Two episodes of Mamo! in the can yesterday, to be posted Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. The first was a brisk and jovial affair recorded in the seats of the front row balcony of the Virginia Theatre; the second, three movies later, a gregariously punch-drunk midnight conversation at Steak n’ Shake which involved numerous, liberal shots at McNeil. Otherwise, most of the hours yesterday were spent in the blissful dark.
Is it so long since I’ve seen a film on actual film? When Capote started, the foggy focus and juddering frame nearly made me seasick. How un-acclimatized to all this have I become? Both Capote and Do the Right Thing (and possibly He Who Gets Slapped) were screened on celluloid, and it took a while for my brain to reorganize itself to accept the image as real. And then, at least, the dividends: the reminder that only 35mm can capture a sleeping New York in ten thousand shades of twilight that range between cobalt and smoke; the bright red punch across the jaw of Do The Right Thing’s opening dance number, which throbs with sweaty, non-electric energy.
Both films are marvels. All three, actually. It is a day of marvels. The collective gasp and marrow-deep thrill, at the start of the silent film He Who Gets Slapped, of seeing the MGM lion sway his head to and fro, glaring at all of us, but never roaring, because why would the lion need to roar in the pre-sound era? And, coincidentally or not (He Who Gets Slapped was MGM’s first neck-to-nuts in-house feature film), the climax involving a circus clown’s vengeance by way of THE most pissed off lion I’ve ever seen, which is set upon two villains and, in some canny examples of trick editing, pounces on, and murders, them both. Some surprisingly modern jokes - “I hate clowns,” the evil baron proclaims when HE is having some surreptitious laughs at his expense; “I hate barons,” the clown promptly returns - and one transcendently beautiful image, as Norma Shearer (and by the way, hubba hubba) sews the heart back onto the clown’s costume, chatting brightly as he looks quietly down on her hair, her face, keeping his feelings closer inside.
In Capote, the extraordinary performance by Hoffman, yes; but the extraordinary performance by Clifton Collins Jr., too, who is outstanding in everything I’ve ever seen him in (even Star Trek) and somehow never ends up on my internal list of the great character actors, or even - to my shame - those whose name I can routinely call to mind. I spent his confession sequence leaned forward in my chair, breath held; the shattering punctuations of violence throughout like a gasp the audience was afraid to take.
In Do The Right Thing, the best sex scene that never involved any actual sex, as Mookie (Spike Lee) cools every inch of Tina (Rosie Perez)’s body with drooling ice cubes, thank god aloud for each and every one of them, from knee to elbow, right nipple to left nipple. Spike Lee afterwards, being asked insane and inane questions by the audience - “Spike, in the film you present a number of issues of all these people failing to come together; what do you propose as a solution?”; Spike, mercifully, refusing to solve the problem of racial prejudice live onstage at the Virginia Theatre. Outside, we find Keith Stanfield from Short Term 12 having a cigarette, and - as in the film - he’s a marvel. We talk to him about Do The Right Thing and his next project for a few minutes before drifting off into the night. It is quiet and peaceful. Earlier in the day, a lobbed joke about the senior citizenry of the audience catches the ear, and ire, of an octogenarian who is more awake at her age than I’ve been for the last fifteen years, who promptly takes me by the arm and scolds me, to giddy laughter from everyone around us, and her, and me. She mentions she’s just celebrated her sixtieth wedding anniversary. She is the luckiest woman in Illinois, and her husband is the luckiest man.
We are all in love with Brie Larson. We made it over to the second of two panels at the Illini Union in which she was featured, “Reimagining Filmmaking for the Digital Age,” and Larson was surprising and impressive. Admitting that she doesn’t really get “this whole world of texting,” she spoke passionately about the danger of movie theatres being phased out by the intense popular need for instant-gratification media. Going to see a movie in the dark with a large group of people, where you don’t let yourself become distracted by texts, social media, or other external content, is an opportunity for “empathy and meditation” - as lovely a way of putting it as I’ve ever heard. This thought was echoed by others on the panel. In an ever-accelerating world, there’s nothing wrong with movies NOT accelerating. They can serve as a shelter, a coping mechanism; a more contemplative space. I like that a lot.
There’s a one-minute clip of Roger Ebert speaking which precedes all the films at this year’s festival; in it, he describes (as he has done elsewhere) the movies as an “empathy machine.” These ideas, about the movies and their ability to help us relate to and empathize with other human beings of any stripe anywhere in the world, was on my mind a lot yesterday. It didn’t help me out much with Museum Hours, the first feature, but it clocked me square across the jaw with Larson’s feature, Short Term 12. And this is what the film festival experience has always been for me, and why it’s wonderful, and why it’s dangerous - it’s empathy & meditation, three times a day for five days in a row.
It pounds me into emotional meat, which is what it’s supposed to do. I go into that room and the lights go down, and I lean forward in my mental chair and engage as fully as possible with what is being presented to me. I do it more so than I do with other films, because I trust the people who brought this film before me; I trust their imprimatur that “yes, THIS fits within the logic, THIS has a purpose which connects to the purpose of everything we’re doing here.” I engage, and on a movie as good as Short Term 12 (or even Young Adult, which followed, which I’ve seen before but like quite a bit less), I take the emotional ride with Brie Larson’s character, Grace, which is a ride with marvellous peaks and valleys. And then I do it again, and again, and again, and again. Price and I have commented in the past about how film festivals turn us into raw nerves, but it isn’t a bad thing. It merely means the armour gets stripped away for a while, in a safe space, and the content enters. I’ll never live a life like Grace’s, or any of the kids under her charge in Short Term 12. But I did it for an hour or two yesterday. I feel more like a human being today than I did last Thursday.
