Classic me to still dwell on Ebertfest eight days later, especially since I saw a bunch of Tribeca screenings last week that merit discussion. But I’ve a bit more to say before I lay it to rest, and Tribeca, well, everyone chatters about Tribeca. Much more delicious to linger in the land of Steak N Shake. I swear after this I will lay yesterday’s lunch aside.
It’s just I was struck by the presiding theme of boys transitioning to men. Mario Van Peebles, the scion of madcap Melvin (he of Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song), won me over but good when he spoke at length about childrearing at a women and film panel on which we both spoke. I like, not love, Mario’s Baadasssss!, which for sure deserved more press and population than it garnered. Its strength stemmed from dry humor and big convictions, but what struck me most about the film, focusing on how his dad (played by Mario clad in black and a sober expression) wrung out Sweet Sweet despite wildly extenuating circumstances, is where it didn’t go. As a dad, Melvin was clearly a bust in the way that many groundbreaking artists tend to be. His rampant narcissism prevented him from placing first the needs of his own children, especially Mario, whom he forced to enact a sex scene that no professional child actor would today be allowed to enact. Obviously, how Mario feels about his dad is his own business, but I couldn’t help but suspect that his unwillingness to fully strip down that cultural linchpin called his dad resulted in a certain surfaceness in his own movie. He scratches at it, but a deeper, untreated wound still lurks as the elephant in every scene.
The result of that hit-or-miss childhood, however, is that he’s a clear thinker and a really kick-ass dad. He said many things on the panel and in the question-and-answer discussion that I’m still mulling a full week later, but my favorite (besides the eminently quotable “There’s a Baldwin for every budget”) was “We have an obligation to continue the conversation that our culture begins.” It was in reaction to a parent’s expressed concern about the impact of the media on her kids. He’s right. These days, we can’t entirely monitor or censor what children, or anyone, watches. But we can make it a dialogue. A 24-7 Mystery Science Theater 3000. Mario lit up most when speaking about his kids, whom he featured in a little short he made called Baadasssss Grandkids. I wish he were my dad.
Along the same lines, Jason Patric (grandson of Jackie Gleason) surprised the hell out of me when he spoke with Ebert when After Dark, My Sweet (1990) screened. Patric’s career could be most charitably described as bumpy, and he directly addressed that fact with a frankness that seemed to take even him by surprise. Basically, he acknowledged that after Lost Boys, (which my friends and I loved loved loved at the time, and which still tickles my fancy even now), he was loathe to cash in on his teen-king status by starring in the usual spate of action movies. Likewise after the misbegotten Speed 2 (which Ebert hastened to acknowledge he liked; ah, the cheese stands alone), he didn’t jump at the offers that appeared, at least until box-office returns were counted. The result was that the clamorers became naysayers, Patric explained slowly with a low level of amusement. Or at least bemusement. His refusals were perceived as holier than thou rather than as simple no’s by La-la bigwigs, and he’s been kind of blacklisted since. He still works a lot, cutting his chops in theater and the odd but well-received project. Narc, for example, was terribly underrated; everytime it plays on Showtime, it stops me in my tracks. But where he’s to go now as a Hollywood player mystifies him as much as anyone.
What occurred to me while he was talking, with a marked lack of surliness, I might add, is that Patric has a chance to accomplish something very few American male actors really achieve: transition from a boy to a man. Seriously, very few American men, whether it be in Hollywood or elsewhere, really ever step into grownup shoes. Even their features remain painfully boyish, albeit with a few smile lines and stray grey hairs, as they age. And it’s not to their advantage as artists. Youth remains impervious to all but black and white, and it’s the colors that lend art any lasting weight or intrigue. By suffering a bit, by being forced by either the powers-that-be or his own prescient unconscious to marinate on the sidelines, Patric has been granted the chance to develop into a fine actor with all the gravity and stillness of a man. It’ll be interesting to see whether the landscape of American film makes room for him. When I said as much to him at ye olde S n S, he responded that he hoped it’d work that way — while his lip inadvertently curled. But politely, I swear.
