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Ebertfest 2017: "De-Lovely," "Pleasantville," "Varieté," "July and Half of August"

The following review of "De-Lovely" written by Roger Ebert was published in the catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 23rd with director Irwin Winkler and producer Charles Winkler in attendance. Here is the introduction to the film, followed by the Q&A and musical performance by Jimmy and Donnie Demers posted after the review.

“I wanted every kind of love that was available, but I could never find them in the same person, or the same sex.”  — Cole Porter

Porter floated effortlessly for a time between worlds: Gay and straight, Europe and America, Broadway and Hollywood, show biz and high society. He had a lifelong love affair with his wife, and lifelong love affairs without his wife. He thrived, it seemed, on a lifestyle that would have destroyed other men (and was, in fact, illegal in most of the places that he lived), and all the time he wrote those magical songs. Then a horse fell down and crushed his legs, and he spent 27 years in pain. And still he wrote those magical songs.

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“De-Lovely” is a musical and a biography, and brings to both of those genres a worldly sophistication that is rare in the movies. (If you seek to find how rare, compare this film with “Night and Day,” the 1946 biopic which stars Cary Grant as a resolutely straight Porter, even sending him off to World War I). “De-Lovely” not only accepts Porter's complications, but bases the movie on them; his lyrics take on a tantalizing ambiguity once you understand that they are not necessarily written about love with a woman:

It’s the wrong game, with the wrong chips
Though your lips are tempting, they’re the wrong lips
They’re not her lips, but they’re such tempting lips
That, if some night, you’re free
Then it’s all right, yes, it’s all right with me.

It would appear from “De-Lovely” that on many nights Porter was free, and yet Linda Lee Porter was the love and solace of his life, and she accepted him as he was. One night in Paris, they put their cards on the table.

“You know then, that I have other interests,” he says.
“Like men.”
“Yes, men.”
“You like them more than I do. Nothing is cruel if it fulfills your promise.”

Dialogue like this requires a certain wistful detachment, and Kevin Kline is ideally cast as Cole Porter: elegant, witty, always onstage, brave in the face of society and his own pain. Kline plays the piano, too, which allows the character to spend a lot of convincing time at the keyboard, writing the soundtrack of his life. But who might have known Ashley Judd would be so nuanced as Linda Lee? In those early scenes, she lets Porter know she wants him and yet allows him his freedom, and she speaks with such tact that she is perfectly understood without really having said anything at all. Yet their relationship was by definition painful for her, because it was really all on his terms. Many of his lyrics are fair enough to reflect that from her point of view:

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Every time we say goodbye, I die a little, Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little, Why the Gods above me, who must be in the know. Think so little of me, they allow you to go.

Cole and Linda met in Paris at that time in the ’20s when expatriate Americans were creating a new kind of lifestyle. Scott and Zelda were there, too, and Hemingway, and the movie supplies as the Porters’ best friends the famous American exile couple Sara and Gerald Murphy (the originals for Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night”). Porter was born with money, made piles more and spent it fabulously, on parties in Venice and traveling in high style. Linda’s sense of style suited his own: They always looked freshly pressed, always seemed at home, always had the last word, even if beneath the surface there was too much drinking and too many compromises. The chain smoking which eventually killed Linda was at first an expression of freedom, at the end perhaps a kind of defense.

The movie, directed by Irwin Winkler (“Life as a House”) and written by Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence”), is told as a series of flashbacks from a ghostly rehearsal for a stage musical based on Porter's life. Porter and a producer (Jonathan Pryce) sit in the theater, watching scenes run past, but the actors cannot see or hear Porter, and the producer may in a sense be a recording angel.

This structure allows the old, tired, widowed, wounded Porter to revisit the days of his joy, and at the same time explains the presence of many musical stars who appear, both on stage and in dramatic flashbacks, to perform Porter’s songs. Porter has famously been interpreted by every modern pop singer of significance, most memorably by Ella Fitzgerald in “The Cole Porter Songbook,” but here we get a new generation trying on his lyrics: Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl CrowNatalie Cole, Robbie Williams, Diana Krall.

The movie contains more music than most musicals, yet is not a concert film because the songs seem to rise so naturally out of the material and illuminate it. We’re reminded how exhilarating the classic American songbook is, and how inarticulate so much modern music sounds by contrast. Kline plays Porter as a man apparently able to write a perfect song more or less on demand, which would be preposterous if it were not more or less true. One of Porter’s friends was Irving Berlin, who labored to bring forth his songs and must have given long thought to how easy it seemed for Porter.

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If the film has a weakness, it is that neither Cole nor Linda ever found full, complete, passionate, satisfying romance. They couldn’t find it with each other, almost by their terms of their arrangement, but there is no evidence that Porter found it in serial promiscuity, and although Linda Lee did have affairs, they are not made a significant part of this story. They were a good fit not because they were a great love story, but because they were able to provide each other consolation in its absence.

“Strange, dear, but true, dear,” he began a song which confessed:

Even without you, My arms fold about you, You know, darling, why, So in love with you am I. 

