Roger Ebert was in attendance at his festival this year. It was the first time that I have been able to see him in person. Cancer has taken his lower jaw, and therefore his voice, but he was still very much a presence at the festival. His populist, humanistic, literate approach to film obviously informs the programming, but it also permeates the spirit of the event. There's a sense of genial adoration towards the guy that is actually a bit disconcerting. No one who attends the festival is there because they dislike Ebert or his taste in film. They're there to bask in an event dedicated to Stuff He Likes. What's fascinating is that now that Ebert is, by his own admission, on the downslope of his remaining years on Earth, his presence at the festival seems to engender joy as much as melancholy. People just love seeing him and knowing that whatever his physical limitations, his enthusiastic cinephilia is the animating force behind the festival.
Whenever Ebert appeared, he seemed to be deliriously good spirits. His frequently threw his iconic thumbs-up gesture, not so much a seal of approval as a generalized cheer-leading pose struck to convey the pleasure of good movies. Chaz Ebert introduced each film, but Roger also offered some words from time to time, using prepared text read by a computerized voice on his laptop. What was truly unexpected was how integral Ebert's physical presence at the podium was for these introductions, and for the festival as a whole. He could certainly have had someone else read his remarks. Instead, he got up, clicked on the laptop himself, mouthed the words with his now-slack lips, mugged enthusiastically for the audience, and gestured flamboyantly. His lines consistently got the best laughs. It drove home how essential his celebrity is to the festival's pulse, and how his boisterous cinephilia is itself a kind of defiant stance against his physical diminishment.
The first screening of the day was Tim Fywell's 2003 coming-of-age feature, I Capture the Castle, based on the novel by Dodie Smith. Ebert pitched it as a family film, but I suspect Castle is bit much for younger kids. It's not the stray bits of nudity (tasteful and humorous) that present a challenge, but the subject matter, which treads on class, madness, violence, virginity, and a thorny romantic melodrama that veers between the subdued and the exaggerated. The real pleasures here are the green, damp locales of the English countryside, and the familiar faces: the captivating Romola Garai (eighteen-year-old Briony in Atonement) as lovelorn narrator Cassandra; Bill Nighy as a writer languishing in poverty and flirting with madness; and a baby-faced Henry Cavill (The Tudors' resident Adonis) as a servant boy seduced by London's pleasures.
The DIY slot this year was filled by Jennifer Burns' 2008 directorial debut, Vincent: A Life in Color. Burns profiles Chicago's "Fashion Man," Vincent P. Falk, who takes it upon himself to entertain river tour boats by dancing on the city's bridges in a seemingly endless collection of shockingly bright suits. Vincent is strictly low-budget, unaffected, human-centered documentary film-making, so naturally it sinks or swims on the strength of its subject. The appealing thing about Vincent is how easily he evolves from a one-note joke to a fascinating figure with a rich history of achievement, tribulation, and tragedy. Burns clearly admires the guy's unflagging spirit, but the film is at its best when it probes deeper than "Do Your Own Thing" bromides and upends our assumptions about disability, celebrity, ego, work, and the urban community.
First time director James Mottern's Trucker hits all the American indie beats: a plot driven by an economic squeeze, battered and tricky human relationships, a pop-drizzled soundtrack, and plenty of dusty gazing into the distance. While the territory is familiar, what Mottern and his performers get spooky-right is the sense of despair that prevails when your expectations for your own life are simple, selfish, and maddeningly thwarted. As a sullen truck driver whose abandoned eleven-year-old son falls back into her life, Michelle Monaghan is called upon to go through one emotional whiplash after another, and acquits herself beautifully. Firefly alum Nathan Fillion brings a witty, warm-hearted appeal to Monaghan's too-eager (married) friend. It was Ebert that correctly discerned Trucker's most potent gesture: It ends at exactly the right moment, a merit more films (and more indies specifically) should endeavor to emulate.
Saturday (and our time at the Festival) ended with Barbet Schroeder's biographical snapshot of Charles Bukowski, Barfly. There's a scuzzy genius to the simplicity of this film, which doesn't have a plot so much as a character arc that circles around right back to where it started. Essentially, what we're treated to is the tale of two serious alcoholics--a battered, limp-haired Mickey Rourke and a waxen Faye Dunaway--who meet in a Los Angeles of endless dive bars and seedy apartments. They then spend nearly every waking hour pursuing a state of perpetual drunkenness. The attraction here is almost entirely due to Bukowski's screenplay, which is deliciously quotable from beginning to end, and Rourke's mesmerizing performance. It's a ridiculously affected role, but so languidly fierce (if such a phrase is applicable anywhere, it's here), you find yourself grinning ear to ear before you realize that the guy you're grinning at is, well, an unrepentant addict. Under Bukowski, Schroeder, and Rourke, alcoholism becomes a font of gutter wisdom, repugnant and undeniable.