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.
Never mind that it took trekking to the big-shouldered, big-burgered land of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, for Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival April 20-24. And never mind the perversity of jumping NYC ship just as Tribeca reared its overhyped head. A chronic case of cinennui has been kicked, and all it took was four days of Ebert-selected movies screened in a dilapidated, grand theater for 1,000 cinenthusiasts, mulled over slowly and surely in long question-and-answer periods, aided and abetted by Long-Tall Sally shakes and steak(burgers). Ebertfest 2005 was the cinema studies grad school experience we all wish we’d actually had.
The premise of the festival is brilliant in its simplicity: films that Roger Ebert really digs. Initially, the festival solely focused on unjustly overlooked films, but as this was its seventh year, the category of unjustly overlooked was bound to slide into semi-deservedly overlooked. Better instead to uphold movies that deserve a closer look, a decision this year’s programming reflected, and which Ebert himself acknowledged before each screening. (A festival name change looms if only so he can sidestep the definition song and dance in years to come.) So the bill of fare: Playtime; Murderball; Saddest Music in the World; Heart in the World; After Dark, My Sweet; Yesterday; The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Baadasssss; The Secret of Roan Inish; Primer; Map of the Human Heart; Me and You and Everyone We Know; Taal. Crazy good.
Dave Poland, Lord of the Hot Button and Movie City News hooked me up but swell in the University Union where all the Swells were residing, complete with a green VIP pass to the green room, where junior mints and wacky taffy flowed like wine. After a Coney Island ride of a flight, he met me at the airport and immediately greeted Jason Patric, Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum and numerous (significant) others whom I should’ve already recognized on my tiny plane. A powerschmoozer I am not.
In the mornings, a kitchen klatch convened in — no joke — the student union to talk shop. Bad coffee and sugary scones breeds more cinemaspeak. Kubrick became the Elijah at the table and DP offered his Eyes Wide Shut
rationalization thesis. My alternathesis — that Kubrick’s films were unremittingly remote due to being unremittingly male — landed about as well as Ishtar; those who agreed expressed their sentiments out of earshot from the rest. The first day I also picked a fight about the new pope with Toronto Film Festival pope Dusty Cohl, who graciously pardoned me after a beat. Someday soon I will learn to keep mum till my blood sugar properly spikes.
Steak n Shake, a local franchise founded, no kidding, in Normal, Illinois, turned out to be the Peach Pit of the festival. The festival was small enough so that every night after screenings, a crew collected under the fluorescent lights to talk movies past, present and future. It was enormous whipped-cream-topped strawberry shakes (Ebert’s wife Chaz bought me one of my own the first night, and I got hooked) and two-tiered Swiss burgers with the likes of Guy Maddin, Jason Patric, Mario Van Peebles, Rosenbaum, DP, and the Murderball crew. No late-night drinking here; the drugs of choice were sugar, dairy, and good old red meat here in the Midwest. Boozy confessions replaced by giddy, sugar-bred free associations. The hangovers, however, were just as bad.
Neither of us were able to stay for the whole festival as seders called from the really big-shouldered land of Chitown, but a breakdown of highlights that we encountered — cinematic and otherwise — follows. Should we have been able to stay longer, no doubt director John Sayles and performance artist Miranda July would have been real boons. I’ve heard only amazing buzz on July’s new feature, which I’m disgruntled to have missed again, and, well, Sayles is Sayles, Silver City or not.