Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Prelude to a festival

It's hard for me to believe, but tonight marks the tenth Roger Ebert's Film Festival I will have attended. I've been coming since 2001, when Ebertfest had the word "Overlooked" in its title. The adjective often required contortions to justify its use anyway, so good riddance to it. For instance, how exactly is 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY an overlooked film? (Answer: its 70mm format is overlooked.) Overlooked certainly no longer applies to an event that sells out of passes months before the films are even announced.

The focus at Ebertfest is on the films, and rightfully so, but I can't help but feel that it is something more than just an excuse to watch and discuss movies for five days. The festival fosters the sense of being at an annual family reunion, something reinforced by all the familiar faces among the passholders, individual ticket buyers, and special guests. We're all ushered into the old and stately Virginia Theatre to partake of the entertainment that, say, our favorite uncle has chosen especially for us.

The analogy may be a hokey one, but Ebert presides over the event adorned with his name not as the sage atop the mountain but as a congenial host who just so happened to accommodate around 1500 people for the party he's throwing. The filmmakers and other invited guests intermingle with the attendees--this isn't The Celebrities and the hoi polloi--which keeps a relaxed vibe at the festival. Maybe some paparazzi slink about, but I've not seen any. While VIP seating may be saved, there's nothing keeping them from grabbing a spot anywhere they like. There's no red carpet. Instead, you might find John Malkovich behind you in line for coffee at the University of Illinois student union or Robert Forster leading a session in a classroom in the library's basement.

As with any family get-together, the health of an ailing member is a hot topic, and that's been the case with Ebert throughout the years with his well-documented surgeries and recovery. (Aside from that, there was also the year when he broke his arm late one night and showed up for the next day's introduction with his arm in a sling.) He was sorely missed the year he could not attend and was warmly welcomed back the following year.

So yes, there are reacquaintances to be made, but if you're not here, what do you care about the good time everyone here is having? The good news is that this year you can share in it, at least somewhat. The panels and film intros and Q&As will be streamed live here. To the best of my ability I'll be blogging each day of Ebertfest. Tonight will be a killer with the second film starting at 10 p.m. and a panel being held early the next morning, but I'll try to stay on top of everything.

Here's to a great Ebertfest #12.

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