Unless you’re a VIP like yours truly, you’ll have to stand on a line outside the Virginia Theater to gain entry to an EbertFest screening. The line is intimidating—long enough to stretch around the corner and back again. But in the fourteen year history of the festival, the Virginia Theater has never turned down one patron on that line. Unlike the balcony on the old Siskel and Ebert show, her balcony is open, ready to accept those ambitious enough to climb the stairs to visit. Last year, I sat in the balcony for a few films. This year, we VIPers had our own aisle. But the balcony never forgets, and my favorite picture of me was taken from her heights by Columbus, Ohio’s own Mark Pfeiffer. I met him last year at EbertFest, yet another friend I can attribute to the Virginia. See if you can find me and my festival buddy, Michal, in this picture. Here’s a hint: Look for my hero.
In Sight It Must Be As Addictive As Crack
Gurrrrl, have I got some gossip for you about those Far Flung Correspondents! They’re all addicts! You know what their drug of choice is? Steak ‘n Shake. You wanna find an FFC? Look no further than the restaurant whose slogan is “In Sight It Must Be Right.” Maybe it’s because Steak ‘n Shake is unavailable in most of the corners from whence Roger draws the FFC’s. So when they’re here, they fill up like camels on it, going 100 times during the Festival. They didn’t have them in my neck of the woods either, at least not until recently when Steak ‘n Shake’s second biggest fan, David Letterman, opened one next to his theater in New York City. Since it’s the only one for about 250 miles, I’m sure the line stretches from Seventh Avenue to Peoria, Illinois.
My introduction to Steak ‘n Shake came in the worst place in the universe, Cincinnati, Ohio. My best friend Chris took me and I got hooked on their patty melts. Being somewhat lactose intolerant, their shakes are a bad idea I can only get halfway through, but what sweet pain it is! Every time I eat there, however, I’m reminded of Cincinnati, so I’m far less inclined to go there with the frequency of an FFC. This is why Roger made me a Demander, I am sure. This Demander did, however, make his first EbertFest 2012 trip to Steak ‘n Shake courtesy of the boxcar the EbertFest Hobo was riding in on Saturday. Host Joey Klein drove the Hobo and Klein’s regular rider to Steak ‘n Shake Saturday at lunchtime, where I had my usual and I bought my festival buddy his first. Before his own team could introduce Michal to Steak ‘n Shake ecstasy, a Demander got there first! I trump thee, FFC’s!
In Sight It Must Be Right.
Little did I know Steak ‘n Shake was going to trump me in an even larger fashion on Sunday! They catered our EbertFest VIP Brunch. Shockingly, this was the first year Steak ‘n Shake was a sponsor of the Festival. I say shockingly because we all know who Steak ‘n Shake’s number one fan is.
Roger and Me, or Big Media Vandalism Comes To EbertFest
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are the reasons I wanted to write about film. I watched them on PBS as long as they ran on my local WNET affiliate, and I watched them on WPIX after that. I started reading Roger when he was syndicated in New York City papers. If memory serves, he was in the NY Post (Pew, Roger!), the newspaper that proves its founder, Alexander Hamilton, deserved to be shot by Aaron Burr. I bought all his review compilation books and interacted with him back in his CompuServe days. I still have the first correspondence I had with Roger. It was about "Airport 1975" and what a Pulitzer Prize winner gets. Roger told me a Pulitzer winner gets “$1,000…and when you die, your obit will say ‘Pulitzer Prize winning writer Odie Henderson died today.’” I think Roger meant to say “Razzie-award winning writer Odie Henderson.”
No matter. Last year, I had the pleasure and honor to meet Roger at the Ebert Club Meet and Greet. I packed my copy of “Questions From the Movie Answer Man” for him to sign. I’m in that book—I even have an INDEX ENTRY—but I forgot to bring it to the Meet and Greet. The same fate would befall me this year. I packed the book but completely forgot to bring it to Roger. But I brought something even better to the Steak ‘n Shake sponsored Sunday Brunch, my benefactor, Steven Boone.
