Thursday, April 19, 2018

2018 Roger Ebert's Film Festival: Opening Night

The Fugitive director Andrew Davis introduces his film
Without going into details, it's been a trying year--and one that I anticipate will continue to test me, even if there's nothing life-threatening--so I arrived in Champaign, Illinois for the 20th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival with the hope of taking a breather, if just for a few days.  Granted, simply by being here I'm potentially stressing myself out more as there's work to be done for final projects due in my MBA classes next week.  That's what mornings are for, or so I'm telling myself, and I did work ahead a fair bit to feel as though I could attend this festival yet again and not feel like I'm being irresponsible.  Yes, the brand bible and diagnostic and my portions of a group research project about introducing a mid-size electric vehicle to the Chinese market are not one hundred percent finished, but if I'm being fair with myself, I've made enough progress that I this trip should be guilt-free.

This is my eighteenth consecutive Ebertfest, although it's the first since 2015 that I will be here for every day.  (Those pesky graduate school courses kept me from the first two days in 2016 and opening night last year, sacrifices that I knew were sensible but gnawed at me nevertheless as I sat in those classrooms.)  Truth be told, other festivals that I attend have surpassed this one on the list of my favorites, but it's still near and dear to me because it was the first festival I attended and one that does a lot very well--and differently--to make it worthwhile.

When I reflect on the fact that this is my eighteenth year here, the reality of it is almost impossible to believe.  It doesn't seem that long ago that I first stepped into the Virginia Theatre to see a 70mm print of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY smelling like barbecue because I sat downwind from the local vendor grilling outside the theater for hungry festivalgoers.  The hotel where I stayed during my first time here was torn down many years ago, the Virginia has undergone many renovations to restore its beauty and enhance its comfort, and the Neil Street corridor and downtown Champaign has transformed through a lot of development.  Of course, the festival itself has witnessed dramatic changes, especially as its namesake is no longer here in physical form, although his spirit remains evident in the tone the event sets.

I imagine that if you go to one place or one event year after year after year, it takes on some greater significance because you gradually observe the changes and come to realize that the same things are happening to you.  Blink and there's a corner teeming with restaurants when last you looked there were none.  Wait a minute, I've owned how many cars in that time?  (The answer is four, although one never had the chance to make the trip because it was prematurely terminated by a driver who rear-ended me without braking when I was stopped on the highway.)

I think Ebertfest invites reminiscing, in part because it's not built around new films and also because it possesses a strong nostalgic or sentimental quality.  Moviegoing as a communal experience gets derided for how often it fails us now--or how the rude fail the respectful majority--and it may be diminishing as consumer tastes change, be it because of price, convenience, or whatever factor you wish to blame.  Ebertfest occurs in a single theater and doesn't require pass holders to select between screening options unless there are films they don't want to see.  In that regard it is one big shared experience.  In the early days "overlooked" was in the festival's name.  Oddly enough, the act of seeing a film with a crowd is the sort of thing that may now be overlooked, or undervalued, that it could have a rightful place in the fest's name again.

Richard Roeper, Matt Zoller Seitz, director Andrew Davis, and Scott Mantz
THE FUGITIVE, director Andrew Davis's 1993 thriller based on an old TV show, kicked off the 20th edition of Ebertfest with enough affection for and exploration of Chicago to win over what seems to be an audience dominated by Illinoisans.  (At the fest's attendance peak, people from the Land of Lincoln probably still made up more than half of the crowd, but my impression is that Ebertfest has slowly become more of a local festival in terms of who comes.)  I don't know that I'd seen THE FUGITIVE since its original theatrical run, and aside from a couple of Tommy Lee Jones's highly quoted lines on pre-screening trivia slides in the 1990s, I didn't remember much about it.  If that seems damning, those lines are more than I recall about the sequel U.S. MARSHALS.

While the opening packs a lot of information about the murder of Dr. Richard Kimble's wife and the aftermath into a relatively short period of time, I felt restless waiting for THE FUGITIVE to finish the wind-up and get to the chase.  The practical effects of the train crash that frees Harrison Ford's wrongly accused character impresses and earned appreciative applause from the festival audience.  What sort of shocked me in revisiting the film is how much of it is a process movie, with the character elements kept to a minimum.  I doubt that what thrilled me about THE FUGITIVE in 1993 was how it functions as a tour of various parts of the city and the diverse people encountered along the way, but its time capsule quality, especially if the Chicago accent is disappearing, and the shoe leather beats with the hunter and the hunted are what pulled me in the most now.  Maybe that's also why long stretches of the film play to me as TV, although that may be more reflective of TV now than then.

One of the pleasures of rewatching older films for the first time in a long time is discovering people in bit parts who wouldn't have stood out then but have been there all along. THE FUGITIVE is populated with plenty of faces you'll likely recognize today even if you can't put a name to them.  Just as visiting places once a year over many years facilitates a form of time travel, so too do the movies provide a temporal transport, and a more accessible one at that.  I don't know what journeys await over the next four days at Ebertfest, but I eagerly look forward to taking them.

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