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Engaging With Film At Ebertfest

I love attending film festivals away from home, so I can immerse myself completely. I think I know, by now, what makes for a successful one: a good location, interesting films, equally interesting guests, and an engaged audience. Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, now in its 18th year (and familiarly known as Ebertfest) has all of that and more. The beautifully restored 1,500 seat Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois, which Roger attended as a boy, is an ideal venue. The famed film critic’s wife and partner Chaz is a warm and gracious host. Her guests are filmmakers who had some relationship with Roger or represent the kind of people he would have supported. And the audience is terrific: intelligent, friendly, open-minded people who travel from far and wide, confident that Chaz and festival director Nate Kohn will offer them a program that’s worth their while.

Because I teach in Los Angeles on Thursday night, my wife and I regretfully miss out on the first few days of programming. This year, we didn’t get to see one of our favorite people, director Guillermo del Toro (who screened Crimson Peak), as well as Paul Weitz (Grandma), Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young’s buzzed-about documentary Disturbing the Peace, and the Alloy Orchestra accompanying the 1924 French silent film L’Inhumaine, not to mention a revival of Kasi Lemmon’s Eve’s Bayou. Fortunately, I had conducted an interview with Angela Allen, John Huston’s longtime script supervisor, at the TCM Classic Film Festival several years ago. She appeared with a screening of The Third Man, on which she worked when she was just starting out. Angela seemed fresh as a daisy after flying in from London, while Alice and I were bedraggled after a day of travel from Los Angeles!

Chaz Ebert-Nate Kohn-Paul Cox-“golden thumb” award

Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for EbertfestChaz Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn present Paul Cox with his “golden thumb” award

We made up for lost time on Saturday with a trio of moviegoing experiences we won’t soon forget. First, Australian-based writer-director Paul Cox presented the premiere showing of his highly personal feature The Force of Destiny. I’ve long admired Cox’s work, going back to Innocence and A Woman’s Tale, but this picture is special because it is rooted in his recent experience with cancer–and finding a life partner for the first time (before that, he says, “I was too busy making movies”). Imagine being told you have six months to live, and then making a film about it! The talented David Wenham stars as a sculptor who is forced to confront his own mortality and reassess his relationships—with his daughter, ex-wife, and a young Indian woman who comes into his life.

As good as the film is, the lasting gift I take with me is Cox’s incredibly moving introduction. He has generously permitted me to reprint it below. If you prefer, you can watch him deliver these words on the Ebertfest live-stream video that now appears on YouTube.

The next selection was a documentary called Radical Grace, which has already won notice at other festival showings, and deservedly so. The subject is a network of American nuns who feel that their mandate is to help people in need, be they sick, poor, disenfranchised, or in need of guidance and direction. One of the sisters teaches classes so ex-prisoners can obtain their GED. For their efforts they were officially censured by the Vatican (before Pope Francis came along) and chastised by the American archdiocese. This raises the issue of women’s roles in the Catholic Church, and the little-known history of their influence in the early centuries following Jesus’ demise. What a compelling and provocative film this is, told (as so many good stories are) by focusing on a handful of charismatic and committed individuals. Director Rebecca Parrish, producer Nicole Bernardi-Reis, composer Heather McIntosh, and Chaz Ebert’s longtime friend, the outspoken Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago joined Chaz for a post-screening discussion. You can find itHERE.

Leonard Maltin-Nancy Allen-1-680

Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Ebertfest

That night, I had the pleasure of interviewing actress Nancy Allen following a screening (in 35mm) of the 1981 thriller Blow Out, which was written and directed by her then-husband, Brian De Palma. It was fun to revisit this picture, which I hadn’t seen since it was new. I’m still not crazy about the ending, which I find incredulous even for the genre, but it holds up very well on almost every other count–including John Travolta’s performance, the expert use of Philadelphia locations, and the premise itself, inspired in part by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. (In the Italian film, the central mystery lies in a photograph while here it’s a sound recording.) Like so many movies of the period, it reminds us how much has changed in the past few decades: not only is it a pre-cell phone piece, but it’s a celebration of analog technologies like tape recorders, 16mm film, and pay telephones.

