Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Once more with feeling

In a couple hours I will line up outside the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois for the start of the 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival. As hard as it is for me to believe, it will be the ninth consecutive year I've come to this university town for the five-day event. Nine years! Where has the time gone?

Prior to 2001, the festival's third year and my first visit to it, I had never attended a film festival of any kind. To be sure, Ebertfest is not like what most people think of when the talk turns to film festivals, and those differences might be what make this event a contender for the ideal film festival experience.

There are no studio bidding wars for the scheduled films or even a prize competition among the pictures. You're not forced to choose among scads of conflicting screenings and rush off to different theaters across the city. Every film is shown once at the Virginia to the entire festival audience. The audiovisual presentation is second to none. The relaxed atmosphere probably helps in making the visiting filmmakers more accessible to festivalgoers. While the price has gone up from the $40 pass I bought to see 14 films in 2001, it's still reasonably priced. People aren't coming to see and be seen. (Well, that's not exactly true when bigger stars come to Champaign-Urbana...) All attention and festival talk is focused on the films and the people who make them rather than the marketplace, which is the way it should be.

I was spoiled the first year I came here. Opening night featured 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. Seated within the first five rows of the cavernous theater, I finally made sense of the film. Its stunning images and powerful sound captivated me and the approximately 1600 other people in the room. (Make no mistake, seeing a big movie with that big of an audience has a different effect than watching something on TV home alone.) Keir Dullea was on stage for a post-film discussion with Ebert, and Arthur C. Clarke chimed in from Sri Lanka via telephone. And this was just the first night of the festival.

I was hooked and have come back each year to try and bottle some of the same cinematic magic that I felt. The films screened in 70mm are often revelatory, and the silents accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra typically rank among each year's highlights. Since Ebert curates the festival, the chance of seeing stinkers is significantly lower, although there are some selected films with which I would take exception with the thumbed critic.

Nowadays returning to Ebertfest is like a reunion at a film festival. There are those who I've become friends with over the years and whose company I get to enjoy for a few days. I was among the younger festivalgoers when I first attended (and still am) since boomers make up an overwhelming percentage of the audience. In that way there's a bit of a Dorian Gray-like experience in coming to the festival. I'll just assume my aging portrait must be squirreled away in the hotel's maintenance room.

In recent years Ebert's health issues have raised concern among those attending the festival--he was unable to attend at all last year--but with his voluminous writing of late and seemingly high spirits, his return should provide a nice lift. The festival has his name on it, and he is obviously part of the attraction for many who show up for five days of movies. Nevertheless, it's the love of films that he possesses and has helped cultivate in those coming to his festival that makes Ebertfest special. I can't wait to feel that buzz of excitement again as I take my spot in the line snaking around the theater.

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