Tag Archives: Chicago

I Miss(ed) Roger Ebert

31 Jul


When I was coming of age as a poet in Chicago, Roger Ebert was just the chubby-faced guy whose photo sat at the top of his film review column. I couldn’t have cared less about any iteration of his dumb movie review show with . . . that other guy, the skinny one. My opinion: Ebert wrote about the work of other artists; he wasn’t one himself. To me, in my teens and 20s, that was cause for dismissal. But after watching Steve James’s documentary, “Life Itself,” based on Ebert’s 2012 autobiography of the same name, I now realize that his life was art, and that I miss(ed) Roger Ebert.

I watched the James documentary last weekend on Netflix. I truly wasn’t looking to get interested — I was looking for something to background a nap on the couch — but I got interested when I heard these words, uttered by Ebert at the beginning of the film:

“The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And, for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

That was unexpected. And then a colleague read the beginning of his column for the Daily Illini newspaper, written in 1963 when he was 21 and co-editor of the paper, in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He started out his article by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words to George Wallace: “The blood of these innocent children is on your hands.” Following that, Ebert’s own words were:

“That is not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, very old. And as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.”

How prescient he was. And how young he was: 21 and already a co-editor of a newspaper (albeit the student newspaper of U of I at Champaign-Urbana, where he was attending college). And that was another thing: he had wanted to go to Harvard, and there’s no doubt he would’ve gotten in, but his father told him in no uncertain terms that he was not going to Harvard — where would they get the money? Mom was a bookkeeper, dad an electrician. U of I, his hometown school, was where he was headed. (His bitchy TV buddy, the skinny one, went to Yale.) After college, after going to work at the Sun-Times reviewing movies — not a gold-standard position back in the ‘60s — he became one of those tough, hard-drinking newspaper types that just don’t exist anymore. James uses quotes from the autobio in the film, and this is what Ebert wrote about the bar wherein he drank hard, O’Rourke’s:

“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 . . . When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling.”

Not that it matters, but my feeling is: if you weren’t born in the actual city o’ Chicago — Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois — and you end up drinking in a place like that, you’re okay. A colleague of Ebert’s pointed out in the film that of all the well-known, hard-drinkin’ guy-writers associated with Chicago — radio personality Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir’s other boyfriend Nelson Algren, and Nobel-winning Saul Bellow — only Ebert was born anywhere near Chicago. (I’m leaving out Mike Royko because you probably need to have lived in Chicago to know who he was, and that his Polish family owned a tavern on the northwest side.) So, there Ebert was, getting shit-faced in a dive every night and writing film reviews during the day. Interesting. I never woulda thought.

Then there was a montage of his columns from the ‘60s, clipped from the paper, and among them I saw “Early Godard.” I actually got up off the couch and hit pause, to see exactly when that paper came out: October 29, 1969. He wrote about “Le Petit Soldat” — made just after “Breathless” — and “Six in Paris.” So, he knew his stuff, and his stuff could be read in the pages of the Sun-Times, the working-class person’s paper. Oh — his 1979 “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” script credit. One of the funniest moments in the James documentary was Martin Scorcese saying, of the title: “Beyond the valley. It was beyond it!” (Get it? It was beyond!) I knew Ebert had written the script, but I guess I’d forgotten, because when it came up in the documentary I laughed out loud. Donna LaPietra, an executive producer of “Siskel & Ebert” in the 80’s, said, in the movie, “How on Earth did Roger Ebert write ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’?” Well, he was offered the job by Russ Meyer himself. Apparently, Twentieth Century Fox had owned the rights to the title, and was willing give it to any director who could come up with a script. As Ebert tells it, “The movie [Meyer explained] . . . would simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violet exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of the oft-times nightmarish world of show business.” Go, Roger.

Then there was his — fake, I had supposed — rivalry with the skinny guy, Gene Siskel, movie critic for the more effete Tribune. (Wait . . . how effete? Embedded in the Tribune Tower’s neo-Gothic façade are pieces of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame, the Great Wall of China, and Angkor Wat —to name a few.) Turns out the rivalry — the pure enmity — wasn’t fake. Here’s their banter, transcribed by me from the documentary, as they try to record a commercial for their TV show. After Siskel flubs a line, Ebert says, to someone off-camera:

“Did you know that for Gene speech is a second language?”

Gene: “Roger’s first language is, ‘Yes, I’ll have an apple pie with my order.’ He asks the McDonald’s girls if he can have apple pie with his order before they ask him!”

