Roger Ebert was the distinguished recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award at the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (2010). The presiding theme that ran throughout the celebratory evening held at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre was that—at a time when (as Jason Sanders stated it in his tribute essay) “the future of film criticism remains a real question”—Ebert had proven by example that film criticism’s role in championing the work of new filmmakers kickstarted many a career and encouraged others to hone their craft.
To prove that point, the San Francisco Film Society invited four guests whose directorial careers have been personally encouraged by Ebert to share their thoughts: Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry & June ), Errol Morris (The Fog of War , The Thin Blue Line ), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air , Juno ) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb). As my Editor’s Pick this week, let’s revisit the remarks made by Morris and Kaufman.
ERROL MORRIS: “It’s an honor for me to be here tonight. Roger Ebert has given out so many awards to so many filmmakers, it’s nice to be part of giving him an award this time around. Anybody who’s done this long enough knows that there are two, three, four people who have made an extraordinary difference in their careers for many many many reasons. For me, Roger is most certainly one of those people. He champions unlikely films. His own film festival is the perfect example of this. It’s my perfect trophy, by the way, the thumbs up. …It’s something I’m very very proud of, although I was disappointed to find out it was not Roger’s thumb.
“I had made my first film Gates of Heaven . I think this is true many many films later, you don’t really know if they’re good or bad. You really depend on someone to tell you that they’re not as bad as you might think and, in fact, they might be good! For me, very early in my career Roger Ebert—because my film went to the New York Film Festival; I was really lucky to be accepted—but, there was a newspaper strike that year in New York so no one read about the film. And then out of seemingly nowhere these reviews appeared on television and in the newspaper from Roger and Gene Siskel, almost as if he would not give up. In fact, he hasn’t given up—I think it’s now something like 30 years—his obsession with this film and other films I’ve made. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
“What do you hope for when you make a film? That someone out there will appreciate it, perhaps see it in a kindly light, or maybe see things in it that you saw in it, or maybe even see things in it that you never even noticed. It’s truly a blessing and Roger has certainly played that role in my life over the years. For that alone—aside from all the great writing and the great criticism—I am grateful.
“It also occurred to me—I will be brief—that there’s something very odd about this man. He’s not really just a film critic. He’s also an icon, quite clearly. I remember when I first met him—I believe I first met him at the Cannes Film Festival years and years ago—I was told, ‘Y’know, Roger always writes about his experiences at Cannes’ and I read the one from that year. I remember saying to my wife at the time, ‘This guy writes really really well.’ And it’s absolutely true. He’s an extraordinary writer. If I call him ‘kind’, it seems like it’s the wrong way to put it; but, he’s an enthusiast and a person who is very much a person of conviction….
“So it’s an enormous privilege for me to be here. He means—and continues to be—a lot to me. He’s mastered every form of this sort of thing: as a writer, as a newspaper man, as a television personality, now as a blogger, and I’m sure that—if in the future there is a new kind of media that is developed—he will master that as well.”
PHILIP KAUFMAN: “Rose and I left Chicago during the great blizzard of ’66 with our little son Peter. We’d done a couple of low budget independent films in Chicago but the films gave no return to the investors, money dried up, and Rose said it was time to head back to San Francisco: always our city of succor. We’d become best friends with Nelson Algren and he came to the airport to see us off. He started to tell us it would be lonely in Chicago without us. Nelson, as you know, wrote The Man With the Golden Arm. At that very time, maybe at that same moment that we were hugging Algren on our way out of Chicago, a bright, tough young kid was just making his way into Chicago. I like to think he took our place. He became a friend of Algren’s. And Studs Terkel. And the great Mike Royko. In time he would come to be known as the Kid With the Golden Thumb. Everything you’ve read by this kid Ebert over all these years should be taken in the context of his being in the tradition of these Chicago guys: tough, give ’em hell, not compromising, no bullshit, tell it like it is, compassionate writers. Like them, Ebert spoke from his heart, spoke against the big boys, championed the little man against small-minded bullies. He told us the truth according to Ebert and—like Mike Royko—he could say with all humility: ‘I may be wrong … but I doubt it.’
