Ebertfest 2014: Day Two examines loss and the arts
Day Two of Ebertfest began early (9 am), with a discussion panel titled “Challenging Stigma Through The Arts”, which focused on Short Term 12 and its depiction of struggling teens. The panelists, a combination of artists, critics, and social work professionals, explored the connection between trauma, expression, and the arts, as well as the progression of the kind of institutions and professionals featured in the film from the ‘80s to now. Brie Larson, the lead of Short Term 12, was particularly eloquent in speaking about her character, her preparation for the film, and the importance of embracing one’s darkness to find strength within perceived weakness. Much of the panel wound up centering on the experiences of the youth outreach professionals and ways of communicating with and helping integrate these young adults into the community. That left half of the panelists out of most of the discussion, which was unfortunate, but the conversation was lively and informative none the less.
The second panel of the day explored digital filmmaking and how technology is changing the production and consumption of film. The panelists, including directors, executives, scholars, and actors, engaged in a debate of the pros and cons of digital filmmaking and distribution. David Bordwell spoke passionately on the dangers of solely archiving digitally, as did several of the other panelists. Chaz Ebert praised the growing availability of film to cinephiles outside major metropolitan areas who otherwise have little access to independent film, while Brie Larson bemoaned the growing apathy towards communal film-going from those able, but unwilling, to take advantage of local art theatres. A number of other interesting topics were raised as well, including a plea for awareness and action from Jem Cohen on the unsettling issue of Net Neutrality and the revelation from Steve James that the Library of Congress did nothing to preserve Hoop Dreams when it was inducted. On the whole, it was an interesting and enlightening discussion.
The three films on Day Two were Museum Hours, Short Term 12, and Young Adult, which each examine in some way the power and emotional catharsis of art, be it observing and pondering masterpieces, performing for others, or creating something for yourself, however small. Each of the three films also feature loss and trauma and people reaching out to others to be their support, from the practical elements of the central friendship in Museum Hours to the guidance sought and provided in Short Term 12 to the surprising connection of two outcasts in Young Adult, though these relationships end in drastically different places, with very different lessons learned (or not).
The first film of the day was Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which loosely follows the budding friendship of a guard at a museum in Vienna and a Montrealer who’s traveled there to visit and care for her comatose cousin. That framework only accounts for a small portion of the film, however, which is more interested in experiencing the museum, these people, and the city than telling a linear story. Its exploration of art and the individual experiences each person brings to and takes from a given work is insightful and thought-provoking, though its pacing and stillness make it a hard sell to those looking for a more traditional narrative or character-based storytelling. After the film, Nate Kohn moderated a Q&A with director Jem Cohen and critic Kevin Lee, which ranged in topic from Cohen’s background in street photography, to his relationship with punk rock, to Vienna’s role as a character in the film. Cohen also spoke of his inspiration for the film, which “came from a life of wandering around”, and his connection to the paintings of Bruegel and other Dutch masters, whose paintings feel to him like documentaries, not necessarily telling the viewer where to look. To paraphrase Cohen, who quoted Roger Ebert’s biography, “Life itself is the narrative, the only narrative that matters”, and this is the philosophy he brought to the film.
The second film of the day was Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 (reviewed on the SoS podcast here), which follows a group of line workers and residents at a youth group home. The lead, Grace (Brie Larson), is struggling with good and bad news and trauma from her childhood that won’t completely heal, while several of the residents face change and the uncertainty that comes with it. Short Term 12 is a lovely film featuring several standout performances, particularly from Larson, and its respectful approach to its characters and the realities of their situations is a big reason it’s so successful. The film was warmly received by the Ebertfest audience and afterward, Brie Larson was joined by Keith Stanfield, another of the actors from the film, and critic Nell Minow, who moderated the Q&A.
Stanfield and Larson quickly became audience favorites thanks to their wit and enthusiasm; Stanfield discussed his involvement in the writing process for his character’s rap in the film, Larson explored the catharsis of Grace’s windshield scene, and both gave their perspective on Cretton’s filming style, which Larson said changed her approach to filming intimate, wrenching scenes. Cretton got the actors in and out of emotional scenes quickly, doing only a few takes, because, to paraphrase Larson (paraphrasing Cretton), “I don’t want to watch you torture yourself.” There was a lot of discussion of the stillness of the film and the ratio between reaction or introspective shots as compared to dialogue scenes. Comparing Grace to her nearly non-speaking role in Don Jon, Larson said she’s drawn to quiet roles, “I’m much more interested in what’s not said.” Several other issues were touched on as well, including Larson’s shadowing of line staff prior to filming, the importance of letting go and how that relates to acting as well as the characters in the film, and the haircut Stanfield’s character Marcus gets and the cultural significance of hair and appearance in the African American community.
The final film of the day was Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (reviewed at SoS by Simon Howell), which tells the depressing, and blackly comic, tale of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), an alcoholic, soon-to-be-unemployed writer of a once-popular teen book series (think Sweet Valley High) who decides to go home and win back her married, new-father high school sweetheart, running into former classmate Matt (Oswalt) along the way. It was hard to tell just how familiar the audience was with Oswalt prior to his introduction; he was cheered when he was introduced before the film, but there was also a definite sense that a portion of the Ebertfest crowd was getting their first taste of Oswalt’s comedy. When he returned after the film, the response was even more enthusiastic.
Critics Susan Wloszczyna and Steve Prokopy were tasked with the unenviable job of keeping some semblance of order to the proceedings, but while the conversation may have veered away from the film time and again, it stayed entertaining and relevant to the audience, who didn’t seem to mind the diversions and would have been happy to hear more about Oswalt’s commissioning of Faster, Empire! Strike! Strike! action figures. The conversation ranged from Oswalt’s connection to Roger Ebert, to his insecurity in having to do a shirtless scene with Charlize Theron, to his dedication to the craft of acting and how working with incredibly talented actors (Theron, Toni Collette) and seeing the work of others (Oswalt specifically mentioned Tatiana Maslany- nice to see he’s on the Orphan Black bandwagon) inspires him to keep improving. As will surprise absolutely no one familiar with his work, Oswalt killed- it was an absolute blast, and one hell of a way to end Day Two.