By Michael Miner
“My parents used to tell me that newspapermen were the worst-paid people in town,” Roger Ebert was saying. “My best friend, who lived across the street in Urbana–his father was the city editor of the News-Gazette, and he took us on a tour of the newspaper when I was still in grade school. They printed my byline in hot type and gave it to me. ‘By Roger Ebert.’ And I thought, that’s for me! My parents would say, ‘Well, you know those newspapermen, they don’t pay them anything.’
“My dad was an electrician at the university, and he wanted me to be an English professor. His counsel was, ‘I go over there to the English building, and those guys are sitting around with their feet on their desk smoking a pipe and reading a book. Now that’s the job for you.'”
Who can say how close Ebert came to that? The Sun-Times hired him after he graduated from the University of Illinois, but he was a PhD candidate in English at the University of Chicago in 1967 when the movie reviewer retired and Ebert was told to take over. That’s when he dropped out of school. “It wasn’t that I wanted to be a film critic,” Ebert told me. “I wanted to work for a newspaper.”
The TV show Siskel & Ebert has been written into the ground, but when I asked Ebert when the last time he’d been interviewed as a newspaperman was, he couldn’t remember. When the TV show got rolling, Ebert said, people began thinking of Gene Siskel (who should be back on camera in a week or two) and him as a unit, and of him alone as a half. “The more they thought of me that way the more I was determined to hew out my own turf. Because when I write a review for the Sun-Times, that’s my review–and every word in it was written by me exactly the way I wanted to write it.”
Given the Sun-Times, the 305 other papers that buy his pieces, the Internet, and his annual movie guides, Ebert’s got to be the most widely read movie critic in the country. He might also be the most prolific. When the newspaper critics of America descended on Cannes this year, they left their domestic duties in the hands of the second string. Ebert didn’t miss a review. He protects his turf.
He told me, “One of my editors suggested to me a few months ago, ‘Wouldn’t you like to take on a young intern and get some help on the beat?’ I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’ As long as I can, I want to be the movie critic. I met Paul Theroux last fall–he was on the jury of the Hawaii film festival. We were talking about his latest book, which is called My Other Life. It’s a fictional autobiography, it’s his whole life, but none of it happened to him. It was written as if it did. And there’s a chapter in there about writing. His wife and his kids go off to school–this was in London, when he was still married to that wife–and he has a room on the second floor, under the eaves, with a view over some rooftops in the back of some row houses in London. And he sits at his desk looking out over them, and he writes. At a certain time he has his cup of tea, and then he writes some more. Then it’s time for lunch. He said when he started writing he was writing so people would know his name, he would be famous, and he’d be able to meet girls and make money and see his books on the shelves, and because he had something he wanted to express and he felt maybe his contribution was important. These were all ideas that he had. And now–he’s 50 years old–he realizes the real reason he writes is to write. And I know what that means. When I’m actually writing–not when I’m getting ready to write or I’m researching or I’m doing an interview, when I’m thinking about it–I am content. I am happy.”
So it isn’t like opening a vein? I asked.
“No, I’ve never agonized over a lead,” Ebert said. “I used to.” As a teenager in Urbana he’d covered prep sports for the News-Gazette, and an older kid on the same beat–an 18-year-old sage named Bill Lyon, who today writes a sports column for the Philadelphia Inquirer–watched him flinging balled-up leads into the wastebasket. Ebert said Lyon told him, “Don’t revise until you’re finished. Make it a discipline that you go all the way to the end before you go back and rewrite. And the second piece of advice is, the muse visits during composition, not previous to it. You are inspired as you’re writing. You don’t wait for inspiration before you write. That never works.”
Ebert said, “I thought, he’s probably right. And so instead of agonizing over my lead, I started jumping in with both feet. When you read the first words of one of my reviews it should be like we picked up in the middle of a conversation we were already having. Like the first two words of all of my reviews, which are invisible, are ‘So anyway,’ comma.”
Sometimes I think I spot Ebert reviewing a movie that’s not exactly the one on the screen but rather the version in his head that best sustains an elegant argument. Ebert’s pieces can’t possibly be as effortless as they appear, but they come pretty easy. “You realize you’re not looking for some Grantland Rice lead about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,” he said. “You’re having a conversation. One reason I use long sentences and paragraphs is I think they’re easier to read than short sentences and paragraphs. This, I think, is the greatest stylistic misunderstanding in the history of journalism–that it’s easier to read short sentences and short paragraphs. Short sentences are always stopping. And short paragraphs are always causing you to start another one. If you can put together long sentences, using commas and colons and semicolons, it flows like conversation, it’s easier to read. Whenever I visit a journalism class I tell them, don’t listen to anyone who tells you to write short sentences and to write short paragraphs. There used to be a rule that a paragraph shouldn’t be more than 25 words long. Bullshit. A sentence can be 25 words long. I’ve written sentences that were 60 words long in the Sun-Times, and nobody has ever complained–because nobody ever noticed it. Because it read well.”
Ebert’s youth and intelligence–neither quality then being closely identified with the profession–quickly made him a celebrity as a movie critic. “It didn’t matter when you got the review in,” he remembered. “The movie opened on Friday, and you might review it the next Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. You’d look in the paper to see what was playing–they didn’t screen everything. You’d say, ‘I’m going over to the Roosevelt to see this movie,’ then come back and write a review of it. I would say the first five years I was a critic I saw 80 percent of the movies by buying a ticket or using my free pass.”
