Even Without Its Namesake, Ebertfest Goes On

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Although Chicago readily and enthusiastically claims Roger Ebert as one of its favorite sons, the late, great film critic spent most of his formative years in the bustling university metropolis of Champaign, Illinois. For years, Champaign has played home to Ebertfest, an annual hometown celebration where he selects several of his favorite under-the-radar films from recent years to be screened for the locals at the historic Virginia Theatre. And although this is the first Ebertfest without the man, the show will go on as planned. 

If you live in Champaign by some chance, or Chicago, or some other Midwestern city within easy driving distance and by the grace of God the weather isn’t abysmal where you are, you may want to get yourself in your car or on a bus or something and spend an afternoon at the movies. The remaining festival schedule includes Tilda Swinton in Julia tonight, the brilliant guru-skewering doc Kumare tomorrow, Randy Moore’s guerrilla-Disney film Escape From Tomorrow, and James Ponsoldt’s teens-in-love story The Spectacular Now. It’s a nice mix of fare, and after the week we’ve all had, it might be nice to escape to the movies for a while, don’t you think? 

Personal Faves: The Big Love of Matthew E. White

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Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Lindsay Eanet writes of the gospel of Matthew E. White’s Big Inner, one of the year’s most joyous listening experiences

The first time I heard Big Inner from Virginia native and Randy Newman devotee Matthew E. White, I couldn’t actually register coherent thoughts about it. My brain could only communicate in a series of Homer Simpson-esque drooling noises, satisfied and “hnnngnghhhh”-ing.

Maybe it’s because of the advent calendar’s worth of sonic treats White leaves throughout the album and needing a few listens to savor them all—a saxophone honk, a nimble guitar lick, a line that resonates or a note from the backup choir hitting you in just the right way that chills make their way up and down your spine. Sound effects about here too: the haunting “Big Love” begins with what sounds like either a bird calling or a dog whimpering, and the sound is surprisingly wrenching and effective.

Maybe it’s because I fell in love this year and sometimes it’s hard, even when it’s your job, to separate your personal matters from a piece of work. Or maybe it’s because White is not just very good at playing and composing music, but he somehow taps in to a deeper pathological place than most pop songs about love and longing and faith and death and fear and love and all those things music often talks about and makes us feel even harder.

This was a year of pop records that were genuinely joyful affairs, songs that induced grins and sing-alongs and demanded participation. We celebrated Fiona Apple’s triumphant return and grieved at her losses. We felt different kinds of joy—the frantic, tweeting kind; the quieter, welling-up, grateful kind, when Frank Ocean told us a love story that happened to be about himself, and then that joy multiplied upon hearing his debut album. Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, with its fist-in-the-air riffs and “oh-ohs,” lived up to its name. Even the Top 40-iest of Top 40—“Call Me Maybe,” “Euphoria,” “I Love It” and anything off that new Ke$ha album—not to mention a band called fun., who has a few tracks that are legitimately so in that boisterous, barroom “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-off kind of way. There are many kinds of joy, some that dig deeper than others and some that induce dance parties with greater success, and the work of White and the other musicians of Spacebomb Records made something with a joy all their own.

That joy on Big Inner is palpable and palpitating, a heartbeat resonating brightly under the many functioning organs and systems. It’s an encapsulation of those less outwardly exuberant but heavily internalized moments of joy—that last glance around the table at Thanksgiving, the living room with the friends you’ve had for a decade, lying curled up against someone you love, suspended in the period between awake and asleep, between the initial exploration of each other and the comfortable stage of the relationship.

This is a record full of love songs that crescendo and layer and let you wrap yourself in the thick, dreamy instrumentation, but White lets his words, simple but nerve-hitting, get through. On opener “One of These Days,” he offers a devotional to the person he loves, asking if he can hold on in such an ephemeral world. “I want to lay next to you and never turn away.” It’s a love that’s worn in but never worn out, and it’s a pretty powerful declaration. The flipside happens on “Will You Love Me,” also quiet for the first two-thirds and then welling up to its fullest, more of a quiet pleading after his love has left. He offers promises of kissing, of song-singing, and as the horns rise with purpose and urgency, he declares: “Darkness can’t drive out darkness/only love can do that.” It’s simple, but it’s effective. In a year where there was so much talk about “authenticity” in popular music (Mumford and Sons, anyone?), this all certainly feels real.

