You couldn’t help but wonder if this year’s Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois, near the campus of the University of Illinois, was going to be the last. My first Ebertfest was in 2005, the final year in which Roger Ebert got on stage, introduced the films, and discussed them afterward, the sound of his voice so booming and distinctive it reached all the way to the balcony of the old-timey Virginia Theatre toward audiences who couldn’t quite see the man. Since 2006 and Ebert’s throat surgery, his presence at the festival became increasingly less pronounced, but you still knew, even if only in the abstract, that you were watching movies the famed critic had chosen and reviewed.
So how can you continue to put on a critic’s handpicked film festival when that critic’s hand has ceased to pick out the wheat from the chaff? For the time being at least, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, said on Wednesday night, while introducing Days of Heaven, that before he passed away, Roger wrote up a list for her with movies for next year’s festival, if not for a few more into the future. Moreover, with her announcement of the new Ebertfest app, the redesign of rogerebert.com, the new media company she and Roger developed (Ebert Digital), and the new Roger Ebert film studies program (depending on how much money can be raised) for University of Illinois, it felt like Ebertfest will have the momentum to be powered through the next couple of years, if not all the way to its 20th anniversary and beyond.
Despite that optimism, there were generous doses of sentiment and nostalgia and gratitude offered to the audience before and after each movie’s screening. There was Chaz wearing Roger’s white scarf, or finding a note from him in her glasses case, or one filmmaker or critic after another explaining how Roger’s approval came into their life like manna from a cinematic heaven.
Between all the testimonies and tributes were a dozen feature films, two shorts, and one video essay that were serious, unsentimental, irreverent, or intense, featuring characters who in one way or another were moving along an existential edge—through poverty or ambition, old age or injustice, drugs or war. The lineup proved that, regardless of how fawning or laidback or folksy the mood at Ebertfest can get (and Ebert himself was partly responsible for this; he instructed Chaz to lead the audience in singing a modified version of “Those Were the Days” during Wednesday’s introduction), Ebert’s standards were sturdy until the end, and required that the audience open itself up to the dreamscapes of Terrence Malick, to sit patiently through Patrick Wang’s three-hour In the Family, and to brace itself for Oslo, August 31st, Joachim Trier’s Scandinavian revival of Le Feu Follet. Ebert wanted this year’s audience to open their eyes to Roy Abramsohn coughing up a bloody hairball at Disney World in Escape from Tomorrow, and to watch Shailene Woodley get hit by a car on the side of the road in The Spectacular Now, and to see a paralyzed Navy SEAL who can’t speak typing into an iPad with one finger in Not Yet Begun to Fight.
Are there any other cultural institutions in America as popular and inviting and unpretentious as Ebertfest, and that yet expect its patrons to be so tolerant and tasteful and tough? That Ebertfest can so delicately balance itself between the mainstream and the avant-garde, between the entertaining and the intellectual, seems like a macroscopic manifestation of what was going on in Ebert’s own head and writings since the 1970s. And it leads me to conclude that Ebertfest is maybe the most American of film festivals, in that it brings to this Depression-era theater in the cornfields of Illinois, two hours south of Chicago, both big-city insiders, which this year included Richard Linklater, Matt Zoller Seitz, Haskell Wexler, Tilda Swinton, and David Bordwell, and the small-town, everyday filmgoers (i.e., those soft-spoken retirees getting on and off that charter bus from Peoria each day).
Ebertfest is part of that narrow, narrow overlap on our country’s socio-cultural Venn diagram, a place where high and low, urban and suburban, producer and consumer, all felt they belonged and felt privileged to attend, and where they could take their seats among one another and turn their heads up to the wide white screen of the Virginia Theatre and get lost temporarily in a mutual illusion. Now that Roger is gone, now that the keystone has been taken from Ebertfest’s arch, we’ll see how long it’ll continue to stand.
Ebertfest ran from April 17—21. For more information click here.