Ebertfest, Day One: THE ARRIVAL

Note: Due to privacy concerns, I am using Twitter names for some of the people mentioned here.

We woke almost as one to the sounds of the morning, stirring from our mats to greet the day dressed in clothing wrinkled and sweaty from the night before. After putting back my mat, I went in the men’s bathroom, which was near where I had slept, and dabbed my face with a wet paper towel. I then gargled and brushed, but had no time to catch breakfast, nor even a snack from the vending machine. Maybe I should have kept that Snickers from the night before instead of eating it for dessert. No matter. My “breakfast” on the plane consisted of orange juice and pretzels, though a more substantial breakfast awaited me at Chicago O’Hare.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport is like a maze. I wouldn’t have been surprised had I seen David Bowie appear clutching a small child. Through this labyrinthine airport, I made my way to my gate — which was, of course, nowhere near the gate I had just disembarked from. I had quite a bit of time before boarding began, however; enough time to drink all of my tea, and I had to wait for it to cool down first. Those early morning pretzels must have been filling, as I didn’t finish the egg and cheese bagel that I bought in Chicago, saving much of it for the following day.

Willard Airport in Champaign, IL, is a very small airport. I thought Hartford had a small airport, but they have two conveyor belts. Willard Airport has half of one.

My First View of Champaign: From the Airport

I called Eastland Suites as soon as I grabbed my suitcase. They said the shuttle was on its way, as someone else had already called for it. I also got a message from Michael Mirasol, saying that he was looking forward to seeing me at the Virginia Theatre that night.

Going outside to wait, I noticed one woman waiting who had sat one seat over and up from me on the flight from Chicago, and two guys, one of whom had also been on my flight. I remember her because she had been playing with her phone before the flight attendants had cleared the use of electronic devices. Also, her feet were one of the few things I could see while looking forward. As the other two got into other shuttles, I felt like asking her if she was going to Eastland Suites, as well, and if she were also going to Ebertfest, but I did not. Anyway, for most of that time she was on her cell phone.

When it arrived, the shuttle for Eastland Suites worried me. Unlike the other shuttles, it looked a bit beat-up, and I was hoping that this wouldn’t lead to an Econo Lodge experience (inside joke). I noticed that this woman got into the van as well, though, so she certainly was the person who had called the hotel ahead of me.

There were two rows of seats in the back. I sat in the front row, she sat in the back. As the shuttle headed to the hotel, she said, “Excuse me, are you litdreamer?”

Surprised, I said, “Yes,” and before I could ask her the question, she said, “I’m vanyc.”

This surprised me, as I knew she lived in India, and I hadn’t realized she was coming to Ebertfest. We then talked about other people on Twitter that we knew, and who was coming and who wasn’t. Also, vanyc had gotten a message from PlaidGirl about doing something later that afternoon. Within a couple of minutes or less, I got a call from her.

Hello, princess,” she said.

I’m not a princess!” I answered.

[Note: This particular reference would take too long to explain, except to say that PlaidGirl believes that, were we to be involved in a fistfight, she would probably win. Even before I met her, I agreed.]

I then told her I was with vanyc, which was good, as she could pick both of us up from the hotel at the same time. Talking with vanyc simultaneously, we decided that she would pick us up from our hotel at four.

As we continued on to the hotel, I found out that vanyc didn’t have a room for Friday, even though she had booked before me. Guess I was really lucky. When we checked in, I also found out that, yes, the hotel hadn’t charged me for the night I spent in Minneapolis.

Vanyc needed a map to get to her room, but my room was right down the hallway. The winding and twisting hallway, that is. I hadn’t gotten the smallest room, but man, Room 101 was huge!

Pre-Shower, and Feeling It

After unpacking, I called my mom to let her know that I had landed, then took pictures of the room. I planned on taking a nap after a much needed shower, but right before I was about to climb into my bed, PlaidGirl called and asked if I could meet at three instead. It was almost one, and I wanted to get at least two hours of sleep in, so I asked her if we could meet at 3:30.

As it turned out, I only slept for about an hour, and not well. So, I got up at around 2:30 and got ready VERY slowly. I left my room right as vanyc was walking by.

