Ebertfest, Day Two: ROGER & ME

I just missed the shuttle this morning, arriving in the lobby at about 8:30. Still jet-lagged and tired, I had to wait until 8:50 or so until the shuttle returned. At least the weather is getting warmer, and it’s sunnier than it was yesterday.

The meet-and-greet was at the Illini Union, but I had no idea what room it was in, so I asked. When I got to the room, however, I only saw FFCs (Far Flung Correspondents), and it seemed like a small gathering. Checking with someone who was leaving the room, however, I confirmed that this was, in fact, the gathering for Ebert Club members.

I saw Michael Mirasol right away and had seen Gerardo Valero enter the room ahead of me. I walked right up to Michael and introduced myself, using both of my “names.” He was very happy to meet me and introduced me to his wife, Claire. We talked a bit about the lack of members there (then again, I was a “maybe” until a couple weeks before the festival) and about writing for a living. In both the Philippines and the U.S., writing is a terrible way to make money. I told him, though, that you just have to keep writing.

About five to ten minutes after I entered, the man himself, Roger Ebert, came through the door.

He had someone speak for him (whose name escapes me) and held out his arms as he faced each table, thanking us for coming. He then had everyone introduce themselves, and stand while doing it (including his personal assistant, Carol, and his nurse, Millie). Chaz wasn’t at the breakfast, but most of the Far-Flung Correspondents were there, as well as people from Ebert Presents.

While introducing myself, I noticed that Ali Arikan’s mouth made an “o” of recognition when I said that I wrote on Twitter as litdreamer. Other than saying my “real name” and my “Twitter” name, I don’t remember what I said, beyond mentioning that I was part of the Ebert Club and that this was my first Ebertfest.

Once everyone had introduced themselves, Roger signaled that he wanted us to talk to each other. This was interrupted twice by introductions, once when he recognized that Kartina Richardson had appeared, and a second time when Krishna Shenoi appeared with his mother and sister. At 17, he is the youngest of Ebert’s FFCs.

During the interim, I got to meet Randy Masters, got a photo with Michael, and had a conversation with Gerardo’s wife, Monica, who was sitting to my right. She thought she had met me before, and for some reason, I thought of Tom Dark’s blog piece where he talks about visiting people in dreams. Or maybe I just have one of those faces. Olivia Collette was also at my table, but she was deep in conversation with another person there. Mainly, though, I was biding my time until the line to see Roger had lessened.

I saw my chance when Olivia got up there with no line. Kenji and Odie were there, and they got in line behind me. I was two seats away from Roger Ebert. Then I thought I was next, but Randy snuck in to speak with Roger for a bit. I noticed that Roger looked over at me several times when I laughed (I have a rather large laugh), and I wondered if he remembered who I was (see, this is what lack of sleep does to you: I had just introduced myself to everyone, so of course he would know who I was). I have to admit, waiting there, that I was a bit nervous. I know because my hands were shaking.

But then something strange happened, and continued to happen the entire time I was at the festival. When it came time to talk to Roger, the fear melted away. It was just me talking to someone who looked, for all intents and purposes, like somebody’s grandpa. For unknown reasons (read: lack of sleep) I introduced myself again, and asked if he remembered me. As I did this, we shook hands. Something that surprised me: Roger has a very firm handshake. And warm. It envelops one as good as a hug would. And that’s when Randy, who takes excellent photos on his blog, asked if I wanted him to take a photo of us with my camera. Here it is:

With My Idol, Roger Ebert

If you look at the photo carefully, you’ll notice that there are two things in my lap. One is my poetry book, which I signed for Roger and Chaz. The other is the issue of Esquire magazine that contains the article about Roger. I gave him the poetry book first and showed him the message inside. He then flipped to the middle of the book and started reading my poems. So, here I am, in silence with Roger Ebert, and he’s reading my poems. Except, I notice that the poems he’s reading are rather depressing. And not the best ones. When he would finish a poem, he would look up suddenly at me. I’m not sure if he was shocked at the tone, or saying, “Did you write that?” I even got a finger wag on one poem (it might have been the limerick I showed him, since I know he enjoys limericks). Perhaps I should bring him a copy of my next poetry book (whenever I finish it) so that he can see that I’m not always sad and depressed.

