CHAMPAIGN — Film festivals — festivals themselves, let alone films — are rarely as poignant as the one unfolding right now in this college town. The 15th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival began Wednesday without its founder, who died two weeks ago. Earlier in the evening, an hour or so before the opening-night gala, Chaz Ebert, his widow, told a reception at the University of Illinois’ president’s home that every year after Ebertfest, on their way back to Chicago, the couple would write down movies to show next time. Before he died, Roger left her a long list, of dozens of movies to show.
Everything about this festival, at least in its opening hours — Ebertfest runs through Sunday — felt like oblique, melancholy commentary on the absence of its namesake. In the third-to-last row from the back of the Virginia Theatre, the festival’s newly restored home, built in 1921 — where Ebert, an Urbana native, often said he learned about the art of film — the late critic’s large brown leather chair was installed for the duration of the festival, having been shipped from Chicago, as it has for years, an Ebertfest tradition.
Usher Joan Peressini, a longtime festival volunteer, looked across the aisles at the empty chair and recalled that there was a time when the theater stationed ushers, inside and outside the lobby doors behind the chair, to ensure that no one disturbed the critic.
She sighed. “This year, it’s going to be difficult to get through this thing.”
The first panel discussion on Thursday was the now-presciently-titled “Sustaining a Career in Film.” Normally a practical-minded festival topic, it began as a meditation on long-term relationships and Roger Ebert: Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, recalled meeting Ebert when Barker was a high school student in Texas; Chicago filmmaker Steve James — in the late stages of work on a documentary about Ebert (he said before the panel he expects it to be ready for festivals later this year) — talked about meeting Ebert in the early ‘90s, just before the critic raised the profile of his film “Hoop Dreams.”
Even the titles of the opening selections (selected by Ebert) were reminders: The short film “I Remember” by Grace Wang, a writer for Ebert’s web site, was followed by “Days of Heaven,” Terrence Malick’s mournful take on age and loss. (Indeed, as if that wasn’t poignant enough: Malick’s latest, “To the Wonder,” was the last movie Ebert reviewed.) Wang’s voice broke as she introduced her film: “My one regret is I didn’t thank (Roger) in the credits. I thought there was more time.” Chicago filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who shot part of “Days of Heaven,” told the sold-out movie house of 1,400: “What Roger stood for is what we all want to stand for — art and expression and understanding....”
Wexler, 91, looked lean and tanned and ornery, like a cowboy poet. Ebert dedicated this year’s festival to him. When Chaz Ebert introduced Wexler, he took the stage of the Virginia with a small video camera, filming himself thanking the audience.
The audience itself, hours before the gala began, lined up in front of the theater, a line that curled around the block, down the length of an entire block, then curled again down another block. An old man and his older mother inched haltingly to the end of the line and shivered as the sky went black and the humid day became suddenly windy and cold. People hopped in place and spoke excitedly about Jack Black and Tilda Swinton and Richard Linklater, all of whom were expected to visit this tiny town in the next few days. But mostly they talked about seeing Chaz Ebert, who, clearly, was the real star.
She wore the white scarf that her late husband often wore to the festival. Before the first screening, after a standing ovation, she told the audience: “I was hoping my — I always called Roger ‘my boyfriend’ — my boyfriend would be with me, and he’s not....” She added: “Thank you for giving me some place to go today. Thank you, I need this.”
She mentioned that comments on her husband’s web site presumed that he knew he would die very soon. “But I always say ‘No, I don’t think so.’ It just happened. He passed away very gently, serenely. We were there with him, and then, he just, he just left.”
He also left her scores of instructions on how to continue the festival, she said. “A month and a half ago, he thought he could go to the festival,” she said, but doctors told him that his “radiation treatments would leave him too fatigued... So he started to make a lot of notes.” She said that she just now, backstage, found a new note from him in her eyeglass case, a reminder of what his Facebook and Twitter account passwords were.
“He wanted to make sure this festival continues, so we can see what we’re going to do about that,” she said, and then she plugged the festival’s new mobile app, the new company she created with Roger, Ebert Digital, and their re-tooled RogerEbert.com.
Having emceed the festival in past years — since her husband lost his voice after complications with surgery — she appeared now to be the new face of the Ebert brand.
Then, in a moment not listed on the evening’s manifest, she read another memo from her late husband, asking all of the critics, filmmakers, contributors and sponsors in the house to stand on the edges of the stage. Then, using rewritten lyrics to “Those Were the Days,” and the accompaniment from the theater’s Wurlitzer organ, she led the audience, and members of the University of Illinois Black Chorus, in a singalong: “Once upon a time there was a theater/ Where we used to see film or two/ Remember how we laughed away the hours/ And dreamed of all the great things we would do...”
Which was followed by a clip of Orson Welles, as Falstaff in the opening of “Chimes at Midnight,” staring into a fire on a dark winter’s night. Falstaff says, “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” to which Shallow, his friend, replies, “Jesus, the days that we have seen.” Then the lights came up in the theater and Chaz said, “That Roger....” She made her way to the back of the theater and sat in her husband’s chair and the movie began.
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