Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From the Balcony, Spirit of Namesake on Heartwarming Display at Ebertfest

Roger Ebert was born in Urbana, IL on June 18, 1942.

After years of bravely facing cancer and disfigurement, the loss of his speaking voice and ability to eat, and following a year in which he wrote more movie reviews than ever before in his life, Roger Ebert passed away on April 4. 

On April 8, he was buried.

On April 20, his wife of 20 years, Chaz, opened the day's events at Ebertfest in Champaign by walking on-stage with actress Tilda Swinton--who was the special guest at the previous evening's screening.

Saying something like, "Tilda insisted we do this, because it's what happens at film festivals in Scotland,"--and according to this article, keeping a promise Tilda had made the night before--Chaz called everyone in the Virginia Theatre to their feet, pumped a Barry White song over the historic theater's speakers and, as Swinton proceeded into the audience to lead a conga line, Chaz Ebert stayed onstage.

And she danced.

It was one of the most amazing, and heartwarming, things I've ever seen.

As was the movie that followed, a 2012 black-and-white silent film from Spain called Blancanieves

The title translates to Snow White and brings the Brothers Grimm fairy tale--not so much the Disney movie--into 1920s Andalusia.

If, after a cinematic year that saw--though I didn't see--Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror, plus the ongoing TV show Once Upon a Time, you may be thinking "I've had all the Snow I need for awhile," you'll be missing out on a truly unique and special film, about which Chaz instantly said:

"That is the most beautiful movie I've ever seen."

I'm told Blancanieves will have a limited release in Chicago soon, so it'll be a good while until it turns up on Netflix or in your local library, but I suggest you keep an eye out for it.

Being a latter-day silent film, it certainly reminds in some ways of The Artist, but its sensibilities also made me think of Pan's Labyrinth (with a shared star, the lovely, but not so nice here, Maribel VerdĂș).

The movie was made, over 8 years, by Pablo Berger, who both introduced it at Ebertfest and participated in a Q&A afterwards, moderated by film historian David Bordwell.

Given audience comments about how wonderful the movie's score is--composed by Alfonso de Vilallonga--Berger adroitly suggested that it should  more accurately be called a "music film," rather than a silent one.

Reflecting on a much-cited line from Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself--"We must try to contribute joy to the world"--which was reprinted on a remembrance card handed out at Ebertfest, Berger said that is why he makes films.

And it certainly felt to me that this is a man who directs movies primarily because he loves to tell stories (rather than, overtly, to make money), something Ebert strongly championed for years.

Whereas The Artist was a love letter to Hollywood's silent film era, Blancanieves is, as Berger confirmed, a love letter to silent European cinema.

And in watching it, it was easy to see why Roger Ebert loved it so much.

I can also imagine what Roger appreciated about Escape From Tomorrow, a film shot guerilla-style at Walt Disney World and Disneyland by director Randy Moore, who was on-hand with a collaborator and three of the film's actors.

But while the film has an interesting premise and was quite funny in parts, I didn't like it nearly as much as Blancanieves.

Of course, it didn't help that those of us in the standby line weren't let into the 5:00pm screening until 5:20pm. Films at Ebertfest rarely start right on time, with Chaz--and in past years, Roger--typically providing a nice introduction, but I know I missed at least 5 minutes of Escape From Tomorrow, if not more, after waiting in line for an hour.

Thus I opted not to bother trying to get into Saturday's 9:00pm film, The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt and starring Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), both of whom were on hand.

That was fine, as part of the fun of Ebertfest for me is that it allows me to visit my longtime friends, Jordan and Erin, who live just blocks from the Urbana house in which Roger grew up.

So while Ebertfest, or the world for that matter, will never quite be the same without Roger Ebert, it was nice to see that through the town, the university, the movies and the woman he so clearly and dearly loved, his spirit will live on.

Thumbs up, indeed.

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