A good movie is like a good sermon. For those of us who grew up in church (or “ch-yurch” as the Black pastors say), the most effective sermon was one where you felt the preacher was speaking directly to you. Growing up in the church, I had those moments more than once. I’d be sitting in the pew assigned my family members, sweating my ass off in a suit and fanning myself with one of those popsicle stick fans that were an insult to cooling systems—and then BAM!! The preacher’s words would strike a chord within me. The church would suddenly go dark, illuminated only by a spotlight beaming down from the heavens and onto me. Sometimes my direct message was one of empathy. Sometimes it was one of reassurance. And sometimes it was one of scorn, telling me I was living foul. Regardless, when the sermon was good, when it hit home, I felt it jolting through my nerves like gum wrapper foil on a filled tooth. This is what a good sermon—and a good movie—can do for you. It can speak to you as if only thine ears can hear its message.
On the list of EbertFest films this year, a few spoke to me in ways that cast that spotlight down into the Virginia Theater, illuminating me and resonating their messages through my nappy soul. I pause a moment to speak of each with the reverence they deserve.
The Son Of A Preacher Man Tells All
When asked, I always describe myself as “a lapsed Baptist,” but I know better. If I stepped into a church today, I’d be in trouble. A loud voice from the sky would boom “Oh NO YOU DI’INT!” This would be followed by a lightning bolt enema. I’ve no use for organized religion anymore, but nothing short of reverse-exorcism can remove the things I got, pro and con, from my time in the church. Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” spoke to me, highlighting both the reasons I stayed so long in my religion and why I left it. Serving as both director and star, Farmiga commendably crafts a non-judgmental ramble through the life of her character, from youth to motherhood. Based on the memoir of Carolyn S. Briggs, who appeared in a great, informative Q&A with Nell Minow, “Higher Ground” resists the urge of most religious themed movies; it neither preaches to the choir nor attempts any converts. It accepts the world it inhabits, and treats it with dignity. Like Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” it leaves you to contemplate your own belief system while coasting on the kind of energy that drives old fashioned tent revivals.
Seeing it for the second time, “Higher Ground” hit me harder than my initial viewing. It made me nostalgic and angry in equal measure, provoking not only confusion at my emotional response, but also some unexpected tears. What were those tears for? I honestly didn’t know. I was undergoing some form of catharsis. More than any other film at EbertFest, this one got to me.
Love: Iranian Style
My third viewing of "A Separation" did little to diminish its power. The film I put at #2 on my ten best list for 2011 grows richer with every viewing, allowing me to marvel at how well the screenplay uses an almost standard construction as a springboard for a dissertation on human behavior. What really hit home for me this time was just how integral the daughter’s actions are to the film prior to its ending. Played by the director’s daughter, Sarina Fahardi, in heartbreaking fashion, the character of Termeh loses her innocence while desperately clinging to the hope that her parents will cancel their separation. As a child of divorce, I felt the collateral damage Termeh feels. The ending, which drew audible groans from the audience the first time I saw it (the Virginia Theater crowd was more forgiving), seems an act of mercy on the director’s part, sparing not us but Termeh herself.
At the Q&A for "A Separation," Sony Classics president Michael Barker, Paul Cox and FFC moderator Professor Omer Mozaffar discussed some of the purely Iranian elements American audiences would miss, as well as an answer for the film’s final, unanswered question. I was glad to hear their answers, which agreed with my own: There’s no right answer here. Not even King Solomon could have provided one.
Paul Cox Sits Behind Me
The EbertFest record-holder for appearances is director Paul Cox. Cox finds himself the subject of the documentary that opened Saturday’s EbertFest screenings, “On Borrowed Time.” It’s a bracingly honest documentary, much like the director’s own work, with talking heads occasionally saying some rather brutal things about the subject. “On Borrowed Time” was made while Cox was waiting for a liver transplant, so it shows, to paraphrase Cox, its subject falling apart onscreen. We hear from Cox, his actors and the producers for whom he worked. “Time” has an eerie parallel with the one film of Cox’s I really like, “A Woman’s Tale.” Like that film, “Time” follows its subject through what may be the end of life. Actress Sheila Florance was dying during the filming of “A Woman’s Tale,” and like “On Borrowed Time,” the film is purely matter-of-fact in its pity-free depiction.
EbertFest 2012 was dedicated to Paul Cox. Before the screening of “On Borrowed Time,” Chaz introduced Cox to the audience. I turned around to find him standing directly behind me in the audience. During the film, after an actor said a particularly snarky thing about Cox, I heard a boisterous laugh from behind me. Mr. Cox was clearly enjoying this, and I thought to myself, this is how I’d like my funeral to be. Screw that Baptist funeral shit, with people jumping on my coffin in grief and the playing of my least favorite song in the world, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Instead, I want people to get up and say “I loved that Odie. But sometimes he was a real dick.” Don’t be dishonest out of respect for the dead. It’s not like I can come back.
Let’s Go To Prison
People say I look like this guy too. I do NOT have that much chest hair.