Also of note: A true Canadian, Guy Maddin, he of the movies Lynch only wishes he’d remained pure enough to make, is as mild-mannered and sweet-tempered as his films are spiky and flamboyant. That said, he did reveal in a discussion that he has a very rare neurological disorder in which, unless medicated, he experiences phantom fingers randomly prodding various parts of his body. Hear ye, hear ye: The phantom limbs of all his films doth be officially explained.
And, finally, Yesterday, one of 2004’s foreign film Oscar nominations, made me cry like a teenaged girl three weeks late. Somber, still and terrifically brave, it’s the story, relayed in a Swahili dialect, of a young, small-village mother who discovers her mostly MIA husband has infected her with HIV. When the lights came up, I was still crying, and my only consolation was that so was pretty much everyone else. Including Ebert himself, who surely had seen the film a few times if he’d decided to include it in his festival. Talk about Boys II Men, for when South African director Darrell Roodt bounded on stage and started jabbering to Ebert, “Wow, you’re crying!” I stopped in my tracks. That he was white and clownish was surprise enough. I kept waiting for his hypoglycemic-child-going-at-the-birthday-cake affect to wear away, but it didn’t. Let the record show that you cannot judge a film by its director’s cover. Because the film is, er, not to be overlooked.
Murderball, about Olympic-level quadriplegic rugby players both on- and off-court, screens to much ballyhoo on Ebertfest’s second day, and deservedly so. As Ebert says in the post-movie discussion, it’s a complete film that’s at once a backstage story, a reconciliation story, a rehab story, and a competition story about the US team’s rivalry with the Canadian team coach, former teammate and notorious hardass Joe Soares.
The first scene, in which American player Mark Zupan silently changes into his rugby gear in a small bedroom, sets the tenor: suspenseful, modest, unflinching. It is the most physically exposed any of the players will appear, but no details are ever spared, from the varying levels of disability of members on the team — one guy lost all his limbs to a childhood disease — to whether and how they can schtup. (Answer: mostly yes, and with some rather hot tamales). And though it’s a real sports movie, complete with ESPN-style action photography often shot from the height of the chairs, the stakes are much higher and very different. It’s not as if just playing is winning, Special Olympics style. In their armored chairs, these guys are cyborg gladiators, part men, part machines, and 100 percent out for blood. But each of them has already conquered so much internal mishegos in order to come to terms with their physical limitations that they radiate a Buddha-like equanimity right below the surface of their boys-will-be-boys bluster.
The exception is Joe, the 50something Team Canada coach who may be the most decorated quad rugby player to ever grace the court. Hailing from Portugal by way of Providence, Rhode Island, he’s anger incarnate, snarling at his violin-playing son who worships the ground he rolls on and who lovingly dusts the wall of trophies he has collected. Jargon-spouting, only unintentionally humorous, Joe is grimly set on besting the US team since he sued them for retiring him when he got older. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro pull no punches when it comes to depicting Joe’s real disability: a one-minded Massholia that (as always) trumps all other cultural and life experiences and that he is forced professionally and physically to confront. We see how, on his anniversary dinner, he responds to his long-suffering wife’s toast to him with a toast to Team Canada. We’re even privy to the operating room when his heart is literally surgically opened.
Joe’s emotional self-reckoning — check out the violin awards section he eventually adds to his trophy wall — dovetails with a rapprochement between Zupan and his lifelong best friend who, when they’re both 18, unintentionally, drunkenly pitches him out of the back of his truck and permanently paralyzes him. Neither storyline take a backseat to the actual face-off between the Canadian and American teams in Athens. Here’s where Murderball most sharply veers from more typical sports documentaries. The big match is captured with significantly less fanfare than is its emotional impact on the defeated players, who crumple into girlfriends’ and family members’ arms in painfully long shots. If winning isn’t everything, transcending failure is. And if there’s one thing these boys know, it’s how to get back up again and defeat emotional and physical obstacles just when most think they’d roll over and play dead.
