The Ebertfest experience is a 'cinephile group hug'

The Ebertfest experience is a 'cinephile group hug'

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends posted this question: "Anyone scoped out Ebertfest? What do you think is ‘not to be missed’?

I replied that’s not the point. It’s the Ebertfest experience, which Egyptian blogger and Ebert "Far-Flung" corresponded Wael Khairy calls a "cinephile group hug."

It’s the experience of sitting for five intense days in a grand 1920s-era vintage vaudeville theater with 1,500 other movie-lovers who are experiencing the same things you are, the empathy with or repulsion you feel toward the giant people on screen, the priceless festival moments, the inside stories told by the filmmakers and other guests.

In response to Ebert’s recent blog post about Ebertfest 2011, Paul Arrand Rodgers, who attended Ebertfest last year, posted this comment which aptly describes the Ebertfest experience:

"You have no idea how sad I am that I can’t make it this year. Last year’s festival was exhilarating and overwhelming and exhausting; everything I could have hoped for from a first (or any) film festival."

At Ebertfest 2011 we can look forward to hearing stories from director Norman Jewison, who must have a trillion, as well as Richard Linklater, Tim Blake Nelson and Tilda Swinton, among others.

Ebertfest also is about undiscovered (at least by most of the audience) gems of movies that have not yet been released, at least on DVD, or had scant theatrical distribution. I’m sure there will be a few of them this year.

It’s also about seeing old classics like "Metropolis," which opens Ebertfest 2011, and the Italian neo-realist film, "Umberto D."

Hey, did you notice that three Ebertfest 2011 movies are set in Italy: "Umberto D," "Only You" and "I Am Love"?  Italophiles, rejoice!

As an A&E reporter at the daily in the town in which Ebertfest takes place each year, I am privileged to interview some Ebertfest filmmakers and guests in advance of the big event.

Here’s what I gleaned from my conversations and research into Ebertfest 2011:

— The silent film "Metropolis" runs for 2 and a half hours, and there’s supposed to be no intermission. The Alloy Orchestra will perform its original score that entire time. Wwhat a feat!

I watched the complete version, to be shown tonight, on DVD at home. The opening scenes are visually stunning, and I couldn’t help but think that director Fritz Lang was some kind of ancestor of German director Werner Herzog, one of my favorite Ebertfest directors.

— "Natural Selection." Ebert and other critics gave Rachael Harris, who will be here in person, a breakthrough award even though this is not her first film role. I think she got it because she plays a dowdy Christian housewife who wears ugly eyeglasses.

— An acquaintance at the Urbana Dog Park and I were chatting the other day about the canine double-header at Ebertfest 2011 on Friday afternoon. "Umberto D" and "My Dog Tulip" both cover man’s close relationship with his dog. I fear both are going to jerk my tears, especially because my dog, Scoop, died last year. You should see her grave in my back yard.

— "Tiny Furniture." The Art Theater in Champaign showed this a while back but I missed it. The New Yorker had a long article a few months ago about its director, writer and star, Lena Denham. She won’t be here. I’m looking forward to this one: Lena’s character, after graduating from college in Ohio, moves back into her parents’ home in NYC. An artist, her mom is famous for taking photos of tiny furniture.

— I look forward as well to "45365," a documentary about Sidney, Ohio, a town of about 20,000. I commend filmmakers Turner and Bill Ross (who are brothers) for not being condescending toward the denizens of Sidney, where they grew up and spent nine months shooting this film.

But I fear, having lived in small towns most of my life, including one in Ohio, that the film won't touch upon the tedium and frustration of living in small towns with little to no cultural outlets.

— I saw "Me and Orson Welles" at the Art. Director Richard Linklater and I had a fun, somewhat rambling telephone conversation last week  late in the day, so I was tired. He probably was too, as he was just wrapping up his latest movie, "Bernie."

At one point I mentioned to Linklater that I love the movie, "The Third Man," and he said he has a poster from that film in his office. I then said "I love Joseph Cornell," meaning Joseph Cotton, who stars with Welles in "Third Man."

Anyway, I liked Linklater. The Austin Film Society, which he "birthed" in 1985 and continues to head as its artistic director, has given $1 million to Texas filmmakers over the years. Kudos!

I also asked Linklater, who lives in Austin, whether he likes that the town has gotten so large. I hear some people complain about that, but he said the growth has coincided with his being in Austin and that it has brought a lot to the town.

He said, though, there’s something to be said for sleepy little college towns where there’s not much going on except for live music. I told him a friend of mine from Texas who now lives in Urbana said Champaign-Urbana is like Austin before it got big.

By the way, "Me and Orson Welles" is a great movie, with a spot-on performance by Christian McKay as Welles. Linklater said it’s like most of his movies, in that it’s a coming-of-age tale.

— I watched Norman Jewison’s "Only You" last week on DVD. It is a very, very lite film, and even Jewison is surprised that Ebert picked it for his festival.

I mentioned to Jewison, whom I interviewed by phone, that star Marisa Tomei never looked cuter than she does in "Only You." Jewison credited cinematographer Sven Nykvist, considered by the movie industry as one of the world’s great cinematographers.

There are some cute moments in "Only You" (1994), which stars an equally young and cute Robert Downey Jr. I find Jewison’s "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" much funnier and meatier.

— "A Small Act." I don’t know much about this movie other than it’s about Holocaust survivor Hilde Back, of Sweden, who gave small amounts of money way back so that a boy in Africa could go to school. He later attended Harvard Law School and worked at the U.N. and started a foundation to help other African kids attend school. Indeed, a small act can create many positive effects.. Ebert predicts Back, who will be here in person, will be the star of Ebertfest 2011, despite actres Tilda Swinton’s appearance Saturday night.

— "Life, Above All," is a movie made in Africa and it likely will be positive and uplifting. Ebert likes to include those in his annual film festival, which he compares to a train set that a boy receives as a Christmas gift. This is his 13th train set, a gift from the University of Illinois College of Media, Ebert’s alma mater. This will be one of the first screenings in the U.S.

— I loved talking to director-writer-actor Tim Blake Nelson, who’s bringing his "Leaves of Grass" here. It’s one of the Ebertfest 2011 movies I most look forward to. Even though he said the plot is at times outlandish, I find it promising. Ed Norton plays twin brothers, one a pot dealer in Tulsa and the other a professor back East. Nelson appears in the movie as well. Whenever I see him in a movie I feel good.

— "I Am Love" is the last movie on Saturday night. Ebert usually saves the most popular one for late Saturday night. Swinton stars in this one.

Did you see in Ebert’s blog the photograph of her and others pulling a big wagon over the Scottish highlands? The wagon contains the equipment necessary for her Perambulating Film Festival. That’s way cool.

I didn’t get an interview with Swinton so can’t give much insight to this movie. A friend who saw it compared it to a long Mercedes-Benz commercial, but another friend said, "Well, it’s about extremely wealthy people." It’s set in Milan.

— "Louder Than a Bomb" directed by Jon Siskel, Gene’s nephew, and Greg Jacobs promises to be heart-warming and to shake up one’s views about inner-city youths, who in this documentary recite in competition their original poetry.

Meanwhile, festival director Nate Kohn said there have been no snafus yet, that all Ebertfest guests are expected to attend unless bad weather puts a stop to or delays their flights. Remember last year? The Icelandic volcano ash prevented quite a few Ebertfest guests from getting here.

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