Smile Politely

Ebertfest 2017: Day one (and a half)


So the half day is always Wednesday, which kicks off with only one screening. That should be less than a half-day, really, but pass holders usually start queueing at 4 p.m. or earlier. While it makes a long day for famous volunteer Don Wauthier, who gets there to oversee the folks in line, people really enjoy seeing each other again and welcoming new friends. From the outside, I always saw the line as rather irritating, but getting to see it in action this year really let me witness how people have turned “line friends” into an institution.

Of course, the traditional organ music played on the Virginia’s authentic instrument was in the background, and as Chaz walked in during “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, the background music became the soundtrack as she turned it into a sing-a-long, which turned out to be just a prelude. Chaz invited Jimmy Demers onstage to open the festival with a rendition of “God Bless America”, a nice way to bookend the event, since he will be performing after the closing film on Sunday, as well.

That a celebrity would attend the full five days of the event when he’s only scheduled to appear on a Sunday, really testifies to the power and energy of what the Eberts have built, and that Chaz has successfully kept going. In fact, several industry guests were seen on days 1 & 2 even though their official parts aren’t until later in the week. Most of Chaz’s opening speech focused on that idea: that Ebertfest guests have become family, (sometimes literally) and that she appreciates all of us for supporting its success. She also said she was “fairly vibrating” due to all she was feeling…which might have been a more appropriate comment for Thursday?

Hair was much less visually risqué than my youthful imaginings, but I can definitely see why my parents were a little shocked I knew some of the songs. It was bizarre, beautiful, provocative and unfortunately still pertinent. Afterwards, Michaels Hausman and Butler came out to speak, Hausman flashing a peace sign, and it was one of the more interesting panels I’d heard. I had no idea Michael Butler ran for senate, or that he saw Hair as a means of spreading the anti-war message rather than a money-maker – an investment in our country’s future instead of his own personal wealth. He still feels that way, as he announced plans for a 50th anniversary revival which includes re-purchasing the original Aquarius Theatre in L.A.


Thursday morning, I managed to get to one of the two panels at the Hyatt (9 a.m. is too early guys) and was glad to have a smaller crowd and more theoretical discussion. The room was close to full, with probably a capacity of just over 200 (? guessing, please don’t call the fire marshall) as opposed to the after-screening panels where usually 1,000 people are still sitting and trying to get their questions answered.

My favorite question to the panel was: “What was the first film you saw which made you an empathetic observer?” asked by Chike Coleman of “The Wheelchair Watcher”. Since the panel was about empathy, I thought it dismissive of the moderator to snark this question into “In other words, what’s your favorite film”, but the panelists gave thoughtful answers. Sheila O’Malley cited Dog Day Afternoon as the film where she first felt changed after watching it, Hugh Dancy replied with Downfall, and Richard Neupert gave a really compelling explanation about Children of Heaven.

Still, even in a smaller crowd, there are people who just want to stand up and talk with the big boys. My advice: unless the moderator directs a question to the crowd, maybe ask yourself before you take the mic, “Is my question a question?” Even with that, I’d recommend getting to a panel discussion this year, but this will pub after they’re all over. Well, maybe next year.

Thursday’s slate of Hysteria, To Sleep With Anger, and Handmaiden really brought the sex and the violence. Not only did Hysteria panel have the biggest-name actor this year, Hugh Dancy, it also had the most double-entendres and the phrase “duck-fucking”. To Sleep With Anger had the liveliest introduction with Robert Townsend getting the crowd’s energy up, and the movie really surprised me. This is one I am going to have to re-watch, slowly, letting myself digest all the images. Since Handmaiden didn’t have any guests, a panel of famous critics first discussed the movie amongst themselves but then actually posed questions to the audience about our own “crazy Dennis-Hopper-character theories” as Matt Zoller-Seitz put it. He also observed that since Handmaiden was written as a novel of Victorian England but was very successfully relocated to Japanese-occupied Korea post-World War II, that means “…cultural specificity isn’t necessary when there is an imaginative person involved.” I really liked thinking about that.

Other highlights:

  • It’s almost entirely debunked that they were filming extras for a Criterion Collection edition of To Sleep With Anger – that’s just Robert Townsend getting Charles Burnett three standing O’s in a row.
  • Not even Hysteria’s “Golden Thumbs” vibrate, but that’s the second year in a row where hand jokes made Chaz blush.
  • Yes, Hair’s director was really chosen by tarot card readings.
  • Chaz Ebert invited everyone who has attended 15 or more Ebertfests up to the front of the stage to get their own mini Golden Thumbs. They only had 250 made, and they ran out. Email to get yours.
  • Tilda Swinton was watching over Livestream, so the entire auditorium had a dance party to her favorite song. I wasn’t there for the 2013 magic, but it lives large in the collective Ebertfest memory. (and youtube)

And last but not least: Ebertfest 20 has been announced! The official dates are April 18-22, 2018. Chaz wants to hear from everyone about how she can make this year special. Send her your ideas at

That it, I’m out of time. I am going to have to get to the theatre in record time. See you at the movies!

[gallery ebertfest_part_1_2017]

All photos by Sam Logan.

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