Article du C-U: Ebertfest X, pt.2

“The Big Ten”
Roger Ebert’s Film Festival reaches the end of a decade – but without its founder and host

by Anthony Zoubek


I HAVE ATTENDED ALL BUT ONE Ebertfest since the program’s inception. In its first year, I was a spectator. Most years after, I reported from the festival for various publications and have been privy to a variety of memorable moments:

• The collective gasp of a thousand or so spectators at a screening of PATTON (1970) as a large-scale George C. Scott “stepped into” the Virginia Theatre’s stage and in front of an American flag projected from a 70mm print so crisp, we could see the netting on the back of his fake eyebrows;

Donald O’Connor’s appearance at a festival-closing screening of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), bittersweet in retrospect as it came mere days before the Danville native’s death;

• The moment when one audience member, during a question-and-answer session with festival guests following a screening of the original Japanese SHALL WE DANCE? (1996), was so moved by the film’s poetry that he decided to ask his then-girlfriend for her hand in marriage;

• The following year, when they both came back and showed off their wedding rings;

• The last public screening of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927) to feature the live musical accompaniment of the lauded Alloy Orchestra;

• The evening during which Roger Ebert screened Neil LaBute’s sophomore effort, YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS (1998), and veteran director Bob Rafelson’s BLOOD AND WINE (1997). LaBute and Rafelson participated in after-screening discussions with Ebert and the audience. Rafelson recounted his feature film debut, the Monkees’ vehicle HEAD (1968), which he co-wrote with Jack Nicholson. (“We picked that title because we wanted to use the line in ads for later movies – ‘From the producers who gave you…’”) LaBute was confronted by a member of the audience who took offense to NEIGHBORS’ use of profanity. “I know you probably felt the need to use the word to make your characters more potent,” the person said, “but I felt, after a while, that the word became overused.” LaBute’s dramatic pause caused many festival attendees to sit up in their seats, waiting for an answer. Without missing a beat, LaBute looked up to the person’s section of the balcony, exclaiming like one of the film’s characters, “You wanna come down and say that to my f**king face?”

• The screening of “Golden Age of Silent Comedy,” a compilation of short films featuring Harold Lloyd, the Little Rascals, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Felix the Cat, presented as a free family matinee by the Silent Movie Theatre Company. Charlie Lustman, a songwriter who took over the Silent Movie Theatre in 1999, hosted the matinee and opened it with a live vaudevillian performance. Visitors to Lustman’s theater are treated to homemade cookies by Lustman’s mother who, with Lustman’s father, originally opened the Silent Movie Theatre 66 years ago at the height of the sound era, when no one thought silent movie exhibition stood a chance. Children in the Ebertfest audience were also treated to homemade cookies by Lustman’s mother;

• The reunion of every living member of rock band The Strawberry Alarm Clock and their live performance following a screening of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), the cult classic penned by Ebert in which they and their music appeared, and;

• The number of people who filled the Virginia Theatre to its rafters during the festival’s screening of Alex ProyasDARK CITY (1998). The film – one of New Line Cinema’s biggest flops – broke the venue’s single-screening attendance record set in 1977 by STAR WARS.

Film fans still had new spur-of-the-moments to look forward to in 2008, but this year’s festival was negated of the opportunity for audiences to watch films with America’s preeminent film critic and learning the “stories behind the films” directly from his lips. Hours before the official kickoff of Ebertfest this year, The Associated Press reported that Ebert, 65, was continuing in his recovery from a hip injury on top of a series of cancer-related surgeries over the past few years that left him unable to speak.

Still, Ebert intended to attend. Last year, he used the festival as a forum for his first public appearance following the surgery that took his speaking abilities; a special recliner was installed in the back of the Virginia for the ailing critic to comfortably watch films. This year, the same chair appeared empty. The flickering light constantly bounced from the screen onto the recliner’s leather – a quiet reminder that, despite the quality of the movies selected, an integral part of the festival’s charm was sorely missed.



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“The Big Ten” pt.2 © 2009 Anthony Zoubek. Used with permission.

CUBlog edit © 2009 Jason Pankoke

DARK CITY photograph © 2008 New Line Home Entertainment,
METROPOLIS photograph courtesy Kino on Video


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