Roger Ebert has been running through my mind.
He’s popped up on several occasions recently, including about 10 days ago when NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast (or podcast) an old interview with him and Gene Siskel to honor the curtain coming down on At the Movies, the movie-review television program they created 35 years ago. Then, old friend and photographer Scott Lewis posted this link on his Facebook page, which outlined Ebert’s thoughts on the Islamic Cultural Center being built near the old World Trade Center site. (If you haven’t got time to click on the link, about all you need to know can be found here: “The Bill of Rights has a parallel with pregnancy. You can’t be a little pregnant and you can’t be a little free. Nor can you serve yourself from it cafeteria style.”)
It’s that sort of pithy commentary on a wide variety of matters that ensures that you won’t have to scroll too far in my browser history before Ebert pops up. In fact, he’s got a bookmark in my Firefox ( abbreviated “rog”) and every Friday I get the email update from the Chicago Sun-Times that provides links to his latest reviews.
In addition to all those movies he reviews, Ebert maintains a blog that gets, ahem, a few more visitors than mine. There he writes about just about anything that comes to his mind. And a lot comes to his mind. You don’t win a Pulitzer for criticism, as Ebert did, if all you know how to do is write about movies. I throw around the word “genius” a bit too loosely at times, but the label fits him. In recent years he’s also become something else. Something that most people who saw him on television all those years would have never guessed. He’s graceful. Most folks are aware of Ebert’s ongoing battle with cancer. Many of those who weren’t got an up close look at it in the March 2010 issue of Esquire, which included a beautiful story along with some less than beautiful photographs. He’s aging more gracefully without his jaw, and his ability to eat and speak, than do most people who have no such issues. It is an inspiration.
I’ve watched movies with Ebert on two occasions. OK, OK. When I say I’ve watched movies with him, I mean I’ve been in the same theater as Ebert while a movie was playing. I wasn’t nudging his arm off the armrest. We weren’t sharing popcorn and knowing head nods. He didn’t even know I was there. But I was certainly aware of his presence.
The most recent time was in April 2004, when I drove over to Champaign, Illinois, from Bloomington, Indiana to take in a film at the Overlooked Film Festival that he hosts each year. I got to see him and Errol Morris as they presented and talked about Morris’s film “Gates of Heaven.” Ebert calls the movie one of the 10 best he’s ever seen. I’m partial to Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” but the fact is that I probably wouldn’t have ever become a fan of Morris’s had I not been a fan of Ebert’s first.
The first time I “met” Ebert, though, is why I think of him when I hear Blink 182. It was five years before our second encounter and it was only slightly more intimate. I was working at a newspaper at the time and the movie reviewer there offered me two passes to a screening of the teenage sex comedy American Pie. Apparently all the guys in the sports department were busy.
I was delighted, even if it meant that I’d have to drive to Chicago to see it. I called a guy who was a bit closer to the movie’s target audience, Nick, my youngest brother. He was 19 at the time. I figured he’d leap at the chance. He didn’t. He, like many people who live in one of Chicago’s dozens of suburbs, was reluctant to drive the hour or so it took to get into the city under any circumstances, except maybe a Cubs game. It was if I’d asked him to go on a Cannonball Run with me to California. That mentality is something I never quite understood, but it has a corollary that’s a bit more annoying: the folks who move from the suburbs to the city and then, when asked to make a trip to the suburbs, they react like you were going to make them walk it. And guaranteed that they’d get dysentery, Oregon Trail style, along the way. Hey, Dick, the highways lead out of the city, too. The traffic, unfortunately, still sucks.
Anyway, it was obvious that Nick was going to need some persuading. So, I did what any 27-year-old who was desperate to see the second coming of Porky’s would do: I lied.
“It’s the world premiere, Nick,” I said. “There’s going to be a bunch of celebrities there!”
“Like who?” Nick asked. His bullshit radar was triggered.
I blurted out the first celebrity that came to mind.
“Ben Affleck is going to be there,” I said. “And I think he’s bringing Matt Damon with him.”
Nick was unimpressed.
“Ebert’s going to be there,” I said, knowing that there was only slightly more of a chance of Ebert being there than Affleck, and that only because Ebert is from Chicago.
“Is he bringing Siskel?” Nick asked, knowing full well that Siskel had been dead for a couple years.
“Really nice, Nick,” I said. “Yeah, Siskel will be there, too.”
This, apparently was enough for Nick. So we hopped in the car and headed to the downtown theater. After we arrived we stood in line waiting for popcorn, and I felt Nick nudging me in the arm. Softly at first. A love tap. When that didn’t get my attention off the list of goodies at the snack counter, he started hitting me. Finally, I turned to him.
“What?” I asked.
Nick was dumbstruck.
“What?!?” I asked again.
He pointed to the left of where we were standing and there stood Roger Ebert.
“Yeah, it’s Ebert,” I said, nonchalantly. “I told you he’d be here.”
Nick couldn’t speak for at least another 60 seconds. His brush with fame had rendered him all but catatonic. God only knows what he would have done had he seen Ben Affleck walk through the place. I’m sure he would have soiled himself.
The movie, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, was awesome. It had a pretty good soundtrack, too, including Blink 182’s Mutt. The movie was credited with ushering in the second golden era of raunchy teen movies. Few were as good as American Pie. Hell, even Ebert gave it three stars, saying that “it is not inspired, but it’s cheerful and hardworking and sometimes funny, and – here’s the important thing – it’s not mean.”
I’d like to think that his opinion was influenced by my brother Nick. For our brush with fame didn’t end in the popcorn line that day. After the movie we headed for the toilet and after we got done peeing, we headed for the sink. In the mirror, we saw Ebert walk right behind us and head for a urinal.
Nick, not going to let this chance slip away, turned toward Ebert, who was standing at a urinal.
“Ebert!” he shouted, drawing the attention of the critic as well as about everybody else in the bathroom. “Thumbs up, man. Thumbs way up!”
Ebert, both thumbs currently occupied, turned to my brother, cocked his head to the side, and said “OK.”
I'm pretty sure he'd heard it before.
Yesterday: 20 miles in 2:49:10
Tommorrow: 8 miles