2012 marked my second visit to EbertFest, the film festival sponsored by the heart, mind and soul of Roger Ebert. Last year, I pounded the pavement as a member of the press. This year, I entered the hallowed halls of the University of Illinois as one of the motley crew Roger calls “The Demanders.” More than once at the festival, someone asked what it is “The Demanders” demand. The short answer is: your undivided attention …and a plane with enough fuel to take us to Brazil. For your troubles, we write about upcoming On Demand features you can watch from the comfort of your home. Our work is skillfully edited by our Demander-in-Chief, Jim “Jeeem” Emerson.
Until I set out for Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Jim Emerson existed in my consciousness as a series of still photos and well-written words from numerous E-mails and posts on his Scanners blog. In 2010, I committed to driving to the festival to meet one of the biggest supporters of my work, but the weather had other ideas. Tornadoes hit Indiana, and unless Jim was also The Wizard of Oz, I wasn’t going to see him if I’d taken the risk. In 2011, he was absent from the festival, but this year, not only would he be present, he would also be moderating our Demanders panel. This event would be streamed into the universe and would mark my legitimate Internet video debut.
And yet, this year’s potential meeting seemed threatened by forces beyond my control. For starters, I broke my toe in yet another demonstration of my clumsiness. Far more ominously, I was in the throes of a full emotional and psychological meltdown that kept me from writing anything for two months. My Demander-in-Chief edited the first two things I wrote after I emerged from my breakdown, so I owed him big time. Meeting Mr. Emerson was the primary reason I went to EbertFest. All that other crazy shit that happened to me? All gravy, baby.
In the Shadow of Celebrity
I was not only a Demander in physical representation at the festival; I was also representing us on the Demanders blog. My piece on “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” greeted any festival-goer who ventured to the site. So the pressure was on for me not to disgrace the brand. “Do not embarrass me in public,” said the brand, quoting my mother’s oft-repeated demand. Last year, my public behavior wasn’t flawless: I had to sleep in my car one night and I got into a bar fight. This time, my VIP status guaranteed that I wouldn’t have to do the former: I was being put up at the Illini Union with my fellow writers for the duration of the festival. The latter…well let’s just say somebody wanted to kick my ass this year too.
By definition, I was no celebrity. I was, and am, a humble writer, part of one of RogerEbert.com’s two superb groups of talented writers. That other group, The Far-Flung Correspondents, came first and are more numerous. This would be a problem if and when The Demanders challenged them to a West Side Story-style rumble. For now, we were all there to mingle, speak about and enjoy the festival. There was the classic definition of celebrity roaming around, folks like Michael Shannon for example, but the one who cast the biggest shadow had his name as the prefix in this festival.
Or so I thought. There was an even bigger celebrity shadow looming over me, and he would cause me no end of trouble, aggravation and threat. That celebrity is this man:
Cee-Lo Green is a lot of things. Former member of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley, current co-host of The Voice, producer and songwriter extraordinaire. He is also, according to far too many near-sighted people, a dead ringer for me. I say that he looks like me, and not the other way around, because I was here first. I have four years on Mr. Green, and quite frankly, I don’t think I look very much like him. I’ll let you be the judge.
This is your friendly neighborhood Odienator
This is NOT your friendly neighborhood Odienator
Keep your answers to yourselves.
News travels fast at film festivals, and after Chaz Ebert introduced me at the Opening Night Presidential Gala by pointing out how I’d been mistaken for Cee-Lo by a bunch of starstruck Jersey City prep-school kids, everybody and their mother started calling me Mr. Green’s nickname. I’d usually respond, in a joking tone, with the title of Cee-Lo’s biggest hit. Almost every time, the person would think I was uttering a command and not a title, and he or she would apologize. “No no no,” I had to constantly say, “Fuck You--like the song!”
“Ohhhh,” the person would say.
I must have said fuck you to about 75 people, allowing me to snatch the title of “The Fuck You Man” from Eddie Murphy.
