Patrick Franklin's Ebertfest 7 Blog

Monday, April 25, 2005

The thing that people have most responded to from last year’s blog was an apparent tirade in which I criticized the audience for laughing so hard at the characters in Gates of Heaven. That particular entry was even printed in one of the University of Illinois alumni newsletters. Judging by everyone’s response to my response, I can’t help but feel that I was completely misunderstood, not that I can blame anyone. The thing about that screening and my reaction to it was not that I was angry with the audience and thus felt superior to everyone for having greater appreciation of the film. I was laughing too. I thought these people were funny too. I was angry with myself most of all. I was disappointed in the time in which we live. I felt suddenly disconnected and misanthropic. I felt like someone trapped in a small tin box suffocated by roaring laughter. I couldn’t distinguish the people in Gates of Heaven from anyone you might see in a Christopher Guest film or on the Daily Show, and that was what was so disconcerting. Has the age of detachment reached its point of no return? How does Errol Morris feel about this movie? What did he intend for the audience to feel? Did he have any intentions? I hate that we react to the people in this film as if they are different from us, as if they are mere walking spectacles, cartoon characters. Will we all be viewed the same way 25 years from now as we live the consequences of our failed dreams? Roger said that one of the reasons he loves this film is because of the many different ways it is viewed. Maybe once upon a time that was true, but I think most of those ways have been whittled away by irony and sarcasm. Now all that is left is detached amusement at the silly ways in which people cope with death. Maybe that’s the brilliance of it. At the gates of heaven, there is laughter. At the gates of hell, there is the same. The difference is where it comes from. It is better to laugh than be laughed at and if you’re the one laughing then maybe you're in the right place.
At dinner on Friday, I was able to hang out with my friend James Bond who is the projectionist for the Overlooked festival. Many do not hesitate to call him the best in the world. It was funny because we were sitting at a table with some visitors who just happened to be talking about James and how much they would like to meet him. One lady was just gushing over him not knowing all along that the mystery man was right in front of her. Had he not tuned her in so quickly to the irony of her outspoken praise, I would have loved to have toyed with the conversation. “Oh, you don’t want to meet James Bond. I hear he’s really weird. He has all these scars on his face and he almost never comes out of the booth. In fact, in Chicago, he actually lives in an old projection booth. The people in his neighborhood call him the phantom of the cinema . . .” It could have gone on forever. Of course, none of these things are true, and no sooner than Bond revealed himself to his fans did he become just as much a star as any of the celebrities here at the festival. Nonetheless, it only embarrasses him. He is extremely modest.
I apologize for the sudden halt in blogging yesterday. Internet access has been quite a challenge, especially since flying home late last night after being delayed at O’Hare for two hours. I have much to catch up on and do intend to properly wrap things up.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Chaz Ebert whispered into my ear last night at the theater to mention in the blog just how in awe she is of John Sayles and Maggie Renzi. “I love their movies.” . . . And there you have it. Ask and ye shall receive . . . most of the time. Chaz is an attorney. A very sweet lady and avid cinephile herself, she and Roger have been married for almost twelve years. They met through mutual friends. I asked her if Roger was smooth when he first pursued her. She said he was “very smooth”.
What’s wrong with me? I haven’t hated any of the movies. I’ve found every guest of the festival to be remarkably warm and charming. I haven’t fallen asleep once in a film despite the fact I keep going to bed late and getting up early. Where’s the controversy? Where’s the disagreement? Where are the tirades? I’m getting soft in my old age. And maybe I’ve mingled too much with the guests this year. It primes me too much to like their movies. Oh well. I was thinking that it might finally come with You and Me and Everyone We Know since the title was so similar to last year’s The People I Know, a film I didn’t care for at all. No such luck. It was one of my favorites of the festival. Judging by the audience reaction, it seemed that it might be the favorite of a lot of the people here. Another first time filmmaker has demonstrated a confident ability to realize a very specific vision. Quirky, funny, and bold, but entirely realistic, there’s a kinship here with Todd Solondz but without the cynicism and pessimism. The film was written and directed by Miranda July who also stars in the film. She’s a performance artist and one can certainly sense that in the film. Not only is her character a performance artist, but there’s a kind of mixed-media quality to the relationships between the characters and the world they live in. Her character writes an obscenity on her windshield and drives around staring at it as she expresses her frustration with unrequited love. Another has virtual sex with two girls by writing dirty suggestions on a piece of paper and taping it to his front window. Each person has a crafty way of communicating with others or expressing themselves. For the first few minutes I anticipated that this film might be of that desperately independent quality. Yes, there is an “independent film genre” I contend. It requires a calculated quirkiness, some kind of deviant sexuality, and a minimalist soundtrack with poorly recorded acoustic guitar. Although You and Me and the People We Know does have quirkiness, a little bit of deviant sexuality, and a minimalist soundtrack (no acoustic guitar), it seems entirely to be a genuine extension of Miranda July’s personality. It’s an honest film. It also has some great performances especially by the kids in the movie. I think many of us have noticed by this a point a motif. There’s been a number of films with strong performances by children – You and Me and Everyone We Know, Map of the Human Heart, The Secret of Roan Inish, Baadasssss!
There are two ways to twist drama. One is to take the ordinary and sensationalize it. (If a man proposes marriage, he should do it in a gorilla suit in a hot air balloon) The other is to take the extraordinary and make it more realistic. (If two guys invent a time machine, they should do it in dress shirts in a two-car garage) Primer is the latter. How else could one make a science-fiction film for $7,000. Now, I’m not one who would call myself a science-fiction fan. I’m not familiar with the literature and I don’t run to the theatre to see the latest Star Trek film. But, that is not to say that I avoid the genre. Rather, it is to qualify for the avid sci-fi buffs out there anything I might say about Primer. That now being out of the way, I can say the Primer is one of the best science fiction films I have ever seen. I didn’t completely understand the plot, but I didn't have to. I understood the story. That’s a testament to just how well it is put together. Like the film Yesterday, which we saw. . . yesterday, as early as the opening shot, you realize that you are in the hands of a director who knows what he is doing. It’s a geometrically composed image of lights and curious angles that reminds one of 2001, but as soon as it begins moving, we realize that we are in the garage of a small suburban home. What a perfect way to capture the essence of the film in a single shot. It’s a shame that though the film is so masterfully put together, Shane Carruth seems to exhaust himself trying to downplay what he’s accomplished. Was he abused as a child or is he just desperately humble or is there a secret confidence somewhere in there? I can’t wait to watch this movie again. One audience member made a point to say to Carruth as he sat on stage with Ebert, “Listen to the man on your right. Get some money and make more movies.” Carruth did say that he was halfway through his second script which he briefly described as having something to do with kids and the beginnings of religion and ideology. Huh? Sign me up.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The trailer for the movie “Crusade” is playing on the TV. I can’t distinguish it from any of the other “epics” that have been made in the last five years. If I had a computer company, I would just start creating a library of my own computer-generated images (things like thousands of arrows soaring in the sky, thousands of knights or gladiators charging a wall, etc., etc) and then just license those shots out to studios. All of these epic period movies are starting to look the exact same. They use virtually the same shots. Why do they keep re-shooting the same things? They might as well actually use the same footage. It’s the same as re-using the same B-roll of the Statue of Liberty for every reality TV show that takes place in New York.
John Sayles is a hulking figure at six-foot-four. I got a chance to shake his enormous hands before lunch today. His blue-collar persona (yes, he’s worked in factories) is refreshing for an independent filmmaker. I can’t stand film people who look and act like “film people”. It seems that some of them put more thought into their appearance than they do their films. A fake personality creates fake films, and this is certainly not the case for Mr. Sayles. “It would be inaccurate to say that this film is a departure for you because every film is a departure for you,” said Roger Ebert to John Sayles after the screening of The Secret of Roan Inish. Certainly the first thing you think when you hear of the premise for this film is “Huh?” The same could perhaps be said for a lot of John Sayles movies. Sayles said that he usually doesn’t work with professional children. Most of the kids he uses as actors and actresses are children they find in the neighborhood or children of friends and so forth. He says he likes working with kids for whose parents it’s not important that their children be working in the movies.

