Ebert Fest 2013: Two Panels, Two Films, and the Glorious Tilda Swinton

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The organ pipes in The Virginia Theatre, Urbana, Illinois. Photo by me at Ebert Fest.

All throughout Ebert Fest, there were amazing panels, held at the Pine Lounge in the gorgeous student union (which also had the hotel attached to it, where Mum and I stayed). The filmmakers were featured on the panels, as were some of the actors in attendance, and the VIP guests (critics and Roger’s Far-Flung Correspondents).

On Thursday morning, I went to a couple of panels while Mum did her Spanish homework up in the room. Mum and I got into a routine. It was like we had been in Urbana together for years. One panel was called “Creative Independence in the Digital Age”, moderated by Nate Kohn, Ebert Fest festival director. Many of the directors, whose films were represented in the festival, were on the panel. How does new technology affect their decisions in terms of what films to make, how to make it? What does shooting on digital provide? Now, not all of the new films in the festival were shot digitally. There were a couple dinosaurs who shot on film. But those questions are interesting to everyone – everyone who makes movies, everyone who loves movies. Conversations have an interesting way of taking swerves (that occurred during the panel I spoke on, which was about the “art of the video essay” and then became a conversation about copyright laws and fair use), and in the Digital panel, what started as a conversation about technology became a conversation about “the system”: working within the system, or staying outside of it. It was fascinating because so many countries were represented on that panel: The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the United States. Working in each country has its challenges. So while, of course, the funding in Norway is so different than here in the US, it is also a “system”, and working outside of it can be nigh on impossible. Also, because of the state-funding that exists in other countries, often scripts are submitted to committees to “approve” of it, and suddenly everyone gets a chance to weigh in on your script. This is not a good thing. Especially if those weighing in are not artists, but representatives of special-interest groups, or people who want art to be some sort of societal corrective. For example, Joachim Trier, whose film Oslo, August 31st, was going to be playing that afternoon, said that at one point a “ruling” came down from on high that if you were going to show a cab driver onscreen, it had to be a female. Trier said, “Even though I’ve never seen a female cab driver in Oslo or anywhere else.” Trier conceded that these were important issues, gender equality and others, but to have a committee telling you to put that stuff into your script can sometimes reach absurd levels. The System can help you, and also complicate things. Filmmakers were asking one another questions about “how it worked” where they lived.

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Randy Moore, whose audacious Escape From Tomorrow was also screening at the festival, talked about how he shot his entire film (at Disney World, in Florida, without permission) on the new Canon 5Ds. He looked around and saw everyone around him, tourists, holding the same camera he was shooting his film on. The possibilities are endless.

Pablo Berger, whose Blancanieves was also screening the following day, was one of my favorite presences at the film. I’ll get to him more, but he was on the panel as well. He’s from Spain, and talked about how after his first feature, Torremolinos 73 , he “felt like James Cameron”. It took him eight years to get Blancanieves made. It’s a silent film, in black and white. Nobody wanted to get behind it. But he got it made (and thank goodness he did! What a film!) He took off his hat to show his white hair, joking, “I was young when I started the film.”

Feike Santbergen, from the Netherlands, whose short To Music had screened the day before, is a young man, and said he wasn’t a part of “the system” yet. He said, “The system is like a big castle and I am trying to find my way in.”

Joachim Trier talked about Norway’s system, and how he had been in the right place at the right time, in terms of Norway’s acceptance of/promotion of a certain kind of cinema. Norway wanted to develop directors with a certain visual style and thematic resonance, and Trier happened to fit into that. He was quite honest about it. But he also said, “I’m not a strategic director. I’m not good enough. I can only do what I want to do.”

That was a common refrain, and it was so heartening to hear. Directors make the films they want to see, they make what they like. Pablo Berger, who was almost effusive in his enthusiasm (and always funny and entertaining), said openly, “I’m a romantic. I’m a storyteller. I make films I want to see.” The issues he had getting Blancavieves made may have given him prematurely grey hair, but there was no other way for him. He said, “Spain wants to repeat past formulas,” something I think every director, regardless of the country they hail from, could relate to. Nobody wants to take a chance. You need a little vision, a little faith.

Nate Kohn, who moderated the panel, said, “It’s an educational process to get people used to looking at something different.” It sure is.