At the question-and-answer period following the screening, Zupan and Joe join the filmmakers and Ebert. It’s refreshing to see that the feel-good post-coital of the documentary hasn’t altered either player. Zupan (who wheeled impatiently out of Playtime halfway through the screening night before) projects the same barely suppressed bemusement that he shows off-court during the film. He also still clearly loathes Joe, who, as onscreen, is loathsome in a totally likeable way. While the coach grandstands in bumper-sticker speak, Zupan can’t help but grimace.
Team Canada has axed Joe to his considerable confusion: “I don’t know what those guys wanted!” he tells the crowd with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. When asked whether he’d hire Benedict Arnold Joe back on as US coach, Zupan says, “My first reaction is no.” Joe’s smile temporarily tightens, how much his olive-branching to Zup is a job appeal suddenly revealed.
But both guys are united in their frankness, especially when it comes to negotiating their disabilities. In an especially good question, Ebert asks the players how the qualification system plays out. In the film, it’s established that each player is awarded a number of points based on how able-bodied he is: only eight points are allowed per team on court at a time. The bizarre result, Joe and Zupan acknowledge at the discussion, is that these players who spend so much of their life transcending their disabilities have to temporarily play up their weaknesses. Not to mention that, as the film also explores, committing to quad rugby typically only can occur once someone has psychologically eliminated the possibility that he’s going to walk again. A strange dance between acceptance and rejection of limitations.
As for how to approach the disabled, “It’s always better to ask questions,” Joe establishes. Zup takes it a step further. “If someone asks me how I’m different, I say, ‘I’m shorter than you. That’s the big difference. But you hit me, man, I’ll hit you back.’”
Every Murderball review is bound to deploy the word “balls” in one way or another, but it ain’t about balls. It’s about heart.
Leaving New York City’s two-week window of unhateful weather was tough cookies already, but almost as soon as we set foot in Champaign-Urbana, thunder clapped and great bolts of lightening danced. It was worth it to watch festival heavies tread gingerly on the fine rugs at the university president’s house rather than in his garden, where the opening ceremonies were set to take place. Between the wall-to-wall carpeting and the abundance of white folks, I could’ve sworn I was back in my high school boyfriend’s rec room; a powerful craving for grape soda and French kissing seized me. Instead, we gnawed on prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and chatted with feminist professors before we crashed through the rain to catch the opening screening.
Not shockingly, Tati’s Playtime is an entirely different experience when screened in 70mm on the jam-packed theater’s enormous screen, introduced by a real-life organ. Truly a silent movie with dialogue, the few lines spoken — and the myriad languages in which they are uttered — are irrelevant as the story is conveyed so clearly nonverbally. Following a host of mid-‘60s characters from the airport through one day in a sound-stage Paris, the film’s protagonist is the human race itself as seen through a kind of National Geographic lens. As highly stylized as a Buster Keaton jig cut out of modernist sharp corners and floppy flowered hats, every moment recalls the very droll mis-en-scenes buried in more acclaimed, more narrative-driven narrative films of the same era. Imagine, for example, if the whole tone of Breakfast at Tiffany’s took its cue from the rhapsodic party scene with the heiresses, the vamps, the barking agents, the woman laughing, the woman crying, the treacherously long cigarette holder, and Cat prowling matter-of-factly amidst people’s fur stoles. At that, imagine if life did.
In the discussion that followed, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum revealed to Ebert that he briefly worked for Tati. Since typically working for your heroes sours you on them forever, just the fact that Rosenbaum still trips over himself in praise for the filmmaker is momentous. “You had to be aware that everything that crossed his path made its way into his movies,” he said.
Rosenbaum also spoke of a sadness about the isolation and sterility of modernity that he felt permeated the film, particularly through the use of architectural details like doors and windows: The sharp lines of the airport and city streets give way to the wild curves of a later nightclub scene, where social boundaries are metaphorically and physically scotched. I’m not so sure. An existentialist joy imbues each frame, a love of humans in all their vanities and ungainliness. Tati embraces his characters the way a parent unconditionally loves his errant child.