On “Hot Toddies,” the Spacebomb Strings, one of the many skilled groups of in-house musicians White worked with on the record, play with White’s warm, whispery delivery and the results feel like coming in from the cold, especially with the horns and keys buildup at the end. The latter also brings us a line that sounds like it could have been by quite a few artists mentioned earlier: “The Lord made lemons/and the Lord made me / But the Devil and his demons / gave us sweet whiskey.” It’s silly, but it’s hard not to love a line like that. Booze and the God/Devil dichotomy have been favored musical tropes since we first figured out how to sing.

There’s another kind of massive love, of veneration, that appears on Big Inner. It’s a love of the South, of the musical traditions from where his sound springs and his musical peers—past, present and future. White, as previously mentioned, is a big fan of the great Southern yarn-builder that is Randy Newman, and on Big Inner you can hear traces of him, as well as Allen Toussaint and churches where the walls shake with the Holy Ghost and this is the sharpest sign of life within a several-mile radius.  As Hometapes’ Sara Padgett Heathcott writes of White in the album’s liner notes, “Muddy Waters was just about gone. Jimmy Cliff had sung ‘Many Rivers to Cross.’ So had Harry Nilsson. White shared this common inheritance. He stitched his own flag out of it.”

White pays direct tribute to “Many Rivers to Cross” on “Will You Love Me,” where Cliff’s wail of “and this loneliness won’t leave me alone/it’s such a drag to be on your own” is pared down to a whisper, a shared secret. In extracting the line from Cliff’s song, White takes care of it, And like any good historian, White always cites his sources. As he writes, “It was my goal to wrap up all the places I have seen, behind and before, in forty-two minutes of what Jelly Roll Morton called ‘the peculiar mathematics and harmonies that was strange to all the world.’”

In his introduction to the album, White writes about his move to Richmond in 2003 and about what he learned from his fellow musicians, many of whom he salutes by name as part of the process. He describes them with great kindness and humanity and delight in the liner notes—Pinson Chanselle is “a man who breathes life and humanity into his instrument,” Cameron Ralston is an “explorer, adventurer and enlightened performer” and Phil Cook and Karl Blau are “stunningly unique musical minds that came to our village as brothers.” He loves and respects his collaborators, and it shows in what they contribute. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship and part of what makes this album such a great listen.

All of this converges at White’s finale, the rapturous, multi-movement “Brazos,” a mini-symphony steeped in many traditions, musical or otherwise. White binds the work together with a refrain from Jorge Ben’s “Brother,” itself a great little piece of flower-power Tropicália, and layers it over jazz-funeral horns and the exuberant members of the in-house Spacebomb Choir, clapping and thanking the good Lord for leading them across the Brazos. When spiritual writers and singers talk about making a “joyful noise,” as they often do, I imagine that “joyful noise” sounds like this — a love of place and the people in it and whatever guides will get you to that next step.

And maybe it’s because I fell in love this year, and after immersing myself in the joys of Big Inner and wanting to share them with literally everyone, I played in the car for the person I fell in love with, who didn’t quite see the appeal or fall hard for it, too, as maybe I’d hoped. It was raining and the Stevenson expressway was at a crawl. I quickly turned it off and put on the Mountain Goats’ new album instead. That was a lot better received. And I certainly don’t expect you to fall in love with Big Inner either. But I know, in a year full of weird, lovely, life-affirming songs, there had to have been something that lifted you up. And I hope you did, and that you played it loud and experienced the joy in sharing it with someone you like, too. That’s all.

If The Mayans Are Wrong, You’ll Be Able to Get Married at a Vegas Denny’s in 2013

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According to some conspiracy theorists that are taking the Mayan prophecy so seriously the Mayans are actually all, like, “knock it off, bro” now, the world is in ending in 19 days. Assuming this prediction is, in fact, incorrect, lovers from all over the world will be able to tie the knot in the way they’d always imagined—in a wedding chapel at the new Neonopolis Denny’s in Las Vegas. Knowing this now, we’d imagine more Americans are hoping that perhaps the Mayans are right after all.

The Denny’s “Diner of the Future” opened at Neonopolis a couple of weeks ago, so patrons can enjoy their Hobbit Holes and Shire Sausage (as well as more classic diner items) in a bright, futuristic yellow edifice with contemporary-looking décor, a bar, a photo booth and as of around Valentine’s Day 2013, a chapel where impulsive lovers can tie the knot and attack each other with cake made from miniature Pancake Puppies.

