Ebertfest 2017: Day Two, by Aaron Pinkston
When the Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was formed in 1999 it was specifically meant to shine a light on a number of films that the prolific film critic saw throughout his years that didn’t get the recognition he thought they deserved. The then-named “Overlooked Film Festival” used this thesis to span tiny indies like Henry Bromell’s Panic, internationally acclaimed but little seen at their release films like Songs from the Second Floor, and minor entries in big filmographies like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. Over the years, that specific aim has shifted a bit, but there is always room in the schedule for a few underappreciated and overlooked—the second day of the 19th Ebertfest is a great example of this as it starts with two perfect examples of the festival’s spirit.
First up was Tanya Wexler’s 2011 historical comedy Hysteria (if that name seems familiar to cinephiles, Tanya is indeed the nice of master cinematographer Haskell). This very much fits the overlooked quality as it seemed to come out and then completely disappear. This is at least the truth in my case, as I somehow missed it in a very productive year when I watched 583 movies (yeah, that’s a weird thing to brag about). The critical reception wasn’t completely disastrous with a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes—though this middling number, paired with a small theatrical release, might explain some of its anonymity.
And still, as Chaz Ebert mentioned in her introduction to Hysteria, Roger and she laughed throughout the bawdy comedy when they first screened the film. In his 3-star review (truthfully, this is a fairly low review score from Ebert for films that he’s listed to cover at the festival), Ebert noted: “One of the pleasures of Wexler’s third feature is how elegantly it sets its story in the period. The costumes, the sets, the locations and the behavior are all flawless, and the British characters in the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer are all masters of never quite saying what they mean.”
The film stars Hugh Dancy (who has since blown up for his role in Hannibal) as Dr. Mortimer Granville, a talented and dedicated doctor who is having trouble finding steady work due to his abrasive personality when it comes to strictly following the newest scientific guidelines on newfangled ideas like germs. He eventually lands a job as the assistant in the posh office of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who treats wealthy, bored women with the catch-all diagnosis of “hysteria” through a new method of stimulating a certain feminine body part. The side effects of this new partnership include relationships with Dr. Dalrymple’s two daughters: the lovely, picture-perfect Victorian era woman Emily (pre-Star Wars Felicity Jones) and firebrand, uncontrollable Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Hysteria might not have quite the level of wit as Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (which critics championed last year) but its mix of classic Victorian setting and style and very broad, modern comedy makes for a very entertaining watch. In any case, this is just the type of silly comedy that will work with a big crowd and the 1,500 at the Virginia Theatre ate up the saucy sexual innuendo and physical stimulation humor throughout.
The film’s humor actually pulls off a pretty nifty bait-and-switch. Hysteria is easily marketable as the history of the invention of the personal vibrator—this is how I remember the film being marketed at the time, certainly. While this is the comedic narrative of the film, it uses Dr. Mortimer’s strange circumstances to push into feminist and classist issues. This happens through Gyllenhaal’s character Charlotte, who rejects her father’s comfortable financial stability to help women and children in need, a trait her father sees as a symptom of possible hysteria.
Charlotte is fire and brimstone, energetic, unpredictable. She is also idealistic, compassionate, and completely giving. This might seem like the recipe for an ideal “manic pixie dream girl” to set Mortimer on a higher path, but her philosophies give her a full and personal voice. Gyllenhaal gives Hysteria’s best performance—she’s in more of a supporting role that I anticipated, but she manages to steal every scene she’s in. The film unfortunately doesn’t really hide that Mortimer and Charlotte will ultimately end up together, even if it turns to this very late in the film. Thankfully, Hysteria chooses to focus more on social rights issues (OK, and masturbation humor) instead of the typical rom-com beats.
The festival then moved on to its second overlooked selection, one that has found its place among the most dedicated cinephiles but is absolutely ready for the re-evaluation that Ebertfest provides. Charles Burnett is most known for Killer of Sheep, which has become a cornerstone of African American independent cinema (and a film I desperately need to see). Twelve years later Burnett released To Sleep with Anger, which provided me a great introduction into the filmmaker’s work.
