Memories of Ebertfest 2014

A still from Krishna Shenoi’s tribute to Roger Ebert.

A still from Krishna Shenoi’s tribute to Roger Ebert.

Amazing how you can know someone for a few days and feel as though you’ve made a friend for life. That’s an experience not uncommon to the attendees at Ebertfest, the marvelous film festival held annually by the University of Illinois College of Media at Urbana-Champaign and founded by Roger Ebert 16 years ago. After being hired as Assistant Editor at Ebert Publishing this past February, Chaz Ebert gave me a VIP pass to the festival this year, which essentially gave me a free ticket to five days of cinematic euphoria. The following are a series of snapshots left flickering in my head from this one-of-a-kind event…

WEDNESDAY APRIL 23

Krishna Shenoi is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. As one of Roger’s hand-picked “Far Flung Correspondents,” he regularly makes the trip to Ebertfest from India with his equally wonderful mother and sister. At the mere age of 20, Krishna has already built a remarkable body of work displaying his imaginative visual artistry (check out his official site here). His satirical alternate ending to “Gravity” has gotten over five million hits on YouTube and was shown on the big screen during Ebertfest. Our conversation began on the train ride from Chicago to Champaign and continued up until the following Monday, when we caught a late screening of “Under the Skin” on his final night before flying back home. I’ll miss him and his family terribly and can’t wait to see them again next year.

When we arrived in Champaign, we were greeted by three exuberant volunteers (Lisa, John, Tony) who said it would be their job to drive us from the Illini Union Hotel, where we each had a room, to the screenings scheduled every day at the Virginia Theatre. As a Chicagoan who has gotten used to walking everywhere on a daily basis, this felt like A-list celebrity service. My hotel room had two double beds, an enormous TV and plenty of space for me to pace around in anxious excitement. About a few minutes after I arrived in my room, a porter knocked on the door and said, “Mr. Fagerholm, your press credentials have arrived.”

Prior to the opening night screening of “Life Itself,” Steve James’s acclaimed documentary based on Roger’s 2011 memoir, a gala was held at the illustrious house of President Easter (and, yes, I could not love that name more). We sat outside as Chaz made her opening statements, introducing “her peeps” (including yours truly), as well as special guests such as Brie Larson and Patton Oswalt, whose faces magically materialized amongst the crowd. When I spoke to Larson, I was immensely grateful that I had followed the dress code appropriately (special thanks to Odie Henderson for tying my tie).

I suggest everyone seek out “Life Itself” when it opens in theaters this July. It is easily one of the year’s best films, providing us with an uncompromising and richly entertaining look at the beloved critic’s genius, ambition, wit and perseverance in the face of devastating health struggles. I’ll admit that my critical objectivity is tested somewhat not only by the fact that I’ve spent much of the last three months working for his company, but because Roger has always been one of my personal heroes. In addition to Chaz, I’ve also gotten to know the Eberts’ longtime assistant, Carol Iwata, who played a vital role in coordinating my travels and has a cameo in James’s film (you’ll get to see her infectious laugh). Before every screening at Ebertfest was a beautiful montage edited by Michael Mirasol, a Far Flunger from the Philippines, that cuts right to the heart of Roger’s belief in the civilizing power of cinema…

Ebertfest Trailer 2014 from Michael Mirasol on Vimeo.

THURSDAY APRIL 24

On my way to the morning meet-and-greet, I ran into Barry Allen, a film preservationist who spent many years working for Paramount Pictures. He was scheduled to be on a panel later that morning, and dazzled me with stories of stumbling upon rare footage such as the process shots for the infamous parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” Another panelist in town was Doc Erickson, an executive producer of such classics as “Chinatown” and “Groundhog Day,” who got his start working as an uncredited unit production manager on five Hitchcock pictures: “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Vertigo.” I was star-struck, to say the least.

At the morning panels, I met up with an old high school friend, Sara Neitzke, who was hoping to meet Brie Larson (she did, for the record, and got her Scott Pilgrim poster signed). Later that afternoon, I was so happy to sit with Sara in the balcony as we watched Destin Cretton’s extraordinarily moving drama, “Short Term 12,” about twentysomething workers at a foster care facility. I had hoped Sara would be able to see the film during its initial release in Chicago, but the movie didn’t get nearly as much play as it deserved. It was my favorite film in the line-up going into Ebertfest, and remained my favorite coming out of it. Larson and her co-star, Keith Stanfield, received a well-deserved standing ovation when they received their Golden Thumb awards after the screening. That night, I told Cretton about the audience response, and he wrote back: “Amazing! Thanks so much for the update. So glad to hear everyone had a good time out there.”

