On Friday I moderated the Girlhood panel. On Saturday, I participated in the panel for Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida, and then right after that, I moderated the QA for the next film, The Motel Life. The funniest thing was that I have no experience with doing things like this, but I was just tossed into all of it, and so of course I over-prepared, and made sure I knew my plan of attack for each one, and also asked questions of more experienced people who were there. It looks so easy when other people do it! Of course the key is to over-prepare, and then just let it go and have a nice conversation up there. Make the guest feel comfortable. Choose some good questions. And roll with the punches.
Ida was on my Top 10 last year, and I’d put it at the top of that list. (I wrote about it here.) I think seeing it at Ebertfest was my 4th time seeing it. It really should be seen on a screen as gigantic as that one. The images are so startling, the compositions so unique, and they just register differently, seeming even more beautiful when seen on a large screen.
I had participated in a panel about Ida up at Columbia last year, so it was really fun to re-visit it. Nell Minow, a Rogerebert.com contributor (among many other things – she’s such a fascinating person), led the panel. It was me, Matt Seitz, and Todd Rendelman, whom I did not know before this Ebertfest. He was lovely, I had many good conversations with him. He has written a book about Roger Ebert. He was great. Nell was our fearless leader, asking each of us questions about the film, and they were great questions. She asked Matt to discuss the aspect ratio (the film was done in the old Academy ratio, so that the image is square, as opposed to long thin and rectangular), asked me to discuss the acting … and there was that structure there to our conversation, but then we all would chime in on a certain question, or we would riff on what someone else said. I told Nell later that it all felt so relaxed it was like we were sitting around talking in someone’s living room. The questions from the audience were fantastic. The film is just so engaging, even with its darkness and with its haunted quality. There is so much to discuss, politics, acting, death, grief, guilt … So many people came up to me afterwards (and Nell said the same thing), thanking us for the panel. It definitely is the kind of film that you feel you MUST “talk about” afterwards, so I am glad our panel helped launch that conversation.
Following Ida was The Motel Life, co-directed by brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky (a very successful producing team, The Motel Life is their first feature as directors), and starring Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch. Secondary roles played by Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson. I had been assigned to review it for Rogerebert.com and was totally captivated by its mood of melancholy and sweetness, its tender heart, its tragedy, not to mention the magnificent performance from Stephen Dorff.
Based on the novel of the same name, by musician Willy Vlautin (an excellent book), The Motel Life tells the story of the unlucky Flannigan brothers, who live in Reno in a series of increasingly depressing and desperate motels, with not even 5 bucks between them. The older brother, Jerry Lee (Dorff) is compromised in some unnamed mental way, and he also lost his leg when he was a teenager, trying to jump a moving train. He likes to draw. Frank, the younger brother (Hirsch), tells what amounts to bedtime stories to Frank, where the brothers star as pirates, or fighter pilots, or … basically anything other than who they are. These stories appear as very funny animation sequences in the film version of The Motel Life. Anyway, I love the film. It’s a meandering character study. It feels like it could have been made in the 1970s. How exciting that they had chosen to show it at Ebertfest! Stephen Dorff was all set to attend but had to cancel last-minute (he had to do some sound stuff for another film). He sent his regrets. But Alan Polsky was able to attend. We met backstage beforehand, and he told me that my review was his favorite of all the reviews of the movie. “I put it on my Facebook page. I really liked it.” That was nice to hear, and it was nice to be able to tell him in person how much I loved the film. And so the conversation we had onstage (and Rogerebert.com contributor Sam Fragoso joined us), kind of went from there. The audience seemed to really dig the movie, and the questions were terrific, showing the level of emotional engagement with the material. One guy stood up in the balcony and his question was, “Where’s Stephen?” Ha! I was proud and pleased to help present this film to the Ebertfest audience. It barely got a release when it came out. There were many critics there who had never even heard of the damn thing. So it was a lot of fun. It was also thrilling for me, personally, because it was the last “thing” I had to do at Ebertfest. Check it off the list!
