I. Ebertfest Live! From My Notebook!
Below are certain "you are there" notes I wrote on the spot at Ebertfest. I didn't do too badly sight-typing them up for 'net use, but have since fixed a few things. One does not notice how many thoughts he thinks until he tries to write them all down at once.
I see Grace Wang has already used the word "lush" in describing the Southern Illinois terrain, where Ebertfest sprouts every spring. There’s no better choice. I drove a thousand miles from the northern New Mexico desert mountains to the lush flat wooded plowed expanses encircling Champaign-Urbana in April. It looks like the Steppes with more rain and better housing.
Speeding from Georgia O’Keefe’s old painting ground, the enormous sleeping rock creatures of mesa, butte, plateau, unconscious volcanoes, to the endlessly spreading primary greens and browns of Illinois was a slow, magnificent unfolding. I felt a pang when at dawn, the rear view mirror showed my mountains with my cozy nest receding behind me. But when you're looking forward to where you’re going, all is beautiful. If only you were there, hearing the accents change the deeper into the heartlands I sped, listening to the increase in religious and country music programs. By the time I reached Ebertfest, one of the hipper cultural fairs on the third bulb from the sun, the religious music had transformed from slick derivations of current pop styles to old time, if not backward, up-down white-people-oompah.
I hope these notes are accurate, considering the reputation I have to uphold. I've been a pro bono reporter now and then. When important local issues are at stake, being under an an editor who is sycophants with local bigwigs needing lynched can color one's journalistic integrity some. Some issues demand free citizenship.
Such as "50 Million Reasons to Find a Better Water Company," about the water leaking from the Calaveras County pipes. "It's enough to float the Enterprise," said an angry retired naval hydraulics expert. We trounced 'em. Another was "Shithead Kills Puppy with Pickup Truck," a self-explanatory headline.
Only one of the above stories is false. Young writers, remember when you're reporting an unconfirmed story to leave clues in your sentences -- such as "Duane Shithead (pr. SHIH-theed) ran over his girlfriend's puppy repeatedly until it was dead, dead, dead." Canny readers will catch on when they notice your departure from strict AP style. Still, "Torture and Dismemberment of tourists strictly prohibited" was not entirely a joke report, Calaveras County being headquarters for America’s two most heinous sex-torture murderers to date, Leonard Lake and Charles Ng.
Blithering old coot, where was I? Oh. My notes from Ebertfest:
Dinner at the University of Illinois President's House, 4/21/10 5 p.m.
Well? So these are Illinois People, Land of Lincoln, Inventor of the Civil War, star of every penny. I'm alone, writing in the one room guests seem to be avoiding. Either I've made one of those instinctively lucky choices, or the guests peek in, see me, and shuttle their protruding wine glasses elsewhere.
After all, I'm dressed worse by far than the help. I could be eccentric, like the guy twirling around in his luminescent zoot suit in the dining room. There are still hay shards and horse-treat crumbs in my shorts pockets. The help tread through this room carrying trays of classy piles of expensive grub on their way through one of its three doors; from the adjoining rooms come multi-floral sounds of chatter from advanced primates in more ceremonial duds than mine.
You wouldn't hear a classier bouquet of polite conversations at Abe Lincoln's wake. Nor met people who have put more thought into what they're wearing. Now and then one woman or another has passed through this room and stopped to say "You look comfortable" -- using identical ironic-sounding lilts.
I too put a good deal of thought into what I'd be wearing: a shirt, dirty old sandals, shorts that could fall down if I'm not careful (pleased about that. Been losing weight) and a 25-year-old Banana Republic jungle vest which has yet to fall apart, despite all the functions I've attended, where it has served as a sort of office of amateur anthropology. It holds pens and notebooks and cigars and cards and notes from whom I've forgotten. I've worn it from when I was slim and muscular to thick and avuncular. My good deal of thought wound up: "wear this."
Jim Emerson showed up at the last function, a few weeks ago, in a somewhat clean t-shirt and jeans. I enjoyed that. I'll feel less like a specimen of Tonsorial Error if he shows up that way to this one.
I haven't spent any time in the Great Midwest since 1980. Coincidentally, I was touring with a band playing songs by Pink Floyd, whose 1982 movie we'll all be viewing in a couple hours. I've never seen it, but I'm on the critique panel. Roger figured I'll do well; he's got uncanny instincts, I hope.
These Illinoisans -- "Illinis" sounds foreign -- seem in comparison somewhat stiffer, physically, than the people of the Great American Desert to whom I've grown accustomed in detail over the years. This isn't a criticism. I've met Minnesotans who nearly subconsciously shuffle their feet from side to side whenever they're standing, a habit from the winter cold. Like tongues, whole bodies have accents.
