Smile Politely

Day Three: Ebertfest

8:00 a.m.: I arrive at the Illini Union, searching in vain for the Pine Lounge that will hold the panel for “Today’s Writer/Director — It’s Not Just Business, It’s Personal.” It’s serendipitous I get there an hour ahead of time; after I locate the locked-up room and acquire a chai from the Courtyard Café, I run into Joey Pantoliano. Long story short, he ends up buying me a yogurt and we discuss his organization, “No Kidding, Me Too,” and the dour state of indie film distribution over breakfast. He promises to introduce me to Eclipse Award-winning former Sports Illustrated writer William Nack, whom I’ve come to the panel to see. Joey treats me like an old friend and fulfills his promise. I am indebted to him forever.

11:30 a.m.: The first film of the day is Shotgun Stories, and somehow I’m able to appreciate the movie while feeling like I’ve just lived the most surreal morning of my life.

If you’ve ever lived in a small town before, you know the people in this film. They’re the family everyone in town likes to gossip about for their reputations of violence, poverty and drama. You know that someday, at least one of them is going to die a violent death. Director Jeff Nichols is able to take this type of family situation and turn it into a genuine portrait of rural southern life augmented by both dark overtones and a deep understanding of where these people are coming from.

“People in the south are not stupid,” Nichols stresses after the film screening. “I think they’re weird or quirky, but they’re not stupid.” Shotgun Stories is refreshing for not only its honest outlook on its southern protagonists, but its ending, which doesn’t conform into hopelessness. I hope to be seeing more films from this talented first-time director very soon.

2:33 p.m.: Underworld, a landmark silent gangster film from 1927, screens and is supported by live music from the Alloy Orchestra. There’s something magical about watching a silent picture in a movie house from its era. Suddenly, the plaster on the facades doesn’t seem so broken apart, and one can almost hear the clacking of the ancient film reels rolling the flickering images over the silver screen. Underworld serves as an obvious platform from which mob masterpieces like Scarface and The Godfather were able to spring from, putting us for the first time on the side of the bad guy and seeing things from his perspective. The score performed by the Alloy Orchestra is stirring in its breadth, exquisitely dressing the film.

6:10 p.m.: I have a second wind, or more of a light breeze, really, after a hearty dinner and some rest away from all the hubbub. Seven Saints continues to amaze me with that tomato bisque soup.

6:40 p.m.: I am beginning to feel the full effects of the day and five hours of sleep bearing down on me. I am feeling like a swaying boxer on his heels, ready to collapse on my nose. I can only imagine seeing one other film tonight, deciding I’d rather have some well-earned sleep than risk ruining my first viewing of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Ebertfest and the excitement of the day have officially won this round of the decathlon.

7:00 p.m.: Hadjii, the hilarious writer/director of the 2006 hit film, Somebodies, walks on stage to quickly and “modestly” plug his book signing at the Illini Union on Saturday. He also gives us the news his TV series of Somebodies will be premiering in the summer on BET. Hadjii is a master of conducting wild laughter out of the audience as he speaks so proudly of his own humbleness with his success. “Don’t Let My Mama Read This: A Southern Fried Memoir” is probably one of the funniest books you’ll ever read in your life,” he says confidingly.

7:15 p.m.: Now unveils Champaign’s first screening of The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a documentary about one farmer’s struggle keeping a family farm prospering. When the credits begin to roll at the film’s end, the loudest and longest applause for any film yet roars through the theater. John Peterson (said farmer) and the director, Taggart Siegel, walk onto the stage and are seemingly blown away by the response. They receive a standing ovation. Chaz Ebert is obviously choked up when presenting them with their Golden Thumb Awards, speaking about how the film is so close to Roger’s roots and how the experience watching the film was so emotionally involving.

Siegel says this is the most emotional screening of this film he’s ever been to, and that says a lot, as the movie has been on tour for a couple years now. Peterson adds we are the best audience they’ve ever had. It’s definitely one of the most engrossing films of the festival thus far, and I’m happy to reciprocate the sentiment.

9:38 p.m.: It’s all in a night’s work, and I notice a good portion of the seats are cleared before the final film of the night unspools. As much as I would like to stick around and see Paul Schrader’s overlooked film, I mill out with the crowd, because I’d like to be awake if any of my new friends happen to call tomorrow.

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