Roger Ebert at the opening night of Ebertfest 2011.
There's an unmistakably homey feel to Ebertfest, the annual event hosted by Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz, which concluded its fourteenth edition in Champaign, IL last weekend. A labor of love that has managed to take root and make the audiences cherish it back in turn, Ebertfest is first and foremost a celebration -- as much of the movies being screened as of the main programmer’s personality, stature, passion and resilience. Jawless but enthusiastic, legendary yet humane, fragile and tireless in equal measure: Roger Ebert is both the festival’s spirit incarnate and its true driving force.
Compared to its frenzy-inducing cousins on the international festival circuit, Ebertfest is wonderfully manageable: One doesn’t have to rush from screening to screening, there's no pressure to watch five movies a day, and staying for a long post-screening Q&A is a natural follow-up rather than a luxury available only to those who don't struggle with various deadlines to meet. The festival's single venue (the gorgeous Virginia Theatre movie palace that will soon shut down for a complete renovation, only to re-open in time for next year’s Ebertfest) remained packed throughout and its audience was amazingly receptive to all movies shown.
Given how personal the programming is, with the guiding sensibility inscribed in the festival's mere name, it's difficult not to look at this year's line-up as yet another reflection of Ebert’s view of cinema in general, which could perhaps be best described as deeply humanistic and aesthetically traditional at the same time. You won't be seeing the latest cutting edge avant-garde here, but if you're into classical storytelling and happen to stick to the general creed of Bazinian film realism, than the hand-picked slew of films will definitely satiate you and whet your appetite for next year's edition.
This time around, the opening movie was John Patrick Shanley's goofy 1990 extravaganza of grandiose comic-strip soul-searching, "Joe Versus the Volcano," which famously paired the wonderfully pre-pudgy Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan, thus establishing the quintessential 1990s romantic screen pair. The movie remains as happily messy as ever, but to see it with an eager audience 1500 people strong (and in a digitally restored and projected form that made a convert of this here erstwhile film-only purist) was an exhilarating experience.