Ebertfest 2013: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston
Standing in line wrapped around the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, waiting for the doors to open, I was quickly reminded of one of the many reasons why Ebertfest is so special. As the line kept growing with people passing by to the end, occasionally someone would stop and chat with another. Overhearing the conversations, it seemed clear that the acquaintances knew each other from past years at the festival and were quickly catching up on the time between. Only my second full year at the Roger Ebert Film Festival, even I could see the wonderful community that has been accidentally spawned. Each year, for the past 15 years, people from central Illinois and across the world come together to a college town, taking a break from their lives to watch movies for five days. That’s a pretty beautiful thing.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this year’s festival. My previous experience at Ebertfest (one year, plus a screening while I was a student at the University of Illinois) was incredibly joyous — the tone of the festival has always been a carefree one, a pure love of cinema. Everything about Ebertfest takes lead of Roger Ebert, the festival’s creator and programmer. Every time you read one of Roger’s reviews, whether he loved or hated the film, there is no denying the love he has for the art. The atmosphere at Ebertfest is infected by this attitude.
With the recent passing of Roger Ebert, only 13 days before the opening night of his festival, I fully expected a different tone, something more somber and contemplative. From those moments I first arrived to the Virginia, however, I knew that the people who came again this year came for the same reasons they’ve come the past 15 years. I don’t doubt that every film shown over the festival’s five days will be looked at through the prism of his passing, but I’m happy that, at least at the opening night, the mood was festive. As Chaz Ebert exclaimed during her opening words: “Tonight, and for the next five days, we are going to celebrate Roger.” Her words came with passion and with grace (nothing new for Chaz), and these words will certainly hold up as the theme for the 15th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival.
The first film shown this year, a short entitled “I Remember,” was appropriately made by a woman who served as a “Far-Flung Correspondent” — young writers from around the world who offer different perspectives on Ebert’s website. Grace Wang’s film was even more appropriate as an opener because of its subject. Without much narrative context, the short is a strikingly personal story of loss and remembrance, expressing the cold and lonely experience. Contained to one room, only through the action of a woman folding up laundry, it tackles this theme with complexity — showing how the remembrance of loss can also be assuring. Once forgotten memories and insignificant items from loved ones can help us move past our grief. “I Remember” is a beautiful unknowing tribute to the festival and, without a doubt, will be a tone-setting for the next few days. Just as the young woman in the film found comfort in a dress shirt left behind, the audience at Ebertfest will find comfort in the 12 features that Roger left for us.
This lead to the main attraction of opening night, Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven. Somehow, this is one that had always slipped through my fingers — Malick, in general, is a filmmaker that has been a personal blind spot. Previous to this screening, I had seen (and loved) Malick’s debut film, Badlands, and 2011’s The Tree of Life (which I am mixed on). Honestly, after finally seeing Days of Heaven, I like The Tree of Life less (I’ll touch on why I feel this way in a bit). This film is absolutely amazing, and though I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it up until now, I’m glad I had waited to first experience it in this way. Typically, seeing a film at Ebertfest is seeing a film through rose-colored glasses — because of the energy of the crowd, the spirit of the whole thing, and the beautiful theater, it’s hard not to like a film shown here. Days of Heaven is particularly aided, though, and I can’t quite imagine seeing it not projected in film on a giant screen, without the annoyances and distractions of one’s personal space.
The reservations I have for The Tree of Life are magnified by Days of Heaven, which is working with similar thematic material with much more ease. Both films tell personal stories which exemplify something in the entirety of human existence — thinking about both films together, The Tree of Life feels like it is working really hard to make the connections that Days of Heaven pulls off without really trying. The narrative gives us only what we absolutely need, often showing us just a part of a scene or letting us hear only parts of a dialogue, with the environment telling the rest of the story. It helps when the setting is one of the most serenely beautiful places ever filmed. It also helps when the images are captured by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (who this year’s festival is dedicated to). Each picturesque moment in time is pieced together wonderfully, creating a dreamlike tone that matches the film’s other idyllic qualities.
In the beautiful, never-ending fields of wheat, we have a version of the ideal human experience (seeing other Malick films, it certainly seems like his perfect vision of life). This natural perfection is messed up by human nature, which is cruel and jealous and spiteful. Malick effortlessly marries the beauty and horror (locusts!) of nature with the beauty and horror of humanity.
Days of Heaven is a film that is meant to be felt more than anything else — judging by the sparse notes I took through this screening, I’m going to stick to that sentiment. In a lot of ways, Days of Heaven is pure cinema, and so it is a perfect start to this year’s Ebertfest. Looking forward through the rest of the schedule, we won’t be treated to any films that are as sweeping and “cinematic” as this, but it is quite the table-setter.
Day two of Ebertfest panels on “Sustaining a Career in Film” and “Reality or Illusion: A False Dichotomy?” and film screenings of Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh, In the Family and Bernie. For those sadly not at the festival this week, you can stream all of the film panels and Q&A sessions (following each screening) at ebertfest.com.