Had three encounters with Stanfield throughout the festival, and he proved to be one of the friendliest people on the planet. I told him how much I loved the rap song he co-wrote with Cretton, and how it sounds as if it were erupting from his character’s soul. He told me about his band, “Moors,” and how excited he was to be cast as Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s upcoming biopic on Martin Luther King (featuring David Oyelowo in the lead role). He ended up sticking around for the rest of the fest, telling me that he loved how the festival’s focus was on the films themselves rather than the sort of business-driven chaos that engulfs places like SXSW.

Opening the day was Jem Cohen’s quietly entrancing “Museum Hours,” which reminded me of my favorite visits to the National Gallery of Art in D.C., as well as Roger’s sublime review of Lech Majewski’s 2011 experimental effort, “The Mill and the Cross.” At his Q&A, Cohen made a chilling announcement about the FCC’s May 15th ruling on “net neutrality” regulations that would make it even more difficult for indie artists to have their voices be heard, ensuring that those with big money will be able to hog the mic indefinitely. This dire situation, of course, makes festivals like this one all the more crucial.

When Chaz Ebert emerges to introduce each film, she talks to the audience as if they are all cherished visitors in her living room. She makes sure we’re all comfortable, keeps us well-informed and though she may have a script to follow, she has no qualms with taking extended diversions, giving us a candid look into her own thoughts, apprehensions and overwhelming emotions. Her finest moment of this year’s Ebertfest, however, occurred at the noon unveiling of Rick Carney’s magnificent sculpture depicting Roger seated in a theater chair, welcoming onlookers with his immortal upturned thumb. Chaz revealed to everyone (including Carney) that Roger was actually against the idea of having the statue made, worried that it would turn him into a carnival attraction. Yet it was through her correspondence with Carney and festival organizer Donna Anderson that she realized the statue would be created and respected as a work of art, and indeed, the visitors treated it with uncommon reverence. I posed with the statue a number of times, and always wrapped my arm lovingly around Roger’s shoulders.

Ending the festival’s first full day on a note of gloriously cathartic hilarity was the Q&A session with Patton Oswalt following a screening of Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult.” The actor embraced his time in the limelight as an opportunity to sport his seasoned stand-up skills, riffing up a storm with RogerEbert.com writer Susan Wloszczyna and Steve Prokopy of “Ain’t It Cool News.” Wloszczyna’s refusal to let Oswalt ramble off topic about oddities such as action figures designed to resemble “Star Wars” characters as reimagined by Russ Meyer led to some hugely funny moments, turning the critic and actor into an unlikely comic duo. And yes, his memorable one-liners were plentiful. I especially liked when he recalled his embarrassment in having to strip down to his underwear in front of Charlize Theron, considering that she’s one of the most biologically flawless specimens on Earth and he’s equipped with a torso that “looks like a tribute to Walter Matthau’s face.” Here’s the whole chat…

FRIDAY APRIL 25

Today was when I had to put my nose to the grindstone. Brian Tallerico, my former editor at HollywoodChicago.com-turned-Content Editor at RogerEbert.com, asked me to write my first two pieces for the site. They would be articles covering the two Friday morning panels: “Remembering Roger Ebert” and “Film & Cultural Politics.” I sat in the front row and took notes in the old-fashioned journalistic tradition of scribbling quotes on a notepad rather than utilizing a voice recorder. I was inspired by a story shared by the site’s Editor In Chief, Matt Zoller Seitz, who remembered hearing the news of Roger’s passing and immediately feeling the urge to pull the covers over his head, ignoring multiple requests for him to pen an obit. Yet Roger’s voice kept nagging at him to get the work done anyway, and it was that same voice that cheered me on as I skipped the Friday party and Saturday panel, working until 3am in order to make the deadline.

Perhaps the most exhilarating moviegoing experience at the festival was Friday’s screening of Victor Sjöström’s 1924 silent classic, “He Who Gets Slapped,” starring Lon Chaney as an embittered clown seeking vengeance against the count who destroyed his life. The picture is awash in chilling imagery, hinting at the surrealistic apparitions David Lynch would later envision in pictures such as “Mulholland Dr.” Yet what made the screening such an unforgettable treat was the live musical accompaniment courtesy of the Alloy Orchestra. The pounding rhythms of the music shook me to my core, especially during a climax so deliciously excruciating that it would surely have pleased Hitchcock. In a breathless daze, I turned to renowned film scholar David Bordwell and asked him what Chaney film I should check out next. He suggested Tod Browning’s 1927 picture, “The Unknown,” deeming it “a mindf—k.”