Many of these people seem to walk unusually upright. There's a stride to their steps. Their spines seem more vertical than I see elsewhere.
Why do I think it's religious? By Jove, these are the descendants of independent Protestants, striding their ways proudly to the heads of congregations of pioneers, more equal in the eyes of the Lord than I. I wonder if I'll meet Randy Masters of Roger's blog. He's the kind of fellow I'd want on my side in a pinch. He's a religious Illinoisan. I'd conscript them all. They already stand up straight.
"How come you get to wear shorts and not long pants like all the rest of these people," mutters an aged woman who's just now paused in the doorway to have a look at me. That's probably what the other remarks about me looking comfortable meant.
"Rank," I quip. She doesn't crack a smile. She moves away with her protruding wine glass and I think... was that... resentment? A vestigial religious resentment for the unconformed? The Punks? Hip Hoppers? Hippies? Rockers and Mods? Folkies? Beats? Lost Generation? Bohemians? Roundheads? Cavaliers? And beyond, back to Stercutian Christians? Every period has its black sheep who dream their ways out from under flock and good shepherd.
Yep. Vestigial religious. Protestantism is more tenaciously vestigial than the human appendix, which one notices only when it's inflamed.
Perhaps my shorts have made me a victim of the ghost of religious persecution! Woops, I hear Chaz speaking outside on the veranda, where I hobnobbed with the musicians about an hour ago. I'm missing something.
I've found a place out of the way at an outside door to view Chaz and Roger and the ceremony from the rear. That same lady, dressed in her tasteful powder blue pants suit, also found me. She says "God, you were so brave, sitting in that little room all by yourself." So she wasn't entirely resentful. Well, some of us do reconcile our inflamed religious appendixes sooner or later.
Watching and listening. I'm too late to find a place in the eager crowd. It's a granfalloon, as next-door Indiana neighbor Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. might classify it.
It's a benevolent granfalloon among granfalloons, as the featured participants are all dreamers of one kind or another. They're engaged in creating public dreams called movies, or, in one way or another, are builders of the fragile yet powerful tower of comprehensible babble that has no name, but appears in our time as a thing we call vaguely the film industry.
I wander behind the festivity across the lawn to see if I can't get a better view. Surveying the audience, a face stands out like the intrusion of some mythical oriental princess into our time and space and century... smiling right at me. Does she know me?
It's a breathtaking split second. It's Grace Wang, one of Roger's Far-Flung Correspondents! She is gorgeous combined with the evening sunshine. Smiling broadly, I give her Roger's "Thumbs Up" to let her know I've recognized her, too. This will be the first time we've met. With a vision like that, surely we'll be friends.
II. The Rest of the Story; You Are Still Here.
(Screw the notes. I'll just write what I remember.)
Grace and I did make friends. More like playmates, minus the connotations of the Hugh Hefnerist branch of Christendom. Were I not married, more would still be taboo to me: Grace is a first cousin. Like little first cousins, I was beaming proud to get to sit next to her in the theater and at dinner.
All these strangers feel so familiar. Roger would be, from his decades of visitations by TV; but we'd agreed in a chat there's another kinship besides. There are lots of first cousins here, second cousins, nobody further out than third cousin, even those who stopped me to compliment my antics on the Pink Floyd flick panel ("A lotta screamin' and yellin' and ya can't tell what the hell they’re hollerin’ about," quoting an old bandmate's 80-something grampaw about rock music). According to evolutionary thought, China-born Grace is a fifteenth cousin by blood. But by Law of Heart she's a favorite first cousin. I just know.
So too all the Far-Flung Correspondents who write reviews for Roger's Journal: Filipino Michael Mirasol, Pakistani Omer Mozzafar (only lately of Chicago in geological terms), Korean Seongyong Cho, Turkish Ali Arikan, Egyptian Wael Khairy, Mexican Gerardo Valero, all first cousins with too too much to catch up on. Too little time with each. We agreed we needed another week. Grace said wouldn't it be wonderful to wake up and do this every day?
So too with Chaz, Charlie Kaufman ("Synecdoche New York"), James Mattern ("Trucker"), Michelle Monaghan (ditto, what a radiant soul), Jennifer Burns ("Vincent: A Life In Color", who wants me to wear a kilt) Vincent of the zoot suits himself, Barbet Schroeder ("Barfly"), Yojiro Takita ("Departures," which made just about everybody tear up, weep, sob, me too, until I turned to Grace who was sobbing and chuckled about the lot of us, whole theater a-blubber; she hit me and whispered "you're heartless!"), and those whose names I didn't know.
