The 11th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival kicked off last night with a showing of an almost 40-year-old movie, Woodstock. Watching the movie at the historic Virginia Theater is much better than being at Woodstock. There is just as much peace and music, but with plenty of food, toilet facilities and no rain and mud.
Roger is back for this festival, after missing the last two years because of health problems. His face contorted because cancer has eaten away part of his jaw, unable to speak because he lost part of his tongue, he was nevertheless his usual ebullient self, still able to say on his blog earlier this week, "I was born at the center of the universe, and have had good fortune for all of my days." I don't think he was putting on a good front; he really means it.
But for the faithful Ebertfest attenders (I have been taking vacation to attend all of the films for all but the first couple of years,) we do not consider Roger's state of health fortunate. He is the heart and soul of the festival, adding much more than just his name and selection of films, but also his witty introductions and commentary to the movies, and his interviews of directors, actors, and producers. One of the highlights of my life is sitting at the Virginia Theater five years ago after the showing of Werner Herzog's movie, Invincible and listening to Ebert and Herzog talk about movies until two o'clock in the morning with the audience sitting there, no one leaving, absolutely entertained and enchanted.
For the last two years, and now this year, other people have introduced the films, and hosted the conversations, but no one has the knowledge and the wit to inform and entertain like Ebert.
Oh, Woodstock? It still holds up after 40 years. Seeing and listening to Joan Baez sing "Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot," with no accompaniment as 400,000 people listen, without a sound, sends chills up my spine. (I saw Baez later that summer in Chicago, a little more pregnant, standing up on stage barefooted and absolutely stealing the heart of this Amish farmboy.)
I gave the movie four stars. Have to run; another movie to see.
Update: To clarify, I was not at the original Woodstock, although I did see the movie when it first came out in 1970. I don't think I would have enjoyed actually being at Woodstock. I have never been a fan of rain, mud and anarchy. I would have bought my ticket in advance and been outraged that people were coming in over the fence without paying. I would have gone home after it started raining and the site turned into a field of mud. The director's cut, which we saw Wednesday night, was nearly four hours long, at least an hour too long, in my opinion. The story of what happened was told in the original movie. The best musical performances -- Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Crosby Stills and Nash, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Santana, Sha Na Na and Jimi Hendrix were already in the movie. The director's cut added a lot of music, but had me fidgeting by 11 o'clock p.m. approached, with no end in sight.