Underground Film Journal

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Roger Ebert: Underground Film Critic

By Mike Everleth ⋅ September 16, 2009

This week, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences launched their new Archive of American Television video interview archive site, where you can watch tons of interviews with various TV personalities from both behind and in front of the camera.

Embedded above is the first third of a 90-minute interview with film critic Roger Ebert conducted on Nov. 2, 2005. This was back when Ebert was still co-hosting Ebert & Roeper, which was the 5th iteration of the long-running movie review show he started with Gene Siskel in the ’70s.

The reason I’m posting this on the Underground Film Journal is because about six minutes into the interview Ebert talks about his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper he’s written for since Sept. 1966. Before becoming the Sun-Times full-time film critic in April ’67, Ebert was a part-time feature writer and, as he says above, wrote some reviews of underground films. It’s a fascinating interview, so I urge you to watch it, but I did transcribe what he said about his “underground” days:

I had done some movie pieces for [the Sun-Times] as a feature writer. Second City in those days was dark on Monday nights and something called the Aardvark Cinematheque would show underground films there. I reviewed those.

Ok, that’s not much to go on, but I decided to do a little digging. According to the website Cinema Treasures, the Aardvark Cinematheque opened right around the time Ebert moved to Chicago in ’66 and was located at 1846 N. Wells St. in the Second City building, which as Ebert mentions in the above interview was “dark” on Mondays. But then in ’67 the Aardvark moved to Piper’s Alley 1608 N. Wells St. until it closed sometime in the ’70s.

The really bad news is that Roger Ebert’s online review archive only goes back to ’67 when he was reviewing full-time. There’s no archive — that I can find — of the films Ebert may have seen and reviewed at the Aardvark in ’66. Actually, the Sun-Times review archive is a bit problematic because it’s not searchable by date, but one can piece things together through various searches.

So far I can only find reviews of four films I would categorize as “underground” from Ebert’s early reviewing days. Two of them are Andy Warhol films, neither of which he liked very much. Chelsea Girls, reviewed on June 26, 1967, only got One Star; while Flesh, reviewed Dec. 10, 1969, received a better 2 1/2 Stars. Despite the low rankings and Ebert’s general disappointment in the films, the reviews are great reads. It’s unknown where Ebert saw Chelsea Girls, but he does point out that he saw Flesh at the Aardvark where it had been playing for “five or six weeks.”

The only other film I can find that Ebert specifically says he saw at the Aardvark is Mary Ellen Bute‘s adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake, reviewed on May 9, 1968 and given 3 Stars. I do have to say that I’m unfamiliar with Bute’s work, including Finnegan’s Wake. Lastly, Ebert reviewed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s midnight movie classic El Topo on Jan. 28, 1972, gave it 4 Stars and in 2007 added it to his Great Films list.

Beyond Ebert, there are a few other mentions of what screened at the Aardvark Cinematheque around the web.

1. Ray Pride compiles a list of Chicago movie milestones for New City Chicago that includes the Aardvark screening seven “obscene” films in 1967, although specific titles aren’t given.

2. On Feb. 1, 1968, the Aardvark hosted an album release party for the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. The band performed live and some Warhol films were screened, but I can’t tell if Warhol himself was in attendance.

3. Chicago musician and filmmaker Grant Strombeck had two of his films screened at the Aardvark, One (1966) and Shoot the Works (1968).

4. Barry Feinstein’s music-themed documentary You Are What You Eat featuring performances by Tiny Tim and the Mothers of Invention screened at the Aardvark sometime in 1969.

5. On March 11, 1970, there was a screening of the Doors documentary Feast of Friends, directed by Paul Ferrara.

6. And in an excerpt from Scott MacDonald’s awesome book Canyon Cinema, he mentions the influential publication Cinemanews out of San Francisco ran listings for the Aardvark, which was run by Jeff Begun at the time.

Typically when I read about underground film history it usually focuses on activity in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, so it was nice here to discover some tidbits about “the scene” in Chicago. The Windy City now has a huge underground film scene going with the long-running Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Facets Multimedia company, filmmakers like Usama Alshaibi and more.

This post seems like just the tip of an iceberg about a fine underground tradition in Chicago. If I dig up more info, I’ll be sure to do follow up entries.