The 15th annual Ebertfest—the film festival programmed each year by Roger Ebert in Champaign, Ill.—begins on a strange and sad day this year.* Strange and sad not only because Ebert himself is missing from his customary seat at the back of the Virginia Theatre, a magnificently restored 1920s movie palace, but also because the whole country seems to be undergoing some sort of mass seizure: Crazy people are filling pressure cookers with shrapnel, mailing poison to the president, and making it abundantly clear that they value the rights of gun owners over the lives of schoolchildren.
All this ambient American insanity makes me gladder than ever that I decided, on the spur of the moment, to attend this year’s Ebertfest, which, I realize only a few minutes into the opening-night festivities, will be as different from all other film festivals as Ebert was from all other critics. Noncompetitive, unbeholden to the vagaries of the industry or the demands of the market, featuring a small slate of films chosen from every period of cinema history and every degree of buzzworthiness, this five-day celebration of movie love is triumphantly uncool. A healthy percentage of its attendees are variants on New Yorker editor Harold Ross’ proverbial “little old lady from Peoria”—in fact, a charter bus from that very town was parked outside the Virginia when I arrived, disgorging a score of gray-haired cinephiles.
But it isn’t just the retirees—there are also students from the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Ebert’s alma mater) and loyalists of all ages from around the world, including the Far-Flung Correspondents, an international group of contributors, many of them amateur film fans and bloggers, whom Ebert handpicked to write reviews for his website. And then there are the professional critics, many of us, to whom this festival seems to mean something specific and important—a break from the obligation to have an opinion on the latest release or the just-announced Cannes lineup, a chance to remember what drew us to the career in the first place, a restorative bath in the waters of pure, disinterested movie love.
It’s precisely this sense of community that drew me to Ebertfest this year. I’d always wanted to attend based on the rapturous tweets and blog posts it seems to inspire, but the passing of the festival’s central figure, and the possibility that the event might not continue in his absence, made the pilgrimage feel especially important and nourishing. And so far, it has not failed to deliver when it comes to warmth and humanity and plain old Midwestern niceness—just witness the audience singalong, led by Ebert’s warm, funny wife and business partner, Chaz, that preceded last night’s opening-night screening of the 1978 Terrence Malick masterpiece Days of Heaven. The song, chosen by Ebert, was the ’60s folk hit “Those Were the Days,” with lyrics he’d modified to describe the experience of moviegoing. Consulting the lyrics printed in our programs, accompanied by an old-timey organist in a bright red jacket, we sang, at first self-consciously, then proudly off-key: “Once upon a time there was a theater/Where we used to see a film or two/Remember how we laughed away the hours/And dreamed of all the great things we would do.” Even before the movie began, it felt like the days of heaven were here.
Correction, April 18, 2013: This article originally misstated that Champaign, Ill. is Roger Ebert's hometown. He was born in nearby Urbana. (Return to the corrected sentence.)