So here I am with two of my biggest influences, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to record for posterity the reason why I started writing about film and why I continue. Boone may be one-half of our Poitier-Cosby team (he’s Bill, for the record), but he’s also a major influence for which I am eternally grateful. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime. In fact, if I can be really fucking mushy for a second, I am grateful to be part of the fine group of writers who make up both our teams. I tease the FFC’s, but I really do have undying respect for them, and for my fellow Demanders (and even more for my Demander-in-Chief!).
So how did I show my gratitude to Roger, for not only his festival, but for the great opportunity he created for me?
I fell asleep during Roger’s DVD commentary of "Citizen Kane," the last film at EbertFest.
Odie Finally Gets Some Sleep
It was only for a few minutes, but still, I was incredibly embarrassed by it. I own the "Citizen Kane" DVD and have listened to Roger’s commentary numerous times. My dozing was not a result of the film nor Roger’s wonderful voice. I could have been watching Explody McExplosion: The Loudest Movie Ever Made (dir. Michael Bay) and I still would have passed out. I think I got 5 hours of sleep during the entire festival, and I spent most of my post-fight Saturday night doing something I assure you I had no business doing (and enjoying every minute of it). So I conked out.
Making matters worse, I snored. At least according to our youngest FFC, Krishna, who was sitting next to me. I believe him—I have sleep apnea. I wanted to hit him with my EbertFest magazine and ask “why didn’t you wake me up?” but I remembered that earlier (sorry, Krishna), Mr. Shenoi fell asleep at a different screening and I didn’t wake him up. So this was his revenge!
FFC Wael Khairy stands between sleepyheads Krishna and Odie
It was a sheer joy to hear Roger's voice resonating through the Virginia Theater. For those of us who grew up with both Citizen Kane (it was run constantly on Million Dollar Movie when I was a kid) and Roger Ebert, the merging of the two on a big screen made for a memorable event. If you haven't heard Roger's award-winning commentary, you owe it to yourself to seek it out. I admit I dozed off a few times, but I managed to wake up in time to discover that Rosebud was (SPOILER ALERT!) a bottle of Paul Masson wine.
Nuclear Warheads Make Great Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
There was one other thing I needed to do before the Festival was over. Being a VIP gives you a busy schedule, so I hadn’t an opportunity to spend much time with some of the friends I met last year. To rectify that, I met up with Twitter’s own TheAngryMick, Donny Carder and the aforementioned Mark Pfeiffer for a last lunch in Champaign. The EbertFest Hobo finally got out of other cars and drove his own. To atone for my car-hopping sins, after lunch I drove my festival buddy to the train station. He and many of the FFC’s and Demanders were Amtraking back to Chicago that evening.
During the lunch, Donny and I filled our Polish buddy’s brain with talk of the most indestructible substance on Earth, gov’ment cheese. “You can hit gov’ment cheese with a nuclear warhead and it won’t melt,” I said. “You know those wire cheese cutters?” asked Donny. “They didn’t exist before gov’ment cheese! You’d go through about 2 of them per brick.” Mark looked at us like we were crazy, but this conversation truly belonged in context with the rest of the film festival. Gov’ment cheese is the perfect metaphor for my love of cinema. It’s free, it’s indestructible, and it will last forever.
The End of the Festival
Standing in a train station, saying goodbye to so many friends old and new, was the perfect way to end my time at EbertFest 2012. I was reminded of the end of an old, romantic movie, where the guy runs after the train, waving goodbye to his lady love as she leaves the station. As the train speeds up, so does our hero, just in time to see the handkerchief drifting down from his lady’s window. He picks it up and holds it to his face, remembering the time he spent enjoying her company. The bittersweet sound of the train echoes in the distance as the camera glances once more upon our hero, still absorbing his memories. For him, the return of his sweetheart is uncertain and improbable. For me, I know I’ll get to live through the experience again in 12 months at EbertFest 2013.
The Set I'm Claiming: Jana Monji, Roger, Jim Emerson, Steven Boone, Odie "Odienator" Henderson, Donald Liebenson. (Not pictured, but in spirit, Jeff Shannon and Kevin B. Lee)