This is one of the best films of 2015.
I have feelings more than ideas. I am tired, but very happy. My 11th annual film festival has just wrapped at the Virginia Theater in my home town, and what I can say is, it worked. There is no such thing as the best year or the worst year. But there is such a thing as a festival where every single film seemed to connect strongly with the audience. Sitting in the back row, seeing these films another time, sensing the audience response, I thought: Yes, these films are more than good, and this audience is a gathering of people who feel that.
Let me tell you about the last afternoon, the screening of a newly restored 70mm print of "Baraka." The 1,600 seats of the main floor and balcony were very nearly filled. The movie exists of about 96 minutes of images, music and sound. Nothing else. No narration. No subtitles. No plot, no characters. Just the awesome beauty of this planet and the people who live on it. The opening scene of a monkey, standing chest-deep in a warm pool in the snow, looking. Looking in a very long and patient shot, which invites us to see through his eyes. Then the stars in the sky above. "Baraka" is a meditation on what it means to be awake to the world.
Nobody stirred. People were as quiet as during a religious ceremony. There was deep attention in a way rarely seen in the cinema. It was then I realized that it had been that way for the whole five days, starting with the four-hour version of "Woodstock," each film winning attention in its own way. These films were so different. Their subjects were so widely varied. They all shared one quality: The fervent passion of their makers, and their need to get these movies on a screen.
So many movies are extruded like sausages. Grind up everything that's usable, stuff it into the casing of a marketing campaign, package them six to the weekend, pull them off sale after they begin to spoil. These films were not disposable.
From "The Fall." Real, not computer-generated.
Any festival brings together audiences and those who create films. Again this year, that spirit of togetherness was radiated by my wife Chaz, the cheerful emcee. This year, the most urgent filming was performed by Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott. They had a new video camera, and because they lacked a way to get out of town, they stayed during Hurricane Katrina and filmed the tragedy from the inside out. You do not really know about Katrina if you know only the mainstream news version. One audience member observed that Fox News showed footage of a young black man described as a looter. He was holding a single loaf of bread. The federal and local government disappeared for the first five days of the hurricane. About 100,000 stranded victims had no supplies of food, water or medical care, and no electricity. Fox News looked at them and saw looters.
I got to know the Roberts family, who stayed to see all the movies with their sweet baby Skyy. They represent the hope of the future. Having lost everything, they returned to New Orleans, started over, and Kimberley was so encouraged by the audience reaction to a rap song she wrote and performed onscreen that she is now Black Kold Madina, a rap artist. Her music is positive, encouraging, but with a righteous social message.
Talk about your coincidences. Catinca Untaru, the heroine of "The Fall," stopped off in New York to visit family. In the Levi's store, who did she run into? Isamar Gonzales, the heroine of "Chop Shop."
The post-film discussion included Kimberley and Scott, and the directors of the film, Carl Deal, a home-town boy from Champaign, and Tia Lessin. Kimberley and Scott were not very politically savvy during the hurricane, we observe in the film. They have learned a lot in the years since. During the discussion, their analysis of the on-the-ground political realities was so intelligent and insightful, and so clearly stated, that they brought Katrina into an entirely new focus. I told Kimberly she should run for office, and it wasn't merely a compliment. In a debate she would blow Bobby Jindal out of the water. He wouldn't be able to crawl back onstage for a second debate. She doesn't depend on ideological theory, but on observation and common sense. Her live performance after the Q&A brought the audience to its feet.
We met another family, Catinca Untaru from Romania and her mother and stepfather. They were the kind of people you like at first sight. Catinca is the star of Tarsem's "The Fall," which of course awed the audience. She is now 12, is not simply a beauty but an alive and merry one, poised, friendly, genuine, completely articulate in English, and wants to be an actress. She is also funny. I warned her against attending the bleakly realistic vampire movie "Let the Right One In," saying it was about 12-year-olds but not for 12-year-olds. "We have lots of vampires in Romania," she said.
I was trying to figure out the budget for Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues," the animated musical by a home town Urbana girl that took the festival by storm. She wrote, produced, directed, animated, designed and edited it herself. Here's what I came up with: (1) Computer. (2) Software. (3) Electric bill.
As a result of her adventures with the music in her film, Paley has become an expert on copyright issues, and made a persuasive case for sharing the film for free on the web. If you have the bandwidth and time, you can even download a full 35mm file, and make a print yourself, which you will then own and be free to exhibit. She says giving the film away has boosted its fame, increased its actual DVD sales, and enhanced the value of the entire project. It has even created renewed interest in Annette Hanshaw, whose late-1920s recordings are used in the film. Even though the corporate copyright holders zealously protect their rights, Paley said, the original Hanshaw masters were trashed for scrap metal years ago.
The Show World paintings of Elise Hill
Look at the warmth generated by Karen Gehres and her documentary "Begging Naked." It is the portrait, filmed over 20 years, of a friend she made who has been a runaway, stripper, drug dealer, addict, and prostitute, and is currently living in Central Park. She is also a survivor, an involved artist and writer, and her analysis of the sex industry is clear-eyed and sane. She detoxed and stopped selling drugs "because I didn't want to hold people down." Her name is Elise Hill, and she is smart and articulate, despite mental illness. She painted other girls and their lusting audiences while she was actually onstage at Show World in the 42nd street adult district.
Her paintings were shown in the movie. They have been on display on Gehres' web site for at least six months. They were placed on sale across the street from the theater, and so well did the film present her life and art that every single one was sold. I noticed that my cousin Florence Ebert was attending the screening. Her age is her business, but she won't see 90 again. Ohmigod, I thought. A film about an addict and stripper. She told me she loved it. Of course. Florence was a nurse, a member of that noble profession. She's seen more of life than I have.
