Roger Ebert,

Roger Ebert,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 8 1998 3:30 AM

Roger Ebert,

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       When you arrive at the Conference on World Affairs you are handed a booklet with all the panels listed in it. I find that at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, I will be on a panel at Boulder High School titled "Is TV the Real World?" The only other panelist will be Mary-Ellis Bunim. I discover that she is the co-creator of The Real World and Road Rules, two daily soap operas on MTV.
       I've never seen either show. I could of course fall back on years of panelmanship and subtly shift the topic to one of my own devising. But a trip to the Web reveals that her shows are incredibly popular and well known, especially among viewers under age 25. I am obviously out of the loop.
       I decide it would be rude to saddle Mary-Ellis Bunim with a co-panelist who has never seen her work. I go to iGuide and find that the shows play back-to-back in Boulder, at noon and 12:30 p.m. I decide to watch them. This means missing the plenary address by Marianne Williamson, a sacrifice I am willing to make.
       I watch the two shows, reality-based soap operas. The Real World is about young people of great ethnic diversity who play fictional characters much like themselves, while living together (I quote Time magazine) "in a home seemingly decorated from a Pottery Barn catalog." Road Rules assembles a similar cast, puts them in a Winnebago, and sends them on an odyssey across America.
       On both shows the young characters face real-life problems. Road Rules opens with a brief conversation between two young women. One's parents have just got divorced. The other's mom is dead. They share. We cut to the main story. The Winnebago has arrived in Key West, and the characters visit an airport where some get to loop the loop in a stunt plane, while others are strapped into a harness on top of a wing and get to fly upside down.
       On The Real World, the character Laura is dating two men. Well, "a man and a boy." She must choose. She asks Lewis, the man, if the fact that she is also dating Mitchell, the boy, will "jeopardize our relationship in any way?" At first he says it will not. Later in the show he tells her it will. "I play with fire," she says to the camera. "I do get burned, but it makes me stronger when it comes to men." On tomorrow's episode, we'll meet "Arnie, gay Miami's version of Joe."
       After a panel devoted to the memory of Howard Higman, who founded the conference, it is time for my annual visit to Daddy Bruce's BBQ shack. Daddy Bruce died in 1994; his son, Bruce Randolph Jr., greets me. "Daddy was known for feeding the homeless at a time before they were known as the homeless," he tells me, showing me his father's honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Colorado, which hangs on the wall.
       I order the three-meat combo. Daddy Bruce's is large enough for four tables, a counter with three stools, and a piano. "I am teaching myself the piano," says Randolph Jr., a tall man who looks a lot like his father. "I've been making a lot of progress. A Swiss woman came in here and taught me the theory of the circle of the keys. She's in town studying at the Buddhist institute." He explains the circle of the keys to me. We agree that the difference between a C chord and a C seventh chord is the difference between plain music and the blues. "You gotta have that black key," he explains.
       I drive out to Ead's Smoke Shop, the largest newsstand in the world, and observe that almost all the midafternoon customers are men. Two of them are in the porno section, but all the others are in the section devoted to automobile magazines. This mirrors an observation I made many years ago in Soho, when pornography was first legal. You'd walk around a corner and see three or four men in raincoats peering into a store window. As you drew closer, expecting to see a porno display, you'd invariably find them scrutinizing radio tubes.

Roger Ebert is film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of the television program Siskel & Ebert.