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Roger (Ebert) and Me


Whenever I would see him I used to tell Roger Ebert, only half kiddingly, that as long as he was alive I still had a film career.

He was a tireless promoter of Hoop Dreams.  In an effort led by him and Gene Siskel, the Chicago film critics awarded it “Best Film of the Year” in 1994, not best documentary, beating out Forest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and many others.  Along with our distribution company Fine Line Features, Ebert and Siskel spearheaded an effort to have AMPAS (the Oscars) nominate it as Best Film of the Year.  Then, when the film wasn’t nominated as Best Film or even as Best Documentary, they devoted two of their TV shows and many print columns in their respective newspapers to the outrage.  They talked about it on TV shows, in public appearances, at festivals, and in magazines wherever they went.

After Siskel died Ebert continued right on.  In a 1999 show with Martin Scorsese, he named it the “Best Film of the Decade.”  He took to calling it “the great American documentary.”  I believe part of why the film was recently selected by the US Library of Congress as a National Film Landmark, and chosen by members of the International Documentary Association as the “Best Documentary of all Time” was because of the attention he brought it. 

Roger truly loved the film.  Certainly, he had plenty of good reasons for going out of his way to support it.  It was a Chicago product and he was proud of his adopted city.  Our production company Kartemquin Films had been producing quality documentaries originating there since the mid-1960s.  Roger certainly knew them and their work.  The film also had the appeal of being an underdog story.  We were the little film crew that could, working with a minimal budget, a small “i” independent film, that came out of nowhere to take the country by storm, shot on video no less.  Roger liked underdog stories.  The film also highlighted the plight of low income, urban African-Americans.  Roger was married by that time to an African-American woman who might’ve played no small part in raising his awareness of African-American social issues.  But his own social conscience already ran deep.  That in itself may have been a decisive factor.   Certainly he had many good reasons to go out of his way to support our little film.  Not least of which is the fact that he simply believed it to be a great film.

But still I wonder if my long deceased father didn’t also figure in.  When I first met Roger in Sept. 1994 over dinner at the Toronto Film Festival I finally got to ask him about stories my Mom had told me for years.  “Roger used to toddle along after us following campus film screenings when we went to the campus Union for coffee and discussions,” she’d say. 

“Is it true what my Mom used to tell me about you and my Dad?” I asked.

“Who’s your Dad?” he said. 

“Werner Marx.” 

“You’re the son of Werner Marx?” 


“Sit down.  I want to tell you a story.”

We sat.  Roger proceeded to tell me how my Dad helped him understand how much films could mean, effectively starting him down the road to becoming a film critic.  I had no idea.  He not only confirmed my mother’s stories, he detailed what an influence my father had been on his career. At that time in the early 1960s my Dad was an Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Urbana.  He also co-founded the university’s first film club – the Foreign Cinema Series.  Roger was an undergraduate student, attending his hometown school, “following his bliss” (as Joseph Campbell put it) by watching movies.

In many ways I followed in Roger’s footsteps.  I too went to my hometown university.  I too was profoundly impacted by the Foreign Cinema Club.  I too watched as many campus films as I could, eventually graduating with a major in film history, theory, and criticism - not offered in Roger’s day - having taken over 60 hours of film classes in over ten different university departments.  I still remember seeing Bergman’s Persona during the summer cinema series when I was only 15.  I walked out of Lincoln Hall stunned.  I had no clue what I had just witnessed, what the film had actually meant, but I knew I had been deeply and viscerally impacted.  To this day I return to that film again and again to absorb more of its profound mystery, beauty and horror.

Though he misremembered my Dad’s first name, Roger wrote about him in his book The Great Movies.  On page 253 he talks about the profound cipher that the film Last Year at Marienbad was for him.  (I don’t blame him.  For me, it’s one of the most inscrutable films ever made.)  Apparently, my Dad, in one of their post film, coffee fueled discussions, went on a tear positing the film as an illustration of Claude Levi-Strauss’ theories of anthropological archetypes.  Roger comments that he has no idea whether any of that was true; he never read Levi-Strauss.  But he goes on to say something lovely and true: The idea, I think, is that life is like this movie.  No matter how many theories you apply to it, life presses on indifferently to its own inscrutable ends.  The fun is in asking questions.  Answers are a form of defeat.  That rich observation reminds me of one of my favorite Vaclav Havel quotes: Run toward those asking questions.  Run away from those who say they have the answers.

Like Roger, I also wrote for the Daily Illini.  Though I was never editor like he was, I developed my craft at writing film reviews there, which quickly became my first career goal.  I can’t say that I wanted to be like Roger.  I can say that I was aware how he had built a career out of film criticism and that certainly struck me as a damn good life to have.

