Introducing the first film of day two of Ebertfest (18 April 2013), Chaz Ebert noted that even the skies were grieving Roger Ebert’s passing. Indeed, what had been dark clouds and a bit of rain the day before had become a thunderstorm. I know the Midwest is famous for them, but they are sort of exotic to us from the West Coast. All the rain didn’t deter fans of Roger Ebert and Ebertfest, but the weather and some airline problems prevented Jack Black from joining Ebertfest.

Did I mention how much I was looking forward to dancing tango with the man who gave voice to a panda and played a Pip to Gladys Knight’s performance on “American Idol”?  Black was present via phone for the Q&A session in the evening.

I don’t exactly melt in the rain like the Wicked Witch of the West but walking for an hour under a downpour isn’t fun so I skipped the panels so my husband and I could get some much needed rest and we’re still on a different time zone.

My haiku for the morning was:

Grey days are great days

To curl up with a hot mug:

Coffee? Or lover?

We did hop on a bus for a 5-minute ride to the Virginia and the afternoon program. In Sophie Kohn’s short piece, “To Music” we had a priest (Paul Cox) attempting to engage an emotionally distraught man, but what eventually brings him out is music. Kohn benefited from having maestro Tamas Vasary to play the piano and his dancer wife Henriett Tunyogi to be, what else, a dancer. Vasary, Tunyogi, Cox and Sophie Kohn along with Feike Santbergen were having a bit of post-Cannes Film Festival “madness.” Sophie is the daughter of the festival director Nate Kohn and she read her first email to Roger Ebert, written after she had known him for quite a while, as an introduction to her piece.

“To Music” helped introduce the next movie, the Paul Cox documentary “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.” I say introduce because the program seemed to set up a layering of images not unlike poetry and the program has a pull-quote from Roger Ebert’s review of the film “poetic, thoughtful man portrayed in documentary.” Usually one might think of Vincent van Gogh as an angst-ridden crazy man who painted. Then there’s that incident with the ear–his cut off as an offering.

Let’s remember that flash forward a few hundred years and artists get paid for Self-mutilation didn’t become fashionable for artists until last century and it wasn’t painters but performance artists who took that ploy. Perhaps not exactly sacrificing an ear but there was that woman who had someone carve a star on her stomach with a razor blade  or otherwise burned and cut (Marina Abramovic), or the man who had his assistant shoot him and in a different performance was nailed to a VW bug in Venice, California (Chris Burden) or the literal pins and needles performances that drew HIV-positive blood (Ron Athey). Before extreme sports became a way of annihilating oneself, came extreme performance art of the 1960s and 1970s. There are no reports of actual ear-cutting but there was one performance artist who, in 2006 had an extra ear implanted into his arm. The legend of Van Gogh’s ear-cutting is less straight forward and art historians don’t actually agree on how it happened.

Cox’s movie tends to downplay the possibility of madness and the whole ear-cutting incident. The poetic Ebertfest program goes from Cox portraying a priest to Cox’s film about a man who initially wanted to be a pastor but failed and became a painter instead. In Cox’s film, we see the lush fields of wheat and his paintings of the wheat fields and the workers gathering up the crop. Yet in those days (Van Gogh lived from 1853 and died at 37 in 1890), the labor while still hard was not vast fields partially cultivated by machines. The industrial revolution had not begun. Van Gogh painted the poor and lived and died in poverty. Terence Malick’s film “Days of Heaven” which the audience had only seen the day before is about how the industrial age exploited the poor and the migrant workers hired to harvest the wheat do not share in the prosperity of the land-owning farmer.

Watching the Cox documentary, in my mind I saw the lush acres of golden wheat waves from Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Malick’s film has the brother of the narrator who becomes a victim of circumstances and is shot.  The Cox documentary is also about a man who was shot and most believe he committed suicide although Wikipedia notes no gun was found.

With narration by John Hurt, we listen to the actual words that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo, but we never hear from Theo. This is a bit one-sided, but it does create a vision of a man who is obsessed with his own concerns and perhaps doesn’t always see people as they are. Recreating scenes, many inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings, Cox helps us imagine the world that Vincent van Gogh saw. Cox employs some shaky cam as well as fast-motion blurring to convey Van Gogh’s state of mind.

In the end, we do understand how important Vincent’s family was to his work. Without Theo, who died six months after Vincent at age 33, Vincent would not have been able to afford to live and paint. The younger Van Gogh was an art dealer. Vincent only sold one painting during his lifetime (“The Red Vineyard”). Where in “Days of Heaven” we have a family driven apart by poverty, greed and jealousy, here were have a family in two brothers–one supporting the other and giving a great gift to the world of art. Now I wonder if Roger Ebert’s program doesn’t also suggest that we, the attendees at Ebertfest, need to support young artists such as Grace Wang and Sophie Kohn.

Since we, now meaning my husband and myself,  like to pace ourselves, we skipped director Patrick Wang’s “In the Family” which showed at 4 p.m.  Last year we skipped all of the second afternoon screenings. Yet you can understand from the title that this film is also about family. According to Roger Ebert’s review, the movie looks at how the world family can have different meanings that reach beyond bloodlines.

As I began this essay with a reference to Jack Black, you know that I had to attend the festival’s screening of “Bernie.”  Even without Jack Black, seeing the movie on a big screen (I saw it on Netflix) and listening to what both Black via phone and the director Richard Linklater had to saw made me want to watch the movie yet again.

After to many thoughtful movies, the program definitely needed a little laughter and “Bernie” provided so much laughter, even though the movie is about a murder, that you’ll have to watch it again so you can hear all the lines.

“Bernie” is a fictionalized account of the nicest man in the small town of Carthage, Texas, who became friends with the meanest person in town, a lonely widow, and the result was murder. The murder divided the small community and there’s now a “Free Bernie” website devoted to getting justice for Bernie Tiede.  Roger Ebert thought that Black should have been nominated for an Oscar. You will, too. Black studied many videos of Tiede performing and went to visit him in prison as well. Tiede has, unfortunately, yet to see the movie. Linklater revealed how he cast the locals, many of whom were actors or actor-wannabes and added some comments of their own. He also mentioned that Tiede claimed that he was only an escort (not the widow’s lover) and has lost his mother at the tender age of two and then his father at about 15. Although his father had remarried, Tiede then went to be raised by his grandmother. There was some speculation in the audience that Tiede was the victim of an emotionally abusive relationship and that his life sentence was extreme.

Tiede might be an unmarried man but he managed to build up a family in the small town of Carthage, genuinely loved and appreciated by the residents. Now that’s a special skill–bringing joy to so many.

As a fan of murder mysteries and police procedurals, “Bernie” is now my favorite murder movie, but Jack Black, I feel you still owe me a dance!

This blog entry comes out late due to technical issues.

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