CHAMPAIGN – Introducing his friend Paul Cox's film on Saturday at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, director Werner Herzog said he felt that the festival, more than anything, has to do with friendship.
"I thank Roger for the friendship that he's offered me and other filmmakers. One of the things I do not care that much about is that he's the most influential critic in the United States," Herzog said in an apparent reference to Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker saying that onstage Friday night.
"I care for the friendship."
And while many have said that "Man of Flowers," the Cox film that was shown, is about male solitude, Herzog said the 1983 movie to him has connotations of male friendship. In dream sequences in the movie, Herzog plays the protagonist's father.
The ninth annual Ebertfest was to continue Saturday night with Cox introducing Herzog's 1977 movie, "Stroszek," about three offbeat Europeans who move to a trailer park in Wisconsin. The closing film Saturday was to be British director Andrew Douglas' "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus," a stylized documentary in which alt-country musician Jim White acts as guide to the Deep South. The festival was to end today with "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," written by Ebert himself.
The lyrical "Man of Flowers" is about a withdrawn, sexually repressed middle-aged man, played by Australian actor Norman Kaye, who escapes into art and music and becomes entangled in the unhealthy relationship between a young woman and her violent painter boyfriend.
In the post-screening discussion with Cox and Herzog, festival director Nate Kohn quoted the lead character Charles Bremer's statement about dreams making up almost half of our lifetime. Kohn said "Man of Flowers" is about dreams and memories and how they interact with each other and affect our lives.
In what might be the most emotional episode in Ebertfest, Ebert's wife, Chaz Ebert, had said earlier from the stage, before giving Cox a "Golden Thumb" award, that she had gotten an e-mail June 30 from a movie producer who told her Cox had had a dream about Roger Ebert and that the Australian director was very worried about him.
The next day, Chaz Ebert said, her husband had a ruptured carotid (neck) artery that would keep him in the hospital for eight months rather than the two weeks expected for salivary-gland cancer surgery. Chaz Ebert told the producer to have Cox e-mail or call her. "I wanted to find out about the dream and how it turned out," she said.
"I was really desperate ... He told me he was so worried, that he had written down a lot of the details of his dream," Chaz Ebert said. "So many of the details of his dream have played out over the last few months. Some of the details helped me know that Roger was going to be OK, and I held onto that. That meant so much to me to have that hope, for what it's worth. Thank you." She then kissed and hugged Cox.
Cox said, "Maybe we should trust our dreams more."
He then read an ode to Roger and Chaz, calling him a true hero and her his remarkable wife. "You survived an ordeal that would kill an ordinary person," Cox said. He said Ebert's courage and commitment have overridden everything, and that the critic has inspired vagabond filmmakers such as himself, Herzog and others.
The post-screening discussion took a further existential turn, with Cox saying that "Man of Flowers" was made "200 years ago" when he and Herzog were "alive and flying and full of hope that we'd leave a better world behind and the human race would survive."
Cox said he now sees the "human race declining into something horrible. I don't understand what it's all about. I am actually disturbed about the way the world is today." Kohn turned the talk to "Man of Flowers" being about loneliness. Cox said it is about feelings, that film has the capacity to express feelings and that words don't.
Herzog commented that technological advances in communication such as cell phones and the Internet have increased our solitude, but that doesn't mean the human race has become worse. He said he disagrees with some of Cox's observations, but believes human existence as it is now will not be sustained on this planet.
"Nature is going to regulate us very quickly," said the visionary director, who just returned from shooting a new film in Antarctica. "There will be a chain of catastrophes and cataclysms. Our existence is clearly not sustainable." Like the dinosaurs, we will be next, Herzog said. "I don't know when, but it's imminent."
The thing for us to do, he said, is to continue making and seeing movies and enjoying life.
"I remember four years ago Paul had some sort of gloom," Herzog said. "The wonderful thing is he keeps making films. I just saw this morning a new film ('Salvation') that Paul made. It has the same distant echo of solitude. It's beautiful to see that you're hanging in there, and you don't really change."
"We have no option but to proceed," Cox said.