The Best of Ebertfest, by Aaron Pinkston
Twelve films, four panels, demonstrations and workshops over 5 days in a beautiful theatre (yes, the Virginia is the kind worthy of the ‘re’ ending) filled with 1,600 people ready and willing for anything Roger Ebert gives his stamp of approval. In this setting it is impossible not to love film. And that’s really what the Roger Ebert Film Festival is all about – people who love film come together from all over the world to celebrate film with the man who just may love film more than anyone else (unless it is in 3D or has anything to do with video games).
As I mentioned in my post on its opening night, this was my first year in attendance for the entire festival. Because of that (as well as for my journalistic integrity), I knew I needed to devour absolutely everything there was to eat. Since the festival is designed to give access to the entire schedule, with no events overlapping and all screenings housed in the same theater, it is all quite manageable.
There is a lot to like about the Roger Ebert Film Festival. Here are ten things that made it absolutely OK to give up some sleep and eat popcorn for lunch on 5 straight days:
Seeing the best films of last year in a theater (again)
When I saw that my top two films of 2011 (Take Shelter and A Separation) were both playing the 2012 festival, I had mixed emotions. Honestly, my first thought was a bit of disappointment, as I was hoping to discover new films (previous to the festival, I had seen 6 of the 11 scheduled films, not counting the shorts program). But I then thought “These movies are incredible and I’ll get to see them in a completely new environment.” One thing great about this festival is that no matter how successful or popular a film is, it probably hasn’t been seen by a great majority of the people at the festival. This is partly due to the age of most of the festival-goers, which skews a bit older. Also, as many of the attendees are from the Champaign area, there just isn’t the access of smaller independent films. I asked one woman if she had seen Take Shelter and she told me that it had only played at one theater, on one screen, for only a few weeks. In Chicago, there is no trouble seeing most anything that will be playing at the festival (even something like Kinyarwanda played at my closest AMC theater), but you’ll see a lot of fresh eyes here.
And neither disappointed. The screening of A Separation was a bit odd – I imagine a great majority of the audience had not yet seen the film, and there was quite a lot of laughter during the screening. Maybe it was a matter of cultural differences, or just the fact that when you have so many people in one room together, the slightest comedic moments will generate an audible response. I’m not sure, but one thing I know is that the film holds up on a second viewing. One of the ways A Separation is able to have its complex and winding plot is because you never fully know who has been telling the truth until the very ending. Seeing the film a second time, I paid a lot of attention to reactions of characters in the moment, seeing how they responded to information and how they acted when they gave information to others. With the benefit of knowing the plot mechanics, the performances felt even stronger than the first time through – there are many big moments throughout the film, but there is such great subtlety in every scene when you realize what to look for.
Any time you can see Take Shelter on a big screen, I would recommend you do it. The visual effects and sound really shine when seeing it in way. Though it was my third time seeing the film (every time in a theater), I still found it incredibly intense, my breath literally taken away on a number of moments. Like A Separation, there was more laughter from the audience than I expected, especially here at the Lion’s Den scene, but I’ll chalk that up to some nervous laughter. Personally, this screening was also great because I was able to see it with the guys from Filmspotting and talk a lot about the film before and after. Can you beat that? I guess maybe if you see it with Tyler and David.
Another film that I had previously seen that played was Terri. After seeing it in theaters, I really enjoyed it, but the film had faded in my mind since. Though I was interested in seeing the film again, I wouldn’t have classified it as a film worthy of repeat viewings. Still, when you see something with 1,600 other laughing people, you’re opinion will probably rise a bit. Though it isn’t one of my absolute favorites of the year, Terri will be a film I’ll always have a certain fondness.
The comedy duo Q&A
Who knew Michael Shannon was so freaking funny?
After the Saturday night screening of Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols and star Shannon were joined by Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker for the Q&A session. I must admit, I was a little worried about this one. Shannon is absolutely one of my favorite actors working today, but his roles made me guess he may not be the most interesting person to speak about making a film. More so, I was ready for dozens of awful questions about the meaning of the film and Nichols’ reaction to trying not to spoil all the fun of the film.