Years later, when I saw him at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder and we spoke on panels together, or when he emailed me with an informal survey he was conducting about the future of film vs. video, I stupidly never picked his brain for further memories of my Dad.  He was one of the few living adults I knew who had known him.  Most had fallen out of my life, or died themselves, before I came of adult age.  Like many sons who lost their fathers too early, I thirsted for reflections of my Dad, never intuiting how much I needed it.  He was totally off my conscious radar while deeply inhabiting my unconscious.  I deeply regret never asking Roger to open up more fully on the subject of him. 

Following our Toronto meeting, I did send him a copy of the short documentary I made in graduate school about my Dad.  Maybe I never followed up.  Maybe I followed up and Roger never responded.  I don’t recall now.  But he never mentioned the film, even when we met in later years.  It’s entirely possible he didn’t like it.  Perhaps he felt uncomfortable in learning about my father’s political past.  Maybe it clouded or complicated his own warm memories of Dad.  I don’t know.  That not knowing is a sadness and a mystery for me.

It was a gift of an astonishing sort last March when I discovered two things Roger had written about Dad.  I found them while going through my mother’s belongings after she died.  Unbeknownst to my brother and sister and me, for almost 50 years she kept a bag full of letters she received following my Dad's death.  In that bag was a tribute article Roger had written in the Daily Illini commemorating him.  And among the almost 200 cards and letters was a hand-written letter from Roger to my Mom.  Both of these you can read below.

Life is so strange!  Odd mysteries, bewildering losses, unexpected gifts... all arrive with surprising fullness.  Full of admiration and warmth, Roger wrote movingly about what Dad meant to him.  In a perfect reminder of “spot it, you got it” – a maxim of my men’s work that reminds us that the qualities we admire in others are often those we ourselves carry – Roger celebrates my Dad’s most human values – his love of laughter and ideas, his devotion to teaching and service, his informality, spontaneity, and affectionate camaraderie.

It is another great sadness for me that Roger never got to see my most recent film Journey from Zanskar.  I believe he would’ve loved it.  Maybe he would’ve championed it.  Who knows?  Maybe he would’ve shown it at EbertFest – his eponymous film festival held at the Virginia Theater in Champaign where I myself used to watch many a blockbuster as a kid.  Maybe he would’ve seized on the story’s strange parallels to Hoop Dreams like another fine writer Pico Iyer did. 

 I haven’t yet seen Steve James’ film about Roger Life Itself.  I’m sure it’s wonderful.  For me, Roger’s death is mixed in with my Dad’s and my Mom’s.  Maybe the film will help me untie those mixed threads.  My fear is that it will somehow make it worse.

Like my Mom, like my Dad, Roger was a fine person who did what he could to show up and make a difference in the world.  He had much bigger venues for that than they did.  But he shared with them a love of moving images, of how art can shift culture, of appreciating a broad range of different people and ideas, of forming bonds over food and storytelling, of knowing attention paid to one person is as crucial as 100, of accepting humans in all their complexities and contradictions, of never forgetting the forgotten, of living life in its fullness… of life itself.   I miss him. 





























Angeles Arrien, Spokeswoman for Rites of Passage, RIP

Angeles Arrien, PhD

The gracious, wise, and giving... bless her for her work, and the difference it made and will make for so many people, families, and communities.  You can find highlights of the interview she did with us last year for our film by clicking here.

Angeles was a cultural anthropologist, award-winning author, educator, and consultant to many organizations and businesses. She lectured and conducted workshops worldwide, bridging cultural anthropology, psychology, and comparative religions. Her work is currently used in medical, academic, and corporate environments. Her books have been translated into thirteen languages and she received three honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of her work.

Angeles' books include The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary; Signs of Life: The Five Universal Shapes and How to Use Them, (Winner of the 1993 Benjamin Franklin Award); and The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom, (Winner of the 2007 Nautilus Award for Best Book on Aging). Her recent book, Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life is a Gold Medal Co-Winner of the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Award) in the category of Inspiration and Spirituality. 

Angeles Arrien died in April 2014.


My recent talk on youth rites of passage


Indigenous People's Wisdom on Rites of Passage

    From Kissed by a Fox, Priscilla Stuckey:

Malidoma wrote (from The Healing Wisdom of Africa; paraphrased by Priscilla Stuckey):  Rites of initiation in nature were especially important, for nature is the source of knowing; to know your own destiny, your gifts and purpose in life, you must first grapple with nature’s mysteries, and only by forging your own relationship with nature can you remember why you are here and develop the power to release your gifts into the world. (pg. 47)

 Sobonfu and Malidoma in a training that Priscilla Stuckey attended, said: 

“We all forget our purpose, for we go through the rigors of being born, then living as infants and toddlers.  As we grow we need to discover our gifts anew.  The community exists to help individuals remember their purpose.”  (Priscilla paraphrasing) A community pays special attention to each individual, nourishing each one with the quality of attention that helps each bring forth her deepest gifts … because the adults know that every child will make a difference – not in an abstract way, but for them, for the world they will make together as the child grows.  “This person brings me-us a priceless gift.”  (pg. 108-09)

