Friday, May 05, 2006

A Carmen in All Her Glory

One of the problems plaguing most modern stagings of Bizet's opera Carmen is no one knows what to do with Carmen herself. In a world that clings to the notion that women are girls, that girls are bad or good, that good girls aren't especially sexy, that bad girls aren't especially sympathetic, and that sex objects can never be subjects, it's hard to strike the right note with Carmen. She is complicated and sensual and capricious and independent and mysterious even to herself. She does not suffer fools gladly but she suffers wildly and almost randomly for love. She moves and sings not only as if she knows how to have sex but as if she likes it. Not a role for an actress who cannot tolerate being disliked; not a role for any woman unwilling to swallow up all the oxygen in the room; and not, certainly, a role for a woman who's swallowed the Western criteria for what comprises an attractive woman.

Enter U-Carmen e-Khayaletsha), a film adapation of the opera set in an South African township and sung in the language Xhosa, complete with its clicks. From the first, classic ensemble number at the cigarette factory, in which the women workers dance and the men ogle them mournfully, the film's concept clicks into place. South Africa, a place where the term "freedom" has not yet devolved into a cliche bandied about by gangsters in navy suits, provides the ideal backdrop for this pursuit of integrity and passion. And with her massive grace and her wide, plum-colored voice, Pauline Malefane proves an ideal Carmen.

Is one even allowed to criticize an opera plot without seeming philistine? For the push-and-pull between Carmen and her lover has always seemed to me passive-aggressive rather than passionate, and even this production can't transcend Bizet's last act. But it's those first minutes that linger: that first impatient shake of Malefane's braids, and that long stare she fixes on enemies and lovers alike to subjugate them to her snaky will.

Malfene and her director, Mark Dornford-May, were present at the q and a afterward. In person she is formidable as the character she portrays. It takes a bit to register how young she is because she so unapologetically and naturally takes up space. Not that she is forbidding — she giggled and stuck out her tongue when the audience greeted her with deafening applause — but she does not cowtow to the limitations that hobble most women (and with which most women hobble themselves). She told the audience how Dornford-May had not wanted to cast her in his production until she campaigned heavily for a second audition. How she then pushed for the role of Carmen and how, when he treated her roughly, she called him on it. For that matter, any thing he tried to gloss over in the q and a itself, she called him on again. But with such a big smile and such a calm authority that he, and everyone else, looked merely relieved to be corrected.

Ebertfest 2006 was undeniably a triumph. It produced even more more heated dining debates than last year, more great revelations about the business and film of art, and more films that reflected the full gamut of human emotion and experience. My only true quibble was that it lacked that enough onstage and onscreen female presences — which only made the two great female vocal performances bookending the festival all the more poignant. For near the end of the q and a, Malfene sang a traditional African song with very little prompting and absolutely no warmup, and she filled the Virginia Theater so completely that it seemed it would never be empty again. It was a sound that followed me all the long way home.

Time Gets It Right

In its recent issue, the national magazine gives us its own golden thumb. A snippet:

"Unlike most film festivals, the Overlooked Film Festival is not about the buzz of the hot new thing, but about celebrating past achievements that missed the buzz. Because of this, the atmosphere at the festival is more celebratory than critical. "You see more good movies in four days here than you usually do in six months or even a year of going to the theater," said one festival goer, waiting in line for concessions at the restored Virginia Theater, a classic movie palace in downtown Champaign. 'That's why I keep coming back.'

And fans came back in record numbers this year. Festival passes — which are limited to 1,000 — sold out more than three months before opening night, and long lines of fans waited through winds, rain and cold in hopes of grabbing one of the few remaining seats.

Filmmakers are finding the festival an increasingly attractive place to get rediscovered. 'I've been approached by so many directors who have said they've never seen their film projected on such a big screen and in front of such a large audience, and appreciative audience,' Ebert said."

Overheard But Not Overlooked #3

From Ebert himself:

When people from LA like a film, they say it is awesome.
When people from NY like a film, they say it is fabulous.
When people from the Midwest like a film, they say it is good.

Badisimo Santa

The only thing stupider than reading a comic strip aloud is trying to explain why a comedy is funny. So just take my word: Bad Santa, directed by Terry Zwigoff (Art School Confidential, Ghost World), is funny. It's dirty, it's mainstream, it's anticommercial, and it's funny. And Better Santa, the version recut by editor Robert Hoffman that Zwigoff screened here at Ebertfestivale, is even funnier than what made its way into the theaters, Scissorhands Weinstein brothers style. It's coming out on DVD soon, so my recommendation is to just rent it — when your children are asleep.