One woman, an Urbana local, stood up during the Question period, and had a comment more than a question. The topic had turned to funding, and how things like Kickstarter have (potentially) changed the game. Perhaps one might not need “the system”, or rely on it as much as they might have in previous years. That remains to be seen. Distribution is still the key. But distribution models are changing as well. We’re in a new world and nobody knows yet how it will all play out. But I loved this woman. She was in a colorful outfit, with bright white hair, and she said, “I think in terms of funding, women are an un-tapped resource. A lot of us are retired, we have money we want to spend … we just need to know the projects that are out there. I would be totally interested in funding some of the projects we’ve discussed today, but the question is how do the film-makers or producers find someone like me, and how do I find them? Women are out here, and we can be quite powerful because we have money to spend.”

It was one of the many moments in the festival when I felt a lump come to my throat. I’ve been to quite a few festivals now, and often I only see stuff in the press screenings, so that’s typically an Insider type audience. It can be hermetically sealed in there, the atmosphere. Film-makers, of course, are making movies for critics, but more than that, they are trying to find an audience. Real people, in other words. I grew up in an environment of art-lovers and art-supporters. My parents went to local theatre companies, they were subscribers at Trinity, they would go to art openings at local galleries. They had wide interests, and they supported local venues. Writ large, you can see how such support can change the game for up-and-coming film-makers and producers. This woman also said that there was an art-house theatre in town, which, unfortunately, also played blockbusters, but for one week a month, or one night a month, would feature more independent films, foreign films, classic films. “We are out here, and we are hungry for more films like that,” said this woman.

It’s an important thing to remember. Ebert Fest was a great reminder of the capability of giant diverse audiences to, as Nate Kohn said, get used to “looking at something different”. Nobody in that audience had seen anything like In the Family before. It’s three hours long, it has long takes (some up to 10 minutes long), and it stars a Chinese-American with a Tennessee accent. And yet you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre during that film, and when the laughter came, it had the beautiful release of a classic catharsis, and, as I mentioned, in the final moment of the film, 1,500 people gasped as one. Extraordinary. A beautiful reminder of what an audience really is.

After that panel, Mum and I hung out in the room for a bit. There had been a bit of a sleet thing going on early that morning. We were both attending the first film of the day, which was Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st.

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I was really looking forward to it, especially after hearing him speak at the panel and saying Hello to him. I had read Roger Ebert’s review. He wrote:

“Oslo, August 31st” is quietly, profoundly, one of the most observant and sympathetic films I’ve seen. Director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie, working together for the second time, understand something fundamental about their character. He believes the ship has sailed without him. He screwed up. He lost years in addiction and recovery. Life has moved on. His old friends like Thomas have stayed on board the ship, and Anders feels adrift. Even the much-loved city that surrounds him is an affront, a reminder of the days not lived, the experiences missed. How can he begin again? Above all, Anders is angry with himself and in despair, although he’s so inward as he tries to conceal that.
He used drugs again and again and again until there was nothing else left for him to do. Even today he could easily use drugs and feel whatever it was that he felt. But we sense he’s stranded. He can’t go back and he can’t go forward.

From the opening sequence in Oslo, August 31st, I was hooked. While we’ve certainly seen films about drugs before, and addicts trying to stay clean, Oslo deepens that conversation to be about a very specific place, a place that Joachim Trier obviously loves very much. It is a personal film. The opening is a collage of what looks like home movies, footage of Oslo seem from the perspective of a moving car, its quaintness, its leafy green avenues, and over the images we hear a collage of voices, telling us stories. Not just about Oslo, but about their own childhoods there. The voices pile on top of each other. “I remember Mum let me sleep over her house …” “I wasn’t sure if my father knew how I felt …” (These are not exact quotes, I can’t remember the exact quotes, but it was along these lines: emotional, memory-based, personal). All different voices. Remembering playing outside, problems with friends, what Oslo was like “back then”, all to the accompaniment of grainy 8 mm home movies, taking us through the town. It’s a gorgeous opening and, except for one other scene (when the lead character sits in a crowded sandwich shop), the device is only used in the opening. But it is a bold and poignant opening. From the first point we meet Anders (played beautifully by Anders Danielsen Lie), we are already primed to see him as part of a community, with a past, with memories, a childhood. The voices of Oslo have launched us into this very personal day-in-the-life story.

