Ebertfest 2018, Day 3

| April 21, 2018

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Well . . . you can win ‘em all.

Day 3 of Champaign, Illinois’ 20th Ebertfest was packed with the usual fan excitement amid a cold weather pattern that seemed to be improving.  One could only hope that the roster of movies featured on the schedule were worth getting excited about.  Save for American Splendor, the showcase of films left a lot to be desired – my wife and I seemed to be alone in that assessment.

First up was the beloved indie confection Columbus, a dream for the average analytical film goer, but a bit of aggravation for the average film goer.  Written and directed by Korean filmmaker Kogonada (he goes by one name, like Cher), the film follows the long and winding exploits of a Korean-American intellectual named Jin (John Cho) who arrives in Columbus, Indiana and finds himself stuck there when his father collapses at work.  Not wishing to spend time at his father’s side (there’s a flimsy explanation for that), Jin wanders the environs of his father’s beautiful work, perhaps trying to find some purpose in this whole life business, perhaps just waiting around for the old man to kick off.

His rebound of emotion is brought to the surface by his accidental friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) a college-age kid who put her life plan on hold in order to take care of her mother (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict who is now, in Casey’s words, “Addicted to shit-heads.”

This sounds better than it plays out.  The film is rather dry emotionally, and much of the film involves Jin and Casey standing around having conversations while we wait impatiently for the movie to get to the freaking point.  At the panel after the film, director Kogonada confessed that the intent of the film was to focus on the spaces that exist in the film away from the action and the drama.  It’s an interesting approach, but it makes for a very long and very frustrating film. Again, as I say, my wife and I were alone in our disenchantment.  Everyone else seemed to be eating it up.  To each his own I guess.

I can confess however, that the response was much more universal with the next film in the line-up.  One of the great constant elements to Ebertfest is the annual performance by the Alloy Orchestra, a musical ensemble that was formed in 1990 and is based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Their specialty is performing their own accompaniment to silent films and this year they backed one of the oddest bits of mishegoss that I have ever seen.

Enter A Page of Madness, a 1926 Japanese film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa and thought to be lost for decades (many Japanese films of the pre-war era were lost to allied bombing) until 1971 when it was discovered by the director himself in a rice can in an old shed.

We were told that half an hour of the film is still missing, but I suspect that it may not have helped.  The extremely disjointed narrative is presented without subtitles and takes place in a mental institution where . . . something is happening.  There’s a janitor who seems to be privately overseeing a women that we think is his wife.  He seems to be trying to engineer her escape and there are a lot of flashbacks to earlier times – I think.  The film is a jumble of images, many of which don’t seem to have purpose or meaning.  Trying to find a settlement for the film in my mind, I can say that I thought of films as varied as 2001: A Space OdysseyThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and even Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.  By comparison, however, those films were practically leading you by the hand.

Let’s put it this way, it was a relief after the film that the panel of experts was just as buffaloed by this movie as the people in the audience.  It was entertaining, during the Q&A that the audience and the experts were trying to work out what they had just seen.

Anyway, after a long break came the one film of the day that I can say that I really enjoyed, American Splendor, the hugely entertaining 2003 meta-lark that proposes to inside the life and times of one Harvey Pekar, the acerbic comic book writer who took the misery of his day to day existence working as a file clerk in Cleveland and turning it into food for the masses (with the help of Robert Crumb’s illustrations).  The story is largely told by Pekar himself seated on a piece-meal set that looks like avantgard theater, but the story he is relaying takes place in a real space where Pekar is played in a wonderful performance by Paul Giamatti, backed up by an equally good performance by Hope Davis as his wife Joyce.

I will admit, I had never seen the film before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect – given the sarcasm I though maybe I was in for a Cleveland-based version of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  But it’s not.  While Pekar does come off as a lowly, cynical schlub, Giamatti does not turn him into a screaming monster.  He’s an ordinary guy, sometimes an unlovable guy, who just happened to get lucky with is illustrated confessionals-turned-phenomenon.

After the movie, the panel included directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, producer Ted Hope, rogerebert.com critic Nick Allen and moderator Leonard Maltin.  They recalled that they were not exactly given an enviable task: take piles of Pekar’s comics and some tapes of his legendary appearences on “Late Night with David Letterman” and turn it into a pliable screenplay.  Then came a bizarre odyssey in which they were called to Cleveland where Pekar put them up in a hotel next to the very same hospital where Cole Porter apparently wrote “Night and Day.”  This could make a movie on its own.

Proof of the magic of the Ebertfest audience came from rogerebert.com editor Matt Stoller Zeitz who confessed that back in ’03, he gave the film a middling review, but upon seeing it again his response was much more positive.  It would be hard not to be.  When the Ebertfest audience is happy, it’s hard not to be happy yourself especially with such a strange and original film as this.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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