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Movie buffs and fans of Roger Ebert in Indiana and Michigan have reason to rejoice. Steve James' acclaimed documentary, "Life Itself," based on Ebert's bestselling 2011 memoir, opened Thursday, August 7th, at the Indiana University Cinema and the Vickers Theatre. RogerEbert.com chatted with Jon Vickers, director of IU Cinema and former owner of the Vickers Theatre, about the upcoming screenings, special guests and memories of Roger.
What are your thoughts regarding "Life Itself" and its opening at the theater?
We are very excited to be opening the film at the Indiana University Cinema, and coincidently at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan, at the same time. Roger and his criticism have played an important role in my life, both casually as an enthusiastic cinephile and more formally as an exhibitor. When we opened the Vickers in the mid-90s, it was pre-internet. Roger was one of the critics that we relied heavily on in our programming decisions. Our theatre was in a small (mostly) farming community of 1800 people. Of course, we drew from surrounding communities, but Roger’s reviews helped us ‘sell’ sometimes inaccessible international films to a broader audience. I specifically remember this when screening a reissue of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “Woman in the Dunes.”
We’ve been waiting for this weekend since seeing "Life Itself" streamed from its premiere at Sundance in January. Part of this excitement comes from having the good fortune of knowing Roger over the years, as well as most of the filmmakers who were interviewed in the film. I guess that you can say that there is a personal connection to the film. A number of Roger’s friends also have some tangential connections to the Vickers Theatre. I have not spoken to Bill (Lindblom, one of the new owners of the Vickers Theatre), but I am certain that it was filled last night with enthusiastic fans of Roger and Chaz.
What connection does Ave DuVernay have to IU?
The IU Cinema hosts many filmmakers each year. When hosting Ava DuVernay for a retrospective of her work, we connected with Steve James (or vice versa) and took advantage of the proximity to Chicago for taping her interview [which was featured in “Life Itself”]. We also, of course, wanted to be part of the project, even in this minor way.
How many screenings are scheduled?
Here at IU Cinema, we only have three-day runs in our summer months without students. We are bringing the film back in October, when we will screen a partial retrospective of Steve James’ work, with Steve in attendance. We’re looking forward to sharing the film again with our community and students. At the Vickers Theatre, the film runs for at least a week, perhaps longer. Producer Zak Piper and crew member Jim Morrissete will be at [the 2pm screening on Sunday, August 17th] the Vickers Theatre.
I did not know Roger well, but had the opportunity to speak with him either at the Vickers Theatre or film festivals many times. He was always so giving of his time and seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing. He made you feel like the most important person in the room. This generosity carried over in print for the Vickers Theatre as well when he included us in a handful of his reviews and later in his blogging. For all of this, we remain grateful.
From Roger’s Great Movies essay for “Battleship Potemkin”...
“Having said that, let me say that ‘Potemkin,’ which I have seen many times and taught using a shot-by-shot approach, did come alive for me the other night, in an unexpected time and place. The movie was projected on a big screen hanging from the outside wall of the Vickers Theater in Three Oaks, Mich., and some 300 citizens settled into their folding chairs in the parking lot to have a look at it. The simultaneous musical accompaniment was by Concrete, a southwestern Michigan band. Under the stars on a balmy summer night, far from film festivals and cinematheques, Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its legendary rabble-rousing power.”
From Roger’s review of “Reel Paradise”...
“I know a couple named Jon and Jennifer Vickers, who moved to Three Oaks, Mich., (population 1,829) and bought the local movie theater. It's 30 miles from the closest multiplex. They show first-run art films, and after eight years are a solid success. ‘The audience isn't just the Chicago weekend people,’ my friend Mary Jo Broderick tells me. She goes every week. ‘I see the same people I see in the supermarket in February.’ The Vickers' theater doesn't show only 'March of the Penguins' but Herzog, Wong Kar Wai, Bergman, Jarmusch. Every summer, they have a silent film festival.”