Saturday, May 19, 2007

Closing this Celluloid Closet

Three weeks out, practically, and I finally sit down to pen my final post for Ebertfest 2007. Mostly that’s due to a hectic schedule both during and after this year’s events, but partly too I think it’s because I have been struggling to digest the markedly different tone of this year’s events. And maybe too because I’ve had a hard time letting go (yes, cue those damn strings; I think they just be merited).

Mostly because of Roger’s illness but also because of the program, we were all on our best behavior this year. We knew to savor what was in front of us in a way often forgotten in daily life. We surrendered wholly to La Dolce Vita, for example, an extravaganza of dissolution dripping with diamonds and despair and every other D word that both Jay Mcinerney and I once uh, deemed glamorous. I’d always been wary of its (snake)charms, but this time ogling it on the Virginia’s equally glamorous screen, I recognized the whole film for the whistling in the dark that it always was. The recognition of your youthful illusions as actual delusions, as luxuries that are not ill-afforded so much as genuinely dissociative — and about recognition tht you love them anyway, if tenderly and somewhat maternally. A tenderness that weaved its way through all our interactions this year, as we came together to make it happen in this film school/all-night gabfest/family reunion that the festival has become for so many.

Limb to limb we muscled into such films as that paean to the culture of the American South, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus , which I appreciated a great deal more on a big screen than in last year’s press screenings, and the undersung, if not underslung Freddy Mercury, the Untold Story. We laughed ourselves silly with (not at, thank ya veddy much) Ebert’s merrily, verily penned (and Russ Meyer helmed) Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And as the for-this-day-only reunited Strawberry Alarm Clock’s chords thundered through the theater and audience members lumbered to their feet at the festival’s conclusion, I saw how we all embody the brothers and sisters outsiders who reject the closets or institutions we could cower in--whether that closet is film grammar that can stand a little top-ending; sexual or gender or religious or racial codes, or the one that the ill are expected to lock themselves in for the duration of their suffering. It’s fitting that this year’s festival is the last one that will be dubbed Overlooked. This is the year we threw that baby out along with the bathwater of arbitrary distinctions. As the man has said too many times in rap songs, “Baby, it’s all good.”

It was.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Herzog-Cox Creature Double Feature

My alleged real life* has butchered all my efforts to catch up this here bloggy this year so I'm going to wrap this baby up in the next two days with as grand a sweep as this lady can muster. But I'd be remiss if I didn't write of the Werner Herzog/Paul Cox doubleheader that proved the highlight of the festival's last full day, if not the festival overall.

Herzog introduced his dear friend Cox' Man of Flowers (1983), while Cox, he of the twinkling eyes that betray his expressed nihilism, did the same for his friend's wonderfully bumpy ride Stroszek (1977).

In person you get immediately why the two are life-long friends; they express the same conflict about humanity with a dark grammar punctuated by great gales of laughter. Both clearly love individuals and human potential and yet regard society overall, even sometimes nature itself, with a nearly ritualized disappointment. Who can forget Herzog's almost laughably dour condemnations of nature's chaotic evils in his brilliant doc Grizzly Man (2005)? And in Man of Flowers, an aging bachelor's sexual fetishization of natural objects save for humans themselves (except for one woman he pays to pose nude as a sort of living tableau) lives on the opposite side of that coin. Both films, like their creators, benefit from a wryness, a kindness, that renders the human condition that much more palatable. Both take their sweet time, ambling along without entirely malingering in the world of their deeply disordered protagonists.

In Stroszek, Bruno, an alcoholic former convict, shuffles through his life radiating a sweetness that draws others to him despite his insufferable self-pity. Loosely based on the real-life actor who portrays him, Bruno's inability to transcend his trainwreck of a childhood is only paralleled by his desire to experience a home or family of some sort now. This information is more collected than psychologized--and therein lies Werzog's genius. His love for humanity is both fiercely specific and also oddly abstracted--as if he just happens to be studying the species of humans rather than giraffes or racoons (an element that renders Grizzly Man that much more amusing). Psychology is of interest, but no more so than any other more element of human behavior. Herzog presents, for example, long stretches of Bruno singing to himself miserably without any exposition. Some scenes prove wildly funny — especially as when Bruno and his crony, the aged Stroszek, rob a barber for 20-odd bucks that they promptly spend at a next-door grocer to buy a roast, or when Bruno glumly feed coins to a dancing chicken — but while you don't get the sense that this humor is accidental, nothing about it condescends to its subjects nor removes the viewer from the general reverie cast by this film.

