Smile Politely

Ebertfest 2017 part 2 – watch harder

“I didn’t really change the world,” said Norman Lear in response to a question about how it felt to do exactly that, “…if I had, we wouldn’t have all these same problems.” It was late in the day on Saturday while listening to the panel discussion that the theme of this year’s Ebertfest coalesced into something concrete for me. All weekend, I’d been taking in separate items like ingredients, and with that answer, it suddenly looked like a philosophical meal.

It’s so smart of the Ebertfest organizers to slowly ramp up the intensity: Wednesday you come for one show and get some news about the fest. Thursday you still have the energy to get up early for panels, but there are only three films and plenty of breaks. Even though Friday’s schedule was exactly the same as Thursday’s, since it was the second time around, it felt more… real? And Saturday had the most films but the least amount of stretch time, so it felt like a bigger commitment. The gradual increase not only kept me muscling through, but provided more opportunities to have the lessons of the film selections revealed to me, building on each other.

When I look back on the days, it seems clear now that I lived through them that each one had a specific theme. Wednesday was clearly political, and Thursday was about minorities’ rights. Friday was entirely about crime and the justice system; Saturday’s obvious theme of entertainment had an undercurrent about misinformation. While Sunday is supposed to be just a fun day of music, the film also provided some commentary about sexual orientation and atypical relationships. On every day, the emphasis of each film was to make you understand the struggle of someone unlike you. And like Lear and his reply – the films represented time periods stretching back one hundred years and still felt relevant. 

further complicated matters and raised questions the audience may not have asked otherwise.

While most of the panel discussions focus on film process or celebrity or acting method, I did hear questions on Friday that showed people were thinking about society and how our country treats some of these situations. The juveniles facing criminal charges as adults, especially, prompted these kinds of thoughts. It’s great to see people in our community considering these broader topics, especially when brought up by art.


Saturday is the only day that has a full 12 hours of films planned: from 11 a.m. to past 11 p.m. Thankfully, Saturday is also the day for the Alliance’s art sale, giving us something to do as we stretched our legs. As I walked through, unfortunately cashless, I discovered artists and authors that I hope to feature in Smile Politely’s Art section soon. There were also some incredible-smelling bath supplies that rivaled what I buy at LUSH. I highly recommend swinging through there next year, even if you don’t go to see any movies.

The day of flims was intense, and a little meta, since each movie dealt with the entertainment industry. Mind/Game took on the sports industry and the culture that didn’t acknowledge that physical and mental health are linked. Pleasantville and Norman Lear both addressed the television industry’s pros and cons, while Being There shone a spotlight on media as a distraction. Every single one of the films in some way examined the fact that spreading information through mass media is an imperfect and often misleading vehicle. Sometimes intentionally misleading, and other times just misinterpreted. That was a lot to take in while watching a movie in a room with 1500 other people, my head still hurts a little just thinking about it.

Saturday’s panel discussions were especially interesting. I would have asked why Holdsclaw’s sexual orientation was glossed over in Mind/Game, but I was busy listening to three mental health professionals talk about diagnosis problems and the lack of restorative justice and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. Gary Ross gave us some fascinating anecdotes about the making of Pleasantville (if you want to know how they managed the bowling shot, ask someone who was there, it is very clever) but there was great dialogue about false nostalgia. While a romanticized view of the past makes it seem like there was a time when America was truly great, in reality that greatness relied on hate and fear to keep the polish shining. Caleb Deschanel also gave us some great insights into the making of several of the movies he’s been behind, but thankfully refused to give any definitive answers to the mysterious ending of Being There.

But it should not be any surprise that the discussion with Norman Lear was the one to stay for, of all the great discussions had on Saturday. Simon Kilmurry joked that doing panels with Norman is the best because he would just take charge, which did come to pass. Lear even answered a phonecall during the panel, and it turned out to be co-director Heidi Ewing who hadn’t come due to an injury. Lear joked that they should just burn the rest of the panel time talking on speakerphone about things no one else cared about, but she let him go soon.

Before I watched this movie, I had no idea about his activism. Before I stayed for the panel, I would not have imagined I’d hear a 94 year old man say “rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power,” or call out Chaz Ebert for there not being enough black people in attendance at Ebertfest, or say “nothing in nature suggests anything can grow forever, but the American corporation must.” Which led perfectly into the next film about Chance the Gardener.


I love Sundays at Ebertfest because I know I don’t have to show up quite so early. It’s a pity that so many people have to leave for home early, or just don’t come, because it is by far the most relaxed and fun show of the week. Chaz always is sure to thank every member of the support staff – from backstage crew to volunteers. This year, the tradition of giving Chaz flowers was resumed, and it ended in tears and hugs all around.

Chaz led into De-Lovely with an anecdote regarding the play written about her relationship with Roger and the play written about it – The Black and White Love Play – and some criticism that it seemed unbelievable that Roger would ever sing or dance. In fact, Chaz says, Roger loved to sing and dance with her, which is why Sunday is always a film about music, usually followed by a performance. A biopic about Cole Porter followed by the self-taught pianist Donnie Demers with his brother Jimmy singing definitely fit the bill. It was no Strawberry Alarm Clock, but the pop-crooning duo got a very warm reception from the folks who stayed.

Irwin and Charles Winkler were an entertaining father/son directing/producing team. When asked what the difference in their jobs was, Chuck answered with an analogy he attributed to his father. “The producer goes and buys a gun and some bullets, loads the gun, cocks the gun, hands the gun to the director and tells the director to point it at the producer’s head and pull the trigger.” Although the pair wanted to create a biopic of the Gershwins, after years of not finding a script satisfactory enough, they quickly found a better story in Porter. Openly gay composer finds domestic intimacy with a divorcee who left her abusive husband and wants little to do with sex from then on, is again, a relevant and resonant story even 80 years later. Rarely do you have the need for such a “beard” now, but it was a beautiful representation of how fulfilling atypical love can be.

I have to admit, it was a little disheartening to watch three and two-half days of movies that span a century (or more) and still feel the problems are relevant. The characters in every film were struggling for basic human rights – liberty, equality, autonomy, health – and those struggles still remain, whether it’s as a citizen of an occupied country, a woman wanting control over her body, or a member of a minority put at a disadvantage by the dominant society. But Tanya Wexler observed that these films open up dialogue, and that they were made at all gives people exposure in a way that’s never before been possible. I have to take that as hope, and the fact that 1500 people would fill a theatre and talk about it is very hopeful, indeed.

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All photos by Sam Logan.

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