In the ghetto, cee-lo is a dice game one should never play if one likes to keep one’s head free of bullets. Like spades and dominoes, cee-lo is a game that almost always leads to violence. By virtue of appearance alone, I was “playing” Cee-Lo. It was only a matter of time before he’d lead me to violence.
Dying is Easy, Comedy Is Hard
EbertFest 2012 opened with two feature films and one short. The short, “The Truth About Beauty and Blogs,” was an entertaining tale of how YouTube and social media have become integral parts of the lifestyles of this generation. I must confess that, as someone who watches very little YouTube and hardly ever tweets/FB’s anything outside of the shameless self-promotion of pieces like this, I am sure I missed some of the subtleties and satire of the piece. I guess this is the price one pays for being old. In my 20’s, cell phones were still as big as laptops and AOL was the shit. Sad times they were.
I looked forward to the opening feature, John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe vs. the Volcano.” In my original review, I wrote “no one liked this movie besides Siskel, Ebert and me.” The appreciative theater audience at the Virginia begged to differ: They laughed at the right moments and enjoyed the film as much as I did the first time I saw it. Shanley’s opening sequence is audacious, a daringly drawn-out, repetitive series of scenes that visually depicts the hellish feeling one gets in the pit of one’s gut when faced with another day at a dead-end job. Stephen Goldblatt’s cin-tog accurately drains the life from the proceedings, as Tom Hanks and the first of three incarnations of Meg Ryan suffer through a day at an anal probe factory. Dan Hedaya plays their horrible boss, and Hanks makes Joe’s malaise a physical manifestation.
The dingy fluorescent lights that adorn the factory set look dangerous enough to cause one’s demise, making the revelation of Joe’s fatal “brain cloud” oddly plausible despite its 4th grade description. Soonafter, Joe quits his dead end job and accepts an offer from The Big Lebowski’s dad to go to a remote South Pacific island to throw himself into a volcano. Joined by the other two incarnations of Meg Ryan, and a fine, nuanced turn by Ossie Davis, Joe buys the last sets of clothing (and suitcases) he’ll ever own and heads out for his ultimate destiny. I don’t know how much pain brain clouds cause once they finally erupt into thunder, but unless you’re a brick of government cheese, you won’t last more than a second in a volcano.
Hanks is at his early-career goofy best, but his one scene of awe and gratitude struck a poignant chord with me. Adrift at sea on an unusual boat, and nearly delusional, Hanks’ Joe is suddenly dwarfed by a huge, rising moon. As the satellite breaks loose from the horizon en route to a cozy perch in the sky, Joe throws up his hands in shock and surrender. Sometimes we focus so much on the problems of our own little world that we fail to see just how inconsequential they can be. The universe keeps on ticking. For compulsives like me, who find strange comfort in patterns and order, this was a salve for my fried nerves and burned soul, a symbolic rebirth akin to my emerging from the darkness of the last two months.
Jumping into a volcano is a helluva lot easier than running a comedy club in Chicago, at least that’s what I gathered from "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy." This documentary about Raymond Lambert’s groundbreaking, influential club touches not only on the superstars who graced its stage on the way to their ascent in the celebrity sky, but also on Chicago politics, racial and otherwise. Plus it’s funny as hell, and not just from the comedians. The audience wanted to smoke weed with the film’s Honest John, and the Q&A panel featured Everybody Hates Chris’ Ali LeRoi and Lambert himself. Mr. Lambert would play a role in psyching me up for the craziness I’d tend to on Thursday.
Mr. Raymond Lambert and Cee--I mean, Odie
As Wednesday night drew to a close, it became the only night I would actually get to sleep during EbertFest.
Tomorrow: They Might Be Giants Fans; “Mr. Emerson, I Presume?”, Terri and the Pirates, Rise of the Planet of the Far-Flung Correspondents, and Cee-Lo Goes “Crazy.”