05 April 2013

Thank You

Many people have a story about Roger Ebert. This one is mine.

I was an adolescent when Beavis and Butthead were in their prime. It was a show my parents were borderline about letting me watch - they didn't approve, exactly, but I had reached an age where they couldn't police me all the time, and if others were watching it at a family gathering, they wouldn't force me to leave the room. The music video interludes I didn't much care for, but the regular stories filled me with insane glee: in my favorites, the comedy simmered, building to a climax of hilarious slapstick violence.

It felt exciting and daring, more so because Beavis and Butthead were the subjects of many "Think of the children!" comments and editorials in the news. The adults I actually knew, meanwhile, didn't consider the show a moral failing, but they certainly held it in disdain, even when they were laughing at it. (My uncles were a notable exception.) "This is so stupid," my mother probably said. "You just don't get it," I probably said back. The characters were stupid, sure, but the show itself couldn't be stupid, because I liked it, and I wasn't stupid. Right?

My brain was not equipped for more complex arguments.

When Beavis and Butthead Do America came out, I opened the newspaper - we were a Detroit News family, back when that seemed to mean something but I wasn't sure what - and expected to see a takedown of the film from the regular reviewer, Susan Stark. In my eyes, she was another adult who disdainfully dismissed things I liked, because she didn't get it, either (or so I thought at the time). But when I found the review on the third page of the Entertainment section, I saw that the film had received three out of four "roses" (the News' version of stars). "Huh? Susan Stark wrote this?" I thought before glancing at the byline. Nope. It was Roger Ebert.

That guy? Of Siskel & Ebert? But they had just savaged Independence Day last summer, inarguably the greatest movie ever released. He gets it?

I read the review, in which Ebert defended Beavis and Butthead. He called them satire. His website is still down as I write this, so I can't access the full review, but some light Googling provides an excerpt:
...it is widely but wrongly believed that Beavis and Butt-Head celebrates its characters, and applauds their sublime lack of values, taste and intelligence. I've never thought so. I believe Mike Judge would rather die than share a taxi ride to the airport with his characters--that for him, B&B function like Dilbert's co-workers in the Scott Adams universe. They are a target for his anger against the rising tide of stupidity.
Is that why they make me laugh so hard? I thought it was because they injure themselves and do dumb things. Does my enjoyment go even deeper than I know? And if it doesn't, can I pretend it does? And now that I think about it, Independence Day wasn't as good the second time I saw it, and it was even worse the third.

The words felt true, even though I had never seen them applied to the likes of Beavis and Butthead. In my memory, I can still feel the physical sensation of my brain adding wrinkles, and to this day, I consider it a formative experience important to my (ongoing, always ongoing) development as a human being.

The years went by, I devoted more of my life to film, and I came to understand the value in differing opinions, even Susan Stark's (especially when she wrote a two-roses review of Titanic that served as a bastion of sanity in a world turned nutty). I turned more frequently to Ebert as a cultural father figure, a mentor who opened doors and modes of thought. As with most mentors and father figures, I had a "falling out" with Ebert later on, a period when I felt I had grown beyond him. (The arc of Will Leitch's "My Roger Ebert Story" felt very familiar when I read it.) He was handing out four-star reviews like Halloween candy, yet negative toward films I saw value in. (Our divergent opinions on Johnny To's Exiled was a that-does-it moment).

But I hadn't grown beyond him, of course. I had merely gone in a different direction, one I never would have found in the first place if he hadn't pointed the way.

I am forever grateful.

03 March 2013

The Girl with Blue Eyes

I am very proud to present The Girl with Blue Eyes, a short film I co-wrote with its director, Anthony E. Griffin. Enjoy.

04 November 2012


I've made several attempts to write about my experience of Hurricane Sandy. Each time, I lost interest, failing to see the point. Many New Yorkers suffered terribly - and continue to suffer - because of the storm. I was not one of them. I did nothing notable, and nothing notable happened to me. And yet I had the urge to write. I wanted to preserve, if only for myself, what the past week or so has felt like. Because eventually, competitive nostalgia will take over - Hey, you couldn't shower for a few days? Let me tell you about trying to take the bus! We'll remember the thrill and excitement, not the underlying fear.

That was how I felt on Sunday the 28th, the day before it hit. Running around to prepare, the sky already overcast, the wind picking up. The storm was still a ways off, but the weather cues set off instinctive alarms. "Hurry! Find shelter! Head for the hills!" They charged the unextraordinary. Meeting a friend for brunch felt mildly dangerous. "Are you crazy? You need to buy an armful of candles and put plywood over your windows!" A voice easy to ignore; without it, though, there wouldn't be that stupid excitement, that energy I didn't know what to do with.