In the interim, a few notes from the q and a with Hoffman and Zwigoff, who grouse at each other like an old married couple:

Zwigoff, who really is a friend of Crumb, the subject of his eponymously titled doc, looks like he'd be a friend of Crumb. An unruly shock of sideswept hair and dark-rimmed eyes, a tendency to talk out of the side of his mouth, a self-proclaimed ignorance of music made after the 1920s: just what you'd expect from a man who eats hypocrites for breakfast in all his films, including this one if you can stop blowing your diet coke through your nose long enough to notice.

There are now five versions of this film: the original theatrical release, the DVD release Badder Santa, the special version cut for TV (TV version?, gasped half the audience), and the version for Comedy Central, who merely cut down the theatrical release and bleeped out its cusses. Hoffman suggested that the TV version was indavertently the dirtiest: "Fudgestick" is hardly a cleaner alternative to "fuckstick," for example. It certainly is grosser.

Interestingly, Zwigoff and Hoffman bear the brothers Weinstein no ill will, claiming that they often demonstrated good instincts and were clearly very invested in the project. Diplomatic? Surely. But let's not forget that there's a reason the W.Bros managed to pull of as much they did..

Because the brilliant Tony Cox stars as a truly nefarious elf, Zwigoff discovered the hard way that no one can agree on the appropriate term for persons of very short stature. Midgets? Deemed offensive by those belonging to said category. Dwarves Offensive to some. The term "little people," deemed acceptable according to some websites, offended El Zwigoff himself.

"Everyone was experiencing personal problems." acknowledged Hoffman and Dr. Zwigoff. "Billy Bob [Thornton, as said Bad Santa] was breaking up with Angelina Jolie, and it was a nasty shoot overall. A lot of scenes we knew we could get arrested for at any moment so we'd just get as much coverage as we needed and then get out of there."

In interviews, the former Mr. Jolie (aw, I just refer to him that way because I'm sad he's not my boyfriend) has said that he was drunk for every take as an acting choice. Love the story, but Zwigoffian debunked it promptly — if not entirely. "I don't think he was drunk for every take," he said. "There were some scenes when he was really acting, I'm pretty sure."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sweet Relief: Junebug

At one point during the festival, Ebert said he didn't like film lists. ("Now that the AFI released its list we we know which are America's 100 Greatest Comedies," he said uncharacteristically sarcastically.) I'm with him — lists are critics' way of whistling in the dark — but if I did make a 2005 top ten, Junebug would surely take its rightful place.

Alternatively dry and giddy; intimate but not cloying, and teeming with spot-on performances, it describes the wide gap between some people's family of origin and family of choice — especially in a country that, ever-increasingly, is really two. George (toothsome Alessandro Nivola) meets cosmopolitan art dealer Madeline (Embeth Davidtz) and by the next scene they are married and hurdling down South to woo an uber-eccentric outsider artist. And, almost as an afterthought, introducing her to his family who lives nearby.

They are as provincial as she is sophisticated — his younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) works in a factory and is grudgingly married to his high school sweetheart (Amy Adams), who's pregnant and mighty peppy; his mother (Celia Watson) gloomingly disapproves of Madeline's airs, especially since she can't cook or sew; his father (Scott Wilson) seems primarily consumed with his craft hobbies and his ongoing search for his screwdriver. And they are unabashedly, sincerely Christian in a way that very rarely is neutrally captured on modern celluloid, especially in a film targeting an "indie audience."

Director Phil Morrison hails from North Carolina and before Junebug mostly made his name directing music videos hipper than trucker hats in 2004. But despite that credential, the movie doesn't evidence the quick-tic edits that doom video-directors' features, except in a hilarious, jangly factory scene that introduces Johnny's coworkers by zooming into their nametags. Instead, it luxuriates in a lovely stillness, an Altman-like wandering eye that lingers on birchtrees outside of windows and neighbors standing in yards, and the sweet underbelly of each of its characters.

