Ebertfest- Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston
The 14th year of the Roger Ebert Film Festival will gladly be my first – well, sort of. Though I live only 100 miles from the site of the yearly fest (Champaign, Illinois), I have never made the trip. Worse yet, I attended the University of Illinois, whose campus covers Champaign and neighboring Urbana. Yes, I studied film at the University of Illinois, but for one reason or another never chose to attend the festival. Maybe the $135 for a festival pass was too much for a poor University student. Realistically, though, the festival was something that was just never fully on my radar.
The one opportunity I did see a film during the festival is an experience I will never forget. During my senior year of college, I bought an individual ticket for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita which was shown on absolutely glorious 70 mm film. This experience, along with the fact that the theater that houses the entire festival (The Virginia Theatre) is a genuine movie palace, it quickly became one of my absolutely favorite films.
For those who don’t know how the Roger Ebert Film Festival works, it takes place over five days at Ebert’s alma mater. Unlike most festivals, all the films are selected by one person meeting the only criteria of being loved by Roger Ebert. Each film is accompanied by Q&As with filmmakers, critics and friends of Ebert. Additionally, there are panel discussions, workshops and demonstrations. In previous years, the festival was known as the Overlooked Film Festival, where Roger chose films that he felt deserved more praise and attention. As the years went on, he decided to shed the “overlooked” label and simply select films he loved. A few of the films on this year’s docket could certainly fill that criteria, including the two opening night films.
The opening of this year’s festival was made by Roger and Chaz Ebert – unfortunately, Roger wasn’t in an energetic mood, so his appearance was brief, though it was promised he would take questions and talk to us about the festival at a later date. The overall atmosphere of the festival’s was felt right from the opening, as Chaz cracked jokes and a little fun poked fun at herself. She, like the festival, has no shred of pretension or stuffiness. Sitting in the full theater, I was actually reminded more of a horror film marathon than a festival – though the demographics are certainly more upper-class and middle-age, there was a definite fervor in the crowd.
Part of this may just be given the excitement of opening night festivities or may be in part to the opening night film, which has gained a certain cult status: Joe Versus the Volcano. For one reason or another, I have never seen Joe Versus the Volcano, and this has made it one of my more anticipated events of the fest. I was born six years before the release of John Patrick Shanley’s first film, which I think attributes in part to my virgin eyes – I was perhaps a little too young to have attached myself to its cult status, and too young to have seen it with my parents when it came out. My only real knowledge of the film previously was through a verse in Say Hi to Your Mom’s song “Unless the Laker Game Was On”:
“If you should ever have to walk in ther steps of joe,
To travel to the wamponi woos volcano,
Well i would take a sick day and i’d swim to meet you there,
We’d bathe in the orange soda,
I’d put hyacinthes in your hair,
Unless of course the Laker game was on.”
Ebertfest was as perfect a venue to first see Joe Versus the Volcano as any – mostly due to the fact that it is impossible to see today on film. During the post-screening Q&A, director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt, noted that the film shown at Ebertfest was a digital cinema master from the original negative, created specifically for the festival. It was projected using a 4k projector. I’m not a film tech nerd, so I don’t know exactly what that means, but it is apparently very expensive and very impressive.
As for the film, what else can I say other than it is brilliant? A deft mix of comedic and film stylings, it is one of the weirdest mainstream Hollywood films ever made. A brief synopsis for those who are unaware: Joe (Tom Hanks) finds out he has a strange brain ailment that will take his life in six months. After he quits his awful job (something that feels straight out of Metropolis or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) he is visited by a rich stranger who convinces him to live the highlife before sacrificing himself by jumping into a volcano to save the lives of an island.
Joe Versus the Volcano is clearly a “writer’s movie,” coming from one of the most talented and successful American playwrights, John Patrick Shanley – his other work includes Doubt (which he also directed for the screen, his only other directorial work and the complete opposite of Joe Versus the Volcano) and the screenplay for Moonstruck (for which he won an Oscar). Every single line of dialogue in the film is sharp and none of it is wasted. There were multiple times during the screening where you couldn’t hear the next line because people were laughing too loudly. The film’s writing is also able to show off by working in a number of different styles, from slapstick and absurdist comedy to science fiction and fantasy. The end results are brilliant, but completely undefinable. This is probably the biggest reason why it has been considered a flop.