“Once, Roger called and woke me up at about six in the morning. Rose and I had made Henry & June and by now Peter was our producer. The Ratings Board had dropped the dreaded ‘X’ on the film, which meant essentially that it couldn’t be distributed. They demanded that I make some cuts. ‘Why should I?’ I said, ‘You guys don’t give an “X” rating when a breast is mutilated or blown away; you only give one when a naked breast is caressed. Besides, I applied the same standards I did in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and you gave that an “R” rating.’ They said, ‘We should have given that film an “X” too.’ At which point I might have used the word fuck. They told me I could not use ‘the F word’ with them and that cemented the ‘X’ rating.
“I was going to fly to Washington that very day with a big-time lawyer to take on the system and that’s the morning Roger called me and woke me up. Roger had been fighting the same fight with the rating system for years and he called us to tell us that the Ratings Board had backed down and that—because we had challenged them and Roger had led the forces of change—they were finally coming up with a new rating: NC17. This was the first I had heard of it. Roger had the news before anyone else. Good news. We felt great at the time. We thought everything had changed. Now, in America we could see films that were—as Rose used to say—’not for children of all ages.’ But pretty quickly the powers-that-be found a way to make the NC-17 become the new ‘X’ and today studios will no longer make or distribute a NC-17 film; but, that’s another story. The point of this story is that no one has fought harder or longer or with more enthusiasm than Roger Ebert for justice and fairness and good movies. He’s fought for intelligence in movies and, at the same time, he’s fought for fun, for sex, beauty, humanity and did I mention sex? In San Francisco, Roger Ebert’s our kind of guy.
“Roger and I have both been lucky to find great loves in our lives who stood by us through thick and thin, who had our backs, at the same time led us, who were our partners. I wouldn’t be here today if not for Rose, and Roger wouldn’t be here if not for Chaz. Chaz and Roger, I wanted to tell you a little story about Rose. I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. Rose and I went to see a film at the Hyde Park Theatre. One of us liked the film and the other one didn’t. I’ve forgotten who felt what. I’ve even forgotten the name of the film. But I do remember that—in the heat of our passionate disagreement—Rose hauled off and punched me in the face. …A couple of hours later after thinking things over in some of the local bars, I decided, ‘Who needs this shit?’ I staggered back to our one and a half room basement apartment on Blackstone ready to end our relationship. Rose had bolted the damn door. I was locked out on a cold, windy Chicago night. I walked around to the alley and found a window that was slightly open. This was the window to the tiny bedroom. As I crawled through the window onto the bed, Rose grabbed me and wrapped herself around me. Tears were all over her face. She whispered, ‘Enough of this crap. Let’s make our own films. Let’s make our own films.’
“We stayed in that bed for days and talked through those days and every night that followed about everything; a lot about films. Our conversation went on for the next 50 years. We never stopped talking. [At this moment grief overwhelmed Kaufman and he found it difficult to speak. Ebert reached out his hand to him.] It’s tough being here because Rose and I saw hundreds of movies in this theater. We saw many with Mel. We loved this theater. I thought I could get through this more easily; but, anyway, Rose—as anyone who knew her can attest—never stopped telling me or anyone exactly what she thought. She was fearless and brave as hell, like Roger. As I said, I wouldn’t have the honor of being up here on stage with Roger and Chaz if not for Rose.
“I just wanted to say, Roger: thanks for always keeping the bedroom window slightly open. Thanks for encouraging me and these wonderful directors up here and thousands of aspiring filmmakers all over the world to make our own films. Now, as one Chicagoan who has found his home here in San Francisco to another Chicagoan who will always have a second home here, I’d like to present you with a couple of things.”
At this juncture Kaufman read aloud Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proclamation of May 1, 2010 as Roger Ebert Day in San Francisco and handed Ebert the Mel Novikoff Award.
Originally published on The Evening Class.
Michael Guillén is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, has served as media liaison for the Sun Valley Film Festival, and as a guest programmer for the Treefort Film Festival, Boise Film Underground, and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He also administers his own film website The Evening Class. Michael looks forward to reviewing more films, eating well, and lifting a glass of wine now and again in his capacity as editor for EatDrinkFilms.