Ebertfest Notebook, Day 1: A rush to see 'Life Itself'

CHAMPAIGN — Michelle Bates and her son, Les, read Roger Ebert's memoir "Life Itself" and thought it was fabulous.

Wednesday, the two drove two hours from their home in Willow Springs to Champaign. They ended up first in the "rush line" outside the Virginia Theatre to try to buy tickets to see Steve James' documentary, "Life Itself," which opened the 16th annual Ebertfest and is based on the memoir.

They waited for two  hours. So did many of the others standing behind them.

"We're confident we're going to get in," Michelle Bates said shortly before the box office opened for the ticket-seekers.

Her confidence wasn't misplaced. She, Les and the 48 or so other people in the rush line all got into the 1,463-seat theater — as some people with festival passes don't use them for every screening — for the festival opener.

A personal tale

Also waiting in the rush line was C. Maura Poskha and her husband, James Scanlon, who live in both Paxton and Oreana. They had tried to buy tickets to "Life Itself" in advance, but they had quickly sold out as soon as they went on sale on April 1.

Poshka's reasons for wanting to see "Life Itself" are personal. She was, she joked, among the many women Ebert dated in Chicago before he met Chaz Hammelsmith, the woman he would marry.

"I want to see this documentary because Roger is a major force in the world, and certainly in my world he made such a difference," Poshka said. "He did an intervention on me to get me to my first AA meeting," in 1981.

As a result, Poshka, also an artist, said she has maintained more than 30 years of sobriety, received a Fulbright scholarship at one point and became a certified addictions counselor, a job she continues to do to this day.

Maybe she would have eventually quit drinking. But she's not sure that would have happened "if someone had not cared to reach out" as did Ebert.

Art Theater

Perry Morris knows a captive audience. He and the other two co-authors of the book "The Art Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years," are selling the title during Ebertfest in the Virginia's east lobby, where Ebert-penned books and festival hats, T-shirts and coffee mugs are sold.

Before the "Life Itself" screening started Wednesday night, two books about the history of the Art Theater, the first art moviehouse co-operative in the country, with a past as a porn theater, were sold.

"I brought 40. If the demand is enough and we're forced to go to a second printing, that would be super," Morris said. "We've made back our costs, but the books didn't fly off the shelves."

Because they've covered their costs, Morris and co-authors Joseph Muskin and Audrey Wells will now donate $10 from the sale of each book to the Art Theater Co-op. The book sells for $25.

A similar fest

One of the many out-of-town regulars at Ebertfest is Will Valet, director of the Hardacre Film Festival in Tipton, Iowa, a town of 3,000.

This year's Ebertfest is Valet's sixth. Each year at the event, he's been meeting up with a college buddy who lives in Milwaukee.

"It's one of the best movie-going experiences I've ever had, seeing movies like these with a crowd that really appreciates them," Valet said.

He likes Ebertfest so much he tries to model the Hardacre Film Festival after it. Like Ebertfest, Hardacre also is in a single-screen theater, but it lasts only two days, compared to Ebertfest's five.

Hardacre shows six features and shorts. Ebertfest generally shows 12 feature length movies. Each festival showed a few years ago Urbana resident Nina Paley's award-winning animated film, "Sita Sings the Blue."

Three more thoughts

Maybe it's gender-bias. But I have a feeling my favorite Ebertfest director this year will be Haifaa Al-Mansour, who made "Wadjda," the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a Saudi woman. I chatted briefly with her at the Ebertfest reception. She's charming, intelligent and warm. Traveling with her: her husband and their two children.

Ebertfest director Nate Kohn had a bit of a flashback Tuesday night while backstage with Patton Oswalt at UI's Foellinger Auditorium. Kohn told Oswalt, an Ebertfest guest, that as a UI student some decades ago, Kohn was part of student film society that brought famed French film director Jean Luc Godard to Foellinger. Oswalt was impressed. So was I.

Before showing "Life Itself" on Wednesday night at Ebertfest, director Steve James showed the audience a deleted scene — about Ebertfest. In it, Chaz Ebert talks about how much her late husband loved the event, how it's like a warm embrace and family. James told me in March he just couldn't find a place in "Life Itself" to fit in the scenes about Ebertfest, though shots of the Virginia Theatre packed for Ebertfest are included in the new doc.

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