By Rob Burgess
— Until Thursday, I had never before crossed state lines to watch movies. But the chance to attend even one of the five days of the 16th annual Ebertfest: Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was enough to propel my wife, Ash, and me two hours west to Champaign, Ill.
We arrived in town just after the bronze, $112,500 Ebert statue was unveiled. While the first film of the day, “Museum Hours,” played inside, we had plenty of time to pose for pictures with the Rick Harney-designed sculpture, entitled “C-U at the Movies.”
The beauty of the Virginia Theatre itself was almost enough by itself to justify the trip. At 93 years old, it is an absolutely gorgeous building — with an old-fashioned marquee outside, and an elegant, 24-karat-gold-leafed proscenium inside.
We made it to our seats just in time for the start of “Short Term 12,” presented by the film’s co-stars, Brie Larsen and Keith Stanfield. The 2013 film is set in “a foster-care center for at-risk teens whose troubles run the gamut from depression to substance abuse to self-mutilation,” as Christy Lemire, film critic, wrote in her Aug. 23, 2013 RogerEbert.com review. Ebert himself never had a chance to review “Short Term 12,” but I’m sure he would have approved.
As with each film, after the credits rolled, an exact replica of Roger’s famous hand signal — produced by the same company that manufactures the Academy Awards statuettes — was given to the guests by Roger’s widow, Chaz Ebert.
“Who cares about an Oscar?” said Stanfield, proudly holding his Golden Thumb Award, as he and Larson took the stage for a Q&A.
“Young Adult” was next up. Before introducing Patton Oswalt, Chaz read part of Roger’s Dec. 7, 2011 review. “Oswalt is, in a way, the key to the film’s success,” wrote Roger. “Oswalt’s Matt [Freehauf] is human, realistic, sardonic and self-deprecating. He speaks truth to Mavis [played by Charlize Theron.]” I totally agree with Roger’s Jan. 26, 2012 blog, in which he declared: “Oswalt’s performance … deserved [an Oscar] nomination.”
The Q&A after the film was a bit, um, contentious. “It began with RogerEbert.com contributor Susan Wloszczyna claiming that Oswalt’s crippled character reminded her of an orc. Yes, an orc. It was all uphill from then on,” wrote Sam Fragoso, thumbnail editor of Ebert’s website, Friday. “Wloszczyna’s line of questioning had less linearity than a Terrence Malick movie.”
As always, though, Oswalt was humble and hilarious. When the time came for audience queries, I had the opportunity to throw out the first question. I asked Oswalt about the younger photos of him in the house his character shared with his on-screen sister, Sandra, played by Collette Wolfe.
“I called my mom a month before the shoot and said, ‘Hey, they need pictures of me as a kid for this scene,’ and she just sent a whole box,” said Oswalt. “If I picked them out it would be a very specific look, so I let the set dresser pick those out.”
As I wrote in my April 10, 2013 column, “Ebert, in his own words,” the impact of the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic on my own work is hard to overestimate. I made a point to thank Chaz as we filed out between screenings. I told her how much Roger’s writing meant to me. I said the story of Roger lovingly preparing her meals with his rice cooker — long after his illness robbed him of the ability to speak, eat or drink — was about the most romantic thing ever.
As I introduced my wife, I told Chaz I had given Ash the 2010 book Roger penned about the experience, “The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and the Romance of the Rice Cooker,” as a birthday present, along with an actual rice cooker.
Chaz cheerily replied Roger’s writing was never just about the thing he was writing about. I heartily agreed. Her response reminded me of a passage from Roger’s 2011 memoir, “Life Itself,” which I just finished.
“The best movies aren’t about what happens to the characters,” Roger wrote. “They are about the example they set.” And what an example he was.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.