Red carpet, press wall, hors d’oeuvres. This was it, my first real film event: the New York City premiere of Life Itself. I’d trekked down from Connecticut through a snowy New York jungle to see the movie for a second time. But as excited as I was for the film, I knew the real treat would be the chance to speak with some of the people who helped give my career form and direction. And just as I suspected, the gathering at the Paley Center for Media was a veritable who’s who of the many writers, bloggers, and film aficionados that populate the movie websites I read every day. Heaven.
Unsure what to do after walking into the lobby, I soon found myself standing in the corner of the room as people arrived. I was holding some delicious, sweet champagne of truly excellent stock. I don’t normally make note of such things, but the champagne was beyond expectation; this particular brand (Piper-Heidsieck) is reportedly an annual facet of the Cannes Film Festival, as if there weren’t enough reasons for me to want to go to Cannes some day. To top it off, the small snacks offered by the wait staff – mushrooms, salmon, cheese, rabbit – were phenomenal. All in all, the showrunners outdid themselves with the refreshments.
Food in hand, I was anxious to engage with my fellow movie lovers. However, I wasn’t sure who I should (or could) start talking to. As I pondered this question, a bouncy, bespectacled man suddenly appeared at my side. “How’s it going?” he asked. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out that this was none other than Odie Henderson: computer scientist by day and film writer for both his own sites and for RogerEbert.com by night. I told him I also ran my own website, and that I was a contributor at ScottFeinberg.com. The experience of meeting someone equally entrenched in the world I loved was instantly rewarding.
All of this spurred a delightful discourse on film and film writing. Odie and I started our discussion with a spirited debate about Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, which I loved and he hated. From there we proceeded to the films of Spike Lee, entering a fascinating dialogue about blackface and the strange misfire that is Bamboozled. He told me about growing up in New Jersey circa the era of many of Spike Lee’s New York-based movies and how those stories resonated with him. I related my mother’s own surreal experience of watching Brooklyn as portrayed through Lee’s eye; she’d lived in Bensonhurst as a child while Lee’s work often focuses on the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene neighborhoods. I loved that for both Odie and my mother, the overlap between Lee’s vision and their own lives was clear.
Following the champagne reception, we trooped downstairs to the theater for the screening of the documentary. Odie and I found comfortable seats toward the front of the small but beautiful and well-preserved auditorium. We were offered a few grateful words from Rooftop Films and Paley Center for Media representatives before director Steve James arrived; he had just braved the inclemency to get into the city. Recovering from his harrowing trip, he took to the podium and briefly thanked the audience for supporting Life Itself.
Then the film began, and I was struck by its sheer emotional heft, just as I had been when I saw the movie weeks before. Sitting beside so many other Ebert acolytes was new to me, but it provided the much-needed communal support I’d lacked in my previous viewing. Both Odie and I had seen the film and so we made it through most of the picture without breaking down. Still, Mr. James managed to get the better of our tear ducts as the film came to a close. Thank goodness a healthy amount of time had passed before the lights came on again.
Once the credits had rolled and the lights were raised, a panel of distinguished guests filled the empty chairs on stage. Here were the people featured in Life Itself, just a few feet from us: Steve James (the director), A.O. Scott (New York Times critic), Chaz Ebert (Roger Ebert’s wife), and Ramin Bahrani (a writer/director whom Roger Ebert had championed). It was a thrill to see them in person.