Roger: “And you know what Gene says when he goes into McDonalds? ‘Can I haf a athel eye wif my orther?’”

Another take ends with Siskel calling Ebert an asshole. It seems, however, that as the years went by, they came to agree on some things:

GS: “You know, they don’t get enough shit, basically, the WASPS.”

RE: “They don’t, they don’t.”

GS: “They run the goddamn country, and all of us . . . all of us . . . and I‘m speaking to anyone who’s eavesdropping right now: Come on, band together people, let’s overthrow the country!”

RE: “Protestants: people who sort of want a religion. The goddamn Catholics and the fucking Jews: we go back a few years together!”

GS: “Come on! We’re real! We’re real! We get down and dirty!”

RE: “We were banding together when Martin Luther was only a gleam in his mother’s eye!”

Then, there’s his relationship with his wife Chaz, who says in the film, “Roger weighed three hundred pounds when we first started dating. He didn’t care that he was fat. He thought he was just great. And that was so sexy!”

Chaz is black and Roger, of course, was white. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, interviewed in the film, makes note of this in relation to her own connection with Roger:

“It’s dangerous, as a black woman, to give something that you’ve made, from your point of view . . . to a white man, whose gaze is usually the exact opposite, and say ‘You are the carrier of this film to the publc. You’re the one who’s going to dictate whether it has value.’ And I had a lot less fears around that with Roger. ‘Cause you knew here was someone who was going to take it seriously, and come with some historical context, some cultural nuance. I mean, everybody knows Roger had a black wife. You know what I mean? It’s like an honorary brother. I mean: he lived with a sister? That’s a whole different understanding of black women!”

If you want to have yourself a good, cathartic cry (like I did), look at this, from Roger’s blog in 2011. Yes, that is DuVernay, as a little girl, in the photo, also posted at the top of this entry:


His relationships with two other filmmakers, Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani are also explored in the film (Bahrani visits him shortly before his death) but the DuVernay friendship is especially touching.

Then there was his diagnosis, and the progress of his cancer. And that was where, for me, he became an artist, and where everything he did before became part of, and redefined, that art: he lived out his death in public, in front of Steve James’s camera — filming began five months before Roger’s death — and chronicled it himself, on his blog. We learn that in 2002 he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In 2003, he had surgery for cancer in his salivary gland. In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw, and had another surgery. A week after that surgery his carotid artery burst near the surgery site. In 2007 he lost his voice and began “talking” via a computerized voice system. He had surgery in early 2008 to restore his voice and reverse complications from previous surgeries, but the procedure was not successful. In the spring of 2008 he fell and fractured his hip, and in 2012 he had another surgery, to repair the hip. He went through rehab seven times. All of this, including various hospital procedures, is included in the film and is painful to watch. Through all of this, he writes on his blog, not only of his death but about his many interests. His blog is fascinating. I certainly don’t agree with everything he wrote there (and of course, I didn’t read it before this weekend), but reading it now I see a living spirit, a working class guy, a smart-ass, a too-big-for-his-britches (literally) jerk, a lover of art, a husband, a white stepfather and step-uncle to black children and adults, and supporter of up-and-coming filmmakers. Perhaps most importantly, an educator in the lessons of death. His last blog post, written — unbelievably — two days before his death is cogent and full of life:

“It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.” (Roger Ebert’s Journal)

Pondering all this, I can’t help but wonder if, back then, I wasted my time on avant-garde poetry when I could’ve been learning some truly interesting stuff about life itself — through the prism of film — from this chubby-ass guy who was really living it.


