Clearly Roger Ebert knew that this 15th edition of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival would be special. He planned it that way and even without him, it was special–filled the possibilities of the future and his legacy to Champaign, Illinois as a city, as the home of his university and as the home where he had given his heart to the people of the world. Being a part of Ebertfest, as it is affectionately known, means being a part of his extended family and that’s both an honor and a responsibility.
The party got started even before the official 17 April 2013 opening movie. On 9 April 2013, Roger Ebert launched his new website. It’s exciting; it’s clean and it’s highly visual. Just what you’d want for people interesting in watching the flickering images across a screen to produce tales of people who are literally larger than life. Roger is wearing a white suit, smiling and sweeping open his arms. That weekend, the Virginia Theatre held an open house. Built in the 1920s, at one point this theater was threatened with demolition. It could have become a parking lot. The Virginia has been home to the Ebertfest from the very beginning. Roger couldn’t have known the hidden beauties of this old theater.
The Champaign Park District bought the theater in 2000 and then began the task of fundraising. During that 13 years the Park District was twisting arms and singing the theater’s praise, the Virginia was still home to the festival. Then last fall, the restoration team discovered just what a treasure the theater really was when they uncovered stencils and intricately painted canvasses. That changed the assessment from “blah” to surprised excitement from even one of its boosters, CPD marketing director Laura Auteberry. The Virginia had been closed for almost a year, but the grand reveal was breath-taking. I’d only been in the Virginia during last year’s Ebertfest, but this year, I could really appreciate what the original builders had in mind.
At the President and Mrs. Robert A. Easter’s reception just prior to the official opening of the festival, Roger’s widow, the warm Chaz Ebert, revealed that the Ebertfest would become a part of a richer and larger legacy. Roger and Chaz are endowing the university for an Ebert film studies program. When she again announced it at the festival, Chaz Ebert also noted “I’m excited because I don’t even know how it’s going to turn out…Roger scripted this for you.”
Chaz was obviously moved by the first movie, a short by one of Roger’s Far Flung Correspondents, Grace Wang. The short involved an ordinary day, one filled with sadness and memories. The mood is suddenly changed by a note. And Chaz had many notes from Roger, after he couldn’t speak any more. I envy my fellow FFC who had hand-written notes from Roger.
For opening night at the newly opened Virginia Theatre, Roger wanted to have a sing-along to his own lyrics for the tune “Those Were the Days,” after Wang’s short. We got up and had a sing-along.
Once upon a time there was a theater,
Where we used to see a film or two
Remember how we laughed way the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do?
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d life the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way
The next film was also sad but oddly moving. If you haven’t seen “Days of Heaven,” read Roger Ebert’s review of this 1978 Terrence Malick film. Starring a young Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, the days of heaven are those idyllic days of love and comfort, before or after disaster. Haskell Wexler, who as given the credit a credit on the movie that once rankled him was on had to field questions from the audience.
The festival this year is dedicated to Wexler. He’s come to find peace in the credit now. Times has changed him.
This Malick film fits in neatly and may even become the stuff of legends or make you believe in God. You’ll also want to remember that the very last review Roger wrote was for another Malick film, “To the Wonder.”
That’s like a little pre-ordained note from heaven. Looking through my own few years of correspondence with Roger, I see opportunities missed and notes about what he wanted me to do in the future. I’m sure he left such notes for many, many people and I hope they will each consider those comments. If Roger didn’t know he was dying so soon–before the launch of EbertDigital and his new website, before this 15th Ebertfest, then he did know that he wanted to leave and legacy and he’s been building it. How can you help? Don’t expect notes from heaven, but look at the notes, words and actions of this one man who once did it all and slowly released duties, functions and responsibilities to a trusted few and also spoke out publicly about his concerns for the future. He seemed unsure that one person could change the course of the world, but in the celebration of Ebertfest’s 15th anniversary, we have proof that one many can move many to achieve much.