times. These programs pushed boundaries by not shying away from political topics with characters who held controversial beliefs. And yet, they all became among the most popular in the era.
Just Another Version of You smartly lets the footage speak for Lear’s legacy. The film uses an interest visual to present this footage, but the film doesn’t do much to break away from the typical documentary form. That’s OK, though, with as much insight and entertaining stories it provides.
The most interesting section of the film is the most critical of its subject. During his development and direction of Good Times, the African American cast were disappointed with how they were being depicted. As the first major black family on television, stars Esther Rolle and John Amos (who is interviewed) wanted a serious voice but the Jimmie Walker “Dynomite” persona quickly pulled the audience’s attention. In Lear’s mind, people were people and the characters in Good Times would have the same experiences as him. In a way you can understand that idealism point of view, but it just wasn’t realistic. Talking head Russell Simmons described the show as one about African Americans for white people—eventually Lear would make up for this criticism by creating The Jeffersons, which was more in line with the aspirational black community’s interests of their people on the screen.
Overall, Just Another Version of You is a decently made documentary about an icon. For me, that is typically enough—if the film’s subject is a true iconoclast and you tell their story clearly and with balance, it doesn’t need to do too much.
The screening of Gary Ross’s Pleasantville was preceded with a real treat: the opening clip from an episode of At the Movies featuring Siskel & Ebert’s review of the film. This is something that I wish Ebertfest did more often, even if this particular clip wasn’t one of the more enlightening or entertaining ones (there weren’t even any mean insults!). Of particular note, Ebert championed Pleasantville, calling it one of the best films of the year so far (it ranked #2 on his year-end list)—if its inclusion in Ebertfest wasn’t enough to get the audience excited, this was a nice lead-in.
I imagine Pleasantville is probably the most popular and beloved film in the line-up and I probably don’t have to tell you what it is about so I’ll give you the one sentence write-up: nostalgic nerd David (Tobey Maguire) and his preppy sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) get magically sucked up into the 1950s sitcom Pleasantville where they turn the picture-perfect community into upheaval when they introduce its citizenry to sex, literature, art, critical thinking, and societal progress. The film’s most notable stylistic element—the black-and-white world becoming splashed with Technicolor when these concepts are introduced—holds up exceptionally well and is uniquely striking.
But how does the rest of the film hold up, especially the political messages? More than not, but it isn’t perfect. What resonated most with me was the film’s scorching take down of nostalgia (both in our pop culture and in a generational sense), an idea that is perhaps more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1998. For me, Pleasantville is less about criticizing the conformity and racism/sexism of the 1950s and more about how we continue to canonize the era as the “good old days.”
The film’s best subplot involves the Sirkian sexual awakening of the sitcom family’s matriarch Betty Parker, played by the glorious Joan Allen. Her “what’s sex?” questioning is a bit over-the-top for comedic purposes, but she is the true heart of the film and is given the film’s most emotionally resonant moment as she reveals herself in hue. Her look and journey is a nice homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, a much more interesting touchstone for the film than the Leave It to Beaver parody.
The biggest issue is due to the film’s setting in a white-washed stereotypical sitcom, not allowing it to fully engage in the racial politics of the time. It does try and one could argue that it is inherently critical by using this setting; that not having any racial minorities in the film is in itself the criticism but that feels incomplete to me. When citizens of Pleasantville begin becoming colorized, the prejudiced members of society come out with a “no coloreds” policy in a bit of wordplay that is admittedly clever but also a little icky given the reclamation of this racially charged term that has actual meaning in our real society. That said, Pleasantville is definitely a fun and clever fantasy—how could a film with an extended cameo from Don Knotts not be?
Finally, my last screening of the festival was another film that looks a little bit different in our current political climate and pop culture society: Hal Ashby’s Being There. This was one to check off my cinematic shame list, though I never felt particularly compelled to see it—despite knowing how great and underrated Hal Ashby is as a filmmaker (and you can check out Battleship Pretension Ep. 527 for plenty more on that). For some reason I hadn’t considered Being There as part of Ebertfest’s overlooked mission but, after finally seeing it, I’m a little peeved more cinephiles don’t talk about it as one of the great films of its era and maybe even Ashby’s best film.
Being There is a completely bizarre mix of comedy and drama with a straight-faced monotone that only gets funnier and funnier as the low-key hijinks go on. The film stars Peter Sellers as Chance, a lonesome man who tends the garden at a Washington D.C. estate. When the old man he resides with dies, the lawyers are surprised to meet Chance, who has no identification or legal documentation or specific ties to the old man or the outside world. Because of this, he is forced to leave the estate and into the world, as we understand it for the very first time. After this strange set-up, Being There shows the improbable rise of Chance (who through miscommunication is thought to be named Chauncey Gardiner) in the world of D.C. politics.
Over the past few months, there have been a number of essays online comparing President Donald Trump to Chauncey Gardiner and there are certainly many similarities. The major difference is clear: the fiery temperament of President Trump is about 180 degrees from Chance’s subdued willingness to be liked by everyone he meets. In that way, they don’t rise to prominence in the same way but the fact that either man was able to come into so much political influence is a head-scratcher. While some might consider Trump to be “simple,” his bravado and lack of filter are seen as positive leadership traits to some; Chance, on the other hand, says little and often just repeats words back as confirmation.
Their strangest similarity is so weird and specific that it seems almost prophetic. Chance’s favorite activity is watching television, anything from late-night talk shows to Saturday morning cartoons. He borders on obsession, looking for televisions everywhere he goes and obviously prefers the company to other people. Furthermore, most of his knowledge and vocabulary comes directly from what he sees on television. He constantly parrots everything he hears. Sound like someone else you know?
It is impossible not to read Being There without this real-world context, though that shouldn’t take away from what is an excellently entertaining film. Sellers, of course, is phenomenal as Chance, a unique character that is both otherworldly and completely believable. He is able to sell every line of dialogue, every misunderstanding and miscommunication to keep the film from floating off into unbelievable fantasy. A comedy of errors like Being There has to manage some sort of realism to work—if character decisions or narrative circumstances go too far, the humor would lose its edge.
Overall, the 2017 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was a great success. The line-up was probably not as high profile as previous years, but I found it to be really balanced, and probably for the first year I’ve attended I would recommend every film to varying degrees. Finally seeing Being There was the capper, it might be the best film I’ve discovered at the festival and immediately one of my favorite theatergoing experiences. It’s that good. No matter how exhausting the festival can be and how much I miss my own bed while I’m away, it remains a highlight of my year. Next April I’ll be itching to return.
Here’s Kentucker Audley’s salute to Pleasantville: