Ebertfest I: Life, Itself on the streets of Champaign, IL

A tough, cramped drive down in the back seat of a taxi-yellow Focus, by way of Ann Arbour (Zingerman’s deli, and a particularly excellent breakfast bagel) and Chicago (Calumet Fisheries, and a rough fish n’ chips with red sauce hot enough to peel a cleansing layer off the interior of my sinuses). But my room at the Eastland Suites is excellent and the hotel itself is across the street from a Steak n’ Shake, and with Google telling me it’s a solid one-hour walk to the Virginia Theatre, I set out on foot. I’m out in the sunshine all of five minutes before I remember vividly why it is I do everything I do. After a tough, cramped winter, the legs in my mind finally stretch all the way out. I walk past bungalows, duck ponds and railroad tracks. Life, itself on the streets of Champaign, IL.

The best part of the drive down comes when an unwillingness on both Price and myself’s part to get into a discussion with Fisher on the relative merits of the conclusion of LOST becomes, perhaps, the definitive discussion of the subjectivity of art and - later - the substantial value of criticism that we’ve ever had (with a young critic who seemed to need to hear it - the first part, and the second part - all while in a car, on the way to Ebertfest). I wish, oh I wish, I’d been recording it. Not that Mamo! listeners haven’t heard this before; but this was the Criterion Collection version of that conversation.

By the time I’ve reminded myself that my walking muscles are severely out of shape, I’m in downtown Champaign, and I find my way back to the Aroma Cafe - with the bronze sculpture of a girl reading a book across the street - and tuck into the first chapter of Fall Of Giants after uploading a brace of Instagrams. Price & Fisher join me around 5:30 and we walk over to the Virginia, the temperature dropping rapidly, the line curving around the block. We pick up the usual conversational drifter. By the time we’re inside I’m frozen to the bone and even-more-than-usual happy to be there, but with the organ music playing (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and the crowd of acolytes happily taking their seats under projection images of the life of the festival’s founder, it’s hard not to think of the whole thing as Roger Ebert’s afterlife, dropped into this corner of Illinois. The night’s film is Life, Itself, Steve James’ documentary (based on Ebert’s memoir), and it’s the first time I realize (having spent the last two months laying tracks so furiously in front of an oncoming train that I apparently never had two spare seconds to rub together) that this thing might hit me squarely where I live.

It doesn’t. I’m grateful for that; I’m grateful that the film is like the book, and so joyous in its meandering through the vitality and passion of that man’s life that I cannot view it is anything other than soaring; inspirational; a true act of love. “It was unspeakably romantic,” one of Ebert’s friends says, regarding his young, exuberant life as a journalist - but really, describing everything, the whole thing. The movie made me (not surprisingly) refract all of my own writing through its lens; Ebert was never condescending, never pandering, lessons that I (and really, every single person writing on the internet right now) could do well to take to better account, every time the keyboard starts clacking.

Chaz Ebert, who introduced the screening and the festival, remains a wonder. The last thing the film needs in its final minutes is an extensive re-account of Ebert’s descent into illness circa 2006 and beyond; earlier scenes of him coping with the last few months of his life are far more touching and extraordinary. But as the illness takes shape, Chaz - remarkably - says “He’s very brave, but I’m not,” before going on to prove the opposite. I wonder about this. We find our strength in our true loves, whomever (or whatever) they may be - do we all see the greater courage in that person, regardless of what we have inside?

The requisite Steak n’ Shake run following the movie; I started with the double steakburger and will work my way out to the more elaborate hamburger provinces in the nights to come.

The Social Experiment: Halifax

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Takeoff is into a fading alabaster sky and then we hit the turbulence; I realize rather late in the game that I’m flying without my good luck charm; and I realize somewhat later than that that I am a really, really superstitious person. No matter. We land in rainy-ass Halifax without incident, find a guy named Matt in the airport and take him with us to the hotel. At the hotel, the wind wails through a crack in my window all night long. It is astonishingly ghostly.