There were some dumb questions asked (typical for any Q&A, especially ones attached to films as challenging as Take Shelter), but this session was the best of the 12 during the festival. The duo certainly had the chemistry required to make a film as brilliant as they did. They were insightful, provided a number of great anecdotes from the set, information about the writing process and initial versions of the script. But importantly, they were much funnier than their film would suggest. There were (including, but not limited to) wisecracks about their asses looking the same, comical stories about casting and working with Jessica Chastain, and a number of great mentions of Jeff Nichols’ father which prompted many on twitter to ask Roger to invite him along next time Nichols has a film at the fest.
They delivered the perfect Q&A, both endlessly informative and entertaining. If I ever have an opportunity to see either Shannon or Nichols speak about their films, I won’t expect anything but gold.
Even the so-so films
I believe in Roger Ebert’s taste, but it wouldn’t be possible for me (or anyone) to like everything he loves. While I would say there weren’t any straight-up bad films that played at the festival, there were a few I just wasn’t crazy about. And still, seeing films in this theater, with this crowd, it is difficult not to enjoy yourself.
Of the films I saw, there were a few I wasn’t crazy about. Higher Ground was the only repeat viewing for a film that I didn’t like. It does things that I definitely like, and the post-screening Q&A with writer Carolyn Briggs brought in a lot of perspective that I think is valuable in reading the film, but it’s not a film that I have any personal connection with – it just doesn’t work for me. Seeing it at the festival alongside a lot of people it did work for was a nice opportunity to give the film another chance.
Patang (The Kite) is an example of how wonderful the Roger Ebert Film Festival can be, even when I don’t particularly like the film. If you are reading this, I’d bet there is a 99% chance you have never heard of the film. Patang has appeared at various film festivals around the world (Chicago, Berlin, etc.), but has not yet received a theatrical run – it was announced by the filmmakers during the Q&A that a deal has been made and the film will play at AMCs across the country in the next few months. Roger Ebert’s stamp of approval means a lot to a film like Patang, which may never have reached a mainstream audience without him. Even if I felt the film a little slow and without any stakes, seeing Roger championing a little art film out of India is pretty powerful and speaks to what the Roger Ebert Film Festival is about.
Along with Patang, the only other film I had never heard of was On Borrowed Time, a small documentary about filmmaker Paul Cox’s battle while trying to get a liver transplant. Cox is a great friend of Ebert, having appeared at the festival for the fourth time – three of the Australian’s films have played in previous years. For the most part, I found On Borrowed Time to be a fairly run-of-the-mill artist profile mixed in with a run-of-the-mill health documentary. Still, it opened my eyes to a filmmaker that I had no idea of, and the footage shown in the documentary of his films have made me interested. In all, Cox has made 31 films, a number of documentary and fiction films each. From what I saw in On Borrowed Time, the documentaries border on the experimental and tackle big ideas while the fiction films seem to be the complete opposite, small films about relationships and personal struggles.
The junk band
Cox has been to four Roger Ebert Film Festivals, but he’s not the most invited guest. The Alloy Orchestra have been to at least five festivals (it is difficult to see if they have been to any previous to 2005, though it is possible), creating a live score to the mandatory silent film Ebert brings. Some of their scores have ended up on DVD releases of great silent films, such as Man with a Movie Camera – which played at the festival in 2009. This year the silent session was a bit different – instead of a silent feature, the Alloy Orchestra selected ten short silent films for a program called “Wild and Weird.” Among the shorts were “A Cameraman’s Revenge,” “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” a random Dada film, and “Princess Nicotine.”
Seeing the Alloy Orchestra was one of the things I was most looking forward to and they certainly delivered. The three-piece band uses mostly percussion in their scores, with a bit of synthesizer and clarinet to round everything out. Overall, their scores sound less like music and more like wonderful noise, a perfect fit for the strange films that were shown. Using some unique instrumentation, such as a musical saw, gives a memorable touch to their work.
According to the Orchestra during their Q&A session, this program was a lot more difficult to perform than something like Metropolis (which was shown at the 2011 festival), because they had to create ten different pieces of music and couldn’t rely on themes that would last through the whole show. Getting to see ten distinct pieces of music from the Alloy is pretty incredible, and their soundscapes completely enhance all the films being projected. Even the silent shorts that were tough to watch (I’m looking at you, Dada film) were worth listening to.
