Greetings once again from Champaign, where this broad has finally landed after a long, less-than-glamorous trek from jolly old Brooklyn. I swear every time I take that baby (American) Eagle (jet) from Chicago to the local airport here, I can’t help flashing on the likes of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Patsy Cline, Otis o Otis. Although I'm still a relative newbie in the Ebertfest family — and rest assured that it is a family — it hit me tonight that this is my fourth year at the Festival. Enough time for a lot of changes to have taken place.
The biggest disturbance in the force, as they say, was the death in January of Dusty Cohl, the co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, this festival’s “accomplice-in-chief,” and an all-around lion-hearted troublemaker. I have never been one for a daddy complex — my complicated relationship with my own old man always having precluded such folly — but I have to admit I always secretly wished Dusty were my pop. He never missed a beat; he was the original tough Jew; and his shrewdness never outstripped his enormous, far-reaching kindness. He was one of the few people whose good opinion I actively campaigned for, and when he solemnly pinned one of his legendary silver cowboy hats on my lapel, I nearly plotzed. When I first saw him again last year, his big embrace — all whiskey and cigars and chutzpah — broke down any remaining New York reserve that had survived my flight. For a guy whose shtick was gruffness, he could give a mean hug. It was rivaled only by his wink — the best wink I’ve ever witnessed. I still practice it all the time.
The airport was nearly empty upon my arrival this year, and the contrast to last year’s hustle and bustle hit me hard before I could bolster myself. I thought of Dusty, and of how Roger, still fighting the good fight with the after-effects of his cancer, won’t be able to make it. I thought of all the people I had lost in my own life in this last year.
But then just when I was sliding into an inexcusable malaise, my friend Chris, who’s been squiring me around these last three years, strode in sporting that grin as big as the Midwestern skies. “What movies are we gonna see?” he said, and grabbed my Canal Street-cheap suitcase. Before I knew it I had launched into a happy laundry-list. Because, well, it’s the movies, stupid. It’s always the movies — selected by Roger, screened on the gorgeous, old-timey screen of the Virginia Theater, and discussed ad nauseum afterward.
I’m ecstatic to ogle The Cell and Hulk and Romance & Cigarettes (Turturro’s fabulously unironic but still tongue-in-cheek working-class musical) on a big screen; to finally learn why Shotgun Stories has set tongues a-flapping; to surrender to the silent film Underworld’s squalid pleasures, and to revisit such worthy films as Housekeeping. And I happily anticipate some conversions: to be convinced that some of the other films (that shall remain nameless here) are worthier than I remember them. Roger has a knack of banishing the cinennui of even the most jaunidiced film viewers. Even from afar, I know he will achieve that again this year.
And with that, I’m off to find the gang. I may have missed the first film (Hamlet) but there’s still Steak N Shake, I’m sure. Here’s to the strawberry-banana malted.