Hello. I’m Steven Boone, the knucklehead Ebertfest selected to blog about the event from start to finish this year. None of my future posts will be even half the length of this one, promise. I just want to tell you a few things to set the tone.
Last year’s Ebertfest was my first. It was great to see Grand Poobah Roger and his soulmate Chaz again after our first meeting at a TV convention almost a year and a half prior. If you’re on this site, chances are you’ve already heard it a thousand times, a thousand different ways: The Eberts are real sweeties.
Though a world-famous Chicago newspaperman and a pioneering Chicago attorney don’t rise to power on sweetness alone, you could just tell that, even when they were young go-getters, they must have tempered their phenomenal talents with an essential kindness and concern for others. When they found each other later on in life, that sweetness blossomed and became their great project: Ebertfest is a place were Roger and Chaz cultivated a love and respect for cinema, sustained by their love and respect for each other. To borrow a phrase from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and the Old Testament, they showed us, through the movies, how to develop an understanding heart.
Still, as the festival closed, I had some regrets. Rushing to catch my plane home midway through a closing-day screening of CITIZEN KANE (with Roger’s inimitable audio commentary keeping the packed house spellbound), I felt bad about having spent most of my non-screening time wandering around Urbana-Champaign alone. I’m a lifelong loner. Big gatherings have always sent me running. The spotlight, even at such a laid-back, homey event as Ebertfest, sears my flesh like sunlight on a Darkseeker.
So I squandered the opportunity to connect more with my Ebert family of writers. These are Roger’s Far Flung Correspondents, the film essayists he published and promoted as if they were his favorite grandchildren–and yet always treated with the respect due an accomplished colleague.
My homeboy Odie Henderson put it perfectly in his heart-busting Irish wake-style tribute to Roger: “Roger knew and embraced my refusal to be too serious, and his support of me and those like me provided validation and confirmation for us to find, use, and be proud of our own voices.”
Those voices had flown in from all corners of the Earth, and, having been to the festival a few times before, tended to travel in packs. They had a shared history. They partied and sang karaoke together. They ate lunch together. They sat in rows near the front of the Virginia Theater while I stationed myself in the back. Time ran out, and I only got in a few brief but unforgettable encounters.
One such encounter was with Krishna Bala Shenoi and his mom. Krishna is more or less me when I was a teenager– except Indian and a genius. He worships Steven Spielberg and makes beautiful artwork, illustrated stories, animations and short films. Spielberg himself has praised Krishna’s lovingly rotoscoped tribute to the director’s classics.
Roger introduced Krishna to the world online a few years ago, and Krishna’s mother keeps his head on straight in the face of worldwide praise and high expectations for him as a film artist. In person, he’s just a humble and gracious young man who could speak eloquently for hours about the films in his life. And we almost did. I lost track of time enthusing over his mom’s favorite, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. We got naturally high on memories of seeing JURASSIC PARK and BACK TO THE FUTURE for the first time.
Earlier in the festival, I had a similar thrill over breakfast with David Bordwell, the great film scholar whose essential FILM ART I’d read alongside Roger’s movie books when I was Krishna’s age. Just minutes after my friend and mentor Jim Emerson introduced me to Bordwell, we talked movies with the enthusiasm of old pals. What greased the wheels was the discovery that we both thought SHADOW OF A DOUBT, not VERTIGO, was Alfred Hitchcock’s supreme masterpiece. We geeked out over the reasons why.
When Bordwell analyzes films, he doesn’t frown and scratch his chin like a professor; he beams. Despite his neat gray beard, his face assumes the cherubic character of a 12 year old boy devising some ingenious new route for his electric train set. On stage at the festival some time later, he took infectious delight in telling us about the handmade special effects in a series of silent era fantasy films that had just knocked our eyes out. Not even Krishna is as young as Bordwell is when he’s in this mode.
Bordwell’s boyishness reminded me of Roger in his heyday–his heyday being roughly 1967 to last Thursday. There are dozens of publicity stills out there capturing Roger’s beatific smile, his equally keen and kind eyes, but I prefer the snapshots that one of his finest literary descendants, the ethereal Grace Wang, took of him in black and white.
What a playful soul. That’s the spirit of Ebertfest in an image, and every time I’m feeling a little shy at this year’s inevitably teeming edition of the festival, I’ll steady myself with the memory of those eyes, brimming with the mischief and love of somebody still brand new to the world.
See y’all on the 17th.