Wednesday, July 18, is the 20th anniversary of our marriage. How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.
Critics group nominates "The Wolf of Wall Street" for several awards, perhaps without seeing it; why the kerfuffle between Elan and Diane on that plane last week is a lesson on why people shouldn't believe everything they read; hwo Disney successfully misrepresented "Frozen."
MIchel Gondry's new documentary about Noam Chomsky fits into Gondry's body of work, if you look at his whole body of work and not just the most popular films.
I want to tell you about a woman named Betty Brandenburg. You've not heard of her, but her passing must not go unremarked. I've written many times about the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She made it run. She dealt with the most impossible man in Colorado. She was a young widow who raised two children on her own. I met her the first year I went to Boulder, in 1969, and saw her the last time a few years ago at one of the annual Wednesday night dinners our little group held at the Red Lion Inn.
When I came to The Sun-Times in 1966, the legend was still fresh in memory: How when John F. Kennedy was shot, Bill Mauldin went directly to his easel and produced a drawing that was reproduced around the world. The Sun-Times gave it the entire back page. It was stunning. It said everything, and it said it with grief and anger at the same time. Bill and Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer) were the two most famous people on the paper. They were both nice and hung out with their fellow employees, although I can't say Eppie was a regular at Riccardo's, the hangout out the back door across Rush Street.
The front booth at Riccardo's on a Friday night would often hold Bill, his great pal John Fischetti, editorial cartoonist of the Chicago Daily News; Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, and assorted visiting firemen. Bill was good company. I remember one night I gave Bill and a copy girl named Chris rides home. Chris lived in Sandburg Terrace. As she got out and walked toward the door, I said, "There she goes, the milk-fed flower of American youth."
After Bill married Chris, he never let me forget those words. After a time they moved to Santa Fe and Bill sent his drawings in by wirephoto. He adopted a bolder line, because he developed arthritis in his fingers. Eventually he had to stop drawing. I had a wonderful time with them once in Santa Fe. He seemed happy and at peace.
The last years of his life were tragic ones. This is not the place to recite them. He slogged through World War Two as an infantryman with a drawing pad, and drew indelible cartoons that made GIs feel someone understood them. He drew the lasting image of the nation's grief after Kennedy was murdered. He was a great man. He was a friend. He lived too long.
Pulitzer Prize winners in the 1970s at the palate-shaped bar at Riccardo's. Left to right: Bill Mauldin, Ebert, Tom Fitzpatrick, John Fischetti, Ron Powers. (Photo by Playboy)
My new voice belongs to Edward Herrmann. He has allowed me to use it for 448 pages. The actor has recorded the audiobook version of my memoir, Life Itself, and my author's copies arrived a few days ago.
Listening to it, I discovered for the first time a benefit from losing my own speaking voice: If I could still speak, I suppose I would probably have recorded it myself, and I wouldn't have been able to do that anywhere as near as well as Herrmann does.
My editor, Mitch Hoffman, suggested a few readers he was confident would do a good job. Herrmann's name leaped up from his email.
I had no idea. For days I've been reading waves of messages from the lonesome, the shy, the alone, the depressed. Some who live as virtual hermits. Some who have few or no friends. Some who rarely speak with their families. Some who have never dated, or ever had sex. Some who consider it a good day when they never speak to anyone. Some who are sad to be alone. Some who are relieved. Some who can't do it any other way.
Day after day these posts arrived after
Bill Nack is a born story-teller. The author of the biography Secretariat has enveloped me time and again in the fascination of his tales. That process began nearly 50 years ago at the University of Illinois, when we were both working on The Daily Illini. I was the editor, he was the sports editor, and then the following year he was the editor. He was also a natural writer -- and, perhaps more significantly, a natural reader. His taste was persuasive.
He approached literature like a gourmet. He relished it, savored it, inhaled it, and after memorizing it rolled it on his tongue and spoke it aloud. It was Nack who already knew in the early 1960s, when he was a very young man, that Nabokov was perhaps the supreme stylist of modern novelists. He recited to me from Lolita, and from Speak, Memory and Pnin. I was spellbound.
