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May 21, 2007


Regarding my previous post: it's apparently bad form to ruin a movie by giving away the ending. Who knew.

Now before I get to the last Ebertfest movie I want to talk about at length, let me make two completely innocuous announcements. Trust me. In no way will they provide you any information you're not ready to learn.

First: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a lot of fun when seen with an appreciative audience.

Second: Gloria Swanson is a hell of an actress.

There now. That wasn't so bad.

Now -- for any readers who still harbor doubts about my newfound ability to keep my mouth shut, let me assuage those doubts by saying that I couldn't give away the ending of the next Ebertfest movie even if I wanted to. The movie has no plot to ruin.

Well, the movie might not have a plot, but it has a story. It's not a story of personal growth or of beating the bad guy. It doesn't involve anything so small as a hero and villain. The movie is the story of chasing an inspiration, a sensibility, a way of life.

It's a documentary, but it's not about facts. Instead the movie is a collection of stories, of sights and sounds, of places that define the lives lived in them and vice versa. The movie is part travelogue, part religious studies, and part musical extravaganza. In short, the movie is about a culture.

So -- what is it really? Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus just might be the finest film ever made by a British filmmaker about the American South.

The film is credited with a writer (Steve Haisman), and it is filled with marvelous language that might have been scripted by somebody. But many of the small-town Southerners who tell their stories on-camera did not know the movie was anything other than a straight documentary.

The story of the movie itself started one Christmas, when British commercial director Andrew Douglas received a gift: an album titled The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Fascinated, Douglas got in touch with the musician, Southerner Jim White, and asked if he could explain where the music came from.

The result was this film. To explain his music by explaining the South, Jim White agreed to play Virgil to Andrew Douglas' Dante. White provided narration, plus a rusty white Chevy, to guide Douglas on his tour through Southern Hell and on up to Southern Heaven.

During the course of the movie, a man fires his semi-automatic at nothing special. Georgian author Harry Crews explains why you should bury a possum with the eyes facing down. A woman in a restaurant talks about an unrepentant killer who, when he was about to fry, felt the flames of Hell on his feet. Junk rusts on the side of the road, and churchgoers cry and pray with an extravagance they can afford in nothing else.

This movie has inspired a certain share of online unhappiness. Online reviewers protest that the movie doesn't depict the whole South, or the urban South, or the black South, or the educated South. Or it's not the South at all, just an exploitation freakshow of poor white people.

All this misses the point. The movie isn't meant to be a laundry list of all things South, particularly those parts of it that are quainter versions of the North. Instead, the movie looks at whatever it is about the South that inspires musicians like Jim White to make the music they make.

The movie features a multitude of musicians, many of whom are in no way Southern. The Handsome Family comes from New Mexico. David Johansen used to front the New York Dolls, which came from New York. Even Jim White started life in Southern California and moved to the South at the age of five. He hated it and couldn't wait to get away -- but when he got away, the place went with him.

To varying degrees, these musicians all play music inspired by the stories, darkness and sense of humor that comes from the Southern tradition. To that end the movie sticks with the stories of poor, white, small-town folk. In other words, the Southerners most likely to hang on to their traditions.

If there is one thing that defines the South, it is its uniquely Southern devotion to its own sense of tradition. Even, and especially, as that tradition is disappearing.

What is a tradition but something that cannot by captured by outsiders? At Ebertfest, Jim White explained that the "wrong-eyed Jesus" is partly a reference to Orthodox Christian icons. The eyes of the saints and saviors were intentionally painted askew because the divine gaze cannot be truly represented.

To those of us on the outside, salvation always looks a little cross-eyed.

Early on in the film, Jim White and Andrew Douglas pass through a small town in Louisiana. The yards are overgrown, the tiny houses held together by humidity alone. Everything is falling apart. The picture is quiet for a moment, and then Jim White speaks. "In a Pentacostal town like this..."

It's a heart-stopping moment.

Here, there is no such thing as day-to-day life. The people here can't change where they are, and even if they could move they couldn't change who they are. This place, and who they become in this place, stay with them always. They are tightly bound, yes -- but they find a certain power in taking what binds and calling it tradition.

In the small-town South, people have two options: go to church or wallow in sin. (According to Jim White, the Southern middle class has a third option: play golf). Whether they serve Satan or God, these Southerners go at it with the gusto, and the sense of humor, of those with nothing left to lose.

After the movie, and after Jim White played us a couple songs, the Ebertfest discussion panel agreed on one generalization. In black Southern communities, whether one goes to church or not, everybody is still part of the community. In the white South, if you don't go to church, you are shut out.

However, even if you sink that low, you are still a Southerner. As one late-night bargoer says in the movie: "It's not drinking, it's not drugs. It's family."