Anders has been in rehab, and is now clean and sober. He is let out on a day-pass to go to a job interview. The first scene in the film shows Anders filling up his pockets with rocks and walking into a river, a clumsy attempt at suicide. He can’t do it. He emerges spluttering from the water, and then goes off to catch his bus. But that first scene haunts the rest of the film. He’s not well. He is in his 30s. He had had a promising career as a writer, but his last job was 5 years ago. He feels that that gap will never be filled. He will not be forgiven, there will be no mercy shown him. His parents have sold their house, in order to pay for his treatment, and this fact weighs on him. He goes and visits an old friend, and the two men walk around Oslo, sit on benches, and talk. It’s a gorgeous scene, perceptively written, and beautifully acted. It’s also generous in length. The conversation is allowed to breathe, to take its natural twists and turns. It’s not easy for these men to open up, to say, “Hey, I love you”, but that’s what ends up happening. It’s intense. Anders then goes on to his job interview, and the editor interviewing him seems taken with Anders, who comes right out and gives a well-thought-out critique of the magazine in question, saying he thinks they may going in the wrong direction editorially. Perhaps not the best thing to say in an interview, but watch how the editor plays his reaction. He wanted the truth, and he got it. He is intrigued by Anders. But Anders ends the interview, gets up and walks out. That gap in his resume looms before him.

Anders is judging himself far more harshly than it seems other people are. As the day goes on, you start to worry. Or, I did. He seems so aimless, so quietly devastated. He ends up going to a party, with some old friends who knew him in his drug days. He starts drinking. Of course he does. He has encounters with people who knew him when, who have all kinds of awful stories about his behavior when he was an addict, and those stories are told for their comedic value: Anders set up as the fool. Anders laughs along with the others at the stories being told, but you can feel the pain and unease underneath. He probably burned a lot of bridges back then. There is buried hostility in his interactions. You want him to get the hell out of there. But of course he doesn’t. Oslo is his home town, it is also where he discovered drugs. If he would have any chance of staying clean, he would have to leave Oslo. It is a place too seeped in history, he cannot escape it.

There are some beautiful scenes, Anders riding bikes with a girl he met at a club, and a bunch of them going skinny-dipping at dawn in a public pool. Anders, throughout, remains distant and pained. He is looking for something: connection, closeness, softness, understanding. Drugs provided a cushion for him. Drugs were the gateway to feeling like he belonged. Without those things, he is lost.

The voices overlapping in the opening sequence shows up again, in another form, in a scene in a crowded sandwich shop, where Anders sits, and all around him people are talking to one another, and Trier zooms in on first this conversation, then that one. The scene goes on for what feels like a long time, and the cumulative effect is pretty devastating. First of all, it gives a sense of life being lived all around Anders, who is so haunted and troubled, and the impression given is that everyone is engaged with life on an intimate level except for him. Of course that is not true: if you listen closely to the conversations, what you hear are people working out their problems, discussing their love lives, what they want to do in the future, their dreams, their problems. Nobody is perfect. But Anders feels completely isolated. It was a gorgeous scene, my favorite one in the movie.

We’ve all seen movies about addicts before. We know the cliches. Joachim Trier dials down the melodrama, and keeps his camera on the face of his leading man, knowing that it is through him that we will come to understand: what it is like for him, what he sees, what he feels. The final sequence earns the right to be called tragic. My mother and I talked a lot about that final sequence afterwards.

The acting is fantastic. The film has a great and loving heart.

Every guest at the festival was presented with a “golden thumb”, an actual cast of Roger Ebert’s thumb. It was so sweet and funny.

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Michael Phillips ran the QA with director Joachim Trier afterwards. I was fascinated to learn that Anders Danielsen Lie, who played Anders, is also a doctor. He’s a musician, an actor, and a doctor.

Trier said, “Yes. He is removing appendixes, as we speak.”

Amazing! Anders was in one of Trier’s other films, and he was so impressed with Anders’ accessibility and depth as an actor. It’s really true, it seems that all Trier needed to do in Oslo was keep his camera on Anders’ face, and he would get us where we needed to go, emotionally. He’s riveting, quiet, interior, with great reserves of kindness and pain. Emotions seem to come easily to him. Trier talked about his process with Anders (one of the questions being how he works with actors). Anders the actor is obviously a very accomplished and driven man. He has his shit together. But he was able to tap into the existential alone-ness of a drug addict that made you feel that this actor must have been through the same thing. Trier said that Anders treated the role almost clinically at first, and the two men would have long conversations about the character, “would he do this” “how would he feel about this”. And then when it came time to shoot, all of that talking, all of that analyzing, was in place in the background. The performance is so felt, the guy is a raw nerve, dealing with life as a sober person for the first time in over a decade. But all of that started with an intellectual and analytical process, a transformation I find fascinating. Trier hopes to work with Anders again.

