Friday, April 24, 2009

Ebertfest Report: A Strange Winnipeg

The movie I have most enjoyed at this year's Ebertfest, although it certainly is not to everyone's taste, is the quirky My Winnipeg. It was written and directed by Guy Madden, who has lived all his life in Winnipeg and has a normal day job as a professor in film studies at the University of Winnipeg. He specializes in making quirky movies, and he makes what he wants to make, how he wants to make them without regard to movie conventions. Everything in My Winnipeg was done in one take, and if a scene was slightly out of focus, so be it.

The movie was commissioned by by the city fathers and was supposed to be a documentary about Winnipeg, designed to attract tourists. It turned out to be a docu-fantasy, with real events being told in a warped mixture of fact and fiction (all of it true, however, since "fact" and "truth" are not the same.) Madden explained that when he was young, his aunt would take him to see travelogues. She would say, "We're going to Morocco tonight," and he would interpret it and report it at school as that they were actually going to Morocco. He would often fall asleep during the travelogue, and would experience those documentaries n a half-dreaming state. The dream-like movie he made is often just plain weird. For example, in the early 20th century, there was actually an incident in which a herd of horses, stampeding from a burning stable, fled into a river and froze to death, with the horse heads sticking above the ice until the spring thaw. Madden takes some archival footage of the dead horses and transforms it into a gruesome comedy, with the people from Winnipeg coming out to picnic on the horse heads. (For a hilarious account of the making of this part of the film, see his "documentary diariest" at this blog.)

Roger Ebert, as always, said it best. In his published remarks in the program booklet, he said,
"His (Madden's) imagination frees the lurid possibilities of the banal. He rewrites history; when that fails, he creates it.

Aside from Ebert himself, Madden is one of the funniest people ever to appear on the stage at Eberfest. His lack of pretense was refreshing. He quipped his way through the question and answer session, at one point telling people that if they felt like sleeping through his movie, he didn't blame them, he got 45 good minutes of shut-eye during the showing Thursday himself. When asked how the city fathers of Winnipeg reacted to his product, there was a long pregnant pause, during which the audience started laughing, topped off by Madden saying, "They're okay with it now."

I have to warn readers, however, that not everyone is going to like this movie. It is shot in black and white, and the dreaminess of the film, is going to be off-putting to some people. What is refreshing, however, is that Madden doesn't really give a damn whether you like it or not. I gave it five stars.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ebertfest Report: Days of Peace and Music

The 11th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival kicked off last night with a showing of an almost 40-year-old movie, Woodstock. Watching the movie at the historic Virginia Theater is much better than being at Woodstock. There is just as much peace and music, but with plenty of food, toilet facilities and no rain and mud.

Roger is back for this festival, after missing the last two years because of health problems. His face contorted because cancer has eaten away part of his jaw, unable to speak because he lost part of his tongue, he was nevertheless his usual ebullient self, still able to say on his blog earlier this week, "I was born at the center of the universe, and have had good fortune for all of my days." I don't think he was putting on a good front; he really means it.

But for the faithful Ebertfest attenders (I have been taking vacation to attend all of the films for all but the first couple of years,) we do not consider Roger's state of health fortunate. He is the heart and soul of the festival, adding much more than just his name and selection of films, but also his witty introductions and commentary to the movies, and his interviews of directors, actors, and producers. One of the highlights of my life is sitting at the Virginia Theater five years ago after the showing of Werner Herzog's movie, Invincible and listening to Ebert and Herzog talk about movies until two o'clock in the morning with the audience sitting there, no one leaving, absolutely entertained and enchanted.

For the last two years, and now this year, other people have introduced the films, and hosted the conversations, but no one has the knowledge and the wit to inform and entertain like Ebert.

Oh, Woodstock? It still holds up after 40 years. Seeing and listening to Joan Baez sing "Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot," with no accompaniment as 400,000 people listen, without a sound, sends chills up my spine. (I saw Baez later that summer in Chicago, a little more pregnant, standing up on stage barefooted and absolutely stealing the heart of this Amish farmboy.)

I gave the movie four stars. Have to run; another movie to see.

Update: To clarify, I was not at the original Woodstock, although I did see the movie when it first came out in 1970. I don't think I would have enjoyed actually being at Woodstock. I have never been a fan of rain, mud and anarchy. I would have bought my ticket in advance and been outraged that people were coming in over the fence without paying. I would have gone home after it started raining and the site turned into a field of mud. The director's cut, which we saw Wednesday night, was nearly four hours long, at least an hour too long, in my opinion. The story of what happened was told in the original movie. The best musical performances -- Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Crosby Stills and Nash, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Santana, Sha Na Na and Jimi Hendrix were already in the movie. The director's cut added a lot of music, but had me fidgeting by 11 o'clock p.m. approached, with no end in sight.