Roger made a good point about family films in that a true family film should appeal and relate to every member of the family. “Family film” is a term often used inaccurately to describe movies that are designed only for children. There’s of course nothing wrong with a film designed for children but more often than not such films aren’t written for children but are rather pandered to children. Everything’s dumbed down. There are easy jokes and pratfalls. There’s usually a one-dimensional butt-of-the-joke imp characters. “There’s this mentality that if you can’t sell a movie through McDonald’s with a happy toy you can’t sell a movie to kids,” said Sayles’s producer and significant other Maggie Renzi after the screening. She added later however that “we can sneer at Hollywood all we want but there’s not a lot of love and warmness in independent filmmaking either,” said Renzi. It seems the connotation of “independent” has lost its romantic sheen.
Melvin Van Peebles epitomizes the word “badass”. Ever since my film professor at UGA showed clips from his early films to us in our ethnic cinema class, he’s been something of a hero of my mine. He was the quintessential independent filmmaker, completely uncompromising in his vision. Though it cost him more money than he had, friends, and even his eyesight temporarily, he never lost his integrity. The film Baadasssss! pays tribute to Melvin Van Peebles’s unique passion, and is written and directed by his son Mario Van Peebles, who has been a real treat to have here at Ebertfest. Though the film largely tells the story of an uncompromising artist, it doesn’t soften any of the negative aspects that came out when he became obsessive about finishing his film. Mario Van Peebles, who plays his own father in the film, said earlier is “psychotherapy in celluloid”. He also said that “Yeah, there’s an oedipal thing going on there.”

