Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sayonara, Sisters and Brothers!

As usual, upon my return to Nueva York from Ebertfest, I jumped right into the last week of the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a black hole of a festival, honestly—a huffy sprawl of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink programming that is very much for profit. I mention this not only to explain the long gap looming between Ebertfest’s conclusion and this wrap-up, but because TFF is the sort of event that underscores why we need our own, more carefully selected beacon that shines mid-country.

I’ll admit I never came around on certain Ebertfest selections, as is true every year, and every year I keep that fact to myself. That in itself says it all: The camaraderie generated by this festival inhibits the nastiness that can crop up at others. Chaz was even good enough to carry on Roger’s tradition of ensuring everyone was actually introduced to each other during our Green Room meals.

But there were other films that I was so grateful to finally ogle on a big screen, among them the tall drink of water that is Josef von Sternberg’s maverick mafia pic Underworld (1927). It was Ebertfest that originally introduced me to silent film’s great appeal a few years ago so that I can now report with some authority that this film deserves much more of a spotlight. Another true pleasure: The Cell, which offers brilliant, if unacknowledged, moving-picture tribute to such artists as Damian Hirst and Hieronymus Bosch. When viewing it on a TV, you're more assaulted by its weak-sister serial-killer plotting that you barely notice when you surrender to its gorgeous art direction and cinematography in a theater. It's a testimony to how happily style can trump substance that I could have watched this film all night at the Virginia, which works out since the screening really didn’t end until the wee hours of Sunday.

The happiest surprise, however, was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, which I’d somehow never seen. And again I’m glad I saw it on the big screen for the effect of the many quiet shots of the unruly Northwest would’ve been lost otherwise.

In the film, Christine Lahti is Sylvie, a long-lost aunt to two orphaned girls in a small town. She likes to ride trains, spy on neighbors, hoard the odd treasure she finds in her long, long jaunts, as well as every newspaper ever printed. She is not confined by any social norms, including the impulse to keep an orderly household—or even inhabit a household at all, though she perches uneasily in her family home for the sake of her nieces. The question of her sanity snakes throughout the film, but if I hadn't been seduced visually by those great outdoors that beckon to her, the is-she/isn’t-she plotline would have fallen quite short. Even in the last, commendably openended scene in the film, it’s really not clear whether Sylvie is a mystic in a very unmystical era, or just plum loony.

After that screening, Forsyth and Lahti, who’d not seen each other since the film’s release, held a true confessions session onstage to the great amusement of all. Lahti, radiant in shades of rose and blond, acknowledged she’d based aspects of Sylvie on the abstracted Forsyth. He then said something no doubt hilarious but unintelligible. (His brogue is intense.) Lahti then confided she’d written him a letter begging for inclusion in a Housekeeping Two. Forsyth looked bemused and said something else unintelligible in his brogue. I did understand, to my displeasure, Forsyth when he announced his retirement from filmmaking. A loss for film; I’ve been his fan since I insisted my fifth-grade birthday party be held at a screening of his Local Hero.

It says it all that the festival didn’t really end for me until I stepped in the door of my Brooklyn pad. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, Shotgun Stories’ Jeff Nichols and his pops, and Forsyth and his amazing partner Moira all flew the first leg out of Champagne with me (too early) Sunday morning. As ever, Betsy Hendrick’s party went all hours the night before, even though I convinced Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips to escort me back to the Union before the party even really got rolling, apparently. Hungover and vastly underslept, we all managed to be polite to each other at the airport; Barker even humored the no-doubt repellent odor of my strawberry and chocolate Steak N Shake while we discussed Cameron Crowe’s new book about Billy Wilder. And on the final leg to NYC, Forsyth and I talked and talked and talked. Apparently hangovers aid my powers of comprehension. I’m glad. He is the essence of Ebertfest: The real deal in brown paper wrapping.

I wish you all excellent health and cinema until we convene again next year.

Angsty Lee (and his Hulk)

I’m still thinking about the intimacy of director Ang Lee’s comments following the screening of his Hulk, which received a lukewarm response upon its 2003 release. Lee is an Illini alum, and after one of the school’s a capella groups serenaded him (I will never get over how much I hate that aspect of universities), he discussed quite openly how his relationship with his tyrannical father informed the film. It is a bit funny that the film that brought this Oscar-winning director—he who is responsible for some of the greatest films of the last decade—is arguably his weakest. But Lee’s weakest is still fairly compelling, and indeed, his very psychological take on the Hulk purges the trapped, angry child that most of us carry around.

At first, it’s possible to miss Lee’s self-possession. He sits hunched and speaks quietly with a strong, if inflected English that he says has improved mightily from when he directed Brit actors for the talk-talk-talky Sense and Sensibility. But as he expresses himself, the unmistakable inscrutability of someone confident in their impressions and work emerges, someone confident enough in his gut instinct to make a range of films whose only real commonality is his own vision. He is also kind rather than nice, a fact that is evident in his sweet smile. (Discussing how people would come up to him to compliment Sense, he confessed, “I’d just want to punch [them] in the face.”)

About the making of the Hulk, Lee said that some post-9/11 angst wended its way in there. “It’s the only film I’ve made that I had nightmares about,” he said. When he approached the US military to use their equipment for the film, their only caveat, he said, was that they win. (An impossibility, obviously.)

He also talked some about working with the late Heath Ledger, whom he described as “the perfect cowboy” in Brokeback Mountain, I wanted Heath to carry the movie and Jake Gyllenhaal to steal the show. And that’s how it was.”