Sex Change

Band: Trans Am
Album: Sex Change
Best song:  “Tesco v. Sainsbury’s” is amazing and a snapshot of what Trans Am does best.
Worst song: “4,738 Regrets” isn’t great.

I’m a passionate, passionate man and, recently, two of passions have collided to major press. Roger Ebert is one of my favorite writers in the world and Esquire is the best written magazine in the world. Will Leitch and Drew Magary — both writers I enjoy and admire — have weighed in and I’ve decided to do the same in my own little album-centric hole in the Internet. Ebert is appearing this week on ex-girlfriend-turned-close-friend (and, by the way, one of the most powerful women in the world) Oprah Winfrey’s TV show and, of course, if you haven’t read the Esquire piece, open this link now. NOW.

I share little with Ebert other than a home state, political/religious meanings and a love for Fellini, but like many of his admirers, I adore him. I have for a bit. Back before his illness, I used to lambast my friend Anne about movies she enjoys — she likes shitty action movies — when she disagreed with Ebert. I was genuinely hurt when he enjoyed The Passion of the Christ when I found it to be a steaming turd. His favorites are among my favorites (8 1/2, Kane, etc.) and his style of reviewing is strikingly accessible — he’s stated that he reviews movies for their intended audience , calling the star system “Relative, not absolute”:

When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then [The United States of Leland] clocks in at about two.

I love love love that rationale. Though I’ve never pursued writing as a career (and, as such, have never had to do any dopey star systems), I try to reflect that in my writing. I don’t care for pop music as much as I like most metal, but if you like pop music, Britney Spears hits the spot. I hope to emulate Ebert in that way, in my writing.

And, on some level, all critics try to emulate Ebert.

Everyone seems to have an Ebert story, and my Ebert story is a nonstory. By reasonable thought, I probably should’ve preferred Gene Siskel. I met Siskel at my place of employment during high school and I tended to read the Tribune more than the Sun-Times in my early youth. Moreover, our next-door neighbors growing up were cousins of Siskel’s and my mom never let me forget this, playing her usual six degrees of yenta game.

I’ve followed his work forever, it seems. I have several of his movies yearbooks — started when Anne gave me one as a birthday present — and I bought the Citizen Kane DVD solely for his commentary track. I’ve read Your Movie Sucks multiple times and will reread it again. While I should say I want to be like Lester Bangs or David Fricke or whoever, I think all critics want to be Ebert.

But, Ebert’s work is outstandingly accessible. He kills bad movies in a way that’s fun — to make this about me again, I’ve never had as much fun as writing about the Eagles and Red Hot Chili Peppers.Way more fun than when I write about Death Cab or Tortoise or Mastodon. Writing about shitty albums is awesome. Writing about good ones is hard. — and he intricately chooses his words about movies that are great. His review of Deuce Bigalow II remains my favorite review of all time for the final few paragraphs:

But Schneider is correct, and Patrick Goldstein has not yet won a Pulitzer Prize. Therefore, Goldstein is not qualified to complain that Columbia financed “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” while passing on the opportunity to participate in “Million Dollar Baby,” “Ray,” “The Aviator,” “Sideways” and “Finding Neverland.” As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.

Schneider and Ebert have since made up, but Ebert still pulls no punches. He continues to see movies and he writes and writes and writes.

The Jones piece has gotten some press because of the almost eulogistic style of the piece. But, I’ll say this about it: I find it uplifting. Ebert doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he certainly has every reason to (I get a cold and I complain to everyone who listens, by comparison). And by being off of TV, as the piece states, Ebert has truly found his voice. He’s only gotten more prolific as he’s lost his speaking voice and his ability to eat and drink. He’s become a more passionate blogger and Tweeter and he’s finally getting the press he deserves.

Which, really, is kind of sad. He’s been brilliant for his whole career.

Morbid, callous and heartless as this sounds, it’s serendipitous and the lucky, chaotic nature of the universe that Siskel passed away 10 years ago and Ebert survived. Siskel was a wonderful critic, but Ebert is superlative. The tragedy (and triumph, depending on your outlook) of Ebert’s illness it that we are now all understanding his greatness. After posting the Chris Jones piece on Facebook, a friend comented, saying “ As brilliant a writer as he is in other formats, he’s, like, the perfect blogger.” This is true but only part of the story.

Ebert’s brevity is perfect for Twitter and his Twitter feed shows it. He throws out 140-character missives constantly, lambasting the stupid, promoting his friends and whimsically pointing us toward the true beauty of the Internet: the weird. His blog is flawless, with wordy dissections of Tom Waits records, memories of his childhood and the health care bill — a particular point of interest, thanks to Ebert’s illness and political leanings. 

And of course, he’s the perfect movie critic. His Web site is prolific in its reviews. As written elsewhere, he still writes and writes and writes. Illness hasn’t slowed him down. He continues to write about bad movies in an entertaining way unknown by any critic. 

As with religion, I’m a sports atheist (term stolen from one of my idols). I’m not concerned with A-Rod’s personality. I want his stats. I don’t care about “heart” or “chemistry.” Show me the numbers.

Culture, of course, has no analog. I love music because it touches me in a way that nothing else does. I love Paul Thomas Anderson not because he references a million other movies — if that’s all I cared about, I’d be the president of the Martin Scorcese fan club. Despite the calls of “Hipster” thrown at me, I don’t love David Eggers because he’s twee. I care about his work because it hits me emotionally. And I’m not detached from Eggers’ story. I’m not detached from our commons Suburban Chicago background or our love for the written word or our general outlook on life. 

Which is to say that the point of this piece was to simply say this: Roger Ebert endures. If I put on my cultural atheist hat, I say this: Illness or no, Ebert endures. He’s just as good a writer now as he was a year ago. His illness hasn’t made him great, it’s just made us appreciate his greatness. He didn’t win a Pulitzer (you know I’ll bring that up. I’m a journalist.) yesterday, everyone. He didn’t write his obscenely great 8 1/2 piece last week, everyone. He’s been doing this for forever.

He’s the best we’ve ever had. This didn’t happen overnight, but I’m glad everyone’s taking notice. He still writes and writes and writes.

Roger Ebert has nothing to do with this album. I just wanted to write about Ebert today. This album is a great and, like Ebert, endures. It’s one of the post-Futureworld albums from Trans Am, a fury of hard post-rock and thundering riffs. Sex Change, like Ebert’s Twitter feed, is full of short, sweet missives. It doesn’t meander. It’s awesome.

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