Ebertfest 2009: Roger’s Back, and Ebertfest’s Got Him

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It was with great joy that the audience for the 11th Annual Ebertfest welcomed its namesake back to the cavernous Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. During the 9th Ebertfest, with Roger’s health in a precarious state and his voice silenced after bursting his carotid artery during cancer treatments, the festival installed for him his very own La-Z-Boy lounger in the back of the theatre; his wife Chaz and other Ebertfest supporters took over the emceeing and Q&A duties. Last year, despite his best efforts, Roger Ebert was too physically fragile to attend the festival.

This year, Roger returned to the podium to introduce each of the 12 films at the festival. His voice still gone, he cued up his Macbook, and a very British-sounding voice the Eberts have nicknamed “Sir Lawrence” recited his prewritten remarks. Not missing were Roger’s fluent prose, passion for movies and movie makers, self-deprecating jokes about his computer voicebox, and humorous gestures often made behind Chaz’s back as she stood at the podium reading biographies, acknowledging funders and guests, and generally making the festival the kind of homey affair for which it is justly loved. It was great to see Roger in such high spirits.

This wasn’t my favorite slate of films at Ebertfest. I just didn’t like Baraka enough to find inspiration to share my thoughts about it, though it was a beautiful-looking film in every respect. Fatigue kept me from writing a review of My Winnipeg, seeing Frozen River, and seeing Let the Right One In for a second time. I was terribly disappointed in Nothing But the Truth and not terribly bowled over by The Last Command or Chop Shop. But seeing Trouble the Water and Begging Naked, two outstanding documentaries of continuing relevance, certainly made the 2.5-hour trip from Skokie worth the trouble.

Highlights included meeting Guy Maddin and telling him that my favorite film of his is Cowards Bend the Knee. He seemed genuinely pleased by that and said it was a “criminally underseen” film. He’s just as funny in person as his films would suggest. One story he told was of the opening for My Winnipeg in which his narration starts: “Winnipeg.” “Winnipeg.” “Winnipeg.” That, he said, was the result of him not knowing what to say when he began the narration. He kept it because it seemed to hypnotize the film editor into watching the film.

It was also lovely to see Catinca Untaru, the 7-year-old costar of Tarsem’s The Fall, now 12, as she looked back on the experience of making the film. Tarsem told no one that her costar, Lee Pace, could walk. She said she used to bring him cookies when they took a break. “After I knew that he could walk, I was glad, but I was also annoyed” because she had been waiting on him hand and foot. The hubby recorded her entire Q&A and I’ll post it as soon as we can figure out how.

Nina Paley, back in her hometown with Sita Sings the Blues, spoke a great deal about how coming from a family of scientists gave her the mindset to share information and how her need to spend $50,000 for the rights to the Annette Hanshaw recordings she used in the film—music only available through record collectors since the copyright holder had destroyed all the masters—led her to an organization called Question Copyright. Her film is a free download to anyone who wants it, and she is working actively to see the arcane copyright laws changed to keep artistic creations alive and available.

Michael Wadleigh, the director of Woodstock, which opened the festival, helped on the Baraka Q&A. His question to Baraka director Ron Fricke was more a statement that an alien coming to this planet would observe an overpopulated, overly aggressive species of humans doomed to extinction, and what did Fricke think. Fricke optimistically referenced the peaceful creatures that open the film in answer: “I think there’s a snow monkey in all of us.”

Finally, I got the second thrill of a lifetime from Roger himself. He linked to my review of Sita Sings the Blues some time ago, an honor I’ll never forget. I went up to him to thank him for the validation. He shook my hand, pointed at me, put his hand over his heart, and pointed back at me. I love you, too, Roger. l

  • Kimberly spoke:
    29th/04/2009 to 4:40 pm

    As usual, I really enjoyed your coverage of the festival, Marilyn! I haven’t had the opportunity to comment on all your reviews, but I wanted to let you know I’ve been reading them with interest.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    29th/04/2009 to 8:15 pm

    $50,000 for the rights to Annette Hanshaw’s music? You would think that the estate or whomever it is that owns the rights would have the sense to know that they would get that much from the renewed interest and allow for a more appropriate sum for the rights. For most people Hanshaw is dead and virtually forgotten. I guess greed has taken the place of a little common sense.