In this movie, music is both soundtrack and performance. The Handsome Family duo stands on the porch of a floating house and sings about losing a sister. Memphis musician Johnny Dowd sits in a Louisiana barbershop full of customers and sings a duet with a beautician about a killer, and the noose the killer has a date with. Then, with his own music still on the soundtrack, Dowd tells the story of a man whose sent his wife into a coma at the exact moment a husband doesn't want his wife to go into a coma. Heavy stuff that demands you make your peace with it.

Even the songs about salvation sound mournful -- as though the craving for salvation is so powerful that even salvation can't satisfy it.

This movie is filled with stories, painful stories. Sons are lost, abdomens are slashed, fingers are blown off with dynamite. Faith and damnation spray everywhere. They get on everything.

In the end, does the film reach its goal? Did the film's director, who comes from a foreign country and a secular society, who visited a region of the US which many in the US feel is a whole other country -- did the film's director find what he set out to find? Or did the spray of salvation just get in his eyes?

The answer may lie in a story he told during the panel discussion.

Andrew Douglas told the story of being present for a healing service at a Pentacostal church. He had never before seen anything like this. As he was recording the service, he stood behind a 400-pound woman who was being healed. At first he didn't catch on that healed people fall backwards. But when he realized it, he started praying like mad for the woman not to be healed. And lo -- she was not healed, and did not fall.

Later, when he told this story to another Southerner, Douglas received this reply: "God does not answer the prayers of the unsaved."

Jim White is also one of the unsaved. But even though he's shut out religion by his own choice, he has still elected to be a Southerner. This way, as he said, he chooses his roots. His roots do not choose him.

In any case, it's family.

May 06, 2007


Dear World,

If you need to choose one thing to manufacture more of, please manufacture more Werner Herzog. Or at least convince Herzog to make more appearances in East Central Illinois.

If memory serves, this is the second time that Herzog has appeared at Roger Ebert's film festival. Ebert and Herzog seem fond of each other, completely lacking the rancor that can sometimes make Herzog and his actors plot to kill each other.

Americans usually stereotype Europeans as jaded. But Herzog has done so many things that probably should have killed him, and yet has remained so willing to keep doing them, that he comes across as ingenuous -- as far from jaded as you can get.

After last weekend's screening of his friend Paul Cox's film Man of Flowers, Herzog appeared onstage with Cox to participate in the discussion. During the discussion, it took very little time for Cox to depart from talking about his movie to talk about the dire state of the world. "Our technological society cannot sustain itself," he said.

Cox's movie Man of Flowers was an always-pretty, sometimes interesting, but ultimately overmannered film about isolation and how it differs from loneliness. Since the time he made it (in 1983), he seems to have shifted priorities and concluded that the collapse of civilization takes precedence over both loneliness and isolation.

Herzog's reply was beautiful. "Yes, the world is ending," he said. "But in the meantime we are here to enjoy friendship, enjoy love."

Raised on American movies, where the emotional cues are so obvious, I can have a hard time watching Herzog films. They seem to come equipped with a whole different set of stimuli and responses.

Herzog goes for the fantastic, but he is an absolute stickler for not enhancing what is real. In his film Invincible, the central character is a Jewish strongman -- played by the real-life strongest man in the world. Originally, the script called for the strongman to lift 1000 pounds. So far, so good. But then Herzog did something no other director would do, and asked the actor (Jouko Ahola) if he could really lift 1000 pounds. Yes, Ahola replied -- but it gave him a nosebleed. However, he could lift 900 pounds without getting a nosebleed.

So, rather than lifting 900 pounds and calling it 1000, or throwing out the real weights and breaking out the styrofoam, Herzog changed the script to have Ahola lift 900 pounds. And Ahola really did it.

Yet, toward the end of the same movie, Herzog had the strongman's brother cry. Herzog did not insist on real tears, but instead stuck glycerine to the actor's face.

It's things like this that make me unsure of how to take a Herzog film. Maybe no one really knows how. Maybe everybody fakes it. Nevertheless, it's my pleasure to say that Stroszek, his selection for Ebert's film fest, was terrific.

I read a couple other Ebertfest blogs and was amazed to see them refer to the movie as anticlimactic. Granted -- the movie ends with a performing chicken, which isn't the most conventionally gripping climax to your three-act structure. Instead of leading the protagonists and antagonists to a preordained, satisfying resolution, the movie spends its runtime walking the line between hilarious and excruciating.

The movie could not have been made by anyone else, or with any other actors. It's impossible to summarize. It's about three Germans in Berlin (a criminal, a prostitute and a pianist) who have a hard time -- so they decide to move to Ed Gein's hometown in Wisconsin, where they have a harder time. Along the way, pimps force the title character to bow toward Mecca, and the animal magnetism of a dead deer is measured with a voltmeter. Among other things.

The deer in the film was a real dead deer, and the pimps were real pimps. One of them was called The Prince of Hamburg, and the other tried to entice Herzog into a contract to kill his (the pimp's) mother.

