This week I attended the 16th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois, the first installment of the festival put together after Ebert's death. (The 15th annual festival, last year, was a week from taking the stage when Ebert passed away.)
I was in Champaign for the 14th annual festival, two years ago, which turned out to be the last Ebert was able to attend. There are lifers who have been attending the festival since its inception, all the way back to when it was called the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, and I envy them. They have a continuity with the programming that becomes more appealing to me with each passing year.
I'm from Toronto, and the semi-retired film professor who wrote my film school textbook (because who else would be at Ebertfest?) ribbed me for driving away from my city to attend a great film festival. But for all the blessings of TIFF, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and all our other dozens of local fests, Ebertfest is unique enough to be worth the drive; and besides, they have Steak n' Shake, and we don't.
Ebertfest runs in a straight shot in a single-screen, 1400-seat theatre. There is only one screening per film, and (for the most part) everybody goes to all of them. Ten films in total, a mixture of fiction, documentary, modern, classic, and "new classic."
Until last year, these films were programmed by Roger Ebert. They were a somewhat-random, somewhat-not collection of movies for that year that he, particularly, felt were worth screening in that venue with that audience, and speaking about afterwards. Someone involved with the making of the film, a director or an actor or a producer, attends. The Q&As can run long and dive deep - the Spike Lee Q&A on Friday night after Do The Right Thing ran till midnight - and since the festival isn't like other festivals (no premieres, no interest in movie-star culture), the atmosphere is lively and focused. Everyone is there for the films.
This year, the mantle of programming the festival necessarily passed on to others. I admit to having had qualms about this; I'm a bit of a conceptual purist in these matters, and if a festival's raison d'etre is to screen a series of films hand-picked by Roger Ebert, that festival cannot proceed without him.
Thankfully, this was just fuddy-duddiness on my part. The mission of the festival that Ebert started is much more like the paragraphs above: a kindly, curated series of feature films with a distinctly humanist bent and an intention, on the part of the festival and the audience, to focus upon them intelligently.
It's film festival as book club, with the best popcorn in the world, and a guy serving barbecue right outside the theatre. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, pulls out a cell phone during a screening, because (and this is an idea that eludes even the best-behaved audience at TIFF) everyone is actually there to see the movies, and only the movies. The only people they need to socialize with during those five days are right there in the theatre with them. Ebertfest has the feel of a best-kept secret - again, there are a lot of lifers in that crowd, so ticket availability is tight, and continuity among the attendees is high - and if 2014 was anything to go by, it can run indefinitely under the same imprimatur that Roger Ebert gave it while he was alive.
The wonderful Chaz Ebert has taken on the emceeing duties, and tends to wander off on lovely stream-of-consciousness digressions while introducing the films, before snapping back into focus and bringing out the guests. Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield attended to introduce Short Term 12, which screened on Thursday and knocked me, and the audience, clean over; and then conducted a brisk and thorough (and, in Stanfield's case, blissfully potty-mouthed) Q&A about the film, and about film, that was insightful enough to have been presented by university professors.
Spike Lee brought the house down with a bombastic 25th-anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing on Friday night, teasing the Chicago-local audience about basketball, and refusing - thankfully - to try, when asked by a member of the audience, to solve the problem of racism in the 21st century, live on stage during the Q&A.
Do the Right Thing was screened on film - actual film - along with Capote and He Who Gets Slapped earlier that day. It must have been the first day I've spent watching nothing but celluloid in at least ten years. He Who Gets Slapped, a silent film by Victor Seastrom (actually Sjöström), was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, live from the pit. To the collective delight of the audience, the silent-era MGM lion did not roar, but glared potently at us out of the screen.
Haifaa Al-Mansour, who directed Saudi Arabia's first feature film, Wadjda, from the back of a van to slip round the country's strict taboos on the behaviour of women, accepted her Golden Thumb with tears in her eyes as the audience at the Virginia Theatre leapt to their feet, giving one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I've ever seen. Wadjda deserved it. It's a wonderful film, and its lead actress, 11-year-old Waad Mohammed, is a blithe, endlessly watchable onscreen spirit.
And the festival opened with Steve James' documentary, Life Itself, based on Ebert's memoir, and built around footage of the man in the last few months of his life. The film, like the book, is joyous - a challenge to the living - and so, then, is Ebertfest, in Roger's absence. To greater degrees week by week, we are living through a hinge point in the meaning and purpose of film and film criticism. Paid film critics for major publications have become an endangered species.
But we are here, and life goes on. Ebert embraced change more quickly and more vividly than most people I can think of, and found ways to filter his values down through the current reality, not waxed nostalgia for the way things used to be. For all its trappings in a 93-year-old theatre (with, seriously, the best popcorn in the world) with a single screen upon which no images are shown in 3-D, Ebertfest is nonetheless a thoroughly modern festival, technologically engaged, abreast of the way that film, filmgoing, and film criticism are advancing in 2014.
The festival aspires towards a future state that is, perhaps, inevitable. Someday soon, events like this may be among the last public opportunities to examine film as soaring pop art, with large crowds of like-minded enthusiasts. May Ebertfest march on 'till the last candle goes out.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter. His podcast, Mamo!, recorded five episodes at the Roger Ebert film festival, which you can listen to here.