Ebertfest 2015, Day 5: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Matt Fagerholm

Video of singer leads to invite to open, close Ebertfest by Melissa Merli

19th Ebertfest receives a lovely send-off by Melissa Merli

The following review of "Pleasantville" written by Roger Ebert was published in the official catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 22nd with director Gary Ross in attendance. Here is the introduction to the film, followed by the Q&A posted after the review.

In the twilight of the 20th century, here is a comedy to reassure us that there is hope — that the world we see around us represents progress, not decay. "Pleasantville," which is one of the year's best and most original films, sneaks up on us. It begins by kidding those old black-and-white sitcoms like "Father Knows Best," it continues by pretending to be a sitcom itself and it ends as a social commentary of surprising power.

The movie opens in today's America, which we have been taught to think of as rude, decadent and dangerous. A teenager named David languishes in front of the tube, watching a rerun of a 1950s sitcom named "Pleasantville," in which everybody is always wholesome and happy. Meanwhile, his mother squabbles with her ex-husband and his sister Jennifer prepares for a hot date.

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Having heard a whisper or two about the plot, we know that the brother and sister will be magically transported into that 1950s sitcom world. And we're expecting maybe something like "The Brady Bunch Movie," in reverse. We are correct: While David and Jennifer are fighting over the remote control, there's a knock at the door and a friendly TV repairman (Don Knotts) offers them a device "with more oomphs." They click it, and they're both in Pleasantville.

The movie has been written and directed by Gary Ross, who wrote "Big," the 1988 movie where Tom Hanks was a kid trapped in an adult body. Here the characters are trapped in a whole world. He evokes the black-and-white 1950s sitcom world of picket fences and bobby sox, where everybody is white and middle class, has a job, sleeps in twin beds, never uses the toilet and follows the same cheerful script.

Luckily, this is a world that David (Tobey Maguire) knows well; he's a TV trivia expert. It's a mystery to his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), so he briefs her: Their names are now Bud and Mary Sue, and their parents are Betty and George Parker (Joan Allen and William H. Macy). "We're, like, stuck in Nerdville!" Jennifer complains.

They are. Geography lessons at the local high school are limited to subjects like "Main Street" and "Elm Street" because the world literally ends at the city limits. Space twists back upon itself in Pleasantville, and "the end of Main Street is just the beginning again." Life always goes according to plan, and during basketball practice every shot goes in. After one player experiences sex, he is capable of actually missing a shot; a dead silence falls as the ball rolls away. "Stand back, boys!" warns the coach. "Don't touch it!" "Pleasantville" has fun during these middle sequences, as "Bud and Mary Sue" hang out at the malt shop where Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) works and park on Lover's Lane (just to hold hands). Then sparks from the emerging future begin to land here and there in the blandness. Mary Sue shares information about masturbation with her mother, who of course has never dreamed of such a pastime (as a perfect housewife, she has never done anything just for herself). As her mother relaxes in her bath, a tree outside their house breaks into flames — in full color! Ross and his cinematographer, John Lindley, work with special effects to show a black-and-white world in which some things and a few people begin switching to color. Is there a system? "Why aren't I in color?" Mary Sue asks Bud. "I dunno," he says. "Maybe it's not just the sex." It isn't. It's the change.

The kids at school are the first to start appearing in colors. They're curious and ready to change. They pepper Bud with questions. "What's outside of Pleasantville?" they ask. "There are places," he says, "where the roads don't go in a circle. They just keep going." Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" subtly appears on the soundtrack.

Bud shows Mr. Johnson a book of color art reproductions, and the soda jerk is thunderstruck by the beauty of Turner and Van Gogh. He starts painting. Soon he and Betty Parker have discovered they're kindred spirits. (After Betty turns up in color, she's afraid to show herself, and in a scene of surprising tenderness, her son helps her put on gray makeup.) George Parker, meanwhile, waits disconsolately at home for his routine to continue, and the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce (J.T. Walsh, in his last performance) notes ominously, "Something is happening in our town." Yes, something, in a town where nothing ever did. The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. The movie is like the defeat of the body snatchers: The people in color are like former pod people now freed to move on into the future. We observe that nothing creates fascists like the threat of freedom.

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"Pleasantville" is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom. I grew up in the '50s. It was a lot more like the world of "Pleasantville" than you might imagine. Yes, my house had a picket fence, and dinner was always on the table at a quarter to six, but things were wrong that I didn't even know the words for. There is a scene in this movie where it rains for the first time. Of course it never rained in 1950s sitcoms. Pleasantville's people in color go outside and just stand in it.


Ebertfest 2017, Day 4: Being Human is Hard by Sam Fragoso

The following review of "Varieté" written by Richard Neupert was published in the catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 21st with live orchestra accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. Here is the introduction to the film, followed by the Q&A posted after the review.