What's best about Junebug is also what soured some critical response (as Morrison himself acknowledged in the q and a's): George is by far its least articulated character though the entire film rotates around his sunny self. I resisted that choice initially as well, but it's actually honest and even brave. An acknowledgment that when a person's two families come together, the least relevant and powerful person ends up being the person himself. True, George may be too mysterious — we don't even know what he does for a living — but scenes of him skulking in his parents' basement while his wife gamely navigates her new, slightly wolfish mother-in-law ring painfully true. As does my favorite scene: a Christian fellowship dinner in which George sings a capella in a sweet, clear tenor while Madeline regards him with utter amazement. Who is this person that she has married?

And that's the point, isn't it? As George bids his mother goodbye, she says, "You're perfect. There's nothing wrong with you," and genuine pain flashes across his features. It is rough to soldier an entire family's dreams, self-abdicating and somehow self-erasing, and you glimpse then the tremendous relief afforded by a woman who may be too self-involved to truly get to know him, let alone pin her hopes on his varsity sweater. He is torn, yes, and his two outbursts near the end of the film — one in which he condemns Madeline for not supporting her new sister-in-law ("family matters," he says) and then a profane exclamation of relief when they finally leave — can only be reconciled by recognizing just how torn he is. Truly, truly, this film may be the best film about American family that has been made in the last decade.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Claire Dolan Is a Hard Sell

Claire Dolan is a moving picture that aspires to be a still life. The story of Claire, an Irish immigrant working as a mid-priced call girl, it is chilly, it is lovely to look at, and it smacks of the nihilism that sinks the worst of modern French cinema, though it was filmed in the US.

It also suffers from a bad case of the filmschool blues: shot mostly through windows and doors, its script buckles under the weight of That Which Is Not Said, not to mention the dogged insistence that Everyone Is Complicated. (Even Claire's potential savior boyfriend turns out to be a bit of a stalker.) We know Claire's mother dies but not why she feels compelled to lie about it; we know Claire owes money but not for what; we know that her pimp and loanshark is someone she's known since Ireland but not how; we know that she has many different IDs but not why that's necessary; and slowly, slowly we learn that we will never learn why. These are not people who don't understand themselves so much as marionettes led by a puppeteer who doesn't subscribe to the very notion of emotional legibility. There are wonderful moments buried in Claire Dolan — Claire's ragged, raw hunger scaring off a woman at a newstand, her cool verbal disemboweling of two potential rapists — but they are lodged few and far between the misfires that comprise most scenes.

In the q and a, Ebert pronounced director Lodge Kerrigan as a personal "hero" who makes only the films he wants to make the way he wants to make them. Kerrigan himself proved long-faced and kindly — a stark contrast to his films that only underscored how philosophically rather than personally he he perceives creation. "Most people overemphasize individualism," he said. "I think of human beings more in terms of their species." Interesting, especially given the isolating, claustrophobic urban depictions found in all his films. Does that amount to a negative perception of the species overall?

He also talked at length about how women tend to be viewed as either mothers or prostitutes but rarely both. Perhaps his own isolation from the human species is a bit too complete if he considered this a revelation: the sound of women in the audience rolling their eyes grew practically audible, and one posed a far more original question: "So are most men either pimps or johns?" Frankly, I would never expect every film about a prostitute to offer a feminist interpretation of her life, but once Kerrigan opened that door conversationally I wish he'd had more compelling things to say.

Ideally, a film meets its audience halfway. Even an era in which most mainstream indie and Hollywood fare panders to audiences by overstating themselves doesn't excuse a film that, through its symbolism and plotting, scorns the very concept of audiences or collectives of any sort. Here's another theory about this particular species: It is human nature to want to ascribe meaning to the stories we are told, and when we experience frustration at how much work that takes, sometimes, as in the case of this film, that frustration is warranted.

Real-Life Ripley

John Malkovich has described Tom Ripley, the cultured sociopath he portrays in Ripley's Game, as a "person who will beat you to death if you touch his things." But what's seductive about reptilian Ripley, particularly in this filmic version of him (there have been five adaptations of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels), is the things he chooses. His Italian villa, the murals that adorn its walls, the truffles that dot his risotto, the dark eyes and long pale limbs of his beautiful wife: They're all so seductive, especially as captured in director Liliana Cavana's European-based film, that you can almost understand his perspective. And it is that collapse into Ripley's way of seeing things that engenders the film's glamorous, terrible appeal. Its surface is so of a piece, so well-appointed and elegant (even the sex), that the ripple of violence, when it appears, offers a visceral contrast that is undeniably pleasurable.