Saturday morning bore witness to a fascinating panel discussion of science and the special effects behind “The Tree of Life’s” famous “what the fuck is this?” Creation of the Universe section. Director Jeff Nichols, whose “Take Shelter” was screening in the Saturday evening slot, was also there to talk about the effects in his film. These effects take the form of visions seen by “Take Shelter’s” star, Michael Shannon. The tie to “The Tree of Life” comes in the guise of Jessica Chastain, who plays Shannon’s understanding wife. Chastain, who could do no wrong in 2011, and Shannon turn in superb acting work, but full disclosure forces me to admit I wasn’t crazy about “Take Shelter.” I wasn’t going to tell that to Michael Shannon, though. He’s a big guy! Also, since even more near-sighted people than the ones who say I’m Cee-Lo think I look like Chi McBride (pictured above, with rubber duck and sodomy in mind), I was hoping to run some lines with Mr. Shannon from the guilty pleasure in his canon, “Let’s Go To Prison.”
“Do I even have a scene with Chi?” Mr. Shannon asked me. “You have one,” I said, proceeding to describe it.
“It’s obvious I’ve seen this film more than once,” I sheepishly admitted.
Mr. Shannon found that amusing, and rather than kick my ass, he posed for a picture with me.
Speaking of ass kicking…
Odie Gets His Ass Kicked
The title is homage to James Thurber.*
I was hoping for my Saturday Night to turn out like the Bay City Rollers song. (You know you want to sing it: “S-A-T-U-R…D-A-Y…NIGHT!”) Instead it turned out like that Elton John song, “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting.” Throughout the festival, I had plenty of people calling me Cee-Lo once or twice. However, there was one festival guest who clearly relished doing it. Whenever I’d see him, he’d yell out “Cee-Lo! It’s Cee-Lo!” He was real pushy too, both sober and when he’d been drinking. He became unreasonable once he’d had a few. Now, I normally relish putting people on blast, so I should say his name. But I’m trying to craft a tasteful series here…
(Lightning strikes Odie)
OK. OK. Taste has nothing to do with it. I promised I wouldn’t say who it is, so you’ll have to forgive me. But this director was pushy, demanding that I see his movie whenever I saw him. I tried to avoid him but ran into him EVERYWHERE, including the one place I couldn’t run into Kelechi Ezie, the men’s room. On Thursday night at the karaoke, he went after some people after getting lit up on dat Devil’s Brew. I wasn’t paying attention to this prescient scene, but some of his victims shared horror stories with me when I told them mine.
During the festival, I’d gotten a reputation as the EbertFest Hobo because I bummed a ride off anybody who had a host driving them around. (VIP’s get their very own host. I drove, so no host was necessary for me.) I’d bummed rides with Jana’s host, Boone’s host (who was a party animal and loads of fun) and my festival buddy, Michal’s host (who will get a shout-out tomorrow). It was a good idea for me to bum a ride Saturday night, as the post festival party was being held at Betsy Hendrick House, a domicile I would NEVER have been able to find with my constantly confused Verizon GPS. This was a really nice place, an intimate setting with delicious food and hard liquor. It was hardly the place for a fight. I mean this joint had a piano player, for Cripe’s Sake!
I hadn’t seen the director since I’d seen his film. I was terrified I’d run into him and have to tell him I didn’t like it. So my desire for avoidance increased hundredfold. Of course, I was the first person he saw when he came into the party at 1:30 AM.
Immediately he started up with the Cee-Lo talk. After I jokingly said “Fuck You,” he continued. It was Cee-Lo this and Cee-Lo that.
“I have a name,” I said, “and it’s Odie.”
“I’m calling you Cee-Lo because Chaz said so,” he said, with a little menace in his voice.
“I have a name,” I repeated, “and it is Odie.”
He leaned in closer, until our faces almost touched. He acted as if this were about to go down at Ray-Ray’s Pool Hall on Martin Luther King Drive, not a fancy home in Champaign. He repeated his line with even more menace.
“I’m calling you Cee-Lo because Chaz said so.”
He smelled like the inside of a used bourbon barrel. The piano player, who was directly behind us, started playing “Misty.” Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut popped into my head, but I couldn’t focus on the irony of its title right now.
I turned my face away from his. “Dude,” I said tersely, “I’m not interested in fighting, especially not here. It’s Saturday night. That Cee-Lo shit was played out on Thursday. You wanna talk to me? My name is Odie.”
He looked even angrier. I expected him to hit me, which was the last thing I wanted. But the next question completely threw me off.
“Did you see my movie?” he asked.
“And what movie was that?” I asked, clearly being a sarcastic dick. I knew exactly which movie he was talking about, but I wasn’t in a satisfaction-giving mood after he stepped to me like a tough guy. Plus, I really disliked his movie, which would have really made him hit me.
His wounded expression got to me. He was visibly hurt. Thirty seconds ago, he was ready to slug me—and now THIS?!!! “Everybody has a heart,” Bette Davis echoed in my head, “except some people.” I ain’t some people. I’m actually a very sensitive human being despite my gruff, New Jersey exterior. I felt like I should have just let him drunkenly harass “Cee-Lo,” but after three days of being called out of my name by half the fucking festival, I’d had enough. My sympathy hardened back into aggravation.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and walked off. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Whoa,” said another party attendee who was near enough to hear the entire thing. “That was tense!”
“I need a drink,” I said.
*When I was a freshman in high school, I had to read a story by James Thurber called “The Night The Bed Fell.” The bed in the story didn’t fall, and I felt lied to and cheated by the author. So I titled this section “Odie Gets His Ass Kicked” knowing full well I’d emerge unscathed. I feel just as badly for misleading you as Walter Mitty’s creator felt for misleading me.
Tomorrow: In Sight, It Must Be As Addictive As Crack; Odie Finally Gets Some Sleep; Roger & Me; Nuclear Warheads Make Great Grilled Cheese Sandwiches; The End of the Festival