Smile Politely

Day One: Ebertfest

5:45 p.m.: I arrive and the line is wrapped around the historic Virginia Theatre down to the light pole at the end of the block. The lawn chairs, laptops and headphones have been broken out by the diehards sitting in the Virginia’s motherly shade. Each one of these people is sporting their festival pass, hanging from a lanyard like a gold medal. Technically, all these people need to do to get a seat is walk in a few minutes before showtime, because the Fest Pass guarantees you a seat to each showing. But oh, no, these people have been waiting in line for at least 45 minutes already, just to be able to grab the best seat once the doors open and the 10th annual Ebertfest kicks off. As this blog will detail, the experience of Ebertfest is a little bit of an endurance test, in some respects, a decathlon.

6:07 p.m.: Seven minutes after the designated time for the doors to open, the line is feeling the delay like an angry itch. And when the patrons near the front begin to move, something new is born into them. The camaraderie formed in the line is put on hold as the grudge match begins. Therein are the ultimate prizes, the coveted close seats, and no prisoners are taken as fans greedily flood into the auditorium like boy band groupies vying for position at a long-awaited concert.

Minutes later, when spots are secured, the patrons titter politely among themselves, anxiousness melted into chipper anticipation. Everyone is happy once they’ve staked a seat, like a pride of lions dining on a fresh kill. Movie fans smack their lips over overflowing tubs of salty popcorn and perhaps a succulent apple sneaked under a coat.

Wurlitzer organist Warren York begins his jaunty routine, filling carnivalesque music into the grand old theater, and with those familiar tunes, I feel the festival has truly begun and we are at home. This is my seventh Ebertfest, and it has become a part of my year with as much fanfare as the dawning of summer. Without this festival in this great theater, spring in Illinois would be nearly impossible to survive.

6:59 p.m.: One minute until Hamlet, the first movie of the festival is slated to begin. Warren and his organ descend into his cage below the stage to a wave of applause. Richard Roeper walks up our aisle, looking dapper and a little lost.

And finally, Roger Ebert’s wife, Chaz, walks onto the stage and begins her introduction. After Roger broke his hip Sunday, the doctor and he thought it best he not try to overdo himself and attend this year’s festival, which will be the first one without its namesake presence. Chaz seems to be hinting the E-man has plans up his sleeve about making a surprise appearance, speaking vaguely about his whereabouts.

“You know Roger,” she says knowingly. She asks us to “beam out positive energy to him to get him here by the end of the festival” and as a collective, we shout, “Get well, Roger!”

Chaz is gracious, charming and unpretentious. She ends her little intro with, “And guess what? I love you, thanks for coming.” We love her, too.

7:20ish p.m.: And then Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet begins. We have been warned it is a four-hour dramatic epic, the only complete film adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. A foreboding intermission has been scheduled. It does not come soon enough.

The film is gorgeous in 70mm, spread-eagle across the screen like a triumphant banner to art. Each shot could be printed on canvas, so well plot-out in frame and elegance. The colors are rich, the film’s locations are stunning, and the acting is top-notch, starring the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet and the late, Charlton Heston. The delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue is a tribute to the writer’s charisma. Still, it is the second-longest major film ever released, and well before the intermission, I am feeling it. More accurately, I am feeling like the guy in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, with my eyelids held open with metal tweezers and my arms strapped to the arms of the chair. I’m fighting off the catcalls of the Sandman and thinking to myself, “This movie is testament why no other Hamlet exists in its entirety.” I have to say it, an unedited Shakespeare play might not make a good movie.

12:00 a.m.: At the end of the film, special guest actors Timothy Spall (Enchanted, Sweeney Todd) and Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist, A Knight’s Tale) receive their Golden Thumb Awards and participate in an hour-long question and answer session. Both actors are polite and funny, offering a relief to the audience who feel as if they’ve been woken from a long, eye-straining doze. “Congratulations, you made it through Hamlet!” they joke.

Rufus, who plays Fortinbras, tells us he shot everything for his character in one day before the shooting for the film technically started. He jokes he was told to “look angry over there” and “look upset here” in front of an empty field where he felt a little silly: “It was like being in a very advanced Duran Duran video.” But with such a phenomenal cast to star along with, Sewell confides, “I would’ve been happy just holding a plate of cookies in the backdrop.”

Spall adds that Branagh wanted this version of Hamlet to be “the definitive version” of Shakespeare’s play. I think the entire audience could vouch for that. Spall is asked about the movie industry’s outlook right now, caught between a resurgence of independent films in the Oscars. “There seems to be a touch of insecurity in the entertainment business right now,” he says.

If that means we’re going to be getting more There Will be Blood and less Crash, then I’m all for it.

1:00 a.m.: People flee the theater with bloodshot eyes, seeking the shelter of warm beds and I am very aware there’s no way I’m typing up this article first thing when I get home. The first movie on Thursday begins at 1:00 p.m., and I vow to catch some much-needed z’s.

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