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I skipped the next movie, which I didn’t want to do, but I was feeling pretty ragged and needed a nap. Doctor’s orders: More sleep. This fiat came down the week before Ebert Fest, which was amusing and of course proves that there is no perfect time for anything. “Get 5 more hours of sleep a night – have a great time at Ebert Fest!” So I did have to make some choices at Ebert Fest. I skipped some panels, and didn’t go to two of the movies. As hard a choice as that was, I needed to keep the program going. I’ve got the fear of God put in me.

This was the day of torrential unbelievable 24-hour downpours. It was unbelievable. It never let up. When I woke up, this was what I saw out the window.

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Things went downhill from there.

Mum and I made it to that evening’s screening of Julia, a 2008 film starring Tilda Swinton, directed by Erick Zonca. I hadn’t seen the film before, but I am very familiar with Gloria, the Cassavetes film which was a clear inspiration for Julia. Erick Zonca is a French director, and was interested in making a film about America. As Tilda Swinton said in her introductory remarks, the two of them were both interested in making a film about America, especially as “aliens” to the culture (her word).

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Now begins what I would call the Tilda-Transformation of the Ebert Fest. Something happened through her presence there. We had already seen some great films, met some amazing film-makers, directors, editors. Ebert had just passed away, and Chaz’s presence on the stage, running things, had a visceral emotional component. Ebert haunted his own festival, in a good way for sure – everyone who came and spoke had something to share about him and his influence. Ebert had always been a fan of Tilda Swinton’s work, and she was one of those actresses he always had on his radar. Tilda was friends with both Roger and Chaz. When I learned, in the QA following Julia, that Tilda’s mother passed away just three months ago, it seemed even more important and emotional that she had made it her business to be there. Her presence became a symbol of insistent celebration of art and life in the face of almost unimaginable sorrow and loss. We all have our trials and tribulations. I have lost people, so have you. I have just come through five months of Hell. I am on the road to getting well, but it has taken doctors, family support, love of friends, and my own determination to be better to even make it TO that road. I almost didn’t go to Ebert Fest. I am dealing with a pretty heavy diagnosis at the moment. But Mum was there with me. I had a net. And the great fortune I feel, in being welcomed into the Ebert inner circle, by Ebert himself – all of which has happened simultaneously with this major event in my life, which is both disastrous and hopeful … is all a bit too symbolic, even for me, whose life has always taken the form of one “literary conceit” after another. It was important for me to be there, not just because it was a great opportunity and privilege (although it was that too), but it was a say to “Yes” to all of the GOOD things, insistently pushing in on me, blotting out the darkness, letting in the light. Those things have co-existed with the blackness, and it has been baffling and disorienting at times navigating all of it.

Ebert begins his review of Julia with these powerful words:

Tilda Swinton is fearless. She’ll take on any role without her ego, paycheck, vanity or career path playing a part. All that matters, apparently, is whether the movie interests her, and whether she thinks she can do something interesting with the role. She almost always can. She hasn’t often been more fascinating than in “Julia,” a nerve-wracking thriller with a twisty plot and startling realism.

When she came out onstage before the film, she and Chaz hugged, as the audience cheered for her, and then she walked out from behind the podium, clapping with us, out and up at all of us, a participant at the festival, more than an “honored guest”. The applause that filled the Virginia Theatre was so often for Roger: the whole week was like that, and Tilda Swinton was there to honor him, to be there for Chaz, and, as revealed later, for herself as well. Her presence was such a full one, emotionally. I’ve always enjoyed her acting, and like her odd-ness. I like her individuality. I like her bold choices in projects. She’s clearly not a careerist. Her career doesn’t seem “managed”. She seems to do what she wants. I like people like that. But after Ebert Fest? I LOVE this woman.