Allen proved to be a good guest who shared vivid memories of making the film, working with her husband (whom she met when she costarred inCarrie), shooting on practical locations, figuring out her “dumb bunny” character and creating her look with costume designer Ann Roth. I also asked her about working with Steven Spielberg on 1941, Robert Zemeckis on I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Paul Verhoeven in Robocop, which offered her one of her juiciest roles as patrolman Peter Weller’s partner. (It turns out her father was a New York City cop.) The only mistake she made was referring to the film as being 25 years old: it’s actually 35, though you wouldn’t know it to look at Allen, who was the object of many a crush during her movie heyday. You can watch our conversation HERE.

Roger Ebert Thumbs Up Statue

Photo by Leonard Maltin

Nancy’s time these days is taken up with an organization called WeSpark, founded by her friend and I Wanna Hold Your Hand costar, the late Wendie Jo Sperber. (Alice and I got to know Wendie because our daughter attended school with her son, and we participated in her charity’s earliest fundraisers.) WeSpark offers support and counseling to people suffering with cancer and–just as important–their children and families. You can learn more HERE.

The festival finale was a screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 silent dramaBody and Soul, starring the imposing Paul Robeson, accompanied by an unconventional, free-jazz score played by the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, composed and conducted by Renée Baker. It took some getting used to for me, but once I got involved with the film itself I found the modern, often-discordant music surprisingly suitable. I have a feeling the surviving print, though in great condition, is missing some crucial footage and hope a longer version may emerge. I was happy to share the stage with the composer and Chaz Ebert for a discussion, which prompted some excellent questions from the audience. If you’re curious about Baker’s work, and the other films she is scoring, click HERE.

Ebertfest is the only gathering I know that is centered around the life and work of an individual… but Roger Ebert was no ordinary critic. He was as inspired as he was eloquent, and his passion lives on in this remarkable festival, championed by his singular wife Chaz. I feel very fortunate to have attended.

*  *  *

PAUL COX SPEECH – AT EBERTFEST 2016

Thank you for sharing Force of Destiny with us. This film would not exist without the generosity of heart and spirit from my transplant donor. Thank you anonymous donor. Thank you! Some six years ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the liver – after a long wait and much despair, I received transplant of the liver. It changed my life considerably. The priorities of the world I lived in seemed so terribly wrong, so terribly out of place and out of tune with the reality I felt within. Then a young man I’d met in pre-transplant classes died because a liver couldn’t be found in time. I realized how terribly lucky I’d been receiving a transplant in time and I almost felt guilty for the loss of this life.

Paul Cox-Force of Destiny-Ebertfest

Photo by Timothy Hiatt – Courtesy of Getty Images for EbertfestPaul Cox Introducing The Force of Destiny’

Then I found myself writing the screenplay of Force of Destiny, although I never thought I would make another film and had been advised to “take it very easy.”

It was the only way of returning the kindness and care I’d received from the doctors, hospital staff and caring friends and family. This film is not the story of my demise and resurrection. I call it a “spacial love story” and of course it’s laced with a few personal experiences. Indeed, life is not just for the living but what you do with it.

Hopefully Force of Destiny won’t send you home with an empty heart, and hopefully the film will enrich your life instead of pandering to the lower instincts. The proof of your lives is the love we leave behind and life must be an act of love whatever the consequences. Auden said “We must love one another or die” and the Polish poet Herbert said, “We must love others, soon it might be too late.”

It’s a great honor to premiere this film here in America at Roger’s Festival.

When Roger heard that I was ill, he wrote the most tender and loving letter of solidarity that I’ve ever received. Chaz and I were surprised and deeply touched.

A few weeks ago I heard that so called soldiers or fighters had shot fleeing children in the back because they’d thrown stones at men in uniform. A mother with her dead son in her arms begged the men to kill her. She begged those thugs and her God to let her die with her child. Poor mother… poor child… poor humanity.

I felt so ashamed to belong to the human race. Every day the very foundations of our civilization are being mutilated and destroyed. We have to take back the power from the forces of darkness.

We cannot live in a world without a conscience. That mother begging to be killed with her child made me want to make another film. A film dealing with this world with this present darkness. I can’t wait for years to get this fund and I don’t have the luxury of time. So if you have any spare coins in your pocket, please let me know!

I very much hope you appreciate and enjoy Force of Destiny. It’s a film about love and beauty. The only things that matter in this life.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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