The Eve Before Ebertfest 2014

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It was four years ago when this journey started, when Roger Ebert called me up to be part of his family at Ebertfest. It seemed only yesterday when he gave me an embrace, patted his heart and smiled with his eyes. The sudden rush of familiar sights, scents and sounds here at Champaign-Urbana has been overwhelming for me. Even numbing. Once I touched down at Willard airport, I could not hold back the flood.

UntitledMy travel time from Australia took 29 hours, but it has really been so much longer. I couldn’t come in 2012 because I had emigrated to Oz (Roger said, “I’ve been following you all this time.”), and couldn’t make it in 2013 because my son was born (“On a cosmic scale, it’s all good news!”). Since then, it’s not just Roger who I’ve lost. My dear cousin Jay passed away in his sleep two years ago. And last year, Tom Dark, a fellow Far Flung Correspondent and beloved curmudgeon, fell into a coma and never returned. It is fair to say that I would have never met them both, along with so many others, if it weren’t for Roger. My return here is a bittersweet reunion.

Jay           Dad (Tom Dark)

And yet I can hear Roger whispering to me, “Get over it. Write. Share the joy of these hidden gems!” Perhaps this is the place for new beginnings as well. Mine at least.

I checked into the Illini Union, my very own creature comfort whenever I’m at UIUC. Then I was off to the Foellinger Auditorium, a campus landmark which I had not realized until today, that is nearly a hundred years old. It was here that they would screen The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), introduced by Patton Oswalt.

UntitledEbertfest regulars will recall when Mr. Oswalt was scheduled to be appear in 2012 festival but could not due to scheduling conflicts. Roger cited his apologies as “transcendentally graceful.” And as promised, Mr. Oswalt has returned but with the stipulation that the festival show one of his favorite films in Pelham. After seeing it tonight for the first time, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t a perfect fit.

Mr. Oswalt introduced the movie as an example of a time when Hollywood, “Knew how to make great suspense. Not that there isn’t a lot of action in here, which there is.” I strongly agree with him. Prior to this screening, I had seen the remake starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, which I enjoyed. But it pales in comparison to the original which showcases a masterful use of silence in highlighting suspense, a seemingly lost art in today’s contemporaries.

Untitled Another thing that impressed me is how Pelham flaunts a richness of New York’s character in the 1970s that rivals any canonical film you can think of. In my piece on The French Connection for “World Film Locations: New York,” I noted what a complete picture of the Big Apple it seemed to emit. After tonight, I wish I could have written about Pelham as well. Mr. Oswalt joked that the movie displays a New York that is grungier and dirtier, “than John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.”

He also noted how the movie seemed to celebrate in the imperfections of its characters. It’s “hero,” played by Walter Matthau, is relucant, unapologetic, and even racist. Its mayor is weak and cowardly. Its cops and train personnel are sexist. Even its credits seem overly matter-of-fact regardless of their political incorrectness. When you think about it, the film’s antagonist, played by the “Hans Gruberesque” Robert Shaw, appears to be the most well-adjusted of the lot. But despite these unlikeable traits, every character feels like a real person. And every single one is unforgettable. I can’t think of a good reason why it can’t be classified as a great film. Perhaps what mattered most, was that it was a hit with the night’s young audience.


A few of us among the Far Flung Correspondents noticed in years past that the festival could use a shot of younger moviegoers, as we mentioned to Roger over the time we had with him. It is they who need to see these overlooked treasures and know what riches lie beyond the mainstream. It looks like that message has gotten across to those who are left to run the festival and continue his mission. As I left the auditorium, I could hear students mentioning the word “Ebertfest” buzzing in their conversations. Roger would have loved that.

I made it Roger. Sorry I’m late.

  • Colin Biggs

    Nicely done.