One of the crucial things about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is that when it was made, Melvin insisted that he only use a multi-racial, 50/50 male/female crew. This, of course, in 1971, meant that he would have to avoid making a union film because the union would never go for it. Mario Van Peebles said for the making of Baadasssss! that he also insisted on a multi-racial, 50/50 male/female crew. The difference was that this time around, it was a union film and it was a testament to what his father’s vision really meant.

After the movie, Mario Van Peebles presented a surprise short film entitled Baadasssss Grandkids! which starred Mario’s children in a parody of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. It was made as a tribute to Mario’s father for his birthday. It was hilarious. Mario had plenty of stories to tell about the making of his film all perfectly timed and articulated. You could sense that he’s probably told these stories over and over since the release of his film and that’s how he’s perfected them. He said that his father charged him for the footage he used from the original he used in Baadasssss! from the original Sweetback. But he also re-shot some of the scenes from the original Sweetback with himself playing the part. When they re-shot one of the famous scenes of Sweetback running through the channel, a hobo popped out of nowhere, saw the surreal image, and shouted triumphantly, “It’s Sweetback! He’s back! He really did come back!” He then looked at his bottle like it was something magical.

One of my favorite stories was about one of the characters named Big-T, who back when Sweetback was made, was essentially tossed into the world of sound recording as the boom operator. When we meet him in the film we learn of his passion for barbecue (something of which I identify with greatly). Van Peebles said that Big-T went on to become one of the first black sound-mixers in the industry. But, because he never was satisfied with the craft services on set, he used to bring his own meat. He would put it on one of the big10k lights in the morning and by lunchtime it would be cooked and smelling good. Probably the quote of the evening, however, came when Van Peebles talked about the making of Posse and Stephen Baldwin’s involvement. “There’s always a Baldwin for your budget.”

At one point,Van Peebles described the early pressures of black actors to be perfect “uber-negroes” as essentially playing Spock on Star Trek – to play the buddy and be perfectly square and harmless. “It’s like Bush and Colin Powell. Colin Powell is Spock.” That was pretty much the image that his father was setting out to destroy with his movies and that’s why they are so significant. Roger described Melvin Van Peebles as a Renaissance man. He’s a filmmaker, poet, playwright, musician, and a stockbroker. Kind of reminds me of Howard Armstrong, the musician/artist who was honored at last year’s festival with two documentaries about him.

It was interesting to learn that Mario Van Peebles went to Columbia University and majored in economics. At one point, he worked for Mayor Ed Koch. “I single-handedly caused the fiscal crisis of New York,” he said. I always tell high-school kids who want to go into film not to only go into film. There’s nothing worse you can do as an aspiring filmmaker than to close yourself off from the real world. How can anyone tell stories about the real world if you haven’t experienced the real world, if you know nothing but film? Mario said his father made a point to make sure he didn’t study film in school but that he learned something that would be valuable to him as a person and as a filmmaker.

Friday, April 22, 2005

It’s a shame that the most famous moment in the 1925 Lon Chaney silent film The Phantom of the Opera is the moment when Christine takes off the phantom's mask and reveals his hideous face. It’s such a shocking moment but the effect is lessened by the fact that even those who have never seen the film before have perhaps seen that particular moment a hundred times before on television and in other places. That was the only part of the film I was familiar with prior to seeing it today and I felt kind of cheated from the suspense. Though it’s difficult to be scared by a silent film anymore because we’re so trained to depend on modern conventions, mainly sound, but there are some genuinely creepy moments in this movie. I can imagine that seeing this in a darkened theater in 1925 must have been pretty horrifying. The Read Death sequence, which is in two-strip Technicolor as pointed out by one of the Alloy Orchestra musicians, is extremely effective even today. The Alloy Orchestra actually owns the print and the copyright for Phantom of the Opera. An audience member asked about the process of acquiring rights to films and how that is affected by the well-known 75-year rule, which says that anything over 75-years-old falls into public domain. We were then informed by the percussionist of the Alloy Orchestra who seems to be the businessman of the group that Disney recently had Congress quash that rule in anticipation of losing the rights to Mickey Mouse as his 75th birthday steadily approaches.