Now almost every movie’s screened, and almost every review runs on Friday. In the 60s Ebert reviewed about 100 movies a year; last year he reviewed 264. They open, they die, they’re resurrected on video. In mid-career Ebert had an epiphany. “When cable came in, along with home video, there suddenly was a market, or an interest, in old movie reviews. I realized that my old reviews were not just my clippings that I had in yellowing piles, but they were my database. And because the Sun-Times had only had one critic all of those years, whereas most papers have two or three people working on the movie beat, I have the great good fortune to be the only person in America who essentially has reviewed every movie of any interest for the last 32 years. It puts me in a good position in terms of my books and CD-ROMs and Web sites.”
Ebert rejects the idea that he’s what I told him he was–the franchise at the Sun-Times. But he does understand that he carries an enormous amount of water. If he’d taken a Friday off to be at Cannes he’d have eviscerated Weekend Plus. The more he writes, the more his editors like it. “I suggested the Answer Man to them,” he said, “and I suggested the Great Movies series to them. They embraced both of those ideas. The Great Movies is one of the best things I’m doing because I feel that people today are losing out on any sense of movie history. Movies for them started with E.T. Or they may have even started with Twister, for all I know. So I suggested those two things so there’d be something by me every Sunday to help out the Sunday paper, and they went along with it.”
Where’s the future? I asked him. Though Ebert’s at an age when most star reporters sit in someone’s crosshairs, there’s no usurper in sight.
“I was talking to Todd McCarthy about this,” said Ebert. “He’s the senior film critic at Variety. We were on a panel together at Cannes, and he was complaining, where are the young critics? We’re looking for people at Variety and we can’t find them. I told him, I can give you the names of four or five people who would be absolutely capable of starting to work for Variety tomorrow. I know them from the Internet. That’s where the young film critics are, and there are more of them than ever. But if you’re not looking for them you don’t see them. I’m really into the Web and into the Net, and it’s very much an important part of what I do. There’s a guy, for example, in New Jersey named James Bernardinelli–he’s got a site on the Web, and he’s an engineer. I met him at the Toronto film festival, and I just was out at the Philadelphia film festival, and he volunteered to be my driver. He’s totally professional. Last year he posted 150 reviews on his Web site, not counting reviews of old movies and coverage of various film festivals he went to. Most movie critics don’t write that many reviews in a year–and here’s a guy who has a full-time job.”
He doesn’t make a dime at it? I said.
“Not a dime. And every one of his reviews I’ve read could run in any paper in the country. I recommended him to the Baltimore Sun. But I think they felt there was something tainted about ‘Our new film critic is this engineer from New Jersey who posts his stuff on the Web.'”
I told Ebert that his reviews seem inhabited by someone who has a life. He allowed to reading books, going places, meeting people. “The biggest thing that’s happened to me in the last two or three years is Darwinism,” he said. “I read River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins and I was thunderstruck. It’s the most amazing book I’ve read. It’s a popularization of modern Darwinian thought. One thing I realized is that I really knew nothing about what the evolution of the species and the survival of the fittest meant. And in a sense, the Darwinian insight is the most amazing insight in all of science, even more so than anything Einstein came up with. Because Einstein came up with what there was, and Darwin came up with a theory to explain what it did.
“So I read about 20 books on that general subject, including Lee Smolin’s The Life of the Cosmos. Universes develop according to Darwinian theories, and those that have more black holes are more successful than those that have fewer black holes, because the more black holes you have the more other universes you can give birth to. He feels that when things go into a black hole they come out on the other side in another dimension as another universe–which seems to be a growing theory anyway among cosmologists. And then the whole universe, our universe, is one of countless universes, and universes themselves are evolving. Universes that collapse instantly are not successful universes. Universes that expand forever are not successful. Universes that develop lots of black holes, create lots of other universes, are successful.”
This consideration led to another. “Then when you get into the idea of memes,” Ebert said, “which are genes of the mind–this is another Dawkins idea. Certain ideas survive and jump from mind to mind and flourish, while other ideas do not survive, and die. Snatches of songs, popular jokes, folklore, old wives’ tales, slogans, beliefs, prejudices, are memes–a meme is to the mind as a gene is to the body, in a way. And then you realize that movies are the expression of memes, movies are made up out of memes. And I was kind of stumbling toward this when I wrote my Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary. It was like 450 cliches, the theory being that if you read the book you’ll never be able to see a movie again without laughing–because you realize that they do the same things over and over and over and over again.”
A pleasant afternoon, I said. We chatted at the Cliff Dwellers, which is his club, then contemplated Chicago’s verdant majesty out on the terrace.
“But did you mention the memoir?” Eyre sputtered.
It came up, I said. And Ebert modestly replied that no one gave a hoot about the three times he interviewed John Wayne. He didn’t give a hoot himself. He didn’t know John Wayne. Those were press junkets.
Then I said that by “memoir” I was thinking more along the lines of larger-than-life individuals close to home, those whose mythic dimensions had yet to be firmly established.
“And he said?”
He was noncommittal.
“Well, you planted the seed,” Eyre sighed. A major writer of our time whose legend has yet to gain a foothold outside his own mind, my friend Eyre has thought long and hard about immortality. When he heard whom I was interviewing he saw his chance.
“The only difference between a meaningless span of empty years and a golden era,” he now mused, “is that the golden era acquired a chronicler. Ebert’s the man. He knows everyone, remembers their stories, and can recount them with sensitivity and panache.”
He doesn’t know you, I said. And no one remembers A.E. Eyre stories.
“But you told him some, didn’t you?” said Eyre. “What in God’s name were you talking about out on the terrace?”
“Ah, the rich get richer,” he said, on the brink of tears.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roger Ebert photo by Dan Machnik.