Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Our Coming Out Party

Was it Ethel Merman who sang “The show must go on?”

I can’t google the answer to that question because I’ve been mired in airline limbo for the duration of this day, as has everyone else heading to thunderstruck Chi-Boogie. So I’m just going to go with Ethel, because her I’m-still-here-baby voice, triumphant and brass-ballsy, resonates perfectly with Ebertfest 2007 — as do, come to think of it, the hoops and ladders we attendees have cleared en route to good old Champers-Urbane this year. My extended stint on Laguardia Airport’s runway, a precariously soggy drive from Chicago, and the two bags of m&ms for lunch but pale in comparison with the lengths that our programmer and host Roger Ebert has had to (under)go to get here. Obviously. Obviously.

We know about these lengths because earlier this week Roger went public about the gravity of his illness in a frank essay complete with recent photographs of himself. As someone who’s logged some serious hours in the gossip “industry” (and I deploy that term ever-loosely), I can attest to his wisdom and bravery in preemptively outing himself. Publishing pictures of his post-op self — face still swollen but eyes as discerning and kindly as ever — was smart in the same way that it’s smart to admit you’re queer or communist or a fruitarian or anything else that strays from the cookie-cutters we Americans sometimes still pretend we all are. No one can hold you hostage with information about you that you offer yourself. No one can blackmail you with details that you’re open about. No one can shame you with anything you address unashamedly. Personal discretion is all fine and good. But if it’s impossible to maintain, come out rather than let the witch hunters come after you, my friends. It’s eminently more pleasurable. And less bloody.

This year’s festival is about claiming who we are. Next year, Ebertfest is officially dropping its “overlooked” theme — in the nick of time, really, as our jokes about said term were getting downright borscht belt — but the program reflects that change already. A mix of old and new, mainstream and indie, domestic and foreign, it proffers a fascinating glimpse into Ebert’s predilections. Sci-fi cautionary tale Gattaca (made when Jude Law still lurked vaguely under the radar, where he really looks best), Chicago valentine The Weather Man, Fellini’s meta-valentine Dolce Vita: intriguing. We shall sit in the expansive, old-school Virginia Theater, shoulder to shoulder with each other, including Roger himself, who has not yet regained his voice but is all set up in a La-Z Throne. We’re set to experience films that our benefactor most happily has himself.

The show must go on. It’s a phrase that practically defines Ebert’s enduring career and spirit. Not that we’re ready for that fat lady to sing it just yet. La Dolce Vita indeed.

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