Roger pointed out that silent films are the most popular that they’ve been since 1928. He said people are beginning to re-appreciate that exclusively visual element of the cinema. Where as sound films are “dreamy”, silent films are a kind of “reverie”. Jonathon Rosenbaum said that he knows someone who has even taken to watching sound films without the sound on to pay more attention to the visuals. That’s actually not all that uncommon as it’s a great exercise for film students. Citizen Kane is one of the most common films used for such a study. But it falls second to pretty much any porno for those still living with their parents.
Thanks to everyone who has sent comments so far. We didn't have that option on the website last year but it's great to have other people to be able to put in their two cents as well. The more the merrier. I'm glad to know that people actually read this thing and that my jibberish isn't disappearing into cyberspace unnoticed. Roger made mention of myself and the blog before the one o'clock movie. That was pretty rad.
Mario Van Peebles said, "Whaddup, my man" to me as he entered the green room for lunch today. Now that's badassssss. I'm currently blogging for the second day in a row to the sounds of Dr. Phil "saving" people. There's a TV in the office at the Virginia Theatre and I always seem to find time between the one c'clock and four-thirty films. Dr. Phil's like southern baptist on steroids.
From the opening shot of Yesterday in which we experience a slow tracking shot across a barbed wire fence separating us from a sweeping landscape, you know you’re in the hands of a very mature director. The soothing sounds of the wind immediate lulls you into a completely different world. The minimalist style perfectly complements the life of these characters in a small village in South Africa. The film is about a mother coping with A.I.D.S. Director, Darrell James Roodt actively avoids sentimentalizing, yet it is undoubtedly a powerful movie. On stage, Roger actually choked up as he recalled some of his favorite moments from the film. I’ve never seen that before. It’s actually quite moving. It’s encouraging to see that even after seeing thousands upon thousands of movies year after year, a film can still affect a critic like that.

I didn’t know that Roger studied for a year in South Africa at the University of Capetown in 1965. You learn something new at every discussion. He indicated that Robben Island, the site of Nelsen Mandela’s imprisonment, is now a tourist attraction where souvenirs are sold. Roodt laughed at the idea of “I Love Robben Island” t-shirts. Roger went on to say that the man who runs the souvenir store used to be one of the prison guards and that he would quite often sneak mail as well as the prisoners in and out of the prisoner. The way he got away with this was by pretending to be the most hard-boiled racist of all the guards. Because there was a continuous “problem” of guards becoming friendly with the prisoners and becoming sympathetic, there was a constant turnover of the guards. This guard however who pretended to be the worst guard was actually the one actually responsible for the most covert sympathy.

Roodt is a very animated, fast-speaking, but charming man. He’s like a child excited to show people his Yugi-Oh cards. One audience member commented that it was flabbergasting to see Roodt on stage having just experienced his very “leisurely paced” film. “When are you going to show this movie to the Pope?” asked another audience member. “He’s dead,” joked Roodt. Roger eased away from the bold joke to address that the woman’s point was that there is an inherent call for condoms to be distributed in Africa to save lives. Roodt went on to express that there’s a tragic number of A.I.D.S. orphans in South Africa. Although he went to great lengths to stress that he is merely a filmmaker and has no designs when he’s making a film to “shake the world”, it is quite possible that this film by Roodt and subsequent films will indeed have an impact on the problems currently faced by southern Africa. No doubt it’s a very moving film. Thankfully, Rood said that HBO has picked up Yesterday and we should be able to see it by August.

"Women in Film"

The panel went off this morning without any problems. I opted not to play the part of the male chauvinist pig. The panel was very large and I figured angering everyone just for fun could have resulted in bodily injury. Naturally, Mario Van Peebles was the most interesting to listen to as he was particularly articulate and amusing especially in his stories about his father. What was also intriguing to hear was his anecdotes about raising his daughter in a world where the mass media sends very confusing messages to young people. He said that a game he likes to play with his daughter, called Truth in Advertising, has them looking at advertisements and attempting to discern what is really being sold to them. A lot of us agreed that education in media and culture studies is particularly important today especially for young people. The sooner a child becomes a more active and critical participant in the images and sounds which attack their senses on a daily basis the better. We’re no longer in an age where we can just teach kids to appreciate great books and great art. We have to teach them how to not just immediately accept what is presented to them but to examine it and draw their own conclusions. This is particularly crucial when speaking in terms of “women in film” and how young girls are being taught to perceive themselves and their roles in the world.

Complementing this elaborate discussion of media and advertising, at lunch, I met a nice woman from California named Laurel who is making her first visit to the festival as a sponsor and unabashed Roger Ebert fan. She works in advertising but what was most intriguing about her company is she and her colleagues are trying to develop new concepts which will gear the advertising world toward a system where people can access advertisements as they choose rather than this current system where constant intrusion by advertising is the norm. She mentioned Spielberg’s Minority Report as being very prescient. I recalled the scene where Tom Cruise’s character’s retinas are scanned so that holographic advertisements can be catered to his tastes. It’s not too far removed from websites and pop-up ads that are catered by previous internet activity. Laurel also pointed out that under this system it’s poor people who are subjected to the most advertising because if you have money you can simply pay to have ads removed. Ironic that the ones who have money to spend are the ones with the luxury of not being bombarded with ads telling them what to spend money on.

