Movie Critics: My Encounters with Roger Ebert

I have met the legendary critic Roger Ebert, who passed away today after a long battle with cancer, at 70, numerous times over the past decades (the duration of my career as a professional critic and scholar).

We first met in person when I attended for the first time the Cannes Film Festival, in 1984. It was the year that Jim Jarmusch’s lovely and eccentric indie, “Stranger Than Paradise,” won the Jury’s Camera d’Or Award (given to the best first film in the festival). Roger was a huge fan of the film, and with his strong support, “Stranger Than Paradise” went on to win Best Picture rom our prestigious group, the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), which up until then largely accorded the top award to foreign language films, or English-speaking films made by foreign directors, such as Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” in 1966, the first year of the NSFC.

Roger was not just an influential and popular film critic, but also an extremely kind and generous man–a humanist of the highest order. He always called me, “The critic-professor,” or would say, semi-jokingly, “What does Professor Variety thinks about this and that film?” (I was a senior film critic for Variety for 12 years).

We did many panels together in various film festivals, including one that I am very proud of moderating. In January 2002, barely four months after Sept 11, Robert Redford and his team at Sundance Film Festival had asked me to moderate a panel on politics and cinema. I proposed Roger Ebert as a participant, along with the filmmakers that were in attendance, including Mira Nair and Barbara Kopple. Redford also took active part in the panel. It was an amazing experience: sad, touching, and illuminating.

Earlier, unbeknownst to me, New York University (NYU) Press had sent him my manuscript, 800 pages long, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Cinema and he was kind enough to read thd whole book, review it and recommend it. The publisher used his blurb when the book came out in November 1999. Roger wrote: “At a time when independent American films are more visible and important than ever before, this is an invaluable study. Emanuel Levy’s writing is wise, passionate, and amazingly well-informed.”

In 2003, I quit (ankled in Variety’s jargon) my position as Chief Film Critic of Screen International to launch a more personal website of film reviews and commentary,, Cinema 24/7. I asked vet critic (now on line as well) Roger to have a look at the site, when he has time. Lo and behold, busy as he was (and not feeling well), he kindly examined the site and then wrote most generously: The content is great, and the writing splendid,” which the owners-managers of the site still use as a marketing tool.

When I edited a tribute volume for my mentor, the late Andrew Sarris, who Roger admired and who was the one to nominate Roger (by Roger’s request, for the Pulitzer Prize in Film Criticism, which he got, thus becoming the first film critic in film history to achieve that (in 1975).

Here is Roger’s wonderful article, all 2,600 words of it.

It was, if memory serves, Manny Farber who once described auteurists as a bunch of guys standing around trying to catch some director shoving art up into the crevices of dreck. When I was appointed film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, I had met only one of them in the flesh, a solemn, preoccupied man named Ron Szoke who wrote about films for the Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois. I was the editor in 1963-64, and asked him to write the column because he had apparently found time in the first 21 years of life to see every movie of any consequence. He wrote about Otto Preminger and Anthony Mann with the same seriousness I had learned to apply to Bergman and Antonioni, and I listened awestruck as he found the meaning in Preminger’s dislike of over-the-shoulder shots.

Two years later I was a graduate student as the University of Chicago, hotbed of Doc Films, a film society the seemed to consist of rooms full of Szoke clones. Where did they find the time to see so many hundreds or thousands of films, in those days before home video, and how did they remember them all? I had a part-time job on the Sun-Times, writing Sunday magazine pieces about snake charmers and mineral water magnates. A few months later, in April 1967, Eleanor Keen retired and I was given the job, no doubt because I was the youngest member of the features staff and had written a piece about the underground film programs on Monday nights at Second City.

I loved films, and had written about them as an undergraduate. But I had never taken a film course–none were offered at Illinois–and I felt a great lack of preparation for the job. I bought copies of Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art and Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, and read them in my $110-a-month furnished apartment in the attic of the Dudak’s house on North Burling. In December of that year I was invited to attend the world premiere of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan In Stockholm, and on that trip I read every word of Andrew Sarris’s Interviews with Film Directors. I underlined at least a quarter of the book, and put a star in the margin next to Sarris’s observation, in the introduction: “Even art films have to make money and even commercial films have to make some statement. To put it another way, more and more critics are demanding that there should be more fun in art, and more art in fun. . .. In the process. . .it has become possible to speak of Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni in the same breath and with the same critical terminology.”

This, to me, was a signpost pointing the direction that a daily newspaper film critic might choose. One might also remember that for a nickel, then the price of the paper, the reader might reasonably expect to be entertained, since 95 percent of the readers would not go to 95 percent of the movies and yet might read the review.

I began to read Sarris regularly in the Village Voice, and found his voice to be clear and energetic, free of jargon and self-importance. Although he was famous as the leader of the auteurist critical school in America, he was not particularly theoretical or doctrinaire, and seemed in close touch with the actual experience of seeing the movie itself. “A man goes to the movies,” Robert Warshow had written, “and the critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” You could never catch Sarris praising a film because the director was in the pantheon, or disliking it because the director’s previous work had not passed muster. You felt that Sarris went to every movie hoping to be delighted.