  • Miranda Wilding spoke:
    30th/04/2009 to 2:26 am

    Roger is a national treasure. Considering the power of the internet and its ability to dissolve borders, I guess he would technically be an international treasure at this juncture.
    I am saddened by his illness. But it is fabulous to know that he soldiers on, remaining cheerful in the face of adversity. I am sure that Chaz is a great comfort to him.
    I do hope that he can shake this. I’d like him to get better. PERMANENTLY.
    Wow…
    Look at little Catinca. Twelve all ready? But I had a feeling she would grow up gorgeous. She had the most hauntingly lovely face in THE FALL. So wonderfully expressive.
    Marilyn, your last paragraph is something else. I’m sure you’re over the moon about that. That’s quite an honour.
    Amazing how these great life changing events (of all shapes and sizes) just waltz in from left field – quite often when you least expect them – and you never ever forget.
    I hope you’re justifiably proud, Marilyn. You deserve to be…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/04/2009 to 8:54 am

    Thanks, Kimberly. We both read each other’s blogs, but don’t comment much. It doesn’t matter. I know you’re out there, and I hope you know I’m out there, too.
    Peter – It’s just perversity. Why would anyone hold onto an asset they obviously don’t care enough about to capitalize on? Do they want to erase Annette Hanshaw from all memory? I can’t figure it out.
    Miranda – I don’t know if Roger will ever be “well” again, but his enormous zest for life and the great life he has made for himself seem to keep him going.
    Last night, I was looking for something I had taped a long time ago, and found the “At the Movies” episode he recorded as a tribute to Gene Siskel. One of the people he sampled from was Tim Weigel, a local broadcast reporter who did a Siskel tribute on our CBS affiliate. Weigel is dead, too, of brain cancer, just like Gene. I was saddened by the show in so many ways, not the least of which is that the large Ebert we all grew up with is now thin, frail, and robbed of his magnificent voice. I feel lucky, though, that we can still read him and that I can keep attending Ebertfest with him in the audience and on the stage. He really is my inspiration.

  • Nina Paley spoke:
    30th/04/2009 to 9:37 am

    Thanks (again) Marilyn.
    He shook my hand, pointed at me, put his hand over his heart, and pointed back at me. I love you, too, Roger.
    Ah, you so captured that, thanks. I’m in awe of the man – his body is falling apart, but that only makes his spirit more apparent. He’s a real conduit for art and love.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/04/2009 to 9:43 am

    Wow, thanks for stopping by, Nina. It was great to see your film again and have a wonderful time all over again. I look forward to your next effort.
    I feel like Roger is a part of my family. I started watching him on TV almost from the very beginning of his career here in Chicago and attended the first Ebertfest. He’s part of the air I breathe, and this blog exists in part because of him.

  • Rick spoke:
    30th/04/2009 to 9:52 am

    Fabulous tribute on Ebert, Marilyn. He is gracious and a great writer; as you said, his prose is fluent and I would add fluid, and his love for film shines through every word. I am a huge fan of his, and join Kimberly in thanking you for your coverage of Ebertfest.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/04/2009 to 10:04 am

    You’re welcome, Rick. It’s always a lot of fun and worth a trip to the heartland for anyone, not just Chicagoans.

  • Greg F. spoke:
    1st/05/2009 to 11:28 am

    Wow, you’re a lucky person Marilyn, to get that kind of validation from someone like Roger Ebert first in print then in person. Of course you deserve it wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still be jealous while at the same time so happy for you.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/05/2009 to 11:31 am

    Well, Greg, we’ve all said that Roger is getting more kind-hearted these days, so I might just be the beneficiary of it.
    I do model myself on him to some extent – after all, he has informed my movie viewing for some 40 years.

  • Daniel spoke:
    1st/05/2009 to 1:42 pm

    Jeez, I feel like commenting here if only to be in the presence of greatness!
    Congrats on your recognition from Roger Ebert and Nina Paley. It’s one thing for all of us bloggers to pat each other on the back (not that we don’t appreciate it, of course), but when people who write about film or make film for a living validate your work, that’s really something special.
    I’m envious of your opportunities each year at Ebertfest – thanks for letting us in on your experience.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/05/2009 to 1:53 pm

    Please let’s not get carried away here. I’m just this gal. Honestly, I’m not overly impressed with whether someone makes money doing movie criticism or whatnot – it’s the person who impresses me. There was a panel on film criticism on the Internet that was chosen and moderated by David Bordwell. His main criterion for choosing panelists was whether they got paid for their criticism or not. I would NEVER choose a panel that way. There just aren’t a lot of paying gigs out there, especially today. Excellence in writing, good taste, shrewd analysis, and that je ne sais quoi means a whole lot more. You’d be one of my choices, Daniel, as would all of my regular commenters. And believe me, we would have had much better things to say than that boring, out of touch panel did.

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