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Tilda, in introducing the film, didn’t say much, besides, “Get ready for a roller-coaster ride.” Afterwards, in the QA, she said to Chaz, and Nate Kohn, that while the film is about an alcoholic woman, they weren’t interested in making a film “about an alcoholic woman”, they wanted to make “an alcoholic movie”. They certainly succeeded. There is no moralizing here, no recovery, the 12 steps are mocked, and Julia, in many respects, is irredeemable. She can’t quit drinking, first of all, she doesn’t see the point, and she is also heedless, ridiculous, selfish, monstrous, and desperate. Being in her presence for the entire film is exhausting. The plot is twisty (to say the very least), and the film ends with a long harrowing sequence that takes in place in Mexico, and I actually thought back to the first hour of the film and wondered, “How long ago was that? Was that actually in the same movie?” So much happens. Julia starts off as a drunk and ends as a drunk, and in the meantime, she gets fired, she alienates the one friend she has (her AA sponsor, it seems like), played by the wonderful Saul Rubinek, and befriends a clearly unbalanced woman (Kate del Castillo) who lives across the way. That unbalanced woman has inherited a lot of money, but it’s all bound up in Mexico: she has lost custody of her son (and, spending two seconds with this woman, it is obvious why: she is out of her mind), and she is determined to get her son back, take him to Mexico with her, and live in palatial grandeur. Julia is boundary-less enough to get involved with this cuckoo neighbor, and agrees to help her in her ridiculous plan to kidnap her son. Events unfold as chaotically as you would imagine, because everyone in charge of the plan is a lunatic. Julia, wearing a black plastic mask, waits in the car for her chance to kidnap the little boy, taking swigs from a flask, and visibly behaving like The Guiltiest Person Ever Born. Tilda Swinton obviously has tremendous fun with this role. I have never particularly “bought” her as an American. The accent doesn’t sound right, and it never has. I think the myth that English actors are “better at accents” is just that: a myth. Tilda’s naturally mellifluous voice somehow flattens out when she does an American accent. It’s like she can’t locate herself in it. In Julia it works, somehow, because she seems so otherworldly and unplace-able already, in her magnificent drunken shenanigans.

Julia behaves horribly to this little kidnapped boy, and for the majority of the film I felt an almost unbearable anxiety towards the safety of that child, who is thrown around, tied up, and manhandled abominably. Tilda assured us afterwards that the little boy got into it, and loved it, but that didn’t lessen my anxiety. Gloria, the Cassavetes film about a gun moll (Gena Rowlands) who drags a small boy around Manhattan with her, has a much kinder heart than Julia. It’s more of a screwball, and you never seriously worry for the little boy as you do the one in Julia. As always, I prefer Cassavetes’ ultimately kind outlook on life to pretty much anybody else’s, and there were times when I found Julia not only unbearable but frankly, too long. I wanted someone to shoot everyone (except the poor little boy) to put all and sundry out of their misery and to also release me from the film itself. I imagine that was part of the point. Julia is often hilarious, although it’s the sick hilarity of watching a woman completely out of control try to go for the brass ring. Julia, in Tilda’s hands, is not likable, is a compulsive liar (Tilda observed in the QA that Julia only tells the truth twice in the entirety of the film), and on the run from reality. She’ll never stop drinking. She’ll die in a ditch somewhere.

Filmed with spectacular beauty, showing the many different landscapes of America, the salt flats, the bleak mornings of Los Angeles, the desert, the mountains, the no-man’s-land border with Mexico, you can feel the relish of the director in all of these locations.

When the film ends, you exhale. Finally. Tilda Swinton captures the effervescent glitter of certain types of alcoholics, something that she and the director were very interested in going for. Tilda said afterwards, “A lot of the alcoholics I know are fantastic people, the life of the party, fun to be around. So many movies show alcoholics as sullen, dark, anti-social, and we wanted to show that other side.” They do. You can see the transformation go over Tilda Swinton’s face, as Julia, when she takes a sip of alcohol. You can watch her transform from harried/desperate to knowing who she is, up for fun and adventure. I’ve seen that “click” (to borrow Tennessee Williams’ chilling description of it) in my friends who are alcoholics. It can happen in a second, when the alcohol kicks in. Tilda nails that Jekyll-Hyde dynamic.

