(Miss the first part? It’s available here!)
SIREN OF THE TROPICS (1927)
(tubi) All you need to know about SIREN OF THE TROPICS is that it’s the feature film debut of one Josephine Baker who, in the late 1920s was the most popular American entertainer in Paris, mostly because of her erotic dancing. Baker went on to star in a number of other French films before retiring from acting to bring her focus back to live entertainment, and then she went on to become a prolific activist and humanitarian.
Sadly, SIREN OF THE TROPICS is not even close to a grand showcase for Baker, not even for its time. It’s a very middling, very colonial silent film whose only worthwhile moments are those when Baker appears on screen. TROPIC doesn’t just perk up when Baker breaks into dance, but it comes to life whenever she’s in the frame; she deftly wriggles and lithely leaps around and all over the set, as if the boundaries of the screen can’t contain her. When she does break out into dance, especially for her extended Charleston number, the film becomes transcendent and you get lost in her enthusiasm, exuberance, and sheer joy of movement.
Ebertfest brought in renowned composer Renée Baker who has a history of drafting up untraditional silent film scores, and her contribution to this screening was an aural delight. While Renée rarely tampers with the visuals of a film, she did take it upon herself to bookend TROPICS with an extreme slow-motion close-up of Josephine during her solo on-stage dance and, as Renée stated post-film, to celebrate the magic of Josephine Baker.
(fubo/Showtime/VOD) When is the best time to watch a brutal emotional rollercoaster of a film? Certainly not in the morning, when one’s brain is still somewhat fogged, or when one’s stomach may be churning its way through breakfast. The mid-afternoon? Perhaps not, especially if it’s a beautiful day outside. Even if one doesn’t like lounging in the sun, it’ll be there to accost you upon exiting the screening.
I prefer mid-evening when dealing with works that focus on trauma. The mood feels right, and it’s early enough that you can put some distance between it and that night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with a smaller film festival, you don’t have the luxury of opting for a later screening. In the case of Ebertfest’s screening of Trey Edward Shults’ crowdfunded debut feature KRISHA, you either watched it right after a light lunch, or not at all.
It’s not as if anyone going into KRISHA is doing so unaware of what they’re getting into: KRISNA is explicitly about Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a troubled middle-aged woman with a history of addiction which led to an estranged son. Krisha swears to her sister that she’s cleaned up her act, and she’s invited to the family Thanksgiving get-together, which includes her son. Matters escalate, wildly and horrifically, in a way that feels like Gaspar Noé’s take on a severely dysfunctional family homecoming.
Despite being a relatively young entry in the genre, Shults’ film (based on a short that he filmed a few years prior) is widely acclaimed as one of the rawest depictions of addiction, partially thanks to how personal the material is to Shults, the involvement of his family in the production — a number of them, non-actors all of them, are parts of the core cast — as well as the aural and visual literacy of the film. You would not know that this film was shot on a shoestring budget, as the throbbingly sound design expertly builds tension, and ghostlike camera work cranes up stairs and peeks around corners.
Following the screening was a discussion with Krisha Fairchild, who went into great detail about the pre-production and shooting process, as well as demystified a few facets of the film such as what was the impetus behind Krisha’s missing appendage, details behind certain facets of the house, as well as the reasoning behind some of the character names. I highly suggest watching the discussion yourself, made available by Ebertfest for all to see!
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021, B&W Cinematic Version)
One of the guest tentpoles for Ebertfest 2022 was the black-and-white version of Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and both of them were slated to fly out for a post-film discussion. Unfortunately, halfway through the festival it was announced that del Toro had to undergo non-emergency surgery and would have to attend virtually, which was a bummer, but not completely unexpected. (Similarly, a number of actors from GOLDEN ARM were slated to attend their screening, but had to bow out at the last minute due to conflicting schedules.)
The show went on, a bit later than its announced 8:30pm time. While introducing NIGHTMARE ALLEY, Chaz noted the lateness of the festival’s final screening and assured everyone that we wouldn’t have another ‘Herzog’ incident. Apparently, more than several years ago at a prior Ebertfest, Werner Herzog talked with Errol Morris until well beyond one in the morning. Very few made a preemptive exit, but many of the attendees were worse for wear the following day.
As I’ve grown older I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay awake during evening screenings, even early ones. Add into the mix the woozy warmth of wearing a KN95 mask, compounded with the exhaustion of exploring a new area and the emotional rollercoaster of a week of brilliant-but-difficult films, and I was running on fumes when the projector flickered to life.
Long story short: I fell asleep about an hour into the film and, apart from a few glimpses of an office here, an underground tunnel there, woke up about twenty minutes before the closing credits. Embarrassing, I know. I can say that the first act hews closer to the original film adaptation than I expected, that what I saw of the back-half of the film was far darker than I expected (probably because I have yet to read the source material), that Bradley Cooper is surprisingly well-suited to his role as an over-confident confidence man, and that I still think the latitude of the black-and-white lacks the contrast that would best fit the film. Apart from that, I’m waiting to watch it in full before I say anything more about the film proper. My apologies if you expected otherwise.
To circle back to del Toro and Morgan: not to worry, del Toro is fine. Also, if you’ve heard him speak before, you know he’s very excitable and loves to talk at length about cinema. Add his wife into the mix, and they can chat for hours without interruption.
While they didn’t quite talk until 1am, I didn’t exit the Virginia Theatre until around midnight. Bleary eyed and more than a little groggy, I left the venue feeling sleepily satisfied. I technically bought my tickets to Ebertfest 2022 way back in 2019, as while Ebertfest 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to COVID, they still honored my initial ticket purchase. This trek was a long time coming, one I should have attempted far earlier in life, but I could hardly ask to attend a better first post-lockdown film festival. Here’s to Ebertfest 2023!
If you’d like to watch any of the panels or Q&As, each and every one has kindly been made available via Ebertfest’s YouTube channel!