This certainly isn’t the weirdest wedding chapel in a city full of totally weird wedding chapels. And this isn’t the weirdest food-service establishment in which one can get married. Voodoo Doughnut in Portland has a licensed minister on staff; Waffle House weddings have been a thing. But combining the weird dining establishment wedding and the weird Vegas wedding chapel creates this sort of canary yellow, Grand Slam-devouring mutant of weird wedding location stories. We kind of can’t wait to read about the first couple that gets hitched at this thing, but at the same time, perhaps not.

For more images and information from Vegas’ latest foray into fine American dining, Eater Las Vegas has been tracking the whole thing and has a gallery up with plenty of futuristic décor for those who may be looking for the perfect venue.

Upcoming Hurricane Sandy Benefits Shows From Aziz Ansari, Neil Young, Grizzly Bear, and More

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If you still want to help out East Coasters affected by Hurricane Sandy and do so in an environment with adult beverages and high-caliber entertainment, this week, a couple more enticing Sandy benefits have been announced. So if you’re looking for something to do next week and live in the greater New York, Atlantic City, or Los Angeles areas, here you go.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse will perform in Atlantic City on December 6th at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, with proceeds going to the Red Cross.

On December 10th, a group of comedians you might recognize are getting together for “We Hate Hurricanes,” a night of comedy to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy at L.A.’s Nokia Theater. The venerable Jon Hamm is emceeing the event, with headliners Aziz Ansari, Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman, and music from Beck along with even more acts. All proceeds from the show will go to AmeriCares, and pre-sale tickets go on sale today; general sale starts tomorrow.

One of the biggest announced shows is the 12/12/12 benefit gig for the Robin Hood Relief Fund, on December 12th at Madison Square Garden. The headliners play like an all-star Super Bowl halftime show: Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, The Who, Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. If you still want to help out and rock out but the idea of a Bon Jovi show at the Garden sounds a bit too overwhelming, New York’s Terminal 5 is hosting a “4Artists1Cause” benefit on December 14th, featuring performances from Grizzly Bear, Sleigh Bells, Antlers, and Cults. More acts will be announced soon. Tickets are $40, with proceeds going to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City

‘Django, Unchained’: Now With 100% More Rick Ross!

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With the holidays comes the time-honored end-of-the-year influx of crazy-hyped movies, and while many will choose to spend their Christmas Day ugly-crying for three hours to Les Misérables (no judgment!), there are other options. One of these is Django Unchained, the all-star Sergio Corbucci-inspired Spaghetti-Western-meets-Deep-South feature from Quentin Tarantino. Today the final trailer was released for the film, which stars Jamie Foxx as the title character, a former slave who joins forces with a bounty hunter (Tarantino favorite Christoph Waltz) to take out a gang and rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from her brutal master, played by Leonardo DiCaprio with a sinister-looking facial hair arrangement. 

Not only does the new trailer give us a lot more gunfire and whole lot more of Leo DiCaprio looking particularly sinister (and drinking out of a coconut, which I did not know was fashionable in the early-to-mid 19th century) and a new track from rapper Rick Ross, "100 Black Coffins," from which we get much of the refrain (which is, as one might suggest, "I need 100 black coffins."). The rest of the Django Unchained soundtrack includes some gems new and old, including selections from Ennio Morricone, Jim Croce, James Brown, and 2Pac, and the catchy theme tune from Luis Bacalov and Rocky Roberts. Watch. 

Author Jami Attenberg and The Gefilteria’s Jeffrey Yoskowitz Make Pickles and It Is Delightful

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"Seriously, whenever somebody’s like, ‘I don’t want my pickle,’ I’m like, ‘Are you insane?’" author Jami Attenberg tells us, which is probably the realest thing we’ve heard anyone say all day. 

Today is National Pickle Day, which is the sort of observance only revered by Snooki, people on Twitter, the good folks at Heeb Magazine and lovers of all sorts of deli products. And, indeed, pickles are a foodstuff worth celebrating, especially when paired with a big sandwich and a sweet, sweet can of Dr. Brown’s. If this hasn’t triggered your nostalgia and longing for the delicatessen yet, maybe Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s new video, featuring Jami Attenberg, author of the latest book you’ve been meaning to read, The Middlesteins, and Jeffrey Yoskowitz of "old world Jewish foods" purveyor The Gefilteria making pickles together, will. 