Or, put another way, “It’s impossible to worry about anything else when you’ve got blood coming out of you.”
Champaign-Urbana remains a lovely thing. I turned the contents of the continental breakfast bar at the hotel into a breakfast sandwich yesterday morning and set off on foot to, as it turned out, the entirely wrong end of town (thanks, iOS Maps!), but the walk back took me through lovely old middle-class neighbourhoods that could have come directly out of Tree of Life. At noon we watched the unveiling of the Roger Ebert statue in front of the Virginia, and while jostling in the queue I nearly tripped backwards over David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, upon which I exclaimed “Good lord: you wrote my film textbook!” and they both shook my hand for having read it. Bordwell is (of course) talkative and enthusiastic, and he and Thompson are among my all-time heroes, so that was a treat.
I haven’t quite yet learned the lesson of Papa’s and Beers at Actionfest four years ago, and consumed a gigantic Mexican dinner before Young Adult, after which I promptly went into a meat coma. But I got through the movie and enjoyed the heck out of Patton Oswalt’s Q&A which followed, particularly his deft skewering of Susan Wloszczyna’s random-seeming question setups: “John Carpenter directed Hallowe’en. Bees can’t see the colour red. Do you…. ______?” (I resisted the urge to stand up and holler, “Agents of SHIELD: only TWO??”, though I’m starting to regret it.) Earlier, the Q&A for Short Term 12 brought out Larson (with whom we are all, still, in love) and Lakeith Lee Stanfield, who is nothing less than a revelation in the film as Marcus, and was just as much of a revelation on stage. Give that foul-mouthed young man every award possible, now that he has Roger Ebert’s thumb.
A tough, cramped drive down in the back seat of a taxi-yellow Focus, by way of Ann Arbour (Zingerman’s deli, and a particularly excellent breakfast bagel) and Chicago (Calumet Fisheries, and a rough fish n’ chips with red sauce hot enough to peel a cleansing layer off the interior of my sinuses). But my room at the Eastland Suites is excellent and the hotel itself is across the street from a Steak n’ Shake, and with Google telling me it’s a solid one-hour walk to the Virginia Theatre, I set out on foot. I’m out in the sunshine all of five minutes before I remember vividly why it is I do everything I do. After a tough, cramped winter, the legs in my mind finally stretch all the way out. I walk past bungalows, duck ponds and railroad tracks. Life, itself on the streets of Champaign, IL.
The best part of the drive down comes when an unwillingness on both Price and myself’s part to get into a discussion with Fisher on the relative merits of the conclusion of LOST becomes, perhaps, the definitive discussion of the subjectivity of art and - later - the substantial value of criticism that we’ve ever had (with a young critic who seemed to need to hear it - the first part, and the second part - all while in a car, on the way to Ebertfest). I wish, oh I wish, I’d been recording it. Not that Mamo! listeners haven’t heard this before; but this was the Criterion Collection version of that conversation.
By the time I’ve reminded myself that my walking muscles are severely out of shape, I’m in downtown Champaign, and I find my way back to the Aroma Cafe - with the bronze sculpture of a girl reading a book across the street - and tuck into the first chapter of Fall Of Giants after uploading a brace of Instagrams. Price & Fisher join me around 5:30 and we walk over to the Virginia, the temperature dropping rapidly, the line curving around the block. We pick up the usual conversational drifter. By the time we’re inside I’m frozen to the bone and even-more-than-usual happy to be there, but with the organ music playing (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and the crowd of acolytes happily taking their seats under projection images of the life of the festival’s founder, it’s hard not to think of the whole thing as Roger Ebert’s afterlife, dropped into this corner of Illinois. The night’s film is Life, Itself, Steve James’ documentary (based on Ebert’s memoir), and it’s the first time I realize (having spent the last two months laying tracks so furiously in front of an oncoming train that I apparently never had two spare seconds to rub together) that this thing might hit me squarely where I live.
It doesn’t. I’m grateful for that; I’m grateful that the film is like the book, and so joyous in its meandering through the vitality and passion of that man’s life that I cannot view it is anything other than soaring; inspirational; a true act of love. “It was unspeakably romantic,” one of Ebert’s friends says, regarding his young, exuberant life as a journalist - but really, describing everything, the whole thing. The movie made me (not surprisingly) refract all of my own writing through its lens; Ebert was never condescending, never pandering, lessons that I (and really, every single person writing on the internet right now) could do well to take to better account, every time the keyboard starts clacking.
Chaz Ebert, who introduced the screening and the festival, remains a wonder. The last thing the film needs in its final minutes is an extensive re-account of Ebert’s descent into illness circa 2006 and beyond; earlier scenes of him coping with the last few months of his life are far more touching and extraordinary. But as the illness takes shape, Chaz - remarkably - says “He’s very brave, but I’m not,” before going on to prove the opposite. I wonder about this. We find our strength in our true loves, whomever (or whatever) they may be - do we all see the greater courage in that person, regardless of what we have inside?
The requisite Steak n’ Shake run following the movie; I started with the double steakburger and will work my way out to the more elaborate hamburger provinces in the nights to come.
VROOOOOOOM…!! Mamo takes a quick road trip to the U.S. of A. for barbecued meat and Vin Diesel, which are largely indistinguishable from one another. On the drive home we take a moment to survey the state of the nation of the most unlikely super-franchise in Hollywood. Who’s feeling fast? Who’s feeling furious?