The plot is a neat trick: Long retired from his active career in crime, Ripley avenges Terry, a neighboring framemaker who has maligned his taste, by setting him up with an old associate seeking a hit man. Because Terry is dying of cancer, he bites, killing a Russian gangster at an insect exhibit in exchange for a cool 50k and a (gloomy) second medical opinion. Ripley might have merely teased his prey forever (a scene where he unrolls antique prints of insects in front of him proves almost inexcusably delicious) except that his associate grows greedy and enlists the framemaker in a second, more complicated hit — one so beyond his means that Ripley feels impelled to intervene. Why he feels impelled, and where that sense of accountability begins and ends, not only surprises us but Ripley himself, who is facing his true self with the same cocktail of resignation and acceptance that all persons who experience a degree of success encounter in their middle age.

The film's not perfect — it disrupts its seamlessness with a few too many Ripley one-liners — but it's damn near for what it strives to be, and it is amazing that it never was distributed stateside. Had it been, it would be recognized as the part, as Ebert said a few times during the festival, that Malkovich was born to play.

And even if Ebert himself did not intend that as an ambiguous compliment, I think it really is. Like the characters he often portrays, John Malkovich doesn't suffer fools gladly. He speaks in such soft, well-cultivated tones that it takes a beat to register the chill of Tom Ripley, especially when he navigates a question he finds silly or a person whom he finds dismissible (as he did at a tapas bar before the q and a's). His producing partner and Illini college chum, the accomplished Russ Smith, plays his rowdy contrapunto, especially in their discussion about the making of the film.

"Liliana took out a scene where Ripley beats a man unconscious for three minutes," Russ said. Apparently, in the filming of the scene, Malkovich busted open the skull of a stuntmen with a rubber hammer. Or, "For every scene, I wrote three versions," Malkovich said at another time. "One for Liliana [the director], one for me, and one that I thought she would accept." Note that Liliana rather than Malkovich received a screenwriting credit, although Malkovich took credit for all the smarty-pant one-liners. If initially I wondered why she was not present at the screening, I wasn't wondering by the end of the discussion.

About Ripley himself, Malkovich was at his most thoughtful: "Highsmith was not just a very good stylist but she understoood something profound about how an audience perceives sociopaths. They like them. They do things everyone wants to do." Perhaps that explains Malkovich's great appeal as well.

My Bare Lady

Apparently, the impact of the festival's opening night musical, My Fair Lady, reaches its long-gloved arm right into 2006. From the New York Post's Page Six today:

PORN stars are going to have a crack at the classics. According to a source, a new reality show in the works for Fox called "My Bare Lady" "will take female performers from American adult films and cast them in a classic stage drama to be performed in London's West End" - clothes on, of course. The show is being called "a wonderful tale of redemption." Isn't that sweet?

Talk about classy!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In Which The Blogger Cops To Her Wrongheadedness (The Eagle)

Every generation makes the mistake of believing it has invented humor.

I was reminded of this on Day 3's screening of the silent film The Eagle, the story of a masked Russian avenger (Rudolph Valentino) in love with the daughter of his worst enemy. Because, well, here's the thing: It's really, really funny, and, in my Generation XY ignorance, I was surprised by that fact.

For despite the elegance of the Auster passage with which Ebert introduced the film, and despite that it was accompanied by Cambridge, Mass' able Alloy orchestra, I remained unconvinced as the lights dimmed in the Virginia theater. People watched silents merely out of a quirky perverse resistance to anything modern, I thought, or out of an attraction to its grainy aesthetic. Not for any of the reasons that a normal person would go to the movies.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only is Valentino as hot (hotter) than any modern movie star, he's at least as charismatic, and enjoys a palpable chemistry with costar Vilma Bánky rather than the demographically tested fission that stands in for onscreen chemistry today. The film is almost dirty at times. The subtitles provide greatly droll contrapunto to the live action, and the actors' larger-than-life eye rolls, double takes and raised brows speak a million ships. As it were. The lack of spoken language inspires a much more physical level of acting — an art that has been eroded with each passing generation although great physical comedians (Jack Lemmon in the '50s; Steve Martin in the '80s; Jim Carrey today) continue to be highly lauded.

