Ebertfest - the film festival organized and run by Chicago film critic Roger Ebert for 15 years! Of course, this is the 16th year, and the anniversary of his passing was just a couple weeks ago. So while I actually swapped e-mails with him a few years ago, there is no way to turn back the clock and shake his hand.
Many of us became fans of his when he and Gene Siskel had a give-and-take movie review show that stretched back to the 70s and made them media stars. Over the years Gene died of brain cancer in '99, and Roger had thyroid and salivary gland cancer, which in 2006 required surgery that left him unable to speak, eat or drink. Like a blind man's developing extraordinary hearing, the loss of his ability to speak and depend on the written word (he had been a newspaperman his entire lie) improved his writing skills further. It was during this time that I became a big fan of his writing, looking forward to frequent posts on his journal. It is still on line and easy to lose hours in his reading. I've got favorites among his posts - his entry on Steak 'n' Shake is a classic - years after his feeding tube was installed, he describes the emotions and tastes of a burger and fries he enjoys in his dreams... Another is his perfect description of growing up in a small town in the Midwest. I contributed occasionally to his comments - just about the happiest day in the last 5 years was when he responded to one of my comments (rare for him) in my response to some of his complaints of 3D movies. Anyway, Melinda and I had talked of going one of these years, and she surprised me with festival tickets for Christmas!
Fortunately, his widow Chaz stepped up with festival organizers and an army of volunteers and picked out the slate of this year's movies. Melinda and I are looking forward to a couple of the classics that are already favorites, and expect to enjoy the rest as well. Directors Spike Lee and Oliver Stone will be here to introduce the 25th anniversary showings of their movies "Do The Right Thing" and "Born on the 4th of July" in the coming days. There are 12 movies over the 5 days, so it should be a great time!
After arriving in Champaign, IL late yesterday, we stopped by the Virginia Theater this afternoon for our passes, and took the obligatory pictures and noted the honorary street renaming.
The Virginia Theater is a REAL theater, not a little multiplex like you see these days! Built in the 1920s, it served as a vaudeville stage, legitimate theater and movie house. Seating nearly 1500, it is HUGE and underwent a massive restoration in the early 2000s. It has served as the home of Ebertfest for many years, if not its full 16 year run. The first offering was tonight, and we got into the Virginia for the first time. Arriving 90 minutes before showtime, we got in a block-long line, which grew to 2 blocks long before they opened the door 60 minutes before the 7:30 screening. After talking to a fellow next to us in line (a 12-time veteran!), we decided to join him in the balcony and take in the show from the front row. We enjoyed an organ recital with the old Wurlitzer pipe organ (from memory w/no sheet music!), while ads from supporters and images from Roger and Chaz' life were projected.
Appropriately enough, tonight's opening offering was a documentary about the life and career of Roger Ebert named "Life Itself", based on his autobiographical memoir. Director Steve James was given unrestricted access to film Roger and Chaz, unknowingly only 4 months before his untimely death. While his daily life and medical struggles towards the end of his life were shocking, the archival footage and interviews with friends, family and cinema insiders made for a very entertaining feature. Of course the entire house, being Ebert fans, loved it - there were lots of laughs and tears flowing, and afterwards there was a panel discussion with Chaz (who also greeted us and introduced the movie at left), director Steve James (who won a "thumbs up" award), and Bill Nack, a coworker and lifelong friend featured prominently in the film. It was interesting to hear some of the behind-the scenes info and be able to ask questions to the principles involved - one of the traits of the film festival - interactions with the directors or actors after the showing.
Enough for now, but likely more as the week progresses...
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