The rain, and later cold, didn’t deter audiences as big numbers turned out for day two of Ebertfest. As evidenced by the pairing of “I Remember” with Days of Heaven, Roger put tremendous thought into his programming of the festival, something clearly on display with his choices for day two. The power and beauty of both family and art were thematic through-lines of the day, starting with the short, “To Music”.
Directed by Sophie Kohn and Feike Santbergen, “To Music” centers on Antwan, a lute player in the midst of depression who is eventually pulled out of it by hearing his pianist friend play Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and picking up his lute again. There’s a clear sense of family in the film- Henriett, the female lead, can see that Antwan needs help. She tries to draw him out herself, she consults the local priest who tries as well, but it’s when the pianist comes, at Henriett’s request, that the group feels whole. There’s a camaraderie and comfort between the two men, an ease borne of long hours together. Earlier in the film, the priest talks to Henriett of her and Antwan’s artistry, that they’re both too talented to waste their gifts. We can see Antwan’s lute case in the background of his scenes, but it’s only when he’s finally reengaged with the world that we see what her talent is, when she starts to dance to Antwan and the pianist’s music. The music heals Antwan when family can’t, giving Antwan back to Henriett, and only when she has her family back can Henriett reembrace her art.
Paired with “To Music” was Paul Cox’s Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh. They’re a natural fit, and not just because Cox plays the priest in Kohn and Santbergen’s short. The interrelationship between family, love, and art is a clear tie between the films, along with their power to heal. Vincent takes a surprising approach to exploring the painter- rather than a more expected structure, the film consists solely of John Hurt reading some of the famous letters from Van Gogh to his brother, Theo, paired with visuals of nature, Van Gogh’s work, and some reenacted scenes reminiscent of his work. It’s an interesting, unique approach and while perhaps the film wasn’t as viscerally engaging for me as certain others from the day, it feels appropriate to trust the incredibly complicated Van Gogh to give us a picture of himself, rather than an external interpretation. Cox’s focus on Van Gogh’s work, and specifically, the details of it, is satisfying and far more interesting than seeing an actor furiously painting away at an easel, which the camera pans around to reveal as “Starry Night” or “Sunflowers”.
Unfortunately, with very little time between screenings, I had to skip the Q&A after Vincent to go back out to the rush line for the next film, Patrick Wang’s In The Family. After some quality time with the other excited film fans waiting outside, I got back in and situated myself for the next film which ended up being the absolute highlight of the day. All I knew about it beforehand was its title, the name of its writer/director/lead actor, and that it’s the better part of three hours long. I had no clue what a treat I was in for. In The Family is a beautiful film about family, loss, and love. It’s about what pulls us apart and what can put us back together and how often, when we’re in pain, what we need the most is just to listen to each other and be heard ourselves.
I highly recommend that viewers go into this movie knowing as little as possible, so I won’t elaborate more on the story here, other than to say that the performances by the entire cast, particularly writer/director Patrick Wang, are staggering. There are no twists, no reveals, but this is a film that should be allowed to unfurl for viewers. It is a film to be discovered and enjoyed on its own terms, without the burden of expectation. It’s also an incredibly impressive achievement from first time director Wang. There is an utter confidence in Wang’s direction uncommon in debut films- he trusts himself, his cast, and his crew and this comes across clearly in his staging and camera placement. Wang uses long takes, letting the audience live with these characters, and though the runtime had me trepidatious beforehand, the film is utterly engaging; the 169 minutes of In The Family went by quicker than the 99 of Vincent. The film will be out on DVD at the end of June. If you have the opportunity to see In The Family before then in theaters, take it. If not, seek out this film in June. You will be very glad you did. Afterwards, there was a Q&A with Patrick Wang and costar Trevor St. John. Both were very thoughtful and engaging and I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next, be it together or separately.
The final film of the day was Bernie. This was clearly the most well-known film of the day and the rush line outside proved that- there were over 100 people waiting. There are plenty reviews of Bernie available for those curious, and it is just as entertaining and darkly comic as I’d heard, but what was particularly interesting for me was Roger Ebert’s pairing of it with the previous days in the film. All the films on the day discussed art (Patrick Wang’s character in In The Family is a carpenter and craftsman, Bernie centers on a very artistic character) as well as family. The pairing of Bernie with these others made those themes stand out to me more than they would have, I suspect, had I seen it separately. The central relationship in the film follows a clear trajectory, first showing the healing ability of love and connection before that relationship sours, when the dangers of obsession and possessiveness creep in and twist a once-happy friendship. The Q&A afterward with Richard Linklater and, via phone, Jack Black was very entertaining and particularly enlightening in the discussion of the actual Bernie and DA Danny Buck, who both have met.
All in all, it was a great day of cinema and, once again, I feel the need to mention that if you are able to get down to Champaign for the last couple days of Ebertfest, you absolutely should.
Check out the rest of my Ebertfest 2013 coverage:
Day 1- “I Remember” and Days of Heaven
Day 3- Oslo, August 31st, The Ballad of Narayama, Julia
Day 4- Blancanieves, Kumaré, Escape From Tomorrow, The Spectacular Now
Day 5– “Sight and Sound Poll: Roger Ebert’s Favorite Films”, Not Yet Begun to Fight
And make sure to check out the video archive for the festival, featuring the introductions to all of the films, the Q&As afterwards, and panel discussions.