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But it was who Tilda was, in the QA following, not to mention what happened the next day, that will stay with me forever. Chaz and Nate interviewed her, about her career (and how it all started, with the films with Derek Jarman), as well as her current projects. Someone asked, during the QA, what is next for her, and her answer was, a beautifully simple and yet powerful, “Well, my mother just died three months ago … so I am having … a year.” Boy do I understand that. She talked about the new film she did with Wes Anderson, about the David Bowie video, and about her sleeping performance-art piece at MoMA. She discussed the history of that project. She first did it back in the 80s, as a response to the AIDS epidemic, and how many of her friends had died, as a way of mourning with them, for them. I had no idea. People were all sort of making fun of it recently: “Jeez, Tilda’s sleeping in a box in MoMA”, but hearing her talk about it was incredible and eloquent.

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She is not self-indulgent about it. She does not explain herself. The project is meaningful to her, and has been something with her for 20 years now. Again, I had no idea the history of it. She said, “I never talk about my experience of what it’s like to do it. It’s really up to the people who come to interpret it. I don’t want to get in the way of it.”

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One of my favorite things that she said was: “I still don’t think of myself as an actress, really. If I had to put down my profession, on a passport or something, I think I would put Artist’s Model/Clown.”

How beautiful! How perfect! Artist’s Model-slash-Clown. She sees every role as an opportunity to play make believe, to put on another person’s clothes and see what it would be like to be them. That’s why her work is so unstudied, so unique. It’s not actor-y. It’s not technical. She is a mysterious figure. She looks so odd, so herself: it’s a great face, and yes, a face that an “artist” (i.e. a filmmaker) can imprint him/herself on. She is an interpreter.

Her roles are often quite serious, and her face – the structure of it, its angularity, its strangeness – gives an impression of severity. But in person, she was enthusiastic, warm, and almost girlie. She was jumping up and down in excitement to be there. She was warmly reminiscent of Roger, she paid tribute to him, and his support of her. She embraced Chaz, and held her hand the entire time Chaz was introducing her. Her sense of support and presence was so human, so emotional. I recognize that type of energy. When I was in mourning, there were those friends who stood right next to me, holding onto me, silent presences of support and love, there for me, hovering around me in protection.

Tilda Swinton also hosts a film festival, which has taken place in different venues around the world, Scotland and other places. Chaz asked her about it, and asked her in particular about one tradition Tilda started at her own festival: She blasts music and has the audience get up and dance. Tilda glowed as she talked about it, about the energy created in those various theatres, with an audience dancing like maniacs before settling down to see the next film.

It had been a long day, but ending it listening to Tilda talk, and watching her beautiful sense of listening when people asked questions (she was totally in the moment, not shy about herself, not shy about interacting with others), was beautiful. Mum and I met up afterwards to head back to our hotel. It was late. The rain had stopped and it was now freezing cold. We raced to my car, shivering and exclaiming outloud, “EEK!”

I had to get up early the next morning to be on the panel “The Art of the Video Essay”. Anxiety about my sleep was a common theme during the Ebert Fest, but, with the help of Melatonin, I was able to go to sleep pretty quickly. The next morning was freezing and grey, threatening snow. Mum and I went down to the Pine Lounge. Matt Seitz was on the panel, too, and Steven Boone, Kevin Lee, so there were friends there. And I met some new people, the eminent David Bordwell, which was a thrill, as well as Patrick Wang (whose In the Family blew everyone away). Grace Wang was on the panel as well, whose short film I Remember had screened on the first day, and Krishna Shenoi, whose farewell cartoon for Roger went viral, as well as his tribute video to Spielberg, which got him a response from the great director himself. Pablo Villaça was awesome. Omer Mozaffar did a wonderful job moderating. It was a great group. Kevin Lee served as Maestro, putting up the video essays on the screen behind us, for us to discuss.

Before the panel got going, I sat in my spot, and then heard someone from out in the audience hiss my name. I looked, and he said, “It’s Craig” and I jumped up to go meet him. Craig Simpson, whose blog is wonderful and I’ve been reading it for years. He and I have corresponded a bit, and while I had no idea what he looked like, nor he me, we kept trying to meet up. Thankfully, we saw each other at the theatre later and got to talk a bit in the lobby. He’s so nice. It’s one of the great things about the Internet: when you meet someone you’ve never met before, but you’ve been reading them for years, it’s like meeting an old friend. There is no shyness. It was lovely! Read Craig’s post about Ebert Fest to get his perspective. I was happy to hear he thought the Video Essay panel was good! My main goal, for my own participation, was to follow my father’s only real advice to his kids: “Don’t disgrace the family name.” I contributed to the discussion, I listened to others, it was fascinating and a lot of fun.

