For over sixteen years, Roger Ebert wrote a series of essays for the Chicago Sun-Times and his website entitled The Great Movies. The last of more than 300 biweekly pieces was dedicated to a Japanese film entitled “The Ballad of Narayama.” Ebert’s appreciation was published on March 7th; he died on April 4th. I don’t know how ill Ebert was when he wrote this piece, and in any event the timing had to be a coincidence — “Narayama” just happened to be released around that time on a brand new Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate farewell than this devastating meditation on life and death, which follows a woman as she approaches the age of 70, when all the elderly residents of her remote village are required to trek up to the peak of nearby Mount Narayama to die of starvation and exposure for the good of the community and its dwindling food supply.
On Friday, I called Ebertfest 2013 more of a “film seance” than a film festival; if that’s true, then “The Ballad of Narayama” was like its crystal ball — the focal point of all its energies. The parallels to Ebert’s own passing were unmistakable. Ebert died at the age of 70 as well, and from all the stories told about him at his funeral and memorial service by his wife Chaz, his attitude toward death was very similar to the one held by Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine of the film. Orin’s son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) doesn’t want her to die and fights to convince her to stay past her birthday, but Orin accepts her fate and is ready when it arrives.
Food is scarce in Orin’s village, and an all-consuming hunger suffuses the film. Characters don’t eat in “The Ballad of Narayama;” they devour. At almost 70, Orin is still relatively spry and healthy, with a full set of teeth — an embarrassment in her community, where it is considered a sign that someone is eating more than their fair share. To remove the stigma, Orin smashes her mouth against the edge of a clay plot, forever altering her face. I couldn’t have been the only one in the audience at the Virginia Theatre to think of Ebert and his battles with cancer at that moment.
“The Ballad of Narayama,” based on famous (but largely unconfirmed) Japanese legends, was made by Keisuke Kinoshita, a director I was previously unfamiliar with. Now, I’m desperate to see more of his work. He shot “Narayama” almost entirely on sound stages, using beautiful and elaborate painted backdrops, intricate sets, and many techniques of the Japanese kabuki theater. One scene flows to the next through the use of a singing narrator and brilliant production and lighting design and editing; characters conclude their conversation in the foreground of the frame and suddenly the screen will darken, the figures will vanish, and the backdrop behind them will fall — and we are instantly transported to another location and a new sequence. The exaggerated style is the perfect accompaniment to the movie’s intensely sorrowful melodrama.
The film would be powerful under any circumstances, but at Ebertfest, it was almost too much to bear. Ebert famously said that he believed that empathy was “the most essential quality of civilization.” If that’s true, “The Ballad of Narayama” may be one of our most essential films. Rarely have I felt more empathy than I did toward Orin as she marches toward her destiny atop that desolate mountain.
Nearly all the films from the first half of Ebertfest 2013 reflected on the life of its late founder and programmer; when the residents of “Narayama” celebrated their annual “Festival of the Dead,” it occured to me that could serve as a very appropriate name for for this year’s gathering in Champaign, Illinois, which was dampened throughout Wednesday, Thursday, and early Friday, with soaking rains and punishingly bitter winds.
Then, at last, the skies cleared. Saturday at Ebertfest kicked off with an impromptu dance, led by actress Tilda Swinton, whose superb and outrageously suspenseful thriller “Julia,” played the Friday night slot at this year’s festival. To the sounds of Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” Swinton danced through the orchestra section of the enormous Virginia Theatre, getting the crowd up on their feet, clapping and shimmying. The mood officially lifted, the final full day of programming commenced with more opportunities to heal and even to laugh.
First up was “Blancanieves,” a 2012 silent film from Spanish director Pablo Berger. A clever twist on the fairy tale of “Snow White,” it tells the story of a great bullfighter’s daughter (Macarena Garcia) who is kept from her father by her wicked stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdu, best known to American audiences as Luisa from “Y Tu Mama Tambien”). To keep the bullfighter’s fortune for herself, Encarna tries to have the girl, Carmen, killed, but her assassin botches the job and she is rescued by a band of bullfighting dwarves, who take her in and give her the name Blancanieves (Spanish for Snow White). Naturally, she quickly becomes a great bullfighter in her own right.