Good Morning

CNN had a story this morning about a chain-smoking chimpanzee that lives in a South African zoo. I hate to say it, but that chimpanzee look really cool with that cigarette. Speaking of chimpanzees, I'm supposed to be on the panel discussion this morning. Why anyone feels I'm qualified to discuss the topic of "Women in Film", I'm not sure but we'll see how well that goes. I'm going to avoid doing the bottled water thing. That's so cliche. The provocateur inside me wants to play the part of the arrogant male chauvinist just to see what happens. Maybe I could even dress up like a chain-smoking chimpanzee.
Strawberry milkshake: $2.39. Chili-cheese fries: $1.99. Hanging out after midnight at the Steak N’ Shake with Mario Van Peebles, Jason Patric, Guy Maddin, and Roger Ebert: Priceless.

Having been invited to the traditional late-night snack at Steak N’ Shake, it was surreal to waltz in and see Mario Van Peebles sitting at the booth with his arms laid across the back like he was waiting on someone named Sanchez to come in and proposition him for weapons on the black market. Sitting beside Guy Maddin, I had a very pleasant chat with him about a good many things. I asked him doing some of his own photography as I noticed he was also the cinematographer for Heart of the World. He said he just happened upon doing his own photography. The very first day of shooting for his very first film, the director of photography didn’t show up, so he had to just learn how to do it himself. Now, he can’t imagine not being a part of that technical aspect. We also talked about the moment last night when someone had the balls to say they thought Tati’s Playtime “sucked”. We respected him having the guts to say it but would he have done the same for a film when one of the filmmakers was present. It’s a shame that someone should hate a Tati film, but I guess that’s what makes loving a Tati film special. His critique of the film was shallow though. A person who depends on rather conventional cinema gives rather conventional criticism. Maddin said that he had a similar experience one time at a screening for one of his films which features a lot of ballet, someone launched a tirade from the balcony about how awful the film was and how it was a disservice to ballet and that not only was the choreography bad to begin with but it was poorly shot. Ouch. Those ballet dancers are tough. I guess you have to be to bounce on your toes.

So riding back to the hotel with Mario Van Peebles goes down as one of the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Explaining to him what a blog was . . . not so much. I did however tell him that though I have not seen Badasssss! I was responsible for it playing in Athens, Georgia where I’m from since I convinced the manager at the Georgia Theater to get it. I think I was out of town when it actually played. Van Peebles’s advice for watching it was to drink a glass of red wine and go in with really low expectations. I guess that’s why he’s not a publicist.
After Dark, My Sweet definitely felt like a film noir. Roger called film noir his favorite genre. However, we must point out that a lot of critics and experts argue that film noir is not a genre. It was a movement that had a very specific time period and could not have existed without the specifics of that time period and can only exist within that time period. For them, to call film noir a genre would be the same as calling the French New Wave a genre. I tend to agree in many respects. Nonetheless, there’s no better way to classify movies like After Dark, My Sweet. It just acts and feels like modern noir. It may be homage or even imitation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be good. Jason Patric even reminded me of Tom Neal in Edgar Ulmer’s seminal Detour (1945). I can’t believe Patric was only 23 when he made this movie. A testament to his acting abilities perhaps, the character felt as if he was at least 30. It’s very emasculating to see on screen this ruggedly handsome man who makes you feel like a little kid and then find out you’re older than him.
Woah. The Saddest Music in the World completely blindsided me. I’ll admit that I knew virtually nothing about Guy Maddin prior to this festival except that he made this film. I didn’t know what it was about or what it was like. Normally, I’m not into films or filmmakers that are unabashedly rooted in very specific styles of cinema’s past but this one completely won me over. Maddin doesn’t make referencing his idols the point of making his movies. There are very many modern conventions used in the film. He melds the old and the new into something seamless and original. It’s interesting that Maddin didn’t even take to filmmaking until age thirty. As he said himself, he was only a mediocre college student and didn’t really do much in his twenties except work at a bank, paint houses, and generally slack off. I guess that’s why he seems so down to earth. He’s not coming into it with this attitude that it was his destiny. Rather, he’s just a dude who likes movies and decided one day to make one.

