End of the road (trip)! Matt and Matt and Ariel reflect back on the 16th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival on the long drive back to Toronto.
Live from Steak n’ Shake! We tie off a monumental day at the movies with our responses to He Who Gets Slapped, Capote, and Brown’s Do The Right Thingcherry-pop.
Our second installment from the Roger Ebert Film Festival looks at Short Term 12 and Young Adult!
Live from Champaign, Illinois! We arrive at the 16th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival and discuss Steve James’ documentary, Life Itself, along with our thoughts on the future of digital filmmaking in response to the morning’s panel.
Before each movie at the festival, they play a one-minute clip of Roger Ebert talking about the value of film. The clip is supported with grainy, VHS-ish clips I didn’t recognize, and initially took to potentially be stock footage from an old documentary about life in another country. It took me a day or two to realize that the girl in the head scarf who turns up in two or three shots must be Wadjda; and that being the case, the rest of the clips must be from Ebertfest movies too. Yesterday, we finally caught up to the movies that formed the spine of our visual prelude to the festival. Solo and his stepdaughter in Goodbye Solo. Roger wheeling about with his elder maid in A Simple Life. And, of course, that shot of Wadjda.
I loved the shot on its own terms all week; the girl’s unabashed smile, her tangled hair flowing out the bottom of her scarf. The brilliant moment of arriving at it in context, in the eponymous film, thereby seeing it again for the first time, bigger and brighter and resonating like a bell. Wadjda is a film of found moments built on the beguiling watchability of its young, lead actress; but it is also a great work of cinema, in which director Haifaa Al-Mansour finds a knot of transcendent images that elevate the film beyond its words or its story and into a world of clear visual joy. A line of girls’ feet, all wearing plain shoes, parting to reveal a pair of beaten black Converse with purple laces; a bike, flying, glimpsed over a wall, moving so fast as to be heart-stopping. And her hair. Something about that riot of Waad Mohammed’s dark hair, which never entirely ends up contained beneath her scarf - or at least, never for long.
All the more astonishing, then, to learn in the Q&A that not only is Wadjda the first Saudi Arabian feature film directed by a woman, but the first Saudi Arabian feature film at all; and that its having been made under scrutiny meant that Al-Mansour had to direct the film, concealed, from the back of a van. Under those circumstances I think it’s miraculous that the film looks like anything at all, let alone that it comes together so beautifully. It is full of beautiful words from ugly circumstances. “A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” Wadjda’s teacher cautions her when she is being too loud. Later, in the film’s showstopper scene, Wadjda has won a Koran reading competition and reveals guilelessly that she will use the prize money to buy a bike - forbidden for girls in her country - and the same teacher spits, “Your stupid behaviour will haunt you forever.” In that moment, I believe her: and the words sound more like a blessing than a curse.
And in terms of blessings, Wadjda’s mother, having foregone propriety and brought home the bike anyway, in an embrace with her daughter that is framed by fireworks: “I want you to be the happiest person in the world.”
I hope to have many more of life’s major undertakings - at least one of them involving an oath like that - before the ones captured in A Simple Life, which I admit I gave the least amount of credit going in, of all the films in the festival. Saturday was a packed day, four films with short turns between them, and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to push myself through a quiet Hong Kong-made film about a family’s elderly maid who, upon suffering a stroke, promptly retires and moves to a nursing home. But the film is marvellously made. It is amazing watching a whole family, blood-related and not, evolve into being over the course of the film, from two people (at the outset) alone in an apartment, who barely even speak to one another. Roger, played by Andy Lau, begins to take care of the woman who spent her life taking care of him; and through that caregiving, we see an entire life erupt before our eyes like a field of flowers. And it’s funny, boy, and humbly sweet. I had never encountered the director or the lead actress, Ann Hui and Deannie Yip respectively. I’ll seek them out now.
We tempted the Mexican beast at Dos Reales once again (much better choices on my part this time, involving chorizo tacos) and drove back to the theatre through gales of laughter after Price set up, and delivered, a fuckin’ joke (!). The closing night film was Born on the Fourth of July, pitched at so high a volume that its first ten minutes were among the most excruciating I’ve spent in a cinema. Either someone found the volume knob or enough of my eardrum was killed to make the subsequent two hours at least liveable, and I got something of a mad thrill out of watching vulgar auteur Oliver Stone’s mad action film play out in front of a startled Ebertfest crowd, who gasped as one when Tom Cruise took his bullet to the chest. (OK, no one would describe Oliver Stone as a vulgar auteur, or Born on the Fourth of July as an action film. But in a lot of ways, I think he’s the source of the Nile on the whole thing. He’s Michael Bay, ten years early; and watching his trashily lurid Vietnam sequences play out like exploding hothouse tomatoes in front of that aghast crowd made me wish the whole movie were just a shameless, jungle-set exploitation movie instead of a shameless, exploitative whatever-the-fuck-that-was.)
It’s all (or most of it anyway) an effort to draw a connection between Tom Cruise’s functionless penis and the effect of Vietnam on America, as near as I can tell; enough so, at least, that Cruise ends up shouting “PENIS, MOM, PENIS!” at his mother during a drunken rant when his willpower has been well and truly broken. Later, he visits a magical Mexican whorehouse where, impotence notwithstanding, he can at least cunniling (v.?) his way to some recovered sense of manhood, with an indulgent prostitute with magnificent breasts who telepathically understands everything this broken marine needs - and might well, since she apparently runs a local cottage industry in the sexual satisfaction of veteran quadriplegics. But on the connection between America and a sensationless dick, there’s at least one thing awry: “I never even got a chance to learn how to use it before it was gone in some jungle,” Cruise laments, and if WWII wasn’t that country’s Maximum Boner, I don’t know what was. The American legal requirement of stating all of the side effects verbally at the end of each commercial makes television ads for erectile dysfunction remedies a hilarious exercise in managing expectations; but I step outside my door every morning, and the air is so fresh and sweet that I can’t help but wonder why anyone in this country ever needs to eat, let alone dose their flagging prick with pills. But it was a dark winter back in Toronto, and out here in an emerging springtime - cherry blossoms and all - I finally feel awake and alive.
Packing up. Off home. Pancakes and Bayou Majarajah on the way out of town and then, blissfully, the road.
Every day I walk past this on my way to and from the coffee shop, and every day I am an impulse closer to jacking it out of the ground and taking it home with me. It’s called “Circle of Friends” by KE Crain, and its outer edge is scribed with the names of all the books into which I became similarly lost. There is a tabletop version of this out there somewhere, I’m sure. But the life-size one is magic.