Smile Politely

Ebertfest Day 3: of poignancy, rumbles, and tattoo imposters

12:20 p.m: I arrive at the Virginia and provide the requested PB&J to my faithful husband, who has dedicated his morning to standing in line to secure us our usual seats. Of note today: our two Ebertfest friends, Karen and Bob, have brought their own seat cushions due to an unruly spring in one of their usual seats. Territory is claimed by the hardcore EF goers. If you cross into their boundary line, there is bound to be a rumble.

12:30 p.m: The end of the countdown signals the ceremonial Opening of the Doors, and the masses rush in to secure their territory.

1:05 p.m: On my way to the East Lounge to pick up a C-U Confidential and have a look at the DVDs and books on sale, I run into Elsinore frontman Ryan Groff, who is volunteering at the Virginia during the festival. He is the designated Coffee Guy, which is only fitting given his Aroma credentials. We chat about Elsinore’s new album getting the finishing touches done over the next few weeks, and about how we can’t believe Michael Wadleigh, the director of Woodstock, was happy leaving Creedence out of the documentary. Or the Band, for that matter … or the Grateful Dead.

1:30 p.m: Showtime for Begging Naked. Chaz walks out on stage and declares, “Ebertfest is good for amore!” and goes on to explain how engagements and weddings have happened during past festivals. She also says, “The second thing you probably didn’t know about Ebertfest is that it’s good for your health.” Apparently, Roger had a stubborn surgery wound in his neck two years ago that wouldn’t heal, but the “good endorphins” from the festival healed it in his first day here. Essentially, Ebertfest is the equivalent of Woodstock if Jesus Christ had been present. Oh right, He was the last act, nevermind.

Roger comes out on stage and introduces the director of Begging Naked, Karen Gehres, with his handy laptop; the laptop confesses in its British accent, “I am only a stupid computer voice and therefore cannot tell you how to properly pronounce her name.” This is in reference to the previous days, when guests’ names were butchered at will by the rebellious computer.

Begging Naked is a remarkable documentary, telling the tale of a woman who worked as a hooker and then a stripper while making art, and her spiral into homelessness after being evicted from her makeshift home in an apartment building airshaft. The subject of this engrossing film, Elise, still lives in New York City’s Central Park, making art. Gehres is her longtime friend and became obviously emotional during the panel discussion after the film’s screening. Elise had also been invited to the festival, but her mental issues made her afraid to be in front of a large audience. So many fascinating stories from this film and the Q&A; not enough room to expound on them all.

3:34 p.m: It seems a quarter of the audience from Begging Naked walks over to the mental health center across the street to buy a piece of Elise’s art, where a bidding war ensues and one man becomes physically aggressive with one of the pieces. Of course, it is my husband who witnesses all of this, because he has a knack of being anywhere that a rumble may occur. All of the art sells out within the hour. Had the art been left up for auction just a few hours longer, I’m sure most of the pieces would’ve sol for  far more than the $300 the lucky guy sitting in front of me bought a painting for.

3:51p.m: We discover Cowboy Monkey’s kitchen has opened. The world rejoices!

4:00 p.m: Chaz returns to the stage and finally addresses the absence of Warren York, the beloved Virginia Wurlitzer organist. I’m happy someone finally announced this news. York’s music (and red socks) are a part of the jauntiness of the festival that is sorely missed this year. First we lose Roger’s voice, and now the voice of the Virginia. The audience pledges to send him some red socks.

4:05 p.m: The Last Command screens. At first, I think I’m not going to like the film because of the Russian politics that quickly confuse me. And then, I’m not quite sure who the hero is supposed to be. As the movie unfolds, I become enraptured by this anomaly as the character development builds to a truly poignant and beautiful ending. The anti-hero becomes a person the audience can’t help but pity by the film’s end, creating a wonderful full circle to the beginning of the film while building on the dynamic of feeling sorry for him when we were unaware of his true identity.

5:43 p.m: Everyone unanimously thinks, “Yeah, yeah, the Alloy Orchestra plays cool music with junk, we get it,” and leaves the theater in a mad rush to find sustenance before all the good eateries are filled to capacity.

5:48 p.m: Ebertfest randomness on parade: a fleet of bicyclists zoom down Walnut and wave and holler at the crowd. (It’s Critical Mass.)

5:55 p.m: Cowboy Nachos on a warm day in downtown Champaign during a movie festival … heaven on Earth.

7:30 p.m: My husband’s quote of the day: “I wanna know all the Ebertfest dirt!” Ah, the underbelly of Champaign’s prestigious movie festival — if it dares raise its ugly head, Bob will find it.

8:00 p.m: The lady sitting in front of me turns around and asks me “if they’re real.” I look at my legs, which are clad in bright patterned tights. She thinks my legs are covered in tattoo sleeves. “They’re real tights.”

8:30 p.m: When Courtney Hunt, the director and writer of Frozen River, comes on stage, she looks around and mouths “wow.” The place is sold-out and packed to the brim. Actress Misty Upham confesses to being a “nerd.” When she was four years old, she claims to have rushed home from school to watch Ebert’s latest movie reviews instead of going outside to play. Roger touches his chest in a gesture of modesty.

8:35 p.m: Frozen River screens, and although I’ve already seen the film, I am still moved to nervous tears during the infamous duffel bag scene.

10:15 p.m: The Sony Pictures Classics co-president, Michael Barker, reveals that the DVD of Frozen River was sent to the Oscar Academy early in the process of review, and the success of the film may have been aided by the fact many studios didn’t bother to send copies of their films for viewing at all. Now we know why so few people on the Academy saw The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road, but everyone saw Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Reader: some studios couldn’t afford to provide the DVDs. The economic downturn affected the outcome of the Oscars far more than Hugh Jackman’s shabby props during his musical numbers.

10:20 p.m: One of the ladies with the microphones, who has stopped next to me in the aisle, leans over and asks me “if they’re real,” pointing at my legs. I find it funny that it’s only 50ish-year-old women asking me this question. Maybe they harbor secret desires to have full leg tattoos?

10:30 p.m: Hunt reveals that the shooting of River was ruled by fear behind the scenes: “There was fear constantly; the fear we were going to be shut down … the fear someone was going to fall through the ice. …” The director/writer looks humbled and surprised anyone ever compliments the movie. One of the funniest comments was by a festival fan asking Hunt if it was intentional to create a metaphor by the fact Melissa Leo’s character never eats and how she sacrifices for her kids in the film. Hunt looks astounded and pleased, replying, “That’s interesting, I’ve never thought about that.”

The last question of the night is directed toward Misty Upham concerning why there aren’t more films about Native Americans. Upham speaks frankly about the issue, “No one cares.” She says a film about Native Americans isn’t profitable to Hollywood unless it’s a western, but she hopes to remedy that fact by writing her own material. All the scripts she receives about current people in her society are about casinos. Upham says there are many gifted visionaries on the reservations, enough “to win an Oscar every year,” but they have no education or connections to get themselves heard. “Why can’t there be a scholarship or a fund to harvest this untapped talent?” I wonder. Hasn’t anyone seen Smoke Signals? Perhaps Mr. Ebert needs to create such a fund. If anyone can raise the Native American voice out of obscurity, surely the Woodstockian Ebertfest can do it.

11:00 p.m-ish: I’m saddened by the realization the festival is over the hump. It’s almost over. It always flies by like a crack of lightning.

More Articles