What was really interesting was watching this film back to back with Murderball. In The Saddest Music in the World, Isabella Rossellini plays a quadriplegic who lost her legs in a bizarre accident. I asked Guy Maddin if he himself found it the pairing peculiar. He said that he was a little nervous after experiencing the very human story that is Murderball that people would find the quirkiness of his film suddenly insensitive. The same possibility crossed my mind while watching the film but I never found it the least insensitive. The films in fact complemented each other quite well.
I had the highest expectations for Murderball going into this festival and it did not disappoint in the least. Roger points out that it’s many different documentaries in one. What’s amazing is how incredibly it’s all woven together. It’s a sports story. It’s a family story. It’s a friend story. It’s a rivalry story. It’s an overcoming adversity story. Most importantly, it introduces and acclimates you to people you might not normally interact with. The film wastes no time slapping you in the face with your silly expectations about people in wheelchairs. These guys curse, scream, and antagonize like nobodies business. Mark Zupan, one of the athletes in the film, says he hates it that someone won’t hit him when he talks shit to them. “Go on, hit me,” He says. “I’ll hit you back.” This movie is going to be a huge success, and it will no doubt do great things for the sport of quadriplegic rugby. I have a great desire to see one of these matches live now. Anyone interested in learning more about the sport should visit In the after-movie discussion, Roger suggested that Mark may end up on a box of Wheaties before long. It’s not a joke either. Zupan and Soares and many of those guys should be regarded alongside Michael Jordan, David Beckham, or anybody else. The whole concept of wheelchair rugby challenges our traditional notions of athleticism. It’s one thing to be born with God-given athletic ability, but it’s something entirely more admirable to be given an incredible challenge in life, to overcome it, and then earn that athletic ability. Something like that takes a whole lot more than talent.
I remember seeing the previews for Rush, starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh, when I was younger. I didn’t really know who those actors were at the time. Every time I saw it, I thought Jason Patric was Dennis Miller. I’ve never seen the movie, so it’s still stuck in my head that Dennis Miller once played a drug addict in a feature film. I don’t think I’ll flag Patric down to tell him that.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Artistic Aspects

What does someone mean when they say that a film has "artistic aspects" to it? Just heard someone on the phone use that description in attempts to lure a friend to the screening of Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World. Artistic aspects? I guess one of the reasons I like the paintings of Romare Bearden is because they have a lot of artistic aspects to them. Huh?
As was the case last year, a lot of the audience for the panel this morning was made up of a group of elderly traveling companions known as the Elders Hostel. These are some intense individuals. Avid culture seekers and serious listeners. Anyone in the room who creates unnecessary noise gets laser beams shot through them from the eyes of some unforgiving octogenarian. Turn off all cell phones and pagers if you value your life.
“Making Movies Outside the Matrix” was the name of the panel discussion this morning in the Pine Lounge at the Illini Union. I was hoping to learn Kung Fu and how to bend spoons with my mind, but I think the topic had more to do with independent and low-budget filmmaking. Panelists included: Dana Shapiro and Henry Rubin (co-directors of Murderball), Richard Leskonsky (cinema professor at University of Illinois), Jonathon Rosenbaum (film critic for the Chicago Reader), actor Jason Patric, Jonathon Sehring (President of IFC Entertainment and producer), Guy Maddin (director of The Saddest Music in the World), and Shane Carruth (director of Primer) Shane Carruth is hilarious in his newness to this whole thing. Talk about getting hit with success like a deer in the headlights. It’s rather endearing as he seems quite humble. When he was introduced on the panel, Roger was confused as to which one was Shane as he said, “When I said your name, you looked at me as if you didn’t know who you were.” After explaining that all of the panelist would give an opening statement (a “manifesto”) at the podium, the first of which would be Shane, he looked at Roger and said, “I’m sorry. What are we doing again?” It didn’t take long for him to catch up though. After getting comfortable at the microphone, he went to great lengths to express that he felt lucky and confused. His first feature film shot for $7,000 won the jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film. Carruth said that the reason he plays the lead in Primer is because he couldn’t get another actor to do the part. “I wasn’t able to pay anyone.” Considering the film took roughly a year, it seems playing the part himself was the only option, even after five casting calls. He said “Dallas isn’t exactly a Mecca for actors.” He also said that there’s no way he could make another movie the way he made Primer. He said the amount of work that went into making Primer was just “wrong”. “People shouldn’t work that hard for something as trivial as film . . . That type of work should be relegated to Peace Corps and things like that.”

The star of the panel was of course Jason Patric. He’s playing the Anson Mount role this year. What is it about actors that make them look like actors. Is it the fashionable stubble? Is it the toned biceps? Is it the charismatic baritone voice? Is it the hot girlfriend? Patric’ an interesting guy. Roger made a point to emphasize Patric’s dedication to only doing scripts he cares about and not doing two movies a year, back to back, good or bad, like a lot of other actors (John Travolta comes to mind). Commenting on this Patric said, “I wasn’t one of those guys who thought I would always act; that it was something beating in my heart . . . I always figured I would act as long as it meant something to me.”

Guy Maddin is a remarkably fun with his self-deprecating sense of humor. He seems to have a reservoir of relevant one-liners: “I’ve always made my films with kind of a pendulum swinging between hubris and self-loathing . . . I figured my films wouldn’t be appreciated until after I was dead.” He also said that a lot of his early films were based almost exclusively on his dreams. That was certainly believable after seeing his short film “Heart of the World” last night. It played like a Fritz Lang silent film in fast-forward. Roger said that Maddin fit more into 30-minutes than most filmmakers can fit into 2-hours.

