It's Friday night around 10 p.m. at the Virginia Theatre, and Spike Lee has just been introduced by Chaz Ebert. Do The Right Thing is just starting much later than expected, mainly because of the more than one hundred people outside the box office wanting to buy tickets at the will call. The Virginia was packed, and as a volunteer usher, it was my job to direct people to the few remaining seats — right up until every spot in the house was taken. I hadn't seen the movie before, and the film has aged surprisingly (maybe sadly) well, and my over two hours of ushering made it all the more worth the wait.
Being a volunteer gave me a special behind-the-scenes look at the festival. When working concessions, I had the opportunity to see just about everyone entering the theater, including more than a few familiar faces. Watching Patton Oswald enter the Young Adult screening while giving my history teacher a Diet Pepsi was one of the coolest moments I’ve had here in C-U. Ushering was just as much fun, and it came with the added bonus of an almost guaranteed seat for the show. During the screenings it was stressed that all the movies were presented on pristine 35mm film, which looked spectacular on the Virgina’s gigantic screen. A few times I could barely contain my excitement, and more than a few times I was told to quiet down, lest I occurred the wrath of Chaz.
But little did I know that trouble was afoot during the screening of Do The Right Thing. I certainly didn’t notice, but the picture was not correctly in frame, which resulted in the top of the characters heads being slightly cut off. This mistake was quickly corrected, but Spike Lee did not take it well at all, and stormed out of the theater. After yelling a few profanities he went over Guido’s, watched the rest of the Bulls game, and returned for the Q&A without holding a grudge [side note: I did not witness these events, but was told them by a trusted fellow usher]. Now as a volunteer, this wasn’t nearly as difficult as a prior event that the Ebertfest staff had to deal with a few years ago. During the screening of Citizen Kane in 2012, which was presented with Roger’s commentary, one viewer became very angry because she could not hear the dialogue. This screening was incredibly emotional for many, as it is one of the last recordings of Ebert’s voice before he, unfortunately, lost it for good. But that didn’t matter much to the woman who desperately wanted to watch Citizen Kane without the commentary, and I am very glad Spike Lee made a much smaller scene than this woman (again, I did not witness these events, but I am told that they were disturbing to the Virginia's generally calm vibe).
But on the subject of the Q&A — the talkback is one of the most interesting and important parts of Ebertfest. One of my favorite lines had to be Patton Oswald during his talkback, saying: “I gained 40 pounds for this role 20 years before I even read the script!” Or perhaps it was the awkward banter between head of Sony Pictures Classic, Michael Barker, and the director of Capote, Bennett Miller. This panel was especially interesting, especially after the unfortunate death of Philip Seymour-Hoffman. Miller had this to say about the performance: “No matter how sophisticated Truman Capote was, no matter how brilliant he was and how on top of the world he was, if you look deep in his eyes — the way Phil plays the part — you will notice the eyes of a man who was an abandoned child and never got over it.”
At the same time, we were also told a lot about the production struggles that Capote had to go through before the incredible movie emerged. To this, Miller said “I just got him tapes and he would sit in a room with his walkman on. He would say (speaking with a nasal whine), ‘Does this sound like him? Does this sound like him?’ It did NOT sound like him. He was very, very nervous.” Chaz revealed before the movie that when asked who should play him, Roger immediately replied “Phil.”
With that in mind, the festival is a celebration of Roger Ebert almost as much as it a celebration of cinema. Each movie opened with a montage of Ebert and his take on why movies mean so much to us as a society, and of course this year saw the unveiling of Eberts bronze statue. Chaz introduced almost every movie, and the festival shows no signs of winding down after Eberts death. Although the festival isn’t necessarily getting bigger, the new hotel in downtown Champaign will obviously help. There’s a shared love of movies in the air, but its not just movies, its good movies. Young and old, seasoned veterans who sit down to watch four films in a single day or new fans just wanting to catch a glimpse of Patton Oswald, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly positive in the Virginia Theatre. I’ll certainly be back next year, and I can’t wait for what I see next.