Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ebertfest 2007: Opening Night

That the 9th annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival is taking place is a testament to the man whose name adorns the event and the movie lovers who return year after year. Health-wise, the past ten months haven't been the greatest for the critic with the famous thumb. No one would have begrudged him the festival's cancellation if he wasn't up to the task. I wondered what was going to happen, especially when his vows to return to more active duty failed to materialize. The Ebertfest schedule's later than usual announcement also sparked suspicion that perhaps this year the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois would not be invaded by more than a thousand cinemagoers for five days in April.

With the announcement of this year's selections came news that Ebert would be unable to introduce his movie picks and lead post-film discussions; however, he would be attending. Earlier this week the feisty critic issued a letter to let everyone know that his illness meant his appearance would not match what people are accustomed to seeing, but his desire to spend time at the festival superceded any concerns about how he looks and what others might think.

In Ebert's festival program welcome and his wife Chaz's greeting from the Virginia stage, it was revealed that canceling this year's celebration of film was discussed. Associate festival director Mary Susan Britt informed him that all passes had been sold out in about a week, which apparently was enough to convince him to push on. Ebert's struggle to return to full health has obviously been more serious than periodic statements have led the public to believe. Not that there is any doubt, but if this commitment doesn't say how much he loves the movies, what else is there for him to do?

Although unable to speak, Ebert, decked out in the colors of his beloved alma mater, greeted the adoring audience with his wife by his side. Naturally, the gesture and his words, read by Chaz, earned much applause and a standing ovation. I've been attending Ebertfest since 2001, so it comes as no surprise to me how much the people here love him. Still, it's pretty remarkable to see the genuine affection that goes both ways, he for the community where he grew up and the people of Champaign-Urbana for one of their own.

I'll be honest that I was disappointed when I saw this year's schedule and noticed that the opening night film is not in 70mm. I liked GATTACA enough to put in on my 1997 honorable mentions list, but it's no 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or PLAYTIME. I'm not sure if there was a particular reason for showing it to open the festival other than the fact that Ebert liked it a lot, but after seeing it tonight, its inclusion made perfect sense.

Above all else, GATTACA is about the triumph of the human spirit, how will and desire can push people to overcome the obstacles set in their paths. Ebert has endured a lot of serious health issues in the last year, and I can see him finding inspiration in Ethan Hawke's Vincent Freeman wanting to prove everyone wrong in their expectations of what he is able to do in spite of what his genetic makeup predicts. Ebert may have a La-Z-Boy occupying the space where an uncomfortable theater seat had been, and he may not be able to fulfill his hosting functions as he has every other year. Nevertheless, he's bound and determined to show that the Virginia Theatre and his ninth annual festival are where he should be even if he isn't at one hundred percent. And you know what, something tells me that soaking up the movies and the warmth from the well-wishers will do him a lot of good.

It's good to be back, Roger, and it's good to see you here.

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