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Ebertfest 2018, Days 4 & 5: “Daughters of the Dust,” “The Big Lebowski,” “13th” and More

Want indelible proof that great cinema is indeed timeless? Look no further than the films of Auguste and Louis Lumière, who captured images that manage to enlighten, amaze and in some cases, elicit belly laughs over a century after they were made. Day 4 of Ebertfest’s 20th anniversary installment opened with “The Lumière Brothers and the Birth of Cinema,” an hour-long lecture given by Richard Neupert, the professor whose marvelous introductions to silent classics are an annual highlight of the festival. His presentation on the trailblazing brothers included an expertly curated series of clips immortalized by their cameras. Viewers at the time couldn’t imagine how anyone would prefer the false, flat backdrops of theatre over movies showcasing the wonder of real life. Even veteran preservationist Barry Allen was impressed with the footage Neupert had selected, a good deal of which was decidedly anti-colonialist, epitomized by a scene of wealthy women throwing seeds to a group of poor children as if they were pigeons. Equally striking was the shot of women tirelessly doing laundry, their reflections visible in the water, as men stood motionless in the background. This is a key example of how the filmmakers went about surveying the essence of modern life in all corners of the world, allowing multiple planes of action to unfold within the frame. 

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I especially enjoyed the excerpt Neupert selected from a review of the Lumières’ famous film in which a train arrives at a station. The amount of information the writer infers from the fleeting appearances of passengers is quite touching, singling out the “young man with the humble bundle who has left home in search of work.” In terms of comedy, the Lumière Brothers certainly weren’t against staging pratfalls, as witnessed by the vignette of a gardener getting pranked by a kid. Yet I was surprised by just how loudly I laughed at the sight of grown men participating in a sack race, some of whom opt to awkwardly shuffle down the street rather than hop alongside the others.

One of the most rapturous ovations I’ve seen in the six years I’ve been attending Ebertfest was received by Ava DuVernay, the celebrated director who flew to Champaign, Illinois, amidst a busy schedule, in order to attend the Saturday morning screening of her Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary, “13th.” I immediately rose to my feet when she appeared on the stage, not just because her film is a towering achievement but because its call to action is overwhelming in its potency. DuVernay’s film pinpoints the 13th Amendment’s loophole approving slavery “as a punishment for crime,” and uses it as her jumping off point for a scathing indictment of the U.S. prison system. She explores how the “war on drugs” propelled by Nixon and enforced by Reagan targeted African-American communities, sending the vast majority of prisoners to jail without a fair trial. 

The festival audience applauded renowned activist Angela Davis for unapologetically wearing an afro to her court hearing, and several audience members booed Donald Trump, whose racist comments about “the good old days” are chillingly played over footage of the violence he incited at his own rallies. Though DuVernay is grateful to Netflix for giving her full creative control over her film, making it available in 190 countries on the same day, seeing “13th” on the enormous screen of the Virginia Theatre made for an infinitely more impactful viewing experience. In the wonderful Q&A that followed, DuVernay recalled how the reviews penned by Roger Ebert and Ebertfest guest Carrie Rickey of her 2011 feature debut, “I Will Follow,” played a crucial role in launching her career. “Don’t knock on closed doors,” she advised the aspiring artists in attendance. “Build your own house and your own door.”

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The more you concentrate on the sparsely subtitled dialogue in Julie Dash’s 1991 masterpiece, “Daughters of the Dust,” the more you are bound to be left mystified. Dash’s portrait of a Gullah family living on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia circa 1902 is visual poetry of the highest order, illustrating how this particular community kept the culture of their ancestors alive, while being among the first generation of African-Americans who were “born free.” Scars of slavery are detected in hands stained permanently blue by indigo. Though Aunt Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) commissions a photographer to chart her family’s trip to the mainland—a journey to modern civilization that will ironically leave them in the ghetto—she eventually finds that her adopted way of life cannot fill the spiritual void within her companion. There’s also a Native American inhabitant of the islands who resisted marching with his family to a destination deceptively promised as “a better place.” “If they stayed behind,” Dash noted during the post-screening Q&A, “they would’ve had everything they needed.” 

Dubbing the Ebertfest attendees the “warmest and most engaged audience” she’s encountered since traveling to a festival in India, Dash was entirely humble every time her work was praised. DuVernay referred to her as the “Queen Mother,” and was thrilled to have Dash direct two episodes of her OWN series, “Queen Sugar.” What’s distressing is that Dash has been unable to direct another theatrical feature, despite the fact that “Daughters of the Dust” is hailed as one of the seminal achievements in American cinema. Onstage, the director revealed that she had initially wanted to make a silent film, and had intended on it feeling like a foreign import, recounting its tale in the style of an African griot. Dash marveled at the “artistic courageousness” of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video (which paid homage to “Daughters of the Dust”), and recalled how her extras mistakenly thought their hair needed to be tied a certain way, simply because they had seen the hairstyle in “Gone With the Wind.” I couldn’t help being reminded of the “life imitating art” anecdote in “13th,” when DuVernay revealed that cross-burning wasn’t a tactic utilized by the KKK until D.W. Griffith lensed it in “Birth of a Nation” for its cinematic value.