I get it now: Silents are ballets with pratfalls. Irresistible, in other words, although left to my own devices I still would never watch them on a small screen. That is, not unless the Alloy was willing to play in my living room.

A Mamet Joke (Oxymoronic Concept #1)

Ebert told a funny joke before the Spartan screening. If you don't like the f-word, read no further.

But the joke — and some of the original phrasing may be lost in translation — goes like this:

A guy asks his friend for money.
The friend's response: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be — Shakespeare."
The guy: "Fuck you — Mamet."

Monday, May 01, 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Hey all. Just wanted to urge you to stay tuned in for more posting today. I'm far from done recording impressions, but have been in a wireless black hole for the last 24 hours due to, well, traveling in that infernal Illini weather. Stay tuned!

Update: It took me more than 24 hours to return from the Midwest to La Brookland, New York, but for posterity's sake, I still intend to document Ebertrest before I close this blog down. I hope some of y'all are still reading....

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Paul Auster on the Death of the Silents

Before yesterday's screening of the silent film The Eagle, Roger read a really great passage from Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions:

I liked [movies] in the way that everyone else did — as diversions, as animated wallpaper, as fluff. No matter how beautiful or hypnotic the images sometimes were, they never satisfied me as powerfully as words did. Too much was given, I felt, not enough was left to the viewer's imagination, and the paradox was that the closer movies came to simulating reality, the worse they failed at representing the world — which is in us as much as it is around us. That was why I had always instinctively preferred black-and-white pictures to color pictures, silent films to talkies. Cinema was a visual language, a way of telling stories by projecting images onto a two-dimensional screen. The addition of sound and color had created the illusion of a third dimension, but at the same time it had robbed the images of their purity. They no longer had to do all the work, and instead of turning film into the perfect medium, the best of all possible worlds, sound and color had weakened the language they were supposed to enhance.

An Ebertfest Anti-Feline Agenda? Conspiracy Theory #1

Fact: In Man Push Cart, the protagonist's tiny kitten dies from malnourishment and is discarded in a really grim, bare-bones fashion.

Fact: In Claire Dolan, a prostitute's pimp drops her cat out of an apartment building'with nary a word.

A suspiciously tough year for cat lovers. I'm just saying.

Overheard, But Not Overlooked #2

"Making a movie is like playing a game of telephone." — James Katz, My Fair Lady restorer (among many other things)

Hadjii Is a Rock Star (Somebodies)

The first time I saw Somebodies I was less sure about it than I am now. Co-producer Nate Kohn (and Ebertfest director) sent me a cut last fall, and I did what I always do with screeners: I watched it on the treadmill. Granted, the film messed up my workout — I fell off a few times because I was laughing so hard — but I thought it worked more as a loose series of skits than as a cohesive narrative.

I've seen it a few times since, and I think I missed the boat that first time. (Teach me to watch DVDs while sweating.) It's a story about Scottie, a black student wobbling between temptation and the straight-and-narrow, who's struggling to carve out a middle road in his Southern community that's all about either/or's, religion v. sin being the most obvious dichotomy. If he seems laid-back it's because while sorting out what works out for him, he hears out everyone around him — from an over-earnest Christian fellowship student to his lecherous uncle to his Jesus-loving nympho girlfriend, who turns out to be the sanest one of all of them (played by the up-and-comer Kaira Whitehead). And the film's dynamics takes its cues from its character's journey. Deceptively, nay, deliberately laid-back is a more apt description.

And it really is wickedly funny, a welcome contrast to the movies to slit your wrist by that comprised the bulk of Sundance 2006 fare, where Somebodies was an official dramatics category selection. Take the intervention that Scottie's friends stage for him after he catches a DUI and gets roped into some dodgy community service. While they're waiting for their man to come home, they get antsy and then loaded. By the time Scottie enters the room, the boys are too wrecked to do anything but grab some food.

Hadjii, the film's writer, star and director, is kind of a rock star. He radiates the easy, bemused charisma of the hot guy in school who knows the easiest way to draw others in is to make them do the work. It's a dynamic that he mines in his film: Scottie plays straight man to the host of eccentrics peopling his life — tres Seinfeld, whom the director-hyphenate makes no bones about citing as an inspiration. But these days, comic films tend to get pigeon-holed as merely comic, as if being funny doesn't require a keen, deeply cognizant intelligence in the first place, just like black films tend to get pigeonholed.