All cousins, all too too much to catch up on. A few minutes here and there, and some just seconds. I've still got "Jake and Jeffrey" mentally bookmarked to continue with Charlie Kaufman one day. Yojiro Takita, who doesn't speak much English, traded bows with me. No no, I'M the one to bow to someone this brilliant, don't bow back! I can't make people cry like that! So I bowed some more. Again he bowed back. This happened at several encounters. Me and Obama, eh? With Schroeder, we just laughed each time we met. He speaks excellent English, but that's the only language I could come up with.
One rarely loves every one of his relatives. Ebertfest came very close to a perfect family reunion for me. Therefore I mustn't linger on a lone jackass. No, no describing how s/he grew crusty with studied sardonics, contrived superiority and arrogance characteristic of someone secretly sinking like a stone in his or her own 100-weight oil. Nay. Nor reflect that his or her movie was in serious need of an enema, no matter what good things people said about it. Nor will polite Protestant manners permit my describing the monotonous look on his or her face telegraphing "this film festival won't help me at all" continually to anyone who can read Remorse Code.
Nay. Instead I shall name Pat Calahan of Jon's Pipe Shop on West Green Street, a couple blocks from the Illini Hotel where we stayed. Pat spied my Ebertfest badge, sold me the thinkin' cigars a writer needs and gave me a free lighter. A free lighter! That's the spirit Roger Ebert imparts to this town, cutting through the noise of drunken freshmen co-eds wowing themselves by not barfing on the streets. Mostly.
Nay, no nattering nabob of negativity here. The theme of every movie Roger picked, and the reality of all on the panels involved in film making, was: keep hoping even when it hurts like hell. Lee Isaac Chung completed the magnificent "Munyrangabo" in 11 days, hell and high water. James Mattern shot "Trucker," with the best acting ensemble I've ever seen, in 19 days ("When's your next movie," I asked. "Did you bring your checkbook?" He grinned). Jennifer Burns made "Vincent" on five credit cards. Greg Kohs, charming ingenuous creator of "Song Sung Blue" was keeping his documentary star Claire's hopes alive even on the panel discussion -- where she took the lot of us by storm, belting out two Patsy Cline tunes and an emotional show-stopper "Dancing Queen" for all she was worth, live in person after the movie. That Roger knows how to bring down a house, pulling a stunt like that.
Oh, how could I have neglected to mention Jenny Lund, one of the team who made “Munyurangabo?” Heck. You all need to see it. It’s about a young Hutu and his Tutsi friend in Rwanda – these people have been at each other’s throats for many generations up to now. It’s the first time a poem, most of which bores me to tears, has made tears well up in my eyes. And everybody else’s. Jenny was on a panel called “Getting the Damn Thing Made.” Her first words were “in the interests of full disclosure, I need to tell you all that I’m not rich. I live in a small apartment in New York City hoping to meet my rent month after month.” We had a great big hug. Their next film, if they can scrape the resources together, will be a whole poem.
These people have hurt like hell, kept hoping and doing, and are getting there step by sometimes excruciating step, producing spectacular dramatic successes on little budgets. The least liked film in the fest, according to audience and panel remarks, was the most expensive: Coppola's zillion buck "Apocalypse Now Redux." The better part of the quorum agreed it was a good thing that they'd removed certain scenes now re-inserted.
Of course I've missed a lot. But as I am presently fairly unimportant, few will feel neglected, and I've got too much other work to do.
"Ol' Ebert, he sure knows how to pick 'em," I joked to Roger sitting in his theater box, using my vestigial Ohiya accent. For picking people as well, he selected a bunch of relatives I didn't know I had -- with stranger accents than you hear on the farm, goats included.
Last I left Ohiya, "Rodan," "Sinbad" and "Red Line 7000" were on at the picture show. Things have gotten classier since then. I wonder just how much Roger Ebert had to do with that. I suspicion it's considerable. Governors don't go declaring whole days with your name on them for nothing. From now on, April 21st is Roger Ebert Day throughout Illinois and in quite a few hearts.
Back to New Mexico and its slow-breathing mountains I zoomed, watching the terrain transform in reverse now, from flat lush green to craggy ancient lava and juniper. Hint to weary travelers, energized by some business as this: don't forget to turn in your hotel key, which I forgot to do. Also, pay attention to what route you're on. It was dumb luck that route 57 out of Champaign is a lot faster than route 55, which I'd meant to take until elan about what I'd been through all week overrode stopping for a map. One cares less where he is going when he has fully enjoyed where he has been.