I want to use today’s Pick Your Poison introduction to step away from music for just a moment to talk a little bit about another passion of mine: movies. You may or may not know that I consume movies at almost the same rate as I consume music. That is to say, I obsess over them. I go to the theater every single weekend, often for double and triple features, and even sometimes subject myself to absolute crap in the process. But my voracious appetite for films has been going strong for about 15-20 years of my life now, and it shows no sign of slowing down. In this increasingly digital age, I continue to buy DVDs and my collection takes up so much space I have to buy new shelving units every year or two. I’m the sort of guy who can tell you the name of that actor or actress that showed up for only five minutes in that one thing you saw. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon is practically child’s play to me, and people flat out refuse to play movie trivia games with me because I never lose. I could (and maybe should) create an offshoot of this website devoted to my love of movies, but already have way too much on my plate to competently do it justice. Plus it’d take away more time that I could spend watching movies. So what’s my grand point in all this? A huge reason why I love films is because of movie critics. If they weren’t a dying breed, that’d be a career I’d aspire to. But mostly I genuinely enjoy reading other people’s perspectives on pop culture items (music and TV included), which I think creates a unique jumping off point for further discussion and analysis. It’s also a respect thing: you find writers whose opinion matters to you, and try to abide by their positive or negative endorsements. If a critic I like pans something, I’m interested to read why, and sometimes I’ll watch or listen to that same thing to see how much I agree or disagree with the points made in their review. Critics are also one of the reasons I started writing album reviews, to take part in that discussion and try to affect change the way so many other critics have affected me.
Perhaps the critic that’s had the most effect on me over the years has been Roger Ebert. When I first fell in love with movies many years ago, I started reading his reviews and watching the old Siskel & Ebert show because I wanted to hear what both men had to say and liked how much they argued with one another. I wouldn’t always agree with Ebert, and for a time even preferred Siskel’s perspectives and reviews. Unfortunately, Siskel died in 1999 from complications related to a cancerous brain tumor. I was sad at the time, but wasn’t quite able to process what his death meant on account of being an immature teenager going through puberty. One of the things I am grateful for to this day though is the Gene Siskel Film Center, which was one of the many things that emerged after his passing. That theater, which is right in the heart of Chicago’s Loop, has impeccable programming with films that challenge hearts and minds more than most of what shows up in the multiplex today. I saw Sigur Ros’ concert film Inni there a little over a year ago and it was a magical experience. If you have the opportunity to go see a film at the Gene Siskel Film Center, please do. But back to Roger. His love of movies shone through in almost everything he did. It got to the point where I could envision him sitting down and typing out a movie review as I read it, and his voice would echo in my head. His movie review show would continue on after Siskel’s death, first with a number of guest hosts and eventually with Richard Roeper as Siskel’s official successor. Roeper didn’t seem like a film guy to me at first, as he was a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and not really a critic. The more I saw and heard his perspectives though, the more I came to respect him. It was Ebert who made the choice to give Roeper the job, and I’m now completely convinced he made the right call.
It wasn’t so much because of his attendance there that I wanted to go, but I was still very excited when I was accepted to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. As it was Ebert’s alma mater, I had high hopes with all the film classes I was taking that eventually I’d get the chance to meet the man himself. That did happen my sophomore year, as Ebert participated in a Q&A session as part of one of my film classes, though I can’t quite recall which (because there were so many). After the 75 or so people in the class filed out the lecture hall at the end of our allotted time, only Ebert and my professor remained while I pretended to have trouble gathering my things so I could work up the courage to approach the man who really was a hero to me at that point in my life. Before I could say anything, Ebert started to leave. As he headed out the door by himself, I found myself following him for a good 10 minutes as he walked across part of campus. Not once did I say a word to him. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Some say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, lest you be disappointed if they’re not what you expected them to be. I’ve met and had conversations with dozens of musicians and movie stars in my life, and have never had a problem or been speechless before like I was that day with Ebert. Shortly after I missed that chance to speak with him, he had cancer surgery and the complications from that led to the removal of a portion of his jaw bone. He would never be able to speak again, at least not in the traditional sense. His voice was alive and well though, in the movie reviews and essays he wrote over these last several years. Sometimes he’d have a computer voice that could speak whatever he typed, but the rest of the time he’d be wandering around with his wife Chaz on his arm, smiling and giving people his trademark “thumbs up.”
The last time I saw Ebert in person was in 2010. He puts on a film festival in Champaign every spring called Ebertfest, which includes screenings of movies he loves followed by discussions of them with people involved with the production. While I had been living back in Chicago for a few years already, I traveled back to the old college town to visit with friends and see one of my (and Ebert’s) favorite films in recent memory, Synecdoche, New York. The film was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who has also written some brilliant works like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which I love. Anyways, Ebert introduced the film via a pre-written speech that he played on his laptop, then left the rest of the evening’s duties to be emceed by his wife Chaz. The movie was great, as was the discussion panel afterwards (watch the full thing here). While virtually everyone exited the theater after the discussion was over, I beelined towards the stage to try and meet Kaufman. He politely stopped to talk with me for a few minutes and sign my ticket stub, and I was thrilled to have met one of my favorite screenwriters of the last decade. But on my way towards the door, I spotted Roger still sitting in the back of the theater in a seat that had his name inscribed on it. He was holding court with a few people that were excited to be there and talk to him, even if he wasn’t able to talk back. If I was ever going to meet him, now was the time. As the people standing around him quickly scattered, I approached and extended my hand, which he shook. “Roger, I just wanted to say thank you for all that you’ve done and all that you continue to do for the world of film. You’re a true inspiration to me, and I can only hope that we’ve got many, many more years of your great work to look forward to.” I looked and could tell from his eyes that he was smiling. He raised his hand and gave me a thumbs up. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up right back, then walked away. It’s been almost 3 years since that day, and quite frankly I’m just glad we had that much more time with him. His writing continues to hold a very special place in my heart, and he will most definitely be missed. His impact on the worlds of writing, journalism, criticism and film has all the markings of a true legend, and I can’t think of another critic in any medium today that commands as much respect as the name Roger Ebert does. I offer my deepest condolences to his family, and wish them the best in this difficult time. In his own way, Ebert helped to create Faronheit, and I hope my tribute to him here stands as evidence of how grateful I am for that.
Now then. The Pick Your Poison highlights today include tracks from Action Bronson, The Airplanes (covering Pavement), Brothers, Jesse Ruins, Naam and Spent Waves. In the Soundcloud section after the jump, don’t miss streaming songs from Bell X1, Kids on a Crime Spree, Britt Daniel’s (Spoon, Divine Fits) new band Split Single and Tera Melos.
Vasco de Gama – Brigadiers
Bell X1 – Starlings Over Brighton Pier
Jackson Scott – That Awful Sound
Kids on a Crime Spree – Creep the Creeps
Split Single – Fragmented World
Tera Melos – Bite
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Swim & Sleep (Like A Shark) (Lindstrom Remix)