Roger and Me, Part I

by Gary Meyer

I was privileged to have known Roger Ebert for 35 years. I think it is fair to call Roger a “mensch.” Leo Rosten, the author of The Joys of Yiddish wrote, “A ‘mensch’ is someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”  What more can one say? A lot it turns out. I am going to offer some of my memories of Roger with links to a number of his writings.

I hope you will read his essays–and then keep returning to his website, an exciting destination for film writing and thinking that his wife Chaz and her team have maintained in a way that would certainly make Roger proud. You can read current reviews by some of the best film writers, think pieces, hundreds of reviews and articles by Roger and his invaluable “Great Movies” reviews.

 

Getting to Know Roger

In 1978 my company, Landmark Theatres, took over the rundown Parkway cinema in Chicago and fixed it up to offer daily changing double features of classic films. We needed to get publicity but the switchboards at both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times refused to put me through to their film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, respectively.

I went to the Sun-Times where the receptionist would not call up to Mr. Ebert or give me any tips on how to make an appointment. I went outside and waited until she went on a break, leaving the lobby unattended. It was my chance to slip in and take the elevator to any floor, asking where Mr. Ebert’s desk was. I was told to go up another floor and there was pointed in his direction. As I approached his desk, Roger was engaged in a phone call but his eyes lit up, he pulled a chair over and motioned for me to sit down. Shortly after, we were in a stimulating conversation. This was my first encounter with Roger’s lively enthusiasm, a trait that people always experienced in his presence. As we were wrapping up, he asked, “Have you seen Gene yet?” I told him of the barriers I had encountered in trying to get to either of them.

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“Hold on,” he said, picking up the phone, “Gene, there is a young man in my office you have to meet. When can he come over?”  He didn’t tell Gene why, wanting it to be a surprise. This was the kind of generosity that I learned was second nature to Roger.

Whenever I came to Chicago there was an open invitation to join them for tapings of their new PBS series “Sneak Previews.”  They would warm up for their discussions about movies by bickering, making snide comments and ultimately breaking into laughter. The first time I saw this made me a little uncomfortable until I realized it was part of their mutual admiration, dare I say “love” for each other. I don’t remember if I ever saw any session quite as R rated as these but you’ll get the idea.

“Sneak Previews” became incredibly important for small films–foreign, independent and documentary. Both Roger and Gene had mixed feelings that a “thumbs up or down” should be shorthand for their reviews but they encouraged viewers to read, think and discuss movies. This was before the Internet so most people outside of Chicago could not read their long and thoughtful opinions in print, though many libraries started subscribing to their papers because of the demand. But readership of film criticism in magazines and local newspapers soared.

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I will never forget that some of our theaters were showing My Dinner with Andre  to small audiences who loved the Louis Malle film but it was going to be hard to justify holding it over much longer. And then one weekend came the raves on “Sneak Previews” and the movie was suddenly selling out, playing for months after that. Their impact was felt on many other films and I especially remember it for the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams  and John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven.

 

Eating and Sleeping with Roger

Roger would call ahead before a visit to San Francisco asking where he and Gene should eat and inviting me to join them for a dinner. At those gatherings is where I experienced that their rivalry on TV wasn’t an act but was modest compared to how much fun they could have together.

Gene had never been to the Cannes Film Festival until the year that Roger convinced him he needed to experience the sense of discovery amidst the sometimes Fellini-esque carnival. The three of us found ourselves in a screening room for a French period costume drama. We sat together. The room was very warm and I had just eaten lunch so my body and mind, still not over jet lag, wanted a nap.  When I awoke after about 15 minutes I turned to see if my companions had noticed. They had not. Gene to my right and Roger on my left were asleep. Soon they opened their eyes and before long the film was over. As we stood to leave we noticed six Japanese men in suits (they always dressed up) sound asleep in the back row.  We discussed whether we should wake them or not and decided to let them get their rest.

Roger and I returned to the same screening room 45 minutes later to see a World War II drama. Our friends were still asleep but sometime during this movie they awoke. They must have thought it was a time travel story going from 17th century France to 1942 Germany.

Falling asleep in movies often has little to do with the quality of the movie. At least at film festivals where we start at 8:30am watching five or more films a day, eating too little, going to bed too late. And if we are in a time zone nine hours ahead of home that doesn’t help the situation.

