Roger Ebert, Pornography, and the Art of Cinema

Roger Ebert died this past week. He was best known for his various reviewing gigs on TV, starting with his show teamed with Gene Siskel. Because Siskel was tall and Ebert was short, during the show Ebert sat on phone books to lessen the height difference. Another odd story about Ebert is that he once agreed to be hired as the primary Washington Post film reviewer, but the Post backed out when Ebert made it clear that he had no intention of moving to DC.

One thing I liked about Ebert is that he sometimes wrote very engagingly about bad films, a talent that led to my favorite line of his (as I remember it):

“This film is so much in favor of the human race that it almost makes you want to choose sides.”

I first met Roger Ebert in 1978 in the green room of a Public TV show when I was hosting Frank Capra for his multi-day visit to the University of Chicago’s Law School Films. Ebert was bright and charming, but I was struck by how little he knew about 1930s and 1940s films. I think that Capra (and Mickey Rooney) were just as surprised as I was.

The next time I saw Ebert was less than a year later. I picked him up at his apartment on the North Side and brought him down to Hyde Park for an evening at UC Law School Films. As I drove him home afterwards, I just handed him a wad of cash, our receipts for the night plus enough additional money to bring it up to $500 (somehow I’ll bet that bookkeeping would not be so casual these days, even for a student organization). I was able to talk with him enough that night to understand that his knowledge of films from the mid-1960s on was stunning, really impressive; it’s just that Ebert had not worked through the older films released before he became a film reviewer. (IMO, this shortcoming contributed to Ebert’s rather ad hoc approach to film.)

That night at UC in front of the crowd, Ebert was a bit bored until I asked him a question about how it was to work for Russ Meyer, after which he really lit up. Ebert, a fan of Meyer’s films, had met Meyer in the late 1960s at the infamous Yale Law School Films Russ Meyer film festival. Meyer then hired Ebert to write what became “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.” Ebert said, “If you work for Russ Meyer, there is no such thing as writer’s block.” Meyer was sitting in the next room; if Ebert’s typewriter stopped for a minute or two, Meyer would just shout, “Hey, what’s going on in there?” (I never saw the movie, or any of Meyer’s films, so I can’t give you my opinion of whether the film is any good.)

Andrew Sarris (another UC Law School Films guest) told me that Ebert was a bit of a protégé of Pauline Kael, Sarris’s chief rival, and that Kael had championed Ebert’s career, aid that I suspect helped Ebert win the Pulitzer Prize (the first film critic to win one).

Though Sarris said nothing critical of Ebert to me (and why would he to someone he just met?), Sarris laughed when I told him of a poster used by our film society’s competitor, UC’s DOC Films. By far the most famous — and meanest — poster in DOC Films’ long history was one for “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens,” with a screenplay by Ebert. As I remember the poster, on the left side was the heading, “Roger Ebert’s Contribution to the Art of Cinema,” with an ad for the movie. On the right side of the poster was a blank space with the heading, “Gene Siskel’s Contribution to the Art of Cinema.” For those having trouble picturing the poster, the implication was that Ebert’s contribution to cinema was in writing a porn movie and that Siskel’s contribution was nothing. A funny movie poster, but grossly unfair — to Ebert at least!

P.S. The movie theater at the Art Institute of Chicago is named after Siskel, so I assume Siskel made significant contributions to cinema there.

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