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Ebertfest (#110 of 10)

Those Were the Days: The 15th Annual Ebertfest

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Those Were the Days: The 15th Annual Ebertfest
Those Were the Days: The 15th Annual Ebertfest

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.

Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds

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Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds
Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds

On Monday, April 1, the day after Easter, I was in Chicago with a few hours to kill before getting on an Amtrak train to go back south to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I went out to lunch with a friend, and he brought somebody who runs an AMC theater in the Near North Side, the one that shows the press screenings for critics. I mentioned to my friend’s guest that I had just moved back to Urbana, and was going to write about Ebertfest this year. He interrupted me and said Ebert wouldn’t be there this year—that he wasn’t doing well and had stopped going to his press screenings.

I got on my train and returned to Urbana thinking that what the guy had said about Ebert could probably count as a legitimate (albeit invasive) news item. On Thursday, April 4, I saw that Ebert had announced his “leave of presence,” thus breaking the news himself about a setback, health-wise. On Friday, April 5, in the morning, I saw the news that he had died. A couple of hours later, I walked outside to check the mail. Inside my mailbox was a manila envelope from the University of Illinois’s College of Media, and inside was my press pass to Ebertfest. I then headed toward the library, took a different turn than usual, and saw some flowers on the sidewalk in front of a house. “Somebody must’ve died,” I thought. Then I saw that there was a bag from Steak ’n Shakeamong the flowers, and a plaque that had been set in the concrete.

Ebertfest 2011: Me and Orson Welles and Karaoke!

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Ebertfest 2011: <em>Me and Orson Welles</em> and Karaoke!
Ebertfest 2011: <em>Me and Orson Welles</em> and Karaoke!

I have to make a screening so this has to be a short one. Insert acknowledgement of the double entendre. Insert acknowledgement of the double entendre. Meta!

Ebertfest is going splendidly. As always, the social aspect of the festival overshadows the films, even though the selection is great. Two nights ago—or was it last night—(the amalgamation of time is a direct result of sleep deprivation and a Klingon plot to destroy the Federation) a large group, including yours truly (you can’t have a wedding without the bride), went karaoke-ing. And when I say a large group, I believe there must have been fifty of us. The following day, Matt Singer of IFC and Ebert Presents At the Movies, remarked to me and Kevin Lee, of Fandor, that karaoke has become an intrinsic part of the NY film festival experience, and that it was fun to see it adopted by people from all over the country, and, in fact, the world. Matt, by the way, delivered a searing rendition of a Michael McDonald tune, as the ladies of Champaign flocked to his feet, Pied Piper of Hamlin-like was his hold on them. Everyone sang. Including Chaz Ebert, who knows all the words, and the moves, to Superfreak. She’s a very sexy girl, that Chaz. The one you don’t take home to your mother, etc.

Ebertfest 2011: Nothing Like an Ebullient ‘Fuck’; Metropolis and Natural Selection Screen

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Ebertfest 2011: Nothing Like an Ebullient ‘Fuck’; <em>Metropolis</em> and <em>Natural Selection</em> Screen
Ebertfest 2011: Nothing Like an Ebullient ‘Fuck’; <em>Metropolis</em> and <em>Natural Selection</em> Screen

If you’re like me (and everyone should try to be at least once in their lives), you enjoy that hearty, full-bodied, elemental component of language that is the swear word. There is nothing quite as satisfying as an ebullient FUCK, in all senses of the word. Peppering it over your daily conversation might not make you more friends (though it certainly should), but it does make everything that much more bearable, and, such as it is, sincere. All of which is a convoluted way of saying Robbie Pickering, the writer-director of Natural Selection, one of the two films that opened Ebertfest 13 on the evening of Thursday 27th, is, officially, my hero. The fucker swears like a fucking sailor. During the Q&A after the screening, I tweeted just that, only to receive a reply from someone who said: “How does the lack of skilled use of English language make panel better?” Well, firstly, that’s “a panel.” Let’s not forget the indefinite article: after all, we’re not louts. And, secondly, it just fucking does.

Ebertfest 2011: Metropolis, Natural Selection, Rachael Harris, House Folk, Et Al

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Ebertfest 2011: Metropolis, Natural Selection, Rachael Harris, House Folk, Et Al
Ebertfest 2011: Metropolis, Natural Selection, Rachael Harris, House Folk, Et Al

The unique thing about Ebertfest is that no one is trying to sell their movie, no one is trying to get distribution, no one is trying to get financing. People are here to enjoy the films, catch up with old friends, and make new ones. This might sound uncharacteristically “circle jerkish” (“Look, Ma, new word”) of me, but it is the truth. Everyone’s in a good mood. And it’s great to be back again this year as one of Roger Ebert’s “Far-flung correspondents.”

Roger and Nate Kohn, the festival director, have put together a fine line-up. We kick off the festivities tonight with the extended cut of Metropolis, with a live-score by The Alloy Orchestra, who will be knackered after hitting pots, pans and sundry for 153 minutes. The word round the campfire is that Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Ebert Presents At the Movies and Mubi, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Kristin Thompson (whose husband, the good Dr. Bordwell, is unable to attend this year) will be on the panel for Metropolis and it will be fascinating to see who can outnerd each other. The winner gets the Ubernerd trophy.