This might sound like a recipe for a mess. It's not. The movie is much more than a parade of mondo, due mainly to the sincerity of its presentation. Bruno S., the title character, pretty much played himself. He really played glockenspiel and accordion at the same time, and he really referred to himself in the third person. As a child, he really had to hold his sodden bedsheets above his head until his arms gave out, and then get a whipping. Even his truncated name -- Bruno S. -- reflects the fact that he went through Germany's juvenile justice system, where the offenders were customarily referred to this way.

In short, he was sincerely unable to fit in.

In the movie, the characters don't seem like they would mind if they could fit in. But they are so far outside whatever passes for the mainstream in a Herzog film (let alone in Germany or in Wisconsin), that even a life of crime is hilariously impossible.

I remember how Herzog chose the location for the film's finale. Years ago, he wanted to see how real Americans lived, so he went to Pittsburgh. Then, fearing the immigration authorities because his visa had run out, he flew the coop to Guatemala. Then, for God knows what reason, he doubled back in an eighty-hour marathon back to Pittsburgh.

Somewhere toward the end of the eighty hours, he got stuck in a loop around the town of Cherokee, North Carolina. During the second loop, he realized he'd have to come back there someday. He eventually did, for the end of Stroszek -- and its empty, burning tow truck doing loops in an empty parking lot.

People in the audience asked about the end of the movie and its chicken. Herzog protested that he didn't work in terms of straightforward symbols, where (for instance) the performing chicken might serve as a metaphor for society's demand that we dance for food pellets, or that we ourselves become food. Herzog said that he works at a deeper, nonverbal level. "I don't know what the chicken means," he said, "but I know it's big."

So here's to you, Mr. Herzog. To you, and your big chickens.

May 01, 2007


I am shite at remembering things. Especially important things. (Although, arguably, if I forget something unimportant, I am less likely to be reminded that I forgot it. So who knows how many non-important things I've forgotten I forgot).

Still, you'd think I would easily recall the peak experiences in my life. Especially now that "peak experience" for me means "anything where I don't feel apprehensive". You'd figure that this would give me more peak experiences to choose from. Peak experiences, I would think, are like teeth: if I lose one, I should still have a bunch left.

It hasn't worked out that way. Apparently I can lose all my teeth just by forgetting about them.

Since the past week's Ebertfest made me feel less apprehensive, which is a good thing, I will write down some stuff about it before I forget. Maybe that way I won't lose it. Or at least that particular spiritual tooth will get a spiritual filling, which will enable me to masticate my spiritual gruel for a while longer.

Strangely, the movie I want to write about first isn't one of the movies I liked best. Maybe I'm starting with Moolaadé because, unlike the rest of what played at Ebertfest, it's easy to explain what the movie is about.

This Senegalese movie is an exposé of one way that Africans make life difficult for each other, as if they didn't already have difficulties enough. Basically, the movie is about African girls and the women who mutilate them. Or at least the parts of them that tradition deems improper for the girls to keep.

I had a hard time getting into this movie's groove, and not for the obvious reason. The movie has life and humor, but often I wasn't sure if what I was watching was meant to be humorous -- or just the way Senegalese villagers act. For example, when greeting each other, the characters would repeat each other's names and titles several times in a call-and-response fashion. To an American (or to me, anyway), this seems funny if meant humorously, but merely instructive if not.

The main character is a woman who uses tradition to battle tradition -- an impressive feat of cultural martial arts. When four girls come to her and beg for protection against the mutilation ritual, she invokes moolaadé, which is translated as "protection" but also seemed to imply some kind of preternatural presence. Predictably, this angers all the village's important folks.

Ultimately, despite a certain non-actorly clunkiness, the movie gets pretty compelling. It's fiction, but it's about something real. The lead actress survived the sometimes-fatal mutilation that is the central subject of the film -- a tradition which is widely practiced today. As the discussion panel said afterward -- the movie may have life and humor, but it is about a war. In every case, the people who die in this war are the ones least able to defend themselves.

The fact that the movie managed to get made at all is probably amazing. Predicably, many more Westerners than Africans have been allowed to see this film. One factor that keeps it from being seen in Islamic Senegal is probably the unfavorable comparison of the village's mosque to an architecturally identical giant anthill.

One nice thing: during the panel discussion after the movie, the lead actress (Fatoumata Coulibaly) spoke French in a wonderfully smoky voice. This is something I never mind listening to. It's too bad that so little of the discussion got translated for her, so she couldn't participate all that much. Well -- here's to everyone learning French, so that smoky-voiced leading ladies can tell us important things in a way we can understand.

In that spirit, I promise to come back and talk about the Ebertfest movies that are impossible to explain. Or I might just give up and relate some of the funny stories the festival guests told. Unless I forget. In any case, you will be entertained.