Ebertfest provides more than great screenings, as each morning has panels on a variety of topics held at the Illini Union. This year, there were four panels entitled: “The Personal and Political in Film,” “Far Flung Correspondents: What’s New Around the World?,” “Underrepresented Cinematic Voices,” and “ON DEMAND: Movies without Theaters.” Each panel discussion featured filmmakers and critics at the festival, and I imagine a few of the panels were derived based on the programming.
Overall, the panels are a nice compliment to the film screenings. Since there is a good mix of artists and critics, each topic is seen in different perspectives. And with so many filmmakers on the panels, it’s a great opportunity to see them talking about their work outside of the Q&A format.
My favorite panel of the festival was strangely the least academic: “What’s New Around the World?” If you aren’t familiar, Ebert’s blog features a number of writers from all over the globe, many of whom are film students or lovers but not otherwise professional critics. It was a lot of fun to hear about the film-going experience in other parts of the world, seeing the same or different problems the American film industry is dealing with. Two of the more interesting topics to arise were on piracy and film dubbing. The correspondent from Egypt talked about piracy growing due to government censorship – many films that have played in theaters over the past decade were incredibly altered when shown. As far as dubbing, the most interesting story came from Poland, where many dubbed films are literally one person translating all dialogue, which is superimposed over the original soundtrack.
Sadly, the most disappointing panel was “On Demand.” I think Roger and the festival organizers see this as an important topic, but a large majority of the people assigned to talk had no real interest in seeing movies on demand — the only person that seemed very excited about its potential was also the CEO of Fandor (an online streaming service), and he didn’t talk much more than about what his website offers. One shocking revelation came from Steve Prokopy (Ain’t It Cool News), who announced that he can count on both hands how many movies he’s seen on demand and still have a few fingers left over. Much of the discussion veered away from the future of on demand and focused on how great it is to go to the theater. Yes, that is still the ideal way to see a movie, but we are far past the point where it is the only viable option. Hopefully a future Ebertfest can tackle this issue in a way where the panelists have a little more expertise and enthusiasm for the future of seeing movies. This was the only of the panels that got a bit heated, with a few critics differing on the quality of films being released today and what a studio’s responsibility should be for what they release.
Without a doubt, one of the coolest things that sets Eberfest apart from most any other festival, is the constant access to the artists. Because this is Roger Ebert’s festival and because of the impact his approval has given these filmmakers, they all seem incredibly honored just to be there. Because of this, it’s likely that many of the filmmakers hang out for the entire festival, watching the screenings of other films. And since everything is shown in one theater, you tend to see the filmmakers hanging out. I had great conversations with Alrick Brown (director of Kinyarwanda), Robert Siegel (writer-director of Big Fan), Jacob Wysocki (Terri, in Terri) and many others. The overall feeling of unpretentiousness and love for cinema rubs off on these artists, who are incredibly accessible and willing to talk their films and the others playing.
While at the festival, I also spent a couple days watching movies with comedian Doug Benson (just there as a fan because, you know, he loves movies), the guys from Filmspotting and Steve Prokopy from Ain’t It Cool News. You’ll see David Bordwell, Jim Emerson and the like roaming around the Virgnia. I even had a great time talking to non-celebrities and critics about the films playing — everyone at the festival truly loves film and is easy and open to chat about it.
Revisiting the campus
This one is a personal one, so please indulge me. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 2007 and haven’t been back to the campus since. I don’t know why I haven’t been back, but Ebertfest gives me an opportunity to revisit every year going forward.
The Virginia is about a mile-and-a-half from the University campus, making it fairly cut off from a majority of the festival. Though there wasn’t a lot of free time to explore all my old haunts, I did take the opportunity to eat some familiar food, see some familiar sites. For newcomers of the town, there are a number of good restaurants, bars, things to do outside the festival – there are also a lot of bad versions of those things, but enough to spend your time well.
Champaign-Urbana is a pretty good location for a festival like this – not only does it have deep personal ties to Roger, but it attributes to the sense of community felt at the festival. Because you aren’t in a big city setting, there is a feeling that you are on an island with the people around you. This helps the audience connect to each other and to the films in a much more profound way.
Like you, I absolutely hate it when people talk through a film. I can give a pass when it’s Roger Ebert.