Cox's Man of Flowers channels a dryer, more deliberate wit. Charles is an aging, affluent bachelor who writes his mom with a dutiful regularity undeterred by her death. He collects art; sexually fetishes the flowers he grows; and pays Lisa, a punk naif, to strip for him to the tune of the ''Love Duet'' from 'Lucia di Lammermoor" after which scurries across the street to thunder on the empty neighboring church's organ. Funny, by definition, as are all the characters. Each borders on caricature in a strangely understated manner. Lisa for example, embodies the classic passive beauty, submitting both to her predatory girlfriend, all slim hips and lowered lids, and to her hunky bully of a boyfriend, the ultimate poser artist. Amongst that crowd Charles seems relatively sane — he may wallow in some of the harsher moments of his childhood but he does so in a mannerly fashion that doesn't infringe upon others. At heart, this film truly is a moving picture — a series of portraits that slide elegantly into each other. The person who disrupts that imagery least emerges best. And that's what fascinates me about the distinction between Herzog and Cox. Cox professes a great love for humanity but registers a distaste for individuals and their messes, at least in this film. Herzog's skepticism about human nature (all nature) is right there on the table, but he loves individuals and their various, fascinating foibles. Love, if not god, lies in his details.

And this coin's two sides love each other.

The two didn't futz around in their q and a sessions following their films; Cox in particular lurched right into the heart of what's bothering him right now about, well, humanity. He talked a lot about loneliness and people's inability to really register each other, or to be their authentic selves. At one point, he offered that women experience loneliness differently because they are more deeply, inherently connected to nature. Like we're a separate species, perhaps? His comment seemed, well, dehumanizing--or at least biologically reductionist. As if he were viewing women as animals. (It has to be said that when talking to Cox later, I found him to be extremely kindly and discerning. Something perhaps was lost in translation during that q and a. I hope.)

Herzog talked about his hilarious youth in which he emigrated to the US from Germany on a fellowship that he promptly abandoned to hitch around the countryside.

"I found the promised land to be not so promised," he allowed. At which point he and Cox fell into a discussion about the human condition of being both connected and isolated from our true selves and each other. Heady stuff, but wonderful to hear discussed aloud. (Which happened so much at this year's Ebertfest.)

Near the end of his conversation, he allowed that "fate has favored him." Both his documentaries and fiction films have strains of realism and magic.

"I'm not into cinema verite or anything like that..a superficial way of articulatiing truth in cinema. It doesn't deserve that name because it's an accountant's truth," he said. "I believe in a deeper truth that you can discover in poetry and literature and movies. It's an ecstatic form of truth that we as documentarians and filmmakers have to look into, different grammars of imagery. It all must must serve as something that will illuminate us as an audience."

In other words, "I do not know what my dancing chicken at the end of my film means but i know that it means something big."

*Paris Hilton's jail sentence

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Fashion Trend, and We Use the Term Loosely

I noticed it at Ebertfest 7, the first year I attended the Overlooked Festival, but I was a shy interloper and kept mum. More so the next year, but it still hardly ran rampant. But this year, this broad in stacked wedges must speak:

What o what is with the mandals that many festival heavies don? I'm not going to name any names here, but I'd be remiss if I didn't call to the carpet the trend itself. No matter how formal the rest of the garb (and in some cases we're talking three-piece suits) a sporty pair of man-sandals poked out below many fellows' pantcuffs, often paired with a pair of socks (compounding the faux-pas levels). In one case, the socks were purple-striped. Festive, yes, but perhaps ill-advisable.

As a card-carrying member of the school of ladies and drag queens who can pound 60 city blocks in three-inch heels, I register absolutely no sympathy for the men who complain of formal shoes' discomfort. A medical condition is, of course, a perfectly good explanation for such foot-pas — but how many men can produce a doctor's note to that effect?

Yes, festival-going is hard work, but hardly upon the tootsies. My advice: lace'm up, boys!

