Get a Life, says Badass Wexler (with Love)


“Ebertfest Panel” by Vincent van Gogh.

There’s too much to tell.

On Ebertfest Opening Night, I was still on an airliner barreling straight through the heart of a violent storm. As my plane bucked and dodged lightning bolts somewhere between Chicago and Champaign, the Ebertfest faithful were finding rapture in Chaz’s soothing words and two poetic films, I REMEMBER by Grace Wang and DAYS OF HEAVEN by this dude named Terence Malick. There was also an epic singalong that’s already become legend.

Later that night, after I kissed the ground and dried off in Champaign-Urbana, I asked Matt Zoller Seitz to give me some idea of how the evening went. “The crowd was great. The crowd is always great at Ebertfest. There’s no bullshit here. People are here for the movies.”

Matt interviewed legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the 91 year old legend who shot major portions of DAYS. He says it went well: “We forget that this guy, whose first major work was during the 1960’s and ’70’s is actually part of The Greatest Generation. He was in World War II. Total badass, still sharp and tough as ever.”

By all accounts, yes, Wexler was badass and Chaz was giving sweet and poignant commentary and Grace was as graceful as her short film, which I’ve seen (and loved) before on a screener video but felt quite sad for having missed on the big screen. “It looked amazing,” film critic and playwright Sheila O’Malley said of I REMEMBER the next day. It must be true: Grace says that after the screenings, Mr. Wexler himself turned his camera on her for an impromptu interview–a filmmaker-to-filmmaker gesture as sweet as a forehead kiss.

The Virginia Theater, where all the Ebertfest films are shown, has a classically huge screen, so its truly inspiring to see certain films that were shot digitally for little or no money blown up so beautifully. One of Roger’s Far-Flung Correspondents, Michael Mirasol, cut together a heartfelt commercial for the festival (using “thumbs up” clips from movies) just days before Roger passed and uploaded it to Vimeo. That same little video now accompanies every Ebertfest screening, to enthusiastic applause. After Roger passed away, he added a “For Roger” graphic over a slow zoom into a characteristically charismatic pic of the man himself. The crowd melts, every time. Too bad Michael can’t be here to see the love his work is getting.

Thursday morning, Badass Wexler popped up again, on Festival Director Nate Kohn’s discussion panel titled “Sustaining a Career in Film.” Wexler, HOOP DREAMS director Steve James and Sony Pictures Classics executive Michael Barker  dispensed a truckload of wisdom, but what stuck the most was Wexler’s passionate social justice/antiwar stance. He described the tough choices he’s had to make between art, politics and commerce. We weren’t dealing with a kindly old retiree here, but the confrontational director of “Medium Cool,” still in full force.

Barker told a great story from the early 70’s about skipping school and borrowing his dad’s car when he was a teenager “from the wrong side of the tracks.” He took the car not to party or cruise for chicks but to see a film discussion panel at Southern Methodist University.  There he first encountered Roger Ebert as some kind of cineaste rockstar in shades, exuding the rebellious confidence of a boy wonder who had recently written a naughty movie (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS).

Nutritious soundbites:

JAMES: (quoting a friend) “I’ve been trying to sell out, but nobody’s been buying.”

WEXLER: “Having a career shouldn’t be confused with having a life.”

JAMES: “Roger lived life rather than reading about life, studying life. Sometimes you need to close the laptop and experience life.”

Another panel (“Reality or Illusion: A False Dichotomy?”), headed by San Diego professor and Eberfest veteran Eric Pierson, also produced many juicy quotes, but one by Ray Pride of Movie City News brought the house down: “Indie filmmakers need to learn how to write about their films like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone: ‘It’s a thrill ride of clinical depression!'”

If you missed these events, you can view them here.

The screenings that followed, throughout the day into the night, were sublime. More on those later–along with the profound reason van Gogh, a patron saint of the festival alongside Roger, has been crudely Photoshop-evoked above.

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