I can completely understand why Joe Versus the Volcano has achieved cult status, but I’m surprised it hasn’t reached a higher level of cultural importance in terms of its success as a piece of art. It is not only brilliantly funny and unique, but also a wonderfully made film – it’s pace and tone are pitch-perfect, the locations, effects, and cinematography are outstanding. It also presents two of the best performances in the careers of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Hanks’ role obviously doesn’t have the gravitas of those which he has won awards, but I would put his performance as everyman Joe up with his performance in Big, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. As for Ryan, she blew me away. I would have never considered her a great actress and I feel her cultural legacy has been blurred into the same status as the likes of Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl — female “comediennes” who served as barely-capable stars of romantic comedies. Ryan is much better than that as three characters in the film, all unique and distinct characters, and she really showcases some legitimate comedic timing and chops.
A few notes on the post-screening Q&A with director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt, hosted by critics Christy Lemire (AP) and Pablo Villaca (Hollywood Elsewhere):
– Some of Goldblatt’s other credits include The Help, Angels in America, Lethal Weapon 1 & 2
– When asked about the difficulty of working on a film which so quickly and often changes looks and styles, Goldblatt responded saying it was difficult at all. “If you are a cinematographer, you should be able to work in all those styles.”
– One particularly cool quote was “When there’s smoke, there’s Goldblatt” — on how Goldblatt achieves his great effects on showing light throughout Joe Versus the Volcano and his other work.
– I am sad that Ebert wasn’t able to get Tom Hanks to come as a special guest, especially considering he used this as his opening night film. Sure, he’s a big, busy Hollywood celeb, but it’s a little-known fact that Hanks’ brother Larry is a professor of Entomology at the University of Illinois and so Tom is an adopted son of the community.
After the excellent experience of finally seeing Joe Versus the Volcano, the Ebertfest audience was treated to two other comedies: a short film entitled “The Truth About Beauty and Blogs” and feature documentary Phunny Business: A Black Comedy.
“The Truth About Beauty and Blogs,” written by and starring Kelechie Ezie and directed by Rosalyn Coleman, explores how social media has changed the way we have and deal with relationships. The short is shown through clips of an online video blog on beauty tips after its host experiences a bad break-up.
The documentary Phunny Business: A Black Comedy was probably selected by Roger because of its close ties to his hometown of Chicago. The film is essentially a biography of “the best comedy club you’ve never heard of” All Jokes Aside, which boomed on Chicago’s south side in the early 90’s. During that time, a who’s-who of black comedians earned their stripes at the club, and many of them appear in the film, talking about their experiences in comedy and working in Chicago.
The film’s main character, though, is Raymond Lambert, the co-owner of the club. A smart businessman and fan of stand-up, he decided to open an all-black club after seeing D.L. Hughley perform at the Improv in Los Angeles. Being a smart businessman, he was able to run a thriving venture, but racial politics ultimately got in the way, with the club’s south-loop neighborhood undergoing gentrification.
Featuring a number of the biggest black comedians as talking heads, including Steve Harvey, Bill Bellamy, Cedric the Entertainer and Carlos Mencia (OK, so they aren’t all black, or funny), it’s easy to expect Phunny Business to be incredibly funny. The film doesn’t rely on the comedians to be funny, though, as the voice-over narration is also incredibly humorous. Its incredibly fast pacing also helped reel me in and keep me interested, given the late start time for the film.
Though first-and-foremost a comedy doc, it also explored Chicago’s history political history of race and culture. Never heavy-handed, it appropriately explored the difficulties of black entrepreneurs trying to expand in culturally white neighborhoods and Chicago’s uniqueness as a city with a history of seedy politics.
A few notes on the Q&A, led by Chaz Ebert and featuring Ezie, Lambert, filmmaker John Davies, and Ali LeRoi, a talking head in the film better known as the showrunner for “Everybody Hates Chris.”
– A lot of great discussion on the racial politics of the time and today, especially an interesting perspective from LeRoi, who noted that the 90’s were more segregated for black comedians than the 70’s, when Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby were the most successful comedians working.
– Also good discussion on the geographic implications that affected the business and ultimately led to All Jokes Aside’s closing. Though thought of as being in an unsavory neighborhood, it was only a few blocks from the Magnificent Mile and multiple colleges and universities. Its location also worked positively, as it was positioned in an area that could attract both Chicago’s south and west black populations.
– Ezie talked about the role of social media in creating the identity for black women. With the ongoing discussion of the HBO series Girls being “too white” for the New York it is set within, she sees sites like youtube and facebook as positive places for black comedians and artists to create content and their own voices.
On tomorrow’s agenda: the films Big Fan, Kinyarwanda, and Terri; academic panels on “The Personal and Political in Film” and “Far Flung Correspondents: What’s New Around the World?”
To find out more information on the Roger Ebert Film Festival, visit http://www.ebertfest.com.