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Ebertfest: A Champaign Toast

Roger Ebert's ninth annual Overlooked Film Festival almost didn't happen. The beloved and influential film critic who started the festival became deathly ill almost a year ago when his carotid artery, weakened by radiation therapy to treat his cancer of the thyroid and salivary gland, finally split following surgery. His recovery, watched anxiously by his family and friends as well as his many fans, has been very slow. The fate of his annual festival of offroad films, though a much lesser concern, still had many of us wondering and hoping that this very special event would somehow pull through, too. When Roger got the news that the full-festival passes had sold out a week after they went on sale, he was determined to go on with the show.

Therefore, this year's festival, held April 25-29, was the most special of them all. I attended the very first Overlooked Festival, and I knew right away that this was not like any other film festival in the country. There is only one venue, a movie palace from the 1920s named the Virginia Theatre, in the heart of downtown Champaign, Illinois. This town and its twin city Urbana are home to the University of Illinois, Roger Ebert's alma mater; the university's film studies department has been the benefactor of proceeds from the festival. Mainly locals filled the seats of the dilapidated Virginia the first year.

I've watched the festival grow more national in scope - and the theatre get some much-needed repairs - but it is still primarily a local affair with a relaxed, almost picnic-like atmosphere. Pass holders throw their coats, umbrellas, and festival programs over their chosen seats for the duration of the festival (a real annoyance to single-ticket holders like me); this year, one woman in the row in front of me made a mad search for her bag of knitting, which had mysteriously vanished (she found it). Two food tents selling burgers and polish sausages feed a horde of festival goers who sit at picnic tables or go off to the nearby park for what invariably turns out to be a warm and cloudless day.

The films Roger chooses have given me some wonderful surprises, from the searing portrait of the dysfunctional marriage of Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun of Hamsun to the beyond dysfunctional relationship between a misogynist and his junkie male roommate of Surrender Dorothy. He always draws top-flight guests, too. I took in four films this year - reviewed at Ferdy on Films - and was honored to share air space with the legendary and hilarious Werner Herzog, actress/director Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy), actor Scott Wilson (Clay Pigeons, The Host), Dutch/Australian director Paul Cox, and film scholar David Bordwell. Others on Roger's eclectic guest list were actors Alan Rickman, Gil Bellows, Fatoumata Coulibaly (Moolaade), singer/songwriter Jim White, and the 60s rock band The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

It was fun to watch Roger's wife Chaz hand out the Golden Thumb awards to each of the film directors and listen to their heartfelt tributes to Roger. It was fascinating to watch Herzog appear in Cox's film Man of Flowers, talk about how they shared an actor across two films (Norman Kaye), and listen to Cox's dire predictions for the human race. Herzog said he didn't agree with Cox, and then said, "Five years ago, you said the same thing. You are always gloomy." After the screening of her film, Come Early Morning, one audience member asked Joey Lauren Adams a question and then asked her and Scott Wilson, who appears in the film, to go for a drink with him. Adams, after a long pause to let the laughter die down, said, "What was the question?" then another pause for laughter, and then "Which bar?" This is typical Ebertfest.

Finally, of course, the most important guest at this year's festival was Roger himself. If you read his April 24 column in the Chicago Sun-Times or saw opening night coverage of the festival on WGN-TV, you know he's not looking very well. I came face-to-face with him in the theatre lobby walking with Chaz and was struck by how tired he looked at that moment. Later, however, I saw him happily signing an autograph seated in his La-Z-Boy lounger in the last row of the Virginia's main floor. While we all missed his wonderful and warm film introductions and interviews with his guests, it was so great to see him stand up to his illness and those who would rather he hide it, and make room for joy. Herzog, in a rare serious moment, called Roger "the consciousness of those of us who love film." In his odd Germanicized English, Herzog got it exactly right - Roger is the voice of film lovers everywhere. I'm looking forward to further explorations next year, when the festival makes its informal name official: Ebertfest - Roger Ebert's Film Festival.




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Posted on April 30, 2007


MUSIC - Lyric Opera Strike An Old Story.
TV - WFLU-TV.
POLITICS - USA Today's Op-Ed Disaster.
SPORTS - Beachwood Sports Radio: Kanye, Chili, Jimmy, Tarik.

BOOKS - Conway Barbour & The Black Middle Class.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Recall! Malone's Pork Head Cheese.


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