Making Come Early Morning: A Story of Two Broads

Hyphenate Joey Lauren Adams (musician/actress/writer/director), whom I've loved since she serenaded Eric Stolz' poker game on a ukelele back in Sleep With Me, presented her film Come Early Morning, which I've championed since I caught its premiere at Sundance 2006. Here's what I wrote about the film back then:

Maybe it's the slightly Lifetime TV subject matter of her film, but something about first-time director Joey Lauren Adam's Come Early Morning brings out the inner tabloid writer: Finally, finally, poor Ashley Judd crawls out from under the long, grizzled shadow of Morgan Freeman to shine in the sunlight of (wait for it) Early Morning....

In sooth, because it so fully fleshes out its portrait of a working-class alcoholic woman, Come Early Morning deserves significantly less glibness. And from its opening shots, it's clear that Judd, puffy eyes squinting in too-bright sunlight, mouth twisted in a battle between defiance and self-reproach, finally delivers the versatile, fierce performance she's had in her all along. (Maybe because she is finally free of Morgan Freeman's long, grizzled shadow).

Set in a small Arkansas town where everybody not only knows your name but your drink of choice, Lucy Knowles (Judd) is highly relied upon but not exactly nourished. She lives in a world of aunts and uncles and nanas and drinking buddies; of new and old country tunes blasting from jukeboxes; of quiet nights punctured by breaking beer bottles; of saturday nights spent line-dancing, and of small, well-kept country kitchens. She mediates her grandparents' fierce squabbles, chauffeurs her great-grandmother to her abusive great-grandfather's grave, campaigns unsuccessfully for affection from her stoney-faced drunk of a dad, swigs shots, and beds random men at the local bar. She is also an accomplished contractor and the sort of broad who insists she plans to put the dog she rescued to sleep, even though everyone knows she won't. Like most alcoholics, Lucy is competent in some areas of her life and a train wreck in others, and Adams diligently depicts that full range.

It feels important that although the twin towers of Church and Sin reign supreme in this film, such Southern cliches as salt-of-the-earth characters with cartoony accents do not in this distinctly un-hokey Arkansas community. Where Come Early Morning breaks most ground, though, is in allowing Lucy to evolve without evolving out of her surroundings; the image of a protagonist zooming away against the big sky sinks nearly every movie about small towns but this one. Instead, Lucy pursues the business of coming into her own — starting her own business, separating out her own crap from others' — with her feet planted firmly in Southern soil.

Come Early Morning is rich with good things, even if it lays them on a little thick when it comes to spelling out Why She Suffers. A few less scenes of the nanas' weak-sister wisdom would have been fine, for example. But the old honky-tonk is glorious, as are the finely honed shots of wide-planked porches and starry country nights and unspoken regrets. Together, Judd and Adams have crafted an authentic, clear-sighted film that does their region proud.

And I still feel the same except it's more deftly edited than I remembered. (I assumed it was a different cut, but Joey assured me it was the same one, so I think Sundancennui had just messed up my judgment last time round.)

Afterward, I had the opportunity to talk with Joey along with co-actor Scott Wilson, whose withholding dad contrasts strongly with his true warmth. It must be said that Joey may have made her name portraying chicks for such directors as Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith (most legendarily as the dyke who flipped and then flipped again in Chasing Amy) but she's a broad through and through, with a scratchy, squeaky voice and supercheeky grin that only highlights her fluent intelligence. And, thankfully, she's also an easily interview.

Her impetus for writing the film, she said, was that she was tired of whining about the dearth of decent parts for actresses of a certain age. (Actually, she told a far juicier story that involved two horticultururalists in an LA bar on a Tuesday night, but I'll leave that to your imagination. ) Once she opted to direct the screenplay she'd written, she knew she wouldn't do the project justice if she played Lucy as well, so Ashley Judd "seemed like the natural choice."

When the two met to discuss the part, they realized that they were so fully on the same page that a spoken conversation would've been redundant so they drank cups of tea instead. "Working with Ashley was spiritual," Adams said with none of the self-effacement many both-coasters might've affected. (These days, she's based in Oxford, Mississippi.) Indeed, throughout the conversation as throughout the film, she addressed religion — Christianity, specifically — with a respect reflected in the film. Refreshing, to say the least.