After the poetry book, I gave him the Esquire magazine to sign. All I really wanted to tell him was to thank him for supporting my writing, especially my blog. I forgot to show him photos of my nieces. I forgot to tell him about the sketches I’ve started doing, based on his advice (though I’ve only done two so far). But at least I got to thank him (at one point, I even said, “I don’t know what else to say,” and people who know me well know that doesn’t happen very often). I also congratulated him on winning the New Yorker caption contest (and on my birthday, no less). His eyes perked up when I said that. Then, he started to write in his notepad.

Thank you for coming from so far away.”

I forget how I answered, but it was along the lines of “no problem, thank you, etc.”

Umberto D will make the trip worth it,” he then wrote, to which I should have replied, “Heck, meeting you has made the trip worth it.”

We shook hands a final time, and then I yelled out, “Next!” to the next person in line which, as soon as the word left my mouth, I wanted to cram back in. At least Roger does not have this problem. Except when he tweets. 😉

I sat for a bit with Tom Dark after this as he talked about having a persona online before the FFCs were called to their panel. At some point, I also met Ignatiy. He is still very tall.

At the panel, I sat near the back, though I went up near the front at one point to take this picture:

The panel started by introducing themselves and stating where they are from, and like last year, the moderator was Omer Mozaffer. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the video of this panel (all the other ones are up), so I can’t recreate the experience for all of you who didn’t go, though I should mention that two special guests asked questions during the Q&A: Kristin Thomas and Paul Fierlinger, the latter of whom directed My Dog Tulip, which played later that day. I forget Thomas’s question, but Fierlinger’s concerned distributing films online, which (I believe) led into a discussion on the best format in which to view films. Some of the FFCs preferred going to see a film in a movie theater, while others preferred viewing them on their computers (like Olivia, since she can toggle back and forth between the movie and what she’s writing).

I was in line to ask a question, but I was behind the person who ended up having the last question, and only because, when asked by Omer if his question was short, he said, “Relatively”–before launching into a five minute spiel which did, eventually, get to a question that everyone answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” My question was, “Do you ever go back and read your old reviews, and do you have any favorites among them?” See? Much shorter than five minutes. I should’ve drop-kicked the guy.

Anyhow, a couple of us got a ride to the Virginia Theatre for Umberto D, which Ignatiy introduced (and Chaz admitted she had never seen before). Vittorio de Sica, the director of this film, also directed Bicycle Thieves, which is the only prior film of his I had seen, and one of the best I’ve ever seen (number two overall). Umberto D was a notch below that film, but some of the scenes were so powerful. I almost cried when Umberto tries to beg, but cannot.

Briefly, the story is about an old pensioner and his dog. They live in a rundown room, with a landlady who wants to evict them and a young maid who is pregnant. Umberto is very poor, but he is proud. And practical. He has himself taken to the hospital in order to save money, and to prevent his landlady from evicting him. In one of the movie’s most horrifying scenes, he comes back to his apartment, only to discover that his dog is missing. If you watch this movie with someone who isn’t incredibly moved at their reunion at the dog pound, you might want to check their pulse.

Eventually, it is this bond between dog and master that pulls at the heartstrings the most, without in any way being sentimental. Thinking of suicide, Umberto tries to give his dog away, first to a couple that houses other dogs, then to a child. He even tries abandoning it in a park, only to have the dog find him again. It is only when he tries to take his dog, Flag, with him to the grave that the bond between the two seems to break, in time to our hearts breaking as audience members. I will not tell you what happens after, but whether relief or grief, I have rarely felt that particular emotion so powerfully while watching a movie before.

On the panel were Omer, Paul Fiederlinger, Ignatiy, and Gerardo Valero. An interesting fact is that multiple dogs were used for the film, and Sica “made no attempt to have all the dogs look the same,” as Ignatiy pointed out.

Omer, Paul, Ignatiy, and Gerardo

The big discussion, however, ended up being whether or not the film was set before or after WWII. Paul and the crowd thought it was set before (mainly due to a line in the film where a man asks Umberto, “Do you think there’ll be a war?”), while Ignatiy argued that it was set after. Luckily, Ali (and his iPhone) came to the rescue, giving several reasons why the film had to be set after WWII:

  1. There are no blackshirts.

  2. Mussolini wouldn’t have allowed protesters to march to a government building, as they do at the beginning of this film.

