Roger Ebert was a native son of the Midwest, and for Day 3 of his eponymous film festival Friday, his widow Chaz selected two films about characters shaped by their experiences in the Plaines—one real, one a fiction.
“Columbus” from Korean-American filmmaker Kolganata screened during the afternoon—a paeon to both architecture and the power of place to shape the destinies of its characters. Filmed in and around Columbus, Indiana, the film stars John Cho of the revamped “Star Trek” universe as Jin, the son of a Korean architecture professor who must return to his Midwest haunts after his father has a stroke. While there he befriends a listless young woman named Cassandra (Haley Jo Richardson), who shares Jin’s passion for the importance of buildings but lacks his desire to leave town for something grander.
In “Columbus,” Cassandra’s mother Maria (Michelle Forbes) is often absent and perhaps relapsing into drug abuse. It was this tug-of-war between connection and alienation that Kolganata said informed the dynamic of the 2017 film, with the writer-director saying it feels like a “little death” whenever you say goodbye to your parents for the first time.
“I read about Columbus, Indiana, and being an architecture nerd…I visited the city and immediately felt a certain kind of melancholy and promise, and it felt like the place itself was a story,” the filmmaker said.
Kolganata, who said he was influenced by the “everyday life” realism of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, said he believed that social media and other 21st century innovations have had a self-aggrandizing effect on people’s solipsistic narratives about their own importance—often to their own detriment.
“Our lives are mostly about waiting and trying to find significance in the waiting. I think that’s what feels so unbearable at times,” he said, echoing perhaps the ethos of the likes of Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill. “We have a ‘diet of perpetual significance’ that the media gives us, and whenever you’re removed from that, life feels insignificant.”
While the relationship between Jin and Cassandra unquestionably develops toward closeness as the film progresses, Kolganata said he was conscious to avoid the pitfalls of movie romance that typically saddle stories of male-female interactions.
“I had relationships that [veered on romantic] that were with people who share themselves, and it’s hard to categorize [them], but they’re so beautiful,” the filmmaker said. “They all have some tension because we’re all human and the beauty is to just respect what you have.”
The evening’s film was set 331 miles to the northeast of Columbus, Indiana, but this time with a real-life oddball who turned his dreary, “kitchen sink” realism into the stuff of pop culture legend in a comic book drawn by R. Crumb that turned its unlikely “hero” into a modern protagonist.
“American Splendor” is a rare hybrid of documentary realism and fictional recreation, a tough task that co-directors (and real-life spouses) Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who had only made documentaries prior, cobbled together by staging interview scenes of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner set against recreations of their earlier life enacted by actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.
The film is simultaneously documentary and fictional drama—yet also neither.
“For me, it was a pleasure to watch this film again,” said critic Leonard Maltin, who moderated a post-screening discussion. “It makes it all the more exciting [that it’s a] narrative film that incorporates your background as documentarians.”
The film is unique in that it uses archive video of its real-life subjects, film of their onscreen avatars and then-contemporaneous footage of Pekar and Brabner to tell the unlikely story of how a Midwestern file clerk turned his everyday humdrum experience into the stuff of underground comic legend.
Producer Ted Hope said that he needed a husband-and-wife film team to tell the story of Harvey and Joyce.
“Ted said before you commit, you have to go to Cleveland and spent time with Harvey,” said co-director Pucini. “Harvey picked the hotel, and it was basically a place where people recover from all kinds of illnesses—people [were] getting dialysis in the lobby.”
Giamatti, then known mostly for his supporting turn in the Howard Stern biopic “Private Parts”—but who was also the son of the former president of Yale—was then largely an unknown talent, but the filmmakers fought for him to take on the role of the fictional Harvey Pekar.
“Paul is a huge reader and was excited to meet Harvey,” said Springer Bergman. “Harvey was the most well-read person I’d ever met, the definition of a working-class intellectual. And he looked at Paul and said, ‘Wow, you had some father; how are you going to live up to that?’”
The filmmakers enjoyed relating to the Ebertfest crowd that Pekar, who died in 2010, in fact fell asleep while shown the comic book writer their film about him in 2003. However, Hope said the subject even then suffered from manic-depression, and in fact “threw himself down the stairs” not long after the film crew had completed their work near his Cleveland home during a depressive episode.
“The most remarkable thing for me…when we showed it at Sundance, he really didn’t think it would go over,” Hope said. “We had a long standing ovation, and I could see Harvey get taller.
“He was at the end and didn’t think he would write anymore, [but] he wrote five or six more books.”
Springer Berman recalled how Brabner “dragged” her husband around the world to promote the film, even though Pekar had seldom ever left Cleveland.
Asked by this reporter if the interactions between the actors and the real-life subjects were “scripted” in the cutaway scenes, Pucini said that he and his co-director wife basically “let the actors go.”
“It was one sentence in the script,” Hope added. “Just like in ‘Gone With the Wind’ where it says ‘Atlanta burns,’” thereby allowing the filmmakers to expound upon a few lines in the script by allowing the actors and real-life subjects to interact as the cameras rolled.
Springer Berman recalled how Roger Ebert was a huge champion of “American Splendor” upon its debut and related meeting Ebert and wife Chaz as their film made the festival circuit.
“Roger was a great supporter of this film,” she said. “He’s really made a huge impact on our lives.”