Usually at this time of year, I am at the University of Illinois, taking in the sights, scents and sounds of Champaign Urbana. At this moment, I’d be waking up in the Illini Union, taking in the abundance of youth walking through its halls. Inspired by the vigor and hope I see in the students that I would see walk past me.
I would walk out of the back entrance and be in awe at the Quadrangle, overcome by even more campus denizens walking through the grounds. I’d walk along with them, looking at the history in the green and mahogany around me. The architecture, the trees, the sheer space and Spring is intoxicating, if only for the short time that I would have it at UIUC.
But I’m not there this year, not there to share in Ebertfest, where wondrous films will be seen in a secluded place far away from the world’s worries and concerns. I won’t be able to see dear friends I’ve made in the past two years, people who I’ve come to care for deeply because we care about the same things. These silly little treasures called movies, the kind that stay with you, grab you, and don’t let go. My heart aches.
The first time was the best. Speaking at panels, illuminating my world of film with foreigners curious about what lies beyond their borders. I share strange perspectives with fellow strangers from strange lands, but without the alienation. Just love and enthusiasm. We don’t speak in an auditorium down to an audience. We share in a room just paces away from those facing us. We see each other closely. We listen.
Then come the movies in the Virginia Theatre. An actual Movie Theatre! Not one of those fancy multiplexes with cushy seats. It’s got history in it. Donald O’Connor of “Singin’ In The Rain” danced up on its stage in the age of Vaudeville. Would that be something you’d want to tear down just for a comfortable derriere?
The theatre is lush, with hues of rouge surrounding you. Taking my seat, I stepped back in time, recalling those old saturday matinees of my youth. The screen is majestic, wide in its breath, larger than most theaters without the overpowering feel of an IMAX screen.
There is a balcony. An honest to goodness balcony that seems to have gone the way of the dodo everywhere else. There’s popcorn and snacks, but how I miss the sandwiches being cooked right outside the theatre. You can see the sausages smoking. You know it’s cooked.
There’s the audience. That Midwestern small town feel that you never want to leave. Before and after screenings, people chalked up random conversations with me. “What do you think it will be like?” “What did you think?” The most common question I would always hear was, “Wasn’t that great?”
I’ve also been scolded for chatting during a screening. I welcomed it. These movie lovers don’t mess around.
These people around me weren’t merely an audience. For those five days, they were my neighbors, a concept that seems to be sadly disappearing. I would see many folks in the same seats day after day, coming to see overlooked films because they knew they weren’t going to be disrespected, and loved the communal moviegoing experience that might go extinct. They stay long afterwards to ask moviemakers questions, and the moviemakers are moved that we are moved.
There are no movies that are being marketed or sold. No paparazzi chasing down stars for sound bytes. There is a trust that exists here that you can find nowhere else. It exists because Roger Ebert reaffirms that trust by what he selects and how he maintains this festival landscape.
As a film critic, I miss Ebertfest dearly for these reasons and more. I miss knowing that a major critic gets to ride in the trunk of a 4×4, just as I did. I miss finding out Chaz Ebert’s favorite karaoke song is Rapper’s Delight, and seeing her tearing up the mic. I miss the BBQ at Black Dog, the double guacamole steak burgers at Steak N’ Shake, chatting with David Bordwell (with him doing most of the chatting), hearing people in the know dishing out the dirt, and meeting some of my heroes, whether they write about films, or help make them.
I miss it because I learn something every time I set foot on its grounds. I miss meeting fellow movie lovers I’ve met online and off, who have gone on this pilgrimage with me. I miss disagreeing with my critic friends after a bad film, and smiling with them in quiet unison during a good one.
Most of all, I miss spending quiet moments with Roger, a friend and teacher who gave me so much. Who gave all of us so much. This is one of the very few things I can do for him in return. I think we should all call Ebertfest what it really is to all those who love him and film.