Things I Love
What I love about film festivals:
I love to watch great, little-known movies. Then, afterward, I love to listen to panel discussions where the writers, directors, producers, critics, and fans exclaim over how amazing it is that no one knows about these movies.
Frequently blamed is the lack of know-how on the part of marketers about how to publicize a film that doesn't fit into a genre. That is -- a film that's not copying a whole series of prior films, which is what a genre is.
Whoever is to blame, when I see these movies I feel like the universe is finally allowing me to glimpse secrets worth knowing.
Another thing I love: festival passes. Not only do I and the rest of the truth-seekers get a brightly-colored piece of plastic to dangle from our necks. We also get a cord to hang the plastic from. What's special about the cords? Well, if they're black and made of cloth-type material, then from the back they look like chokers.
Choker: an unsexy name for a sexy piece of apparel. Basically, chokers are bikinis for necks.
Why is this important for a film fest? Well, when 1600 people are packed into a 1600-seat theater where each seat is designed for someone four feet tall, and those people are packed together for three-plus hours at a stretch, it becomes very important to have something sexy to look at.
What a feeling, to sit with my face a foot behind an attractive young neck with a choker around it. Almost like being back in school, except the slide shows are way cooler.
So that's what I love about film festivals.
What I love about Roger Ebert's film festival:
I love the fact that it happened at all this year. For months, Mr. Ebert's neck has been clothed in a decidedly unsexy brace. He's been in the hospital for most of a year -- first for salivary cancer, then for a number of burst blood vessels. He has had a tracheotomy. He has had part of his jaw removed. He cannot talk. How he eats, God only knows.
He still produced this film festival.
When in the best of health, Roger basically volunteers to be Superman for not less than five days a year. For his annual festival he chooses and introduces fourteen or so films, interviews the guests, conducts morning panels for aspiring filmmakers, and still finds time to hobnob with the hoi-polloi at Steak 'n Shake. I have no idea when he sleeps. Perhaps he doesn't need to, because the movies are his dreams.
Certainly, if the flat expanse of a movie screen was a sovereign country, its own nation -- and who's to say it's not, given that every one of us has longed, at some point in our lives, to emigrate to the dream land we saw advertised on that expanse of silver, to seek a better life, to become the respected and successful citizens we always thought we could be -- then Roger would be the screen's ambassador, its elder statesman: witty, diplomatic, authoritative, loyal.
This year, he could not conduct interviews or panels. But he still attended the festival, selected the films, and through the power of his name attracted guests who otherwise would never have a reason to make any kind of journey to a place like Champaign-Urbana. After this, I have no complaints to make.
Except -- I missed his voice. I missed it in the interviews and introductions. I missed having it inform my thoughts on a movie as I watched it. His voice is almost a separate presence. When he talks about a movie he loves, his voice radiates a thoughtful but unreserved warmth. His voice makes whatever he loves seem deserving of our love too.
His voice wasn't completely absent, though. I could hear bits of it in the delighted voices of the filmmakers who had, often for the first time, seen a large, appreciative audience bask in the movies they had made. I could hear it in the audience, eager to be amazed, to gasp or giggle, to collapse from hours of laughter. I could hear it in the voice of his wife Chaz, who did most of the introductions and many of the interviews, and who seemed to love these movies as much as Roger did.
I could hear it in the stories of the guests. I heard it from Werner Herzog when he explained why he could not explain the dancing chicken at the end of his movie Stroszek -- and then when he went on to talk about how, in one of his past jobs as a parking-lot attendant, he would sometimes set unmanned vehicles circling around and around. I heard it from Joey Lauren Adams as she described how the location of her film Come Early Morning was chosen partly so that her grandmother could bring cookies. I heard it from Jim White, musician, narrator and inspiration for the movie Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, as he talked about how, in the rural South, one is either saved, a criminal, or a golfer.
I could hear it in Roger's own screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was a blast. As Roger said: it was his happening, and it freaked him out.
I could hear it in the gifts that showered down from the stage. In the astonishing ending of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which must be seen on a big screen -- but, I'm guessing, probably never will be again. In the fantastic score for full, live orchestra which accompanied Gloria Swanson's Sadie Thompson. In the music of the band Strawberry Alarm Clock, which provided songs for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and which reunited for the first time in 37 years -- just for Roger's festival. Just imagine: all five guitar players survived, and all were on stage!
I could hear Roger's voice in how, even if I wasn't crazy about a particular movie, it was still a unique experience, different from anything I'd ever seen before or will ever see again.
Every year, Mr. Ebert comes home to Champaign-Urbana, and asks those of us who never left if there is room in our lives for his film festival.
To which I reply, paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut: Mr. Ebert, my life is nothing but room for your film festival.
Here's to a better year for you and yours. See you soon.