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.
Speaking of film on film, there was only one 35mm projection during the whole festival (take a bow, “Take Shelter”). All others were digital and prevalently gorgeous. Having now seen Azazel Jacobs’ “Terri” in both forms, I have to admit that the digital version screened at Ebertfest adds a clarity to it that’s both poignant and slightly surreal. The only screening that clearly ached for celluloid was the Alloy Orchestra’s sweet-and-spicy smorgasbord of “Wild and Weird” silent shorts. The live score was so excellent that it begged for the real, scruffy, sprocket-laced deal (even though one can only imagine the hell the Alloy guys would have had to go through to assemble ten-something ultra-rare prints, all dating around a century back).
This year’s festival line-up included celebrated art-house hits (one doesn’t get more celebrated that Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”), semi-revivals of recent indies (Robert D. Siegel’s “Big Fan”), as well as new documentaries, of which David Bradbury’s “On Borrowed Time” was the most showcased, since its subject matter is Paul Cox, one of Ebert’s favorite and most consistently championed filmmakers (as well as being a fellow cancer-survivor). As diaphanous and free-associational as Cox’s own “The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky,” Bradbury’s love letter to Cox’s movies is intricately intertwined with a salute to his physical resilience and personal charisma, the latter of which filled the stage in a Q&A session that was probably the most powerful moment of Ebertfest this year. Adorned in a garish red scarf that seemed a glowing reminder of the director’s operational wounds we had just witnessed relentlessly depicted on screen, Cox spoke of an unexpected fullness of life he’s experienced after a near-miraculous liver transplant.
The final screening hit a double note of high significance: It was “Citizen Kane,” no less, played with Ebert’s own award-winning commentary track, recorded not long before losing his ability to speak. It was particularly moving to experience the attentiveness of the audience throughout that information-packed showing, which enabled Ebert’s voice to once more command full attention at Virginia Theatre.
Part of Ebertfest’s appeal lies in its seeming disposability. There are no industry minions striking deals and ready to leave any screening at the first flash of their cell phones; no flacks to tout their ad-glazed trash; no awards to bicker over or envy. It’s a moviegoer’s festival through and through, and it continues to serve as a living testimony to the critical personality Ebert has projected throughout his career — that of a casual movie buff who happens also to have covered just about any movie that has ever opened. There’s nothing at stake at Eberfest, and yet when it ends you know it’s indispensable.