Missed most of Bennett Miler’s “Capote” for two reasons: I had watched it not long ago after learning of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death, and I really needed to get started on my writing. It was sunny outside as I strolled to the nearby Café Kopi, which I recommend to anyone in need of effortless wi-fi. I returned to the theater in time for Miller’s Q&A, where he got me hugely enticed for his upcoming film, “Foxcatcher,” which is set to premiere at Cannes and promises to feature a career-redefining performance by an unrecognizable Steve Carell. The evening concluded with a 25th anniversary screening of “Do the Right Thing” with director Spike Lee in attendance. It’s as exuberant and impassioned a masterwork as it was the day it debuted, and its opening dance sequence performed and choreographed by Rosie Perez is an absolute knockout…

SATURDAY APRIL 26

The final full day of Ebertfest was a mega-movie marathon screening four features with brief pauses for meals. Earning perhaps the most rapturous response of the festival was Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda,” which has the distinction of being both the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first major movie made by a female Saudi director. A girl’s forbidden desire to purchase a bike stands as a touching and accessible metaphor for revolting against oppression, and Al-Mansour said it was her husband (seated near Chaz, along with his two children) who encouraged her to take a tender approach to the material rather than resort to melodramatic excess. Anchoring the film are the adorably vibrant facial expressions of its pint-sized lead, Waad Mohammed.

Following that was “A Simple Life,” a warmhearted character portrait from celebrated Hong Kong director Ann Hui, which was included on my list ranking the Top 20 Films of 2012. Having only seen the film via a streaming link on my laptop, it was a joy to watch it with an audience. Priceless little details, such as how a retired maid disapprovingly slides her finger along the dusty surfaces of her former employer’s house, got big laughs from the perceptive audience. My least favorite film was “Goodbye Solo,” a well-meaning effort from the great Ramin Bahrani that has a premise so underdeveloped and far-fetched that it continuously leaves me cold. Yet Bahrani himself, a friend of Roger’s, was lovely to behold at his Q&A, where he discussed how he’s able to capture such naturalistic acting. My favorite performance in “Solo” is actually the one delivered by the ticket taker at a movie theater. The character’s identity turns out to have great significance to the plot, but Bahrani didn’t allow the actor (intern Trevor Metscher) to see the complete script, a choice that makes complete sense, since his character is oblivious to everything else that occurs around his scenes. That’s why his fleeting appearances feel so truthful.

Oliver Stone was the guest of honor that evening when his brutally effective 1989 antiwar classic, “Born on the Fourth of July,” was projected in a captivating widescreen print. Tom Cruise delivers what is surely the best, most immersive performance of his career as Ron Kovic, a wounded Vietnam vet who endures a shattering transformation upon his return home. The film’s opening act plays like the most patriotic of Capra classics, and its idealistic innocence make the subsequent two acts all the more horrifying. Seitz led the excellent Q&A with Stone, and I offered the first audience question, asking how the director maintains his fearlessness in tackling controversial subject matter, while mentioning my cousin Jeremy Scahill’s recent experience promoting his Oscar-nominated documentary, “Dirty Wars.” Stone’s answer elicited applause and can be seen in the video below (skip to 26:14). At the after party, Stone asked me how Jeremy was doing, while my colleague Peter Sobczynski asked him about his latest cut of “Alexander.” I also was excited to meet acclaimed critic Kevin B. Lee, who recently made a brilliant video essay dissecting Spike Jonze’s “Her.” When I finally left for bed, I said goodbye to Stanfield and he moaned, “Aw man, all the cool people are leaving!”

SUNDAY APRIL 27

After a hearty brunch at Steak & Shake (where else?), I settled in the Virginia Theatre for one last screening: Lily Keber’s terrific documentary, “Bayou Maharajah,” chronicling the tragic life of trailblazing New Orleans pianist James Booker. One of the best scenes takes place during an interview with the musician’s friend, Harry Connick Jr., who skillfully demonstrates the ingenuity of Booker’s playing style on a piano. I felt like pinching myself when jazz legend Henry Butler took to the stage afterward and earned thunderous applause with his awe-inspiring piano solos. Seated on my left was Krishna and on my right was Ann Hui. It was one of those moments that you wish would last forever. The next day, I returned to the office for my usual Monday work shift, and gave Chaz a hug.

In closing, here is the complete, unedited footage of the “Remembering Roger Ebert” panel. I guarantee it will be the most moving thing you see all day…

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