This year, Ebertfest kicked off on April 15—Tax Day—and no one is happier than Chicago tax accountant Wendy Rowls. “Tax season is over and now I can come and watch movies,” she says with a laugh.
Not that she is a newbie. “I’ve been coming since 2005 and I think I’ve only missed two festivals. Both years, I was out of the country.“
A friend encouraged Rowls to attend 10 years ago. “She is here as well. One year, she was telling me about it and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to go.’ She was like, ‘Look, this is an all-day event. You have to have some endurance, etc., etc.' And I said, 'I think I can handle that. I think I can watch movies all day.' ”
Turns out, she was right. “The first year I came, it was fantastic.”
What sold her? “The movie selection. There just was not one bad movie in the bunch.”
The experience that has stayed with Rowls from her first Ebertfest? Her introduction to Jacque Tati’s 1967 classic “Playtime," that year’s opening night film. “They showed the original 70mm version and it was fantastic. I had never seen a movie like that before.”
When she was younger, Rowls watched Ebert and Gene Siskel go at it on TV. “In fact, I was more a Siskel fan because I thought Roger was a mean asshole, to be quite honest. Gene would say something and he is like, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about, blah, blah, blah. And he would go on with his review. And I would think, ‘Really?‘ ”
But she revised her opinion of Ebert after sparring partner Siskel died in 1999. “He was on with Richard Roeper and ‘I was like, ‘Oh, OK. He’s not that bad.’ He really loved his job.”
Rowls values the fact that the festival continues to focus on films that have gotten overlooked through the years. “I have never seen ‘A Bronx Tale,’ ” says Rowls of Robert De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut that was shown Friday night with star Chazz Palminteri in attendance.What did she think of the afternoon screening of the 1926 silent “The Son of the Sheik,” the final film of one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, Rudolph Valentino, who died shortly after its initial release?
“It’s interesting because Chaz (Ebert’s widow, who now hosts the festival) thought that this was one of the Alloy Orchestra’s best work,” referring to the three-man team of musicians who compose and perform new scores for silent movies. “I think their best one was “Metropolis” (the 1927 sci-fi masterpiece, a hot ticket at the festival in 2010). That was hands-down fantastic.”
Rowls only got to see Ebert himself emcee the proceedings the first year she came. His cancer struggles returned in 2006 and complications caused him to lose his ability to speak.
Even though Ebertfest never missed a beat and Ebert would continue to participate, Rowls says it was an adjustment for attendees to not be able to witness the man himself moderate on-stage. “When they first started having other speakers and interviewers, you could tell it was different than from whatever you saw when Roger would do it. But I think they have worked it out. They have set the right balance with the right people.”
So far this year, Rowls was most taken aback by “Girlhood,” which focuses on black teen girls trying to survive everything from abusive family members to rival female cliques in the lower-class suburbs of Paris. “I saw the preview for the film on Rotten Tomatoes and I was like, ‘Oh.’ And when I saw it was here, I was really excited because I really wanted to see the film. I really didn’t know much about it except it was a coming-of-age story.”
But as often happens at the movies, what Rowls saw onscreen did not match what she thought it would be. “After we started watching it, and I’m watching and watching, I’m just shaking my head. I’m like, ‘Damn. Black folks not even doing well in France.’ It actually turned out to be somewhat of a downer for me. But the actresses all did a great job. I think I walked in with different expectations. I will go back and watch, probably with a group of girlfriends, and ask them, ‘What do you all see when you watch it?’ ”
Revisiting a movie that challenged you and then engaging in a discussion about it with friends? Roger himself would definitely approve.