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Ebertfest 2017, Day 1: Come for the Movie, Stay for the Company

This year’s Ebertfest opened with a question: “How many film festivals begin with their very own organist?” Better yet, what festival—film or otherwise—jumpstarts the festivities with a gorgeous rendition of “God Bless America” by Jimmy Demmers? Or a brief moment to publicly celebrate the marriage of Editor Matt Zoller Seitz and his spouse Nancy Dawson, along with her birthday? How about an impassioned prelude, by festival co-founder Chaz Ebert, urging all in attendance to take the path of empathy? “We are better when we’re all better, together,” she told the audience. All of this unfolded before projectionist James Bond (yes, that is his name) even presented a single frame of "Hair." That’s Ebertfest for you: come for the movie, stay for the company.

Receptive as ever, a packed Virginia Theater crowd reveled in the newly restored 35mm print of Milos Forman’s 1979 classic. For those in need of a refresher, “Hair” opens its doors to us at a barren bus stop in Oklahoma. A father and son, both in cowboy hats, are parting ways. The son, Claude Bukowski (John Savage), is off to fight in the Vietnam War. The father gives his son money, perhaps for the last time. Then Claude ambles onto the coach bus, New York City-bound. The mood in this brief exchange is sullen and melancholic, which is fairly antithetical to the jubilance that follows.

Claude is almost immediately embraced by a pack of wayward hippies, led by George Berger (Treat Williams). George and company are relentlessly silly. Free spirits trapped in a world too serious for its own good. Dancing, pranking and singing, they stumble around the city that never sleeps. Claude, who has two days before being shipped off to combat, joins them.

Since its 1979 release, “Hair” has ascended into a rarified stratosphere. It’s no longer just a touchstone in post-Vietnam moviemaking; it’s a cultural phenomenon. Adapting from the 1968 Broadway musical of the same name, screenwriter Michael Weller navigates the 1960s seamlessly. As the Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips pointed out in the post-screening Q&A, “there’s no kitsch” on screen here. 38 years removed, and “Hair” still rings with authenticity. With the assistance of George and company, Claude is introduced to everything he missed out on in Oklahoma: psychedelics, LSD, marijuana, polygamy.

In a haze of smoke, Claude does not resist these new pastures; he accepts them. Savage plays the part perfectly. It’s uncertain as to whether Claude is naïve or merely curious. “Hair” similarly straddles duality. It’s both gleefully unhinged and cleverly self-aware. The show-stopping musical numbers (of which there are plenty) are sometimes so sudden you think they may have been improvised. And yet there is a precision that Forman brings to the table that’s often unfound in musicals. The meticulous staging of sequences, from George dancing across a dinner table to Cheryl Barnes belting a ballad in Central Park, are awe-inducing.

The gifts keep on coming: Miroslav Ondricek’s lush cinematography, the rapid cross-cutting, the emphasis, throughout, on faces. For a movie that featured a large cast and thousands of extras, Forman created something that was at once intimate and universal. You feel when Claude becomes entranced by Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), or when Barnes is singing in the snow about the inexplicable cruelty of people. The movie does not waste time, but Forman’s also unafraid to linger on a moment—a character in lust, a gaggle of friends stoned and inquisitive, a young woman (Jeannie, played by Annie Golden) disheartened by the lack of attention.

At first glance, “Hair” seemed like an unexpected way to open Ebertfest. It’s a movie not often discussed, or exalted, by critics these days. And general audiences seem more obsessed with the musical, which seems to have an ongoing residency across America. But the movie is still potent and timely. It’s staunchly anti-war, fighting against the red tape of DC bureaucracy and a war the people are uninterested in waging. Musically, it finds itself at the intersection of Grateful Dead and Sly and the Family Stone. Hallucinogens and funk, rock and soul.

It’s ideologically complex. Afterward, Michael Hausman (a longtime collaborator of Milos Forman) was eager to evaluate where the film fits into today’s climate. “The film is better tonight than when we originally put it out,” he said, laughing. “This country is in serious trouble. Worse, in my opinion, than it was in ’68. Empathy is the most important thing in the world, and there’s too little of it in this country right now.” In that moment, it became clear why Chaz and festival director Nate Kohn programmed "Hair." For all its joyfully bold and crude rhetoric—its titillating carnal interests—Forman crafted a masterclass in acceptance and empathy. Each character in “Hair” differs from one another. Their desires, fears, proclivities are not the same. But they are inextricably linked by empathy—an openness to new ideas and, best of all, people.

Fittingly, when the night came to a close at the Virginia, a pack of Ebertfest guests and fellows walked across the street to a pub. We sat around two tables, most of us strangers to one another. There were writers from Hawaii and Los Angeles, New York and Chicago; a professor from the University of San Diego; a co-founder of Fandor. There were also just locals, who came out last night, excited to see "Hair." Then, after everyone had a drink or two, Hausman walked in, his golden thumb in tow. He was radiating. “I’ll join you! Let me get a drink.” Sure enough, Hausman took a seat at the table, holding court for an hour while we sat around and asked questions. He was in his element, regaling us with stories of working with Forman and “Marty” Scorsese, including a long story about the making of “Gangs of New York” that killed. When we weren’t laughing, he offered advice and encouragement. He asked the type of questions one poses after a lifetime of accomplishments. What are you creating? What do you want in life? He told us to just start making movies. Hell, to start making our bad movies now, because when you get to his age, there’s no room for that (“unless you want to work at Starbucks afterward”). He told us to fail, get back up, and fail again. It was the type of experience you can neither expect nor plan for. It was bliss. Better yet, it was Ebertfest. 

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