If you have not seen a film by Ramin Bahrani, I highly recommend checking him out. There is Man Push Cart, there is Chop Shop (it was Roger Ebert’s review that made me seek out the film), and there is Goodbye Solo, which screened at last year’s Ebertfest. Ebert had championed Bahrani’s work. Hard. The way he championed Scorsese’s work, or Werner Herzog’s work. He mentioned him so often that it got your attention, and piqued my curiosity. Bahrani is now a regular feature at Ebertfest, and the final film on Saturday was his latest, 99 Homes (which has not even been released yet, an Ebertfest first.) It represents a lot of changes for Bahrani, most noticeably being the present of some pretty big stars in it (Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern). Bahrani usually works with non-professional actors or non-actors. 99 Homes tells the story of a hustler/sleazy/real-estate developer/house-flipper who has benefited hugely from the housing and economic collapse. A shark. A con-man. A sociopath. As people’s lives collapse, his star rises. Andrew Garfield, a single parent, who lives in a small home with his mother (Laura Dern), has fallen behind on house payments. Eviction looms. The opening scene of 99 Homes is killer (and represents a huge shift in Bahrani’s style: it’s practically a thriller type of opening): a family is evicted, violently, from their home. The sheriff’s department is there. The people don’t want to leave. Michael Shannon (the hustler) is dead-eyed and implacable. These people are now trespassing. The house belongs to the bank now. Gather up a couple of things and get the hell out. (The opening scene is done all in one. No coverage. One continuous take, through the house, through the yard, down the driveway. It’s a stunner.) 99 Homes is all about real estate, development, the eviction process, the banking process … it’s incredibly elaborate (Bahrani did a ton of research) and – side note – it was really fun because my mother was in real estate for years, so her perspective on this whole thing was fascinating. I might have been slightly confused at points. Mum never was. Shannon is crazy-good, and Garfield is heartbreaking and terrific. Bahrani paints with some pretty broad strokes, and his theme is stated a bit too clearly for my taste making it feel didactic, but I like his style a lot, and I like his concerns. The QA onstage afterwards was a lot of fun because Bahrani was there and he had brought one of the actors with him, a little kid, maybe 12 years old, who plays Andrew Garfield’s son. His name is Noah Lomax. He was awesome in the film, heartbreaking. Scott Foundas and Brian Tallerico ran the QA and I loved Brian’s first question to Noah: “So, how cool was it to have Spiderman play your Dad?” Ha! And Noah was like, “It was really really really cool to have Spiderman play my Dad.” Brian asked him if it was weird at first, but Noah said that no, it wasn’t weird, Andrew treated him normal, and they would “hang out”… “He took me to the zoo and stuff,” said Noah. (The image of Andrew Garfield taking Noah to the zoo and “hanging out” like that? Heartcrack.)
99 Homes is dedicated to Roger Ebert.
After the QA, we all headed over to the after-party. I had a wonderful time, talking with people I knew, meeting new people, and what a wonderful group of people. Had a lovely conversation with Johan Carlssen (producer of the Pigeon movie). Finally got to meet Scott Foundas from Variety, and we ended up talking about Brian Wilson and American Sniper. You know, because those two things go together. I was so excited to meet the Argentinian actress Julieta Zylberberg, because I had just seen her in El Cinco at Tribeca and ADORED IT. I basically raced over to her to talk with her about it. I had a wonderful conversation with Dan Aronson, the founder/CEO of Fandor. It was lovely. The whole thing was lovely. I have a hard time at parties sometimes. I get shy. I didn’t feel shy once. I felt pleased and honored to be there, and everyone I talked to was fascinating.
Saturday was a long day and we were flying out of Champaign on Sunday morning. Of course many of us, writers, critics, and special guests, were all on the same flight back to Chicago. So it was a truly international group gathered at the small airport on Sunday morning. There was Héloïse Godet (the star of Godard’s Goodbye to Language) from France, Johan Carlsson from Sweden, a group of us from the East Coast, another group flying to Los Angeles, others in from Argentina … It was kind of cool, to tune in to all of the conversations going on on that short flight (only 29 minutes). Everyone there was an Ebertfest person.
Mum and I had a couple of hours to kill, so we sat and had some lunch at O’Hare and talked. During the screening of Ida (which Mum had already seen), I became aware of the scratching of her pencil beside me in the dark. She was taking notes. I love this woman. So I asked her to tell me what she had been writing, and she shared some of her observations, things she noticed on the second time around that she hadn’t noticed on the first. My favorite observation from her was: In the section when Ida goes back to the convent after spending time with her aunt, there’s a scene in the dining room where the nuns have lunch and it’s dead-quiet. Ida can’t help but start laughing to herself at one point. But that wasn’t Mum’s observation. What she noticed was: during the prayer before dinner, all the other novitiates placed their palms together in prayer. Ida held her hands down against the table. “That was HUGE,” Mum said. Yes. It was. I had missed that detail! I guess I’ll have to see it again. It’s one for the ages.
To the town of Champaign-Urbana: thank you for your welcoming atmosphere, your kindness. To all of the volunteers at Ebertfest: you are awesome. We love you all. Our stay there was beautiful and we had a wonderful time. Looking forward to next year already!