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Meet the Writers: Matt Fagerholm

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. Here's Matt Fagerholm, a Chicago film critic, publisher of and employee of The Ebert Company.

The Movie Love Questionnaire

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in the northern Illinois town of McHenry. I had an extremely happy childhood, and it wasn’t until I saw the broken homes of other kids my age that I realized just how lucky I was. Junior high was a struggle, as it is for most kids who’d rather get bullied than be a bully, and movies provided me with an escape. My parents bought me my first film review book, the 1998 edition of Roger Ebert’s Video Companion, when I was 12, and the rest is history.

Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

My sister and I were so fortunate to have parents who would actively seek out the good family films amidst all the bad ones. I remember seeing “The Secret Garden” in the theater, and being haunted by it for many years afterward. I’ll never be able to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” without thinking of my father, whose humanitarian nature is embodied by his favorite movie character, George Bailey. And I’ll never forget the story of how my mom, in the midst of her Beatle-mania, saw “A Hard Day’s Night” twenty-seven-and-a-half times upon its initial theatrical release (she and her friends frequently hid under the seats to await the next screening). My interest in cinema was always encouraged by my parents, and they assisted me in hosting my own curated Hitchcock retrospective which I held for friends over multiple days when I was in junior high. My selections were “Rope,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “The Birds” and “North by Northwest.”

What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

Disney rereleased its 1950 classic, “Cinderella,” in theaters during the holiday season of 1987, and my parents took me to it. I was a year old, and it was the first movie I ever saw. According to my parents, I spent the entire film mesmerized by what was unfolding onscreen, and made a failed attempt at singing the lyrics to “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” on the way out. The film was also the first VHS my parents ever bought, and we’d watch it on the VCR owned by my great-grandma during our visits with her. Any time I want to travel back to my earliest memories, all I have to do is hear the first few notes of the film’s opening song. It served as a perfect introduction to cinema, considering that it contains suspense worthy of Hitchcock, slapstick worthy of Chaplin and a villain whose bone-chilling expressions are worthy of Lon Chaney.

What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

At a very early age, I memorized the names of the cast members and all five directors (four of them uncredited) of “The Wizard of Oz.” “Star Wars” was the first film that inspired me to learn more about the filmmaking process. Yet as far as being struck by a film with a “human personality” behind it, that would be Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” I was a freshman in high school when my friend Mary Rickerson lent me her double-VHS copy of the film, and I was exhilarated by how it broke the rules of conventional cinematic storytelling, while introducing me to the styles of such masters as Scorsese and Altman, not to mention a handful of the greatest character actors ever to grace the silver screen. 

What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

I was so excited to see “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” when it hit theaters in 1992. I had watched the original so many times that I can still recite every line of dialogue by heart (a fact my friends know all too well). But even at age six, I didn’t find myself laughing very much at the maddeningly lame sequel, and when Kevin started hurling bricks at the burglars’ heads, I ran sobbing from the theater. It was too much to take. 

What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

I co-hosted a screening of “Young Frankenstein” around Halloween a few years ago in Woodstock, IL. The theater was packed with people of all ages—many of whom hadn’t seen the film before. It was amazing to see how Mel Brooks’ ageless satire won over three separate segments of the audience—the kids loved the slapstick and clearly identified with Marty Feldman’s childlike Igor, the teenagers loved the innuendo and the adults loved the homages to Universal’s horror classics. It remains my all-time favorite comedy. Christopher Guest’s improvisational masterpiece “Best in Show” is a very close second.

What's the saddest film you've ever seen?

David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” A staggering exploration of failure and the delusions we utilize as a shield from the harshness of reality. It’s my personal favorite film and has proven on each subsequent viewing to be the gift that keeps on giving.

What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The cinematography, editing, art direction, sound design and score (enhanced immeasurably by Krzysztof Penderecki) together create the most profoundly unsettling atmosphere of any film I’ve ever seen. I saw it at my great uncle’s house, which was perched on a hill in the middle of nowhere and was filled with Native American artifacts—thus eerily resembling the Overlook Hotel. That first glimpse of the blood seeping through the elevator doors, accompanied by subliminal cuts to the smirking twins and screaming boy, had me pinned to my seat.

What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” because, uh, most of us…need the eggs.

What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

“All in the Family” taught me more about my own country than any history lesson I had in school. I love listening to the reactions of the studio audience—you can sense their astonishment at watching one untouchable taboo after another being demolished before their very eyes. Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton were utter perfection as Archie and Edith, as was the deliciously deadpan Bea Arthur as Maude.

What book do you think about or revisit the most?

Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” perhaps the most prophetic book ever written. Everything is in there—Facebook, iPods, flat-screen TVs—all dreamed up in the early ’50s by Bradbury as he typed in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library.

What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of my albums are movie soundtracks. I love anything by Bernard Herrmann and John Williams, though my favorite album may be Danny Elfman’s Music for a Darkened Theatre. The range of his work is so impressive, and it’s clear that he put his all into every project, even stinkers like “Big Top Pee-Wee” and “Hot to Trot.” I especially love his oddball suite, “Face Like a Frog,” which Elfman originally wrote for a friend. 

Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

I greatly admire the work of Gaspar Noé, and find his 2002 film, “Irréversible,” to be a galvanizing deconstruction of unconscionable violence, and how average people can be driven to commit extreme acts. I bought the DVD, but doubt that I’ll be able to bring myself to sit through it again. The brutality of its two most notorious sequences will render them unwatchable for most viewers, and that’s as it should be. Noé’s cinema is a jolt to our distressingly desensitized senses.

What movie have you seen more times than any other?

That would have to be “Kill Bill” [Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Carnage]. I hadn’t watched any violent, R-rated films until well into my high school years. My friend Steve Sandberg dragged me to my first Tarantino joint, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” and I felt like walking out halfway through. I just didn’t get it. Then Lucy Liu sliced off a guy’s head and a sprinkler system started spraying out of his neck. And I suddenly found myself laughing. It was the first time I realized that screen violence could not only be funny, but stylish, exuberant and even operatic. I’ve watched the build-up to The Bride’s epic showdown at House of Blue Leaves—unforgettably scored to the “Green Hornet” theme, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” and The’s double bill of “I’m Blue” and “Woo Hoo”—more times than I care to admit.

What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

I remember my parents often standing in front of the TV or muting out all the naughty parts in movies that they thought I was too young to handle. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was the first R-rated film they let me see, and the first time I was allowed to hear the F-word uttered onscreen. I still don’t think anyone has ever used the F-word better than Steve Martin.

What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” photographed by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.

Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant are my favorite classic leading men by far, and I love both of their four-picture collaborations with Hitchcock. Al Pacino’s performance in “Dog Day Afternoon” is one of the best I’ve ever seen. And as far as I’m concerned, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix can do no wrong.

Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

I can’t think of anyone more endearing than Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music.” Watching Lucille Ball on “I Love Lucy” was a master class in the art of comic timing. I’ll see anything that Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand or Cate Blanchett are in. And while Meryl Streep has been poorly used in much of her recent work, her portrayal of an elderly rabbi, harried mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg in Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of “Angels in America” has given her a permanent place on this list.

Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

The answer is an easy one: Spike Jonze. His four features—“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Her”—are all blazingly brilliant, yet what made me a lifelong fan was 2003’s DVD release from Palm Pictures, “The Work of Director Spike Jonze.” It’s a must-own for any self-respecting cinephile, featuring euphoric music videos (Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” and Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” featuring Christopher Walken are major highlights), some breathtaking shorts (check out his 1998 short doc about aspiring cowboys, “Amarillo by Morning”), and some uproarious footage of Jonze’s alter-ego, choreographer Richard Koufey, who performs with his dance troupe in the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.”

Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?

I had been intrigued by the earlier work of Zack Snyder, but his “Man of Steel” was a miserable moviegoing experience. His action sequences were flat-out obnoxious, with incoherent visuals and ear-splitting sound effects. while his characters were flatter than a yeast-less pancake. He really shouldn’t be allowed to make any features—where he really excels is in crafting credit sequences, as evidenced in “Dawn of the Dead” and “Watchmen.”

What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

I completely understand why many people can’t stand “Moulin Rouge!” It’s loud, it’s in-your-face, and the story is beyond broad. I haven’t warmed up to anything else the director, Baz Luhrmann, has done on film, but this picture is one that I will love until the end of time. It takes me right back to my high school theatre days, where emotions were heightened, hormones were raging and Greek tragedies were being rehearsed right alongside group improv sessions. Plus the nail-biting, cathartic finale is as flawless as anything put on film.

What film do you hate that most people love?

Alas, “Gone With the Wind.” There’s some great imagery in it, to be sure, but frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

I credit my grandma, Marian Tompson, as a key person in my evolution as a film writer. She introduced me to many life-altering films, yet my favorite moviegoing experience with her took place when I was 12. She took my sister and I to see Andy Tennant’s retelling of Cinderella, “Ever After,” starring Drew Barrymore, and I was stunned by how emotionally involved I became in the plight of the characters. When Cinderella punched her vile stepsister in the face, I applauded along with much of the audience. It was the first time I had seen a film provoke such a visceral reaction. When it was over, the three of us left a message on my parents’ answering machine that simply said, “Go See ‘Ever After’!” And I saw it many, many times after that. 

What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

How cell phones have distracted us to such a degree that we often can’t get through a movie without checking our inbox.

What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

I remember when movies were preceded not by a blaring onslaught of commercials and featurettes, but by a blank screen, enabling moviegoers to simply enjoy one another’s company before the lights dimmed. 

Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?


What movies have you dreamed about?

I once dreamed that I was walking through a church during what appeared to be the End Times. People were huddled in corners, praying desperately to the heavens, yet their sobs were interrupted by the sound of laughter emanating from a nearby room. I walked inside and found a small group of people watching “What About Bob?” on TV. Suddenly thoughts of the imminent apocalypse vanished from my mind as I watched the hilarious banter between Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. When the movie was over, we walked outside and found that the world was still intact and at peace.

What concession stand item can you not live without?

Dark chocolate Raisinets.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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