  3. The car models and trams are all postwar.

  4. The marquee for the cinema looks American-influenced, which would have occurred postwar.

  5. The army isn’t wearing their prewar Fascist uniforms, but Italian uniforms.

  6. The question of who in the army impregnated the maid is a commentary on the American backing of the army, and how they were basically raping the country post-war. (19:30-22:20 http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/14336454 )

And then someone pointed out that American jeeps are also in the film.

As a result, the running gag of all the movies that came after were whether they were pre-war or post-war.

The next film was Paul Fierlinger’s film, My Dog Tulip, which is also about an old man and his dog, but animated. And the man is British. Based on the book by J.R. Ackerley, with voiceover narration by Christopher Plummer (and a cameo by Lynn Redgrave, to whose memory this film is dedicated), it follows one man’s education in how to love through his evolving feelings for his dog. Yes, there are many references to dogs pooping and in finding Tulip a male dog with which to mate, but the visuals are so inventive in telling this story (especially in scenes which give the dogs anthropomorphic characteristics) that much of the audience — myself included — found itself laughing through much of the film. There are poignant moments too, such as the closing lines. And thought there’s a “squiggly-line” sort of drawing that permeates the film, I found it made it more alive that more “perfectly crafted” computer-animated films. Easily the best animated film of 2009.

During the handing out of the Golden Thumb to the directors, Chaz had us (the audience) send positive vibes to David Bordwell, who is recovering from pneumonia.

On the panel were Matt Zoller Seitz and the directors, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. My favorite story from their Q&A was how cantakerous Christopher Plummer was at first, especially when Paul tried to direct him.

What? Last time a director read lines for me was for (such-and-such a film),” Plummer said. He also said, “No,” many times when Paul was trying to give him tips about how to act.

That was the first day.

The second day, he was completely different, perhaps having looked up who Paul was online and deciding that he wasn’t some hack director. At TIFF, in fact, Plummer was very gracious in his praise of Fierlinger, but Paul was not so gracious about Plummer. He told them, for example, about the line reading incident. When he told Plummer about this later, Plummer whipped his head back and said, “Good, keep telling it!”

On the way to dinner, my “entourage” and I stopped at Jane Addams, since Donny wanted to buy the book version of My Dog Tulip. I told Anne that if I spent some time looking around the store, I may never leave. But I was good. 🙂 We ate dinner at The Esquire. Donny ended up paying for all of our meals (which was very nice!), and we all got origami pins from V.

And, on the way back (or possibly earlier in the day – curse you, awful note-taking!), Donny introduced me to Robbie Pickering. He said I had quite an enthusiastic handshake, probably because I wasn’t paying attention to how high our hands were rising in the air as I shook it. He seems like a cool guy, and certainly one to watch as a director.

The last movie that night was Tiny Furniture. David Call, who plays Keith in the film, was on hand to receive the Gold Thumb for the film, as was Brian something-or-other from IFC (actually Ryan Werner–thanks Susan!). But first, Chaz introduced the FFCs and Ebert Presents contributors.

Tiny Furniture is about a college grad who returns to her mother’s apartment in NYC. Lena Duhham, who wrote and directed the film, and got her mother and sister to play…her mother and sister, also stars as the lead actress, Aura. I think what I enjoyed the most about this film was that the lead actress looked like a real person – not particularly attractive nor unattractive. Also, as I have a best friend who’s British, I enjoyed seeing that Aura’s best friend was also British (and is also, I believe, her best friend in real life).

Aura commiserates with her friends at a party soon after her return home, which is where she meets Jed (Alex Karpovski), a man who has become famous on Youtube as the Nietzschean Cowboy (he wears a hat and rides a small rocking horse while reciting Nietzsche). When Aura’s mom and sister leave town for awhile, she invites Jed to stay with her, since he has no place to stay. Unfortunately, he’s still there when her mother and sister return.

Through her best friend, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), Aura lands a job at a restaurant, taking reservations over the phone. It’s there that she meets a cute cook named Keith (David Call). Unfortunately, he has a girlfriend. Fortunately, they’re having issues. Unfortunately, he stands Aura up, but then appears at an art gallery and tries to apologize. He and Aura end up having sex in a place that proves that necessity is the mother of invention.

And yet none of this tells you about the film. As Ebert writes in his review, all of the characters are passive-aggressive. Also, everyone seems resentful of something or someone. Aura’s younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), hates it when her sister tries to intrude on her party. Her mother hates it when Aura eats all the food and drinks all the booze in the house. And Aura hates her mother for not understanding what it’s like to have graduated from college, come back home, and have absolutely no idea what to do. When she confides in her mom at the end of the film, it may seem like such a small thing to us, but it’s huge in terms of their relationship forward. Even more importantly, her mom listens, but doesn’t judge.

