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Ebertfest Blog: Day 1--Wait, I'm Doing a Blog?

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful scribe touches down in Urbana, Illinois to take in the 10th Annual Ebertfest and gets in touch with his inner Diablo Cody with his first venture into this whole blogging thing that is all the rage with the kids.


Somewhat bleary of eye and bushy of tale, I boarded the first of the two trains that would take me from my fortified compound to what will be a Mecca for true films lovers over the course of the next five days--Roger Ebert’s 10th Annual Ebert fest (a.k.a. “The Festival Formerly Known as the Overlooked Film Festival) at the beautiful Virginia Theatre in Urbana, Illinois--and began to partake in my only sacred morning ritual. I get a fresh copy of the Chicago Sun-Times that has not been touched by any other hands (this is a serious neurosis on my part--I have been know to get rid of copies of the paper and purchase new ones if someone so much as looks at “Sally Forth” before I have finished looking at it), do the regular crossword found in the classifieds right off the bat, read the paper from front to back and then do the New York Times crossword. Once all of that is done, if all goes well, I am finally awake and ready to face the world with something vaguely resembling guarded optimism. (I won’t go into the details of what occurs if the vendors are out of the paper when I arrive but suffice it to say, you would be better off on the train from “The Cassandra Crossing” than you would be sitting next to me.)

Anyway, I do the first crossword and begin delving into the paper proper and on page 2, there is a note from Ebert himself that provides two startling revelations. The first is that, due to a recent mishap in which he broke his hip, he will not be attending this year’s festivities after all. While this news was not completely unexpected--one could muddle through a film festival with a broken leg or arm, I suppose, but I’m not sure that even the confines of his specially-installed recliner at the back of the theater would make sitting through 13 feature-length films and post-screening Q&A’s comfortable for someone with a broken hip--it is disappointing because his presence is such an important aspect of the entire Ebertfest experience and not just because his name is in the title. Even last year, when he made his first public appearance after months of hospitalizations that left him unable to speak, just the sight of him was enough to buoy everyone’s spirits and at the climax of the festival, when he spoke to the audience through a voice synthesizer before the closing screening of the immortal “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” the place went nuts. (If you doubt me, I believe there is a video of this moment floating around on YouTube that will back me up.)

The second, and more shocking, item came at the end of the piece when he mentioned that he would be checking out some of the festival-related blogs being posted by some noted film columnists and advised his readers to do the same. The list of people whom he mentioned was not particularly surprising--it included such names as Jim Emerson (who edits Ebert’s official website), David Poland (who runs the fairly invaluable Movie City News) and David Bordwell (a world-renowned film scholar from the University of Wisconsin whom I esteem highly, even if he did once refer to me last year as an “auteurist” after listening to me defend the latter-day works of Brian De Palma)--until the end when I saw a most unexpected name--my own. This proved to be a shock for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it is always a little surprising to be reading something and then suddenly see your name right there in print, even if the “Z” did get dropped somewhere in the editing process. For another thing, and this is the one that is somewhat more important in the grand scheme of things, there is the inescapable fact that I don’t actually write a blog. Oh sure, I write plenty of other film-related stuff--reviews, interviews, features (including a preview of this year’s Ebertfest that can be found elsewhereon this site)--but I have never blogged before in my life and have never before even toyed with the notion of doing so. My theory has always been that blogs, for the most part, are a place for people to delve into private in-jokes and creepy obsessions while examining the excruciating minutiae of their daily lives in such stultifying detail that you can’t imagine anyone outside of the author having the patience to make it though a typical entry from beginning to end without screaming--in other words, the very same things that I already do on a regular basis in my regular reviews.

Nevertheless, I am the kind of dope who is always up for a challenge, so for the next few days, I am going to attempt to tackle this blogging thing head on with a series of reports from my time at the festival. Look, if Jeff Wells can do it, it can’t be that difficult and I am willing to bet that I can pull it off without resorting to grumpy-old-man snippiness (the online equivalent of telling those darn kids to get off yer begonias) or repeatedly attempting to use the word “galumph” as a noun. If all goes well, I will be posting each morning with details about the highlights of the previous days screenings, panel discussions and Q&A’s, a few words about the events occurring that day, chatter picked up with fellow guests and audience members during the between-film breaks, meals and the occasional late-night parties and excursions to Steak & Shake and anything else I can think of to fill up space. I also have a camera and while photos probably won’t me immediately coming (I don’t seem to have the cord with me to download them to my computer), I hope to get them posted at some point down the line. Of course, if you are also attending the festival and have photos or observations to share, please send them to me at and I will be sure to include them as well.