Guy Maddin, the one-of-a-kind Canadian filmmaker, returned with his "My Winnipeg," which I said, quite seriously, evoked my feelings for my home town. If you have only read about the film, you may find that incredible. I can't tell you how many Champaign-Urbana people told me they felt the same way. It's about the home town many of us create in our minds. On stage, Maddin was hilarious in discussing his work methods. His films are obviously created with meticulous care, but to hear him tell it, they happen to him--mostly by accident. He could go on tour as the Mark Twain of the cinema. (By the way, yes, it is absolutely true that Winnipeg horses fleeing a stable fire stampeded into the river and were frozen in place, their heads staring at the ice skaters all winter long. I would have bet the barn they were fiction.)
The second most macabre use of dead horses in film
Matt Dillon was here with Rod Lurie's film "Nothing But the Truth." I'll be reviewing it in a few days. What engaged me was how interested Dillon is in films, and how well-informed. He was pumping every director in sight, and the critics too, comparing notes on films, mentioning books he had read, very obviously knowing exactly what he was talking about. Lurie's film involves a newspaper reporter, and he was depressed about the prospects for newspapers. He said the canaries in the coal mine are a paper's film critics and editorial cartoonists. They provide unique local voices. I could not agree with him more. He knows the subject at first hand. He is a former film critic, and the son of the great editorial cartoonist Ranan Lurie.
The Alloy Orchestra returned again, and performed with von Sternberg's "The Last Command," from 1928, which Peter Bogdanovich describes as the greatest year in the history of the movies. The Alloy, Kristin Thompson of the University of Wisconsin and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune traded stories about the tension between von Sternberg and his star. Emil Jannings was said to have a gigantic ego, which is provocative, because von Sternberg was not noted for his own modesty. Leave it to Thompson to know the real story of the Czarist general who became a Hollywood extra. As always, I was fascinated by the power of silent film to draw me into a reverie state so deep it is like a waking dream.
The general who became an extra
There were a few early walk-outs (or perhaps they were escapes) from the realistic vampire film, "Let the Right One In," and that's what I expected. The audience in general was so absorbed you could have heard a pin drop. I had some apprehension that the blood lust of the movie, and its unflinching detail, might be alienating, but no: The audience seemed to sense the deep emotional seriousness of the film, and its ambiguity. Is it a touching romance transcending the human/vampire/gender void, or is Eli subtly seducing her next familiar?
Missy Upham is willowy and beautiful, with a warm smile. So different is she in person from the desperate Mohawk woman she plays in "Frozen River" that few people recognized her. That's been a problem at awards ceremonies, said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics: "I would turn up in the photo line with Missy, Melissa Leo and [writer-director] Courtney Hunt, and the photographers wouldn't even shoot her. They asked me who she was."
How did she change her physical appearance for the film? "Ate like a pig. Didn't clean my skin. Didn't work out. Ate junk food. I put on weight so quickly I underwent hormonal changes. I developed post-pregnancy syndrome, and started lactating, but without the benefit of a baby." The film has brought her fame and recognition, but check her on IMDb and you see she is classically trained and works all the time, although too much of the time, she smiled, she has to wear a feather in her hair. I think she could play most characters her age. Non-traditional casting will free her.
The real Misty Upham
Ramin Bahrani returned to the festival for the second time, with his great "Chop Shop." Having been through the film a shot at a time two weeks ago at Boulder, I now watched it all the way through in 35mm, and was struck again by what an American masterpiece it is. What struck me, too, was Bahrani's willingness to share details of his work methods and film-making philosophy. He is unusually knowledgeable about films and filmmaking, and said he settled on the 50mm lens for most of his shots after figuring out why Bresson used it so consistently. It is the nearest to the perception of the human eye.
I was proud of the high quality of audience questions. These people know their movies. Listening from the back row, I realized the audience Q&As are the heart of the festival. Many festivals have time for only a few perfunctory questions (someone is always compelled to ask, "What was your budget?" and "How long did you shoot?"--although I suspect if they heard "fifteen cents" and "five years" they'd nod wisely). We let the sessions run a little, and I recruited a room full of film critic pals to ask the questions.
There was a moment on the last afternoon, when we were still under the spell of "Baraka," when someone praised the 70mm cinematography, and asked if the filmmakers would consider high definition video if they made it today. They would not. Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson said they are currently preparing a new feature, but that they don't feel High Def is quite there yet. "Every year there's a new, improved format," Magidson said. "But when we go around the world to find these images, we want to bring them back in a form that will last forever." I had described the Blu-ray disc of "Baraka" as the best-looking video disk I had ever seen, or ever hoped to see. They said it looked so good because the film started with a 70mm print.
It looked good on the screen, too. James Bond of Chicago, one of the best projectionists in the world, brought new lenses for the twin 70mm projectors. Then he heard of even newer lenses from another company, drove back to Chicago, brought them down, and he and his colleague Steve Kraus tested them in the dead of the night. He also had new lenses for 35mm, and state-of-the-art high-def projection. Great projection requires great projectionists.
It is more difficult and costs more to shoot in 70mm, and there are heavy cameras to carry around. But Fricke and Magidson have that much respect for their work. In the case of most films made today, few people expect them to last forever. Many are happy if they run for a month. In a real sense, the "forever" feeling was in the air at the grand old Virginia theater, so beautifully restored. It was built as a cathedral for the cinema, and now it was showing its audiences transcendent films. The ticky-tacky multiplexes get the movies they deserve.
Kimberley Roberts (left) and a friend, two weeks after Katrina in "Trouble the Water"
"Amazing," by Black Kold Madina, performed in "Trouble the Water"
Janis Joplin at Woodstock
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
An article about Spike Lee's Honorary Oscar at the 2015 AMPAS Governors Awards.