The closing ceremonies of the 14th Roger Ebert Film Festival was a film experience I have never had and probably never will again. I’ve seen Citizen Kane in a theater setting before, but Ebertfest decided to play the film with the commentary track recorded by Roger for the film’s DVD release – a commentary track held up as one of the best ever. Seeing the film in this way opened my eyes to the greatness of the film; I’ve always appreciated it, but Roger’s thorough breakdown of the effects, tricks, history and legacy was a real treat. Just like Ebert’s writing, he is clear, conversational and efficient in describing shots and film technique.
He was also a lot of fun to listen to – there were many occasions where his enthusiasm rises as if he forgets he’s being recorded for a feature commentary, and just sitting around with people chatting about the film. I love critical commentaries and I’ve listened to a fair amount of them. Though I find the commentaries on Criterion discs incredibly informative and enjoyable, they can often feel a little stodgy, too planned and pre-written. Ebert’s commentary track strikes a great balance of entertainment, spontaneity and valuable information.
Though Ebert says he isn’t an expert on Citizen Kane, for years he would literally go frame-by-frame with an audience to dissect the film in the most thorough way possible. Whenever someone in the crowd wanted Ebert to pause the film and talk about what they see they would simply yell “STOP!” and a discussion would follow. Though this experience wasn’t that, it was a unique opportunity to see a film in a theater and learn something about it.
After this last screening of the festival occurred the most beautiful moment of the five days. As usual, Chaz came out to introduce the Q&A participants, but she first told the crowd that this was the first time she had heard the commentary. This obviously was a very emotional thing for her, and it made me realize how momentous this truly was. No one will again hear Roger Ebert speak about film. This commentary track is obviously no substitute, but a touching tribute to the reason all 1,600 spectators spent these fives days together.
After Roger was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer in 2002, it would have been easy for him to lock up the doors and call it quits, but he has proven to be a fighter. He now writes as much as ever and tweets way more than just about anyone. Still, as his health has been on the rocks in recent years, he’s had to take a step back when it comes to the Roger Ebert Film Festival. While he still programs the fest, he is no longer able to speak before each film or host all post-screening Q&As.
I’m not trying to be morbid, but being 69 and with his current health, we can imagine a day when Roger Ebert will not be with us. When that day comes, what will happen to the Roger Ebert Film Festival? I certainly think the festival will continue for years and years to come, eventually in the honor of Roger, but it probably just won’t be the same. Literally, the parameters of the festival’s selections will have to be changed, as the festival boasts that every film screened is personally selected by Roger Ebert. Once the time comes, will the festival directors choose past films that received the highest star ratings, or possibly films that they believe Roger would have loved? This would obviously limit the newer releases, which the festival has become more heavily scheduled as since the “overlooked” title has been scrapped.
As for this year, Roger’s presence was still felt, even with less screen time. When Roger introduced On Borrowed Time, he showed a great amount of verve on stage. His enthusiasm for film certainly hasn’t waned in recent years. Chaz Ebert always does a tremendous job in his place – her energy and enthusiasm are well felt and she delivers an unpretentious tone to the festival must have to succeed.
If there be any reason to attend the Roger Ebert Film Festival as soon as possible, Roger is that reason.
Something to look forward to
The two biggest weakness of the 2012 Roger Ebert Film Festival will be corrected by 2013.
First, one of my most anticipated guests of the fest, Patton Oswalt, cancelled the night before his appearance, held up in New York City shooting an upcoming film. Because of his absence, festivalgoers missed out on his Q&A session for Big Fan and lost the opportunity to see Kind Hearts and Coronets presented by Patton. During the announcement, Chaz said that Patton has promised to bring Kind Hearts to next year’s festival, and I hope he does – seeing that film on the big screen and listening to Patton talk about it was easily my most anticipated activity this year. I don’t care what else may be scheduled next year, because if this comes to fruition, it will be worth the cost of admission.
During the introduction of the final film, Chaz made another shocking announcement – though this one wholly positive. Directly following the close of the 2012 Ebertfest, the Virginia Theatre would be locking up its doors, undergoing massive restoration until the opening of next year’s fest. The Virginia is one of the most beautiful theaters I have ever stepped into, a genuine movie palace, but there are definitely things that could make it even better. First and foremost are the seats, especially in the balcony, where there is zero legroom. I’m only 5’7 and even I couldn’t comfortably sit in one of these seats for a 90-minute film without feeling like I needed to chop off my legs.
With these early revelations, I’m already itching for April 2013. When do tickets go on sale?