Today, fifteen years after I first saw it, I believe "Hoop Dreams" is the great American documentary. No other documentary has ever touched me more deeply. It was relevant then, and today, as inner city neighborhoods sink deeper into the despair of children murdering children, it is more relevant. It tells the stories of two 14-year-olds, Arthur Agee and William Gates, how they dreamed of stardom in the NBA, and how basketball changed their lives. Basketball, and this film.
Photo copyright by Roka Walsh. Used with permission
"Hoop Dreams" observed its 15th anniversary Wednesday night at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Agee and Gates were both there. Gates, now a minister, observed that in one period of time he buried 20 victims of gang violence, 16 of them under 16. Agee said when he looks at his friends in the film today, "ten of them are no longer with us." Yet there they sat, men of around 40 now, articulate, thoughtful, and spoke about how their lives began to change on a Chicago playground 22 years ago when a movie camera showed up.
"We started out to make a little 30-minute documentary about a kid who had basketball dreams," Steve James, the director of the film, said Wednesday night. This was at a benefit for Kartemquin Films, the 40-year-old Chicago documentary group that produced the film.
O'Rourke's was our stage, and we displayed our personas there nightly. It was a shabby street-corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago's Old Town stopped being a tourist haven. In its early days it was heated by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, and ice formed on the insides of the windows. One night a kid from the street barged in, whacked a customer in the front booth with a baseball bat, and ran out again. When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling. A man nobody knew was shot dead one night out in back. From the day it opened on December 30, 1966 until the day I stopped drinking in 1979, I drank there more or less every night when I was in town. So did a lot of people.
Jay Kovar and Jeanette Sullivan behind the bar
I have lived more than nine months of my life in Boulder, Colorado, one week at a time. Here I am again. Here more than anywhere else I have heard for the first time about more new things, met more fascinating people who have nothing to do with the movies, learned more about debate, and trained under fire to think on my feet. So please don't zone out on me because I use the zzzzz-inducing term "Conference on World Affairs."
For 61 years, this annual meeting at the University of Colorado has persuaded a very mixed bag of people to travel to Boulder at their own expense, appear with each other on panels not of their choosing, live with local hosts who volunteer their homes, speak spontaneously on topics they learn about only after they arrive, are driven around town by volunteers, fed at lunch by the university, and in the evening by such as CWA chairman Jane Butcher in her own home. For years the conference founder Howard Higman personally cooked on Tuesday night. The hundreds of panels, demonstrations, concerts, polemics, poetry, politics and performances are and always have been free and open to the public.
One of my editors at the Sun-Times once asked me, "Roger, is it true that they used to let reporters smoke at their desks?" This wasn't asked yesterday; it must have been ten years ago. I realized then, although I'm only writing about it now, that a lifestyle had disappeared. When I entered the business in the autumn of my 16th year, newspapering seemed the most romantic and exciting thing I could possibly do with my life. "But honey," my mom said, "they don't pay them anything." Who cared? It involved knowing what was going on before anyone else did, and putting my byline on top of a story telling it to the world. "Roger Ebert" is only a name. "By Roger Ebert" are the three most magical words in the language, drawing my eye the same way a bulls-eye attracts an arrow.
In the way some kids might be awed by a youth gang, I was awed by admission to the fraternity of newspapers. I adopted the idealism and cynicism of the reporters I met there, spoke like they did, laughed at the same things, felt that I belonged. On Saturday nights about midnight at The News-Gazette, when we put the Sunday paper to bed, we gathered around the city desk, tired, released, and waited for the first papers to be brought upstairs. Ed Borman, the news editor was in the slot; Bill Schmelzle, the city editor, had Saturday nights off. Borman would crack open a six-pack. I tasted beer for the first time. I was a man. My parents, my family, my friends at school, nobody, would ever really understand the fellowship into which I entered. Borman didn't care that I was drinking at 16. We had all put out the paper together. Now we would have a beer.
