This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
For one father and son, Ebertfest was a 9-hour one-way bonding road trip up north from Oklahoma. John and Jim Burns are both fans of Roger Ebert with the father, Jim, introducing his youngest son, John, to Roger Ebert, many years ago.
John, 35, currently lives in Tulsa, OK and is a financial planner, but used to write some film criticism and essays for the website Cinefile.com under editor Mike Liuzza. On the trip up, John was responsible for finding places to eat, including a particular Thai restaurant where there was only one cook and they got plenty of personal attention.
Jim did more movie-oriented research, but John prefers to go in knowing very little so he can be surprised. "My dad tried to get me into conversations about them, but I refused and said, 'Let the movie happen to me.'"
Their tastes are also a bit different. John's all-time favorite movie is Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 "Rear Window," while Jim, who was a pastor in Norman, OK for 25 years and retired in 2009, has a hard time choosing between the 1989 "Field of Dreams" and the 1992 "A River Runs Through It." Both Jim and John majored in physics, but the elder Burns received a Ph.D. and actually taught at a small college in Galveston, TX before entering a seminary and becoming a pastor. John likes movies where the main character learns to give and even sacrifice so that others might live better lives, not unlike Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for others.
At Ebertfest, John was again responsible for choosing where they ate and they tried to dine at small local restaurants and only tried a chain restaurant (Steak 'N Shake, of course) before they headed home.
John was raised on Roger Ebert's words, saying, "I was a fan of Roger Ebert since I was six or seven. I began watching his TV show when I was seven or eight. My dad had his guide to the movies and all of his old criticism. I just used to read through them when I was young."
Jim confessed, "He (Roger) would come out with these books almost every year. I didn't pick them up every year and I probably had two or three of them. All of our family are more movie people and love to watch movies." Every now and then they have a movie night at home.
Even so, it was Jim who blazed the trail to Ebertfest. John commented, "My dad introduced me to Ebertfest in 2011. This is only the third trip that he and I had taken together, just ourselves. We've taken others with me and my brothers. The other trip was to St. Louis when I was 12 or 13."
Jim explained, "The first time I went was in 2005 and I followed Roger Ebert over the years from the Sun-Times. I must have learned about it on the Internet." Jim went up alone and, he said, "I discovered a gold mine. People couldn't believe I came all the way from Oklahoma. It was only $85 for all the movies."
"It opened with "Playtime," he recalled. In Roger Ebert's 2004 review of Jacques Tati's movie, Ebert wrote it "is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth" and compared it to "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Blair Witch Project" and "Russian Ark." The festival ended with the 1999 "Taal," a three-hour Bollywood musical. John was unfamiliar with Bollywood and its conventions.
In 2010, Jim made the trip with his wife, and commented, "We had a good time, but not as good as we could have. I wanted to see all the movies." His wife, like many of us—myself included, didn't have that kind of stamina. "If I go with her again, I'd make arrangements for her to go somewhere in town and meet up later if she wasn't interested in some of the movies."
That year, the festival "started out really heavy." The first night featured, "Pink Floyd: The Wall" and then the next night "Apocalypse Now." Yet, Jim said, "There were some movies that we both really enjoyed. We'd do it again."
Yet in 2011, Jim brought up Ebertfest while talking with John. John explained, "It didn't take a lot of convincing. It was really cool at least to see Roger. He was already sick. My dad had brought back a signed copy the previous year. In 2011, I got a thumbs up from him and a handshake. He signed my festival pass. The film "Metropolis" was my first experience with the Alloy Orchestra. They played for "He Who Gets Slapped" this year. That really sticks out in my memory."
"That year," John continued, "Norman Jewison showed his movie "Only You," a romantic comedy with Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei. Jewison directed the movie versions of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Fiddler on the Roof." He added, "It was really cool to see someone like that because I grew up with those musicals. I could probably sing you the whole score of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' from beginning to end."
John said he hadn't been to other festivals. "I would like to attend something like Telluride. I was near Sundance skiing when it was going on." However, John added, "I might be spoiled by the intimacy of this one so I don't know if I would enjoy it as much."
You can't always meet the critics at other festivals and John said, "One of my highlights was meeting Matt Zoller Seitz who I've only became aware of this year. I'm a big Wes Anderson fan...I got to chat with Matt about the writing I've done and his career."
There is also "a social aspect, potentially carrying on relationships through social media and beginning to interact that way, too," John explained. " I can follow Matt through his reviews and interact. He's the leading edge of criticism and academic film criticism."
Jim had a similar experience in 2005 when he met Darrell Roodt at a local eatery. At first he hesitated, "I thought should I say to him, 'Hey I really liked your film'" but wasn't sure if he should intrude. He ended up talking with Roodt for 45 minutes about South Africa.
Of this year's festival the two had different impressions. The younger Burns said that Patton Oswalt was "by far the most entertaining interview" and agrees with Roger Ebert's assessment that if Oswalt's character had not been in the movie, the main character would has just been an awful human being.
Jim revealed that John has done a bit of improv for stand-up comedy during his time in New York before he moved to Tulsa. Jim was equally impressed with Oswalt's quick thinking.
John was also entertained by Oliver Stone's answers. Jim felt that hearing Stone alone was worth the price of the festival pass, commenting, "I didn't agree with him completely but that's why I find him interesting." He added, ""Born on the Fourth of July," was like it reached out and grabbed me and it was painful to watch."
Jim thought the silent movie, "Wadjda" and "Born on the Fourth of July" were the festival's highlights. His favorite moment was the presentation of the Golden Thumb to "Wadjda" director Haifaa Al Mansour.
For John, his festival favorites were also "Wadjda" and "Short Term 12." Yet John said, "It was very cool to see Spike Lee, but I was really bored by the answers he was giving to questions." Still John left Ebertfest with a long list of movies that he'd like to see, including Oswalt's "Big Fan" and earlier Spike Lee movies.
Jim enjoyed the Friday morning panel discussion "Remembering Roger Ebert" and later had discussions with one of the panelists, Sam Fragoso and some other correspondents. Jim wishes the correspondents were made more visible at the festival.
John wonders if a frame-by-frame analysis might be possible as a side panel, adding, "Roger has really created a community, a worldwide community around film which is kind of new. I don't think anyone else has created what he has done: the website with the Far Flung Correspondents. The site is looking at global film. It's very unique and something special." He continued, "Ebertfest then takes it from social media and put it into real life. After touching base through social media and you are coming together and making real connections."
Jim enjoyed seeing Chaz come into her own and commented that "Ebertfest is about connection—connection with movies, connecting with what stirs something in my soul, connecting with the community that is there, connecting with the actors, connecting to a person who has a vision that is not only his (Roger) but his and Chaz's.
Jim fondly recalled, "When I was leaving before the musician (Henry Butler) finished, when we were in the aisle where Chaz was, I don't know if she recognized me but I said thank you and she reached out her hand and clasped my hand. She's just a good spirited person...I'm beginning to see the transition; it's owned by a lot of people and she helps facilitate that."
John and Jim weren't sure if they'd make Ebertfest next year, but they do plan on returning in the future.
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