Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ebertfest 2014: Opening Night

Tonight marked the start of the 16th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. I’ve attended the previous thirteen years, so there really wasn’t any question I’d be here in Champaign, Illinois to make it fourteen in a row. Put it on the calendar. Make the necessary arrangements. Still, part of me wished I were back home in Columbus at Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs conference quarterfinal series between the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps if the opening night film were something I’d already seen, I would have skipped my first Ebertfest film and come a day later. I did have a ticket for the hockey game. With the Ebert documentary LIFE ITSELF opening the festival, there was no other decision to make but to be at the movie. There will be more games, but seeing this particular film in these particular conditions won’t happen again.

LIFE ITSELF’s notices coming out of Sundance were positive, but I confess to being a bit skeptical of the gushing tweet reviews. If ever there were a sure thing, a film about a critic that many writers had a direct, personal connection with and many others felt a kinship with is as close as you’ll get to one. I didn’t doubt director Steve James’ talents, and I’m not accusing anyone of reviewing in bad faith. I just wondered if this film might hit so close to home that people wouldn’t be able to see it clearly.

How cavalier of me to think such things, especially as I’m sitting there in the Virginia Theatre at the festival Ebert founded ready to watch a film about him. I’ve come to Ebertfest since 2001 and have been inspired by his professional and personal examples. It’s not like I’m coming to the documentary without a vested interest.

I’m pleased to report that James’ film dodges the pitfall of being worshipful to fault and instead presents an admiring portrait of a man who loved movies and, well, that broader thing laid out in the title. It’s hard to imagine anyone just casually interested in film wanting to take a look at LIFE ITSELF, but if those folks are out there, they’ll see what it means to live with passion, self-knowledge, generosity, and a sense of humor. As the film based on his memoir demonstrates, Ebert lived a life that seemed like one colorful story after another. He certainly had many experiences that make for entertaining fodder for us as viewers, but isn’t the greater lesson that your life tales or mine can also seem grand with the proper telling? Yes, Ebert’s position afforded him opportunities to have adventures and encounters that most won’t be fortunate to receive, yet LIFE ITSELF leaves the impression that a rich time on earth isn’t concerned so much with what it brings us but how we choose to perceive it.

To me the film and the man can be summarized in a small moment. It’s late in 2012, and Ebert is in the hospital. He’s getting out, at least for a bit, to see a film. He gives a little clap at the news. Keep in mind that he’s seen and forgotten a staggering number of films, yet that palpable joy linked to the possibilities a new movie might deliver remains undiminished. Even if films don’t mean that much to you, approaching an interest and the world in general that way makes a lot of sense to me.

I’ve seen or heard Ebert say that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. It’s a credit to LIFE ITSELF that its two hours flew by. A film two or three times longer than this surely would have been just as entertaining and illuminating. (This version was the same as the one that premiered at Sundance, although a deleted scene about Ebertfest was played prior to the film.) And while it turns out that I missed an incredible hockey game that my preferred team improbably won, it was appropriate for me to be in Ebert’s hometown theater at his festival watching his film with friends and strangers connected in the enthusiasm he shared with us for flickering, projected images. We said goodbye to him at last year’s Ebertfest, but this film and this festival reinforce that, for those touched by his work in some way, he’s still here.

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