Friday, April 23, 2010

It's the New Age, Stupid

Day 2 of Ebertfest found us awash in sunshine, which always creates a bit of a dilemma. We New Yorkers are apportioned three beautiful days a year (a fair exchange for living in my finely feathered city) so my first impulse on a beautiful day outside the city is always to gallop like a madwoman into the nearest Merchant-Ivory- style field.

I’m glad I didn’t. It’s always such a pleasure to watch movies here. As a critic, I’ve learned to use the term “screening,” rather than “go to the movies,” but the truth is that attending films held in small houses built solely for industry and press viewing is as dry as it sounds. No big screen, none of the optimism you find in an audience who only gets to see a few movies a season, and (arguably most problematically) no candy. Here at the Virginia Theater, it’s wonderful to just go to the movies again. To sit with a receptive group of people, ogling a big, big screen, and throw back Junior Mints one by one.

That said, this year’s docket of movies was some heavy pizza. Eavesdropping on a conversation yesterday (festivalgoers beware: this is my favorite occupation), I heard someone say that “each year always has a theme, whether or not Roger intended it.” Initially, viewing this year's selections, I figured Ebertfest 2010 addressed mortality plain and simple. But, really, this year’s crop –from Wednesday's The Wall to You, the Living (a Swedish poker-faced series of emotional tableaus) to Apocolypse Redux to yesterday's Munyurangabo (about two Rwandan boys' lackluster quest for vengeance)--is about the search for redemption, which is so often only inspired by the threat of death.

I thought about that especially while revisiting The New Age, a movie that is no less disturbing viewed 16 years after its 1994 release. Talk about time travel. A profoundly West-Coast film, it is about a Beverly Hills couple’s slide into social and financial oblivion. Along the way, it ogles the Southern California upper class’s various fetishes, from lo-fi takes on S&M and Eastern and Native American spiritual rituals to a compensatorily fierce passion for shopping, with a tone that is intriguingly, irritatingly uneven. Peter Weller stars as Peter Witner, a Hollywood agent whose boss passive-aggressively lays him off with the statement “People like to be around you, but you’re not a closer.” It is an excellent trick of the film that it goes along with Witner’s conceit that he actually quits, leaving his boss off the hook for any kind of severance package.

Peter’s wife, Katherine (Judy Davis), is in even worse straits. A graphic designer who’s got no work since her bank client has gone under (her rant on the topic is so chillingly prescient that the audience here burst into spontaneous applauce), she loses her chief motivation to ignore her husband’s philandering once she realizes he’s lost his job. Both of them are handsome if a little creased, fastidiously turned-out, and viciously self-aware about their own emptiness. Without their cabbage, they realize, they not only don’t know what to do with each other but themselves. Too broke and unimaginative to find separate lives, they embark upon a trial separation while living under the same roof and opening a new upscale boutique. These are people profoundly removed from their own emotional landscape.

What’s confusing about the film is whether it’s worth inhabiting that landscape for two hours. At times it’s as icy as its subjects and, though occasionally witty, it’s not actually funny--nor is it necessarily supposed to be. Too sympathetic to the characters’ dilemmas to condemn them with any glee, the film languishes instead in their overly groomed navels as Katherine and Peter trip through boutique spiritual rituals, boutique parties, boutique sex parties and even boutique deaths. As their business fails –unsurprisingly, since these are folks better at buying things than selling them—and as the couple’s pukey truce subsequently falls apart, Katherine cries out, “ I don’t feel anything!” The problem: it's hard to feel much about people who don't feel anything. Throughout the film, the two flirt with suicide but as they are more brittle than brave, even death looms as too much of a commitment.

I had a chance to ask writer/director Michael Tolkin about the challenges of working with unlikable protagonists when critics Elvis Mitchell, Jim Emerson, and I sat on a panel with him after the screening. His answer surprised me: “I didn’t find them unlikable.” He went on to discuss how painful he found aspects of the film today, that it was if he were reading a letter he’d sent himself 16 years ago. As I was sitting right next to him as he said these words, I was aware of how painful that letter might have been and felt a rush of empathy for him. What is powerful and undismissable about The New Age, I realized in that moment, is that it is not just about emptiness but a longing for completion.

