Noon: I arrive to the ding-dong of church bells tolling the time for the doors of the Virginia Theatre to open. Hey, ringing some big gong to signal the opening of the doors each day isn't such a bad idea, come to think of it; sort of like the gunshot before the running of the bulls. They bare enough similarities.
My husband is celebrating a personal victory-it is the second day in a row he has been the very first person in the line wrapped around the theater. Today, he says, it is a matter of comfort he woke up the extra hours: he is one of the only people staying dry beneath the marquee in the drizzling morning rain.
Our two Ebertfest friends reveal to us that a fire alarm had gone off at 3:00am in their hotel, so they are running on very little sleep. Bob admits the first thing he grabbed out of the room was their Ebertfest passes-talk about hardcore festival-goers! Luckily, their hotel didn't burn down, and Bob was able to grab a couple minutes sleep dozing in his chair in the line.
1:00pm: Chaz Ebert graces the stage for "housekeeping": little bits of information or notices pertaining to the festival. She implores someone to give another fest-goer a ride so she can see the last film of the day; I appreciate how the Eberts treat the fans of the festival like a family. After being crammed into small spaces together for such a long time, you can't help but feel like you somehow know the people sitting around you, even if you haven't spoken with them directly. Chaz also announces that someone anonymously donated $1.5 million dollar to the University of Illinois's College of Media for their Roger Ebert Center for Film Studies. This is pretty cool news, but I can't help but think of that episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" where Larry David feels upstaged by an anonymous donor.
The first film is Departures, a Japanese movie directed by Yojiro Takita in 2008; the story is about a young man who needs a job after his dream as a cellist has been shattered after the orchestra he played for is dissolved; he finds a job in his small hometown as a coffiner, and comes to terms with his path in life, as well as his deserter father. As the movie screens, I know before it has completed that this is the find of the festival. I am blown away by its profound sense of humanity, and the little details of realism in the film that make it so relatable. Departures manages to be a movie about death that is as funny as it is respectful of the process of saying final good-byes. This is one of the most, if not the most, beautiful films I've ever seen. It's hard to get excited to watch a film in which dying is the subject matter, but Departures is a soaring portrait of the human spirit and the single connection that unites us all-the fact we all someday will die. To see this film is to be reminded why Ebertfest has become so popular, and why we return every year; how have I not seen this film before now? I predict Departures will be impossible to one-up this year. There isn't a dry eye in the house when the film ends.
Director Yojiro Takita is introduced with his interpreter, and the panel discussion begins. To prepare for the film, Takita actually worked as a coffiner himself. One of the panelists explains that death is a taboo subject in Japanese culture, and anyone employed around the dead are subject to being shunned, even though coffining is ironically a preparation of the dead in a respectful, elegant ceremony, giving one last touch of dignity to the departed before they are laid to rest.
I could go on and on about this movie. Just move mountains to find a copy of it and watch it for yourself if you haven't had the pleasure.
4:20pm-ish: Because the panel discussion wasn't given much wiggle room for timing, the second film begins late. Roger Ebert himself walks down to the orchestra pit and leads the audience in a round of applause for the live musicians. The Alloy Orchestra is back to perform live accompaniment to the silent picture, Man with a Movie Camera. I have seen the movie before, but the only lasting image I have of it is the iconic shot of a camera man riding a motorcycle while cranking the old-fashioned movie camera (not a bad image to be left with, to be sure). The Alloy Orchestra's performance is mesmerizing, detailing the sounds of clinking spoons, horseshoes, and everyday objects to serve as the background for the explosion of images igniting the screen. Shot in 1929, the film chronicles the chaos, simplicity, beauty, and wonder of a day in the life of people in Russia using quick cuts of juxtaposing images to express motion, passion, and even humor. One of the series of shots I admire the most is of different athletes pole vaulting and hurdling; the cameraman delivers us art in the twist of sinuous arms and the unique stretch of legs as they clear the obstacles. One of the shots of men hurdling is frozen while a man is in mid-air, and then it does the same with a running Thoroughbred, I wonder if this is an intentional nod to Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer who, by organizing a set of trip-wired cameras, became the first person to prove a horse's feet leave the ground all at once during a gallop. If so, well done, Dziga Vertov.
5:40pm-ish: I don't stay for the panel discussion with the Alloy Orchestra, since time has been eaten away from us and we've already planned to have dinner with our Ebertfest friends. After a nice dinner at Farren's, I run home to release the hound and grab my Nikon in preparation of the big name of the festival, Charlie Kaufman, appearing after the next film.
7:45pm: There is not a free parking space in sight near the theater, and the line for ticket holders and people waiting to stand by for no-shows is stretched all the way to the street. I end up parking on the far side of West Side Park and have to hoof it back to the theater before the mob is released.
8:00pm: Back by popular demand, Roger Ebert introduces the final movie of the day. He calls Kaufman the "most creative screenwriter of his generation," and I have to agree. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I love the writer's other films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Then Ebert goes so far as to call the next movie, Synecdoche, New York, "not only the best film of its year, but of the decade." Considering Synecdoche shared a decade with There Will be Blood, I have to disagree with that opinion, but that's okay. Charlie Kaufman comes out and looks terribly uncomfortable when receiving our standing ovation; I can already tell this will make for an interesting panel discussion afterwards.
I'd seen Synecdoche, New York when it was playing in New York City over a year ago, and came away from that viewing with more than I did this time. I will blame that on myself for lack of sleep, and no fault of the movie itself. Like the panelist from Sony Classics says in the discussion following the screening, "You have to know how to watch this movie... You can't force a structure on this film." The film, if you can give it a vague plot outline, is about a man struggling with ailments, his failing marriage, and a play, and his psychological cocktail of these troubles as he eventually reaches a breakdown of the mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars alongside Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton, while screenwriter Charlie Kaufman helms the director's chair for the first time. If I was in a different place in my life, I could appreciate this film more, and so I will not try to break it down after my lack of sleep. It is an eccentric, surreal film, to say the least, that will effect each of its viewers differently, and give each its own interpretation of what the movie is really about. After the screening, Kaufman said about his decision not to follow in the footsteps of the great directors like Coppola, Scorsese, etc., "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it my way." And that he did. According to the filmmaker, Synecdoche is his idea of a "scary movie." Kaufman goes on to say his film was "the death knell" of the expensive indie film (the budget was around $20 million), because movies like this don't come close to breaking even. "No movie I have ever worked on has ever broken even," he says. Sony Classics considers Synecdoche an "evergreen movie," that will be around for generations and continue to make money over the years to come. After Roger Ebert requests the panel discusses the movie's ideas of life and death, Kaufman states his mission as an auteur: "If you are as honest as you can be, it can build a bridge between you and other people, so that no one feels alone.... The most depressing things to me are happy movies that are lies."
Kaufman has built a career on being earnest and uncovering the depths of the human connection through the mind. If it takes an abstract use of art to convey these themes, then he is the most equipped filmmaker in the business to do it.