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A Critic Sat In a Dark Theater, Reflecting on Ebertfest

Four years ago, I sat in the front row of the Virginia Theater, peering over my shoulder to look at Roger Ebert. It was an overcast Sunday afternoon in Champaign, Illinois, and the festival had just concluded with a showing of ​“Citizen Kane” ​accompanied by Roger’s audio commentary. In retrospect, it was a fitting selection as Roger’s last movie with the people of Ebertfest, once more opening our eyes to the wonders of cinema in real time, as his writing often does. After the festivities had wrapped, a line formed inside the theater. Festival attendees wanted their books signed while they said their goodbyes to Roger, who was sitting in his rugged, brown chair, smiling. “Until next year Roger and Chaz,” peopled ecstatically said, unaware of what the next 12 months would hold.

For more than 30-minutes I nervously circled the Virginia, attempting to muster up the courage to say “hello” to Roger. When I retreated to my seat, frustrated with the anxiety that had bubbled up, my father refused to leave. “Why do you think we came here? You have to do this,” he insisted. And he was right, I ​had ​to say something to the man who had irrevocably changed my life in ways that I could not yet fully comprehend. After the umpteenth trip to the washroom, repeatedly splashing water onto my face, I said something to Roger and Chaz. As he signed my copy of ​”Life Itself“, ​I forked over my shoddily designed business card with a note inscribed on the back:

“​Dear Roger,

Although you are no longer able to speak, your voice will live on forever.

Sincerely,

– Sam”

My life would never be the same.

Jump ahead to 2015 and Ebertfest continues to be a film-crazed enclave. There are many reasons its legacy continues to endure, but none are more important than the festivals’s inhabitants. While most film festivals are circuses, fueled by the buying and selling of art, Ebertfest is a reunion. At the same time every year, thousands of people from around the world gather in a lavish movie palace from the roaring ’20s to be dazzled. But it’s not merely the moving pictures that do the dazzling, it’s the people around them.

For five serene days a surrogate family is given time to reconnect. Phones are silenced and brightly lit screens are dimmed as people break free from their daily routines. There are no publicists haranguing journalists, and vice versa. There are no studios looking to forge a deal. There are no actors or actresses attempting to ​make it at this festival. If your piece of art has been invited to Ebertfest, you’ve already made it. I suspect there’s no film festival on this continent that has a higher rate of returning attendees and special guests—and it’s not because Champaign is some exotic foreign land with tropical weather, beaches, and endless sunshine. It’s the people. Roger attracted folks from all walks of life, and there is perhaps no better representation of this diversity in humanity than Ebertfest. One day you’re discussing the merits of “​Goodbye to Language” ​with a couple from Iowa, the next you’re talking about Robert De Niro with Chazz Palminteri.

Under the most circumstances, locating the connective tissue in these spontaneous, fragmented conversations would be difficult. But the through-line is clear: Roger’s voice is our shared foundation, the unifying interest that brings us together, rendering us inseparable. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; Rogerlost it at ​Mad ​magazine; and we’ve lost it at the Virginia Theater.

Last year I assumed the role of prognosticator at Indiewire, predicting the fate of Ebertfest without its inimitable creator. My visions of the future were cautiously optimistic. A year later my sentiments remain unchanged—despite the fact that the departure of Mary Susan Britt (the glue of the operation) coincides with our degenerating attention spans, which appear to be shrinking with each passing 140-character snippet of snark. Perhaps it’s my naiveté nestling in, but after sitting in the Virginia Theatre for five days, my faith in Ebertfest has become unshakable. No matter the troubles of the present, it’s clear that with Chaz at the helm, Nate Kohn behind the scenes, and an audience still interested in the movies, the festival, like Roger’s work, will endure.

The balcony isn’t closed, and it never will be.

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The Q&As of Ebertfest 2015

A lovely mediation on the interplay between art and life, Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction closed out Ebertfest yesterday on a joyful, musical note. But the show isn’t over quite yet: embedded below are the individual Q&As from throughout the festival. Click the link on the title to read the RogerEbert.com review. Also, be sure to check this space later for a reflective recap of the 17th Ebertfest. Continue reading

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In Conversation with Godfrey Cheshire, Director of “Moving Midway”

In ambling around the Virginia Theater I’ve asked many Ebertfest attendees a simple question: “What has been your favorite movie thus far?” In return, most folks have delivered a simple response: “Moving Midway.” The documentary, directed by critic/filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, is a fascinating examination into a Southern family’s rich and sordid history. After the premiere of his directorial debut in Champaign, Cheshire sat down with me to have a telling conversation about his work, moving away from home, and more.

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Question: What is the best Alloy Orchestra Performance?

Ever year Ebertfest makes it a point to show one silent film accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. This year they brought The Son of the Sheik, in which the eponymous sheik (played by Rudolph Valentino) falls head over heels for an alluring dancer (Vilma Banky). Although it ultimately twists and turns into a riveting revenge story, it’s Alloy that makes this a unique cinematic experience. Continue reading

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An Update to the Spit Take Award and “The End of the Tour”

Two years ago RogerEbert.com writer Steven Boone started the “Spit Take” award, which aims to celebrate one Ebertfest guest who made the Virginia Theater burst into laughter. In 2013, the prestigious prize was given to actor Michael Shannon, who brought the house down with a joke about his behind. In continuing this grand tradition, I’m officially awarding the 2015 spit take award to Jason Segel. Continue reading

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In Conversation: Héloïse Godet of “Goodbye to Language”

