Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ebertfest Report #1: Ebertfest: 5 Days of Magic and Movies

Today (now yesterday) marks the first day of the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival. It marks the fifth time I’ve attended the event and promises to be one of the more important Ebertfests in the history of the festival. Of the greatest importance is that this marks the triumphant return of Roger Ebert to the film festival that is his namesake.

The Chicago Sun Times critic spent the last couple of years in and out of hospitals after complications with the removal of a cancerous tumor left him quite literally speechless. He was all set to return to the tenth anniversary celebration of his film festival last year when a fall during physical therapy curtailed his trip. He has since renounced any further efforts to return the use of his voice through surgery, but even in silence, I’m sure the audience at Ebertfest will welcome his return.


This is my fifth time attending what is guaranteed to be the best programmed film festival out there, and for the first time I prefaced my trip to Ebert’s childhood home town film fest with a short visit to the city Ebert currently calls home, Chicago. I have a couple of friends residing in the Windy City, including my former editor Scott Downing and my friend since the first grade Trevor Walsh. I “crashed” at my longtime buddy’s house with his beautiful wife Charlene and their cats Huxley and Mouse. Hux and Mouse were a little more wary of the four-day intruder than their parents, but even they couldn’t resist the opportunity for some new found attention during some of the quieter moments of the weekend.

My passion for film is matched and quite likely surpassed by Trev’s and Scott’s passion for music; so in the past four days I’ve become enveloped back into the world of underground and just plain old great music. The driving force of their listening habits of at the moment seem to center around the doom/stoner rock movement being led by bands like OM, Earthless, High on Fire, Jesu, Sun O))) and Karysun among others.

In fact my personal film festival got off to an early start when Scott proposed a screening of the movie “Such Hawks Such Hounds” documenting the history of stoner rock. There is perhaps no better introduction to this seemingly obscure genre of rock that finds its roots in the 70s bands Black Sabbath, Pentagram and Deep Purple. After the screening I was out celebrating National Record Store Day looking up all the doom bands I could find. Came home with quite a few too.

There were other highlights to my pre-festival adventure. I enjoyed the best burger made by humans at a place called Kuma’s Corner. This burger is so good that it will make you contemplate the meaning of the universe, and the answer it provides is—to eat a burger at Kuma’s. I saw my first Dario Argento movie. “The Mother of Tears” is the third in the “Three Mothers” trilogy that began with his 1977 cult classic “Suspiria”. I will reserve my judgment on Argento until I’ve seen one of his films of that caliber, but I’m pretty sure “Mother of Tears” didn’t reveal anything important from to beginning of the series.

I also watched a sorely disappointing loss of the Bulls to the Celtics in their second game of the NBA’s first playoff round. To make it up to me Trev took me out to another bar at the expense of his own exhaustion at work the next day. Ironically, while there we fell victim to the scourge of movie piracy that holds Hollywood in a state of terror like the merchant vessels passing along the Somali coast. The bar tender—a familiar acquaintance with my buddy Trev—announced that he has one of those pirated downloads of the new “Wolverine” movie and because hockey sucks, that’s what he was determined to watch. Oh, what is a noble film critic to do? Somehow the night (and early morning) turned into an uproarious riot. There will be more to say on that matter in my review of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” when it is released theatrically next week. But feel free to check out my recent article decrying movie piracy here.

Now, I sit in eager anticipation of the opening night movie at the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival. I’m quite satisfied with the fact that this year’s opening selection is “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music – The Director’s Cut”. It promises to construct a strong bridge between the two halves of my vacation. I’m ready for some of the best films I’ll see all year.


I walked into the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill. with a large can of Starbuck’s Mocha Double-Shot in preparation of the four-hour music phenomenon I was about to witness, and it struck me that Starbuck’s may very well be a product of that hippie nation that was formed in upstate New York over forty years ago. Certainly that event has something to do with how corporate America learned to latch on to pop cultural trends and exploit them to their fullest profit-making excess. Of course, Woodstock concert promoter Bill Graham is seen in the film suggesting to security the use of flaming oil to keep the non-ticket holders out of the venue, but alas the fact that Woodstock would become a free concert was inevitable in retrospect. However, not something today’s business oriented industry would allow.

Now, I’m perched in the upper balcony of that grand old theater realizing that my extended weekend was most certainly the result of that iconic concert in a cornfield. The doom music that dominated my outings with my friends might’ve had even those hippies running away in fear, but the music and cultural revolution that began with those three days of peace freed the minds of countless artists thereafter and countless more to come. It allowed a cultural barrier of controlled behavior to topple in favor of individualism and expression of self that has enlightened the music that has been consumed in mass quantities ever since. It has enlightened those that listened to them, and allowed them to embrace an atmosphere of self-expression that has lead to an ever-growing quantity of outlets and forums for relaying ideas and forging new ones. Extremists express most of those ideas because they bark louder than anyone else, but they have sprung forth in an era of information and worldwide access that allows anyone to put in their two cents. And most people do.

Whoa! Where did all this begin? Oh yes, Woodstock.


Michael Wadleigh was on hand to introduce his director’s cut of “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music” to the capacity crowd of the Virginia Theater. He “reminded” the audience that the movie is not a retrospective. Woodstock was the beginning of a social, political and environmental movement that is still going on today. Wadleigh’s words and warnings brought great relevance to the fact that this screening was held on Earth Day.

But before the screening of the film there was urgent business to attend to. Roger Ebert returned to the stage of the Virginia Theater to a standing ovation as his wife Chas addressed the audience saying, “Heee’s back!”

She promised the crowd “this is going to be a groovy evening.” And then invited Wadleigh onstage to ask the audience the question we all were already asking ourselves, “Is there anybody in the audience who was at Woodstock?” There was one resounding “Yeeeeeaaah!” screamed from the mezzanine level. I think she was still there.

Then, remarkably, Roger addressed the audience himself with the use of a MacBook with a suspiciously British accent. Roger introduced the film as the 70mm director’s cut version, however I later discovered from the projectionist that it was actually digitally projected using a 70mm source for the digital version. Honestly, it wasn’t as crisp as the 70mm prints usually look in with the expert projection provided at Ebertfest. If someone was trying to prove something about the clarity of digital being just as good as 70mm to Roger, I think they proved Roger’s point that it isn’t. Regardless, the film looked great (just not as great as it would’ve in true 70mm), and Roger closed his introduction of the picture by cautioning the audience not to take the “brown acid.”

There is a moment in Wadleigh’s wonderful movie when a dimwitted reporter asks one of the concert organizers what musicians have that allow them to speak to young people. The organizer has no trouble deducting it. “Music”, he says. Duh!

There is another point, when Joe Cocker takes the stage. The camera focuses on his erratic hand movements, and all I could think about was the impression John Belushi did of him on “Saturday Night Live”. Then Cocker begins to sing and all those thoughts just disappear. What comes out of his mouth is magical and transformative. There is nothing else that matters at that point. And the same thing happens in the once omitted footage of Janis Joplin. And during Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”. And during the Canned Heat performance when some lucky audience member somehow makes his way on stage to bum a smoke from the singer during the middle of a song. And during all the performances and interviews. Wadleigh spoke after the screening about the honesty of the movie. And generally it isn’t just the movie that’s honest, but the people in it. The Police Chief who isn’t a “cop” because he’s the Chief of Police. Or the farmer who provided a place for the food to be delivered. Or the commune couple who actually have quite an enlightened perspective on the world. Or the musicians, because they provide the music. And that’s were the honesty really is. It’s in the music. The music is everything.

"Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Ultimate Edition" DVD and Blu Ray will be available June 9.

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