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Roger Ebert lives on as Ebertfest begins its annual run

Chaz Ebert widow Roger Ebert talks crowd opening night 15th Ebertfest film festival VirginiTheatre Champaign Ill. Wednesday April 17 2013.

Chaz Ebert, widow of Roger Ebert, talks to the crowd on the opening night of the 15th Ebertfest film festival at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Ill., on Wednesday, April 17, 2013. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann)

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Updated: April 18, 2013 1:19AM



CHAMPAIGN-URBANA ­— His last words: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

And so it was at the opening night Wednesday of the 15th annual Ebertfest, programmed by Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert and presented by the College of Media at University of Illinois.

Though Ebert died two weeks ago, his festival, devoted to promoting overlooked films and filmmakers, lives on. As does his spirit, which seemed to be a benevolent presence hovering over the historic Virginia Theatre, the site of his namesake event.

Chaz Ebert, his widow, is hosting this year’s festival. Introducing the opening-night film of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978), she mentioned that “Roger even left instructions” for this year’s event. She told the sold-out crowd that among those instructions, he tweaked the lyrics of the ’60s hit “Those Were the Days” and requested that the audience sing along: “Once upon a time there was a theater/Where we used to see a film or two/...Those were the days, my friend/We thought they’d never end ...”

As a gospel choir came onstage, she invited the festival’s sponsors, special guests and volunteers to join her in song. To cap off the brief chorale, Ebert had programmed a clip from “The Chimes at Midnight” (1965), a classic by one of his favorite filmmakers, Orson Welles. In a wonderful bit of symmetry, the clip ended with the line: “Jesus, the days that we have seen.”

“Days of Heaven” is by another of Ebert’s favorite directors, and in a fitting coincidence, Malick’s “To the Wonder,” which opens Friday in Chicago, was the last film that Ebert reviewed before his death April 4.

After the screening, Chaz Ebert came back onstage and said, “Roger chose a great film to open our festival,” as the audience clapped its approval.

The Eberts and their programming team had already dedicated this year’s festival to two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer and Chicago native Haskell Wexler. Though Nestor Almendros is the credited cinematographer on “Days of Heaven,” Wexler shot almost half of the film. Now 91, Wexler joined critic Matt Zoller Seitz of New York magazine for a post-screening Q&A session. “I was thinking so much of Roger during the movie, and not just because ‘Days of Heaven’ was one of his favorites,” Seitz said. “It truly expresses Roger’s spirit, and like Roger, it is extremely generous in its view of humanity.”

Wexler was equally magnanimous in his comments about his “Days of Heaven” collaborators. Of the film’s striking visuals, he said, “The imagery is all Terry’s.”

Though the film’s producers called in Wexler because the shooting was running far behind schedule, he said that “Nestor set the film’s style.” He recalled how Malick would rehearse for most of the day and would allow shooting only during “the magic hour,” the two or three hours when the natural light was just right.

Before the screening, Michael Barker, president of Sony Pictures Classics and a longtime Ebertfest participant, called Malick “one of the great poets of the cinema. His narrative is unbelievable, and it achieves a level of poetry rarely captured on film.”

In his last blog post, published April 2, Ebert ended it with the words “I’ll see you at the movies.”

And his beloved Ebertfest continues through Sunday, with guests including Tilda Swinton (for the film “Julia”) and Jack Black and Richard Linklater (“Bernie”) scheduled to appear.



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