Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Opening Night

Ultimately Opening Night at the fifteenth annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was not markedly different from any of the twelve others I’ve attended.  Although he can no longer be there to prevail over the proceedings, in a sense the start of this year’s fest was the fulfillment of everything he worked toward with it.  The community that has sprung up around Ebertfest and his relationships with writers and filmmakers near and far took center stage.

Far-Flung Correspondent Grace Wang’s short film I REMEMBER opened the event. A brief video tribute to Ebert edited by Michael Mirasol, another FFC, featured various thumbs-up from the movies and the critic’s analogue from Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA.  Four University of Illinois chorus members led a sing-along to “Those Were the Days” with lyrics Ebert customized for this night.  An Ebert-selected clip from CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT added cheerful and wistful notes reminding what the festival has given all who have been to it. One of the great films was projected in a beautiful 35mm print.   Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic and contributor to Ebert’s website ,led the post-film discussion with Chicago cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom this year’s festival is dedicated.  The theater itself showed off its latest renovations and restorations, improvements that were driven in part by the festival making its home at the Virginia.  And there guiding it all was his wife Chaz showing remarkable composure while occasionally going off script from the comments she said she would stick to while performing her duties as host.  It was not a somber night but rather a warm reminder of how one film critic had direct or indirect influences on all who were present.
In recent years fewer films have been shown from 35mm sources at Ebertfest.  If there’s only one this go-round, the organizers made it count.  Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN looked spectacular on the Virginia Theatre’s enormous screen. With its use of available light DAYS OF HEAVEN boasts one of the great achievements in cinematography.  I’ve seen the film two other times, once on DVD on a 27” TV and once from 35mm, but this viewing was something of a revelation in major and minor ways.  I’d never noticed the migrant workers in the distance throwing hammers in the upper lefthand corner of the frame while front and center are Richard Gere and Brooke Adams laying in the wheat field.  Linda Manz’s flat narration had been an obstacle of sorts for me in previous viewings, but this time I marveled at how it brings a unique tone and point of view to what could have been a familiar love triangle.

More significantly, during my third viewing of DAYS OF HEAVEN Malick’s impressionist style and signatures announce themselves in a way that unites his body of work.  His elliptical storytelling, thematic exploration of spiritual communion and separation, and use of dance and dance-like movement is all here in this 1978 film, albeit not as refined as he’s pushed them in THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER.  Clearly story is not his primary interest.  Here’s it’s about the emotional rather than the narrative experience, yet it’s fascinating to discover how sharply written this film is in advancing major chunks of plot through a choice sentence or two and revealing its essence.  Gere asks Adams who’s going to know about what they’re up to, and she responds that nobody will.  Of course, DAYS OF HEAVEN implies that while mankind may be ignorant, God is observing and can choose to keep such sinners out of or banish them from His house.
During the post-film discussion Wexler, who’s credited with additional photography, mentioned how they reproduced the locust swarm, an effect that boggled my mind while watching the film.  They shot the scene in reverse while someone in a helicopter dropped coffee beans.  Beat that, CGI.

All in all, it was a terrific way to begin the fifteenth Ebertfest.  We’ll see how this festival goes for me, though, because I suffered an injury that hopefully won’t have me hobbling around too much.  Going down the stairs I felt a muscle in my calf pop. Leaving the theater was a bit of a painful challenge, but with rest, ice, elevation, and ibuprofen, I’m hoping to stay out of urgent care and not have my festival experience affected.  The year Ebert slipped and hurt his arm during Ebertfest didn’t slow him down, so surely I can soldier through whatever this is.

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