Acquaintance Rape

28 Jul

In the last two days I’ve heard discussions of this subject on two different radio programs. Earlier today the discussion was with the editor of New York Magazine about the Bill Cosby cover story (on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show), and yesterday it was an interview with comedians Barry Crimmins and Bobcat Goldthwait (on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air”). Crimmins’s rape at age 4 or 5 by a man who knew his babysitter has been documented by Goldthwait in his new film about Crimmins, “Call Me Lucky”; I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with Cosby’s history. One thing that connects these rapes is how predators identify exploitable opportunities, either by just showing up (in the case of Crimmins’s abuser) or actively setting up (as Cosby did). What really strikes me is the creating/narrating of these opportunities: even if the rapists are not writers or story-tellers, or even literate, they fully understand, as a writer would, the nuances of opportunity — how one plot point will dovetail successfully with another to produce the desired outcome — especially the dead-end issue (for victims) of believability. The end-game can be a dark and unnavigable landscape, yet how well rapists know the terrain, and how their victims’ feelings of guilt/personal responsibility can be exploited to obscure the path out of darkness, make the going impossible. I once sat at a bar in Greenwich Village and listened as a lawyer who defended a pedophile priest actually said to me, “No one can tell me that those kids don’t, in some way, want the attention. They have a role. If I were a twelve year old, and someone paid that kind of attention to me . . . you know what I’m talking about.” In Cosby’s case, some women did come forward over the years, while others did not, having been assured it would be futile (or career-damaging) to do so. And after 30+ years of being able to freely exploit the “nuances of opportunity,” why did it come down to a 1 minute, 42 second call-out by a man, Hannibal Buress, during his October 2014 stand-up routine, to finally bring Cosby to account? There have been incidents in the literary community over the past few years that exist alongside the ones I’m talking about here, and my own willingness to believe/disbelieve was tested in the most recent one. Oddly, I never felt equipped to comment on those incidents, even though I harbor my own story (which I wrote about, a little obliquely, in a poem for Delirious Hem last year). I don’t know what steps to take, really. I don’t know if there’s a map. I do know the path is not well-marked, and wherever you walk you’re in alien territory, surrounded by the alien’s friends, neighbors, and fellow aliens. And you don’t speak Alien.

I also don’t know why, but seeing the face of Beverly Johnson among those on that New York Magazine cover, and re-reading what she wrote for Vanity Fair in December 2014, made me want to say something about those perceived and managed “nuances of opportunity.” When I was younger, and wanted to be a model, I greatly admired Johnson, and followed her career. Now it feels like she’s communicating that even strong, smart, successful women don’t know sometimes. That’s comforting, and horrifying.

The story I harbor is this. All names have been changed.

Tony and I been introduced at a pleasant, backyard party in the summer of 1982. I was 21 (and wanting to be a model — maybe this is the Johnson connection), and he was 36. Our mutual friends, Marion and James McAlden, told me Tony was a talented illustrator who’d risen from poverty and a tough biker gang past to become a highly-paid Gold Coast architect in James’ firm. A well-known Chicago radio personality had even done a show about Tony. The McAldens wanted us to meet because both Tony and I had recently been through traumatic break-ups: his heart had been broken when his long-time girlfriend dumped him a few months earlier; around the same time I’d called off my engagement to an abusive fiancé. The McAldens weren’t looking to match-make, just friend-make.

Tony and I talked for a long time that night, in lawn chairs after the party was over, about our heartbreaks, our working class roots, our love of music and art. He showed me a well-worn wallet photo of his ex-girlfriend, Lilly: small and delicate and shy-looking, with long, straight brown hair, arms around the two daughters she’d had with her ex-husband. Not a girl you’d normally see on the back of a Harley. I had no photos of my former fiancé, having burned anything I still had of his in a ritualistic fire in my yard. Tony and I made vague plans to meet at some point for lunch, a movie, whatever.

We did whatever a few times. Very casual outings to see a movie and have dinner. At that point, I was sort of obsessed with my own break-up and really needed to get out of the house and not think about it (though I still thought about it all the time). One thing I did to refocus my disordered life was resume college that summer, after having taken the spring semester off to plan the wedding and work a full-time job. Tony would sometimes pick me up after class and we’d catch a “foreign film” at the Fine Arts Theater, down the street from my school. It was fun to ride down Michigan Avenue with him on his Harley. Like Lilly, I was also not the kind of girl one often saw on the back of a Harley, unless one saw a lot of punk girls with white, spiked hair and Patti Smith t-shirts on the backs of Harleys in the Midwest. That was more of a New York thing. And I was excited to be doing it precisely because it was a New York thing, and I hated backward, beef-tongued Chicago. Even when riding on the back of some guy’s Harley, idiots would still yell things at me like “Hey, punk rock sucks!” But it was easier to give those idiots the finger when riding on the back of some guy’s Harley than it was when they were walking right behind me, or taking a seat behind me on the bus. On the Harley I could just tear off laughing while they yelled, “Hey, fuck, you too, bitch!” at a cloud of noise.

A couple of years before meeting Tony I’d gone out with a guy who was a film major at my school.  We’d broken up but were still good friends, and when he had a big party that summer he invited me, and I invited Tony. At the party, people were showing their old Super 8 family movies on a big sheet strung up in the backyard, accompanied by random music playing on a boombox — first it was the Supremes, then it was the Buzzcocks, then it was Andy Williams singing “Ave Maria.” It was all about the juxtapositions. I thought Tony would find this amusing. He may have, but what he didn’t find amusing was the way some of the guys at the party were dressed. This was 1982 and New Wave was a big thing, and some people, guys included, dressed in Sixties and Fifties fashions (if they were into Rockabilly, say) — the suits, the shoes, the ties, the haircuts. No one was being ironic; they just liked the music.

