Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #1: A Melancholy Pleasure

It has been 10 years since the first Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. In that time, the gathering of filmgoers to descend on the majestic Virginia Theater near the flagship campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana has grown from a modest gathering of a couple thousand entusiastic cineastes to the expected 25,000 attendees this year. It draws guests from around the globe, including filmmakers from the films screened during the festival and many industry insiders who attend out of their love for great movies and Roger Ebert himself.

It was with great disappointment that I learned Tuesday evening that Roger would not be attending the opening night film of the festival on Wednesday. The venerated film critic announced in his journal at the Chicago Sun Times website that he and his doctors had come to the hard decision that he should stay in the hospital and rest after hip surgery a week ago due to a fall he suffered in Florida while undergoing therapy to prepare him for the festival. The fall occurred after nearly two years of medical complications for the Pulitzer-Prize winning critic that began with a necessary surgery due to salivary cancer. “A broken hip adds to my tour of medical adventures. My current plan is to take it easy, obey the doctor’s orders, and start writing reviews again,” Ebert said in his blog.

But the show must go on, and Ebert’s wife Chaz was on hand to herald in the 10th anniversary of the critic’s popular film festival. “I am an Ebert, but I am no Roger,” she said, speaking to a near capacity crowd at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, where all the screenings for the five day festival take place. “Ebertfest without Roger is a bit ‘melancholy,’” she added, using her husband’s own word to describe his abcense. The word—I’m sure—was chosen quite carefully, as it also describes well the hero of the festival’s opening night selection in Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour uncut 70mm version of “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”.

After instructing the audience to send all the positive energy they got from watching these wonderful movies to Roger so that he might get well enough to make an appearance before festival’s end, Chaz welcomed the evening’s special guests, actor’s Timothy Spall and Rufus Sewell from the cast of “Hamlet”. She then mentioned another great loss for Roger Ebert’s Film Festival and film festivals in general, the passing of film enthusiast and great friend to many, Dusty Cohl. Cohl died in January of liver cancer. Cohl was probably best known as co-founder of the Toronto Film Festival, now the premeire North American film festival for launching most of the films that are considered for the many awards and accolades given out each year. He also helped launch the Floating Film Festival and Roger Ebert’s annual festival. Although the man was only a face this writer had seen around at previous years’ of this festival, there was a palpable sense from the audience that had both known and simply benefitted from the man’s efforts that he would be sorely missed.

But any morning was brief as Chaz introduced film historian David Bordwell. Bordwell first called for a mass vocalization of the audience’s well-wishing for Ebert. “Get well Roger!” the crowd chanted twice in unison. Then Bordwell introduced the evening’s film with an enthusiam that may have even matched Ebert’s passion for the ambitious movie. Taking about the glorious crystal clear image of the 70mm format in which director and star Branagh chose to film the melancholy Dane’s tale, Bordwell said of the picture quality, “Don’t even talk to me about DV. Pixels. You can see pixels. We’re talking molecules here!”

Then an audience of nearly 1600 people witnessed a film rarely seen and possibly the last of it breed. Branagh’s sprawling adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous work is the only of its kind. Even on stage, most versions of Hamlet undergo some editing of the Bard’s work. In the grand 70mm format, Branagh mirrors Shakespeare’s own all encomasing script, which covers everything from world politics to the inner workings of more than one person’s descent into madness. And the glorious sets and colorful costumes will never look as spectacular as they do on a large screen.

At the end of four hours, at a very late hour, many chose to stay and watch the original review given by Roger and his former foil Gene Siskel on their television show from 1996. It was funny to revisit the harsh takes of their strong opinions on a movie they both loved. I wonder if either would have regretted some of their remarks against the American actors involved in the production if either had been able to be present at that evening’s screening.

Then, with the clock pushing past midnight, the audience had the pleasure of the company of Mr. Sewell and Mr. Spall. Personally, I found a great deal of irony in the fact that Spall had played the character of Rosencrantz in the film, whose only original thought was Shakespeare’s thinly veiled attack against his own critics in an often cut piece of dialogue where he refers to the “little children” who have driven the company of players that visit Elsinore from the city. Now, here was Spall representing the film at the world’s most famous critic’s film festival. I wanted to point this out to the actor during the question and answer period, but couldn’t bring my tired mind to form an actual question out of it.

Both actors proved themselves with much more wit than me at that late hour, sitting through moderated questions in a panel discussion that was eventually openned up to the public for their questions. Sewell (most recently seen as Alexander Hamilton in HBO’s “John Adams” mini-series) fielded questions about his movie “Dark City”, which was shown at the very first Ebertfest and is much loved by Roger. He gave fans a morsel to chew on when he revealed a new, “very different” director’ cut DVD was in the works. And at the urging of Chaz gave us a taste of his “rather good” Elvis impersonation, although there was more to that he was too embarased to reveal. I have a feeling those who went to Steak ‘N Shake (the festival’s official post screening hang out) afterward were treated to the extended edition of Sewell’s Elvis.

Spall (“Enchanted”, “Sweeney Todd”) revealed that he had been diagnosed with luekemia at about the time he filmed “Hamlet”. “It’s quite an honor to represent this film here, after twelve years in remission,” he said.

Both men helped bring a jovial close to an evening that started out in meloncholia and kicked off what promises to be another great week of films here in Champaign. As for me, with a good night’s sleep, I’m ready to tackle four more days of films that promise to be reflective, insightful, fun, and—despite the fact that I will be watching them with thousands of strangers—like the pleasure of watching movies with a bunch of friends.

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