He went on to describe the film as a kind of a documentary, as he had included many friends and colleagues who actually belonged to its mileus, and questioned aloud that decision. Acknowledging how little the money the film made, Tolkin said bluntly that more nudity might have helped it sell more. I wouldn’t blame him for being serious, and I am not sure he wasn't. But it is that kind of indeterminacy of conviction that made me feel for a minute that we were listening to one of The Player's writers after they'd thrown in the towel.

During our conversation, Tolkin referenced his novels more than this and his one other film, the equally complicated The Rapture, even saying outright that he thought he might be a better novelist than filmmaker. He might be right. His particular brand of ambivalence, as keenly observed as it is, works best on the page, where you don’t have to succumb so entirely to it. But to describe that gray area accurately takes more courage than his characters evinced, and it is this brave, accurate honesty that always intrigues me about his films. It is why I will be the first to see his next should he ever make one.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Mandals: Do I Even Have to Say It?

Obviously there are much bigger issues in the world, and occasionally I am even concerned with them, but today I write to you, dear Ebertfest readers, on the very pressing topic of men who wear sandals. Or Mandals, as the case may be. Which, sadly, it is.

There are those who wish to be comfortable, and this is something I comprehend--though I admit that, as a woman who regularly wears four-inch heels, it is not something to which I relate. That said, I can grasp the desire to let the toes breathe occasionally. I regularly indulge this urge throughout the warm months, but—and here I am adamant—I take pains so as not to subject others to the blight of my untreated toes.

And this brings me to my point. O male festival attendees who persist in letting your dogs run free—and after six years of Ebertfest attendance, I do not foresee the Hegemony of the Mandal letting up anytime soon--I have but one word for you, sirs: pedicure.

The Future Is Now

The first real conversation I ever had with Roger Ebert was about science fiction. It was 2005, my first year of attendance, and we were all spinning from sugar and meat at Steak N Shake. It was back when the festival denizens hung out there every night after screenings, back when co-conspirator Dusty Cohl still presided over the table with his bright, discerning eyes peering out behind his wide-brimmed hat festooned with pins of every form and function. Although I wasn’t unaccustomed to meeting celebrities (an occupational hazard of working at Us Weekly) and rarely was cowed by them, I was terrified of Roger. It wasn’t that he was unfriendly—he radiates a genuine, general warmth—but I so deeply respected his opinions that I feared what he might see in me.

Somehow the conversation got around to science fiction and I confessed that growing up, I’d been a fierce fan—my grandmother had obligingly bought me a subscription to Isaac Asimov Magazine every year for Christmas—and I even wrote my college thesis on a science fiction novel (Marge Piercy’s unsurmountable Woman on the Edge of Time). Roger looked at me: “I was a huge fan,” he said, and something told me that it was the genre’s promise of transcending seemingly intractable limitations that had appealed to him, too.

I thought about that moment yesterday at the opening ceremony of the 12th annual Ebertfest. It was a gorgeous night at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s President’s House and while I looked around at the many familiar faces, Roger’s estimable partner-in-crime Chaz talked of how he had always been a “cybergeek.” I suddenly recalled that exchange all those years before, and feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, in which she famously once wrote: “"We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”

Although it is an undeniable crime that Roger Ebert has been stripped of his physical ability to speak, it occurred to me last night that this was a man who would not only always adapt to his circumstances, but would transcend them in whatever way technology would afford him. He’d been doing that since he was a young boy reading, within the five mile radius of where we were all standing that night, of cyborgs and wireless telephone devices and strange computers that could connect you with the world. As I watched him in the mild spring air, I contrasted his wordless smile with his many acerbic, on-point tweets I read daily, and grinned. In these last few years, I thought, Roger has become a cyborg. He is as present and influential as ever; his voice as loud and clear, both on his blog and in his tweets. Perhaps more.

The future is now.

I flashed on all the people I’d connected with here over the years, and realized that they all still felt present—whether they were in a different geographical place, like filmmakers Terry Zwigoff or Guy Maddin or Karen Gehres, or gone from this Earth now, like dear Dusty. The past is now, too, in other words. And if we can collapse time like that, perhaps we’ve already achieved the one facet of science fiction that still seems elusive: we have all become time travelers. All that is required to defeat linear time is an ability to stay open, whether it’s to a film ( a fact I was reminded of at the later screening of You, the Living) or to each other or to the life we still have.

Welcome to Ebertfest 12, dear old-new friends. I'm looking forward to talking with you all.