Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night

Ebertfest holds a special place in my moviegoing life because it was the first film festival I attended. The experience could not have been better. The 2001 festival, it’s third edition, featured an exceptional mix of good to great films, was hosted by a film writer I admired and aspired to be, and was down to earth in a way that felt identifiably Midwestern. This was not an industry event but a populist celebration of cinema in a university town. I was hooked, and It’s why I’ve come to Champaign, Illinois every April for fifteen years now.

It may seem strange to see a movie before going to opening night of the 2015 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, but the Art Theater, a short walk from festival central at the Virginia Theatre, was playing GREY GARDENS, which I hadn’t seen. Ebert mentioned the Art as being important to him , and he certainly encouraged locals at the festival to patronize it those weeks when Ebertfest wasn’t co-opting their moviegoing time. Inside the lobby over the entrance is a mural with the hometown critic sitting in the front row to the side next to Groucho Marx. The seating location isn’t where you were likely to find Ebert when he was at the movies, but it seems right for him to have such a place of prominence, if not the best viewing angle, in a picture featuring stars of the screen. When he attended his own festival, Ebert was always the biggest star in the room no matter what Hollywood performer or filmmaker was present.

Perhaps it was my own reservations about this year’s festival lineup--I’ll explain those feelings on another day--but opening night felt more muted than any other year I can recall. It could be that the lack of a “big” film or guest tamped down some of the excitement in the crowd. Maybe it was that I knew what was coming. To start things off, a 3-D film was being shown for the first time in the festival’s history. Not just any 3-D film, mind you, was beginning the 17th festival but Jean-Luc Godard’s GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (ADIEU AU LANGAGE). Unlikely as it seems to me, I’d seen it twice before. While I have enjoyed it primarily as an aesthetic experience, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE struck me as a uniquely terrible choice to start the festival. Late Godard can be hard to penetrate intellectually. Playful as it can be, this rigorous cinematic essay fits the description of a difficult film to a tee. I did not expect GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE to go over well with this audience, which isn’t to say that I doubt their tastes but that this is no one’s idea of a widely appealing film that might ordinarily fill the first slot on the festival schedule.

On viewing GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE a second time I found it extremely helpful to have read David Bordwell’s unpacking of the dense film. Knowing how to watch can make a huge difference in appreciating it. My third viewing didn’t yield any major revelations, but it confirmed that Godard captures images of exceptional beauty. The shot of one hand washing another looks clearer than reality. During a shot of a boat going away from the dock the undulating water looks so blue and welcoming. The doubling and overlapping of images and use and locations of sound make for a thrilling cinematic experience even if I have a hard time making heads or tails of it. To the Ebertfest crowd’s credit, I noticed just a few walkouts from my vantage point in the balcony. Opinions may be voiced more strongly against it while folks wait in line to enter the theater over the next few days, but on this evening my impression is that people wrestled with the challenging work rather than dismissing it outright. Could it be my doubts about the film's reception were unfounded?

Todd Rendleman, Peter Sobczynski, Goodbye to Language's Héloise Godet, and Matt Zoller Seitz
The night’s second session was also something unprecedented at Ebertfest. Instead of showing a film, a Harold Ramis tribute took place. Clips were shown from ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, BACK TO SCHOOL, CLUB PARADISE, GHOSTBUSTERS, and GHOSTBUSTERS 2. Ramis’ widow Erica Ramis and producer Trevor Albert then joined Chaz Ebert and critics Glenn Kenny and Susan Wloszczyna to discuss his work from the earlier half of his career. Following the conversation were clips from GROUNDHOG DAY, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, ANALYZE THIS, MULTIPLICITY, THE ICE HARVEST, BEDAZZLED, ORANGE COUNTY, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, KNOCKED UP, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, and YEAR ONE. This portion was capped by a clip of Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing GROUNDHOG DAY on their television show. The same people returned to the stage to talk about this part of Ramis’ filmography.

Context-free clips don’t exactly serve the work well, so I could have done without them even though I realize why they were incorporated into the program. I would have been content to listen to those Ramis knew and those who appreciated his talents talk about him. I really enjoyed seeing the Siskel and Ebert clip and would suggest knitting them into the festival when possible. How great would it be to watch the films at Ebertfest and follow them with pertinent reviews from the long-running TV show? Granted, these won’t exist with every film selected, and if there was a disagreement between the critics, some of the reviews might make for uncomfortable situations with a festival guest. Still, if done with care, this seems like a natural way of keeping Ebert’s voice in the festival.

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