A tough, cramped drive down in the back seat of a taxi-yellow Focus, by way of Ann Arbour (Zingerman’s deli, and a particularly excellent breakfast bagel) and Chicago (Calumet Fisheries, and a rough fish n’ chips with red sauce hot enough to peel a cleansing layer off the interior of my sinuses). But my room at the Eastland Suites is excellent and the hotel itself is across the street from a Steak n’ Shake, and with Google telling me it’s a solid one-hour walk to the Virginia Theatre, I set out on foot. I’m out in the sunshine all of five minutes before I remember vividly why it is I do everything I do. After a tough, cramped winter, the legs in my mind finally stretch all the way out. I walk past bungalows, duck ponds and railroad tracks. Life, itself on the streets of Champaign, IL.
The best part of the drive down comes when an unwillingness on both Price and myself’s part to get into a discussion with Fisher on the relative merits of the conclusion of LOST becomes, perhaps, the definitive discussion of the subjectivity of art and - later - the substantial value of criticism that we’ve ever had (with a young critic who seemed to need to hear it - the first part, and the second part - all while in a car, on the way to Ebertfest). I wish, oh I wish, I’d been recording it. Not that Mamo! listeners haven’t heard this before; but this was the Criterion Collection version of that conversation.
By the time I’ve reminded myself that my walking muscles are severely out of shape, I’m in downtown Champaign, and I find my way back to the Aroma Cafe - with the bronze sculpture of a girl reading a book across the street - and tuck into the first chapter of Fall Of Giants after uploading a brace of Instagrams. Price & Fisher join me around 5:30 and we walk over to the Virginia, the temperature dropping rapidly, the line curving around the block. We pick up the usual conversational drifter. By the time we’re inside I’m frozen to the bone and even-more-than-usual happy to be there, but with the organ music playing (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and the crowd of acolytes happily taking their seats under projection images of the life of the festival’s founder, it’s hard not to think of the whole thing as Roger Ebert’s afterlife, dropped into this corner of Illinois. The night’s film is Life, Itself, Steve James’ documentary (based on Ebert’s memoir), and it’s the first time I realize (having spent the last two months laying tracks so furiously in front of an oncoming train that I apparently never had two spare seconds to rub together) that this thing might hit me squarely where I live.
It doesn’t. I’m grateful for that; I’m grateful that the film is like the book, and so joyous in its meandering through the vitality and passion of that man’s life that I cannot view it is anything other than soaring; inspirational; a true act of love. “It was unspeakably romantic,” one of Ebert’s friends says, regarding his young, exuberant life as a journalist - but really, describing everything, the whole thing. The movie made me (not surprisingly) refract all of my own writing through its lens; Ebert was never condescending, never pandering, lessons that I (and really, every single person writing on the internet right now) could do well to take to better account, every time the keyboard starts clacking.
Chaz Ebert, who introduced the screening and the festival, remains a wonder. The last thing the film needs in its final minutes is an extensive re-account of Ebert’s descent into illness circa 2006 and beyond; earlier scenes of him coping with the last few months of his life are far more touching and extraordinary. But as the illness takes shape, Chaz - remarkably - says “He’s very brave, but I’m not,” before going on to prove the opposite. I wonder about this. We find our strength in our true loves, whomever (or whatever) they may be - do we all see the greater courage in that person, regardless of what we have inside?
The requisite Steak n’ Shake run following the movie; I started with the double steakburger and will work my way out to the more elaborate hamburger provinces in the nights to come.
VROOOOOOOM…!! Mamo takes a quick road trip to the U.S. of A. for barbecued meat and Vin Diesel, which are largely indistinguishable from one another. On the drive home we take a moment to survey the state of the nation of the most unlikely super-franchise in Hollywood. Who’s feeling fast? Who’s feeling furious?
Live from the Aroma Cafe in Champaign, IL, we continue to recap Ebertfest as it happens. Today we discuss the beautiful film Terri, a terrific program of shorts accompanied by the Alloy orchestra, and our thoughts on a panel about VOD vs. the future of theatrical moviegoing.
Mamo road trip! We stop at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a catch-up show. We talk Catching Fire, Avengers, the next Batman, James Cameron, the 3-D 48fps Hobbit, and the future of all mankind (and movies).