That's a window in the the state of a repressed writer. Then today upon the announcement of the death of Roger Ebert, the prolific patron of film criticism who helmed the Chicago Sun Times movie critic spot for 46 years, I felt a deep pain. It was heavy and not the pitiful kind you can so easily put upon yourself, like I have done, as I noted above, for months. I was sitting at my desk. It's at the ad agency where I work. I flicked over to the New York Times tab to confirm that the "RIP Roger Ebert" hashtag now trending on Twitter was true. The story had barely broke. It's weird being in that space then, among so many faces that have no sense of my identity as it ties to the movies, or movie criticism. "Oh, God," the trembling tenor of my words filled the immediate air. Everyone wanted to know and so I told them. In foreign lands like these sympathy is ephemeral though. I understood this and took to obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed for support. The virtual community was there in collective mourning. I tore out a sheet of legal paper and scribbled two sentences that would be the start of a blog post, the one that would break this long silence.
There was a terrible unintentional irony in the sentence, "Here's what's going to bring this blog back to life, words in memoriam for Roger Ebert," but that was the first one taken down with my runny blue pen. I've amended it. I struggle sometimes to understand how I can feel so much for a public figure I never knew. But Roger Ebert is one of those guys that even if you didn't know him you felt like you did. My mentor and great friend Howie Movshovitz has been Ebert's friend for decades. Howie is the longtime film critic at Colorado Public Radio. On a visit home at Christmastime last year, he regaled me with stories about Ebert's bickering relationship with Gene Siskel, with anecdotes about his hard drinking days, and mostly about his loyalty and generosity to him, and others, as a friend. Howie took a guest slot on "At The Movies" after Siskel died and the show was seeking a replacement. "You have to talk fast," is what Howie said to me about the experience after taping then. I asked him about it again at Christmastime. "My conversations with Roger were always additive," he said. They didn't quarrel or disagree meanly. It was non-competitive. They supported one another. There was mutual respect and fondness. I think they were just plum happy to talk about the movies together. They were those kind of friends.
In the late 1990s when I was enrolled in Howie's film history class at the University of Colorado in Denver, he told me about this thing called the Conference On World Affairs, which took place on the CU campus in Boulder every spring. He told me to go to it. Roger Ebert would be there and he would host an event called "Cinema Interruptus." It went like this. You watch a movie at beautiful Macky Auditorium on the first day in its entirety. You report back to the venue for the next four days in a futile and very fun attempt to see the film through to its end again. See, in those subsequent four days audience members are invited to yell out "STOP!" at any time during the movie, at which point they ask a question or make a statement about the shot or scene. To put things in context, the year we watched Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) on the first day we made it through the opening credits, and those just barely. Ebert was filled with knowledge and conversation points at every pause, creating dialogue and understanding of the images we were watching. It was like film school, but, you know, fun.
Ebert made talking about the movies fun.
There was a critic at the now defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver. I checked up on his reviews every week. He ranked them by grade and almost nothing made it past a C or perhaps a -B. I was about fifteen when I began this ritual, and even then he struck me as an unhappy person. He hated everything. No movie was good enough. Roger Ebert became a fresh voice in the competing local paper, The Denver Post, where his retrospective pieces were reprinted every Sunday. I heard his voice right away, as clear as a bell and happy to be there. His clarity. That was undeniable, even in those hazy grad school days were I temporarily cast him off in favor of Béla Baláz, Sergei Eisenstein, and other guys whose heads were somewhere beyond the stratosphere. But I'm a simple gal at heart. Nothing gets me more than a good nineteenth century vaudeville song, a bit of Turkish Delight, and quoting a scene from Ghostbusters (1984).
I went to Ebertfest, or "The Overlooked Film Festival" in 2008 with a dear friend. We were immediately endeared to the crowd, mostly natives to the Champagne-Urbana, Ill. area, who exhibited the most refreshing lack of pretension. The elders of the bunch carried Ziplock bags of boiled sweets, butterscotch and hard peppermints. And we learned that we could lay our faux Pashmina scarves across our seats and that would suffice to everyone as a placeholder. No arguments were waged. You'd never seen such manners! Roger was sick then. He wasn't there. Chaz, his wife, dialed him on her cell phone from the dais on stage and relayed his greetings. We were all thrilled of course. We watched movies day and night for five days. Paul Schrader was there with his own 35mm copy of Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), and the Philip Glass score to that movie has been running in my head with eerie pace since.
In the past few years usually whenever Roger was invoked it was to either describe the rich clarity of his writing abilities, or to note what a generous, loyal friend he'd been. Sometimes they sounded like eulogies, although he was still alive. I read an essay--that I can't seem to track down--that Roger wrote about his father. It's one of the most beautiful I've ever read. We've all seen the excerpts from his memoirs in the Sun Times obituary now, but I'll quote them here. They bear repeating:
I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world.
Before 8:30a.m. today I had called 911 (witnessed a hit and run), 311 (Housing complaint), my super and my landlord (terse words over a repeatedly broken boiler), and I don't know how you'd say I actually got to work. I arrived there surely, angry and unshowered, between some intersection of dejection and total fatigue. And that latent guilt. The sort that suggests I should act better than how I'm feeling, that I should be grateful. The day progressed as it always does. Deadlines were met. Fires were put out, as they like to say. On the subway, bodies seemed to swell. One man was within the densest point of the crowd. "Excuse me," his voice rang when the doors opened at his stop. The crowd cleared in a way I saw as oddly miraculous. He wasn't angry or rude or entitled, just direct. And it cut through the cacophony, graciously.
I'm home now, finally, and I'm writing a post about Roger Ebert that has brought my writing back to life.