I can’t help but feel that panel discussions, like movies, have genres. The whole of this particular panel reminded me of one of the ones from last year. Everybody talks about how hard it is to make movies, how artists are important, how the studio system is a travesty, follow your dreams, you can achieve your goals, I’m living proof, etc., etc.
Nonetheless, there are always those brief moments of insight. Jason Patric talked about the tendency of the film industry to rest on instant gratification. He said that the movie business is not even a weekend business anymore. It’s a Friday night business. To me, that’s the biggest problem with the whole system. It’s set up to where studios don’t even have to make movies that you enjoy. They just have to get you into the theatre. The art then is not in the movie itself, but in the advertisement. I once worked at a movie theater in the early days of college and I remember once asking my manager if we ever gave patrons their money back because they did not enjoy the movie. He looked at me like I was stupid. I think people should get their money back if a movie is terrible. If the studios want to treat movies like a product, I think we should be able to treat movies like a product. One might argue that then anybody could ask for their money back whether they liked it or not. Sure, but the same could be said for restaurants or any other product of immediate consumption. If a vacuum cleaner doesn’t work, you return it and get your money back. Of course, you can’t give the movie back, but then again you also can’t get your two hours back. If a trailer makes a movie look better than it is, isn’t that false advertising? Bottom line. Mortal Kombat II promised great things with their trailer and that movie sucked. I want my eight dollars back.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Lost Highway to Heaven

The new pope looks like Robert Blake. . . I mean I'm all for forgiveness and a fair trial. But making the man pope? Did you not see Lost Highway, people?
After the discussion with Rosenbaum, Roger spotted me and appeared to simulate a bee line as he approached me to shake my hand. Somebody's been reading my blog. Either that or he likes me. He really likes me.
After having seen Jacques Tati’s Playtime in 70 millimeter, it makes me feel that despite the fact I have seen all of Tati’s films, I hadn’t truly seen a Tati film until tonight. I remember regarding Playtime as Tati’s most challenging film the first time I saw it. Now having seen it as it was meant to be seen, I feel I understand it so much better. There’s a visceral story hidden beneath the antics. It’s going to be hard going back to the small screen. I love this movie. Has there ever been a moment so simultaneously profound and funny as when the doorman at the upscale restaurant having just witnessed the glass door shatter to pieces continues miming his job with just the door handle? What a beautiful image. Everything in life is an illusion. Tati was a genius. No doubt about it. Like Thelonious Monk, he was an artist whose genius was immediately recognized but rarely if ever imitated. His style was so fresh and radical but instantly appealing. He was a revolution that never happened. Like an out of control carousel, he spun so fast that nobody else could get on and all were left instead to merely watch the brilliant, twirling lights from afar. But it seems in recent years there has been a growing appreciation for Tati among film lovers and filmmakers alike. As if the carousel is beginning to slow down, filmmakers are starting to get on. Spielberg says Playtime was an inspiration for The Terminal. P. T. Anderson once cited Tati as an influence on Punch Drunk Love. Sylvain Chomet, whose affection is most visually and aurally noticeable, even went as far as to thank Jacques Tati in the credits to The Triplets of Belleville. Maybe there’s a revolution to be inspired by Tati yet. Aloof, pipe-smoking, trench coat-wearing, romantics of the world unite!

The special guest after the film was Jonathon Rosenbaum, film critic for the Chicago Reader, who regards Playtime as one of, if not, the best movie ever made. What was really fascinating, however, was that Rosenbaum at one point worked for Jacques Tati. He worked in Tati’s office at the tail end of his career working as something of a script consultant, but mainly, as he said, he was there just to cheer Tati up after the failure of Playtime and keep him working happily. That would be on my short list of dream jobs. With that in mind, I’m sure I’ll probably one day end up giving foot massages to McG. Great.
Testament to a technological revolution: “I was never really into movies until DVD’s.” said Brett, a visitor to the festival.
It’s raining very hard in Champaign, Illinois. Normally, the opening speeches take place outdoors, but now it’s standing room only in the immaculate home of the President of the University of Illinois. Unfortunately, I’m not standing in the room. I’m also too lazy to jump up and down like a nine-year-old at a parade. So, it looks like I’m going to have to just make things up. Here’s the disclaimer: The following never happened. That being said, Roger just announced his candidacy for president of the United States in 2008. Running on a platform that champions the elimination of poverty, bad television, tall people, and small car parking spaces, he asserts that he’s a man of the people. Whispers around the room breed speculation that his running mate will not be Richard Roeper but will in fact be the guy who played Willie on Alf. Then the rumors were confirmed, and yes, he referred to him as “the guy who played Willie on Alf.” Didn’t see that one coming. After his speech, he proudly held up a sign which read boldly “Don’t be silly, Ebert and Willie, 2008.”
I hate finger food that requires instructions.

Guy Maddin Football

Met Guy Maddin at the opening ceremony. He seems to be a gracious and pleasant fellow. I wish I were more familiar with his work. He said he’s just finished working on two films simultaneously, one being a silent film and the other being based on a script by Isabella Rossellini written as tribute to her father. “I’m not really a good multi-tasker,” he confessed. Hopefully, that didn’t affect the final products. He’s not really sure what he’s going to do next but he mentioned an interest in the horror genre, perhaps doing another silent film. The horror genre could certainly use less screaming and more ingenuity.