I mentioned that Judd had never looked more beautiful and less glamorous, and Adams nodded. "She showed up with grey streaks in her hair and requested that we keep them, which I was so happy about. She also showed up with the weight, and we didn't talk about it. I was so glad we were on the same page." I noticed at that point many women exchange glances with each other in the audience, and I couldn't help nodding at them. Judd looked as sinewy and lean as most women never do even in their wildest dreams — I never would have thought she'd gained even five pounds had Adams not made that comment. Guess some aspects of Hollywood are harder to banish than others.

Getting backing (an unknown Russian element with an aspiring-actress girlfriend was mentioned) proved easier than achieving distribution, she acknowledged. At that point, one of the few student-aged men in their audience piped up to ask her out for a drink.

Adams handled it like the classy broad that she is. "Technically, I should be offended that you are treating a female director like this, but I would like to know when and where." Put'em in his place and make a bawdy joke in one swell foop: Sadie Thompson herself would've been proud.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Sadie Thompson: What a Broad

I've got this theory about chicks and broads. Chicks are girls and broads are women. Chicks inspire others to take care of them because they (act like) they can't do it themselves. Broads compel others to attend to them through a moxy that's undeniable. Chicks stand slightly pigeon-toed, a real "don't look at me" stance. Broads strut with pelvis and chest thrust forward, defying anyone not to look at them. Me, I'm a broad and proud, dammit, but this country is currently a nest of chicks, gamines who pretend they're 16 until they're 61 (or older), who apologize for any room they take up and reinforce the misconception that feminine energy by definition takes a backseat to masculine energy. Because here's the thing: Broads don't hate men, contrary to some's fears, but they do exert a power that cannot be quelched by them.

Make no mistake. To hold your own amongst all the old-school smartypants that comprise the Ebertfest regulars, you've got to be a broad even if you're a quiet one. And there were plenty in attendance this year, especially on Saturday.

Take this year's silent film: the recently recovered Sadie Thompson (1928), adapted from the Somerset Maughm novel by director Raoul Walsh, and produced by star Gloria Swanson, who was born for the role of the SF harpie angling for a new life in Pogo-Pogo.

Now, Gloria Swanson was a real broad. All shimmying hips and kohl-rimmed eyes that she knew to flash and roll with great effect, she shone brighter than anyone on any screen she occupied. Whether she sported high couture or Sadie's rags-to-riches-to-rags, she radiated a self-ease that set hearts a-flutter and, occasionally, teeth on edge. I can scarcely tell you anything about the film's plot (broads always suffered comeuppances back in the day; ho hum) but the lady's elbow-digging hijinks and great pantomined comedy will linger for quite a while yet.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Insert Nonsnarky Title About Perfume Here

I can't for the life of me recall who told me this, but during this festival someone mentioned that Roger once described the critic's job as getting people into the theater to see worthy movies even if he doesn't personally care for them. Certainly Roger himself has always demonstrated a critical generosity that many others fail to achieve, either due to ego or a love of a good pun. It's easy to write some good lines at the expense of someone else's three years of hard of work and maxed-out credit cards. God knows I've had my way with a few really wretched films (Are We There Yet, anyone?).

But given that Roger chose to include Perfume, which I had to physically restrain myself from walking out on last fall, I'm pretty much stymied. Typically as film editor of the online weekly Flavorpill, I only list movies that I recommend in some way. So suffice it to say I am ill-equipped to discuss this 2.5-hour epic about an 18th-century perfumer who moonlights as a serial killer of really, really fragrant women.

Before I slide deeper into snark, herein lie two positive comments about this film:

1. It completely commits to its oddball premise — in particular during a wildly extended shot of myriad naked bodies writhing in scent-driven ecstasy — no matter how unlikely it was. A movie about perfume? Even Kubrick declared it uncinematic.

Yes, moving on.

2. I admire Alan Rickman, who portrays a victim's powerful father.

And thus concludes my book report-like "review" (playing second fiddle only to my now-legendary third grade essay What I Did My Summer Vacation).

Afterward Alan Rickman, festival director Nate Kohn and Movie City News' Dave Poland bemoaned how most critics' failure to recognize the film's complicated brilliance derailed its box-office success. I kept conspicuously silent as did, I noticed, other critics in attendance.