The day will come when the words of Shakespeare are no longer known. The day will come, perhaps sooner, when all the words on the internet, in every language, have disappeared. These very words, and all the words we have read and written, will no longer exist. Oh, for a long time they may be on a hard drive somewhere, one able to store the entirety of the web. But not forever. Not even close. A word not read is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. The word existed, the tree fell, but without witness, what does it mean?
These thoughts were inspired, oddly enough, by an advice column by Cary Tennis on Salon.com. He is asked a question, and answers it. I suspect the question was asked by Tennis of himself, in a spell of existential funk. His question comes down to: "Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever be of any use? Or do we just get filed, permanently?"
I got caught in the Indiana Jones whirlwind and allowed an important anniversary to pass unremarked: On May 16, Studs Terkel celebrated his 96th birthday. One of the great American lives continues to unfold. If I know Studs, the great day passed with calls and visits from friends, and the ceremonious imbibing of one (1) gin martini, very dry. I hope he has eliminated the daily cigar, but I'm not taking odds. If you don't know Studs, there are few people you can meet more easily in print. He is the greatest conversationalist I've met, the author of a shelf-full of books in which he engages people from all walks of life in thoughtful conversations about their own lives.
Some of the best things I've read about Ingmar Bergman's place in cinema, written since his death (UPDATED 8/01/07):
E-mails to Roger Ebert from filmmakers and writers including David Mamet, Paul Schrader, Sally Potter, Haskell Wexler, Paul Theroux, Richard Linklater, Gregory Nava, Studs Terkel, David Bordwell, David Gordon Green, Paul Cox...
Gregory Nava: This was not the escapist fare of Hollywood, or the pat spirituality of Biblical epic films where God spoke in hallowed tones from a burning bush. With Bergman, God was a spider that lived in the upstairs closet! A shocking and necessary jolt to my Catholic sensibilities. Yes, these films changed me forever -- they cemented my dream to become a filmmaker because if film could do this -- then surely it was the greatest art form of our time. I will never forget the first time I saw the horses standing in the surf against a setting sun, and death with his black cape raised approaching the world-weary knight. "I hope I never get so old I get religious." -- Ingmar Bergman
Peter Rainer, Los Angeles Times: He worked out of his deepest passions and, for many of us, this made the experience of watching his films seem almost surgically invasive. He pulled us into his secret torments. Looking at "The Seventh Seal" or "Persona" or "Cries and Whispers," it's easy to imagine that Bergman, who died Monday, was the most private of film artists, and yet, no matter how far removed the circumstances of his life may have been from ours, he made his anguish our own.
Another way to put this is that Bergman -- despite the high-toned metaphysics that overlays many, though not all, of his greatest films -- was a showman first and a Deep Thinker second. His philosophical odysseys might have been epoxied to matters of Life and Death, of God and Man, but this most sophisticated of filmmakers had an inherently childlike core. He wanted to startle us as he himself had been startled. He wanted us to feel his terrors in our bones. A case could be made that Bergman was, in the most voluminous sense, the greatest of all horror movie directors.
"If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up!" -- Bergman actor Max von Sydow, in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters"
View image Woody Allen's "Love and Death": A Bergman (and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy...) parody from someone who loved Bergman.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com: What he saw as God’s refusal to intervene in the suffering on earth was the subject of his 1961-63 Silence of God Trilogy, “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light” (a pitiless film in which a clergyman torments himself about the possibility of nuclear annihilation) and “The Silence.” In his masterpiece “Persona,” (1967), an actress (Liv Ullmann) sees a television image of a monk burning himself in Vietnam, and she stops speaking. Sent to a country retreat with a nurse (Bibi Andersson), she works a speechless alchemy on her, leading to a striking image when their two faces seem to blend.
So great was the tension in that film that Bergman made it appear to catch in the projector and burn. Then, from a black screen, the film slowly rebuilt itself, beginning with crude images from the first days of the cinema. These images were suggested by a child’s cinematograph which his brother received as a present; so envious was Ingmar that he traded his brother for it, giving up his precious horde of 100 tin soldiers.