Is this a black film? Of course it is: It stars black folk and is directed and written by a black man. If that isn't a black movie, whatever the hell that means, I don't know what is. But does that mean that it automatically should be marketed like the next Friday? Of course not. The fact that yesterday's mostly over-40, overwhelmingly white audience ate the film (and Hadjii) up with a spoon testifies to its universal appeal. And yet, even 20 years after Spike first broke out, any film deemed black still tends to be relegated to a cinematic ghetto of one kind or another. Nate and his co-producer (and wife) Pam Kohn are on a mission to achieve a distribution and marketing campaign that circumvents the normal pigeonholing.

They may very well succeed. If anyone can do it, it's Hadjii, who always says in interviews (as he did in the q and a's yesterday) that real life is all about greys. I have a feeling he's somebody I'll be able to say I knew back when.

Overheard, But Not Overlooked #1

"My husband and I lost some friends over Bad Santa. We recommended that they see it and then they were so offended by it that it ruined our relationship. So, the movie has become our litmus test for potential friends." — a local festival attendee (name withheld in case ex-friends are reading!)

Where the Students Lurk (Part Deux)

Junior Allison Helm writes in to answer my question at greater length, and makes some very interesting points:

I've been discussing the lack of students attending Ebertfest with some of my friends and here's some of the conclusions we've come to. People just don't know about it. The fest is hardly publicized on campus. As a student in the College of Communications, you'd think I would've gotten an email about this wonderful weekend happening a stone's throw away from campus. Nope. There's maybe one poster up in Gregory Hall, the building that houses the College of Communications, and a stack of programs if you enter the college office, which students only do if they have administrative business to take care of. I've done my part to talk about Ebertfest as much as possible, but the student body really isn't encouraged to attend.

Another reason why there's not that many students attending the festival is the price ($9 a pop). That could almost be looked at as the price of 3 (admittedly cheap) meals, but meals nonetheless. You may not believe me on this one since you're from the city, but you can actually find a pretty decent meal for 3 bucks in campustown. I have but 2 words of advice for Ebertfest in that respect: student discount. Make them $6 instead of $9, publicize that students get a discount and you'll be playing a whole different ball game.

Most local businesses recognize that students don't have a lot of cash to spend and offer at least some discount with a valid i.d. I've gone to the local art theater (Boardman's, not far from the Virginia) where the student discount is not more than 2 dollars less than regular price, if even that, and seen kids beg for the discount when they realize they've forgotten their i.d. Saving a couple bucks is a major concern for many students. In addition to helping students save money, giving a student discount would also recognize students as a valuable audience and show them some appreciation for their patronage.

I sort of wonder whether or not they really want heavy student involvement. I got my job volunteering because I saw a note about volunteers on the Ebertfest website last year, not because there was a bulletin for Comm students or anything. I almost feel that festival organizers and patrons don't really respect students or think they have the capacity to appreciate these films. While its true not everyone appreciates all the films (save for Ebert), students do enjoy art films and documentaries. We aren't just sitting around, twiddling our thumbs waiting for the next Ben Stiller comedy or Julia Roberts romance. I highly recommend you take a stroll to That's Rentertainment, less than 2 blocks from the Union. It's a really neat independent video store that's living proof there's a vibrant independent and foreign film consuming scene here.

That about ends my rant on why there aren't any students attending the festival. Sorry if that was more information than necessary, but I feel it's a problem that's rarely addressed amongst all the hubbub when Ebert comes to town.

Thanks, Allison. Anyone else want to respond in the comments section?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Where O Where Are the Students Lurking?

I was on a panel this morning, ostensibly about (I think) how to get less-recognized film out to a greater audience. As I looked at the audience, I realized very few students were in attendance, even though the event was being held at a big university. And, thinking on it, a small percentage of the audience at all the events have been students.

So what gives, y'all? When I was a student, I wiled away all the hours I should have been in class at the movies, so I am not sure what's at play here.

I asked Allison Heim, a junior who braved the entire panel (we were all quite long-winded and ornery; everyone had an abundance of opinions on these topics and there were a lot of us). She suggested that the tickets sell out months in advance and are prohibitively expensive for a lot of students' budgets. And, she added, the event really isn't publicized that too well to the actual students.

Um, if there are any students reading this, please enlighten the rest of us. Let us into your dirty secrets (cinematically speaking). Speak!