After the ferocity of “13th” and the hypnotic majesty of “Daughters of the Dust,” it was refreshing to sit back and cherish the perfectly pitched mixture of dark humor and lovely humanism in Martha Coolidge’s 1991 gem, “Rambling Rose.” In the “Siskel & Ebert” review unearthed from the archives that played before the feature, Gene Siskel quoted a line from the script that struck him as profound, delivered by Robert Duvall: “Some of us die, some of us don’t.” The latter is certainly true of Rose (Laura Dern), the young woman who escapes a life of prostitution by agreeing to live with Duvall’s family during the Great Depression. Taking place in Georgia (a.k.a. the “mainland” in “Daughters of the Dust”), Coolidge’s film slyly tackles the ways in which women are oppressed in American society, even by men who are, in many respects, good at heart. During the Q&A, my colleague Sheila O’Malley discussed perhaps the film’s most moving sequence, centering on Duvall’s discovery that what had seemed appropriate in his mind—regarding how to solve Rose’s “promiscuous” problem—was actually monstrous. The tear that subtly caresses his face is stunning to behold, and according to Coolidge, it was achieved in a single take. 

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An entire festival could be curated that contains the collaborations of Dern and her real-life mother Diane Ladd, who both earned well-deserved Oscar nominations for Coolidge’s film. Ladd plays Duvall’s wife, who has no qualms with “squeezing the trigger” in order to hit people “with the truth right between the eyes.” The audience alternatively squirmed and squealed with delight at Coolidge’s frank portrayal of the sexual awakening that occurs within Duvall’s son, sublimely played by Lukas Haas. When Rose cautions him that “curiosity killed the cat,” his response (“Satisfaction brought him back”) brought down the house. Elmer Bernstein’s score has several flourishes that are evocative of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” particularly in the film’s final moments, a bittersweet ode to, in Ladd’s words, “life itself.” After seeing a cut of “Rambling Rose,” the legendary composer told Coolidge, “I would pay you to let me score your picture.”

In the pantheon of astonishing Ebertfest moments ranging from Tilda Swinton’s conga line to Donald O’Connor’s final public appearance, the spectacle of Jeff Dowd dancing down the aisles to Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” ranks somewhere near the top. Dowd is an accomplished producer and activist who served as the real-life inspiration for Jeff Lebowski, the iconic character nicknamed “The Dude” and played by Jeff Bridges in Joel & Ethan Coen’s 1998 comic odyssey, “The Big Lebowski.” Though “Daughters of the Dust” wouldn’t seem to be an obvious companion piece at the outset, both films have a dreamlike quality as well as narrators prone to losing their train of thought (“I’m rambling’ again,” admits Sam Elliott in voice-over). The Q&A that followed this spectacular 20th anniversary screening had decidedly more Qs than As, as Dowd’s insights spiraled off into tangents that left the audience amused, captivated and occasionally baffled. He correctly noted that Chaz Ebert, the festival’s co-founder and host, also had a tendency to go off-script during her daily introductions, and that is a big part of the festival’s appeal, as well as the singular charm of this film.

Dowd recalled that many critics didn’t like the film upon its initial release because it lacked a cathartic third act, whereas this one is assuredly existentialist, strolling along like a “tumblin’ tumbleweed.” Though it falls in line with other Coen pictures where characters find themselves perpetually in over their heads, Dowd says that The Dude is a “holy fool liberated from the concerns of everyday fear.” Seeing the film with a full house, it’s clearer than ever that “The Big Lebowski” is one of the funniest films ever made, anchored by brilliant performances from its cast, particularly John Goodman as Walter, a volatile Vietnam vet who routinely tells his alleged pal, Donny (Steve Buscemi, the Mel Cooley of the piece), to “shut the f—k up.” Like Lebowski, Dowd was one of the Seattle Seven, famous members of the anti-Vietnam movement, the Seattle Liberation Front. Whereas the 60s was characterized by seismic cultural shifts, Dowd believes that present movements occurring in the world are even more exciting because they are systemic in nature. In order to bring about tangible change, Dowd encouraged the audience to make short, viral videos that are about something important. Perhaps they can borrow a few techniques from the Lumière Brothers.

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Ebertfest 2018 came to a close on Sunday, April 22nd, and began with footage of Roger’s longtime friend, Bill Nack, who passed away earlier this month. The clip selected by Chaz was from Steve James’ “Life Itself,” and showed Nack reciting the critic’s favorite passage in all of literature: the last words from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Nack recited these same lines onstage when “Life Itself” opened the festival in 2014 and his presence was felt throughout the theater yesterday as his face flickered on the screen. This turned out to be the perfect prelude to the festival’s final feature, Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Mairoana’s prize-winning documentary, “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” a film about the oft-forgotten ways that our past informs our present. Following in the footsteps of other rousing pictures illuminating vital stories from our history, such as “Hidden Figures” and “20 Feet from Stardom,” the film provides a rich assortment of vignettes detailing how the influence of Native American artists on popular music has long gone unacknowledged. Guitarist Link Wray’s galvanizing performance on the 1958 instrumental hit, “Rumble,” serves as the film’s anthem, embodying the disruptive spirit that has been channeled into protests at reservations like Standing Rock. From Mildred Bailey’s groundbreaking vocals to drummer Randy Castillo’s tribal rhythms—reminiscent of a heartbeat—the film ended Ebertfest on a joyous exclamation point, yet the show was far from over. 

Joining Mairoana for a post-screening Q&A with Peabody award-winning director Rita Coburn-Whack and renowned pianist George Lepauw was a special guest who captured the audience’s heart. Pura Fé, an indigenous solo artist who appears in the film, brought her songs to the Virginia Theatre, treating the audience to a concert that was simply spellbinding. The singer-songwriter’s technique of recording her voice and then harmonizing with it, layering track upon track, beautifully conveys how the voices of ancestors are echoed throughout the generations, enabling us to move like boats against the current, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Some of us die, some of us don’t, and thanks to art forms like cinema, some of us never will.

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