Smile Politely

Day Five: Ebertfest

11:45 a.m.: After being absent from the organ yesterday, Warren York is back and all is right again. As I look around and hear the organ’s jaunty tune, I feel a little bittersweet. It’s the last day of Ebertfest and I am extremely cagey from sitting in a movie theater for five days straight, yet this festival is a pinnacle of my year and I always hate to see it end. Warren plays “I’ll Be Seeing You” and I feel a little mushy inside.

12:00 p.m.: Chaz Ebert comes out for the last time and walks across the length of the stage, waving to the audience from one side to the other. “I’m taking these images of you so I can take them back to Roger in Chicago,” she says. Visibly tired, the woman has been a trooper this entire festival and has worked so hard to make things run smoothly. She plants a big smooch on the microphone as a farewell gesture and says flightily, “I’ve gotta go see my man” and runs off to Chicago.

12:10 p.m.: The final film of the festival begins. Romance and Cigarettes is a surprisingly moving film despite its raunchy audacity and flamboyance. Starring James Gandolfini and a myriad of big name actors like the always-stunning Kate Winslet, this is a musical set on a small street in Queens. The first big singing and dancing number brings a roar of applause from the audience. I love the random people that jump into these numbers, from garbage collectors and a girl’s softball team to a kid on a bicycle and a man in a tomato patch.

Directed by John Turturro and based loosely on his own family, the story revolves around a man in a broken marriage who fantasizes about his lover and how to please her most. Doesn’t sound like musical material, does it? Throw a sashaying Christopher Walken into the mix and you know good things are bound to happen. The film relies on pop songs to help tell their tales, and it comes off like karaoke as the actors sing to the original artists recordings. It’s like Aida Turturro says on the panel after the film, “The movie isn’t supposed to be a perfect musical… it’s supposed to be like life. Everyone sings in their car!” Indeed, the effect is often hilarious.

Choreographer Tricia Brouk is on hand to recount her experience with the film. “All the actors were uninhibited,” she says, going on to clarify that if she made a fool of herself in front of them, they felt comfortable to do the same. She’s excited about the audience’s reaction to the first musical number, saying she plans to tell John Turturro about our wonderful reception.

Moderating the panel is Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, and he calls Ebertfest the “largest and most intimate film fest” he’s ever been to. Someone else also called it the “least pretentious.” It’s also an addiction.

When Ebertfest ends, it leaves a hole in me like a field littered with empty cotton candy bags after the circus leaves town. Ebertfest can definitely prove to be a circus, and this year’s was my craziest yet. But after it’s all been said and done, we are blessed to live in a community with so many good local movie theaters. We’ve got Boardman’s Art Theatre in Champaign, the Avon Theatre in Decatur, the Harvest Moon Drive-in of Gibson City, the Lorraine in Hoopeston, the Normal Theatre and of course, the multiplexes. It’s really not a bad place to be left in once the circus moves out of town; in fact, it makes the Midwest worth living in for movie lovers. With so few art houses and independently owned movie theaters across the country, it’s real treasure trove.

So now that it’s all over, continue to support these overlooked movies by seeking them out in our theaters and spreading the word on these lost masterpieces. Movie theaters are like movies themselves — a lot of times the best ones are the smaller ones we tend to glance over, their hidden wealth dusted over by neglect.

Related Articles