“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy” may be the most cited of Roger Ebert’s observations, even by those who have never dug into his voluminous online archive of a life’s work.
This year’s “Ebertfest”—co-founded and hosted by Chaz Ebert and presented by the University Of Illinois College of Media—will mark the tenth celebration at the movies in Urbana-Champaign since Roger’s passing a decade ago this month, and it’s the twenty-third Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (as it is formally known) at Champaign’s Virginia Theatre.
Its theme? “Empathy at the Movies.”
Of the many, many functions of movies, the entire industrial apparatus, from stem to stern, from page to soundstage to cinema, Roger believed at his most optimistic and utopian, furthers fellowship through shared moments, even those that are shared across time, a movie’s lifetime, our own.
“We are all born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised,” Roger said at the dedication in July 2005 of a plaque on State Street under the marquee of the Chicago Theatre. “We are kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people, find out what makes them tick, what they care about. For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
“If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.” (Of course, his legacy benefits from going to another feat of empathy, in the machinery of Steve James’ 2014 documentary adaptation of his memoir, “Life Itself.”)
A further form of awareness is to accept that what Roger Ebert took from a particular movie, what I take from it, what you see, is private, in public: I know your exhalation, but not your exaltation—this psychic-galvanic killer combo of drifting into dream’s reverie among other dreamers; alone, yet together. At least that was an unspoken, supreme platonic ideal in much of the medium’s opening century. (Stream vs. dream is not the subject today.)
Roger put it this way: “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.”
The Champaign Park District, which took over the palatial 1921 Virginia Theatre in 2000, completed a longterm $9 million restoration in 2013, including a total restoration of the venue’s Wurlitzer pipe organ. The setting is palatial in a motley downtown of a college town, and the event is less in the form of a latter-day “film festival” than an offering, a lecture series, a Chautauqua with and about great motion pictures. There aren’t competing or overlapping movies: each time slot is dedicated to enlightening a potential audience of 1,463 souls who have made a pilgrimage.
It’s a great way to see a specific slate of movies, and kind of how screenings were arranged for many years for Roger and other reviewers, usually in the rotation of 10am, 12:15pm, 2:30pm and sometimes 5pm or 7pm.
He had a more concrete summa when he reviewed twenty-five years of his gig in a 1992 piece in the Sun-Times. “There is something not natural about just… going to the movies. Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. Sometimes I see two or three movies a day, mostly in the [now-defunct Cinecenter at 1 East Erie] screening room upstairs over the [now-defunct] White Hen Pantry.
“I slip downstairs at noon for a sandwich, blinded by the sunlight, my mind still filled with chases and gun duels, yuks and big boobs, cute dogs and brainy kids, songs and dances, amazing coincidences and chance meetings and deep insights into the nature of man. Whatever was in the movies.”
“In the past twenty-five years I have probably seen 10,000 movies and reviewed 6,000 of them,” he wrote in that 1992 bit of amber. “I have forgotten most of those films, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film.”
Special guest Frank Oz will appear with his 2020 “Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself,” along with movies suggestive of empathy, including the majesty of two of the greatest movies, Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.” Ebertfest 2023 takes place in Champaign, Illinois, April 19-22. Passes and more at EbertFest.com.