Roger Ebert,

Roger Ebert,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 7 1998 3:30 AM

Roger Ebert,

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       For the last 29 years I have been coming here to Boulder, Colo., for a week every spring for the Conference on World Affairs. It is like no other conference I can imagine. More than 100 members of the chattering classes buy their own airplane tickets to fly here, are paid no honorariums, sleep in guest bedrooms, eat lunch at the student union, and appear on three or four panels every day--panels not of their own choosing and often not on their specialties. Newcomers are recruited because veterans bludgeon them to attend. Friendships have ended because people were not invited back.
       I do a shot-by-shot analysis of a film for two hours every afternoon, 10 hours in all, in Macky Auditorium. For years we used a 16 mm projector with a freeze-frame attachment, but now laserdisc has made it easy to stop, advance one frame at a time, back up, and subject a film to group analysis. "Democracy in the dark," we call it: Anyone can shout out "stop!" and then talk about what's on the screen. This year's film is DarkCity, by Alex Proyas, about a city operated by aliens as a workshop for experimenting on human behavior. It is visionary and bold, and opened to a fourth as much business as the clunky Lost in Space. Have audiences lost their will to be shown something new?
       The conference was run for 48 years by the loud, impossible, insulting, tyrannical Howard Higman, who was beloved. He chose the speakers, ran roughshod over the committee, made the rules, and infuriated the University of Colorado by using its facilities and yet paying little heed to its requests. He often wore a sport coat that looked like an explosion at the Tibetan rug factory. When Higman died two years ago, I suggested the coat be preserved and given to each year's keynote speaker, to wear as a talisman. The coat was feared lost, but this year it miraculously reappeared, like the Shroud of Turin, and will be offered to Studs Terkel when he delivers the 50th anniversary speech on Wednesday.
       There was no conference the year before Higman died; the old curmudgeon and the university had arrived at a furious standoff. Now the conference is finding a new footing in its third year under the direction of Professor Sven Steinmo, who has made needed improvements but raised some eyebrows by inviting Marianne Williamson to deliver the opening day plenary address. "Howard is looking down in disbelief," I told David Finkle, the critic and satirical singer who is back again this year. We ran into each other in the Stage House, a used-book store on the downtown mall. We decided that if there is a heaven, Howard will know Williamson is right, and if there isn't, he'll have the last laugh.
       Over the years here in Boulder I have been on a panel, with the Greek ambassador to the United Nations, about masturbation; heard Ted Turner outline his plans for CNN; and attended a Betty Dodson workshop on turning Polaroids of vaginas into watercolors. I have learned that I can draw, been debriefed by a former priest, visited the Internet for the first time, and watched a communal family living on the stage of the auditorium. I heard Buckminster Fuller speak for three hours (his voice carried by loudspeakers to those who could not get in) and saw Chief Fortunate Eagle, who led the sit-in at Alcatraz, walk out of a panel in protest after it was picketed by topless lesbians.
       Boulder is how America would be if the 1960s had prevailed. I cannot imagine this conference existing anywhere else. Allen Ginsberg died while I was here last year, and of course there was a reading of his work in a coffee shop, right down the street from the Beat Bookstore and across from the Zen restaurant with the barbecued tofu I like so much. When I come here time stops, and this year is like last year, and I have always been here, and it is the rest of the year that is an illusion. On Tuesday I will order one of the famous burgers at Tom's Tavern, and at Jane Butcher's party on Thursday night someone will tell the story about the British ambassador who said he was staying with some lovely people who lived on Baseline Road, and rhymed it with Vaseline.

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