By Roger Ebert
Five years ago we unveiled a new film festival that was still in the process
of inventing itself. What did "overlooked" mean, anyway? It was clear that it
honored films that had not received the attention they deserved. But it could
also include formats (70mm, Todd AO Vision), periods (the silent era), and
genres (documentaries, anime, musicals) that had been overlooked. It was best to
allow the word "overlooked" to remain flexible.
Now we are back in the Virginia Theater for our fifth anniversary. Joining us
are friends from that first festival--Scott and Heavenly Wilson, who were here
for the screening of "Shiloh" and are back for the screening of "The Right
Stuff." Also back again are the brilliant and tireless Nancy
Casey, festival executive producer, Professor Nate Kohn, festival director, and
Nickie Dalton, festival manager, and assistant director, Mary Susan Britt. In
the booth once again are our world-class projection experts, James Bond and
Steve Kraus. And the festival would be impossible without the skilled staff of
the Virginia Theater and our valued volunteers. My gratitude also to Dean Kim
Rotzoll of the College of Communications, who with Dean Casey first approached
me with the idea of the festival.
We also welcome back our audiences, who think nothing of four films a day. Some
have even asked me if a midnight screening is possible. Actually, this year we
tried--we really tried--to scale back to three screenings on Thursday and
Friday, but as Nate Kohn and I debated various
rundowns we found we simply could not bear to trim even one film from our
This year's films come from a variety of inspirations. We will be showing the
trailers from the 2002 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, in the Czech Republic. I
served on their jury last summer, and Chaz and I joined the hilarity as they
played. So infectious were the trailers that on closing night the jury actually
danced on stage while singing the trailer song. (By the way, the three
performers are not professional actors but were technicians attached to the
In a festival celebrating the "overlooked," we have found a form of film
preservation most audiences will not even have heard of: The Japanese tradition
of the "benshi," or simultaneous commentator. I learned about benshis from a
book by Prof. David Bordwell, the invaluable film scholar from the University of
Wisconsin. Also the author of the best book on Yasujiro Ozu (one of my three
favorite directors), he will be joining us after the performance of Ozu's "I Was
Born, But..." to discuss the experience with Midori Sawato, our guest benshi
from Tokyo. In the Japanese silent era, the benshi stood next to the screen and
interpreted the dialogue and action in a parallel performance that was more
popular than the film itself; benshis headlined their own theaters.
Speaking of silent films, when I am in Los Angeles I like to go to the Silent
Film Theater on Fairfax Avenue, where Charlie Lustman introduces the films and
during the intermission serves his mother's cookies. Lustman will host our
Saturday morning matinee of sparkling 35mm prints of silent comedy classics by
Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals. Performing on
the Virginia's organ will be the renowned silent accompanist Dean Mora.
Another silent program will welcome back the Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge,
Mass., specialists in performing the scores of silent films. This year they're
bring us Douglas Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate" (1926), an early experiment in
two-strip Technicolor (an overlooked format!).
With three silent programs this year, it is only appropriate that our
traditional Sunday afternoon musical be "Singin' in the Rain," the greatest of
all Hollywood musicals, which is about the transition from silents to talkies.
How is it "overlooked?" Simply that in its 50th anniversary year, with a
brilliant new 35mm restored print, it would be a crime to overlook it. We hope
to have two of its great stars, Miss Cyd Charisse and Donald O'Connor (of
Danville, Ill.), on stage for a tribute afterwards.
Other films were found in various ways. I discovered Bertrand Tavernier's
"L.627" at the 1992 Telluride festival, where he has been a regular guest and
programmer for many years. I met Tavernier in 1976 at the Chicago festival,
where his first film, "The Clockmaker," made a deep impression, and have watched
him become the leading filmmaker from France while always maintaining a direct
and personal enthusiasm for movies. Few people are more knowledgeable about
His "L.627," made with deep personal motives, examines the dilemma of
unenforceable drug laws in a time of unacceptable and rising drug abuse. It is
as relevant in America as in France, and offers not easy answers but a
penetrating examination of the human issues involved. The "drug movie" has
become a Hollywood genre, all about guns and chases and ironic dialog,
all completely missing the point. "L.627" looks at drugs with accuracy, sadness
and anger. A great film.
Haskell Wexler I have known even longer than Tavernier; I met him in Chicago in
1968 when he was filming "Medium Cool." Its message of protest in a time of
political turmoil is as relevant today as it was then. He is of course one of
the world's greatest cinematographers, winner of two
Oscars, nominated for five, but more importantly he is a man of conscience and
commitment. We are also graced by his wife, the gifted actress Rita Taggart,
whose sense of humor makes her a living national treasure.
