Rita Moreno greets her fans, including artistic director Charles Horak, at the 6th annual Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas. | © Diane Sierra Photography 2013
Updated: August 29, 2013 5:54PM
EL PASO, Texas — Here’s looking at you, Roger.
The legacy of the late Sun-Times film critic was celebrated at the sixth annual Plaza Classic Film Festival, which concluded its annual 11-day run earlier this month. Billed as the world’s largest festival devoted to classic cinema, it arises like an oasis every August at the Plaza Theatre, a landmark, restored 1930 movie palace once dubbed “The Showplace of the Southwest.”
Presented by the El Paso Community Foundation and programmed by artistic director Charles Horak, the festival unspooled more than 80 titles, including many championed by the dean of American film criticism.
Titled “Ebert Everlasting,” the tribute featured films and filmmakers close to the critic’s heart: Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949), Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953), Federico Fellini’s “La dolce vita” (1960), Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) and Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” (1990).
“No film critic reached the kind of audience that Roger Ebert reached, and you could argue that no one taught more viewers to be careful consumers of moving pictures than Roger Ebert,” Horak said. Since his death, “there have been many tributes around the globe to Ebert; I wanted to program a series of films that he would have loved to have seen one more time. And perhaps more importantly, select his favorite films that he would have loved to show to new audiences.”
As usual, the festival showcased films from all genres (animation to musicals to sci-fi) and eras (from the silent age to contemporary times). Anniversary tributes went to Warner Bros.’ “Wascally Wabbit” Bugs Bunny (introduced in the 1938 short “Porky’s Hare Hunt”) and golden-era actor-producer-director Burt Lancaster (born in 1913).
Among the festival’s special guests were Oscar winners Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”) and Margaret O’Brien (“Meet Me in St. Louis”); another former child star, Angela Cartwright (“The Sound of Music”); acclaimed organist Walt Strony; filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (“Koyaanisqatsi”), and Burt Lancaster’s daughters, Joanna, Susan and Sighle, along with the Austin-based musical group My Education, which performed its original score for F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece “Sunrise” (1927).
The festival often rolls out premieres of restored films, and this year brought the North American debut of a new digital transfer of Jean-Luc Godard’s black-and-white sci-fi noir “Alphaville” (1965); a digital restoration of director Steven Spielberg’s cut of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), and Saul Bass’ rarely screened sci-fi thriller “Phase IV” (1974), complete with the recently rediscovered original alternate ending.
“It was our most adventurous program to date, with a diverse list of films connected by thematic threads,” Horak said. “And from a cinephile’s point of view, or just as a casual movie lover, it was a great year to explore both favorite classics and lesser-seen gems that rarely get theatrical screen time.”
Perhaps the biggest attraction is the Plaza itself, a 2,050-seat Atmospheric-style movie palace saved in 1987 from demolition by local activists and the El Paso Community Foundation. In 2006, it underwent a $40 million restoration as a performing arts center and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. With live organ music between screenings and related concerts outdoors on an adjoining courtyard, the theater truly comes alive during the annual festival.
“A big part of the draw is not just the films themselves but the venue they’re shown in,” Horak said. “It’s like going back in time and feeling the special ambience of these movie palaces. To end this year’s festival with Walt Strony’s masterful performance on the Plaza Theatre’s organ accompanying the newly restored 1924 silent ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ was a dream come true. The film, the music and the venue were a perfect marriage.”
In an era of movie-watching on iPads and smartphones, the non-profit event aims to provide the ultimate cinema experience: a communal one. “It’s great to see filmgoers interacting with others and watching them come out afterward and discussing the films in the lobby,” Horak said. “That’s always something I take away from each festival. We watch so many films alone, I feel the festival is helping to not just preserve our cinema heritage, but also to preserve the filmgoing experience.”
Laura Emerick was the longtime editor of the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.