Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Pre-festival thoughts

For the thirteenth consecutive year here I am in Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  To state the blatantly obvious, this one isn’t going to be like the others.  Ebert’s passing less than two weeks before opening night will make a significant difference in this year’s event compared to previous editions.  How could it not?  Yet from what I’ve seen of and read about the celebrations of his life, I expect this fifteenth festival to be a fitting tribute to Ebert.  Watching and discussing films for five days in his hometown seems like a good way to honor and remember the beloved film critic.

While Ebert is closely associated with Chicago, this festival is best served by being downstate.  It had to be a thrill for Ebert to launch his own film festival in the place where he grew up and to bring movies and filmmakers where they otherwise would have likely never appeared.  Screens are not abundant in this area for mainstream fare, let alone art and foreign-language films.  No multiplex currently operates within the Champaign-Urbana city limits.  The multiplex in Champaign recently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen soon, but for now locals will have to go to the one nearby in Savoy.  According to the movie theater app on my phone, a drive-in is the only other location within fifty miles of here showing Hollywood’s latest offerings (in season, of course).
Specialty films do have a home in Champaign at the single-screen Art Theater, just a stone’s throw from Ebertfest’s headquarters at the Virginia Theatre.  If memory serves, this was one of Ebert’s old stomping grounds.  (I seem to recall him mentioning seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s WEEKEND at this theater, but don’t hold me to that.)  The Art Theater is now run as a co-op and appears to be going better than ever.  The programming is more eclectic than what would be expected of a theater shouldering the burden of being the only place exhibiting smaller films.  It’s not just booking the latest studio dependent titles (ie., Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Feature releases), as the immersive fishing documentary LEVIATHAN is enjoying a week’s run.  I don’t have hard evidence to draw a direct line from Ebertfest to the continuing operation of and diverse programming at the Art Theater, but surely some of the credit for its success is because the festival has nurtured the area’s cinephile community.  Plenty of people like me come from out of town to Ebertfest, but it remains, first and foremost, a local event.
Having arrived a day early for Ebertfest and with nothing to do Tuesday night, I ventured to The Art Theater to see a documentary about bees called MORE THAN HONEY.  I figured I ought to check out the theater if it is a part of Ebert’s moviegoing history.  (If my memory is incorrect, at least I got to see one of a dying breed of old local cinemas.)  To my astonishment, the line was out the door to buy a ticket.  I’d estimate a crowd of one hundred attended the film, which is no small feat, and almost everyone stuck around for the post-film Q&A with area beekeepers and bee experts.
Although the MORE THAN HONEY screening was not associated with Ebert or his festival, I’d like to believe that the impressive turnout is indicative of part of the legacy he leaves Champaign-Urbana, as though he were like a Johnny Appleseed for the movies.  Ebertfest this year will surely bear that out.  This year’s passes and tickets have sold out.  One report suggests that the festival will go on in the years to come and can still be programmed, in a sense, by Ebert.  If movies can outlive their creators and move and inspire for decades onward, it only seems right that this film festival, rooted in appreciation and community rather than competition, be able to do the same.

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