"I don't think people read film criticism. I think people read film critics." - Matt Z. Seitz
This day, the Third of Ebertfest, is my last in Champaign-Urbana for the week, though the festivities will continue through Saturday and early Sunday. Saturday's screenings include a couple of documentaries I'm not that interested in (A Small Act and Life, Above All) and a pair of fictional films that I've already seen (Leaves of Grass and I Am Love). I have no major regrets about bolting a day early, apart from missing Tilda Swinton's appearance on Saturday evening. I'll see her at our wedding, though. And it would have been nice to catch the closing film, Louder Than a Bomb, co-directed by Jon Siskel, nephew of the great Gene. I'll extend my visit next year.
Additionally, I will plan on booking my lodgings early enough to stay at the Illini Union, albeit my lateness in doing so this year may have caught me an unintended break. For reasons many C-U denizens have trouble comprehending, the annual Illini Marathon is being held on Saturday, overlapping with Ebertfest and adding another 20,000 visitors to the 14K that the Festival already provides. Traffic will reportedly be closed through much of campus, where the marathon passes through, but because the Hamptom lies just north of the race, it looks like I may be able to get home.
I've neglected to mention the panels here at Ebertfest, which have been quite enjoyable despite the punishing early morning start times. The Thursday 9 a.m. panel, titled "Personal Stories in Film," featured some interesting discussion -- particularly from Michael Phillips and Kristin Thompson -- on the tension between personal and commercial product in cinema and served as a prelude to a few of the Festival's offerings. After the panel I spoke with Thompson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, along with her husband David Bordwell (who was unfortunately ill and unable to attend), co-proprietor of the brilliant blog Observations on Film Art, and told her the high regard that readers (myself included) have for her and Bordwell's stimulating online discourses. She said that that was good to hear, that at times she and David felt like they were writing in a void. Yet when I suggested that opening the comments on their site might remedy that feeling, Thompson recoiled like I'd offered her a snake. "Oh, no no no no..." she said. It never ceases to amaze me how smart people consistently fail to take advantage of opportunities of their own creation.
The first Friday morning panel, "Ebert Presents: Reinventing the TV Show in the Digital Age," was quite good considering how hungover most of the panelists appeared. Moderated by Chaz Ebert, with Roger in attendance, the folks at the table featured the stars of the new "At the Movies," the very tall Ignatiy Vishnevestsky and the very short Christy Lemire, along with a rogue's gallery of contributors that included David Poland (whose laptop appeared to be attached by umbilical cord), Dann Gire, and Matt Zoller Seitz. However, the topic became more about the state of film criticism itself when Gire (whose name rhymes with either "fear" or "dire") went off on an apocalyptic tangent about the Evils of Rotten Tomatoes, and Matt responded with the quote that kicks off this post. After Christy-L and Iggy-V offered some climactic banter, I joined the congregation at the microphone and eventually asked the panel if they ever feel pressure to conform to the general consensus about a movie. I was pleased that Chaz liked my question so much that she asked it to every panelists down the table, though it ran time over enough for one of the Ebertfest people to warn Chaz that "Norman Jewison is waiting" for the next discussion to start.
Finally, the movies themselves began with 45365 (2009), a lovely documentary from brothers Bill and Turner Ross about a year in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio. I don't know if it was intended, but the film has an Altmanesque quality, from the large ensemble to the overlapping dialogue to frequent use of the pan-and-zoom. (I was also reminded of Do The Right Thing, in the central figure of a white DJ equivalent to Mister Senor Love Daddy.) Outside afterwards, an attendee complained that the movie didn't show enough economic hardship. I would counter that the Ross Bros are not miserabilists but impressionists; I'm not sure what other impression one could take from the quietly affecting sequence of a man's prison sentence beginning by being cuffed and chained by a polite court officer, but I definitely have mine.
The day concluded with a pair of minor films from major filmmakers, both of whom were in attendance. Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles (2008), starring Zac Efron as an eager teenager who partakes in Welles's 1937 production of Julius Caesar, is one of those movies that thinks the most authentic way to depict "The 30s" is by goosing us with nonstop Big Band music and encouraging its cast to talk archly out of the sides of their mouths like a high school production of Give My Regards To Broadway. Linklater's movie is a harmless trifle (strictly Newton Boys territory); Christian McKnight's terrific performance as Welles, more than that.
Norman Jewison's Only You (1994), also an inoffensive time-waster, stars Marisa Tomei as a true-love free-spirit nonsensically about to marry a boring podiatrist until she encounters Robert Downey, Jr. in Italy and believes him to be The One. Jewison's foray into Nora Ephron territory adds to this rough outline a couple of decent twists that I won't spoil for anyone, and whenever the plot starts to flatline Bonnie Hunt, as Tomei's unhappily married sister-in-law, pops in to ad-lib a nifty zinger. Tomei's comic timing, though, is a half-beat too slow for Downey (and a full beat too slow for Hunt), and the two never really connect. Needless to say, the director of In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck has done better things, but it was worth watching the movie just to see Jewison in person (both at the earlier panel and the post-screening Q&A), his memory slipping a little but otherwise looking pretty damned fit for 84 years old.
Ebert's own health sort of became the elephant in the room, one which I want to briefly address. Sitting next to me at one screening was a young woman named Jenny, who confessed that she decided to come to Ebertfest all the way from Washington, D.C. because she didn't know how much time he might have left. She apologized if that sounded badly, and I apologize if it comes across as morbid on the page, but I told her that I understood what she meant. Roger may well outlive all of us, clearly the last thing he wants is to be sentimentalized or pitied, and he won't be getting either from me. Having said that, I think it's good that people feel compelled to celebrate him now -- to celebrate movies with him, to let him know how much he means to them, has meant to them for a long time.
Plenty of articles lately have attributed the loss of Ebert's speaking voice with his "finding a voice" online, but what's never recognized is that Roger has always had an online presence. He created his own online film forum on CompuServe in the late 90s (I know, I was there [briefly]), when nearly every other print critic was pooh-poohing the Internet. As Richard Linklater reminded us, Roger has always been fascinated by technology as well: he said he met Ebert 25 years ago at a college in Hawaii, watched him use a laser-disc copy of Citizen Kane to analyze the film with students frame-by-frame. Linklater called it "my equivalent of film school."
What has made Roger Ebert so vital to film criticism for more than 40 years is his ability to employ new technology (television, laser-disc, the Internet, CereProc voice software) in such a way that he makes his real-world presence even more essential. Yet many film critics and film scholars still don't get it. They think it's an either-or scenario -- choose tradition or choose the future -- and so they become Little Dutch Boys with their fingers in the dyke. Having just seen eight movies over an exhausting three days, I can truly say that I respect what film critics do more than ever, and I'll be more understanding the next time one of them makes a mistake. But I also believe that film critics continue to be their own worst enemies, that if they would stop whining about Rotten Tomatoes and circling the wagons every time a gaggle of immature prepubescents takes umbrage at something they've written -- that if they'd stop embracing martyrdom and start connecting with a potential audience, then Yes, Virginia, some of them just may find their voices too.