As with past editions of the festival, the Opening Night film is a jumbo-sized epic designed to take full advantage of both the facilities on hand at the Virginia Theatre, (a place that is, with the sole exception of a painfully tiny men’s room with windows unfortunately situated in such a way that one has the sensation of doing to downtown Urbana the same thing that once allegedly got Ozzy Osbourne arrested when he visited the Alamo, one of the most majestic movie palaces that you are likely to see in your lifetime) and the talents of ace projectionist Steve Kraus (the man who handles the Chicago screening room where I see most of the movies that I review and who would rather die than show an image that is even slightly out-of-focus or improperly aligned). This year’s selection is Kenneth Branagh’s wildly ambitious 1996 screen version of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a work in which he brought every single word of the Bard’s original text to cinematic life with the aid of gorgeous 70mm cinematography (it remains the last film to be shot entirely in the process that gave life to epics such as previous Ebertfest openers as “Patton” and “Lawrence of Arabia”) and an all-star cast that includes the likes of Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Although the film is not without its flaws--at a certain point, you will begin to understand why most people performing “Hamlet” these days do some heavy editing on the text and it is difficult to ignore the fact that Branagh is a little too old for the role--there are still enough moments of beauty and astonishment (especially in the performances from Julie Christie as Gertrude and the always-reliable Kate Winslet as an extraordinarily moving Ophelia) to make it worth sitting through every single one of its 242 minutes. After the screening, acclaimed British actor Timothy Spall--art-house goons will recognize him from his frequent collaborations with Mike Leigh while ordinary moviegoers will have recently seen him as a friendly henchman in “Enchanted” and a not-so-friendly henchman in “Sweeney Todd”--will be on hand to discuss the film, in which he appears in the role of Rosencrantz.

When I think of this version of “Hamlet,” my memories turn to two people who are, sad to say, no longer with us--longtime film critic Gene Siskel and legendary actor Charlton Heston, who appears in the film as the King of Players. With Siskel, I am reminded of the last time that I saw this film on the big screen at a pre-release critics screening in the winter of 1996. At this time, critics are bombarded with screeners and screening invites urging us to get out and see this and that so that they can be included in end-of-the-year awards discussions and as a result, time becomes a very precious commodity. No doubt realizing that they might have a little trouble getting critics to carve out four free hours in which to see a single film, the studio laid out a fairly lavish spread of snacks--fruits, cheeses and the like--for us to nibble on during the intermission. That was all set up in the lobby but there was only one minor problem--the print hadn’t arrived yet. Time continues to tick away and at the time when the screening was supposed to begin, it still hadn’t shown up yet. More time passes, more frantic phone calls from publicists ensue and the print finally arrives. Alas, once the entire print had been put together, it was discovered that an even bigger disaster had occurred--whoever had the print last apparently neglected to rewind the reels or something and as a result, the entire thing was upside-down and backward. All 242 minutes of jumbo-sized 70mm film that would need to be entirely rewound so that it could be properly projected , an act that would, of course, necessitate yet another delay before the screening could finally begin. At this point, Siskel got up out of his seat, loudly exclaimed something along the lines of “nuts to this” (though I believe the nuts were somewhat saltier) and left the auditorium. About a minute later, he returned bearing one of the giant baskets of cheese and fruit and whatnot and proceed to walk down the aisle and offering the goodies to the rest of us. Although I wouldn’t say that I really got to know Siskel that well during our time in the screening room together (I think the only time we actually discussed a movie at all was a time when I was proclaiming my adoration for, of all things, John Boorman’s “Zardoz”) and I got a little irked with him when he accused me of being anti-Semitic after he overheard me muttering to someone after a screening of “Life is Beautiful” something along the lines of “Ah, the feel-good movie of the Holocaust,” the memory of him with that basket is the one that I will remember the most.

As for Heston, he was always considered to be more of a screen icon than a real actor--nearly every tribute piece to emerge in the wake of his recent passing said as much--and while it is easy to understand this particular way of thinking in the face of the epic films that he was best-known for, he was perfectly capable of coming up with a scaled-down and nuanced performance when it was required, as he showed in such films as “Touch of Evil” and a little-seen western called “Will Penny.” However, the best of these smaller-scale turns occurs in “Hamlet” with his performance as the King of Players, the leader of the theatrical troupe who help Hamlet expose his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle. When Heston first comes on the screen, there is a moment when you see him and sort of chuckle, partly out of recognition and partly out of the expectation that he is going to be emoting his way to the rafters before too long. However, once he begins to speak, it quickly becomes apparent that he is not going to be hamming things up in his inimitable “Damn you all to Hell!” style. Instead, he comes across with a completely controlled and beautifully modulated performance that, combined with the sound of his inimitable voice wrapping itself around the words of Shakespeare, is arguably the best in the film (with the sole exception of Kate Winslet, whose Ophelia is pretty close to definitive) and one of the best of his entire career.

Okay, I think I have this blog thing down. Keep checking in every day and if all goes well, I will have new entries for the duration. I hope you enjoy it. More importantly, I hope that Roger enjoys it since it was him that inspired it in the first place. Of course, I suppose there is always the chance that he was referring to another film critic who is attending Ebertfest this year whose name actually is Peter Sobcynski. If that is the case, I am going to feel like such an ass.

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originally posted: 04/24/08 02:49:10
last updated: 04/24/08 03:40:42
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