PlaidGirl entered the lobby before we knew she was there. One moment, vanyc got a text saying that she had arrived; the next, we hear laughter coming from one of the chairs.

Like most of my fellow tweeters whose faces I didn’t already know, PlaidGirl did not look like what I had expected. For one, she wasn’t wearing plaid.

Anyway, she drove us to the Virginia Theatre to meet Donny (theangrymick), his wife, and some other people he knew, pointing out landmarks along the way, like the gas station, and where not to walk at night. Or, to be more specific, she drove us to the parking deck, where we walked to the Virginia.

I’m not sure what I expected theangrymick to look like, but certainly not somebody who had more hair on his chin than on his head. It was funny in that, when he waved to us at first, PlaidGirl said, “Is that someone we should know?” whereas I thought, “That must be theangrymick.” We also met up with Kenji and Odie, who both write for one of the same websites as Ali Arikan (as we found out later).

We ended up going to the Seven Saints for dinner/lunch, which is known for its sliders. Looking at the price of the sliders, I decided to go for a sandwich. There, we talked about ourselves, film, other tweeters, and various other topics, including Tom Dark. Now, Tom likes to torment me on Twitter, and usually I kid him right back, but on Sunday, he had rubbed me the wrong way, and I had blocked him. Donny emphasized that Tom was very soft spoken in real life and a very sweet guy, so even though I wasn’t sure if I wanted to meet him or not, I thought I’d give him another chance.

When we got back to the Virginia, the line went around and around and around the block. Still, we got our balcony seats, and cheered along with everyone else when Ebert appeared to welcome the crowd.

The Balcony

The Floor

The Stage

The Virginia is a beautiful theater, as these photos show, but there isn’t much legroom in the balcony, and the seats can get downright uncomfortable. Plus, though the first film was The Complete Metropolis (with the Alloy Orchestra playing), which I had so enjoyed in Seattle, jet lag, lack of sleep, lack of legroom, and uncomfortable chairs made me notice the length more than the brilliance of this great film.

Before the film began, Ebert used his computer voice to address the crowd and thank the people involved, including the Far-Flung Correspondents (see the full video here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/14319893 ). He mentioned how he first met people from other countries on the University of Illinois campus, “and now the tradition continues.” He also mentioned the people who contribute to “Ebert Presents At the Movies,” and at the mention of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Donny’s wife (Anne) leaned over to me and said, “That name must have given the computer program a fit.”

Traditionally, on the first night of Ebertfest, a 70 mm film is shown, followed by a Q&A session. As Chaz explained, however, Roger then went to the South By Southwest (SxSW) Film Festival and saw Natural Selection, which he said had to be shown at the festival, even though the schedule was set. That is why, for this year, two films were shown on opening night.

Another topic that was addressed was the marathon, which was happening on Saturday (and is the reason why many people couldn’t find a room for the Friday night). Originally, Roger tweeted, “We’ve been here 13 years, they’ve been here 3 years. Why do they have to have it on Ebertfest?”, but then Chaz made him change it so that it was more conciliatory, saying instead that they “would learn to coexist” as both of them were “good for the town.” Personally, I agree with his first statement.

Unfortunately, David Bordwell could not make it this year, but his wife — Kristin Thomas — came, and she introduced The Complete Metropolis as a “silent film event.” Unlike her husband, she hadn’t seen this version and so was eager to see it. She also explained why it was “completely logical” to find lost films in places like Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand, as they were often “the end of the line” for films in the silent days. Also, at that time, German films did very well in South America, much better than they did in North America, where Hollywood films dominated the market (also, Fritz Lang was the most popular German director in South America).

As I mentioned above, lack of sleep and cramped legs led to a realization of how long Metropolis really is, rather than how great it is. Still, the Alloy Orchestra played wonderfully, the scenes looked gorgeous on that huge screen, and if the actor playing Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) seemed even more hammy, the great scenes in the film (like the laboratory scene, where Rotwang creates the fake Maria) were still as great as ever. In fact, I elbowed vanyc to make sure she was awake for that scene.

