Ebertfest 2014: Museum Hours (2012), Short Term 12 (2013)

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On Day 2 of Ebertfest, there was a public unveiling of the statue of Roger Ebert outside the Virginia Theatre. Created by artist Rick Harney, who was present, the statue will eventually live by the doorway of the theatre, and one of the most beautiful touches of the design of the statue is the two empty seats on either side of Roger. So you can actually sit next to him. Throughout the festival, people sat there, getting their photos taken, and I love to think that in the years to come, people will be more casual about it, sitting there, having a cup of coffee on a break from work or whatever. The unveiling was a big deal, with the leaders of the community present, people from the Parks service, the Mayor, people who helped fund the statue (Martin Scorsese donated $5,000), and Ebertfest attendees.

I also got to meet a couple of people who have been long-time readers and commenters on my site – April!! I looked for your email in my mailbox and couldn’t find it – so nice to finally meet you! – as well as a couple of Ebert Club members. It’s just so great, to put faces to names, and to personalize what is already a relationship, albeit of the online variety. Ebertfest is a different sort of festival, it has a real family atmosphere. And while it is definitely a major crowd scene most of the time, there’s a real cozy atmosphere to the whole thing.

Thursday, April 4, was Day 2 of the festival. It started off with Jem Cohen’s beautiful film Museum Hours, put on many “best of the year” lists. I rented it recently and fell in love with it, although I did get the sense that I had really missed out by not seeing it in the theatre. The images are so stunning, they fill the screen. It’s meant to be seen LARGE. So it was so cool that Museum Hours was chosen for the festival!

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Director Jem Cohen was in attendance. Each guest is presented with a “golden thumb”, cast from Roger Ebert’s actual hand.

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My pictures suck a little bit this year, my apologies. I didn’t bring my real camera, didn’t want to lug it around.

Jem Cohen has been making films for decades. He brings a street/punk sensibility to his work, and so it’s appropriate that Patti Smith (whom he has worked with) was one of the producers of Museum Hours. He has mainly done documentaries, and there is a documentary feel to the film, although there is a loose narrative structure. The film represents one of his biggest “commercial” hits, getting actual distribution in actual movie theaters, as well as tons of critical acclaim. Cohen said in his comments beforehand, “That isn’t to say it’s not a weird movie.”

Afterwards, he came onstage for a discussion about the film with critic Kevin Lee, who had written the review for the film included in the Festival program. I loved that Cohen thanked the projectionists. The Virginia Theatre hires people who know what they are doing, and the good projectionist is almost a lost art at this point. Museum Hours is dedicated, in part, to his parents, who dragged him around to museums when he was a kid. It rubbed off on him. Cohen said that he is indebted to his parents for that, and also “indebted to the fact that such places exist.” The documentary feel of Museum Hours was discussed at length. Cohen said that he always wanted to “pay attention to the margins”, and part of Museum Hours (which is what I wrote about in my initial review of the film) is helping us to actually SEE. It shows us how to LOOK, SEE, pay attention. Not to the main event, but to the margins of said event. It connects the great works of Breugel and Rembrandt, seen in the museum in Vienna, with the more mundane sights of a flea market, birds in a tree, buildings, a dark bar. Cohen blends those things, putting them on the same playing field. Life is beautiful, amazing, interesting: pay attention to ALL of it.

Cohen said that he prefers to not have a “set agenda” for any given project. That he finds out what it is by making it. His love of punk music, and his devotion to that tradition, comes out in his work: it is “free from corporate pressure”. In terms of the simple narrative of Museum Hours, where a security guard at the museum befriends a Canadian woman visiting Vienna, Cohen said that simple is best. Narrative, meaning plot, is what drives so many films. It is the entire point, 99% of the time. Cohen said, “I don’t think it’s as necessary as people make it out to be.” He also said, “Let the audience decide what their emotions are.”

People pay lip service to independent film, people complain about blockbusters filling the multiplex, about the lack of choice in what we get to see. Stop complaining. Support your local art house, if you have one. Pony up the funds to become a member. Support independent artists you find compelling in their various Indiegogo/Kickstarter campaigns. These things may not change the system, but they are certainly not irrelevant actions. Jem Cohen said, “Gather around these things like you’re protecting a little fire.”

Beautiful words.

Please see Museum Hours. It is not a typical experience. It is unusual. It is personal. And it has great reverb. I thought about the film for literally days after I first saw it.

Check out Kevin Lee’s dispatch about Museum Hours for Rogerebert.com.

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One of the favorites of the festival. I have no idea how I missed this movie on its initial release. Everyone I talked to mentioned how much they loved “the movie about the kids.” Wow, is all I have to say. Well, not all, but that was my initial response.

