Journalist, film critic and American cinema icon Roger Ebert died Thursday, April 4 at 70. Through his reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times, television programs, and online writings, Ebert transformed how audiences view movies and the culture surrounding them. He was a featured guest and enthusiastic speaker at the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2003 and 2006, attracting crowds at screenings and book readings. The following story, published on TheDailyPage.com on April 1, 2006, is about Ebert's appearance at that year's Wisconsin Film Fest and a post-screening talk at University Book Store.
Roger Ebert is becoming a familiar face at the Wisconsin Film Festival, appearing for the second time in four years. This year, the Chicago Sun-Times and television film critic started his festival appearance on Friday night, introducing a restored print of Laura. This 1944 film noir about the murder and past of the title character was directed by Otto Preminger, and is highly recommended by Ebert.
This film, shown in the relatively small Cinematheque theater in Vilas Hall on Friday evening, was quickly sold-out, and many interested filmgoers were unable to attend it and Ebert's introduction. They got another chance to see Ebert, however, at noon Saturday in the lower level of the University Book Store amid the concrete walls and ceiling-high metal stacks of textbooks.
There was quite a crowd at the talk.
Most of the chairs were filled, with the standing-room crowd extending nearly to the other wall of the store, and even into the book stacks. One person attending Ebert's talk and subsequent question and answer session was Matt Sloan, a co-director of Wis-Kino, Madison's short-film organization.
Sloan says that the event was great. "I actually stuck around for the whole thing. I kind of got sucked in," Sloan says. Why? "He's just a great storyteller. He does a very good job of taking the examination of film and their examination of our lives, and how we relate to the world around us."
Nor was he shy to revel in Madison's liberal and literate reputation, leavening his talk with references to it. Ebert spoke for about 45 minutes before taking questions from the audience.
"People had a lot of questions," Sloan says, and Ebert "has an anecdote for everything." In many cases, the audience simply shot out film titles to the Ebert, to which he riff on this and others' opinions about them. The Squid and the Whale, Transamerica, and Pillow Talk were each discussed, with the discussion closing on the subject of Brokeback Mountain versus Crash, and Ebert's defense of the latter.
The event ended with a fairly big book-signing session, the line extending at one point up the stairs from the bookstore's basement. If you missed it, though, chances are fair you'll have another chance should Roger Ebert make another appearance at an upcoming festival.