As a film lover and alumnus of the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign (I-L-L!), Ebertfest, or Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, has been on my radar for years. I didn’t hear about it until late into my tenure at UIUC, but since then I’ve managed to attend a screening or two each year and it’s always a great time. Held at the beautiful Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, an enormous venue from the 1920s which has been newly restored this past year and just opened back up in time for the festival, Ebertfest brings in a huge, welcoming crowd of cinephiles each year and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch great films with such an engaged audience in such a gorgeous theatre with such a massive screen (56’ wide). This year, however, the festival has extra meaning. Roger Ebert was extremely hands-on in the planning of Ebertfest and, fittingly, his wife Chaz has chosen to honor him not by adding special tribute events or screenings, but by presenting the festival just as he intended.
The weather has been somewhat dreary in Champaign recently and that held true last night, with rain starting to pour down as those 100 or so of us waiting in the rush line stood outside, hoping to get a ticket. In the 14 years of the festival, people waiting in the rush line have been turned away only 6 times and fortunately, this didn’t change last night. Chaz walked past us on her way in, greeting everyone and promising to get us out of the rain as quickly as possible- we were moved to one of the tents and, in a pleasant surprise, treated to some freshly baked Insomnia Cookies while we waited.
Unfortunately, I can’t report on how the evening kicked off, as those of us at the back of the rush line didn’t get in ‘til at least 20 minutes after the intended start time of 7pm, but we did get in just in time to see the opening short film, “I Remember” directed by Grace Wang. As Chaz, who wore Roger’s familiar white scarf, remarked afterwards, it was a haunting way to open the festival. The short shows a young woman’s quiet hour alone as she contemplates a lost love, oscillating between determined busywork (carefully folding laundry), still contemplation, and coupled despair and joy as she finds an old note she’d thought lost.
Afterward, Chaz announced that Roger had a surprise for between the two films- he’d adapted the lyrics to “Those Were The Days” to fit the festival and planned a singalong, led by the fantastic Dr. Ollie Watts Davis and singers from the UI Black Chorus and accompanied on the Virginia’s pipe organ. I’m sure I’m not the only one who got a little choked up at, “We thought they’d never end”, but on the whole it was a fun moment, punctuated by a clip from Chimes at Midnight, with Orson Welles and Alan Webb walking together through the snow and then indoors, talking about the time gone by and ending with, “Jesus, the days we have seen”. We can’t know exactly what was going through Roger’s mind while he was planning this year’s festival, but decisions like the inclusion of this clip certainly make me wonder.
Then it was time for the main event, the screening of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Despite occasional intelligibility issues in my section of the balcony, the film was absolutely gorgeous, projected on the Virginia’s huge screen. Even more than that, though, my reaction to the film was heightened by the audience. Seeing movies in a packed house of respectful, appreciative film geeks can’t help but add an extra layer of enjoyment to the experience. How many audiences applaud for the director, DP, and cinematographers rather than the big name actors? Finally, the evening came to an end with a Q&A with the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who has an, “Additional photography by” credit on the film, a topic that came up entertainingly during the talk, moderated by critic Matt Zoller Seitz. Wexler certainly seems like a character and after this, I look forward to seeing more of his work, both as a cinematographer and director.
I don’t know how much of the festival I’ll be able to attend this year, but if the opening night is any indication, this will be one hell of a week. If you’re in the vicinity, or even up in Chicago, and you have the time, I highly recommend driving down and joining me in the rush line. You’ll be glad you did.
Check out the rest of my Ebertfest 2013 coverage:
Day 2- “To Music”, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh, In the Family, Bernie
Day 3- Oslo, August 31st, The Ballad of Narayama, Julia
Day 4- Blancanieves, Kumaré, Escape From Tomorrow, The Spectacular Now
Day 5– “Sight and Sound Poll: Roger Ebert’s Favorite Films”, Not Yet Begun to Fight
And make sure to check out the video archive for the festival, featuring the introductions to all of the films, the Q&As afterwards, and the panel discussions.