I’m not going to lie—as glad as I am to be here at Ebertfest, watching great movies in the company of lovely people (shout-out to the Methodist pastor from Effingham, Ill. who keeps saving me spots in the balcony), yesterday was a bizarre day to experience from inside the news-proof bubble of a film festival. In between feverishly checking Twitter for updates that seemed to come straight from an old episode of 24—a daylong manhunt involving SWAT teams and thousands of policemen? A city-wide lockdown? A bloody teenage bombing suspect discovered in a backyard boat?—1,500 of us sheltered in place in the Virginia Theatre to spend time in the comparatively sane company of a Norwegian drug addict (Oslo, August 31st), a dying Japanese widow (The Ballad of Narayama), and an incompetent alcoholic kidnapper (Julia).
As the news from Boston got darker and stranger, it seemed perfectly plausible that we might exit the red-velvet-and-gold-leaf interior of the Virginia—one of those silent-era movie palaces that make you feel as though you’ve somehow entered Gloria Swanson’s cigarette case—and find ourselves walking through the rubble of some post-apocalyptic landscape. Instead, outside there was just the rain in Champaign (which falls pretty much exclusively on the plain, flatland being the only kind of terrain there is around here). I had plans for the day—interviews with Ebertfest regulars, coffee dates with fellow critics, a tour of the world’s second-oldest corn plot offered up by an enthusiastic University of Illinois history scholar—but one by one they evaporated as the Watertown standoff expanded to fill all available space.
I suppose it’s fitting, though, that one of the weirdest days in recent memory should end in the presence of Tilda Swinton, the good witch of weird. Looking as androgynously elfin as only she and David Bowie can, Swinton took the stage after the evening screening of Erick Zonca’s florid 2009 thriller Julia (a movie I once discussed in the Slate Movie Club with, what do you know, Roger Ebert). In conversation with Chaz Ebert and Nate Kohn—an old friend of Roger’s and the director of the festival—Swinton was puckish, flirtatious, pensive, and perverse. Listening to her elegant English accent was the first moment of a long and frazzled day when I finally began to let myself breathe.
Swinton mentioned her resistance to thinking of herself as an actor, saying that if she had to list her profession on a passport she would prefer “artist’s model” and “clown.” She talked excitedly and intelligently about her ongoing performance art project “The Maybe,” in which she sleeps in a glass box for up to eight hours on end in museums in London, Rome, and New York. First she related the piece to the process of grieving (Swinton recently lost her mother); then she discussed how it brought together the live human presence of theater with the close audience scrutiny afforded by cinema; and finally, she expressed her gratitude for being anatomically gifted with a big enough bladder to lie in state for eight straight hours. Swinton admitted that one source of the frantic, flailing energy her character displays in Julia was her deliberate refusal to fully learn her lines. She fondly recalled how her collaboration with the late experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman reached a point of mutual understanding where they no longer needed to talk on-set: “We would just grunt.” She, in short, radiated Tilda Swinton-ness at a white heat for a good 30 minutes or more, generously responding to a long Q&A period from the crowd. Her interview ended with a tantalizing description of Snowpiercer, her upcoming film with the great Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. It’s a sci-fi thriller based on a French graphic novel about a perpetual-motion−powered train that harbors what’s left of humanity after climate change plunges the planet into a second Ice Age. Snowpiercer sounded like something to get up the next morning and look forward to, on a day when we all needed exactly that.