Movies are the greatest time travel machine ever invented. They have the unique ability to send us back into the past and forward into the future all at once. Last night’s Opening Night at the 13th Annual Ebertfest was a great example of movie time travel. Back we all went to 1927, for a glimpse of a possible future that never came to pass; then all the way forward to 2011, to see the life of a woman trapped by her own sad history. It was a reminder of a lost age, when people watched movies in palaces like Champaign, Illinois’ Virginia Theatre and a hopeful glimpse of a time yet to come when gatherings like this one exist in every city in the country.
I have been to many film festivals. Ebertfest is the first I’ve attended that is more about the past than the future. Instead of trying desperately to discover the “next big thing,” programmer Roger Ebert acts as a sort of one-man cinematic oversight committee. Originally named the Overlooked Film Festival, Ebertfest is dedicated to shining a light on great films that have unfairly fallen through the cracks.
In the case of this year’s opening night program, that almost literally happened. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis,” has been hailed a science-fiction classic for decades. But for years after its Berlin premiere it was only seen in a heavily truncated version. Recently, a film archivist discovered a print in the archives of Argentina’s Museo del Cine, which gave birth to this “Complete Metropolis” which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino, and which we watched at Ebertfest.
(Why Argentina? Film historian Kristin Thompson answered that question with her introduction before the film: in the 1920s, prints travelled the world. Their last stop was often South America. By the time films made it to places like Argentina, the prints were in such bad shape that they weren’t worth the money it would cost to ship them back to their country of origin. So they got put on a shelf somewhere, hence this amazing discovery.)
Restored to a near-director’s cut, “Metropolis” is even more the masterpiece we’ve known it to be for years (you can read my review of the New York premiere of “The Complete Metropolis” here). But Ebertfest’s screening of the film was even more unique because it came with a live performance by the Alloy Orchestra, who performed a score they’d written specially for this restoration. At the post-screening Q&A, the members of the group explained how they were commissioned to write the score for the new Kino Blu-ray of “The Complete Metropolis,” but at the last minute the estate that controls the rights to the film refused to include it, demanding that only the original Gottfried Huppertz score appear on the disc.
When I saw “The Complete Metropolis” for the first time, I called Huppertz’s score “a classic.” And it is a beautiful piece of music. But having seen both versions, I can say without question that Alloy’s score for “Metropolis” is the superior one. Huppertz’s work is beautiful but it’s too grand and regal for a film this gritty and paranoid. Alloy’s work enhances the restored “Metropolis”‘s frantic energy, and turns the climactic destruction of the underground city and the race to rescue its forgotten children into an exercise in suspense unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. We like to imagine modern films are more advanced than older, “primitive” works. “The Complete Metropolis” shows what nonsense that is. Show me one modern blockbuster that can match “Metropolis” for scale, scope, effects, action, themes, and sheer balls-out insanity. You can’t.
Opening night concluded with “Natural Selection,” which I missed at South by Southwest 2011 where it won the audience award and numerous awards from the features jury (which Ebert was a member of). I understand the accolades, particularly for Rachael Harris, who you might recognize from VH1 clip shows like “I Love the 70s” or as Ed Helms’ shrewish fiance in “The Hangover.” In “Natural Selection” she reveals herself to be an actress of remarkable range and nuance, playing Linda, a housewife in a fundamentalist Christian community in Texas. Because she had lost her ability to have children years before, her husband refuses to have sex with her (sex is for procreation, you see). But little does the unfulfilled Linda realize that her husband uses a local sperm bank as an excuse to regularly exercise his own desires.
Saying more about what happens next would spoil the film’s numerous twists. And part of what I enjoyed about “Natural Selection” was the fact that I went in completely cold and was repeatedly surprised by Linda’s journey after her husband makes one particularly eventful trip to the sperm bank. But Harris and her co-star Matt O’Leary, playing a man she meets on the road, both give incredible performances, painfully funny and even more painfully truthful. And writer/director Robbie Pickering, telling a story about a character based on his own mother, set in the town where he grew up, is clearly a talent to watch. Pickering balances comedy and tragedy in a way that a lot of indie directors try to do these days. Where most fail, he’s succeeded. And he fills his frame will all sorts of clever signs and symbols about birth and death. Even the way the characters relate to the seatbelts in their car says something about them (automatic seatbelts, it turns out, make a great metaphor for the way a woman entrusts her well-being to a higher power).
I could write more but it’s time to go watch more movies at Ebertfest. Speak to you again in the future.