Melissa Merli's Ebertfest notebook: sketches, youth, sublime writing and crowds

Melissa Merli's Ebertfest notebook: sketches, youth, sublime writing and crowds

Most of us know Roger Ebert is a fabulous writer. Some of you might not know he's a visual artist too.

One of his sketches graces the cover of the 12th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival program as well as the festival poster, souvenir mugs and T-shirts.

The drawing depicts Ebert in the back of a movie theater, drawing in a sketchbook that rests on his crossed left leg. There are rows of seats in front of him, plus a wide screen in the background.

It must not be a drawing of Ebertfest at the Virginia Theatre, because there are only seven movie-goer heads depicted in the seats in front of Ebert!

Many more of the film critic's sketches are online. Among the movie-related ones there are sketches of a Cannes landscape, actress Greta Scacchi and actor John Malkovich at a press conference.

Youngest festival-goer

Cameron Poland must hold the record of being the youngest person at this year's Ebertfest.

The son of film critic David Poland and his wife, Heather, Cameron is 3 months old. He was born around the time of the release of the monster blockbuster "Avatar," directed by James Cameron, but the little Poland was not named after the director, his father said.

This is Poland's first child. His parents are not taking him into the Virginia during the movies, fearing their son might cry and bother other festival-goers.

But they took him to the Ebertfest reception on Wednesday and, when introduced, Heather proudly held her baby aloft.

On Thursday night, the couple had Cameron in a carrier as they ate dinner al fresco at Jim Gould Restaurant in downtown Champaign.

Poland has attended all but a few Ebertfests, even though he's seen most of their movies before the festivals begin. Years ago he told me he thought the festival was "idyllic" because it's not a marketplace but a festival for movie lovers.

"It's a real gathering of friends and family every year," he said Thursday. "About two-thirds of the people you see year after year. I'm good friends now with (Champaign native) Kim Robeson. Those are the kinds of relationships you build year after year."

I asked Poland, who lives in Los Angeles, what he thinks of our fair city.

"It's a good town. I wouldn't come back year after year if it wasn't. The restaurants have gotten better. It's a great college town. Very livable."

He said he can pick up WiFi now nearly all over town. During his first Ebertfests, he said, he would drive around late at night and park outside buildings to access their WiFi.

Poland is the creator and publisher of and host of the half-hour online interview series DP/30. He maintains on a daily basis The Hot Blog.

The Rapture

While introducing Michael Tolkin's movie, "The New Age," on Thursday afternoon, Ebertfest emcee Chaz Ebert said she and her husband want to bring his 1991 movie, "The Rapture," to a future Ebertfest.

The short synopsis of the movie at IMDb: A telephone operator (played by Mimi Rogers) living an empty, amoral life finds God and loses him again.

Tolkin writes about spirituality, spiritual quests, morality and more in his novels and screenplays.

"His writing is sublime," Chaz Ebert said.

Tolkin is funny too. He came on stage after "The New Age" was shown Thursday, taking photographs of the Ebertfest audience.

"This now doubles the number of people who saw this movie on its first release," he said.

I enjoyed chatting with Tolkin at the Ebertfest reception Wednesday evening and will write more on my new blog, Out and About, about the panel discussion after the screening of "The New Age."

Packed houses

Some festival-goers have commented they've never seen so many people for the afternoon movies at Ebertfest. The 1,500-seat vintage Virginia was packed for all of the first five movies of Ebertfest on Wednesday and Thursday, according to Anthony Howell, front house coordinator.

Individual ticket-holders who waited in line for the sold-out shows, "Pink Floyd the Wall" and "Apocalypse Now Redux," all got in, he said.

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