Dolorous Duane (Duane Hopwood)

Duane Hopwood is a real sleeper in an era that doesn't allow for them. It's not perfect by any means — it relies on sad-sack indie ballads and montage a little too heavily and trots out an ending that feels a bit pat (even though director Matt Mulhern defended it as "well earned" in the post-discussion). But it also trots out some terrific performances from actors like David Schwimmer and Janeane Garofalo who've never really channeled their talents as selflessly and fully before. And it is a movie about alcoholism that is neither prurient (see: Leaving Las Vegas) nor chock-full of easy answers (see: any Lifetime movie ever made.)

Schwimmer plays the title character, an Atlantic City casino pit boss whose alcoholism is bringing him to a crisis point as the film begins. This dissolution is actually told through a really effective, clever use of montage: in quick succession, younger Duane (clad in a bowling shirt and mullet, ye gods) frolics with his family, loves up his wife, dashes off to his night job, gets loaded. The montage ends with his abandoned SUV abandoned on a sidewalk, its door dangling open, and Duane passed out in his clothes while his youngest daughter regards him with a benign, resigned tolerance. A terrible sight in a three-year-old.

In the first real scene, the camera tracks a SUV wobbling down a road in the middle of the night. He's pulled over by a cop who's also a buddy and thus inclined to give him a break (as he no doubt has many times before). Until he espies Duane's little girl sleeping in the back seat. Dang. Duane has already lost his wife, Linda (Garofalo, so bleached-out and whittled-down that she is scarcely recognizable), but he just can't seem to understand that it is the disease that is driving all these events that just seem like ugly coincidences to him: his wife's new boyfriend (the cute boy from the American Office!), him losing his job. Now he is in danger of losing any visitation rights with his children. And for all his faults, Duane is an attentive, deeply loving daddy.

That's what really works about the film. The premise is a bit Lifetime TV lite, but there's not a two-dimensional character in the film, nor a two-dimensional performance. Everyone is eminently humane, from Linda to Duane's clownish new roommate to his lawyer to Duane himself. Schwimmer actually really, really deserved recognition for this performance. All that self-pity that has clouded his acting before evaporated when he stepped into a character who could actually be drowning in it. If the ending kind of rushes his conversion to self-awareness — here is where montage doesn't serve the film too well — it does convey, like Man Push Cart, that even when life doesn't work out, you yourself can still work out. Or at least do your best.

After the screening, director Mulhern told his horror story of his distribution experience. He did his best to smother any bitterness, and he almost managed. But can you blame him for a little ire, really? His movie falls in an interesting category — bankable star, tiny budget — which, ideally, can render a movie very appealing for certain distributions. Unfortunately, dude was truly shafted. The film was released in the smaller cities first, with Mulhern and a willing-and-ready Schwimmer on the road to talk it up, under the premise that its good reviews would generate it a buzz that would aid its LA/NYC release. Instead, the release fell apart entirely, because Schwimmer got hooked into his next project. And the movie, which, for all of its faults, really is better than most of what I've seen at the IFC Center in the last five months, sank without a trace. Suffering suckotash.

From the Trenches

Chris Lukeman, self-described as "president of the Illini Film and Video student org. and director of of The University of Illinois -vs- A Mummy," wrote in to say:

yesterday before Duane Hopwood, Ebert came down to chat with us for a second (he's always been a supporter of the club) and we slipped him a copy of our feature two-years-in-production film "The University of Illinois -vs- A Mummy." He mentioned it in his introduction to Hopwood and we posted his reaction to it online, it's slightly humorous if you're into that kind of thing... Here's the link.

And/or i'd be happy to field any confusion at


A Definition of "Overlooked" (and, Apparently, a Dig at Mamet)

Okay. Technically, as I've mentioned a few places elsewhere, this festival is entitled "Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival." Which means, as a few filmmakers commented at the president's opening gala, that inclusion in the lineup is a queasy honor. It also is a bit confusing, given that films like My Fair Lady were, are ridonkulously huge. So what gives?

Roger's official explanation is that "overlooked" has many interlocking definitions, depending on the given film. Somebodies, for example, might be called "prelooked." (Not to confused with precooked. For serious!) There are real-life "overlooked" films, like the excellent Ripley's Game, which was plain robbed in terms of distribution. Then there are movies that I truly believe were not overlooked, but, rather, looked at by a handful of people who opted to save everyone else's time by limiting their release. Enter Spartan, Mamet's 2004 crap-action film that buckled under his poorly conceived internationalist plot and, oh, his stilted (not stylized) dialogue.