Yoskowitz and Attenberg are an optimal duo to be hosting a video titled "Two Jews Making Pickles": her novel explores the relationships Jews have with food and family with humor and love; he explores those same dynamics with brining liquid and jars. Together, they ponder the power of pickles while brining and storing them, while appropriate Klezmer music pipes in through the background. It’s also a pretty good crash course in how to pickle, for those interested. 

This isn’t the first time Attenberg has attempted to make a New York favorite on camera for an Internet audience. Two years ago, she stopped by The Awl’s Cooking the Books to talk about The Melting Season and try to make a Shake Shack Burger with Emily Gould. 

Mitt Romney Gets The All-Important Cartoon Billionaire Endorsement

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Barack Obama may have gotten an endorsement from a real billionaire yesterday—New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cited the destruction of Hurricane Sandy and the highly unnerving real threat of climate change as swaying his decision—but not to be outdone, Mitt Romney countered with another well-recognized American billionaire. Yesterday, shocking no one, Fox released a video in which The Simpsons‘ C. Montgomery Burns, the eccentric, insanely wealthy, sort-of-evil tycoon owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, endorses Romney from the dark and stormy headquarters of the Springfield Republican Party. 

Although Mr. Burns’ lackey Smithers begins listing off all the headlines that could cost Romney the election, Burns is still preoccupied with one in particular—that of him strapping the family dog, Seamus, to the roof of the car while on a road trip—and decides to "release the hound" to prove his point. The poor pup is subjected to a Pavlovian test, having to choose between "Meat Romney" and "Broccoli Obama." This is all incredibly fitting, especially since earlier this year when Mad did their "Who Said It: Mitt Romney or Mr. Burns?" quiz. 

Watch, and be sure to look for the strategically-placed reading materials on the nightstand next to Burnsie’s armchair. As Homer would say, "Mmm… aging meme."

Just To Let You All Know, ‘Hocus Pocus’ Is On YouTube In Its Entirety

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For those of you who have power at this point but don’t feel like leaving your houses on Halloween, you can still curl up and relive your childhood with the Sanderson Sisters and their shenanigans. Apparently, the 1993 Disney Halloween classic starring Bette Midler (and her brilliant rendition of "I Put A Spell On You"), Sarah Jessica Parker (and her crazy eyebrows) and Kathy Najimy (riding a vacuum cleaner) can be viewed—not in the highest of quality, but decent enough—on the YouTubes, in its entirety, in one video. Talking cat and all. 

For many individuals who have been especially vocal in perpetuating this #RememberThe90s nostalgia explosion and reblogging every listicle that mentions Lisa Frank or Hey Arnold!, Hocus Pocus is an October tradition, and admit it—even into your adult years, you still stop to watch it when it’s on TV or make an evening of it around Halloween, along with Practical Magic, The Craft and other such glorious witchy films from years gone by. And even if that #RememberThe90s stuff makes you gag, Hocus Pocus is still a glorious, campy, fun piece of seasonally appropriate viewing. 

Now, go forth and watch it before the inevitable buzzkill cease-and-desist from the Walt Disney Company.

Post-Hurricane Blogging Is Tough, You Guys, or: The Search For Free Wifi

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My internet conveniently went out this morning, which seems to make a lot of sense as it managed to hold on during Hurricane Sandy. With New Yorkers returning to work en masse by way of cabs and car services, I managed to change out of my blogging outfit (read: only sweatpants) and put on real clothes to face the day. I can report that South Brooklyn is blowin’ up. Kids are home from school and gleefully running down the sidewalks, bumping into grumpy childless adults who temporarily put their survivor’s guilt on hold to complain about having to do work today. It’s like Lord of the Rings out here, and I’m basically fighting orcs for free wireless internet right now. The blog must go on! 

So keep checking back to BlackBookmag.com for all your usual pop culture commentary. We’ll have more absurdist pieces from Miles Klee, who is high and dry up in Harlem, and Lindsay Eanet will be here proving to all us how she’s the smartest for living in the Midwest where there are no tropical storms. Meanwhile, I’ll keep refilling this coffee because I am not leaving this shop until I blog all that must be blogged. As Lana Del Rey would say, it’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you. 

Follow Tyler Coates on Twitter.