Roger Ebert is talking to us. This is not a film festival. It’s a film seance.
Each day, we gather at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois, turn down the lights, and cast our gaze to the screen. Great art plays before us, and through it, we commune with the late film critic. Old movies are imbued with new meaning and context by the man who wanted us to watch them but left us before he could fully explain why. Now the movies speak for him.
I have never experienced anything like this in a movie theater before. On opening night, I felt like I could hear Ebert’s voice in the words of “Days of Heaven”‘s young teenage narrator. During day two, Ebert’s presence was almost overwhelming.
The afternoon’s first movie was “Vincent,” a 1987 documentary about the life of Vincent van Gogh by Paul Cox, a favorite filmmaker of Ebert’s and a frequent Ebertfest guest (the festival “has no greater friend,” Ebert wrote last year). Cox was supposed to attend Ebertfest once again in 2013, but health problems forced him to stay home. In his place, he sent a lengthy introduction, which was read by Chaz Ebert. It included a quote by van Gogh from a letter to his brother Theo, which Roger Ebert himself quoted in his memoir, “Life, Itself.” You can read it in this excerpt printed at Salon:
“Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.”
In his original review, Ebert calls “Vincent” “the best film about a painter I have ever seen” — and then in his conclusion he rephrases and describes it as “the most romantic and yet the most sensible documentary about a painter I have ever seen.” He liked this movie.
It is unquestionably one of the most unique and compelling treatments of a very common (and often boring) subject: the life of a great artist. Instead of casting actors as van Gogh and his friends and relatives, and setting them off in a fictionalized account, or interviewing historians and art experts about his work and impact, Cox lets Vincent speak for himself. The film is a 99-minute stream of consciousness direct from van Gogh’s mind and fingers.
Excerpts from the hundreds of letters Vincent wrote Theo are transformed into voiceover narration accompaniment for images of van Gogh’s great paintings and drawings, historical reenactments, and footage of natural beauty that evokes the painter’s art. As van Gogh describes his technique, Cox peers closely at his masterpieces, focusing frequently on faces and eyes. The shots are so close that we can consider the thought that went into each individual brush stroke.
Vincent’s letters to Theo are filled with tossed off pearls of wisdom about the ways in which art illuminates our lives and our lives illuminate our art. John Hurt’s performance as van Gogh’s voice, delivered with perfect meditative eloquence, is incredible. In his review, Ebert said the experience of hearing van Gogh’s words in conjunction with looking at his paintings was like having the artist “take you by the hand and lead you through an exhibit of his work.” Indeed; it’s as if Cox had created an art world version of a DVD commentary track. One could describe the film itself as a seance. It brings van Gogh’s voice — and his art — to life.
After the meditation came the wake. The next film of the day was 2011’s “In the Family,” from writer/producer/director/star Patrick Wang. It was nominated for a Spirit Award for Best First Feature, received a mention from Ebert amongst the best movies of the year, and played New York City on at least two occasions according to Q&A moderator and Sony Pictures Classics President Michael Barker. Still, until yesterday, this film had almost completely escaped my attention. Here is a movie in the classic Ebertfest mold, harkening back to the days when the event was still called “The Overlooked Film Festival.” When it was over, it received a lengthy and boisterous standing ovation from the crowd of the Virginia.
Wang stars as Joey, a Tennessee man who works as a contractor and lives with his partner Cody (Trevor St. John) and Cody’s biological son with a wife who died several years earlier during childbirth. Many months after her passing, Joey and Cody became lovers; eventually, they became a happy, cohesive family. Cody’s son Chip (Sebastian Banes) calls him “Pa” and Joey “Daddy.” Then something happens to Cody, and Joey has to care for Chip on his own — until Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) demands custody of the child. That spills into arguments, fights, restraining orders, and lawsuits, which culminate in a remarkable real-time sequence in which Joey gives an impassioned deposition in order to prove that he is fit to remain Chip’s father.
Wang’s performance — complete with an impressive Southern accent — is so naturalistic, and the emotions in “In the Family” are so white-hot intense, you assume at first that Wang must be telling his own life story (Ebert thought so too; in his review — which was published exactly one year to the day before its Ebertfest screening — he called Wang’s performance “notable… if, indeed, it is a performance. Perhaps Patrick Wang is exactly like that”). Then Wang appeared on stage at the Virginia for his Q&A without the Tennessee twang, and said that while certain aspects of the story might have been influenced by his life or the lives of people he knows, it was not an autobiographical film. Suddenly, his achievement seemed even greater.
Wang’s talents as an actor are equalled or perhaps even surpassed by his talents as a director. His ear for naturalistic dialogue — where conversations ramble, overlap, and flow as they do in the real world — recalls the work of Robert Altman. His eye for simple but evocative compositions, static shots, and long takes that feature characters moving in and out of the frame reawakens our minds to the modern potential of these supposedly old fashioned techniques.
Wang’s one deficiency might be as an editor — even with its emphasis on character development and extremely long scenes that play out at their own naturalistic pace, “In the Family” doesn’t need all of its 169 minutes. But as a first film, it’s a truly impressive accomplishment; when Ebert wrote that it “may signal the opening of an important career” he was right. I missed “In the Family” during its theatrical run; I won’t miss whatever Wang does next.
Once again, Ebert’s selection of a movie seemed cosmically poignant. “In the Family” is primarily a story about loss and grief — and about how families, even families that aren’t connected by blood, can endure in the wake of a loved one’s loss. As Press Play critic and video essayist Kevin B. Lee observed from the stage of the Virginia, that message was not lost on the extended family of movie fans gathered in Champaign this weekend. The film would be moving under any circumstances, but as part of Ebertfest its power was amplified many times over.
Chaz Ebert, the festival’s warm and generous host in Roger’s absence, opened her remarks before “Vincent” with a comment about the weather, which was cold, windy, and rainy all Thursday. “Roger, even the heavens are weeping,” she said. Weaping and speaking. More soon.