 An Andean native:  “Conversation is thus an attitude, a mode of being in unison with life, a knowing how to listen and knowing how to say things at the appropriate moment.”  (pg. 134)

 John Muir:  “On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death.  Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life.”  (pg. 243)

Australian aboriginal Yarralin man, Pulkara:  The land had been made “wild” not by letting it be but by trampling it, not by the absence of humans but by their irresponsible presence.  “Wild” land was land that would wash away in the next rain.  “Quiet” land, by contrast, was land well cared for, loved and nurtured throughout the generations.  (pg. 308)

Doug Campbell, senior Yarralin aboriginal man:  The law they live by, say the Aboriginal people, resides in the land itself; it was not made by humans.  In this way it is different from the law of the Europeans.  “Whitefellow law goes this way, that way, all the time changing.  Blackfellow Law different.  It never changes.  Blackfellow Law hard – like a stone, like that hill.  The Law is in the ground.”  (pg. 309)


My tribute to Harold Ramis and Mentoring

I feel compelled to share with you what Harold Ramis meant to me.  He was such a wonderful human being and such an inspiration to me I feel that to do anything less would dishonor his memory.  For those of you still unfamiliar with his life and work I commend you to this article.

People everywhere know his genius from the films he made. I was privileged to know the man - always generous, compassionate, supportive, inclusive, humble, wise... He was my mentor and friend - a pillar of strength and integrity, his voice a beacon for how to face a world of deceit and lies and hurt.  The sadness I feel at his passing is immense.

I first met Harold in his office in a northern Chicago suburb in the summer of 2003.  We were introduced by a friend of mine – an attorney who seems to know everyone in Chicago.  We had such a pleasant conversation that only afterwards did I realize how strange it was – Harold spent well over an hour chatting with my wife and me, simply getting to know us.  It’s hard to imagine many Hollywood celebrities spending that same kind of time making leisurely inquiries, serving tea and cookies, and being equally interested in my wife and her work as a writer and English professor as in mine. 

I don’t remember now whether it was that first conversation when I asked him to mentor me.  Given my usual chutzpah it’s entirely possible.  But most likely it was a year or two later.  I do remember his answer though.  Not a yes or a no, more “let’s just wait and see how things go.”  I think Harold preferred to leave things like that unsaid.  But the truth is from that first meeting forward he did whatever he could to make himself available to me and to be of service in whatever ways he could.  That willingness to benefit others, to put oneself at the service of another’s development and well-being is a fundamental pillar of mentorship.

Another pillar of mentorship is simply showing up - spending the time, making yourself available.  Not long after we met, I did a presentation for the Chicago branch of the Young Presidents Association on the importance of pro-social rites of passage for youth.  Harold came to the event in a private home in the same wealthy, north side Chicago suburb where he lived.  He publicly thanked me for coming to his community to bring the message, implicitly recognizing that this wasn’t an issue just for “them” – “at risk youth,” the low income folks of color in the city – but for white suburbanites too.  He had the courage to say, however sweetly, “Wake up folks.  It’s our kids too!” 

Harold demonstrated another fundamental principle of mentorship - open your contacts and integrate mentees into your professional network.  He went out of his way to introduce me to two of his old friends from college – George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse, and Ben Zaricor, founder of the Good Earth Tea Company.  In time, both men came to be supporters of my work. 

Harold told me, as he’s publicly told many, he considered himself “Buddhish.”  Something like, but not quite a Jewish-Buddhist.  “Buddhish”… a term far superior to the more commonly used “Jew-Bu” or “Bu-Jew.”  No doubt because of the humor brought by the “ish” and its colloquial meaning from Jewish culture as “sort of” or “approximately.”  The truth is that many of his family members are practicing Buddhists and that Harold himself was deeply impacted by Buddhist thought.  I think he was one of those rare minds who could be introduced to the main principles of Buddhism and subsequently spend an entire lifetime observing them without, to my knowledge, ever formally practicing.  The man lived the Eight Fold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.  He embodied the principles that so many of my teachers emphasize: “Don’t talk about Buddhism.  Be a Buddha.”  Or, as the Dalai Lama has put it: “The world doesn’t need more Buddhists.  What the world needs is kindness.”  Harold embodied kindness. 

And generosity.  When he turned out with his wife at a Chicago fundraiser to support my Buddhist film Journey from Zanskar it wasn’t enough for him to show up and be the celebrity co-host – to pose for pictures and sign autographs.  He circulated and made sure everyone had a chance to say hello.  He and his wife donated their own money too. 

