"When we started out (with our first film project), we went in with the idea that everybody has a story to tell. And by the end, we learned, not everybody does."
-Sandra Fierlinger, co-director of My Dog Tulip,
with the funniest quote from Ebertfest so far
Also known as the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, this year marks the 13th annual Ebertfest held in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and my first foray to both the festival (hell, to any film festival) and to Roger's hometown. Venues are held in two locations: screenings at The Virginia Theatre on Park Avenue in downtown Champaign; panel discussions at the Illini Union on the University of Illinois campus. For future attendees it should be advised that the Union Hotel is also the prime place for lodgings; I was too late in making reservations, however, and am staying instead at the Hampton in Urbana on the northern tip of campus -- which lacked hot water in this morning's shower and possesses a certain hard-edged charm. (When I asked the front-desk person if there were any shuttles to the Theatre, she replied with a curt, "No." Not any alternative suggestions for bus transport, nor offers to call a cab. Just "No.") But the hotel does have the benefit of being within a ten-minute walk of the Union and an equally short drive to a downtown parking garage only a couple blocks from the Virginia. Parking was one of my biggest concerns coming in, but it's surprisingly cheap and easy.
Opening night proved to be a very enjoyable (if very late) evening that deviated from the regular program, Chaz Ebert explained in her introductory remarks, in that two films were shown instead of the traditional one 70mm event: Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis; and last month's SXSW festival winner Natural Selection. This was actually the second time in two months that I'd seen the newly restored Metropolis, the first being in February at Indiana University with music from a 17-piece Jacobs School student orchestra. The Ebertfest version was scored by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-person unit renowned for their silent-film music that's heavy on percussion and electronica and banging pots and pans. This seems to be a minority opinion here, but I found their approach a little grating, while obviously passionate and ambitious. I'm not sure, though, that sound effects are needed for every single action and gesture in the movie. I thought that the more traditionally classical performance by the Jake, the first use of the "new" sheet music (based on the formerly lost original score by Gottfried Huppertz), was more effective. Either way, Metropolis is still a stunning experience. An indestructible classic, if the movie could survive Giorgio Moroder, it can survive anything.
The Ebert-led jury in Austin slathered Natural Selection with prizes, and it's easy to see why a good Darwinist like Roger flipped over it. Robbie Pickering's road comedy about a fundamentalist housewife's search for her sperm-donating husband's son spends its first half scoring easy points on the Christian right and its second half doubling back for some hasty deepening. (The Ebertfest audience ate it up, especially Loud Laughing Guy sitting behind me in the balcony: "HAW HAW HAW HAW!") It's always tricky with a target like this, not because I think it's an undeserving topic for satire, but I guess I want a filmmaker to challenge his own assumptions, to explore where these characters are coming from, and depicting a minister who swears and says "goddamn" a lot seems less than that. Yet, somehow, my dislike for the movie transformed almost imperceptibly into delight: Pickering has a knack for tightening screwball comic logic, so that the movie becomes a sort of Preston Sturges film about evangelicals; and he's doubly blessed having Rachael Harris as his lead. The Ebertfest program notes assure us that "we'll be hearing a lot about Robbie Pickering" this year, but rest assured instead that it's Harris (who has been in attendance this week, along with Pickering) who's going to be the topic of conversation. She's phenomenal, and it was an honor to shake her hand and tell her so.
Speaking of handshakes, Roger Ebert, as reported, has a grip like a vise. After thirty years of reading his books and watching the guy on television, plus approximately fifteen years of occasional correspondence (I never expect him to remember who I am, but he at least takes the trouble to pretend he does), this was the first time I'd met him face-to-face. I'd also been asked by the IU Cinema's director to present him with a gift: a Cinema cap. Opportunity knocked in the Theatre lobby immediately following the Metropolis screening: the witty bon-mot I'd had planned, something about accepting a gift from a Big 10 rival (HAW HAW HAW HAW!), promptly dissipated, and I babbled something semi-intelligible instead. No matter. He shook my hand again, then placed his hand over his heart.
Coming Next: Day 2, Umberto D., My Dog Tulip, and Tiny Furniture.