I made it to Champaign a few hours late but no worse for wear, in time for the opening night of the 15th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, where the atmosphere around "Ebertfest," as it's called, was eerily similar to the one around that gate at O'Hare Airport. Everything was assembled -- the films, the filmmakers, the critics, and over 1500 movie lovers from around the world -- but the most important person was missing.
Not surprisingly, the first night of Ebertfest 2013 was loaded with tributes to the late Roger Ebert, some of which Ebert planned himself. Before the Opening Night feature, Ebert's wife Chaz and a chorus from the University of Illinois led the entire audience of Champaign's newly and beautifully restored Virginia Theatre in a sing-a-long rendition of "Those Were the Days," with special lyrics for the occasion written by Roger himself. They were:
"Once upon a time there was a theater
Where we used to see a film or two
Remember how we laughed away 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 live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way."
The song was followed by this brief scene from Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight:"
Days were clearly the theme Ebert had in mind for Wednesday: "Those Were the Days," "the days that we have seen!" and then the Opening Night feature, Terrence Malick "Days of Heaven." The film was presented on an absolutely gorgeous print, with 91-year-old cinematographer Haskell Wexler in attendance. Wexler took over photography for original D.P. Nestor Almendros after the production fell behind schedule. Though Almendros ultimately won the film's Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Wexler's contributions were as invaluable as they were invisible. Filling in for his friend, Wexler did a remarkable job of seamlessly adopting the visual strategy Almendros and Malick had designed for the film. In between discussions of Malick's demeanor on set ("Terry... he's a weird guy.") and exploring the recurring motif of trains in his work, Wexler also revealed the secret behind the film's legendary shot of a locust swarm in flight: they tossed coffee beans from a helicopter and filmed it in reverse.
Though Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn must have programmed "Days of Heaven" months ago, the film seemed almost eerily appropriate viewing two weeks after the legendary critic's death; at times, I felt like he was speaking directly to us through its narrator Linda (Linda Manz), the teenage girl who observes the crucial love triangle between her older brother Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and the farmer (Sam Shepard) who employs them. Linda describes some of the events between Bill, Abby, and the farmer, but most of her voiceover is devoted to unrelated philosophical musings about the universe. "You’re on this earth only once," she says at one point, "and in my opinion, as long as you’re around, you should have it nice." That line sent chills up my spine.
Not surprisingly, Ebert himself remained the focal point of most conversations. I spoke about him with Dana Stevens, the film critic of Slate, and with fans who'd driven from Ohio and Michigan to take part and to pay tribute. At the annual opening reception for filmmakers, sponsors, and critics, Chaz Ebert offered her thoughts on what Roger would say to their guests:
"He would say 'Look around you, and when this is over shake the hand of the person next to you. Get to meet them a little bit. All of you are here because you are special, not only because you're supporting the festival, but because you're supporting the arts. You're supporting making this world a better place. You're supporting bringing some empathy and more humanity to this world.'"
With Ebert gone, the festival surely needs that support. But at the same reception, and once again at the Virginia Theatre, Chaz Ebert assured attendees that Ebertfest would not end with the death of its namesake. She announced that the University of Illinois would soon create a film studies program in Ebert's honor and Ebertfest would carry on as a part of it. Before Roger passed away, he apparently gave Chaz a long list of movies that he wanted her to screen at future installments of the festival.
The plane will continue to fly, with new pilots. More about the in-flight entertainment tomorrow.
Watch all Ebertfest Q&As live at Ebertfest.com.