Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ebertfest 2010 - Part 1

Every year Roger Ebert selects a dozen movies that he believes are "overlooked". The movies are then played on the big screen at the Virginia Theater in beautiful Champaign, home of the University of Illinois. Ebert went to U of I and so did my sister. It's been sort of a tradition of ours to attend the fest. It used to be that I would drive down and visit her, but this year we drove together which was interesting. We sang along to every song from Queen's greatest hits. Yeah, we're those people.

Since we both work during the week, we went down Friday evening. We had enough time to check into our hotel, have dinner, and line up for our first movie Synecdoche, N.Y.

Synecdoche was written and directed by one of my all time favorite writers, Charlie Kaufman. Charlie is responsible for crazy and thought-provoking stuff like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and the film I consider to be a true work of genius, Adaptation. Now if you thought those movies were out there, wait until you see Synecdoche. Let me just say, it's not for everyone. But if you give it a shot, I think you'll definitely be affected. By what, I don't know - but you will be affected in some way I assure you.

Synecdoche, N.Y. is a really intense story about a theater director named Caden Cortard. I only read a little bit about this film beforehand, and it seemed like the main plot was that Caden, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, builds a life-size replica of New York City in a warehouse. And that happens, but nothing can really prepare you for what this movie really is.

Caden obviously has issues from the start. He believes he has every disease in the book, but also projects them onto other people. He thinks his daughter Olive and wife Adele, played by Catherine Keener, are also sick. He even imagines characters on the television are sick. He doesn't have a very good grasp on time either and scenes kind of jump around frantically as if we were sick too.

After Adele leaves him, taking Olive with her, Caden must deal with his issues alone. He starts to slip into what I can only describe as a permanent nightmare. In the beginning, everything that happens to Caden is funny, and Hoffman's brilliant performance lets us know that it's okay to laugh. But after a while things get confusing, for Caden and for us. The audience gets twisted up into Caden's psyche. We don't know what time it is, and we don't know what's real and what isn't. And the movie never explains. It's kind of like watching Lost... if they had canceled the last season. One memorable scene is when Hazel, Caden's new love interest, buys a house that's on fire. It's a really funny scene, but doesn't make a lick of sense. She lives in the house and everything as it continues to burn but never burns down. Obviously this a metaphor for something. Or maybe it isn't. Who knows.

This was the one movie Ebert introduced himself this year. And just a little side note - his speech, broadcast from his MacBook as he pantomimed, was truly touching and I'm thankful I got to see it. Ebert warned the audience that to truly appreciate this movie we needn't not try to figure out what Kaufman meant by it. I'm really glad he said this because otherwise I would have tried to place meaning to things like a burning house. But when you just watch and see it for its beauty and humor, its much more enjoyable.

Caden eventually decides he's going to put on a play that everyone will remember after he's gone. He rents out a giant warehouse to stage his play and goes about building a lifesize New York City. He wants the play to tell a story about real life, about everyone's lives. He says everyone has a story to tell and emotion to convey. So he keeps casting actors to play real people until he fills his city. Then he decides he needs to tell the story of how he creates this play, so he needs more actors to play himself and everyone involved. This continues on into absurdity until there are warehouses built inside warehouses. We know this isn't humanly possible, but it seems so real. And to me that's why this film works. We are trapped right next to Caden in our own personal director's chair. We apply our own ideas to what this movie is. It's like poetry. Kaufman lays the groundwork and we build our own stories. It's just brilliant.

To make the experience extra cool - Charlie Kaufman was in attendance. I watched a Charlie Kaufman movie... with Charlie Kaufman. I didn't talk to him or anything, or even sit by him - we were kind of in the nosebleed section. It was still probably one of the cooler moments of my life.

After the movie, Charlie and four other panelists (producers, journalists, etc.) discussed the film on stage. Charlie is a pretty interesting guy. He seems to be kind of uninterested in Hollywood and budgets and genres and things like that. In fact he made some pretty funny jokes about how this movie didn't produce box office numbers anywhere near their budget. He also went on about how he won't explain anything no matter how many times he's asked. And the audience offered some pretty outlandish ideas about the meaning of it all. But he just laughed and said, "Okay. Whatever you think."

4.5 Stickers. (Might be a 5 after a second viewing.)

Chaz, Charlie and Roger

1 comment:


I really wanted to see this movie, but it seemed pretty intense.... Like there was too much stuff going on....

I like the idea of the Ebertfest! What a great idea!


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