Starring Brie Larson (who also was in attendance at the festival, appearing on a number of panels, and joining us in the theatre for a discussion after the film), Short Term 12 is the story of a group home for troubled kids, enmeshed in “the system,” abandoned by their parents/foster parents. It is the story of the hard-working line staff, mostly young post-college kids, who are not therapists, or professionals, but have the most contact with these kids on a daily basis. Many of my friends had such jobs post-college, and I am going to tell them all to watch this film. I thought of the stories they would tell me, the heartbreaking confrontation with what these kids went through, the helplessness they felt at times, but also how rewarding the work could be.

Rogerebert.com contributor Nell Minow led the discussion afterwards, with Brie Larson, who plays Grace, the manager of the group home, and Keith Stanfield, making a stunning debut as Marcus, a kid about to turn 18, and therefore about to leave the group home.

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God, what a film!

Brie Larson said that the theme of the film, for her, and for her character’s journey, was “Let go.” In her working with the kids, so much of what Grace has to do is help them to “let go”, let go of the trauma and pain, let go of the anger. Of course that is easier said than done, and Grace has her own issues to deal with. She is dating a guy who also works at the group home (John Gallagher Jr.), and their relationship is sweet, complex, and tender. They have problems. None of it is handled in a cliched way. What you think are going to see, is not what actually happens. All of these characters are allowed the room to be complicated, flawed, to forgive one another, to lash out. It’s an extraordinary film. Really.

In the discussion, Nell asked Brie about her “listening” in the film: so much of Short Term 12 has to do with how Grace listens to others, with giant closeups of Brie Larson’s eloquent serious face, listening to the kids talk, listening to what they say and what they DON’T say. I loved Brie Larson’s answer about “how” she did that: “I was just actually listening. That’s why I had that face.”

Beautiful. You can’t fake listening. Or, you can try, but it will look fake. Additionally, Larson felt that her character Grace, as competent as she was in her job, was roiled with trauma for her own past, and so much of the film is about Grace trying to “figure it out”, and, said Larson, “In order to do that … I had to actually do that.”

The reality of the doing. No fakery.

It’s an amazing film which packed an enormous punch. I’m still thinking about it. Much of Short Term 12 is extremely painful, but that’s life. Short Term 12 doesn’t fetishize trauma, doesn’t underline it, doesn’t sentimentalize it. There is almost no score. It’s a rare thing, to see a film that takes on explosive topics like child abuse, and molestation, and abandonment … without trying to pump up the emotion, manipulate the audience. Short Term 12 actually could pass as a documentary in many of the group-home scenes. Directed and written by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 was one of the best films of last year.

Jana Monji wrote up the screening of Short Term 12 for Rogerebert.com.

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8 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: Museum Hours (2012), Short Term 12 (2013)

  1. Jeff says:

    My son is a performing arts major at San Diego State, and he’d been telling us about “Short Term 12” since before its release because the director, Dustin Cretton (also an SDSU grad) had brought a rough cut to their film class and asked for feedback. According to our son, he even took a couple of their suggestions. How awesome is that?

    Great movie.

    • sheila says:

      Jeff – wow! How cool! I wonder what feedback they gave that Destin followed? Did your son mention it?

      I just love the film – so glad you saw it and loved it too. I want to see it again.

  2. april says:

    As much as I love Ebertfest, I’ve gotta say that the absolute highlight of this year’s festival was getting to meet you, Sheila! However briefly, it was so nice to finally get to put a face (and give a hug) to one of the few people in the world that I truly think of as a kindred spirit. Much catching up to do… real e-mail to follow soon! <3

  3. Desirae says:

    When I first heard there was going to be a statue of him I privately thought it was kind of odd, because Roger Ebert was not a self-important man. But this is so perfect. It’s communal, which is exactly right.

  4. sheila says:

    I know what you mean – I guess Ebert had said to Chaz something like, “I just don’t want the statue to be like a carnival show …” He was worried about it too. But the two empty seats are such a nice touch! Once the novelty wears off, in regards to the statue, someone strolling by with a coffee can just sit down and read a book, next to Roger Ebert. I love that.

  5. Jeff says:

    I finally remembered – he made several changes in the music selections over the course of the movie based on their recommendations. And BTW, they recently added it to Netflix Streaming.

    • sheila says:

      I love that he took in their suggestions. As I recall – there is no real “score” – which is one of the ways the film feels so real. Definitely going to watch it again.

      And Brie Larson, man. She is the real deal. It was so great to have her at Ebertfest and meet her. She said into the microphone after she presented the film: “My flight isn’t until tomorrow morning – so if anyone wants to talk about the movie or anything else – I’m around.”

      And she meant it. She participated in two panels, listened in on other panels, mingled, chatted … she was there to be a part of the larger discussion.

      You know. She was a great presence. Very real.

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