Unfortunately, I also had to elbow some people behind us, whom PlaidGirl named Mr. (and Mrs.) Snoresalot. They somehow also thought it okay to talk during a silent film, so at one point (probably later than I should have) I turned around and said to them, “Excuse me, could you please be quiet?” Not as witty as saying, “Just because it’s a silent film doesn’t mean you can talk,” or “The film is silent, which means you should be, too,” but effective. PlaidGirl admired my politeness in handling that situation, though I really did feel like telling them to go to hell.

I missed part of the Q&A afterwards, as I had to use the bathroom, but I saw Michael Mirasol walk on by. I thought he was going to join the line, but then he headed down the stairs with a popcorn. Oh well, I thought, I’ll introduce myself tomorrow. When I returned, the Q&A panel was Michael Phillips, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Kristin Thomas, Terry Donahue, and Ken Winokur (the latter two from the Alloy Orchestra). One interesting fact that came out during the Q&A was that the Alloy Orchestra was originally going to include their soundtrack on the DVD release, but the Murnau Corporation declared that only the original soundtrack could be included on the DVD release (you can buy the Alloy Orchestra version here).

During the intermission, I heard that Tom Dark was lurking around, and in fact I saw him on the way back from somewhere, talking to vanyc. When I went up to him, he said, “And who’s this?”

Litdreamer,” I said, and stuck out my hand.

That caused Tom’s face to light up as he gave me a big bear hug and said, “Now we have someone to pick on,” and playfully shouldered me. Then he told me, “It was all in fun. I hope you know that. Thanks for being a good sport.”

Soft spoken, kind, like a big teddy bear. And as I walked away to head back to my seat, I found myself faced with the impossible task of trying to rectify the cursing curmudgeon on Twitter with the soft-spoken, sweet man I had just met. I guess the Internet does turn people into trolls.

The second film, as mentioned, was Natural Selection. Though a good film, I felt it was one of the weaker films at the festival, in which one saw new takes on a formulaic story made less formulaic by its characters and its trajectory. Still, unlike too many recent comedies, it was actually funny.

Directed by Robbie Pickering, it stars Rachael Harris as a barren, deeply religious woman named Linda whose husband, Abe (John Diehl), will not have sex with her, since it would not be for baby making, but for pleasure. She, on the other hand, finds it hard to resist temptation (puns intended – note, for example, her reaction to seeing her husband’s early morning erection). When her husband blacks out while masturbating to nun porn at a fertility clinic and becomes comatose, however, she finds out that he has been visiting that clinic for years, and may have fathered a son. When she finds who she thinks is his long-lost son, he turns out to be an escaped convict named Raymond (Matt O’Leary), though she doesn’t know he has escaped from prison. As they spend time together, a strange relationship begins to develop. Funny and poignant, what derails this film at times is that, during certain set scenes (such as at a restaurant that Raymond breaks into), the revelations and character development have been done before. I do give props to the ending for not going for a cop out, but one based on the characters. Also, the acting is quite good, though I sometimes wished Harris had dug even deeper into her character.

On the panel for the Q&A were Matt Zoller Seitz, Michael Phillips, Robbie Pickering, and Rachael Harris. Pickering swore for much of the Q&A, which Ali Arikan tweeted about (“This is probably the best #Ebertfest panel ever because Robbie Pickering is swearing like a sailor.”), and Harris’s parents drove down from Ohio to join the festival. Also, Pickering revealed that the character of Linda was based on his mother. He began making the film when his father was dying and he knew that his mother would soon be a widow.

It was late by the time we headed back to the parking deck. Vanyc and I discovered that Odie was staying at the same hotel as us, so we were able to hitch a ride with him. He also didn’t have a room on Friday, but I forgot to mention to him that he could stay in my room, if he couldn’t find another place, since I had a couch.

Anyway, walking with PlaidGirl, theangrymick, Mrs. angrymick ;-), vanyc, and Odie, we ran into a smoking Ali Arikan (as in he was smoking a cigarette, not smokin’, though others may think he was smokin’, too). PlaidGirl introduced herself, but I had no time to do so, unless I wanted to interrupt.

I ended up crawling into bed at 2:30, and decided to wake up at 7:40 for the Ebert Club meet-and-greet the next day. No way in hell I was getting there by 8:30. But no way in hell was I missing the opportunity to meet Roger Ebert.

P.S. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is very tall.

NEXT POST: Ebertfest, Day Two: ROGER & ME


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