Cast a Moolaadé and Call Us in the Morning

Perhaps because of the very serious circumstances that Ebert has been facing this year, many of the movies and panels at Ebertfest addressed nothing short of the human condition. Not solitude, but loneliness, the sort that often lands hardest when borne in a crowd, amongst your tribe, even. In director Joey Lauren Adam's Come Early Morning, which screened Friday afternoon, contractor and heavy drinker Lucy Fowler experiences a profound isolation square in her hometown amongst her family, her roommate, and her drinking mates. And in the Sengalese Moolaadé, the tribe is comprised of two wives, one husband and an entire Muslim village against whom the only boundary wife and mother Collé Gallo Ardo Sy can erect is a spindly red rope and a curse. Yes, a curse. A moolaadé, to be exact.

Alternatively cackling and sorrowful, Collé has already been deemed crazy by the villagers who don't know what to make of her unbroken spirit. When she provides sanctuary to the girl children who flock to her for protection from "purification," or female circumsision, a full-on uproar ensues. Like all the women in her village, she has undergone circumcision. She has also lost two daughters to the practice which, mandated by her religion, not only renders sex and childbirth tortuous but is life-threatening. The resulting battle first places Collé alone against her entire community. Women come together, men are stood up to. Lives are taken. Children are defended. And traditions are broken not through disrespect and dissolution but through a contagious empathy experienced by men and women who can no longer abide by rituals that uphold history over humanity.

Before the film, Chaz announced that Roger had pronounced it the best offering at 2004 Cannes. Indeed, here's a sentence I never thought I would have the opportunity to write: This film about female circumcision is fantastically uplifting. Like Sapphire's novel Push>, it launches from such a dark place that every ray of light is felt keenly. You soon understand how uncrazy Collé is when she grins broadly over small details like sunshine falling across her face, when she dances loose-limbed to her beloved radio (the only one that the men do not manage to confiscate). A little light shines that much brighter in the darkness.

Abe Lincoln once described Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, as "the little lady responsible for the big war." But can a film be prescriptive in addition to merely descriptive in the same way, especially in this day and age? If anyone can do it, it's Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, who abandoned a successful writing career to direct films, which he believed could effect greater social change. Forty years later, he may be widely touted as the first African director to achieve international prominence but his films still are rarely viewed in his home country, which limits mass media to suppress the very changes he courts (reflected in the film by those confiscated radios). Africans are oft-discussed but still rarely heard from in a moment where their struggles defines those of the world's.

I'm sorry to report that even here at Ebertfest some of those dynamics were reiterated. Fatoumata Coulibaly, who portrays Collé, traveled all the way here from Senegal but still barely inserted a word in edgewise on the panel following the screening. Decked out in spiky braids, great swaths of brightly patterned greens, and a smile as broad as her characters', she spoke a beautifully inflected French translated by African cinema scholar Samba Gadjigo.

Of working with director Sambene, she said, "The experience with him was not very easy. All the soldiers are not easy their work they are tyrants. No eye contact with me. Sometimes he hit me on the back. But it was the best school I could have attended and I would do it again."

Most of the film's violence — the murders, the circumcisions — were merely intimated rather than photographed, which rendered a scene in which Collé is publicly flogged that much more powerful. As the other woman moaned in rhythm with the whips, the audience breathed in unison as well. But, Coulibaly reported that even harder to shoot was a sex scene with her husband that's so painful that she weeps all throughout. "Usually in Africa women are very modest. Our bodies are covered at all times. But I am a victim of circumcision and I have been been fighting it for 17 years so I offered my body as a sacrifice. As a public figure I had to do it and so I did it."

That was almost entirely all that Coulibaly managed to utter, as a discourse about Marxism and enertainment followed that was apparently too compelling for anyone to remember translate for her. But though I could listen to her all day, it was enough.

I sat there (as did many others) with tears streaming down my face. Because women even now live in a world where their right to pleasure is cut away from them and is replaced by unfathomable pain. Because such basic battles must be waged while in other places we women and men disavow the persistent need for grass-roots organization, feminism, humanism. Because we live in a society flooded by images compounding our dissociation from ourselves and our humanity when the same medium could be used to wake us instead. And because sometimes filmmakers like Coulibaly and Sambene still can remind us that none of this has to be.