Each year Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, aka Ebertfest, is held in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois; specifically in the Virginia Theatre, a place so ancient that, Ebert says, it was there the Marx Brothers named Harpo while performing onstage. Champaign reminds me of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I got my undergraduate degree; it's a small town by most standards, but the university and the subsequent residential sprawl make it seem urban in the midwestern environment, and naturally it draws traffic from all the towns in a very wide radius. Now even the Courier Cafe--a malt shop so down-home you expect Barney Fife to wander in--is almost impossible to visit unless you're taking the bus, or you have a sack of change for the parking meters. There's no parking anywhere in this town. We took a tip from the woman working the ticket counter at the Virginia, and searched for a space around the theater's neighboring park and student homes. You get there early; most figure that out by the second day. You get there real early and stand in the weather--the smarter ones bring folding chairs and a book to read--and you chat with the other festival-goers, usually about what played last year and what you liked the best or least. Everyone this year seemed to be talking about Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World, which Anne and I loved (alas, we couldn't see it at the festival), and which most in line--by my word-of-mouth census--seemed to find fascinating, although one man had to vehemently shout, "I hated, hated, hated, hated that movie," reciting the title of one of Ebert's books. "It was the only movie at this festival where I found myself checking my watch. 'When will this movie end?'" If you've ever seen a Guy Maddin film--he strikingly utilizes the expressionistic techniques of German silent film with all the awkward dialogue and sound of an early talkie--then the split reaction makes sense. Even Ebert evoked Guy Maddin's name on stage once or twice during the festival, as did one of his guests.
But you overhear so much while standing or sitting, waiting for films to start, that you absorb the buzz on lots of films that were released long ago. That's the thing about Ebertfest: it's like the unhip Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto. We see a movie or two that hasn't been released yet, but mostly it's films that Ebert finds "overlooked," usually from the past decade but possibly older. That makes for an unusual, scattershot festival. Adding to that experience is the fact that it's become so popular that for the past two years the tickets have all sold out before the individual titles have been announced. You need to plan and dive in blindly, and just hope that Ebert's taste agrees with yours. This was a pretty good year by that standard: twelve films, all of which I attended, and only one did I think was mediocre. Most of the rest were highly enjoyable, and even the ones I'd seen before were worth sitting through again.
On the first day, if you want a good seat, you arrive around 4:00 or so (the first movie began at 7:30). We ate at the Courier Cafe early, checked into the hotel and ran to the line--lucky enough to stand under the awning in the shade. A TV newswoman was searching for interview subjects, and I was one of them. The toughest question was, "Why did you come out here?" I don't know. When I bought the tickets I didn't know what I'd be seeing. I told her it was because I usually agreed with Ebert, which was a stupid thing to say, since I hated every minute of his Crash campaign (never have I seen a critic gloat so much as when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain), and I still think Ebert has a prejudice against any genre film that tries to make you think--unless it's a thriller, as with his selections this year of Spartan and Ripley's Game. But anyway, I assumed no one I knew would ever see this interview, and everyone in the theater would be standing in line and seeing movies, not watching the local news. I hadn't thought about the ushers. ("Hey, you're that guy from Wisconsin who used to go to Sundance!")
My Fair Lady (U.S., 1964) * * * *
D: George Cukor
Before the movie started I told my wife, "It's three hours? It takes her three hours to figure out how to say 'the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain'?" Well, not quite. That only takes about an hour and a half.
Each year the festival opens on a Wednesday with a glorious widescreen movie, preferably 70mm. Last year it was Jacques Tati's Playtime (one of my favorite movies ever--couldn't make it, though); the year before that it was Lawrence of Arabia, screened with its editor, Anne Coates, and Robert A. Harris, who restored it to David Lean's specifications. That experience I typically hold up as the pinnacle of my moviegoing life. (The others? Um, The Saragossa Manuscript on its revival in Seattle...the Sundance premiere of Waking Life with a very nervous Richard Linklater, who hadn't seen the finished print yet, and then participating in the standing ovation afterward...and seeing Return of the Jedi on the big screen as a kid: while my family waited in line outside, I ran to the other side of the theater, put my ear against the wall, and listened to the sound of the speeder bikes racing through Endor, and letting for the last time my imagination draw the pictures, based simply on the sound, before we entered and the whole show unfolded...)
Sitting in the third row, My Fair Lady at 70mm is overwhelming. Audrey Hepburn's neck looks to be eight feet tall. You get used to it. The film begins with all those colorful flowers, and the music seems to make the screen glow in a weird moment of synesthaesia. Any skepticism I had melted away at the very moment I expected it to kick in: when Audrey (or, rather, Marni--more on that in a bit) first sings "Wouldn't It Be Loverly." The way she spreads her arms and then hugs herself while finding that she's somehow hit the right note (even though she really hasn't--more on that in a bit) just works magically, and she even pulls off that precious word which is one of my least favorite in the English language ("chocolates"). I usually stay away from musicals, apart from Maurice Chevalier's or Swing Time or Singin' in the Rain (or, for that matter, Phantom of the Paradise). I think what sold me here is the wit, mixed with a little cynicism, that comes from the original play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. It's also the music, every bit as funny, by Lerner & Loewe. I didn't expect to laugh so much, to be so entertained, by a three hour Hollywood musical "event" picture.
My viewing was completely colored by the introduction by Roger Ebert, and the guest he brought; the singing vocals did not belong to Audrey Hepburn (at least, not most of them), but to the offscreen singer Marni Nixon, who also sang for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I (uncredited, although she was credited for her smaller roles in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins). Nixon has always been busy in the interceding decades, but she's been raising her profile lately with a prominent role in James Joyce's The Dead (on stage) and with an upcoming autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night; that title, of course, nods to My Fair Lady, and she still seems immensely proud of her contribution, however hidden, to this Best Picture winner. In homage to Eliza Doolittle, she carried a corsage of violets onstage. This was after film restorer James C. Katz presented a clip of Audrey singing her own vocals in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," and I'll be honest: my wife and I could not tell the difference. That's a tribute to Audrey, in that Marni attested Hepburn worked very, very hard to get as much of her own vocals onto the soundtrack as possible (Marni was actually watching Audrey perform from off-camera, which must have been intimidating, if not infuriating; sort of like continuing your audition after you've already got the part). Before the Q&A ended--late, late into the evening--Marni performed a bit of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" again for us, and her voice sounded just as clear and strikingly beautiful as ever. (Note that although Robert A. Harris was scheduled to attend, he didn't make it.)