'Lawrence of Arabia' and Buster Keaton masterpiece headline 'Ebertfest'

Wed. April 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Champaign, IL - “Lawrence of Arabia” in 70mm will be the big-screen opening act for the sixth annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, or “Ebertfest,” opening today and running through April 25 in Champaign-Urbana.

Joining “Lawrence” on the festival program will be “The General,” a restored Buster Keaton silent-film masterpiece, accompanied by a live orchestra, and “Gates of Heaven,” the first film of Errol Morris, who won the 2003 Oscar for best documentary. “Gates of Heaven” is on Ebert’s all-time top-10 list of best films. Morris will be a festival guest.

Among the other festival features will be a poetic film about the journey of two Mayan Indians to California; an African-American coming-of-age film set during the waning years of Southern segregation; two documentaries about a unique musician, followed by a live concert; a little-known Al Pacino film, featuring one of the actor’s best performances; and a personal documentary made for $187 on an Apple computer.

Ebert, a native of Urbana, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-hosts “Ebert & Roeper and the Movies,” a weekly televised movie-review program. He also is a 1964 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign journalism graduate and adjunct professor.

The festival is a special event of the College of Communications at the university.

Ebert selects films for the festival that he feels have been overlooked in some way, generally by critics, distributors or audiences.

“Lawrence of Arabia,” which won the 1962 Oscar for best picture, was overlooked in storage, according to Ebert. A restoration expert, Robert Harris, discovered the print “in rusting and crushed cans in a neglected film vault,” Ebert said, “and the story of how he brought it back to perfection is spellbinding.”

Harris will be among the guests at this year’s festival, along with directors, producers and actors connected with the selected films. Many appear on stage with the film critic for informal discussions after the screenings.

Twelve screenings are scheduled over five days at the Virginia Theater, a 1920s-era Champaign movie palace, with other events at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Thirteen features and documentaries will be shown, along with one short subject.

This year’s schedule of films and guests:

Wednesday, April 21
7:30 p.m. – “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), directed by David Lean and starring Peter O’Toole, a movie epic about the eccentric British soldier and author T.E. Lawrence and his efforts to enlist desert Arab tribes in a World War I campaign against the Turks. Watching “Lawrence” on a big screen in 70mm is an experience “on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film,” Ebert said.

Thursday, April 22
1 p.m. – “Tarnation” (2003), a documentary by Jonathan Caouette, in which he tells the story of his troubled family and his difficult adolescence, when he realized he was gay. Made on a Macintosh computer for an initial cost of $187, it was a “sensation” at the 2003 Sundance festival, Ebert said. The director will be a guest.

4:30 p.m. – “The Son” (2002), directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “a spellbinding story of loss and reconciliation,” Ebert said, about a carpentry teacher and his relationship with a troubled boy. Coming as a guest will be Dan Talbot, founder and head of New Yorker films, and the distributor who brought the film to the United States. The film is in French, with English subtitles.

9 p.m. – “Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored” (1996), directed by Tim Reid and based on a book by Clifton Taulbert, a coming-of-age story set in rural Mississippi in the years 1946-62, as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Ebert said the film is not a protest against segregation “so much as a celebration of the human qualities that endured and overcame.” Reid, known for television roles on “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Frank’s Place,” will be a guest.

Friday, April 23
1 p.m. – “Tully” (2000), directed by Hilary Birmingham, the story of a father and his two sons on a Nebraska dairy farm, dealing with their dreams, family secrets, and the women in their lives. The director will be a guest, along with actor Anson Mount.

4:30 p.m. – “The General” (1927), directed by Buster Keaton, also the star, a silent comedy epic which centers on a locomotive chase during the Civil War. Ebert: “Keaton defies logic with one ingenious silent comic sequence after another.” In one scene, an actual locomotive falls from a burning bridge. Accompanying the film will be the three-man Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass., marking its third straight year at the festival.

Preceding “The General” will be “The Scapegoat,” directed by Darren Ng, a short film “in the style and spirit of Buster,” Ebert said. Ng, who also plays Buster in the short, will be a guest.

9 p.m. – “El Norte” (1984), directed by Gregory Nava, the story of two young Guatemalans, a brother and sister, and their long immigrant trek from their small village through Mexico to Los Angeles. The festival will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film, which Ebert called a “masterpiece,” and director Nava and producer Anna Thomas will be guests. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Saturday, April 24
11:30 a.m. – “My Dog Skip” (2000), directed by Jay Russell and based on Willie Morris’ memoir, a story about a lonely boy in Yazoo, Miss., whose life is changed when he gets a dog. The film is this year’s free family matinee, and Ebert is promising a surprise guest.

3:30 p.m. – “Gates of Heaven” (1978), the first documentary of Errol Morris, who recently won the Oscar for best documentary for “The Fog of War.” Ebert: “I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it's about a lot more than pet cemeteries.” The director will be a guest.

7 p.m. – “People I Know” (2002), directed by Daniel Algrant, in which Al Pacino plays “an exhausted, strung-out New York press agent” who, after a long night of drugs, “is finally so tired and confused he doesn’t know if he has witnessed a murder, or not,” Ebert said. The director will be a guest, along with publicist Bobby Zarem, who is the partial inspiration for the Pacino character.

10 p.m. – “Invincible” (2001), directed by Werner Herzog, the story of a Jew in Nazi Germany in the 1930s who performs as a strongman and believes he can protect his people. Ebert: “There are countless movies about preludes to the Holocaust, but I can’t think of one this innocent, direct and unblinking.” The director will be a guest.

Sunday, April 25
1 p.m. – “Sweet Old Song” (2002) and “Louie Bluie” (1986), two documentaries about the late Howard Armstrong, the leader of one of the first and last traditional black string bands. Part of Ebert’s motivation to include the films came from fond memories of listening to Armstrong’s band when it was playing in a Chicago bar in 1970. “Sweet Old Song,” directed by Leah Mahan, shows Armstrong, who died only last summer, still making music in his 90s. “Louie Bluie,” directed by Terry Zwigoff, paints a portrait of Armstrong as “artist, poet, composer, violin virtuoso, storyteller, and tireless womanizer (according to many of his stories),” Ebert said. It follows the musician as he plays his music, visits his childhood home, “and philosophizes on music, love and life.”

A live concert will follow the screening, featuring musicians who worked with Armstrong, some of whom can be seen in the more-recent film. Mahan and Armstrong’s wife, Barbara Ward, will be guests along with the musicians.

Panel discussions on various film-related topics are still being organized, and will be announced at a later time. Updates also will be posted on the festival web site, www.ebertfest.com.

Festival passes, covering all 12 screenings, are $75 and on sale through the Virginia Theater box office (phone: 217-356-9063; fax: 217-356-5729). They also can be purchased online through TicketWeb, by way of the festival web site. Tickets for individual films, which are $8, went on sale April 1 through the theater box office.