My annual pilgrimmage to Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois has become something of a soul-rejuvenating experience. And as sappy as that sounds, I looked forward to this year’s fest with the same giddiness as most people look forward to their best friend’s wedding or a long-awaited reunion.
Deep down, I guess you could say, I need this.
Flying in over farm fields, able to easily identify and count ever single house and farm on the horizon, this is a world far removed from what one would typically think of as a hotbed of cinematic activity. But for five days out of the year, more and more movie fans are making a point of journeying here to see what all the fuss is about. This year, the Overlooked Film Festival sold out of festival passes a full three months before its debut. In its eighth year, the festival is clearing coming into its own.
I have attended the festival — regulars call it The Overlooked — since its second year, and have been amazed to watch the event grow both in terms of popularity and programming. Unlike so many film festivals, the obective is not buzz-building, or discoverng the next big thing — which inherently pigeon holes many festivals to the business side of the movie-making equation, as directors look to connect with producers and thoughts of quality play second fiddle to concerns of bankability. Instead, the Overlooked is about celebrating the great stuff that somehow slipped through the cracks, about celebrating the absolute best of what cinema has to offer – not just what some think can make a profit.
If it sounds heady, well, it kind of is. For the thousands of movie fans who make their way to the gorgeous Virgina Theater in downtown Champaign, in which I now sit, waiting for Friday’s first film to begin — cheerful organ music echoing off the walls of the balcony — there is an unwritten patnership with Roger Ebert. We will hand over our money and, more importantly, our time in return for being shown what we’ve missed.
If I, as a mid-level critic writing for a number of publications across the country, am constantly asked "What’s the best movie out right now, what should I go see?" And if I, sadly, have to often tell people that this or that great film isn’t showing near them, and that they’ll just have to wait for it to be released on DVD, I Can only imagine how often Ebert is asked the same question, and frustrated in offering the same response.
Well, this festival serves as almost the ideal remedy for that frustration. For a weekend, Ebert gets to share with his fans precisely those films that he would have recommended over a beer or a coffee, engaged in casual conversation, and better than simply discuss them, he gets to give them their proper due, projecting them on a towering screen in front of an audience who has been craving the experience.
For Ebert, it’s no doubt cathartic. Finally, he gets to share his cherished films with those who love his work. For other passionate – some might say zealous – movie fans like myself, it’s a haven amid the mediocrity, an oasis away from the things that so often renders our moviegoing experiences vapid and lifeless.
It’s here that my faith is restored — not just in the quality films, as I see so many great works of art showing back-to-back-to-back, but also in terms of audiences, as I see this crowd, a mix of both locals and out-of-towners, embracing the same, gutsy work. Hell, it even restores my faith in the notion of movie discussions and debates. After each film, as Ebert welcomes his guests of honor on stage which often include those responsible for creating the film we just saw, we are offered an impromptu education in the ways of movimaking, a spontaneous debate about the industry moderated by those who have confronted it head-on, and also a bit of unpredictable insight as the audience is allowed in to the discussion.
As we start day 3 (some dire technical problems prevented me from writing earlier), these are the thoughts that fill my head. We’ve only been here a few days, but something about this festival is infectious. Once you feel the energy course through the theater, once you encounter a film you know little to nothing about that completey immerses you, and then once you realize that hundreds of other people sitting right next to you are in the same boat, eager to meet the people behind the film, you don’t want to leave.
The thought of returning home next week and heading back to another mainstream effort — on deck are "Over The Hedge" and "An American Haunting" — I feel sad that, good or bad, I will be returning to another film that delivers almost exactly what I expect.
Really, all of this is a long way of saying that I love coming to Ebertfest precisely beacause it’s miles away from the industry. Coming here is leaving the conventional — the bland, the predictable, the timid — behind.
And why, why, why would someone ever want to go back?
So I’ll be here all weekend, and will bring you a few reports from Champaign in hopes of paying the spirt of this festival forward.
Ebert has often explained that the "overlooked" part of the fest is a flexible term. It can be a film that was overlooked by the box office last year — or any year — or it can be a film that was overlooked by distributors in never breaking out of the festival circut. It can be a film form that is overlooked — such as silent films with a live accompaniment or a 70 mm classic — or Ebert can find just about any other way to classify a film as overlooked so it will qualify.
Already, this year’s Overlooked has traversed the reasons. The festival opened Wednesday night with "My Fair Lady," the classic of choice for the Wednesday night screening. In past years Ebert has chosen others — the highlight might be a towering, 70mm presentation of "Lawrence of Arabia" — but "Lady" was quite a fun way to kick of the 2006 event. Thursday featured three films that, together, reflected three ways in which great, great films can be sadly overlooked by the mainstream movie world. "Man Push Cart," which Ebert raved about at Sundance this year, has not had a mainstream release. And it was clear how much Ebert wants the film to do well — and how he believes that it might just have a viable theatrical future. "Duane Hopwood" is a film from last year, but offers a performance from David Schwimmer — yes, Ross from "Friends" — that Ebert believes makes the film. What’s overlooked, as much as the film itself, is what Schwimmer can offer as a serious actor. And "Spartan," the David Mamet thriller, brought a close to the day’s festivities. It was a film that secured a wide release, earned four stars from Ebert (I actually named it to the top 10 films of the year), but which did atrocious business at the box office.
Still, here was Ebert, singing the film’s praises and bringing the film to an audience that audibly groaned when he revealed the film’s financial failure during a post-film discussion with acclaimed academic film theorist David Bordwell. In the day’s best post-film question and answer session, Ebert and Bordwell went far beyond the standard discusion of "Spartan" and Mamet. They started discussing the nature of the classic, three-part screenplay, how Mamet so often twists that formula around in his films, and also how the pacing and editing of mainstram cinema is changing with the proliferation of DVDs, high-definition televisions, iPods and the erosion of the communal film experience.
And there it was. 24 hours, four films, and every shade of why Ebertfest is an unforgettable place. Here, already, we’ve had a classic seen as it is rarely seen, a new cutting-edge film that’s struggling to reach its audience, an entertaining indie film that reveals a star in an entirely new light and then a great thriller – a really great film – that got distribution, but which no one knew they should see. And then, after it all, a quick dose of education – helping us to see why most films fail, and precisely why the Overlooked entries rise above it.
It’s only been one day, and all my faith is restored. And still so much more to come. The organ’s starting to descend now, moments before Friday’s first film is scheduled to begin. The audience is applauding. Ebert is coming out to make his official, giddy introduction. I’ll tell you all about it later.
Author: By Steven Snyder