By Thane Peterson Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, watches about 450 movies annually. Sounds glamorous until you think about it. Would you really you want your life's calling to include reviewing drek like Scream 3 and Freddy Got Fingered, the latest in the oeuvre of MTV gross-out king Tom Green? It all reminds me of a friend who worked in a lab at Pillsbury, where they taste-tested cake frostings and wrote little notes about each one as if frosting-in-a-can were fine cuisine. After awhile, she was fed up with cake frosting.
Watching that many movies every year does, however, give Ebert a pretty deep knowledge of the movie biz. And for the last three years, he has been using it to mount Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, the latest of which closed on April 29. The festival aims to honor a dozen or more feature films, shorts, and documentaries that Ebert feels haven't received the recognition they deserve.
I've been to film festivals in New York, Paris, Cannes, and Lausanne, but this is one of my favorites. One reason is that, for me, Roger Ebert is a homey. Like me, he grew up in Urbana and now lives and works in Chicago. And like me, he remembers going to movies as a child in the Virginia Theater, the huge, Twenties-era edifice in downtown Champaign where the festival is held.
Another connection between us is that Ebert majored in journalism at the University of Illinois-Urbana in the early 1960s, when my dad was the dean there. At the time, Ebert was known as a less-than-assiduous student who often skipped class to work on stories for the Daily Illini, the student newspaper. These days, he's one of the university's best-known alums and the College of Communications happily sponsors his festival.
HOME-TURF HUMOR. I get a kick out of the way Ebert is able to use his fame as a TV host and syndicated columnist to lure movie people to Champaign-Urbana, little side-by-side prairie towns that are 130 miles south of Chicago and which boast a combined population of only about 100,000. This year's guests included everyone from Wu Tianming, the Beijing-based director who led the New Wave film movement in pre-Tiananmen Square China, to Billy Crudup, the heart-throb star of such movies as Almost Famous and Jesus' Son (one of this year's selections). It's fun to hear Ebert poke fun at Champaign (as we Urbanaites are wont to do) and try to drag svelte movie people off on late-night forays to Steak and Shake, the local burger chain.
Ebert is a middlebrow critic, so this is not a festival where you're going to find many edgy, hard-to-access films. Mostly, these are Hollywood-style movies with conventional plot turns and unexceptional conflict/conflict-resolution story lines. The distinction is that these are very good Hollywood-style movies. If you're a movie lover, they're the kind you read about and wanted to see -- but didn't because they never made it to the local multiplex. Either that, or you saw them when they first came out and would relish the chance to see again on a big screen.
This year, the lineup was the usual eccentric mix -- and nearly all of the selections are worth seeing. They include a bunch of Hollywood movies that, for one reason or another, didn't get widespread distribution, such as Panic (2000, starring Neve Campbell and William H. Macy) and 3 Women (1977, directed by Robert Altman and starring Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall). But also included is such familiar fare as a remastered version of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Woody Allen's 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You. ("Musicals are an overlooked genre," Ebert insists.) Often, there is a local connection. In 2001, for instance, Hal the computer -- the movie's real star -- is said to have been developed at the U of I.
HITS AND MISSES. If you're renting videos or DVDs anytime soon, having Ebert's choices on hand wouldn't be a half-bad idea. You can check out the lineup for this year, as well as for the 2000 and 1999 festivals, at ebertfest.com. If you can't find them in your local Blockbuster, you can always rent them online at sites such as netflix.com.
I completely missed Panic when it came out last year, but it was a real revelation. Like Ebert, I can't figure out why it didn't do well at the box office. It's a wry comedy about a hit man (Donald Sutherland) who insists that his reluctant son (Macy) carry on the family business. This scenario provides for all sorts of hilarious dialog, as when Macy's character tells his mother (Barbara Bain) that he wants to stop killing people and she responds with lines like: "Your father worked his fingers to the bone building up this business," and, "You'll break his heart if you don't carry on." Sutherland, Macy, and Campbell all give marvelous performances. Even John Ritter, who made me gag as a TV sitcom star, is wonderful playing the psychologist whom Macy's character consults about his depression.
Ebert usually ferrets out really good documentaries, too. Last year, he featured Legacy, a brilliant study of the heroic struggles of an inner city Chicago family (See BW Daily, 6/20/00, "A Legacy You Won't Soon Forget"). It ended up getting an Oscar nomination.
OBSCURE GEMS. This year's equivalent is On The Ropes, which also was up for Best Documentary. It focuses on three inner-city boxers trying to become Golden Gloves champs. The courtroom scenes in which Tyrene Manson, one of the three, is tried on drug-possession charges are heart-breaking. A black defendant who clearly deserves a break, she is nevertheless convicted and sentenced to up to nine years because her court-appointed lawyer, by the evidence of the film, is weak, and because Manson's words and manner apparently are misinterpreted by the all-white jury.
Among the foreign films at the festival, I loved Such a Long Journey, by the Icelandic-born director Sturla Gunnarsson. Filmed on location in Bombay, the plot revolves around criminal wrong-doing. But what really makes it worth seeing are the numerous and hilarious subplots about the intergenerational strife within the Indian family it portrays, as well as with neighbors and co-workers of the father, played by Roshan Seth, who will be familiar to many Western viewers as the actor who played Nehru in Gandhi.
I have to admit that covering a festival like Ebert's for a business
publication evokes an odd feeling. The festival's central theme is that business -- mostly in the person of greedy movie execs, distributors, and the CEOs who control the movie industry -- do all they can to squash the creativity of the directors, actors, and other artists struggling to make good films. It took Roy Andersson, the Swedish director of the nearly plotless and highly eccentric Ebert festival selection Songs From the Second Floor, 25 years to get his film made. He finances his movie-making from proceeds of his lucrative day job directing Swedish TV commercials.
FADE TO BLACK. "In this country, we have the censorship of the box office," Ebert said after someone asked Wu about government censorship in China. "Good movies never open because they're forced out by more commercial movies that open on 3000 screens. That's a form of censorship, too, even though it's not ideological."
I don't agree with Ebert's logic, but his heart is in the right place. As markets globalize and communications conglomerates get ever larger, it's going to be increasingly hard for documentaries, comedies, gentle tales of romance, and quirky adventure stories to win widespread distribution. If we want them to keep being made, those who value them have to show our support. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online