SFIFF: Roger Ebert

I may have to tell some of my readers who James Schamus is, but Roger Ebert needs no introduction. First film critic to win a Pulitzer. Co-star of the longest-running, most successful film-related television show in history. Champion of independent, foreign, and classic cinema who never lost his deep appreciation of Hollywood entertainment. Victim of botched cancer surgery that has left him unable to eat or speak.

Oops. I guess I just introduced him.

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate winner of the Mel Novikoff Award, which honors those who enrich appreciation of the Cinematic Art. Nor a more appropriate location for the event than the Castro, a theater that Novikoff restored and turned into the grandest art house in the Bay Area.

Considering Ebert’s disability, a Q&A format was obviously not a wise option.ebert Instead, Ebert and his wife Chas came out on stage to a standing ovation, than sat and watched as four major directors–Terry Zwigoff, Errol Morris, Jason Reitman, and Philip Kaufman—came on stage and spoke about how much they appreciated Ebert and how important he was to their career. (The picture here, supplied to jourrnlists by the Festival beforehand, is not from Saturday night. I don’t know for what event this picture was taken.)

They talked about how he championed unlikely films and fought censorship. Reitman credited Ebert’s festival-based review for getting Juno a national release, and talked about how Ebert has always adapted to new mediums. “I know teenage girls who tweet less than Roger Ebert.” Kaufman read a proclamation from Mayor Gavin Newsom making May 1, 2010 “Roger Ebert Day.”

Ebert beamed throughout. At times I wondered if the operation that had disfigured his lower face had left his mouth in a perpetual smile. It didn’t matter; his eyes beamed, too. He occasionally reacted in mime, using hand gestures to communicate “Who me?” and other thoughts.

When the tributes were over, Ebert picked up his Macbook and played a speech he had typed earlier. The voice that read the speech was cold and mechanical, but Ebert was animated, mouthing his words and supplying hand gestures.

He “talked” about the importance of seeing movies theatrically, as a community. “An audience is part of how we become a society.” He talked about a crisis in the art form. Art-house distributors are struggling and shrinking, and young people don’t know movies beyond the latest blockbusters. As an example, he mentioned the movie he had chosen to show us, Julia, a character-driven thriller starring Tilda Swinton that Magnolia Pictures barely dumped into theaters in 2008. “Today, they’d want it to star Angelina Jolie and be shot in 3D.”

Then they screened the movie. Swinton gave a great performance as a violent, self-destructive alcoholic moving from one disaster to another. Desperate for moneyjulia (she’s just been fired, probably not for the first time), she agrees to help a neighbor with an idiotic kidnapping schemed.

Because she is not at all sympathetic, Julia makes an odd protagonist for a thriller. But once she kidnaps an 8-year-old boy, we have reason to care—not for her safety, but for the kid’s. And that becomes the driving force as Julia makes one stupid mistake after another. Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that they will bond, but it happens in slow and unusual ways. And you’re never sure if he means more to her than the money she hopes to get or the knowledge of how much worse off she’ll be if he dies.

Swinton is probably the most courageous actor currently enjoying star status (even if it’s only indie star). I’ve have a hard time imagining anyone else playing such an angry, unlikeable failure.

You’ll probably never get a chance to see Julia theatrically (Ebert’s ability to help little-known films has its limits), but it’s available on Netflix, and maybe at your local video store, as well. It won’t be the same, but it will still be worth it.

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