Ebertfest (Part I): The Experience

Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

Errol Morris and Werner Herzog sat together in the back of the auditorium, watching Morris’ first movie, Gates of Heaven, with 1,600 other people. Al Pacino joined us by phone, the day before his 64th birthday. American Movie’s lovably clueless protagonists, Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, were introduced just minutes before Herzog.

The legendary German filmmaker had begun a journey from Brazil — by foot, helicopter, and plane, he claimed — on Monday for a Saturday appearance in central Illinois at which he talked about a movie he made in 2001 that’s widely available on DVD. We drove three hours to get there and ended up eating dinner at 1:15 in the morning, about the time Herzog was finishing up talking about his movie.

This was our April 24 immersion in the sixth annual Ebertfest, also known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. And it was great; I can’t imagine that any other film festival is quite as rewarding.

Sure, Cannes and Sundance have more star power and more cultural importance, but they’re hybrids of social events, business conventions, and media feeding frenzies. Ebertfest comes from passion, it has an excitement that would be hard to rival, and it’s tucked away in cornfields remote enough that it seems incorruptible.

It’s not that the movies we saw — Gates of Heaven (from 1978), Daniel Algrant’s People I Know (from 2002), and Herzog’s Invincible — were great. People I Know is irredeemably flawed, and Invincible is interesting in retrospect but muddled and a long haul. (Read my thoughts on the movies here.)

And it’s not that Ebert is the be-all and end-all of film critics. Year after year, his weekly reviews (both in content and the quality of prose) seem to get lazier as he pours his energy into other, less duty-bound projects, such as his wonderful Great Movies series, the Overlooked Film Festival, and accessible, engaging DVD commentary tracks.

But Ebertfest is a near-perfect confluence. It takes place in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois — population 100,000 or so — where the critic grew up and went to college. It’s basically equidistant from Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, so while it’s available to the folks from the big city, it’s not really convenient. Thus, it becomes a community festival. Yet it has Roger Ebert, so it has the pull necessary to bring in big names. (Well, “big names” if Errol Morris, Mike Schank, and Werner Herzog mean something to you. If they’re unfamiliar, what are you doing here? Go rent Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, American Movie, and one of Herzog’s collaborations with Klaus Kinski.)

Ebert’s premise — showcasing movies that haven’t gotten their due — is personal and fresh and allows for inclusion of just about anything. This year’s festival kicked off with Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, and while the film itself hardly lacks respect, Ebert argued that it was overlooked in the 70-millimeter format he showed. The conceit frees Ebert to indulge his tastes, and to promote the hell out of movies few others liked.

This year’s Saturday program seemed particularly personal: Gates of Heaven is on his top-ten-of-all-time list, and Herzog is one of his favorite directors. People I Know was barely released at all by Miramax, but Ebert loved it.

And you couldn’t ask for a smarter or more engaging emcee and interviewer. Ebert takes care to lay out why he thinks these movies are great, and even if you don’t like them, you’re forced to confront your reaction and justify it. He brings in the filmmakers to talk about their work, and his questions probe gently to get beyond platitudes.

But best of all is watching movies with near-capacity crowds at a theater that holds 1,600 people in a relatively small community. And not blockbusters, but small or ignored films, things that flopped at the box office or were never given a proper chance. And there they are, playing to a house full of appreciative, excited people. What could be better?

Ebertfest (Part II): The Movies

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