This was the time when I was learning, on the job, how to be a movie critic. There were few critics’ screening in those days (although Balaban & Katz and Universal both had Chicago screening rooms). I got up from my desk at the Sun-Times, walked across the river to the Loop, went into a theater, sat down, and watched the show. There was no pressure to review everything on opening day; reviews appeared as space allowed. At nights I went to O’Rourke’s Pub on North Avenue, then the watering hole of Chicago authors and journalists (Algren and Royko were regulars) and met a crowd of characters who took on the task of my film education.

There was John West, thin and balding, who lived in a flat around the corner with dozens or hundreds of 16mm prints, and had persuaded the owners of a burlesque theater to allow him to book it as the Town Underground. There he scheduled Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and Adolfas Mekas’ Hallelujah the Hills before the owner decreed that the strippers should return. West carried on awhile doing publicity for the strippers, because he needed the money. The same girls danced every week, but he decided the show would seem fresher if they had different names. We thought them up at O’Rourke’s: Bonnie Ann Clyde and Her Blazing 45s, Miss Abba E. Bond and Her Gaza Strip, Miss Rowana Martin and Her Bath-In.

West was friendly with Jay Robert Nash, one of the truly legendary Chicagoans of the last 30 years, who was then publishing the Chicago Literary Times (“Founded by Ben Hecht; edited by Jay Robert Nash”–with no mention of a lapse of several decades between). Nash, like West, had seen every film of any consequence ever made. They began to shame me with quizzes about Hawks and Ford, and even Hitchcock, whose earliest works I had never seen.

They sent me, or took me, to the Clark Theater, which in those days was a shabby Loop palace with a daily change of double feature and an irresistible package deal: For $2.95, you could have a ticket to the show, free parking, and a three-course meal in the Chinese restaurant next door. The Clark operated 22 hours a day, and advertised its films in a monthly mimeographed bulletin that had a rhyming couplet for every feature (“Rosebud the bane/Of Citizen Kane”). The Clark was run by a gentle, confiding man named Bruce Trinz, who fought a tireless war against those who considered his theater their residence. Soon I met Jim Agnew, his night manager, a fresh-faced son of Irish immigrants, who had also seen every movie of any consequence ever made, and knew all of the Clark’s customers by sight: Those who came to see Frits Lang, and those who came to stay warm. It was Agnew, I believe, who suggested a solution to the problem of strange men sidling up to unaccompanied women: Between the Clark’s main floor and its balcony was a sort of sub-balcony of 40 seats, which he named “The Little Gallery for Gals Only.” Here women could watch the show unmolested my men. You can’t win,” Agnew confided in me one evening. “Now they complain they’re being propositioned by women.”

At the Clark I saw titles by Hitchcock, von Sternberg, Huston, Minnelli and Hawks. Weeks of films from Italy and Sweden. Festivals of gangster films (did the Clark use the word “noir” then? I can’t remember. Not much rhymed with it.). Musicals. Tributes to RKO and Republic. W. C. Fields. The works of Bogart, Garbo, Mitchum and Original Pancake House. Once during a screening of A Hard Day’s Night, a patron in the balcony shouted out, “I’m coming, John!” and threw himself over the edge.

Jim Agnew and Jay Robert Nash eventually met (through me? I can’t remember), and their circle grew to include Alex Ameripoor, an Iranian who had been the cinematographer for several of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s gorefests. We all met at Lewis’s apartment on Sheridan Road, where he threaded a 16mm projector on his dining room table and screened The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, while everyone in the room performed a simultaneous commentary.

Lewis, who is remembered for making some of the sleaziest films of all time (“10,000 Maniacs,” “The Gore-Gore Girls”) had a deep love of film, but it was nothing compared to Ameripoor’s. The plump, shiny-faced Persian believed that John Ford was the greatest of all directors, and from Ford and Wayne he formed his idea of America, his adopted country. Together, in 1967, we attended Ford’s personal appearance at Doc Films, gloomy because of the old man’s truculence at finding that the print of The Long Voyage Home had been edited to remove the framing scenes. When Ford died, Ameripoor and Agnew drove all the way cross-country to his graveside to stand and sing “Shall We Gather at the River?”

Agnew lived in his family’s boarding house in Uptown, where the tenants included such characters as Self-Destruct Prescott, a student revolutionary so described because he dressed in battle gear and claimed to carry grenades with which he could kill himself if captured by fascist agents. In the living room there one night, Nash and Agnew showed me Yankee Doodle Dandy and scenes from other Cagney pictures, and explained why Cagney was the greatest of all American actors.

In those days before video cassettes, revival houses and film societies were the best ways to see old films (the Late Show on TV

was too unpredictable, and cut up by commercials). But fanatic film-lovers such as these had their own collections of 16mm prints. Where did they obtain them? Don’t tell, don’t ask. One night I told West I had been assigned by Esquire to interview Kirk Douglas, and he admitted me to his quadruple-locked apartment and showed me Out of the Past, Young Man With a Horn, and Lust for Life.

