Ebertfest, day three

Three fantastic movies today.

1. Departures (2008)

The great film writer David Bordwell summed up the appeal of this Japanese film very well in his introduction to the screening. It is not afraid to be emotional, to really try to reach the audience’s emotions, without a shield of irony. In doing this, it also uses a kind of genuine, gentle humor that is refreshing in comparison to so many cynical contemporary films.

Bordwell’s brief summary was perfect. This is a film that appealed to me as a human being. It is the story of Daigo, a thirty-something cello player, who moves with his web designer wife, Mika, back to his childhood house when his orchestra dissolves and he decides to give up the cello. They live in the house his mother left him, Mika smiling like a trooper all the way. Daigo answers a vague job ad, and before he can talk himself out of it, finds himself being hired to work with a man who performs ceremonial rites at funerals.

From there, we have a beautiful story about how various people face death, and how Daigo in particular comes to face everything his life has become—what he has lost along the way, and what lovely things he’s gained. The movie mentions the concept of fate several times, and the plot itself does seem fated—perhaps to the point of predictability in spots, but this is never to the film’s detriment. Every moment that occurs, even when one might see it coming, is so desired by the viewer, so cathartic, that any coincidence or lack of surprise is more than forgiven (which is not to say that there aren’t some very surprising moments as well).

The film and its director, Yojiro Takita, received a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience. There may have been a few dry eyes in the house, but not many. If there was anyone there who didn’t like the film, they didn’t dare admit it. The best comment I heard was a simple one from a middle-aged woman, said with all sincerity: “I needed that movie.”

2. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

We were running behind, and the quick turnaround from the deliberate and poignant tone of Departures to the avant garde mania of this silent film provided me with a little bit of whiplash and a lot of needed energy. Dziga Vertov made a hell of a movie, showing “a day in the life” of Russia, made up of (mostly) documentary footage, but in practice playing out nothing like a documentary.

This is a film where the editing becomes the point of the thing, rather than a tool to get to the point. We see scene after scene of daily parts of life, some modified to go faster, slower; to be shown split-screen; to add a dash of stop motion animation or a double exposure edit. It’s a 68-minute montage of images, and it is extremely fun to to watch. It is all I can do not to describe it as a “wild ride” (see how I cheated there?).

The film was accompanied by a live original score from the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man band with which I may now be a little obsessed. The Q&A after the screening revealed that they wrote it while consulting original notes that Vertov wrote about what he wanted for the music, which is mind-blowingly cool. Their score was perfect in how it enhanced and even commented on everything that happened on the screen. Overall, just a great experience.

3. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Watching this film in a theater packed with 1500+ other people was quite a different experience than the first time, by myself. I was startled when people were laughing! I don’t remember laughing! But it’s amazing how others’ reactions can help you see something new in a film. There is humor there that I didn’t relate to before.

I think this movie is brilliant, and that watching it is a deep experience. I found so many more valuable things in this second viewing that I look forward to a third. However, I can see how someone would find it pretentious or hard to relate to. The reaction in the theater was quite enthusiastic for Charlie Kaufman himself when the Q&A began, but a little more mixed right after the film ended. I find it a film I want to sit silently contemplating for a bit, but many people seemed eager to chat about anything else.

Roger Ebert named Synecdoche, New York his best film of the decade, and a touching moment occurred during the Q&A, when Chaz Ebert read aloud a question from Roger to the panel. He had written that he’d discovered the film at a time when he was spending a lot of time thinking about life and death, and he wanted the panel to speak their thoughts on the handling of those themes. Charlie Kaufman gave Ebert his sincere thanks for his words, and did his best to answer.


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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