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Ebertfest 2011: Nothing Like an Ebullient ‘Fuck’; Metropolis and Natural Selection Screen

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Ebertfest 2011: Nothing Like an Ebullient ‘Fuck’; <em>Metropolis</em> and <em>Natural Selection</em> Screen

If you’re like me (and everyone should try to be at least once in their lives), you enjoy that hearty, full-bodied, elemental component of language that is the swear word. There is nothing quite as satisfying as an ebullient FUCK, in all senses of the word. Peppering it over your daily conversation might not make you more friends (though it certainly should), but it does make everything that much more bearable, and, such as it is, sincere. All of which is a convoluted way of saying Robbie Pickering, the writer-director of Natural Selection, one of the two films that opened Ebertfest 13 on the evening of Thursday 27th, is, officially, my hero. The fucker swears like a fucking sailor. During the Q&A after the screening, I tweeted just that, only to receive a reply from someone who said: “How does the lack of skilled use of English language make panel better?” Well, firstly, that’s “a panel.” Let’s not forget the indefinite article: after all, we’re not louts. And, secondly, it just fucking does.

But I’m getting ahead of myself so allow me to back up a bit. Ebertfest 13 officially kicked off on Thursday night at the gala event at the house of the President of the University of Illinois. This is formal and fun, but the operative word is still formal. It’s a nice way to catch up with old friends, but, for the second year in a row, I’ve made the critical error of wandering the room, rather than staying at a certain spot, and waiting for the food and drinks to come to me (“Hey, wiener boy,” etc). This was a particularly egregious error this year, since, the weather being what it is in Champaign (and what it is is not nice), the party had to be confined indoors, and, by the time Roger’s lovely wife and the producer of his new show, the vivacious Chaz Ebert, asked the filmmakers and other special guests to step forward (for a little twirl, natch), I was sweating like a desperate blogger trying to come up with a funny, yet original, simile at six in the morning after only three hours sleep.

During the introductions, Roger sat on a large black armchair to the side of the dais. Bedecked in a black suit and a black shirt, with his long white silk scarf the only contrast, he looked larger than life, like a monolith, almost. For all his past ailments, he is incredibly durable not just mentally but also physically. He still gives a mean bear hug (as in his hugs are powerful; he doesn’t hug mean bears, at least as far as I know), and has kept his famous strong handshake. I only bothered him for a little bit to congratulate him on the show and whatnot; he was being hounded by his fans, young and old. There is something incredibly bizarre yet cute about a 70-year-old academic going all googly-eyed at the prospect of getting Roger’s autograph.

We left for the Virginia Theater soon after with the lovely Karen Hoffmann, my host for Ebertfest, and by the time we arrived, the wind and the rain had picked up. The Virginia’s marquee is gone this year as it is being renovated, which has made the people in the rush line wet, cold, and despondent. I gave them all an obnoxious Nelson Muntz “Ha-HA!” (no I didn’t) and walked in to make sure to get my Bowfinger seats (second row from the front). I ran into the Young Kenji and the handsome Odienator, but failed to spot our good friend Mark Pfeiffer, who is also around somewhere.

The first film of the night was the restored version of Metropolis, with a live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. What can you say about Metropolis that hasn’t been said before? Well, you could say the sex scene between Rotwang and The Thin Man was a wonderful representation of Weimar decadence, though that would be wrong, since no such scene exists (alas, alack, etc). Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic is as close now to its original full form as it could be, and nothing short of glorious. It was introduced by film historian Kristin Thompson, who talked about why Argentina was a natural place to find an old complete copy of the film. In olden days (a glimpse of stocking was, etc), places like Argentina, Alaska or Brazil would be the last destination for many of film’s print, and it would just be too costly to send them back to their original countries, and would just archive them there, instead. Second reason was Hollywood’s domination of the global film market even in those days, which is why German companies had to look for secondary markets, and South America proved to be a lucrative one.

Even the incomplete version of Metropolis is an overwhelming film, but this one even more so. The Alloy Orchestra’s score gave this version of the film its full power (though the huge screen of the Virginia did not hurt, either), sucking everyone in, even though by the time the Machine-Man started doing its dance of the seven veils, I was freezing my cute little ass off, caught as I was in a draft coming from the fire exit. At the end of the screening, the Alloy Orchestra received a five-minute standing ovation, it was truly deserved. The Q&A afterwards featured two members of the Alloy Orchestra, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Michael Phillips (who looked like a Catholic priest, since what little was visible of his white T-shirt made it look like a dog collar when combined with his black shirt), and Kristin Thompson. There was discussion about how the film has been regarded as being politically naïve, but I.V. disagreed, and argued that especially this version is particularly bleak, with the final accord a mere marriage of convenience. I am not sure I agree with that, but horses for courses, I suppose.

Next up, the SXSW smash Natural Selection. With us in the audience were the inspirationally foul-mouthed Robbie and the star of the film Rachael Harris. Most of the people I talked to before the film said they were looking forward to Natural Selection the most, and I agree, not merely because of my teen-like crush on Harris, but also the reputation it gained during SXSW and afterwards, too. Roger saw the film in Austin, loved it, and brought it to Urbana as a late-addition to Ebertfest.

Rachael Harris stars as Linda, a devout Christian in a loveless and lustless marriage of 25 years, who is informed one day that her husband had a stroke while stroking off at a fertility clinic. Linda finds out that he has been doing this for a very long time, fulfilling his own sexual needs while ignoring hers, and is devastated. When Linda’s husband wakes up from his coma if ever so briefly to ask her to dig up the interest rasied from his deposits, Linda takes off on a cross country trip to Florida to find and bring back Raymond (Matt O’Leary), a junkie on the run from the law, to his “real father.” Hijinx, as they say, ensue.

This is a very funny and poignant film. Some in the audience think it’s condescending and out and mean towards devout Christians, but that it not the feeling I get from the film. It’s mean towards asshole husbands, but Pickering never treats Linda in a condescending fashion. This is more of a female empowerment picture than a road movie (in fact, those elements of the film are somewhat iffy and predictable), and you could see a young Sally Field in the role.

But, make no mistake, this is Rachael Harris’s movie. She owns every scene she’s in, able to balance the character’s desperations and frustrations (based on her horniness—I hear ya, sister) with a joie de vivre and good old Christian cheer. In a better world, people would already be talking about Oscar chances. Alas, the film still lacks distribution (but I am sure it will find it, soon).

And we’re back to the Q&A after the film, where Pickering and Harris were joined on stage by Matt Seitz (holla!) and Michael Phillips. I can say that this was the most entertaining Q&A I’ve ever attended on Ebertfest, which is saying something since I’ve sat on a few of these myself. Both Harris and Pickering were honest, and in full command of their projects and understandably proud of their achievements. Even if Pickering stopped cursing, it would have been a good panel. But that he swore like a motherfucker made it a great one.

Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication. Follow his updates on Twitter.