And here’s an amazing thing: at one point, I turned away from my fellow panelists and looked out at the audience. For the most part, I was focused totally on what was going on with us, up there, but for one second, I glanced out, smiled at Mum (I love her!), and my eye drifted across the audience. And there sat Tilda, leaning forward in her chair, chin rested on her folded hands, totally engrossed with listening.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning. She wasn’t just there to present her own film. She was there to participate in everything. She came to a panel at the freakin’ Student Union, and gave herself fully to listening. I fell in love with her even more because of that. I want to be like her when I grow up. I want to always be involved, interested, present. That’s who she is to me. She had slipped in to the panel unnoticed. Many people didn’t even know she was there. Of course she is quite striking, and tall, with bright yellow hair, but she was perfectly happy being in the position of Audience Member, and that speaks volumes about who she is as a person.

One more Tilda story. After the panel, we had only half an hour before we were due at the theatre for the next film. So it was a bit of a hustle. Mum and I hurried out to my car, remarking variously on the freezing nature of the weather, and how great the panel was, what an amazing job Kevin Lee had done with the video clips, and Tilda. Joining the VIP section at the theatre was like reuniting with old friends. We all got to know each other. I befriended a couple from Canada, whose free time is spent traveling around to film festivals. They were so awesome! By the end of the week, there was a lot of socializing going on in that VIP section, whereas at the beginning of the week, I thought: “I don’t know anyone here. I am shy. Please send help.” Shyness no more, three days later. Amazing!

The first film of the day was Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, in the 11 a.m. slot. Before Pablo was brought out to introduce his film, Chaz and Tilda walked out onto the stage, and Tilda said we were all going to get up and dance. She had brought some Barry White for the occasion. No observers allowed, only participants. There were 1,500 people in that theatre, down below, and up in the balcony. Audience-participation things can either go very very well, or fail, due to shyness of the audience, or a lack-luster energy. I am not crazy about forced participation myself, but in this case, I thought: Hell, yeah. Barry White, Ebert Fest, Tilda Swinton telling me to get up and dance? Yes, ma’am.

Thankfully, a great video was made of the event, which, once it was posted, suddenly was shared everywhere. I haven’t watched the video because it was such an intense experience, and I don’t want the video to take the place of the actual memory of it. But I will never ever forget it. Dana Stevens (who I finally met at Ebert Fest, after years of reading her, chatting with her on Twitter, and also discussing National Velvet together), wrote beautifully about Tilda in one of her dispatches from the festival. I danced, you bet I danced, but was also in tears throughout. It was so intense. Dana, who was standing behind me with Matt Seitz, said, at one point, “Oh God, I’m crying.”

I was too.

An explosion of joy in the wake of sadness, loss, and grief. Life-affirming, truly. That was what it was.

Ebertfest 2013 Dance Along from Ebertfest on Vimeo.

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16 Responses to Ebert Fest 2013: Two Panels, Two Films, and the Glorious Tilda Swinton

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Oh, my, Sheila. First though, be better, be well. Please.

    Then, thank you for this. It’s not almost like being there. Ain’t no such thing. But I am so happy YOU were there and were able to bring the joy you felt to us. An amazing gift.

    Have always admired Tilda S. as an actress, but now am IN love with her. What a heart. And she’s not afraid to share it, either.

    Take care.

  2. Kate F says:

    I am smiling so big right now! Thank you!!!

  3. mutecypher says:

    It’s so wonderful to hear these things about Tilda, I’ve certainly enjoyed her otherness. If a movie were ever made of a Jeanette Winterson book (any, though Sappho from “Art and Lies” would be my first choice), I’d love her as the protagonist.

    I’ve seen that casting is going on for a movie version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender. What would you think of Tilda as Lady Macbeth?

    • sheila says:

      She’d be an amazing Lady Macbeth!

      Have you seen The Deep End? It’s rather riveting – done by the two directors who did What Maisie Knew. She’s great in it.

      • mutecypher says:

        I haven’t seen it. I’ll put it into the queue with “Bernie.”

        I did see her recently in “Moonrise Kingdom” and completely loved the movie. I’m hoping that once the school year ends, and my daughter graduates from high school, I’ll have some movie-watching time.

  4. brendan says:

    Well it’s 9:39AM and I’m crying so I guess I just read your blog.