Two hours into the party, Tony was standing by the liquor bottles on the kitchen table, scowling. When I asked him what was up he said something like, “I wore those clothes when I was a kid, and now these artsy-fartsy jagoffs are wearing them?” I could see why he was pissed: guys younger than him were co-opting an unlived experience — his lived experience — via fashion, that most vacuous of art forms. He wanted to leave, and that meant I had to leave, too, and this is where things got complicated.  At the time I lived on the south side of Chicago, and this party was on the north side. Tony was my ride, and if he left and I stayed I would have to shell out about $20 that I didn’t have for a cab home. Half the time when I tried to cab it home from the north side the drivers would refuse to take me there, unless they were black, because my family lived on the “Black South Side.” And I couldn’t really ask someone at the party for a ride because it was a really long way back to the south side — a two-hour trip to get there and back involving (if I remember this correctly) taking Lake Shore Drive to either 55 or the Dan Ryan, and then some additional local driving. If you’re a New Yorker, imagine traveling from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Astoria, Queens and back (or asking someone, after a party, to drive you). An added complication was my recent estrangement from my best friend; I couldn’t call her up to ask if I could stay with her, which is what I often did when we were on speaking terms. Yes, I could’ve just crashed at the party, but then I would’ve had to contend with calling my parents — with whom I was living again after breaking off the engagement — to tell them I wasn’t coming home. My mother, may she rest in peace, was a bit of an hysteric. (In 1986, when I was 25, I called her from Heathrow Airport to let her know I’d gotten back from India, and she said, “Heathrow Airport? Isn’t that in England? You get your ass back here immediately, Sharon Marie!”)

So, I had to leave with Tony.

He drove the van (he’d picked me up in his van, rather than on his bike, because he was scared of my neighborhood) in petulant, pissed-off silence. After a while, I noticed we were on the Kennedy Expressway traveling away from the city. I asked him where we were going, but he didn’t answer. I understood he was pissed — but still? I thought about jumping out of the van and trying to hitch-hike in the other direction, but how could I get to the city-bound lanes without getting run over? And what if I got myself into a weirder situation? When we exited the expressway into some suburb I thought again about jumping out when we stopped at a light, but there was no one around and I was dressed in punk clothes and makeup, and pretty much all men in the Midwest, except the ones on the north side, seemed to equate punk rock girls with hookers. At least Tony knew the difference, being an architect and all.

Our destination turned out to be his aunt’s house, located somewhere in the Land Beyond O’Hare. I’d figured he had his own Near North apartment, being an architect and all, but he actually lived in her basement because he was caring for her. We never made it into the house; he said she was old and he didn’t want to wake her up (it was after 1 a.m., maybe close to 2). Turned out he had two twin mattresses in the back of the van, for when he and Lilly went on vacations with her kids (whose pictures were still dangling from the rear-view mirror).  Instead of getting into his own bed, though, he crawled into mine and started kissing me. I told him I didn’t feel like it, but by then he already had his hand under my shirt and was saying something like “I think we both need this.” Looking out the small window at a glaring streetlight, I thought again about jumping out and trying to get help, and get home, but if Tony could turn from a relatively okay guy to . . . whatever this was, he could turn from whatever this was into . . . something else. He might punch me, and what kind of a feminist punk would I be if I’d gotten hit by a second guy? Tony might even knock me unconscious so at least this way, I figured, I’d remain aware and just never speak to him again if he called.  And, of course, I would write about him. That would be my statement. By the time I reached that conclusion, the whole thing was over, and he was saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool at the party. It wasn’t directed at you. Good night, Pumpkin.”

“Pumpkin” had been his nickname for Lilly, I later found out. Had he been fantasizing he was having sex with her while he was having sex with me? Was the whole “fashion-anger” thing a way to get out of the party? Why does Beverly Johnson’s story make me think of this incident of thirty-three years ago? I wasn’t drugged, I wasn’t abused . . . why didn’t I put a stop to it? Was it because I’d just left a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, and I just couldn’t fight anymore? A few years earlier, before I got engaged, I’d kicked an undercover Chicago law enforcement officer in the balls because he called me a cunt in front of my boyfriend. Where was that bad-ass girl that night in the van with Tony? I have no answers, and I still feel stupid.

I haven’t written about this in any real way until today.