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The Social Experiment: The West

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On the flight over to Vancouver I finally get some proper reading done. Takeoff is at 6:50 which means waking at an ungodly 4:30 in the morning for reasons best left to the marginalia, but I scorch through the back two thirds of Divisadero as we gallop over the Rockies. It’s a maddening, enthralling read. I don’t twig to the fact that it will be less of a story than a meta-narrative about how narratives reverberate until it’s too late; I’m invested in the lives of Anna, Coop and Claire right up till they land on an unspecified dead end and the novel jumps fifty years backwards in time and recounts the story of a writer in France before and during the war, and – in the style of an Ondaatje story – the single incandescent love of his life, and how he nearly never noticed he had one.

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The Social Experiment: Montreal

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The brief is to travel with our channel forum roadshow, gathering video for use in unspecified later projects, and growing our twitter mindshare across the country. The latter is the sort of thing I should theoretically be able to accomplish, Oracle-like, from a bank of computers at the head office, but the former requires feet on the street, so I’m off to Montreal on the quick hop from Billy Bishop, bright and early on the first Thursday of April. I’m reading Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, though I admittedly make a bit of a hash of my reading, given that the plane is already descending by the time it is halfway in the air, and the extraneous ferry ride from Toronto to the Island airport seems longer than the flight itself.

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My favourite place to never spend money

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The Chapters at Richmond & John is closing, and everyone is very sad about it. I am very sad about it. This is a marker of how far we’ve come: when big box book stores like the Chapters at Richmond & John were driving the independent sellers like Pages out of business, we couldn’t stand the fucking places; now that they, too, are falling beneath the swords of the internet age, we’re all unbridled in our fury. Well, here we are.

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Watched: Noah; Nymphomaniac

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Now that’s a pairing; and were Nymphomaniac not its own double-feature, I might propose a double-feature. Both films are splendid. 2014 is off to a rollicking start. I don’t know that either would end up on my top ten list at the end of the year (although there’s ample time for the bottom to fall out of 2014, so who knows), but they are both kindred of my very favourite type of movie: the movie that just makes me glad it exists.

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Kiss map

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I love the Toronto Kiss Map, and cheers to vasta for pointing it out to me. Sameer is the sort of fellow who knows the value of a good map, and moreover (like me) the value of a good kiss, and I thus naturally find our conflux of interest on the matter heartwarming. And he’s right, it’s fun. It’s fun sticking a little push-pin into the spot in Toronto where, for a moment, the world cracked open and all its thermonuclear energy poured out. Thank goodness the movies weren’t lying to us on this point: one good kiss really does change everything.

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Watched: The Host; White Squall; Veronica Mars

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I certainly watched the first season of Veronica Mars back in whenever-it-was; I don’t think I ever watched the second (or the third). I don’t “get it.” I watched the movie over the weekend too, and was mostly delighted that - per the flick’s Kickstarted imprimatur - I didn’t have to go to a movie theatre to do it. It day-and-dated on the iTunes store, which for a movie based on a TV show that disappeared into the cracks in the middle of the digital decade, seems about right. Maybe Veronica Mars is a big-screen cinematic triumph, but I’ll never know.

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Tat 2

On March 2nd, about exactly a year after I took off for New Zealand, I hitched a streetcar over to Kensington and got some Dwarven runes carved into my leg. They mean “decide,” or something close enough to it; I fooled around on the internet with various rune generators for about ten minutes a year ago this past February, until I ended up with something that looked like something I’d want permanently scribed on my flesh. It’s a bit like that episode of LOST that everybody hates except me - the one where what matters is what Jack’s tattoo means, not what it says. When dealing in made-up languages and the trade of black ink against one’s own very limited skin, what it means is pretty much the whole thing.

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Watched: Trance

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I keep circling back to Danny Boyle for no particularly good reason; he hasn’t made a movie I’ve enjoyed since 1997. I guess “no particularly good reason” isn’t accurate, as there are three particularly good reasons, which are the three movies he made before 1997; they’ll be in my DNA until I’m dead, I think, as most of my cinematic obsessions in the film school era shall be. But Trance doesn’t break the streak. I got up a good head of steam to watch it, falling for the “Trainspotting / Shallow Grave throwback” branding, but as has been the case with every other movie since The Beach, the storyteller who made Trainspotting and Shallow Grave is no longer in residence. These movies don’t feel remotely like they were made by the same guy.

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