At about this time I became aware of an emerging generation of still younger filmgoers who had also, of course, seen every film of any consequence. I was asked to lunch one day by four students at Evanston High School, two of whom were Charles Flynn and Todd McCarthy. Within a few years they would co-edit the famous anthology Kings of the Bs. I had by then been a full-time movie critic for two or three years and had benefitted from the Clark, Doc Films and many evenings of 16mm, yet still I had not seen a fraction of the films they’d already seen–in high school. Flynn went on to the University of Chicago, where he met his future wife, Barbara Bernstein, who had also seen every film of any consequence. One night at the Chicago Film Festival (I think he was by then film critic of the Chicago Maroon) Flynn introduced Howard Hawks with such elegance that even Hawks smiled: “Howard Hawks had made films about cowboys. He has made films about gangsters. He has made films about auto racers. He has made films pyramid builders. He has made films about test pilots. He has made films about newspaper reporters. He has made films about big-game hunters. Ladies and gentlemen–Howard Hawks!”

Flynn went into the law; McCarthy became a film critic for Variety. At about this time the first issues of the Chicago Reader appeared–a thin, free weekly with uncompromisingly auteurist reviews by Terry Curtis Fox and Myron Meisel, also Doc Films types who had seen every film of any consequence. They began a Reader tradition of contrarian film criticism which later embraced Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

It was John West who suggested to me one day that since I had not seen every film of any consequence, I could at least look at selected films in greater depth. This was the favored approach in the University of Chicago’s English department, which preferred deep textual analysis of a few works to a survey of many. “Football coaches use a special kind of 16mm projector which allows them to analyze the films of their games,” John told me. “Why can’t you use the same approach with a movie?”

I was teaching a night school class at the University of Chicago, and experimented with Citizen Kane. Sitting next to the projector, I could freeze a frame, back up, proceed at silent speed, and in general trek through the film a shot at a time. What I learned was astonishing. During the past 26 years, more recently using laser discs, I have taken the same approach every year at the University of Colorado, and at several film festivals. A sort of democracy forms in the dark: Anyone can shout out “Stop!,” and then we discuss whatever caught the eye.

Of course many of the insights we’ve discovered in this way may be fanciful. There is no way to say exactly what a director or an actor had in mind at any particular moment. Often you may know, or sense, that you are looking at a special effect, and yet have no idea how it was achieved. (That famous shot in Vertigo, for example–does Hitchcock track in while zooming out, or zoom in while tracking out? Even Robert Harris and James Katz, who restored it, are not sure. And what Hitchcock told Truffaut is of course always suspect.)

The shot-by-shot classes have been a consolation. If I have not, and never will, see every film of any consequence, at least I have seen fifty or sixty films in great detail, some of them twenty or thirty times. It’s not important to be right or wrong about a given shot; what’s important is to develop the mind-set in which composition and technique are as visible as story and acting.

In the mid-1970s I went to the Cannes Film Festival and met the original man who had seen every film of any consequence, Andrew Sarris. (Well, perhaps William K. Everson and Henri Langlois were the first two guys, and Sarris was third.) Andrew and Molly Haskell were staying at the Hotel Splendid, which was then at the unfashionable end of town (although the new Palais was later built across the street). We’d met before, at the New York Film Festival, but now Andy and Molly and I became friends, sitting late at night in the American Bar of the Hotel Majestic in a crowd that included the few other American critics who were then regularly at Cannes: Rex Reed, Charles Chaplin, Richard Corliss, Jack Kroll, Kathleen Carroll, Gene Moskowits. Andy was already a legend, but a jolly one, who found festivals infinitely amusing and a great deal of fun. I cannot call up in my mind a picture of him discussing a film without smiling. One year Apocalypse Now was being premiered at Cannes, and Pierre Rissient gathered a boatload of American critics to visit Francis Coppola on his yacht. That was the night Coppola told us he considered Cannes his “out-of-town try-out,” and Sarris asked, “Where’s town?”

In those years the Majestic Bar was ruled by Billy (Silver Dollar) Baxter, a New Yorker of great presence who called all the waiters “Irving,” picked up all the tabs, and never, so far as I can remember, went to a single movie. One year Baxter threw a party for his pals at the Voile d’Or, the hotel on Cap d’Antibe that had one been owned by Michael Powell’s father. We sat in the sun and ate strawberries and looked over the sea toward Monte Carlo, and I remember Andrew and Molly playing tennis, and being struck with how often they laughed, and what utter disregard they had for the score. It was that year, I believe, that the Sarrises went on to Italy and Andy contracted the infection that almost cost his life. The absence of the Sarrises from Cannes was like the end of Jay Gatsby’s parties; the season was over, and there would not be another like it.

I will never see every film of any consequence. Today I can say I have seen most of the consequential films of the past 30 years, and a good many others. That is the best I can do. But I have been pointed in the right way to countless films I would not have seen, because Andrew Sarris. His The American Cinema remains an invaluable volume, not because it is right or wrong in its list of the Pantheon but because it is there–because someone had the balls to make and defend a list so others could fight over it.

Now he is 71 and I am 56, and that means that when I first met him, at the New York Film Festival, he was 15 years younger than I am right now. And had already seen every film of any consequence.

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