Merli's memorable moments from the first 15 Ebertfests
News-Gazette arts and entertainment reporter Melissa Merli has staffed Ebertfest since its inception. As it is her favorite event to cover, here are some of her most memorable moments or movies, by year:
My most memorable moments from this first fest are somewhat selfish: How easy it was to find a good seat in the Virginia Theatre shortly before show time, and how a festival pass-holder aptly described the festival as a "light-touch film class," taught by Roger Ebert. I quoted her.
This Ebertfest marked the first time I cried over an animated film: "Grave of the Fireflies," written and directed by Isao Takahata. It tells of two children from the port city of Kobe, wandering the Japanese countryside after they are made homeless by the atomic bombs dropped in WWII. As Ebert wrote, the 1988 drama is "an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation."
Meeting in person Stanley Kubrick's brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, who told me the great director was not as weird or reclusive as the media made him out to be. Ebert showed Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," followed by Harlan's documentary, "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures," which showed a tender, loving, family-oriented Kubrick.
"George Washington" and director David Gordon Green, a young filmmaker championed by Ebert. Slow and meandering, "George Washington" is about a summer in the life of young friends: "The summer when adolescence has arrived, but has not insisted on itself," Ebert so beautifully wrote. "When the stir of arriving sexuality still makes you feel hopeful instead of restless and troubled. When you feel powerful instead of unsure."
All-round entertainer Donald O'Connor making his last public appearance — on the Virginia stage after the screening of the classic "Singin' in the Rain." My mom and I sat among his relatives from Danville; they reacted with surprise to some of their cousin's answers to Ebert's questions. O'Connor, who was 78 and a star of Hollywood's so-called golden age, died four months later.
The music documentaries "Louie Bluie" and "Sweet Old Song" introduced me to the late Howard Armstrong, a genius string musician. I remember the scene in which he drew on a chalkboard — with both hands at once. Also, "Louie Bluie" director-producer Terry Zwigoff's low-key, friendly nature. Some of his better known flicks: "Ghost World" and "Crumb."
A startling image from Canadian director Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World." The beautiful Isabella Rossellini plays a brewery owner who doesn't have legs so she propels herself in a little cart — until she receives new glass legs — filled with her own beer. Glass legs full of brew? Indelible image.
Actor-Illinois native John Malkovich, who appeared with "Ripley's Game," downplaying to me his acting talents while we chatted at the reception. Also, songster extraordinaire Marni Nixon, one of the nicest Ebertfest guests ever. She dubbed Audrey Hepburn's singing in festival opener "My Fair Lady," as well as the singing voices of countless other Hollywood stars.
Too many moments: Director Paul Cox ("Man of Flowers") telling on stage of how he had called Chaz Ebert to tell her that he had dreamt of Roger Ebert having an extreme medical emergency — before the critic's carotid artery ruptured. Werner Herzog, the visionary German director, talking to a rapt audience until 2 a.m. — and him saying Ebertfest is "about friendship." The '60s band Strawberry Alarm Clock performing live after the Ebert-penned "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" closed the festival. I realized then that Ebertfest is also a big party, with Roger as benevolent host and overlord.
UI alumnus Ang Lee, after coming onto the Virginia stage, receiving a standing ovation and a surprise serenade of "Illinois Loyalty" by The Other Guys, a UI student a cappella group. Lee's honesty and humility. Lee came with "Hulk," which was dissed by critics. He compared the movie to a Greek psychodrama. "That's why it ends up in an overlooked-film festival. It's an honor for Roger to pick it up. I hope it's not for the reason we're both alumni," Lee told the audience.
Urbana native Nina Paley introducing her animated, award-winning "Sita Sings the Blues" — in which she did virtually everything herself on her computer over five years. She might be the first homie to show a movie at Ebertfest. During the intro she beamed, took a bow and gave two thumbs up. "This is the coolest way to visit your hometown. I'm so glad you all came and are giving me so much love. I'm too small to contain it all," she said.
"Departures," the elegant 2008 Japanese drama by Yojiro Takita, about a young man who apprentices to the trade of "encoffinment" — the preparation of corpses before cremation. The movie, which made death a beautiful passage in life, showed the tender ceremony performed before family and friends "with an elegance and care that is rather fascinating," Ebert wrote.
The movie "I Am Love," starring Tilda Swinton as the Russian wife of an Italian aristocrat in Milan. She falls in love and lust with a young caterer who is a friend of her son's. A week or so later I saw a dimly lit "I Am Love" at a different theater and gained a deep appreciation for the projection and beauty of the print shown at Ebertfest.
Hugging Roger Ebert for the last time — I didn't know it at the time — while thanking him for showing "Higher Ground," based on screenwriter Carolyn Briggs's memoir "This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost." It and the flick tell of how Briggs became a born-again Christian and lost her faith over the next 20 years. I told Roger I had been a "Jesus freak" in college and like Briggs, later lost my faith.
Actress Tilda Swinton leading a conga line in the Virginia Theatre on the Saturday morning of the festival to lift the mood; Ebert had died three weeks earlier. Also, Spanish director Pablo Berger, while introducing his silent film "Blancanieves," taking off his cap and tossing it in the air to show the audience how his hair had grayed over the eight years he had worked on the black-and-white movie — my 2013 festival favorite.