The 13th Annual Ebertfest, Part 1

Attending a film festival is a crucial experience for movie lovers given the state of the commercial film industry. Not only have the Hollywood studios given up on innovation, invention, and solid storytelling, but mainstream distributors and exhibitors fail to offer anything but the sequels, series, and remakes churned out by the studios. The Facets Blog encourages the festival experience by covering as many fests as it can. This week, guest writer Sharon Gissy offers a wonderful account of Ebertfest. Look for Part 2 of her thoughtful and thorough overview on Friday. 

The 13th Annual Ebertfest was held in the beautiful historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, where its namesake attended the University of Illinois and honed his writing chops. The festival used to be called Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival and was a chance for Roger Ebert, one of the most well-loved film critics in history, to showcase films he thought were underrated or unknown. Really, though, it has become a platform for Ebert to show movies he genuinely loves with a huge audience of enthusiastic fans who are there to enjoy and discover them. It is an ideal movie-going experience for the true cinephile. As Roger and Chaz Ebert said at one point, there are no prizes or judges masquerading during the festival, it’s all about the movies. And as special guest Tilda Swinton (dubbed Saint Tilda by Ebert) remarked, there are plenty of film fans who want to be critics, but there are only some critics who are true film fans, and everyone at Ebertfest is a film fan.

There is a tradition of showing at least one silent film during Ebertfest. The fest opened with the restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. I had seen this restoration last year when it played at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, which is much closer to the complete film as envisioned by Lang, but, on such a huge screen with the live music, it was a different experience. I was amazed at some of the sounds the three-man orchestra was able to summon from their array of electronic instruments and found objects, such as the sound of clanking machinery in the underground city where the workers labor. Metropolis still stands as a landmark of beautiful science fiction invention, with stunning special effects that were far ahead of their time. Watching it again, I was struck by just how relevant and timeless the story’s images remain, including the utopian gardens of the city that are mercilessly fueled by the working class below, the underground drones languidly marching in lines to their shifts, and the nonsensical tasks such as holding up the hands of a clock—a clever visualization of trading labor for time. The recovered footage, which adds up to about 30 minutes, adds richness and depth to the storyline.

Following this acknowledged classic, Ebert delved into his arsenal of more obscure pleasures with Natural Selection (2011), a film that won big at the South by Southwest Film Festival (where Ebert was a judge). In his feature film debut, Robbie Pickering impresses with this quirky comedy tells the story of Linda White, a deeply religious woman who has lived in a sheltered bubble for a good deal of her life, repressing her sexual desires because she feels God wouldn’t want her to enjoy sex since she’s infertile. Her carefully crafted existence shatters when husband Abe has a stroke at the sperm bank that he has been secretly visiting for years. While Abe sits in intensive care on the brink of life and death, Linda hears him muttering about a possible son; this begins her quest for the name of a son he may have fathered. Although the man she finds is obviously a hardened, selfish criminal, Linda sees him through the eyes of a mother figure, which is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. One thing that occurred to me again and again while watching the movie is how respectful, even adoring, Pickering was of his characters. In the Q&A after the film, Pickering stated that he felt it was very important to take an attitude toward the characters in the film that was not condescending, although it reads like it could be a parody of religious beliefs. In fact, Linda, played pitch-perfectly by Rachael Harris, comes across as a selfless angel in the film, and her fascinating evolution into a person who learns to care for her own needs is the true story arc.

Day two of Ebertfest started with two thematically linked films about lonely old misfits who find solace in their dogs. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), an Italian neorealist classic, follows the titular character, a poverty-stricken senior with a fighting spirit, as he maintains what little he has left—his faithful dog, an ant-infested apartment, and his dignity. The dog seems to be one of the most central relationships in Umberto’s life, and helps him come to a couple of key realizations in the film when the character is facing the grim prospects of begging and suicide.  Ebert complemented this with My Dog Tulip (2009), a film adapted from the memoir of the same name. The memoir was penned by an apparently curmudgeonly yet charmingly erudite man named J.R. Ackerley, who worked for the BBC. The film’s animation by husband and wife team Paul and Sandra Fierlinger fills the story with a sketchy vivacity and humanity lacking in most contemporary animation. The couple explained their method in the Q&A afterward: Paul starts out with pen-and-ink drawings and Sandra goes over it with her vibrant watercolors. (See image at the top of this post.) Together, they evoke Tulip the German shepherd’s rambunctious personality, changing London seasons, and several scenes of exaggerated humor. I imagine the film, carried heavily by the wordy and witty voice of Christopher Plummer, retained a lot of the original prose of the memoir. In one particularly moving sequence toward the beginning of the film, Ackerley described how he had always pictured meeting an ideal friend, someone who was not too shy or outgoing, someone he would recognize when he saw them on the bus or in some other chance encounter. By the end of the film it becomes clear that Tulip was this friend, a companion who gave Ackerley unwavering devotion and introduced him to a new relationship that transformed his life.

The closing film on Thursday night, Tiny Furniture (2010), was another gem discovered at South by Southwest. The film, directed on a shoestring budget by young, talented Lena Dunham perfectly captures the experience of post-college drifting for the Internet generation. Dunham plays a character named Aura who has returned home from college to live with her family and work a day job as a hostess. The story is about how she figures out who her real friends are and what her true interests may be. If this story sounds familiar, one of the film’s strengths is that it rings with universal truth about discovering identity. Dunham provides a unique, confident voice for our time. In particular, the film features a few characters who have garnered a moderate amount of fame making Youtube videos (including one who recites Nietzsche while riding a hobby horse). The film is a sly commentary on the way that our culture of instant fame followed by immediate disposal has added to a feeling of aimlessness in our culture, often amplifying it. Dunham has made a beautiful-looking film with a lot of open spaces underscoring her central theme of drifting that, according to the Q&A, was shot on a Canon EOS 7D camera, which retails on Amazon for less than $2,000.

More on Ebertfest by Sharon Gissy on Friday.

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2 thoughts on “The 13th Annual Ebertfest, Part 1

  1. Thanks for the overview, Sharon. The live-accompanied, expanded Metropolis sounds like an especially great experience. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Wonderful write-up. I didn't know anything about the festival before reading this. I'm impressed Ebert is still so active in the film community, I have a lot of respect for him.

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