The connection he had to my Boys to Men? film and its sequel, now in production, called Rites Of Passage: Mentoring The Future, was even more personal.  He had sat in regular men’s circles in LA in the 80s and 90s.  He knew first-hand there was something that men needed from each other in order to become the men they always wanted to be.  He also implicitly understood the importance of pro-social rites of passage for youth to help them transition into young adulthood.  He was proud of the fact that both his sons had been Bar Mitzvah’d.    

Harold served for four years as an advisor and two years formally on my Warrior Films Board.  Even with his very full schedule he attended meetings regularly and offered everything he could.  I had the bad sense to schedule our yearly in person meetings in Chicago in December. Harold always drove downtown without complaint - during rush hour in the worst conceivable weather - to attend our dinner-time meetings.  Every year he offered to pay the bill and I always refused.  Finally, he took to surreptitiously paying the bill in advance.

One of his great gifts was turning public events into seemingly personal encounters.  He turned up yearly at a fundraiser in San Francisco to support the Zen Hospice Center.  The year I went, what he said from the dais magically seemed to address all the personal questions I had for him. His warmth and self-effacing openness never betrayed the fact that he must have made dozens of presentations at similar events.  He was so generous with his time and his self-effacing humor. 

One tremendous gift I received from him was his mentorship regarding my career.  I’ve long been troubled by wounds dating back to the making of Hoop Dreams. The pain recurs regularly, even to this day. Talk about Groundhog Day!  Sometimes I do feel stuck waking to the same circumstances in an endless loop.  Fortunately, not every day.  Harold helped me sort through a workable strategy toward reconciliation and acceptance.

Perhaps the greatest gift I received from him was when he sent me a script of his based on his personal life after college.  He’d worked on it off and on for many years.  It was a sweet story about a young man seeking to find himself - working through family and relationship issues - while working in a hospital mental ward.  I told him there was potential there – a small scale, coming of age drama – but it still needed a lot of work.  We talked about the difficulties of making effective drama when you’re still too identified with the primary character and his experiences.  A challenge I know from years of trying to make a script based on my family’s life reach its full potential.

But the gift was that he saw fit to send me the script and solicit my opinion.  Mentors understand that seeking a mentee’s honest feedback is one of the greatest ways they can honor them.  It’s a way of blessing them into a recognition and acceptance of their own greatness.  It’s a way of acknowledging them as a peer.  Harold did this time and time again for me.

He always welcomed me to visit him on set.  I visited the set for Ice Harvest north of Chicago and for Year One in the desert sands of New Mexico.  Like a documentary filmmaker, I think he was partially interested to see what might emerge from the chemistry of personalities interacting.  He introduced me to John Cusack and Randy Quaid from the former film and Jack Black and Michael Cera from the latter.  I also think that inviting friends to his sets were his way of normalizing the extraordinary process of filmmaking, of humanizing it. Over the years I too have sought ways to turn the some times brutalizing process of filmmaking into its own voyage of discovery, not sacrificing even the film’s smallest means to the film’s greater end.  Though we never discussed it I sensed that Harold shared this aim.  

He embodied another fundamental principle of mentorship – the mentor must be fed alongside the mentee.  The relationship has to be reciprocal.  Whether it was my comments on his script, my enthusiastic appreciation for his films, the satisfaction he took in my films, or the simple joy he got out of being helpful to me, I do believe our relationship fed him in some small way.

I think Harold sensed how disappointed I was in myself for not being a Hollywood success. When he was finishing Year One my wife and I visited him on the Sony lot.  He bought us lunch, brought us to the editing suite to show us some scenes he was working on, and then brought us to the mixing soundstage where they were adding and polishing sound effects. I believe he wanted me to feel comfortable and at home – to make me feel like I belonged.  For that gift alone I can weep with gratitude even now.

That was the last time I saw him.  He said that he was going to take some time off.  I didn’t know then that he already knew about his illness and that he’d spend the next four years fighting it.  

His example was the closest I've come in my life - in a literal, physical proximity sense - to a single human being who seemed the complete realization of both his artistic goals and his personal behavior.  He was successful both in what he did and who he was.  Both the artist and the man were all they could be.  A true Laughing Buddha.  I miss him already and the grief that I feel is real.  But the gratitude for having had him in my life as a mentor and friend is real too and is boundless.

I also feel complete, with no regrets.  The last few years, as I knew he was sick and dying, I emailed him occasionally when I thought of him – to thank him for all he did for me, to acknowledge what a profound impact he’d made, and to bless him on his own journey.  Which brings me to an essential lesson for the mentee – remember the teacher!

Now with him gone, I’ve already started asking myself, “What would Harold do?”  I wish I could channel him to help solve a thorny problem I’m facing right now.  Or maybe it is his voice I can hear telling me not to react.  “Let it be.”  Maybe.  All I know is when I grow up, I want to be like Harold.