Ah yes, Friday at the Overlooked — otherwise known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, IL.
It’s always struck me, as now a five-time attendee of this event now in its eighth year, that Saturdays are saved for the festival’s prime lineup. And Fridays are the best day to make unexpected discoveries of lesser-known treasures.
Not that this can’t be said for the entire festival, but for me there has always been something about Fridays at the Overlooked that has stuck out. And this year, the discoveries were back in each of Friday’s three screenings.
I must say that, overall, this was one of the most enjoyable days I have ever experienced in Champaign. Three great films, beautiful, sunny weather (which eroded as day merged to night and the rain started to fall), and a truly upbeat, jovial audience. This is the reason I come here, and why I’ll be back next year.
It all started with "Somebodies," the one film I realized a week or two ago of which I knew almost nothing, and which I intentionally avoided learning anything more about. It’s a film with a connection to the festival. Nate Kohn, the festival’s director, along with wife Pam were producers on the film. And during the film’s on-stage presentations, they recapped the work’s unlikely back story. Writer and director Hadjii approached Nate during his first days at the University of Georgia, who, as a professor, moved to the University to helm the film department, and Hadjii handed him a script that was so impressive Nate said he decided to help make the movie himself.
And what a curious, disarming and thoroughly entertaining film it is. "Somebodies" stars Hadjii, as he describes it, as the straight man who continuously finds himself amazed by the humor that surrounds him in his life. Ebert praised it for its observational humor — that yes, indeed, some people are truly like this. And as I watched the film, this was precisely why I found myself laughing. There was the eccentric uncle and the spirited girlfriend — the book smart roommate and the curious cast of side characters who make brief appearances, including even those like the guitar-playing street performer and the singing man we only meet briefly as he rambles down a baron country road.
Watching "Somebodies," we get the sense we are getting an insight not only into a person’s life, but also his world, and that the film is primarily interested in the individual quirks that each of these people so wonderfully different. And it’s also really damn funny. There are moments in "Somebodies," in watching the eccentric preacher at the church services or in watching the back and forth between a blunt elderly couple, that sent me laughing as I haven’t laughed at the movies in a long, long time.
And what horrifies me is the prospect that "Somebodies" — which was an official selection at Sundance this year — might never find a mainstream distributor. I just watched the film with a mainstream audience, and it worked. It worked. What more should a distributor need?
An annual tradition at The Overlooked is a presentation of a silent film with a live accompaniment by the brilliant Alloy Orchestra, who tours the country performing scores for silent films which it has taken the time to restore.
The most memorable aspect of this year’s silent presentation was first the film — a lesser-known silent work, "The Eagle" — and also the prelude, which I have to think helped the audience to see the film in a totally different light. Ebert read from a book on the nature of silent films, a subject of which I am quite familiar with and which I have occasionally studied. But he chose a passage that truly cut to the heart of the matter. It is precisely the lack of realism to be found in silent films — the way that things happen unnaturally, in exaggerated motions, in grainy footage, without sound — that requires us to be an active participant in the experience. We get wrapped up in its own, subtle form of language — not in comparing the story to our real lives — and as such, silent films are a higher, more involving art form that talkies. They speak to us, where most mainstream films merely ask us to watch.
Of course, it helps when you can prove the point with such an example as "The Eagle," which is a wonderfully stylized, playful and engaging affair. Starring the great icon Rudolph Valentino, I was surprised by how sexually suggestive the film was. About a hopeful general in Russia who is sized up by his female commander and then offered a promotion if he, well, sleeps with her, the main thrust of the film is Valentino’s desire to exact revenge on those who have wronged his family in a far-off village, before his angry lover tracks him down.
Based on the famous series of British novels, Malkovich plays Ripley as a surreal presence, a murderer who is also an art collector, a mild-mannered man who can beat a man’s brain in with a wrench without hesitation. Much like the best villains in cinematic history, from Al Pacino in "The Godfather" to Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs" and Anthony Perkins in "Psycho," the joy of the film is trying to get at the heart of who this man is, what makes him tick, and also how he turns another man from a mild-mannered picture framer into a willing murderer.
The post-film discussion revealed how Malkovich had helped to substantially re-write the film, playing up the ambiguousness of Ripley, as well as his several poetic asides. And producer Russell Smith also had a theory on why the film never reached American screens: That the film’s relationship with AOL Time Warner, whose "Lord of the Rings" represented a sizeable, $300 million gamble, was far too busy with that project to give "Ripley’s Game" a fair game. It was ultimately overlooked because it wasn’t enough of a financial contender.
But for at least one audience in Champaign, IL, though, it is not overlooked any more. I want to see it again. And knowing that it will likely never see the day of light on the big screen, I’ll opt for the DVD version instead.
More to come soon, including two Saturday reports from Champaign, and a festival wrap-up. Stay tuned.
Author: Steven Snyder