Thursday, April 21, 2016

2016 Roger Ebert's Film Festival recap

Having started classes toward a Master of Business Administration degree, it was necessary for me to miss opening night and the first full day of the 2016 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. This was no small sacrifice for me, as I have attended every film at Ebertfest since 2001 and really enjoy the experience of being at it as part of each year at the movies.

As it turned out, I had already seen the first four films to play at the Virginia Theatre this year. Even though I yearned to be there, at least my familiarity with what was being shown meant that I didn’t need to feel like I was missing out. It would have been fun to see CRIMSON PEAK and THE THIRD MAN on the massive Virginia screen. I was less conflicted about missing GRANDMA and NORTHFORK, neither which I liked when watching them during their original runs, although I wouldn’t have minded revisiting the latter. Ebertfest has provided the space for reassessing films--some of which I did come around on after a second viewing--and as NORTHFORK was one Ebert championed, this would have been as good of a place and time as any to do so.

Ebertfest has a vibe akin to summer camp. Returning every mid-April provides the chance to reconnect with people you met there and may not have seen since the previous fest. That happens at other film festivals, but unlike the frenzied pace maintained in racing to one of multiple simultaneous options across a few square miles of a major metropolitan area, as with the Toronto International Film Festival, Ebertfest moves comparatively slowly, with screenings occurring at a common time and location for all in attendance in Champaign, Illinois. This allows for a relatively unhurried pace, aside from the free-for-all when the doors first open and passholders scramble to acquire their preferred seats for the day’s slate. I love the largeness and urgency of TIFF, but Ebertfest’s more deliberate state of being has its benefits. Attendees may be watching twelve feature films in five days, which would qualify as cinematic gorging for most people, yet here there is more time to digest them than the typical festival grants. The downtime between films is more likely to breed conversations among attendees and build the sense of community that clings to this festival.

As a longtime visitor to Ebertfest, I’ve wondered if the festival will be able to sustain itself without its namesake. Although my observations are anecdotal, I noticed that Ebert himself tended to be the biggest attraction regardless of what directors or actors were guests. Based on casual interactions with other passholders, his curation of and seal of approval for the selected films seemed to be of the utmost importance to those who bought passes and tickets. The crowds aren’t what they were when the festival was selling out passes quickly after going on-sale, but attendance appears to have stabilized to a healthy number that can support the annual event while not requiring one to be extraordinarily quick to ensure admission.

Ebert leaves a body of work that could easily serve as a guide to program a few decades worth of festivals. Co-founder and host Chaz Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn have always been involved with picking the films, so the task now falling to them, plus any directions left to them, is not as big of a shift in process as it might seem. Still, the difficult decisions surround what to play at the festival, especially if pass and ticket purchasers are accustomed to them having the critic’s endorsement. By my count, Ebert saw four of the films in this year’s line-up, with the two silent entries being ones he possibly screened during his life. At worst that’s a quarter of the selections; at best it’s half. Is that sufficient?

Clearly there has been a conscious choice for Ebertfest not to lock itself into being a purely repertory festival. Personally, I would prefer Ebert’s voice were a bit more prominent in the films chosen for this year. Assuming that rights issues aren’t a problem, it would be great if his old, pertinent TV reviews could play after each screening. Doing so would enhance the sense of his presence even in his physical absence. (It was a nice bonus when done this year.) Nevertheless, I also think they’re right not to keep the festival limited to films he reviewed or saw during his lifetime. If anyone has a right to surmise what new films he might have liked, it’s the two people in position to do so. Bringing in new films and talents keeps Ebertfest as an evolving thing rather than a museum piece, a quality that I intuit is important for this particular festival. Ebertfest has welcomed emerging filmmakers and critics rather than limiting those guests to a narrow group from one generation. If that is part of its mission, then it stands to reason that new films must play a significant role.

The highlights in this year’s line-up were BLOW OUT screened in a magnificent 35mm print and discussed in a post-film Q&A with star Nancy Allen; L’INHUMAINE with accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra; and EVE’S BAYOU with director Kasi Lemmons in attendance. At least where I live, Brian De Palma’s films tend to be harder to come by in revival screenings than other filmmakers of his generation, so seeing BLOW OUT like this was a treat. The Alloy Orchestra is an annual highlight of Ebertfest, and this year was no different. EVE’S BAYOU epitomizes the kind of film Ebertfest does well in showcasing. Ebert was a notable supporter of it, which makes it a good pick, but more importantly, it’s a film that may have slipped off the radar of cinephiles in the nineteen years since its debut. “Overlooked” was plucked out of the festival’s name many years ago because of its amorphous definition, but I think “overlooked” remains a valuable quality in what shows here. In a film culture increasingly driven by whatever’s newest, with canon titles getting the greatest attention for old films, there’s worth in shining the light on yesterday’s well-regarded films that have slipped through the cracks somewhat.

While I would prefer not to miss any days of Ebertfest, doing that this year permitted me to appreciate the respite it can be from everything else. Coming at the end of an academic term when I’ve been overwhelmed with homework, not to mention the day job, a few days of Ebertfest reminded that the movies can be an edifying escape.

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