Well, Ebertfest is a wrap. It's been an exciting few days here in Urbana-Champaign. Saturday's films were an interesting lineup. Paul Cox's Man of Flowers (which has Werner Herzog in it) screened first and was introduced by Herzog. Then in the evening, Herzog's tragicomical Stroszek screened, with Cox doing the intro. This was an interesting pairing of films; Man of Flowers is about Charles Bremer, a wealthy art collector whose sexuality is so repressed he is unable to have a normal relationship. He pays a young art model to come to his home once a week to strip for him while he listens to opera. Over time, Bremer becomes more intertwined in the girl's relationship with her abusive boyfriend. The film is a haunting exploration of loneliness, and Herzog, playing Bremer's father in flashback scenes when Bremer is talking to his shrink, revels in playing a dark, oppressive father figure.
Herzog's Stroszek -- one of the most unusual films I've ever seen -- isn't a comedy, exactly, but it has many comedic moments. The film follows three Germans: ex-prisoner Bruno S., Mr. Scheitz, a tiny old man who is the caretaker of Bruno's apartment, and Eva, a prostitute to whom Bruno gives shelter from her abusive pimps. This unlikely trio decides to make a fresh start by moving to Wisconsin -- a move they finance by Eva working as a prostitute. Herzog chooses to relocate his subjects to the hometown of serial killer Ed Gein, the murderer who was the inspiration for Hitchcock's Psycho. Much of the film revolves around the real life of Bruno S., who was institutionalized from the age of three (when he was badly beaten by his prostitute mother) until he was 26. Herzog first encountered Bruno S. when he saw him in a documentary about street musicians; the filmmaker wrote the screenplay for Stroszek in just four days. Herzog's trio of protagonists ends up buying a prefabricated home together with no idea of how they will pay for it; some of the most brilliant moments in the film are when the bank sends a representative over to discuss the non-payment of the contract with Bruno and his companions. The film's ending, which includes a failed bank robbery, a frozen turkey, a ski lift and a dancing chicken, is perhaps one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen on film, and yet somehow, within the context of the whole, it all manages to make sense.
Saturday night wrapped with a film called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, is a documentary of sorts, following artist Jim White on a road trip through the South. White is accompanied on his trip by a 300-pound concrete Jesus statue riding in his trunk, and his journey takes him to a Pentecostal church, a barbershop (where we hear a duet between a barber and a beautician, sung as they work on customer's hair) and various other places where he meets an eclectic array of Southern characters. The film is filled with music that brings the South to life, and the screening was followed by a live performance.
Sunday brought us a screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the surreal cult film which was co-written by Roger Ebert himself and director Russ Meyer. The film, written in 1969, had an X rating; in its recent re-release on DVD the X was toned down to an NC-17, but the film is still one of the racier films you're likely to see. If you've never seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it's almost indescribable. It tells the tale of a trio of young women who have a rock band, and what happens to them after they fall into the hands of wealthy, eccentric music producer Z-Man. The film is filled with orgies, drug use, lesbian scenes, wild parties and violence, and yet somehow it all gels into a hilariously enjoyable film. The packed house laughed uproariously throughout, and the closing sequence made me think that someone needs to start running this film regularly at midnight screenings, with a live cast acting scenes out ala Rocky Horror. Following the screening, late 1960s band Strawberry Alarm Clock (who are featured prominently in the film as the band at Z-Man's wild parties) got up on stage and performed -- the first time all the original band members have been on stage together in 40 years.
I did get a couple of opportunities to talk to Roger Ebert at the fest. He is unable to speak at the moment, but his wit and intellect are very much intact, and he writes rapidly on a little notepad, sharing his thoughts with family, friends and well-wishers. He told me yesterday that years ago, it was the midnight screening of BVD that got himself and Meyer hired by the Sex Pistols to work on a film titled Who Killed Bambi, and we also talked a bit about how amazing it was to have Herzog and Cox on the same stage. Ebert looks very well over all; his wife Chaz is a constant presence making sure he's taking care of himself, but he was clearly determined not to miss any of his fest, no matter what. The love for Ebert in this town is almost overwhelming; so many well-wishers who just wanted to stop and say hi, or let him know he's in their prayers. In spite of his health, and how tired he must have been, Ebert endlessly greeted the fest attendees, talked to fellow film journalists and filmmakers, gave out autographs, and allowed countless photos to be taken. His energy, his love for film, and his love for this town, are what make Ebertfest so special, and made this overall one of the most enjoyable fests I've attended.