Yesterday I wrote about movie time travel, today someone drove a DeLorean to Ebertfest. I’m quickly beginning to realize it’s that sort of film festival: fun, whimsical, and totally dedicated to the movies. It’s so relaxed too. Because it’s not a market, or a place where new films premiere, there’s none of the pressure I typically associate with film festivals. Nobody’s here to tell you how they spent four years of their lives and their parents’ savings on their movie about the endangered marmot. People really let their hair down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Day 2 began with its hair up, with a panel dedicated to Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents, a brigade of writers and critics from all over the world. I tend to shrivel away at the prospect of critics talking about — and invariably complaining about — themselves, but this was something different, less a panel discussion than a sharing of cultures and ideas. We learned how audiences in Dubai behave in movie theaters (rudely, it turns out). We discovered the Mexican equivalent of “Siskel & Ebert,” which was cast with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert look-alikes in an attempt to cash in on their formula. Critics like Ali Arikan, Michael Mirasol, and Pablo Villaça talked about the state of film culture in places like Turkey, The Philippines, and Brazil. It was fascinating to see where our differences lie — distribution and exhibition being the biggest — and where we share common ground. Can you believe nobody gets paid to be a film critic in foreign countries either? I know, I was shocked too.
After morning panels, it was time for the movies, starting with a double feature of films about men and their dogs, a topic close to my heart since I have a dog, and as soon as puberty hits I’ll technically be a man (doctors say it could be a matter of weeks). I had seen neither movie before. The first was an acknowledged masterpiece, Vittorio de Sica’s 1952 film “Umberto D.”
Now I should preface my thoughts on the film with a disclaimer. No critic is an objective viewer, but when it comes to movies about dogs, I am about as trustworthy as the chairman of a meeting of Pathological Liars Anonymous. After a lifetime of living without pets, my wife convinced me to get a dog after we got married. Though I was reluctant, it was the right decision (and oh, how I hate admitting that in print, where my wife can read it and present it as evidence the next time we disagree about something). Having a dog has enriched my life in so many ways. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its downsides. Paramount among those: after spending almost 30 years of my life as a proudly cynical, cold-hearted film viewer, getting a dog has suddenly turned me into a movie mushpot. I’ve told my wife this before and meant it: I can never repay her for convincing me to get our dog, and I will never forgive her for the fact that getting our dog has turned me into that guy who cries at movies about dogs.
Of course, even a jaded hater of animals would be helpless to resist “Umberto D,” a devastatingly beautiful and sad film about a retired civil servant named Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) suffocating under a mountain of debt. The connection between man and animal is a powerful thing, and never more touching than when it exists for a man like Umberto, who’s watching his connection to everything but his faithful mutt Flike cruelly severed. He can no longer afford his tiny apartment and his cruel landlady has taken to renting out his room to people looking for a place to have sex. He’s retired and when he sees former co-workers in the street they have nothing to say to him. To make ends meet, he’s slowly selling off every one of his possessions. Soon all he has left to his name fits in a single suitcase. And, of course, Flike.
At the post-film Q&A, it was pointed out that several dogs played the part of Flike because different dogs were required to perform all his different tricks. But that connection between Battisti and the dogs feels so real, and it’s that connection that the film captures so well. Umberto’s friends, associates, possessions, they’re all gone. But Flike will follow his master to the ends of the earth. In perhaps the film’s greatest single shot, Umberto is preparing to kill himself by throwing himself in front of an oncoming train. He’s left Flike playing in a park with some children, hoping he won’t notice his absence, but sure enough, Flike comes scampering after him. In a single long take, the canine actor playing Flike bounds over a bridge, and discovering an ashamed Umberto hiding in the bushes.
I’m sorry, I think my allergies are acting up. Let me just go get a tissue or five…
Better. “Umberto D.” was followed by a more recent dog-related triumph, 2010’s “My Dog Tulip,” from husband and wife team Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. The film is animated in a loose and affectionate style, entirely by hand, entirely by the two filmmakers, and entirely without paper. After the film, the Fierlingers described their process in fascinating detail: Paul draws in ink on computer tablets, and Sandra paints his drawings with electronic watercolors. They haven’t calculated how many drawings they had to make to create this feature length film. Let’s put it this way: it was a lot.
The result of years of work is a charmingly ramshackle, gleefully vulgar, and deeply personal film. Based on the 1956 book by J. R. Ackerley, it’s the author’s story of his life with a German Shephard. Ackerley was a homosexual living in England in the first half of the 20th century, but we share at least one thing in common: we both came to our love of dogs as adults. Acklerley was well into middle age when he gave a neglected dog a home and fell deeply in love. I know what that’s like. The Fierlingers are dog owners themselves, and they understand that feeling well, too.
One thing “My Dog Tulip” gets exactly right is the charm of an imperfect animal. “Umberto D.” is a magical film, but it must be said that for all the films claims to Italian neorealism there is one aspect that is incredibly unrealistic: that impossibly well-behaved pooch. He does tricks on command, he doesn’t beg for food, he never barks at strangers, and he loves little children. Dogs like that do exist, but I imagine most dog lovers — myself included — relate more to life with a dog like Tulip, who can be anti-social, nervous and untrusting of strangers, and insanely devoted to their masters. Owners of the Tulips of the world would love it if their dog were more accepting of others, but on some level, they also love the fact that they aren’t. Their love seems more pure and more genuine, because it is special. Dogs like Tulip don’t come to their trust easily. Which makes when they do that much more powerful.
“My Dog Tulip” is dry and witty; it’s also got enough graphic on camera defecation to make John Waters raise an eyebrow. The clash between high society and lowbrow behavior seemed to bridge the gap to the final film of Ebertfest Day 2, Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture.” I’ve talked about the film before, so I don’t have a lot to say about it now. I will simply note that I remain a fan of the film, and of writer/director/star Dunham, who has received a lot of abuse from certain wings of the critical community, I think because she comes from a wealthy family and has had more opportunities than other people do (an issue that is directly addressed in the film’s story of a lost girl trying to decide what to do with her life now that she’s graduated from college with a worthless film theory degree). The fact of the matter is there are a lot of rich people out there, and a lot of those people make films. But few of them are as sharply directed as “Tiny Furniture.” Few have the snap of Dunham’s dialogue, or the same sense of incisive, introspective truth. And none have a character who’s as much fun to hate as Alex Karpovsky’s delightfully douchey “YouTube star” Jed. That performance belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Movie Douchebags, along with Bill Paxton from “True Lies,” Ben Affleck in “Dazed and Confused,” and William Atherton in “Ghostbusters.”
After “Tiny Furniture,” something like twenty people from Ebertfest — including festival host Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife — adjourned to a local bar for karaoke. That’s when the hair came down. But now it’s time for me to go. The curtain’s about to go up on Day 3.