The rest of “Snow White”‘s iconography — apples, eternal slumber, magic kisses — soon follow, each with unusual twists. Like “The Artist,” “Blancanieves” is a modern film made in the style of the old silent pictures — and it’s perhaps even more faithful to the spirit and technique of the classic films from a century ago (there are, in other words, no excerpts from the score to “Vertigo”). Verdu gives a supremely, delightfully evil performance, and Berger effectively balances moments of great humor (thanks, adorable rooster sidekick!) and great sadness (the ending hits you like a punch in the gut).
After “Kumare,” a very interesting documentary about spirituality and how students face the loss of a teacher (still more resonance with this year’s Ebertfest), the Virginia Theatre was treated to another new black and white movie. “Escape From Tomorrow,” which was one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Its production history is unbelievable and fascinating; writer/director Randy Moore grew up visiting his father in Orlando, who often took him to Walt Disney World. Wanting to make a film about families and fathers and sons, and wanting to use Disney’s one-of-a-kind atmosphere as “The Happiest Place on Earth” as the ironic counterpoint to a very dark story about a disturbed man, he decided to shoot on the sly inside the Disney parks without the company’s permission. Apart from some interiors in hotel rooms (shot elsewhere) and a couple longer dialogue sequences performed in front of green screens, the majority of the movie was filmed in and around Disney World: at the Contemporary Resort, on the “Snow White” (or is that “Blancanieves?”) ride and in the secret underground Siemens bunker where innocent Disney guests are subjected to horrific experiments.
All right, so perhaps that last one is an invention of Moore and his protagonist, Jim (Roy Abramsohn). In Orlando for a family vacation, Jim’s day at Disney begins with an unfortunate phone call: he’s just been laid off. Shielding the bad news from his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their two young kids, Jim and company head off to the Magic Kingdom — where financial worries and the horror that is “It’s a Small World” push him over the edge. He becomes obsessed with a pair of young French teenagers, and begins stalking them around the park. He encounters a woman who reveals a massive prostitution conspiracy involving the Disney princesses. And later, he meets a scientist who turns his head into a miniature version of Spaceship Earth.
The black and white is the key, I think, to the movie’s secrets. On a special episode of “Siskel & Ebert” from the mid-1980s devoted to the then-popular trend to colorize old movies, Ebert defended the beauty of black and white photography. “By filming in black and white,” he said, “movies can sometimes be more dreamlike and elegant and stylized and mysterious. They can add a whole additional dimension to reality.” “Escape From Tomorrow”‘s black and white presents a vision of Disney we’ve never seen before. It also, I think, indicates that from the very first scenes, there is no base-level reality here. Even when Jim seems in control he is already trapped in a nightmare, one that fluctuates wildly, as many dreams do, between masturbatory fantasy, incoherent lunacy, and cold-sweat-inducing terror.
That might be a bit of a cop-out though. Sheer formal daring and undeniable chutzpah aside, “Escape From Tomorrow” is a bit of a mess, maybe purposefully but not necessarily effectively. Moore aims at his targets like a kid on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin: spraying wildly and without much of a coherent plan of attack. What does Jim’s obsession with young women have to do with his lost job? What’s his lost job have to do with crazy paranoia about Disney’s secret police? What do the secret police have to do with the dreaded “cat flu” which is apparently ravaging the population of Orlando? Nothing really, but Moore’s got some good ideas and some cool visuals he wants to throw at all of them, so in they all go. Nightmares indulge such wild leaps of logic, but movies are sometimes improved by a bit more clarity and focus.
“Escape From Tomorrow”‘s post-Ebertfest fate remains unclear. Moore told the audience at the Virginia that the film has several more festival dates lined up but that wider distribution plans are still up in the air (“We’re hoping for the best,” Moore said). Which means that regardless of my opinion of it, “Escape From Tomorrow” represents what Ebertfest has always been — and, hopefully, will continue to be — all about: championing overlooked and underrated movies and bringing them to wider attention, helping them escape obscurity in the hope of a better tomorrow for filmmakers and film lovers alike. Even without its founder, Ebertfest 2013 was an incredible festival — one of the most powerfully and personally curated I have ever attended in my life.