Being late to the Ebertfest experience as I am, I can't help but think back on all that I have missed during the first decade of its existence. 2009 was my first time as an attendee and that was because Roger invited me to be on a panel with a number of other film critics. It was during that period when everyone was crying about the death of film criticism. Thank God nobody is saying that anymore, right? With all the amenities of being a VIP guest on my maiden voyage, it was quite easy to walk away a bit spoiled. Sundance certainly never welcomed me with a gift basket full of wine and festival memorabilia in my hotel room. So the prospect of making the nearly three-hour drive and daily commitment with already so much on my plate was a daunting one. But it took only a single screening to remind me what this festival is all about and why it should be an essential stop on every movie lover's calendar.
Thursday night's centerpiece screening was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux. Walter Murch was scheduled to be in attendance, but like many of the guest speakers from across the pond, his flight was grounded due to some ill-tempered volcano ash. His work on the film more than spoke for itself as I found myself watching this epic in a theater for the first time in any form. Not just any theater, but the wonderful Virginia Theatre movie palace (complete with balcony, where I spent the bulk of my time) plays host to all of the festival screenings. French plantation sequence and any lingering issues with the third act aside, here I was after a long solo drive watching a genuine treasure on the silver screen, eyes wide and ears attentive on every frame (until the Frenchies) and I was struck with being a part of the best film school in the world – cinema itself.
Watch movies. Talk about movies. With strangers and experts alike. The Doors are narrating the opening images of Vietnam. The mystery is just beginning over Col. Kurtz. A man on a mission is meeting his team and each successive scene is a new adventure. Examining everything that occurs from the first frames to what Ebert once called the greatest action scene ever filmed – the village helicopter attack – my mind turned to all the film students since 1979 who have this film as a reference point. Forget about all the classics before and since that time that have expanded their base of filmmaking knowledge. Just think about the first 45 minutes of this film. Now consider all the lucky son-of-a-guns who have had their shot to call the shots and have seemingly learned nothing.
Guys like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner down to this past weekend's Sylvain White (The Losers) appear mentally challenged at the very basic levels of filmmaking. They can blame the material and the screenwriters, but one thing that can temporarily overrule them all is spectacle. As this is usually all most big budget directors these days have to work with, it is almost freakish how their mind's eye is blind to the very elements that spectacle requires. We watch films such as Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia today with the giddy knowledge that those are real choppers and real locomotives crashing without the benefit of special effects. Blame CGI if you must, but aware as we must be that the days of reality-based carnage are behind us, that does not mean that a director still cannot compose a similar shot of scope and grace. Helicopters in the foreground with explosions, fleeing bodies and crashing waves underneath.
Inspired by my viewing the night before I wanted to attend one of the many panels that Ebertfest offers without cost for patrons. So the next morning I ventured out to hear the answer(s) to the question, "Do Film Students Really Need To Know Much About Classic Films?" The panel varied between film professors, scholars and even a pair of students. As I'm sure the latter can attest, they can learn a lot of history about film production from their teachers -- but a greater passion for movies can still be inspired by the best of film critics. That was something this particular panel lacked. There was a lot of personal chatter about what films each of the profs chooses to teach. Often we heard how films like Citizen Kane and Double Indemnity were jettisoned from the curriculum because everyone else does them. Even if acceptable under-the-radar film noirs and classics were substituted, the overreach of trying to stand apart from the crowd was evident. One needed to look no further to see evidence of this than in one of the students at the mike.
In his mind he didn't want to be burdened with the clarity of another director's vision. No one is going to fault a student for wanting to find his own visual "voice," but even the fine line between ripoff and homage has some very valuable lessons worth learning. Sergio Mims (of Shadow and Act), with whom I participate on a bi-annual college round-table, frequently tells the class how Quentin Tarantino "steals from everybody" – but – "he always twists it in such a certain way that makes it appear fresh." And it's evident in every building block of his films. So to hear this new member of the Self-Fullfillment Wave on the panel choose to ignore that -- with the further suggestion that students need not bother learning how to operate a camera (just hire someone who does) – I was ready to weep for future generations of film lovers. It had to be the most ignorant statement about the art of filmmaking since Ben Lyons sounded off on the very show that Roger Ebert helped build that "you almost never notice editing in a movie unless it's poor." Dede Allen may only be in the ground a few weeks, but I'm pretty sure she died that day.
If you don't believe that film critics are important or that nothing can be learned by taking part in a discussion about the logistics of the human condition, then it is your duty to get down to Ebertfest. Even better, I would like to see Columbia College Chicago, the film school of my resume, or any high schools with any modicum of an arts program, designate a sponsored field trip down to Champaign, Illinois. They can start next April. As the five-day festival continues to be a beacon for cinematic celebration, maybe a new generation can listen to the questions and someday be the ones providing the answers.