The film covers a working class black family living in Los Angeles, primarily set in the house of Suzie (Mary Alice) and Gideon (Paul Butler) with their adult children coming in and out. Unexpectedly, they receive a visit from an old family friend, Harry (Danny Glover), whose sudden appearance spurs on drama and infighting on perhaps a mystical level. The central family bonds begin to suddenly and subtly disintegrate. A husband becomes abusive toward his wife, brothers have fight over their unbalanced history, different family members come under a supposed trance or debilitating illness. This might all sound overly dramatic, but To Sleep with Anger works because the characters are incredibly rich. Without providing much backstory or exposition to explain their history, we can feel it.
In a lot of ways, To Sleep with Anger feels like a cultural cousin to my favorite discovery of the 2016 Ebertfest, Eve’s Bayou. Both are small family centered dramas steeped with the context of the African American experience and just a touch of mythology. Eve’s Bayou’s New Orleans locale dipped more directly into the supernatural elements of voodoo while To Sleep with Anger really only hints that something more may be happening, wonderfully creating its element with understated context and a dreamlike narrative.
To Sleep with Anger smartly never seems to let on the depths of Harry’s character. Is he just a strange and dangerous influence on this family or a metaphysical force? When he shows up he says he’s just passing through, drifting from Detroit across the country to Oakland, and his hosts welcome him with open arms—they certainly have a happy past together, though the film never dives into any specific details. When we learn more about Harry it is only through moments that increase this mystery: a superstitious ritual after Gideon’s grandson inadvertently sweeps over Harry’s foot with a broom and a pregnant woman’s baby violently kicking when in his direct presence.
Danny Glover is suitably fantastic as Harry. He is menacing and charismatic without explicitly feeling unrealistic or merely a thriller construction. The actor’s gravelly voice and ubiquitous smile seem like a contradiction that furthers his unnatural nature. Glover won the Independent Spirit award for his performance and I can’t picture another actor living in this character quite as well. While I’m admittedly far from a Danny Glover completist, this is easily the touchstone performance in the actor’s long and varied career.
It might sound like a cliché to say “they don’t make movies like this anymore” but it is particularly true in this case. Black independent narratives that look at families in this way are nearly monopolized under the name of Tyler Perry, which is obviously a terrible comparison. To Sleep with Anger is a beautiful mix of the personal and the universal, style and substance, symbolism and tried-and-true drama. There have been rumors that the Criterion Collection will release To Sleep with Anger, as they’ve already done with Killer of Sheep. I hope that comes true so its reevaluation gets a much-needed bump.
The third and final screening on Thursday was Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a film that has been fully covered on this site, including a place on my personal top ten of 2016. Because of that, I don’t think I have to go into great detail on the film’s narrative or even more effusive praise. After having seen the film twice previously including during its theatrical run, my main interest in this visit was seeing how the Ebertfest crowd would react. Sure the typically older crowd could chuckle through the bawdy humor of Hysteria earlier in the day, but would they be turned off by the explicit and twisty delights of The Handmaiden?
Though I expect most among the large audience appreciated the tale of betrayal, it didn’t play up as well as I hoped. Upon reflection, I don’t think this is a fault; The Handmaiden is more of a subtle and introverted experience than one that eggs on any audience participation. So I’ll shift that anticipation to tomorrow’s primetime screening of Elle, which should be a very fun experience with a crowd that may not know what’s coming.
This didn’t make the screening a disappointment, however, as I was incredibly surprised by how much I noticed for the first time on my third viewing. My biggest take away this time was the performance of Kim Tae-ri as the titular Sook-Hee. Perhaps like the character, I always found myself mesmerized by the stunning Lady Hideko and neglected the fun and superbly humorous performance of her handmaiden. The character’s hidden personality constantly slips into the performance-within-performance leading to wonderful verbal clues and changing facial reactions depending on who is looking.
I’ve also come to appreciate how good The Handmaiden is at keeping its secrets. Most films with so many twists and turns and reliance on seeing the same thing multiple times with shifting perspectives don’t necessarily build on further viewings—once you know the true story, another look may let you catch the previously unseen clues, but that doesn’t mean a richer viewing experience. In rewatching the first section of The Handmaiden, Hideko still feels so innocent and her falling for Sook-Hee is so genuine. I actually noticed more small gestures between the characters but not in a way that made it seem more performative. I wasn’t tricked into forgetting these characters’ ultimate intentions, but I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the present moments.
Park Chan-wook has long been one of my favorite directors and while I may still have a deeper connection to Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I don’t think there is any arguing that The Handmaiden works on a whole different level. The filmmaker puts on a showcase of perspective with a complete control over everything on screen. Very few directors have that level of storytelling.