With “Varieté,” Ewald André Dupont offers a splendid example of both German and European film style of the mid-1920s. Dupont, who began in the world of newspaper criticism, quickly became a leading member of the post-World War I German Expressionist movement. He worked his way up at the most prestigious studio in Europe, Germany’s Ufa. By the time he made “Varieté,” he had become fully immersed in German cinema, known by its huge modern studios, evocative lighting and set design, and spectacularly “unfettered” mobile camera work. Dupont was also influenced by the French impressionists and their experimentation with rapid editing, shifting focus and reckless camera mobility to suggest excited mental states. For “Varieté” and its tale of death-defying acrobats, Dupont actually attached tracks to the ceiling of the vast Berlin Wintergarten theater to provide a dizzying trapeze-like perspective from above the action. As historian Lotte Eisner put it, “The camera, operated by the great Karl Freund, follows the agile forms as they leap forward and fly through space, turning over and over in daring somersaults or suddenly plunging earthwards in an almost certain fall… In this ebb and flow of light and movement, the love interest has only secondary importance.” Yet, the love story is central; the tale’s set of romantic triangles provides the fuel for Dupont’s explosive visual style. 

Varieté remains Dupont’s most fascinating work. Based on a Felix Hollander novel which Dupont adapted, the narrative is told in flashback by the imprisoned Boss Huller (Emil Jannings, of “The Last Laugh” and “Blue Angel” fame). His sad, intriguing confessional offers a slightly more conventional narrative structure than that of the famous “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Huller is a terrific storyteller in a pathetic situation. He begrudgingly offers recollections about his previous life, happily married and father to a child. His wife (Maly Delschaft) has obviously sacrificed much over the years and now a new young acrobat, Bertha-Marie (Lya de Putti) arrives, reminding Huller of his earlier, more daring life and self. Huller decides to relaunch his own acrobatic career with Bertha-Marie and another partner, the less-than-reliable Artinelli (Warwik Ward). Their intertwined trajectories lurch along with all the tragic momentum of a great novel, to say nothing of a later classic film noir. As Georges Sadoul explains, “Varieté was an enormous success and exerted considerable effect on film technique in Hollywood. Emil Jannings gives what is certainly his best performance and Lya de Putti radiates a convincing sense of voluptuous eroticism.” Dupont offers a spell-binding saga of desire, jealousy and betrayal. According to the New York Times at the time, “Varieté” was one of the strongest dramas ever told: “The lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art.” “Varieté" indeed proved influential in Hollywood and beyond, immediately recognized as something new, exciting and culturally significant. 

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After the great critical and financial success of “Varieté,” E.A. Dupont struck out on his own as an international director working first in Hollywood and then in England, where he shot the stylish “Moulin Rouge” (1928), among others. Like many German directors, Dupont’s stunning technical abilities were highly valued in other countries by producers and audiences alike. However, with the coming of sound, Dupont never quite matched the exuberance and technical ingenuity displayed in his masterful silent melodramas. 

He is now considered one of the great cinematic figures of the 1920s, helping usher in the era of the European auteur-director. Lewis Jacobs once wrote that, “‘Varieté' put American movie-goers into a white heat of enthusiasm over film art.” This screening, with the incomparable accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, is guaranteed to instill that same wonder and respect for one of the great artistic accomplishments of the silent cinema.

Ebertfest 2017, Day 3: A Special Short, The World's Greatest Actress and More by Peter Sobczynski

The following review of "July and Half of August" written by Matt Zoller Seitz was published in the catalogue of Ebertfest 2017. It screened at the festival on April 21st with screenwriter Sheila O'Malley in attendance. Here is an interview with O'Malley, followed by the festival trailer edited by Michael Mirasol.

“Let’s just say that men and women have a different concept of time,” Neve (Annika Marks) tells her ex-lover Jack (Robert Baker) in “July and Half of August.” Like a lot of statements in this terse, piercing short film, which watches the former couple tie off loose ends during a single conversation at a dive bar, it is at once true and not true, analytical and self-serving. The film captures how a certain kind of smart person talks: sincerely and passionately, but also in a way that flaunts their education and intellect, in hopes of salving old wounds and convincing the listener that the image they’re trying to put forth is accurate, and not just hype or wishful thinking. 

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“July and Half of August” is directed by Brandeaux Torville, in stark black-and-white that evokes a Billy Wilder comedy, and written by film critic Sheila O’Malley, a regular contributor to RogerEbert.com. It is part of a projected feature film that tells the story of Jack and Neve’s relationship, which, as the title indicates, unfolded in about six weeks on summer, and that was so rooted in raw intellectual and sexual chemistry that neither party seems comfortable describing it as a relationship. I was lucky enough to attend the first reading of Sheila’s original version of “July and Half of August” a few years ago—one of those rare, welcome occasions when a friend asks you to give them notes on something they made and not only do you not have to struggle to come up with complimentary things to say, you run out of superlatives because the work is so good that you can feel the audience leaning forward in their seats to see what the characters will say next. What’s fascinating to me about this short, though, is that you can intuit what came before just from watching Marks and Baker talk, listen, chew ice, and fiddle with their hair or with the rim of a beer glass. Like a finely wrought minimalist short story, it sketches a key moment in two people's lives in a handful of words and images.

Ebertfest 2017, Day 3: A Special Short, The World's Greatest Actress and More by Peter Sobczynski

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