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Memories of Ebertfest

Today in the mail we received our invitation to the opening gala for the 14th Annual Ebertfest, the film festival held each year in Champaign-Urbana, hometown of Pulitzer Prize winning critic Roger Ebert, programmer of the festival. It's one of the most exciting times of year in the Matt & Ashley household, and we look forward to the festival with great antici....   pation. This year, the schedule of films to be shown at the venerable Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign looks to contain yet more interesting genres and guests.

Ashley & I first attended Ebertfest (or, Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, as it was known then) in 2001. The film of the year's namesake was the opening night picture, and it was a simply stunning experience. There we sat, in the balcony of the old Virginia, the massive screen spread out before us, the sound system rattling to Strauss's sumptuous music. Afterwards, 2001 actor Keir Dullea took to the stage for a Q&A. We were hooked.

In the years since that first, fateful night, a lot has happened. Our own lives, obviously, have grown, but so much has gone on in regards to the festival. First and foremost, the experience of new films (to us) is the major benefit from attending such a festival every year. I'll never forget the first time we see Jacques Tati's Playtime, in all it's farcical French glory. And what of The Stone Reader, the documentary about a forgotten man and his long lost novel? It was absolutely riveting, and then to see the author appear at the festival was an electric moment. Then, there was Kwik Stop, actor-director Michael Gilio's quiet, sweet, low-budget road movie with a heart of gold. It stays with me to this day. And I'll never look at the immigration debate the same way again after having seen Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas's film El Norte.

Probably the grandest experience at any Ebertfest (although that's a difficult topic to navigate) was in 2003, when the festival closed with Singin' In the Rain. One of those classic 1950's musicals that I'd neglected to see, it was a pleasure to view within the stately walls of the Virginia. The audience went full-bore with it, too, clapping after every number, making it feel like we were watching a live musical production, and not a 50-year-old film. Afterwards, star Donald O'Connor took to the stage. Old and frail, but still tops in spirit, Mr. O'Connor graciously talked about the film, his career, and answered questions from the audience. He passed away later that year.

Speaking of passing away, we've lost some good, stout festival-goers along the way. For years we were treated to the melodies of the Virginia's pipe organ, played between films by Mr. Warren York. Keith Page, local weatherman, magician, and my high school drama teacher, was a fixture in the balcony at many festivals. And we always looked forward to seeing Milt and his wife, who made the sojourn from their home in Michigan every year to attend the festival. Mr. York, Mr. Page and Milt are gone now. Many others are, too. But it was great to know them, and to see them there every year they could make it.

Indeed, aside from the movies that are screened, the folks who attend Ebertfest each year are what make it so special. Some are townies, some are from out of town, out of state, or even from out of the country. It's always a great occasion to meet-up with old friends & acquaintances, and to be introduced to new and interesting people. I remember standing in-line one year, having a conversation with a man I'd never met before who was from Philadelphia, on the nature of political discourse. That just doesn't happen to you every day.

So, the invitation to the opening of Ebertfest 14 has arrived. One of the most exciting times of the year is officially underway. I can't wait for the experience. If it's like past festivals, we'll find great company, good conversation, new ideas to mull over for awhile, and a trove of memories to treasure always. And it's all because a hometown boy done good. Not bad, Champaign-Urbana. Not bad at all.


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