 

Techno Ebert

Ironically Roger long argued that watching a movie projected at 24 frames per second from a film print actively engaged our minds whereas a video presentation was passive and therefore not as involving for the viewer. His comments usually referred to the theories of Marshall McLuhan.

He loved words and wrote eloquently about the printed page as ebooks approached (“Clinging to the Rear View Mirror,” July 26, 2011).  But he was always on the forefront of technology. In the late 1990’s Salon.com organized a conference in San Francisco. Roger was on a panel with several tech gurus from Silicon Valley. And he was way ahead of them in terms of predicting what the future would bring because of the Internet and related technologies. Though he was not a fan of video games he understood their power for interactive storytelling.  And when it became clear that digital projection would replace big reels delivering movie film, he wrote thoughtfully about it in a column, “The Sudden Death of Film” (November 2, 2011).

 

Fighting Censorship

When we operated the Parkway there was still a censorship board in Chicago. Films had to be screened for this committee if we wanted anyone under 17 to see the classics. It was an expensive process for us but if the movies preceded the ratings system and this local board, say The Wizard of Oz  or Lassie ,  they had to be approved or our manager could go to jail should minors be caught in the theater.

Roger and I often discussed our distaste for the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system that equated an X-rated film with pornography. We felt it was reckless for the association to allow any film producer to self-apply an “X” (or triple XXX if they wanted) placing serious movies like A Clockwork Orange , Last Tango in Paris , Blow Up  and Midnight Cowboy  in the same category as hardcore sex films “with no confusing plot to get in the way of what you really want to see”–an actual ad tagline for an Alex De Renzy movie.

Roger presented his passionate and carefully considered arguments to Jack Valenti about the need for the MPAA rating system to be overhauled, suggesting an “A” for serious adult movies.  I argued for an “R-17” for films with content inappropriate for those under 17 year of age, leaving the “X” as a marketing tool for those kinds of films that wanted to exploit that rating.

Read what Roger wrote on the topic in 2000: “Ugly Reality in Movie Ratings.”

We were looking for the same solution, just different symbols and I finally deferred to him.

After many discussions and more Valenti finally did make a change to the meaningless “NC-17” that was nothing more than a replacement for the “X” so that select landlords still prevented theaters from playing these films and some newspapers refused to run ads. It was a stupidly handled change and Roger took the MPAA leader to task in a strongly worded Variety piece: ” ‘A’ for Adult Opens Up New Possibilities” (July 22, 1999).

When the MPAA slapped an “NC-17” on BLUE VALENTINE and THE KING’S SPEECH got an “R,” he argued for a much simpler system–“R” or “not R” (“Getting Real about Movie Ratings,” December 11, 2010).

Graphic by Evan Caughey

Graphic by Evan Caughey

The battles continued when the movie Bully  got an “R” because it exceeded the MPAA’s maximum of four uses of the “F word” (“Hey, Kids! Anybody Here Not Heard the F-Word?,” March 15, 2012).

You can read each of these articles and see how clearly and logically Ebert’s arguments were laid out and wonder how the MPAA could be so stubborn. If they had paid attention to Roger’s suggestions he would have been a major advocate for their stated mission instead of fighting its outdated insistence.

Ironically Roger wrote the classic tongue-in-cheek screenplays for three Russ Meyer movies that were “X” rated.   Beyond the Valley of the Dolls  is a classic where he really got to have fun. The trailer will give you an idea.

 

LIFE ITSELF

This week a wonderful documentary based on Roger’s life and autobiography, Life Itself , is in theaters. It is poetic justice  that the director is Chicagoan Steve James who co-directed Hoop Dreams , a movie Roger helped make a critical and box office success. In 1994 he started his review with “A film like “Hoop Dreams” is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

Roger concluded the review saying, “Many filmgoers are reluctant to see documentaries, for reasons I’ve never understood; the good ones are frequently more absorbing and entertaining than fiction. “Hoop Dreams,” however, is not only a documentary. It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic. It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime” (“Hoop Dreams,” October 21, 1994).

Read Roger and Me, Part II.

Read two critical perspectives on the film Life Itself  in the Critics Corner at EatDrinkFilms here and Michael Guillén’s coverage of Errol Morris and Philip Kaufman on Roger.

Roger’s many books can be found at your local bookstore or through our Amazon affiliate link.

 

Gary Meyer headshotGary Meyer co-founded Landmark Theatres in 1975, the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on projects for Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007.  Meyer left Telluride and founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in 2014, with the EatDrinkFilms Feastival to tour nationally.

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