  5. Maureen says:

    Oh, I loved reading this! I went to U of I, and can just picture the Student Union-it is a gorgeous campus, isn’t it?

    I just got back from the TCM Film Festival, my very first one. What you said, about being in the audience, that is exactly how I felt. A few times during the films, I would look around at the people, with the light of the film flickering off their faces, and I almost cried. It was so moving to me, every person was just absorbed in the film. I’ve never had a film going experience like that before, I want to say I felt this synergy with the audience, but not sure if that is the right word.

    Every single person I met was so gracious and friendly, my favorite thing was asking them what their favorite movie was, and watching them struggle to pick just one, and then explain why. I can tell you now, that won’t be my last film festival, and I would absolutely love to go to Ebert Fest.

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – I’m envious you went to the TCM Fest – I was following along with my friends who were attending, through their FB posts – and I would love to try to get there next year. Great lineup!!

  6. Craig says:

    Thanks for the multiple shout-outs and kind words. I admire people who have the where-with-all to see every movie at the Fest; I need breaks. One of them was JULIA, but I caught up with it a week later and really enjoyed it. It was funnier than I expected, with some appealing rough edges and hairpin turns. I agree with you that Tilda’s accent troubles work in this case, because the character seems to be struggling to keep up her phony facade. It’s dizzying by the end when Julia’s avarice finally takes a back seat to her selflessness, to the point where the scumbags she’s trying to outsmart actually mistake her for being the kid’s mother. (Also moving when she gives the kid her word on her life that she’s coming back for him; you know, this time, she means it.) As Jason might say, I like movies that “take you somewhere,” and I really liked where JULIA takes us.

    • sheila says:

      Craig – when I go next year, hopefully my health issues will be more manageable and I’ll be able to go to all the films. But yes, it is a marathon!!

      I loved the whole section in Mexico – when she reveals that she’s kidnapped the kid to the Mexican kidnapper. Hilarious. Really sick. The only reason you can even ask for this ransom, is because I already kidnapped him.

      And yes: despite her reckless behavior, you get the sense that she will protect that kid with her life. That horrible scene in the bathroom with the dogs and the kidnappers – she is shielding the kid with her body. Kind of amazing, when you think about it – but I loved that it wasn’t played sentimentally, like, “awww, she has a heart after all.” It was more about her life force asserting itself.

      and that last moment of the film was killer!!

      So nice to finally meet you! :)

  7. Desirae says:

    This is amazing, thank you for sharing it with us. And I am so pleased to hear that Tilda Swinton is as cool a person as she is an Artist’s Model/Clown.

  8. Chris says:

    Like Tilda Swinton, I also lost my mother recently, which made the Ebertfest screening of “The Ballad of Narayama” a difficult film to watch. There is an extended, wordless sequence in the film where a mother and son engage in a community mandated funereal ritual that is incredibly intense. It is a long, ponderous, maternal sayonara. Halfway through the scene I started to sweat and seriously considered leaving my seat for a respite in the lobby. I kept waiting for the scene to end, because I didn’t think I could take another second of it. The intensity mounted to a degree where the pain was so great that it simply stopped hurting, if you know what I mean. At the end of the scene, the mother silently reassures her son via a gesture and a facial expression. It was a moment of beatific existential abdication that was so moving it made me do something foolish. I imagined that the actress (Kinuyo Tanaka) in the scene was my mother and that she was reassuring me. I feel silly admitting all of this, but when a boy (I’m 42 years old) misses his momma, sometimes the foolish thing is the only effective weapon when battling emotional pain.

    The end of the movie has an exchange between two characters that was almost macabre in its coincidental connection to Roger’s recent passing. One line of dialogue in particular stung my heart because I knew immediately that Chaz would have a hard time separating the art on screen from the difficult time she had been having in recent weeks. I actually hoped that maybe she had festival business to attend to which prevented her from seeing this scene. After the movie, I followed my typical Ebertfest routine and left the balcony, came downstairs and stood near the stage for the Q & A. I like to get a better look at the interviewer and talent, and I also like to look at the audience. When I came down to the ground floor I noticed Chaz in her usual spot in the last few rows of the theater. She was sobbing profusely. Tilda Swinton put her arms around Chaz and held her very tightly. She looked like she might be whispering in her ear to try and soothe her. Chaz is so bright and sunny, that the sight of her sadness was heartbreaking. She cried for several minutes. Swinton did not stop hugging her until she stopped.

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