Simply put, Nick Obis is a moviegoer. Born in Oak Park—the oldest of six brothers in a “hippie-ish” family—the reluctant subject insists he’s not very interesting. “I was thinking about it . . . what do I have to say about anything? Nothing. I go see movies, I rate them on Letterboxd, and then I go see something else.” But what makes Obis a person of note is his commitment to seeing films, often as they’re meant to be seen: on the big screen (and, more boldly, from the front row). Once upon a time, he’d see as many as six to seven films per week; now, as a member of the Jeff Awards, for which he sees several plays a week, he instead sees approximately three. That’s as many as the average moviegoer saw in 2021 over the entire year. This is thus a celebration of a person who goes to things in the pursuit of culture, a person for whom anyone involved in Chicago’s cultural community is doing what they do.
Interview by Kathleen Sachs
Photos by Matthew Gilson
[My five brothers and I] more or less got along growing up. I babysat a lot. But we weren’t a real rowdy bunch. We were pretty well-behaved kids. We always liked movies; we always liked music. We had our own kind of clique thing that you get in a large family—like when people would come over, you speak this whole language, and you start to build this little wall that other people find impenetrable. So when we’re all together, it’s all movie references and Simpsons jokes and music references, and whatever other crap we grew up with.
We had a good, large family. A little bit hippie. My dad founded Vegetarian Times magazine, so we grew up in a vegetarian household. We were raised on peanut butter that you’d have to stir with a stick, homemade meals—all vegetarian, very natural foods.
[I majored in] English [at the University of Dayton]. I can write OK when I do. I don’t really write anymore. But I like to sit and write about things. I’m more comfortable with myself that way—if I can have some time to mull things over, I guess.
I went to grad school for two years and got my masters. I taught as a part-time instructor for a semester. There was a minute there where I wrote for the local paper—it was eventually called the Dayton City Paper. It wasn’t a good experience for me, and that was partly why I stopped writing, I think.
Then I moved back to Chicago and started working at Whole Foods. I just enjoyed the retail life for a while. I liked having a sense of coming home tired at the end of the night just by physical exhaustion, of ringing people up and mopping the floors and bagging groceries. I worked at Whole Foods for basically 15 years. That’s where I met [my wife, Jess Obis, owner of the Ox & Oona pet store in Uptown]. Then I was replaced by a robot last year. Now I work at DePaul in the HR department. Whole Foods was a cool place to work at until Amazon came on.
My parents were both good folks. I miss them. My mom [passed away] in 2015, which I remember very well because . . . I went and was cleaning out her house and getting rid of all the stuff . . . that was when [film director] Agnès Varda was in town, and I missed the entire thing. It’s funny: if there’s one thing I’ve learned—even despite my love of movies and everything—[it’s] just go to the thing. I think I have sacrificed events in favor of movies, and years later I don’t even remember that movie. Go to the social event. You’re probably going to look back and remember it instead. So that was 2015, and my dad [passed away] in 2018. That was a strange couple of years.
That time, from 2010 to 2015, was when I was really being one of those people around town. You’d go see all the things, always at the theater, never having a need to be at home. After my mom died, that slowed me down a bit. I picked back up when I joined the Jeff Awards [committee], but then my dad . . . Losing your parents is one of those things that helps you to refocus on what’s important to you.
If I thought about it, I could write an essay about what I’ve learned being at the Landmark, being at River East, et cetera. Moviegoing in particular, even more than theatergoing, is so solo. People don’t really complain whether you’re sitting too close or too far in the live theater . . . you might have slight preferences . . . but there are people who will not sit in the front row even at [the Music Box Theatre], whereas to me, the sidelines are perfectly fine. But I can see not doing that at River East.
You’ll go to [the movies] with other people . . . there are people who can’t conceive of going to a movie alone . . . and you’ll go there, and they’re like, I don’t want to sit up front, but like, you don’t have to sit with me, you can sit over there. It’s a communal thing, everybody loves movies, but it’s so solitary, even when you’re in it. And even if you’re talking to people afterwards, in the bathroom or the lobby or at the concession stand, it’s just a very surprising thing.
I started [volunteer ushering at the Gene Siskel Film Center] in 2012 and did it for a number of years. Until the pandemic I was there all the time. It’s telling of that time in our lives that when Jess and I married, in 2013, we had [several people whom we met at the movies]. Those were just the people in our lives, because we were spending so much time there.
I’ve been seeing so much theater over the last seven years that I’ve been on the Jeff [Awards committee], and that’s a large part of my life now, but I constantly find that I miss going to the movies. It’s the perfect introverted activity, because you’re not necessarily engaging. If you’re sitting in the front row at [a play], you really want to be an animated audience member, paying attention, nodding politely, and applauding. Whereas at the movies, you can tune out or let your mind wander and it’s OK.
And I like that the movies are always going to be the same. You might change, and you can go revisit them and think, “I don’t know why I liked that so much in the past,” or you might like it more, and somebody else tells you what they loved about it. It’s kind of interesting that live theater changes so much day-to-day, but it can be frustrating or anxiety inducing. I like that about movies. They’re always just there. Your relationship to them changes over time, but they don’t really change, and so you just keep coming back to them. I like when you see it on film too. It’s like a little bit of a relationship, because you know there’s somebody there [projecting it], so it’s sort of communal but not.
I like the pureness of it. I like just being a goer to things. When I wanted to be a critic in college, one of the things you never think about is having to write about movies that you don’t like. I don’t like having to articulate why I don’t care for something. Sometimes it just feels bad. Somebody cared about this, somebody spent time and money on it, somebody thought this was a good movie, and I don’t want to just tell you why you’re wrong. I like to just go and see things and take them in, and have this momentary like, “That was good, huh?” with the person next to me afterwards, and move on with my life.