Monday, January 30, 2012

Roger Ebert and the Bicycle

Roger Ebert mentions riding his bicycle growing up in Urbana, Illinois so often early in his memoirs "Life Itself" I had hopes bicycling might be a recurring theme throughout the book. In the book's very first paragraph he cries over a friend's red tricycle that he wants for his own. On the next page he observes his father putting bicycle clips on his work pants and bicycling off to work.

When he's old enough to start riding a bicycle, he'd ride his bike to school, "even in winter." On summer vacations he regarded his bicycle as his "freedom" allowing him to range all over. Among his destinations was the Dog n Suds, where he'd go for the Dog in a Basket with coleslaw, fries and root beer, something he regarded as a "spectacular feast." He'd also bike to an A & W Root Beer stand on his way out to Crystal Lake. When he was older he'd ride his bike around the university campus "studying the students."

He also mentions giving rides on his handlebars to his friend Donald, the lone "colored boy" in his Catholic grade school. It didn't seem out of place to him at the time that a nun said Donald was "just as precious as the rest of you in the eyes of God."

His commentary on the bicycle set the tone for these memoirs, a lot of random observations, not all of which were particularly relevant or well-developed, but that give some insight into the times he's writing about and what left an impression on him. Another typical example was his comment about a high school English teacher who was a bachelor. "It was conceivable he was gay," Ebert remembers, but offers no other reason to think so. Unfortunately, that great seminal moment in everyone's life of learning to ride a bicycle hadn't left enough of a memory to make the book.

He lost whatever bicycling consciousness he might have had growing up by the time he became a movie critic. The only bicycle in cinema reference he makes is to a movie he saw when he was a student at the University of Illinois, "The Immoral Mr. Teas" in 1961. It was the first Russ Meyer movie he saw, not knowing who Russ Meyer was, as Russ Meyer had yet to become a brand. It was Meyer's first commercially successful film and the first of the nudie-cuties, a genre that evolved from the nudist camp films, the first films to sneak blatant nudity past the censors. Mr.Teas is an early-day bicycle messenger delivering false teeth. He encounters various voluptuous women who he imagines completely nude. Ebert says this barely hour long film ran for nearly two years, ten times a day, in a small theater near the campus and was a right of passage for students.

Rather than making it an outing with his frat brothers, he went on his own "hoping to slip in unwitnessed." One might have thought he would have been accompanied by a gang of his frat brothers, especially considering they would serenade sororities with the song "Phi Delta Theta Girl" that included the lyric, "If you were the kind that sold, you'd be worth your weight in gold." His frat experience is another minor confession that he wasn't comfortable with even at the time, eventually moving back home.

Ebert could hardly have imagined when he was watching with bulged eyes "Mr Teas" that he would become a good friend of Russ Meyer and write a screenplay for him--"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." He devotes a chapter of his book to him, concluding with his funeral. During the preacher's droning eulogy, Ebert's wife Chaz whispers to him, "If you don't go up there and say something Russ will come out of his coffin and strangle you." So he does.

This was one of several chapters on prominent people in film he respected or had a close relationship with. Others who warranted a chapter were Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. Herzog is a true favorite of his, a man's whose work he "instinctively identifies with." He says Herzog is the rare film-maker who brought meaning to his life. He laments that all too much of his life "has been devoted to films of worthlessness." He recounts a conversation he had with Herzog at the Telluride Film Festival. Elsewhere, Ebert has called Telluride his favorite film festival, a festival he never missed until he became ill. His enthusiastic endorsement was what inspired me to attend for the first time twenty years ago. Like many who go once, I've never missed another and even joined its staff.

I hoped there would be an entire chapter on Telluride affirming it as the ultimate film-going experience that it is. I was so eager to read what he had to say about Telluride, when I got my hands on his book, I immediately went to the index and looked up Telluride. There was just this one brief mention and with the misinformation that Herzog attends the festival every year. He is a frequent guest, but on occasion he's off filming something and can't attend. The index failed to list one other Telluride reference. In his chapter on his alcoholism he reveals he'd attend AA meetings when he was in Telluride.

I can affirm though that Ebert did not exaggerate when he wrote that he has a great affection for dogs and can hardly resist giving a dog a pet when he sees one. I once crossed paths with Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival. We were walking towards each other down a side street when he came upon a dog in the back of a pick up truck. I was surprised he wasn't in a rush to get to his next screening, as I was, and paused to give the dog a hello and a pet.

He said he had two dogs when he was growing up, Blackie and Ming. He complained that he was restricted as to what he could name his dogs as he'd been told in his Catholic religion class that one couldn't give a dog a saint's name, "such as Max," as dogs didn't have souls. This made a big enough impression on him that he mentions it twice within 25 pages. Its not the only time he repeats himself.

Not as much of the book is about Gene Siskel as one might suspect. He waits until the 41st chapter, three-fourths of the way into the book, before giving him more than a passing reference. But then he pays him full respect. One of his final chapters is on Studs Turkel, who he calls the "greatest man I knew well." He also gives accolades to Chicago columnists Mike Royko and Jon Anderson. I was particularly interested in his comments on Anderson, as he once attended a slide show I gave about bicycling across India and wrote a column about it. Ebert visited London at least once a year and even wrote a book about walking tours there. He tells of going to a strip club in London with Anderson. Anderson was married to a Rockefeller and had the money to indulge in any whim he desired. At one point he called out, "Waiter! Blow jobs for everybody."

Of all the people he interviewed, none was more extraordinary than Dolly Parton, someone Russ Meyer most certainly appreciated. "As we spoke," Ebert recounted, "I was filled with a strange ethereal grace. This was not spiritual, nor was it sexual. It was healing or comforting." He said Siskel had had the identical experience when he interviewed her, and it was something they would refer to from time to time in wonder.

Ebert manages to insert a Mayor Daley anecdote into his memoirs as well. He tells of he and Chaz having dinner with the Mayor and his wife and Robert Altman. Altman was a bit late and arrived with a strong scent of marijuana. Ebert says, "Daley raised his eyebrows at me and smiled." And that is all we learn of their meal together. There may not be as much in depth commentary on cinema or bicycling, or self-reflection, as some would have hoped for, but these memoirs still have much to offer.

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