The panel for this film was Ryan, David, Christy Lemire (who had flown in that day), and Alison Bailes (from Ebert Presents). Before the film, David told people that he respects women (in contrast to his character). During the Q & A, I found out the film was shot in only 16 days.

Alison, Christy, David, Ryan

Then, we were off to karaoke at a place called Bentley’s, which Olivia had set up and Ali was going to. Among others, Donny, Anne, Odie, Kenji, Michael, Ignatiy, Randy, Robbie, David, Rachael Harris, and even Chaz came. I had heard a rumor that Grace was getting in that night, but she didn’t come to karaoke. Then again, she only got back from China a couple days ago.

I got to meet a bunch more people at karaoke, including Olivia, her husband Russell, Ali (officially), Christy, and Kartina. I tried to introduce myself to Rachael, but she was always talking to someone else. Incredibly, they all knew my twitter name. Most of them did not know my real name.

During the songs that followed, Olivia had to keep reminding me not to be a musical snob, as some of the sounds coming out of people’s mouths didn’t match the notes coming out of the speakers (I don’t have perfect pitch, but it is pretty good). Rachael sang “Whatta Man,” Ali belted out “Footloose,” and Chaz grooved to “Superfreak.” Olivia and Christy had both asked me what I was singing, and when I said “Hungry Like the Wolf,” they both said that they loved that song, which made me a bit nervous not to screw it up. For one, I didn’t drink beer, as it dries the throat. I stuck with water only. Yeah, I take karaoke pretty seriously.

As does Ali

By the time I sang, some people had already left, and a wave of people left as I was singing. I know because I was attacked mid-song by Ali Arikan on my right and Rachael Harris on my left (I hope to God someone got a picture of that), and after they left, only about half of us were still there. It was getting quite late, but I wanted to see Michael sing. I believe he tackled a Marvin Gaye song, and did it admirably, falsetto and all.

Donny gave me a ride back to my hotel. As I did yesterday, I fell asleep around 2:30.

P.S. With a small sink in the men’s room, ushers on the lookout for bottles filled with liquid, and very long movie viewing hours, I’ve decided to stick with glasses for the rest of the festival, rather than try and change from contacts to glasses in between films.

NEXT POST: Ebertfest, Day Three: ALMOST FAMOUS


7 thoughts on “Ebertfest, Day Two: ROGER & ME

  1. That’s quite a recap! I’m honored to be in it.

    Sorry to read that I pit-dived you on speaking with Roger at the breakfast. But, I redeemed myself by taking your picture. 🙂

    GREG: No problem. After all, the best things come to those who wait 🙂

  2. My God,

    That’s one hell of an Ebertfest ground report 🙂 I’m serious I felt like I was experiencing it through your eyes. Hats off to you. I can see you had a great time (though not as great had I been there 😛 ). I can’t wait to read Day 3 “Almost Famous” 😀

    It looks like day 2 is going to be hard to top, but I’ll wait and see. 🙂

    P.S. Please notify me when you post it.

    GREG: I’ll send you an email when the next part is done. And yes, your being there would have made it better 🙂

  3. See, I’d like to go, too…but to write the stories of those who attend, and why they go, like a little fly on the wall. 🙂

    I’m glad you got to go!

    GREG: Me, too. 🙂 How’s your SIFF list coming?

    • I’ve sorted out the ones I’d like to see and that I think will work with my schedule; just have to take one more look at my calendar and pay up! I’ll let you know what I pick!

  4. As an FYI, Greg, you *can* find out the details of the guests who are on the Q&A panels. Just check out ebertfest.com and look under the ‘guests’ tab. 🙂

    I have to say that I didn’t realize there was a ‘meet & greet’ for the Ebert Club…I joined somewhat recently (Feb? or early March?), and I must admit to not reading each newsletter I’ve gotten closely; so I simply didn’t realize it. heh.

    Anyhoo…I’m enjoying reading about your Ebertfest experience!

    GREG: Brian isn’t listed as a guest, so either I got the name wrong, or he just came “because.”

    • I think the guy was Ryan Werner. Brian/Ryan…I think you were close. You were up in the balcony afterall!

      GREG: Maybe I should be sending you my rough drafts for fact correction. You are correct again!

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