I had everything at my apartment settled by 4:00 or so. Monday's work was cancelled, and I assumed Tuesday would follow suit. I wondered if the two rescue cats who live in the office had enough food and water. The subways shut down at 7:00, leaving me enough time to go from my apartment in Queens to the office in Manhattan. The subway car was mostly empty when I boarded, filling up along the way. Every person became fascinating just because of the time and place: Where are you going? Why are you here? Are you prepared? The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

At the office, I fed the cats, looked over paperwork, made sure there weren't any emergencies that couldn't wait. I got back on the subway. The car happened to have more trash than usual on the floor, including an open styrofoam container of chicken wing bones. "So this is what the last days of Rome were like, eh?" We spent five or ten minutes delayed beneath Queens, waiting in a tunnel for congestion to clear up. I thought back to the 1935 Key West Death Train and pictured us drowning amidst ugly 70s decor.

When the storm arrived on Monday, I spent the whole day inside, waiting for the power to go out. It never did, not for us. The lights flickered, the wind roared. I passed the time obsessively looking at Twitter, watching Netflix, drinking rum, and catching my roommate's cold. On my computer and cell phone, I read, watched, and saw outages, surges, flooding, cranes, and emergency services personnel protecting our asses. At one point I took a shower, wondering if I should be doing that. The water pressure was unusually strong.

The next day, I woke up and ventured outside. It was still overcast and drizzling. Leaves everywhere. Branches piled up on the sidewalks. A few young trees sheared off at the trunk and lying in the street. Most businesses were open. I got a flu shot and had a coffee. That night, I ate pizza.

Wednesday: Returning to work. I woke up earlier than usual because I had to take a bus and traffic would be bad. It was worse than I thought, of course. I caught a bus without much problem, except that walking proved faster. "It could take us thirty or forty minutes to get over the bridge," the guy next to me complained, optimistically. As we approached the Queensboro, most of the passengers got off and headed into Manhattan on foot. We were all comrades in this unusual endeavor, all out to help and support each other and FUCKING BICYCLISTS WHY DON'T YOU FUCKING SLOW DOWN? It was cold and windy and crowded. My shoe came untied. I sweated, shivered, took bad pictures. The Roosevelt Island Tram was operating. Traffic next to us stopped and started. A photographer climbed over the railing for a better shot at the jam. It seemed unsafe, but wasn't actually. When I reached Manhattan, I hopped a railing myself, took cover at a corner to call home and write a smart ass tweet, then headed for Fifth Avenue. Infuriatingly, there were still tourists everywhere, freed from their hotels to block sidewalks and stop suddenly for no damn reason.

Work was low key. We followed which subway lines would open the next day and figured out how to get home. I left with two co-workers who live in the same neighborhood. It took us at least twenty minutes to snag a cab, and when we finally did the driver explained several times that he would charge us the regular fare for the first drop-off, then $10 for each additional drop-off. Except he didn't explain it that clearly, and we were in no condition to listen, so we just said "Okay" and climbed in.

The cab drove along 34th Street, toward the East River. We could look south down the avenues and see block after block without light. It was surreal and apocalyptic. Part of me wanted to jump out and explore; the adult in me said to shut up and stay put. A few blocks were without power immediately to our right. They felt haunted, with the pedestrians passing by them in no mood to linger. There were still quite a few people out and about, and once in a while we'd see one in costume and it would remind us, "Oh yeah, it's Halloween." Then we turned north and traffic became hell. We watched the same terrible bits on the television over and over. We reached the Queensboro and the traffic cleared. As we drove over, Astoria and LIC were ahead of us, ablaze in light; lower Manhattan stretched along the river behind and to our right, dark and quiet, a mass of building silhouettes with the odd light on here and there. "I hope this never happens again." I didn't think that, but I should have.

My usual subway route was open and free of charge the next two days, with red plastic tape barring the turnstiles and holding open the emergency doors. The cold I caught turned bad. NyQuil zombified me. I went only to home and work. It wasn't until Saturday that I had the chance to explore lower Manhattan, after many of the lights had come back on, and the 4, 5, and 6 trains offered an easy way down. Like most times I go into town, I went shopping - the store had signs apologizing for the lack of Internet and the resulting delay in credit card transactions - and then to the movies. I saw one knocked over tree, on Houston and Wooster at the NYU dorms; the roots exposed, the branches blocking the sidewalk, police tape around it. The movie was at the IFC Center, newly reopened. My 5:25 screening of The Loneliest Planet had only a few scattered people, most of whom kept their coats on because the room was freezing.

I tried to grab a train at Union Square to take back uptown. Numerous vans and trucks from out-of-state power companies ringed the park. For some reason the station was closed again. I couldn't find an open entrance. My gratitude toward the MTA quickly turned into my usual grumbling. Normality was on its way back.