All The Nations Airports

I love airports. The people-watching is superb. So many people from so many places; Life’s little absurdities firing a million-a-second like synapses in one big brain that may or may not have any clue to the purpose of it all. Airports always remind me of Tati films. Sometimes you don’t need a Jacques Tati film to enjoy a Jacques Tati film. Just go to a busy place, sit in one spot, and watch. After you settle into a form of hypnosis, all of the beeps and clanks and muffled speeches will take on a rhythm, and they will sync up with every little silly thing that every single person does. It’s amazing how Tati uses the long shot to show life up close. What a treat it is to be privy to the inane interactions between strangers. “Want to help me keep the pole up,” says one man to a lady as he leans against a column while waiting in line at Burger King. The lady giggles. How nervous humans get when interacting with other humans. Like I have room to talk. Sitting near me on my flight was Joe Soares, the coach featured in Murderball, a documentary about paraplegic rugby players. I felt compelled to say something but I didn’t. Of course, what would I have said? “Hey, you must be from Murderball.” How bizarre it is to tower over someone and yet be terrified of them.
Okay. I went a little while without internet access so the following blogs though appearing to have been written in rapid succession late at night were actually written at various times throughout the day. Just use your imagination.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


My name is Patrick Franklin. I’m your official blogger for Roger Ebert’s 7th Annual Overlooked Film Festival. You may remember me from last year’s festival or maybe from a popular granola bar commercial in which I wrestle a pig. Or was that a dream I had? “Why am I official?” you ask. I’m official because I’m wearing a shiny blue uniform with a 24-karat gold lapel pin bearing an engraving of Roger Ebert’s thumbprint. Okay, maybe not. But imagine that I am. Also, imagine that I have a broadsword, a time-traveling tricycle, and a pet iguana named Colonel Steppenwolf. Don’t ask why. Just do it.

I must admit I’m more excited about this year’s films than those of last year. It’s a great selection. From a documentary on quadriplegic athletes to a $7,000 science-fiction film, I think Roger covered his bases this time. And if there’s one thing I always think to myself every time I imagine programming my own festival one day, it’s Tati, Tati, Tati, and more Tati. I’m never one for superlatives, but if I were forced at gunpoint to choose a favorite film director, it would be Jacques Tati. So, needless to say (what a pointless phrase), I’m very excited to see Tati’s Playtime the way it was intended. It’s been a dream of mine for some time to see a Tati film, any Tati film, on the big screen, so it’s the perfect way to kick off this film lover’s vacation.

I’ve heard of most of the films playing at this year’s festival. I’ve seen only one - Playtime. Most of these films never came to Athens, Georgia where I live. Some only came for a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screenings. I already had the intention of seeing a few of these films, namely Primer. Why? Because I’ve heard so much about it. A few of these films have gotten a bit of buzz in the past few months. So are they really overlooked? Or simply not-yet-looked? Or maybe under-seen? Roger has more definitions for “overlooked” than most people do for “love”, but this is fine with me. Most film festivals have loose definitions for the words “film” and “festival” to begin with, so Roger can show whatever he dang well pleases.

But is it so much that we live in a world where good films are overlooked or do we live in a world where everything else is over-hyped? Two sides of the same coin maybe. Much of what is tattooed onto our memory cells and said to be significant is simply that which is overly visible. I don’t own any Britney Spears albums and I don’t know the name of her husband or what he looks like, but I know that they are pregnant and that this should somehow be important to me. I never saw a complete episode of the original Survivor, but somehow I know that a man named Richard Hatch won a million dollars by the end of the season. I can also name a few American Idols, but I care nothing for over-produced, over-sung, and poorly written pop songs. Bigger is bigger. If Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me taught us anything, it’s that the Texas-T moustache just plain doesn’t work. If it taught us something else, it’s that we Americans like everything big – and that means in plain sight. Such is the nature of the film world. It’s not which film is the most significant or provocative or challenging or unique that matters. It’s which films star’s head will look appealing when blown up large enough to be on a cardboard standup that will so strategically block your path to the rest room at the Cineplex. We live in world of the overly visible. Isn’t it frightening how they can digitally manipulate the advertisements behind the batter during a major league baseball game? “Hey, weren’t they telling me to switch brands of motor oil on ball two. Now, it’s strike three and I have a sudden craving for a candy bar.”

But enough about the oversized, overstuffed, and overdone. (I’m over-overing, aren’t I?) On to the “Overlooked” film festival. We shall see how my second experience with this festival compares to last year’s. The real test this year is whether Roger will remember me. I’ve only met the man twice and he meets a lot of people on a daily basis I’m sure. Will he wave from across the room and bee line his way to shake my hand? Who knows? Just play it cool, Patrick. Just play it cool.

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