CHAMPAIGN — At age 91, the distinguished cinematographer Haskell Wexler is going strong — with his camera and comments.
Wexler, who will help open the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival Wednesday evening at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, said on Tuesday he feels "perfect," physically and mentally.
He doesn't know exactly why.
"I guess because I'm cantankerous and grouchy and not happy with the way the world is going, and I want to do something about it with my camera," he said.
He is continuing to shoot "pictures" and that makes him feel good, he said. He just finished a documentary, "Four Days in Chicago." He and others, among them director Andrew Davis, shot it in Chicago in May 2012 after bus loads of Occupy activists traveled there to protest at the NATO summit.
An activist himself, Wexler also had words in response to the bombings on Monday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that killed three persons including an 8-year-old boy and wounded more than 170 people.
"The disease of violence is around us in every way," he said. "We have to deal with it culturally, more than just go and find the bad guys and kill them. That's an endless cycle that covers the planet."
As for "Days of Heaven," Wexler called it an interesting choice to open Ebertfest. It will be shown at 7 p.m. today, with the two-time Oscar winning Wexler appearing on stage afterward.
Show goes on
This year marks a new era in the festival's history. Ebert died April 4 in Chicago after battling cancer and other maladies for 11 years.
Ebertfest will continue not only this year, but for years to come. The $1 million gift from the Eberts to the University of Illinois College of Media established a film studies program. "Ebertfest will be part of that — that was his wish and we will continue that," Jan Slater, dean of the college, told The News-Gazette earlier this month.
"Days of Heaven" will be shown after a surprise opening that was planned by Ebert himself to mark the 15th anniversary.
Festival director Nate Kohn would not describe the surprise but said it has a "deeply personal" element in its scripting by Ebert.
"One thing I learned over the years was to completely trust Roger's sense of showmanship," said Kohn, who is an Urbana native, as was Ebert. "He was a consummate showman. And whatever he thought of, whatever he planned, always worked."
Kohn said no special tribute is planned for Ebert at the festival, but that the event itself is a tribute to the famed film critic, who despite his failing health over the past several years missed only one.
Ebert's wife, Chaz, will emcee the festival, as she has done in recent years, after her husband lost his speaking voice as a result of complications following cancer surgery.
Kohn said he and Ebert always tried to open Ebertfest with a 70mm movie. Though "Days of Heaven" was shot in 35 mm, it also was released in 70 mm.
The two tracked down a 70 mm print, but it turned out not to be showable, he said.
"Paramount was kind enough to give us an archival 35 mm print, which would probably be better than any 70 mm we could find because the 70 mm was blown up for release," Kohn said.
Wexler said he shot "quite a bit" of the 95-minute movie after another cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, left "Heaven" to work on a Francois Truffaut movie in France.
Wexler — the International Cinematographers Guild included him its list of the 10 most influential cinematographers in film history — looks forward to seeing how younger people at Ebertfest react to "Days of Heaven."
Though it received tepid reviews upon its release in 1978, the Library of Congress selected it in 2007 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.
Wexler said he agreed with Ebert's take on "Days of Heaven":
"(Director) Terrence Malick's 'Days of Heaven' has been praised for its painterly images and evocative score, but criticized for its muted emotions: Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm's length.
"This observation is true enough, if you think only about the actions of the adults in the story. But watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her, and its subject is the way that hope and cheer have been beaten down in her heart."
The action takes places just before World War I, outside Chicago. Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with and kills a steel-mill foreman. With his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz), he hops a train to Texas, where all three get jobs as laborers on the vast wheat field of a farmer (Sam Shepard). The story is told through Manz's character.
This is Wexler's second visit to Ebertfest. He appeared at the 2003 event with "Medium Cool," the 1968 movie he famously filmed in Chicago during the riots surrounding the National Democratic Convention.
Kohn called Wexler a legend and "a very old and dear friend" of Ebert's. The Chicago-born Wexler lives in Santa Monica, Calif., but said he remains a Chicagoan at heart.
Among the features to be shown in the 2013 Ebertfest is Richard Linklater's black comedy "Bernie," starring Jack Black. The actor is scheduled to appear with Linklater after the screening on Thursday evening.
Actress Tilda Swinton, who like Linklater appeared at the 2011 Ebertfest, will be back as well, this time with the 2008 movie, "Julia," on Friday evening. In it she stars as an alcoholic asked by a fellow alcoholic to kidnap her young son for ransom.
Also returning this year is frequent Ebertfest guest Paul Cox. The Dutch-born Australian director's documentary "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh," will be shown at 1 p.m. Thursday.
Also part of the lineup: "Blancanieves," the 2012 black-and-white silent Spanish fantasy-drama based on "Snow White" by the Brothers Grimm. Its director, Madrid-based Pablo Berger, will appear in person after the screening.
Perhaps the newest film at 2013 Ebertfest is "Escape from Tomorrow," a fantasy-horror film released earlier this year and described as the ultimate in guerrilla filmmaking. It was shot at Disneyland and Disney World without the knowledge of the Disney corporation.
Director Randy Moore will be one of the guests appearing with "Tomorrow," which created a buzz at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
The festival will end Sunday with the documentary "Not Yet Begun to Fight," about a recreational fly-fishing program for wounded veterans.
15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival
203 W. Park Ave., C
— 7 p.m.: Surprise opening event, planned by Roger Ebert.
Grace Wang's short, "I Remember," followed by "Days of Heaven" (1978, 95 minutes), with cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
Tickets: All 12 movies are sold out. If you want to see a film, go to the Virginia box office 30 minutes before screening time and wait in the rush ticket line. Shortly before the film begins, empty seats will be sold on a first-come first-served basis.