I know some of my colleagues have had choice words for Roger Ebert this week – mainly over his refusal to even consider the possibility that video games might be their own art form.
But if we can take a step back from the video game debate, I’d love to talk for a moment about Ebert the film lover. There’s some exciting news concerning his film festival, now underway in Champaign, Illinois. For the next four days, thousands of film fans will be flocking to Ebert’s “Overlooked Film Festival” – better known as Ebertfest – and I will be among them. I’m heading west today on a 3 p.m. flight, landing hopefully with enough time to make an 8 p.m. screening of Apocalypse Now.
This will mark my fifth year as an Ebertfest attendee, and my past experiences have solidified this as one of my all-time happiest places. Something about Ebertfest just feels so right: One of the most reasonable and thoughtful film writers hand-picks little-seen gems that have gone unnoticed by the mainstream. He then shows these movies to a crowd of eager, interested, insightful film viewers, hungry for something more interesting than the Hollywood machine can typically provide. We then get to meet most of the filmmakers, as Ebert talks to them about their achievement, gaining an insight into why the film was made, how it failed to reach its target audience, and what it is that Ebert finds most memorable.
This is just a festival with good karma. And I can still remember some of those earlier screenings that blew my mind: A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, El Norte, Ripley’s Game … have you heard of a movie called People I Know? Neither had I. Al Pacino is awesome.
The new trend among film festivals is to go viral, to use the festival environment as a way of getting the movies out there into the mainstream conversation via web and VOD. The Tribeca Film Festival, also currently underway, went so far as to put a series of virtual festival passes up for sale, where people across the country can stream festival selections right on their computer.
Ebertfest has taken an even more interesting approach to this: Every introduction to a film, ever side panel, and every post-screening Q&A will be both webcast live and archived as accessible web video. This means that right now, you can go here and watch the introduction from last night, to the screening of Pink Floyd The Wall.
Also, while you watch the live web streaming out of Champaign, you can comment via live chat, sharing your thoughts with other Ebert fans, who have tuned in to see the show.
I think it’s rather remarkable – that my friends in San Francisco or Miami can watch the same discussions I’m going to be watching live in person. For anyone who likes great movies, quality filmmakers and Roger Ebert’s criticism I’d highly encourage you to log on and check it out. From where I sit, the two biggest highlights of Ebertfest look to be the Q&A session with Charlie Kaufman, writer and director Synecdoche, New York, which should be streaming live around 11:15 p.m. EST Friday night, and also the interview with one of my favorite actors – Bill Nighy – which should start streaming around 2 p.m. EST Saturday afternoon.
Film buffs might also be interested to hear that virtuoso film editor Walter Murch will be talking later tonight, after Apocalypse Now. That conversation will probably be starting around 12:30 a.m. EST. If that’s too late for you, just log on tomorrow and check out the archive. But for live streaming, either go to this Ebertfest page, or this outside page.
Apparently Ebert, who lost his voice years ago after repeated cancer surgeries, will be taking a far more active role this year – using a computer voice on stage. No doubt he’ll have some questions typed out beforehand, as he takes to the stage with his guests. And I imagine it will be slightly emotional, after a couple years of Ebert being relegated to the audience, to see him talking again in front of his own film festival. At least I’ll be getting a little emotional over it.
I’ll post something next week with maybe my five favorite Ebertfest moments. For now, play along at home, and tell me yours! I’ll be watching this thread throughout the weekend.