I found "Charlotte Sometimes" at the 2002 Hawaii Film Festival, and was amazed
by its artistry. Its story of gender and racial issues is all the more
challenging because handled in such a subtle way. Although it still seeks
distribution, its power was acknowledged by the Independent
Spirit Awards (the "indie Oscars"), where it was nominated for the John
Cassavetes Award, and Jacqueline Kim was nominated as best supporting actress.
Director Eric Byler, Miss Kim, Michael Idemoto, and John Manulis will join us
after the screening.
Also at this year's Indie Spirits, I met director Jill Sprecher and co-writer
Karen Sprecher, whose "13 Conversations About One Thing" was on my list of the
best films of 2002. They were nominated for best screenplay, and Alan Arkin for
best supporting actor. I love the way their story loops through its characters,
not as a Tarantinesque stunt, but as a demonstration of how ethical decisions
have a ripple effect on the lives we touch. The Sprecher sisters will join us
And standing next to me as I chatted with the Sprechers was Robert Goodman,
producer of another Overlooked entry, "The Stone Reader." This is a documentary
that graduate students were born to see. The story of director Mark Moskowitz's
years-long search for the author of a great 1972 novel, it leads down a long
trail of literary critics, agents and publishers to finally end at a family home
in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mark Moskowitz and Jeff Lipsky will join us onstage.
From the moment I saw Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" at the 1997 Sundance
film festival, I knew that a great new American writer-director had emerged. His
"Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998) is the flowering of the pitiless critique he
makes of modern manners and mores. His characters are materialistic, selfish,
narcissistic, and yet feel good about themselves, because they live up to the
shabby values of their environment. The New Statesman recently wrote that no
playwright in the world today is doing better work than Neil LaBute; he will
join us after his film.
I was in the audience at the New York Film Festival for the world premiere of
Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces," and more than 30 years later I wrote of that
"This was the direction American movies should take: Into idiosyncratic
characters, into dialog with an ear for the vulgar and the literate, into a plot
free to surprise us about the characters, into an existential ending not
required to be happy. 'Five Easy Pieces' was a fusion of the personal cinema of
John Cassavetes and the new indie movement that was tentatively emerging. It
was, you could say, the first Sundance film."
Since then, Rafelson has remained on the cutting edge, and his "Blood and Wine"
(1997) struck me as a reinvention and reinvigoration of the crime genre. Jack
Nicholson, working for the fourth time with Rafelson, and Michael Caine, with
his unforgettable steadfastness in the face of
death, and Jennifer Lopez, in her second major role, work without a net and
handle hard scenes like easy pieces. Rafelson will join us after the screening.
And, we learn, he spent time as a young man working in the Japanese film
industry, and will be a resource for our Japanese programs. They include "Shall
We Dance?" Masayuki Suo's 1997 film that begins in existential loneliness, edges
into comedy, and ends by celebrating universal human nature. This is the kind of
foreign film that makes me want to grab people and shake them, and say "You
don't know what you're missing!"
I decided to invite Gurinder Chadha's "What's Cooking?" at a specific time and
place--during the closing credits of her new film "Bend it Like Beckham," at the
2003 Sundance Film Festival. She led her cast and crew in a jolly sing-along
during the credits, and I realized that although
I may have seen deeper and more profound films at Sundance, I had not seen one
that was more purely enjoyable.
"What's Cooking?" is no less fun but emotionally deeper; an affirmation of the
American melting pot in the story of Thanksgiving feasts prepared by four
families: African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese. What is remarkable is
how much drama and truth she finds in each of her four stories, how her film is
not just a comic round-robin but a thoughtful story about who we are and why we
give thanks. In this time of national emergency, we need films like this more
That brings us to our curtain-raiser, the opening night film, Phil Kaufman's
"The Right Stuff" (1983). This is one of the great modern American films; I put
it first on my list of the year's top ten. When it opened, everyone expected it
to become a box-office sensation, but, inexplicably, it did not find a large
audience. Why not? Some said a newsweekly cover, linking it to the presidential
campaign of John Glenn, confused people, who thought it was about politics. But
how many people make their moviegoing decisions based on Newsweek covers?
"The Right Stuff," the story of America's first steps into space, has since
found wide audiences on home video, but this is a movie that shouts out to be
seen on a big screen--and the Virginia's vast expanse will show us the epic as
it was intended to be seen, thanks to a pristine new print from Warner Bros.
Scott Wilson, who plays test pilot Scott Crossfield, the arch-rival of Chuck
Yeager, will join us onstage, once again helping us launch a festival that gets
less overlooked every year.