Gary Meyer, Telluride Film Festival
In 1978 Landmark took over an old theater in Chicago, the Parkway, to show daily changing double features. We needed to get publicity but the switchboard at both the Tribune and 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 Roger 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 we were in a lively conversation where his genuine enthusiasm was what people encountered while with him. As we were finishing he asked, "Have you seen Gene yet?" I told him of the barriers similar to getting to him. "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 was second nature to Roger.
Whenever I came to Chicago there was an open invitation to join them for tapings of "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 or, 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, including foreign, independent and documentary. Both Roger and Gene had mixed feelings that a thumbs up or down could be short-hand 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 actual, long and thoughtful opinions in print, though many libraries started subscribing to their papers because of the demand.
I will never forget that theaters were showing Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre" to small audiences who loved it but it was going to be hard to justify holding much longer. And then one weekend came the raves on "Sneak Previews" and the movie was suddenly selling out, playing for months. Their impact was felt on many other films and I especially remember it for "Hoop Dreams" and "The Return of the Secaucas 7."
There are so many memories and stories; briefly, they include: Roger calling ahead before a visit to San Francisco asking where he and Gene should eat and inviting me to join them for a dinner; the three of us falling asleep together at a screening in Cannes and later joking about this occupational hazard; Roger's passionate discussions (informed by Marhsall McLuhan) about watching film being active versus video being passive; his embracing technology at an early Salon.com conference where Roger's ideas about the possibilities were far ahead of his Silicon Valley co-panelists; our frequent conversations about his passionate and well-thought arguments with Jack Valenti regarding the need for the MPAA rating system to be overhauled; his spontaneous dueling Yeats session when interviewing Peter O'Toole at Telluride; the smile on Roger’s face when you would see him at a festival and then after he lost his jaw and ability to speak the twinkle in his eyes as you came into a screening where he sat, as if waiting for our arrival.
A few years ago we visited their home where Roger was surrounded by memorabilia, books and memories. It was like a museum. But there were two important things he wanted to show off. A type-to-voice computer program he and his visiting expert from Scotland were trying to perfect where thousands of hours of his voice from speeches, radio and TV could be searched to put together the sentences he was typing. The challenge was that many recording were created in different settings making it hard to conform to the sound of the new speeches. It was amazing nonetheless and had progressed a lot since his demonstration on "Oprah." He also was proud of his first ever cookbook, "The Pot and How to Use It," despite his inability to eat food anymore. He may have missed eating but that wasn't going to stop him from insisting that Chaz, my wife Cathy and I go out for burgers at one of their favorite joints.
A few days before Roger's untimely departure, we were watching Christian Marclay's "The Clock" at SFMOMA. I kept thinking how much fun it would have been to have experienced it with Chaz and Roger, marveling at the images from favorite and esoteric movies so beautifully edited with its surprising sound mix. They would have been giddy with delight.
I close these selected thoughts being reminded of the pure joy when Roger introduced people to Chaz, the first time and every time thereafter. What a pair! They made every minute count and reminded us to do the same. Lucky for us so much of Roger survives online and in print to supplement the memories. He'll always be with us.
Next: "The last time I saw Roger he offered me a trademark thumbs up."