Remembering Roger Ebert
by Kenneth Moore
The first time you met Roger Ebert you knew right off that he was a very bright guy.
But there were a lot of really bright and interesting people at the University of Illinois-Urbana in the 1960s. It was a crazy time, Viet Nam war protests, the National Guard showing up to shut us down, and of course lots of drugs, all new to us. Roger never used drugs, but he could drink. Of course…he was studying journalism and was preparing for a life on the beat.
He took me to my first Irish bar in Chicago. He was part Irish and seriously Catholic. When I took a faculty position in anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, Roger called and asked if I could arrange a talk. He was trying to build up a following for his new movie column at the Chicago Sun-Times, a tabloid that had a fraction of the circulation of the Chicago Tribune. I arranged a date and a fee of 75 dollars. His talk was rather amusing. He’d become something of a comedian. We met for breakfast the following morning and he asked if I could lend him five bucks for gas to get back to Chicago. He had the check for the lecture fee but couldn’t cash it. We decided since the first talk had gone well to do a second a few years later.
On his second visit he reveled in meeting Notre Dame football players at campus hangouts, even second-string linemen. I found that amusing. The football players I had in class were heroes one year and forgotten the next. As for Roger, the players had never heard of him but enjoyed his company, and he paid for drinks. He was unknown, but dedicated to being well-known. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize early in his career helped a lot
Sometime in the 1970s, it was spring I remember, just after the Cannes Film festival…that was why Roger was in Paris. I have no recollection of why I was there. I was walking down a street that had a brick wall to the right. I heard a voice calling, “Hey, Ken.” It was Roger sitting on the wall sunning himself, and watching the passing parade. We went to a café and learned that we were both headed to Barcelona. He had a train ticket and I was going by plane. We arranged to meet.
He showed up with a journalist named John McHugh, born in Sligo, Ireland. He, like Roger, was a two-fisted drinker. In Spain at that time there was no tax on Spanish alcohol, but a very high tax on imports. Roger and McHugh were drinking Irish and Scotch whiskey with water, and I was drinking Fundador Spanish cognac with coffee. I suggested they drink the local beverage as my coffee was costing more than the Fundador. No. They were dedicated to the very expensive traditional drink. Then Roger said, “When we come to Europe we charge everything on the credit card and spend the rest of the year paying it off.”
We had dinner at a 19th-century restaurant that roasted chickens out front, still there and called Los Caracoles. We ate snails and chicken and drank a few carafes of vino tinto. When the bill came, and Roger saw how cheap it was, he said he was paying. I had already said I would take care of it. He arm-wrestled me to the floor and grabbed the check.
One evening during that Barcelona stint, out drinking, we entered a place with women behind the bar. That was in the fascist and very traditional Franco era, and anyone local knew that a woman who took a job behind the bar did more than serve drinks. But Roger didn’t catch on and soon he was holding hands with one of the barmaids and gushing like a love-sick teen. I watched this for a while and then whispered to him, “Roger, she’s a pro.” It made no difference, and he kept slipping her large tips in pesetas. As it happened he ended up too sotted to follow through. Or maybe it was his Catholic conscience that kept the “love affair” to hand-holding. He and McHugh walked me to the dock the next day, where I caught the ship to Ibiza, and they were off to Mallorca the following day.
Roger was more German than Irish in ancestry, but culturally he was more Irish Catholic, as demonstrated by his devotion to his mother, understood in Ireland as something the lads never quite get over. I once saw him on TV where he was interviewed together with Michael Moore. By the end of the interview, it was obvious that they were made of the same cloth. Each had a strong sense of social justice and both were rebels…rebels in the social/intellectual sense, as both were opposed to violence. I learned later that they were friends and that Roger had encouraged Moore to deliver his politically controversial presentation at the Academy Awards, a singular event followed by lots of booing.
As the years passed we saw each other occasionally for a snack or a drink when I left South Bend for a Chicago weekend. I especially recall running into him in a bookstore, a natural setting for an intellectual like Roger. He was well-known then from his TV show, a program that had started out as a local PBS production and soon went national. The unknown person who came up with the idea of two critics arguing over their differing perception of a film remains unknown. In that respect Siskel and Ebert were lucky, for it made them nationally known. Though neither was lucky in health: Siskel died quite young of brain cancer.
But in that bookstore Roger joked that he was stuck at the Sun-Times as I was still stuck at Notre Dame. But then added, “You know I have to fly to New York every week for a TV show.” I said that I found it strange that two Chicago critics reviewing Hollywood produced films had to go to New York to do their show. He replied that he liked flying to NYC once a week. That fit.
Roger knew he wanted to be a journalist while still a teen. At the University of Illinois, he was editor of the student paper, the Daily Illini. He wanted action like the kind presented in films about scoops, stories hot off the press, the action-packed life of the news room. He was very ambitious, extraordinarily so. He was also not just bright but brilliant. The two together made him not just a reviewer of films but a social and cultural critic. Films were his vehicle. Anyone who read them knew were he stood politically, what he thought was fair and what he saw as unjust, corrupt, or prejudicial.
I did not always agree with his reviews and said so. I also tried to influence them. It was in the 1990s I recall that I read that Bertolucci was going to direct a film based on a novel by Paul Bowles. Paul was my Morocco friend who I realized when he was helping me with my Fez research that he knew more about Morocco than any anthropologist did. And Paul was elderly and the film would be his grand finale. I wrote Roger giving him more background than he could ever use. Sheltering Sky is the best film ever made on Morocco. I don’t think Roger appreciated that. It did not do all that well, and Roger didn’t help.
His review was pretentious and way off-base. He conceded that Bowles’s novel was a classic, selected as one of the hundred best novels of the 20th century. But then he criticized Bertolucci for presenting the two main characters, played by Deborah Winger and John Malkovich, as dissimilar to the characters as presented in the novel. What he didn’t say was that visually the film was a masterpiece, showing Morocco as no other film has from the highly civilized Tangier of the north to the tribal desert life of the Tuaregs in the Sahara. The novel is called Sheltering Sky because it is about atmospherics…ecology, culture, and disintegration. Bertolucci got it; Roger didn’t. Winger and Malkovich were great in the roles assigned to them. Ebert’s review was a masterpiece of the phony intellectual style, and it was absurdly long, like he couldn’t stop ranting.
I was sitting at the bar in a Lewiston pub this last week having a Brooklyn lager and eating salmon when the TV monitor flashed “Breaking News.” Then a new frame: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013. It was shocking, but only in the sense that it happened so fast, for when I read a day or so before that his cancer had returned I thought he might die in the coming year. But the next thought was, “My God. How did my old pal become such a big deal that the network interrupts programming to announce his passing.” Then I thought, that’s America. That this chubby little boy from a small town in central Illinois had earned this. He studied, he explored, he finagled, and he dared to speak his mind. He had a keen sense of aesthetic values, for to him film was art, but equally he was dedicated to fairness, equality, and social justice. He spoke out, said what he believed. And he was never boring.
- Kenneth Moore, Lewiston
Kenneth Moore is professor emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, currently residing in Western New York.
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