Inspirational ending for 13th Ebertfest
CHAMPAIGN — After losing a poetry slam at his Oregon school, Mike Millan, who had won it four consecutive times, never wrote a poem again.
Then he saw the documentary "Louder Than a Bomb," about a high school poetry slam, on Sunday at the 13th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre.
"After watching this film, my faith in poetry was rekindled, and I want to write again," he said after the festival ended.
The 19-year-old North Bend, Ore., resident had skipped classes at Southwestern Oregon Community College as he did last year to be at the five-day festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
"I'm on an incredibly tight budget so I save all year for this," Millan said, estimating the trip cost him $1,500.
"It's an incredible festival, an incredible experience," he added as people filed out of the Virginia. "Everybody's very welcoming and kind. Roger and Chaz (Ebert) treated me with the utmost respect, and I'm only an ordinary person."
Among other ordinary people at the festival were Chuck and Eileen Kuenneth of Chicago, who celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary Thursday at the event.
"We wouldn't celebrate anywhere else," Eileen said. "This was our anniversary gift to ourselves."
Like many of the festival-goers, the couple, who first met in a film class taught by Ebert in Chicago, saw and enjoyed all 13 movies.
"I tend to think every year is better than the previous year," said Eileen, who with her husband has attended six Ebertfests. "It's always interesting to see what's inside Roger's head from year to year."
This year the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic showcased movies in different genres, from the silent classic "Metropolis" on opening night, with a live score by Alloy Orchestra, to "Louder Than a Bomb," about four Chicago-area high school poetry teams preparing for the 2008 Louder Than a Bomb Poetry Slam in Chicago, the largest youth poetry competition in the country.
In between Ebert showed two other documentaries, a neo-realist Italian film from 1952, an animated movie and seven features, some by first-time directors and others by established ones, foremost Norman Jewison, 84.
Besides him, the big-name guests at Ebertfest 2011 were directors Richard Linklater and Tim Blake Nelson, also a writer and actor, and actress Tilda Swinton.
Festival director Nate Kohn, who like Ebert is an Urbana native, congratulated Nelson when he came on stage after his "Leaves of Grass" was shown Saturday evening, saying Nelson, perhaps better known as a character actor, had sold out the 1,500-seat venue.
That screening was the only one in which the theater had to turn away a few people who had been waiting in line to buy tickets, said theater manager Steve Bentz. The vintage 1,500-seat theater had full houses for at least six Ebertfest 2011 screenings.
And the expected problems with the Illinois Marathon on Saturday did not materialize. Festival associate director Mary Susan Britt, who received Ebert's Thumb Up Award, a trophy usually reserved for filmmaker guests, said the movie marathon went smoothly on Saturday, and that the Illinois Marathon was more or less over by the time Ebertfest resumed at 11 a.m. that day.
The Illinois Marathon, which attracted 17,000 runners, and the 14th annual Ebertfest will also take place at the same time next year.
"It's a shame that it's on the same weekend," Kohn said. "It's not good for the city, with everything crowded into one weekend."
The marathon also was the subject for at least two jokes during Ebertfest.
On Saturday morning, Kohn, after coming on stage to sub for emcee Chaz Ebert, said, "Chaz is out running the marathon but she'll be here in time for the Q-and-A."
And that night Chaz Ebert announced that Champaign Mayor-elect Don Gerard was in the house.
"We're happy to have you here, and if there's anything you can do about changing the date of the Marathon ...," she added.
On a more serious note, she then said every single Ebertfest 2011 filmmaker talked about how great the projection, sound and screen are at the Virginia Theatre. Her husband often calls the projectionists, Steve Krauss and James Bond, the best in the world.
But he seemed to reserve his highest praise for Swinton, who appeared late Saturday night with the meticulous, stylized "I Am Love."
In a Facebook post, he called her "a leading citizen of the cinema."
"Saint Tilda comes to Ebertfest," he continued on the social network. "And was radiant. Intelligent, friendly, down to earth, patient with all, hurried for none, calling for a 'pre-industrial cinema.'"
"She is truly a film goddess," Chaz Ebert told the audience. "Tonight, to show you how much of a film goddess she is, 'I Am Love' will be introduced by Michael Barker. 'I Am Love' is not one of his movies. He's doing it because he loves and respects Tilda so much."
Barker, who attends Ebertfest every year, is co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which this past year saw seven of the movies it distributed nominated for Academy awards.
Barker compared "I Am Love," written and directed by Sicilian director Luca Guadagnino, to movies by the great Italian director Luchino Visconti. Barker also called "I Am Love" a big film with Swinton very much at its center.
Barker said Swinton is independent in the choices she makes, and fearless. He said Jewison said she could play any part in a movie and would be "superb" in it.
Later, after "I Am Love" was shown, the tall, slender blonde actress, wearing a loose jacket and slacks, genuflected before Roger Ebert as he handed her his Thumb Up award.
She appeared relaxed as she sat on stage to talk about her work, saying she would prefer to produce (she co-produced "I Am Love") rather than act but would agree to be in a film if that helped it get made.
She has had symbiotic relationships with a number of directors, among them Guadagnino, the late English director Derek Jarman and Sally Potter.
She first met Guadagnino, who was born in 1971, when he was 22; they spent 11 years developing "I Am Love," released in 2009, aiming to make it "really romantic and tragic at the same time," she said.
In it Swinton plays the Russian wife of a wealthy Milanese industrialist who falls in love with the chef friend of her son, Edo.
"We wanted to make a story about a revolution in the life of a woman," she said. "It had to be put in a milieu that would dissolve when this love broke out."
She and Guadagnino also wanted to let the camera tell the story and the dialogue be atmospheric.
"Emma had to be a foreigner and outside her own language," the actress said. "The way she wrapped a ribbon around her hand gives more detail about her than any dialogue."
After Barker praised the 2008 movie "Julia," starring Swinton as an alcoholic who kidnaps a boy, the actress offered to return with "Julia" to Ebertfest next year, calling the festival "amazing."
A few years ago Swinton started her own independent film festival in the village in northern Scotland where she lives. After the first few years, when zoning issues arose with the venue, it became the Magical Perambulating Film Festival, in which she and her cohorts pull a 33-ton portable cinema over the Scottish highlands.
Swinton, now 50, said she would prefer to identify herself on her passport as a "film fan" rather than actress.