Hailing from Paris, France, actress Héloïse Godet is attending this year’s Ebertfest on behalf of Goodbye to Language, which opened the festival on Wednesday night to a packed Virginia Theater audience. Serving as the de-facto spokesperson for Jean-Luc Godard, the gifted actress was awarded the coveted Golden Thumb by Chaz. Her work in Godard’s latest cinematic experiment is awe-inspiring. Every frame she inhabits radiates with beauty and vulnerability. She exudes these qualities in person too, where she joined me in a candid conversation. Continue reading

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Goodbye to Understanding

This year’s Opening Night film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, is a towering achievement in something. It’s unclear exactly what that “something” is, and perhaps it’s ultimately irrelevant. Godard appears uninterested in providing clear explanations. He thrives on intoxicating 3-D mystery. For 73 minutes, a master in cinema is asking us to stop what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. Put down the brightly-lit screens competing for our attention every second of every day. Forget about the way you’ve watched movies in the past. Disregard basic cinematic grammar. Stop searching for themes and blinding revelations. Just give in, or don’t. Continue reading

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Before Ebertfest: A (Brief) Introduction

Dear Readers, Ebertfest attendees, and everyone in between,

Before the festivities kicked off tonight, I wanted to make a brief introduction.

I’m Sam Fragoso, the writer Ebertfest selected to run the blog this year. For the next five days this space will serve as an outlet to reflect, ruminate, and discuss what’s happening inside the Virginia Theater. Hopefully, the movies– and my writings on those movies–will inspire discourse. To put it plainly: comments and conversation are welcome. Continue reading

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Friday was the day of painfully cathartic films. Two of them dealt in grunge realism (OSLO, AUGUST 31st and JULIA), one in piercing emotional realism related in dizzying theatrical terms (THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA). Out in the real world, tragedies to rival the movies continued apace.

Saturday was the day of cutting loose. It had rained all week and now the sun was out. Chaz and Tilda Swinton led an all-audience dance, which set a giddy mood. The sight of Professor David Bordwell neck-popping to Barry White is a memory I’ll carry to my grave–as is that of Chaz onstage dancing the way you dance in the living room. Free spirits. “Dancing with Roger!” Tilda shouted while grooving with Chaz.

The films selected for today sustained that giddiness, even as they ventured into deep, dark, disturbing places.

BLANCANIEVES is a magical, morbid and melodramatic antidote to the recent rash of plasticized, trillion-dollar fairy tale movies. Pablo Berger’s radiant persona during the Q&A mirrors the dark glow of his silent/loud film.

KUMARE starts off like a reality TV stunt, punking various New Age acolytes looking for a guru; ends up saying something quite moving about belief, trust, self-perception and self-determination. Did Roger’s selection here anticipate our tireless canonization of him? That would be cool, and quite characteristic of our Movie Savior. All hail.

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW . Well, Damon Packard’s underground classic REFLECTIONS OF EVIL ventured into this thematic turf first, turning the Universal Studios theme park into a nightmare similar to the one that beseiges this film’s Disneyland vacationers. But that was a decade ago, before cinema-quality cameras were small enough to sneak into theme parks. ESCAPE’s guerilla fantasy-horror is as seamless, as feverishly inventive as BLANCANIEVES.

Writer-Director Randy Moore was reserved about criticizing Disney during the Q&A at first, until insistent questions about Disney-as-Satan prompted him to describe the company’s products as a force that invades every home, indoctrinates every child.  He characterized sneaking around in Walt Disney World as a kind of reciprocal home invasion.

Roger once mentioned that TOUCH OF EVIL was a dark and violent film that nevertheless left him feeling happy. Or something like that. I can’t find the quote presently, but here’s a familiar one that gets at why ESCAPE’s intense Freudian horror is so hilarious: “It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it.”

James Ponsoldt’s  THE SPECTACULAR NOW, Saturday’s last film, has been compared to the teen dramedies of John Hughes. I didn’t get to catch the whole thing, but from what I saw of it, John Hughes has never written or directed anything so elegantly, compassionately “kitchen sink.”

B, a volunteer at the fest (U of I economics major/future filmmaker), rushed into the Virginia theater’s back room all choked up, warning me that I was missing “a very, very moving film.” I went back into the theater to witness rare wisdom and tenderness. The beauty of its final scenes are all about the sorrows of missing out on all the good that is in your reach [he typed as the Q&A proceeded without him].

The Michael Shannon Spit Take Award

curtainsActor Michael Shannon got the biggest laugh of last year’s Ebertfest at a Q&A for the film TAKE SHELTER. Asked about what similarities between himself and his director, Jeff Nichols, he drew upon to portray a paranoid everyman, he slowly leaned into the mic for a perfect beat of silence and muttered, “We have similar asses.”

If the entire audience had been drinking water at that moment, there’d have been a thousand spit takes.

It’s too early to call the winner of the first annual Michael Shannon Spit Take Award (which is not an actual Eberfest award, just something I made up five minutes ago), but I will predict that cinema muse Tilda Swinton (who presented her film JULIA last night) will defeat director Richard Linklater (who presented his BERNIE Thursday night). Both were warm, funny and laidback, pulling easy laughs out of the crowd. But Tilda’s riff on hog-tying a child actor, aided by fest director Nate Kohn (a master of Shannonesque timing and deadpan delivery himself) brought the house down. Her line, “Nate, it’s got to start somewhere” was screenplay caliber. You can watch her JULIA Q&A here.

These Q&A things can be murder if the subjects take themselves too seriously and don’t embrace spontaneity, real conversation. I have yet to observe that problem at Ebertfest.