And for the record, it is not because I am a feminist that I don't like the unremittingly male Mamet, as some have suggested. J'love such guilty pleasures as bloody, sweaty action pics, but Mamet is no pleasure. He thought of one good party-trick 20-odd years ago and somehow people keep giving him money to trot it out. Perhaps if they let the dude out of Maine he might learn how people really talk.

Right. Anyway, the easiest way to define "overlooked" for the purpose of this festival is "what Roger digs."

The Men Who Pushed The Cart

Day 2 of Ebertfest started with a movie I already knew I dug: Man Push Cart, by first-time director (and writer and producer and editor) Ramin Bahrani and starring first-time actor Ahmad Razvi. It's a movie that I hope won't remain overlooked forever, but I'm glad that Ebert selected it now so that he could sit down with the filmmakers and pull out of them the story of how truly indie (not mainstream indie) filmmakers manage to get the job done. The answer is, to quote Spike Lee, by any means necessary.

But the movie itself deserves a discussion. Often, I think, when a great movie is made under really extenuating circumstances, the means tends to obliterate the ends. That's particularly a shame because this one really sheds insight into the immigrant experience and hence an aspect of the human condition overall with an eye as lovely as its sensitivity.

Essentially, Man Push Cart is about one of the many living ghosts who populate major US cities, in this case Nueva York. There are some people who are ghosts because they are so completely defined by their past that they scarcely interact with the many people in their immediate surroundings; there are people who are ghosts because they are rendered invisible by those around them, such as the many immigrants who keep NYC running without much recognition. And then there is Ahmad (played by Ahmad), who is a ghost twice over.

A rockstar in his native Pakistan, he works as one of the many pushcart vendors that keep caffeine and sugar buzzing through New Yorkers' bloodstreams. A hard job for anyone, especially post-9/11, but Ahmad already carries a sisyphian burden in addition to the pushcart he soliders every day: His wife died a year before and his young son is now living with his in-laws. Ahmad is nothing if not terrifically, terrifically sad.

The film is about the obstacles he encounters as he attempts to pull himself into the present, and its greatest achievement is the degree to which its audience is trusted. It is shadowy rather than Hollywood-overlit. It is often wordless but not at all soundless. Horns honking and even clicking traffic lights loom large, the way that they always do during periods of intense loneliness. And Man Push Cart really doesn't toss up a ton of hope even at the film's end. Bad things happen, it suggests. And they always will. What we can control — all we can control — is how we respond to them.

Here's what's funny: Bahrani is as outgoing and (pleasantly) didactic and earnest as his film is subtle and restrained. In the post-film discussion, he revealed himself as a poetry fan, a film geek of the high degree, and as someone bristling with a genuine passion to CONVEY TRUTH. Who even bandies about such words these days except for scientologists in an era of increasingly debilitating moral relativism? And in real life Ahmad is a former restauranteur who is now pursuing a full-time career in acting as well as working as an activist since 9/11 (his Pakistani neighborhood in Brooklyn was pretty much in siege by 9/12). So these are people powered by the conviction that your actions, including your art, really matter, and not just for your own benefit.

When I met them at Sundance, I could already tell that they were the real deal as people. But I was nervous: Would their film reek of overearnestness as a result, would its aesthetics be the equivalent of the labor activist's Birkenstocks? Uh, no.

After the film, Ebert pointed out how effectively it carried its political message, and he's right. Most projects these days are either abjectly apolitical or pretty much shove their agenda down audiences' throats so that even the choir is gagging. Ahmad and Razvi sidestepped that Moore-ian pitfall through their sparse use of dialogue and the universality of Ahmad's plight: he'd be brokenhearted wherever he was after losing his wife, and it's a tragedy that can befall anyone. The universiality inclines audiences to be on his side, so that they're sympathetic when he encounters his other struggles as well. Being a foreigner in an intensely hostile environment exacerbates his misery for sure, and that comes across. No punches are pulled but this is first and foremost a piece of art, well hewn and sensitively rendered, that conveys all the colors of the human condition (especially blue). And the political climate of these days is a big piece of that puzzle.