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For Roger

April 5, 2013

Rog 1

“Start writing. Short sentences. Describe it. Just describe it.”

Roger said, when I asked him about writer’s block. Then he quoted the first three paragraphs of his “Persona” review and told me that it had completely baffled him in 1967 but this strategy worked brilliantly. Tonight, as I sit here numbly staring at the screen with the hardest writer’s block I’ve ever known, I place my fingers on the keyboard to follow the advice of the greatest man I know, and just describe it.

How do you describe it? Knowing Roger Ebert. Most people gasp in delight at the mention of his name, usually followed by outpourings of affections, “I grew up reading him,” they would say, “I watched him every week!” The connection is always personal. The love deep.

I didn’t know him like that. I didn’t grow up reading him and only caught At The Movies on television occasionally. We met through the internet – as writers – after he had lost the ability to speak, and that is where majority of our conversations took place. It started with a comment about “The Hurt Locker” that quickly descended into emails, and haiku, and then there was never a reason to stop. Roger is a natural conversationalist and a collector of interesting people. He loved holding court, even virtually, and playing matchmaker linking people together, introducing and shuffling. He had an innate sense for character and impeccable judgment of situations and he was proud of that, telling me that it was a gift. He brought the Far-Flung Correspondents together, even though at the beginning I thought it was bold if presumptuous – who is going to read about a couple random strangers talk about movies on the net just because Roger Ebert decided they should? But he was delighted in the idea and convinced that it was valuable, and he proceeded to make it happen. I remember standing at a freezing bus stop one winter morning on my way to a soul-crunching job when I got the email from Roger asking me to write for him. Feeling inadequate, I asked for time to think about it. “Why?” He asked. “I don’t have any academic background in film,” I said. “And you think I did?” “But I’m not you!” “You’re not me, that’s why I need you on the site. You are going to end up in a very interesting place in this lifetime.”

Those words sank into me like a shot to the heart, and I have never forgotten them.

And that’s how he was: persistent, decisive, wise, and generous. He embraced people from all walks of life with all kinds of beliefs. He was incredibly open-minded and thoughtful. Intensely curious – if something caught his attention he will focus on it until he figures it out. He also had a great reserve of sympathy and used them with abandon, especially for those who need them. He kept up correspondences with people who he feared would be lost without them, for years. He forwarded to selected friends letters of cries for help that he would receive, sometimes a stranger’s devastating life story, and asked for support. He was always busy and on a deadline but these stories kept coming, and he always found time for them when he could.

Rog 2

I’m making it sound like I know him, and out of the hundreds and thousands of emails we’ve exchanged perhaps I do know a part of him, but not all. He was an intensely private person and one who kept great many friends, to each he has a particular personal connection to. I can’t help but feel that every one of those lucky people would feel exactly how I feel, having been basked in the glow of such a generous and joyful spirit.

In our short time I did come to know one side of Roger: his poetic, idealistic side, and that is the one we bonded over. He loved haiku and appreciated the Romantic poets. He could quote Yeats at the drop of a hat and work sonnets into an otherwise mundane paragraph that makes you wonder how it could have existed without. His fierce intelligence was unparalleled, and you could sense the gears turning, jolting, from one to the other. It is not unlike him to cover topics of philosophy, politics, culture, and film all in one email, before finishing it with a poetic flourish.

And then there was Ebertfest, the annual gathering of all that he loved in his home town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I, along with the rest of the FFCs, was inducted into the circle of guests four years ago and made to feel at once at home. Roger organized a special brunch just for the Correspondents in that first year, all of whom he had never met, and spent time with each person, asking about their families, looking at the gifts presented to him from foreign lands, and patiently jotting down concise and hilarious notes that he would then ask someone to read aloud. We sat there and looked forward to those notes, those brief moments of connections from him. We all loved him and admired him. He sat on a couch against the wall or on a special lazy-boy armchair at the back of the beautiful Virginia theater and people huddled around him, taking photos and asking for autographs and telling him how much he means to them. He patiently indulged every request. At times you could tell he wanted to say something but couldn’t before the moment was gone and it frustrated him, but he never let it slow him down. He was always there and he was loved.

And that was what it came down to: how deeply and fiercely and widely Roger was loved by all who knew and did not know him. He was that kind of person: an inimitable man, a passionate soul, generous spirit, and utterly one of a kind. Beyond it all, he made it personal. Always. He believed in goodness and he lived it, every day. He loved Chaz and his family completely and he told the world about them. Millions of people are mourning the loss of someone whose words have touched them and resonated with that of their own. He never spoke from above – even though he had the power – he spoke from the heart.

And it is from the heart that this deep hole will remain. I have been lucky to know him, to love him, to scribble random notes and long thoughts to him, to be privy to his friendship and his protection. It is a pure honor. To me, he was a complicated mix of protective big brother, patient mentor, and loyal friend. He accepted everything I had to offer, spotted what I didn’t even know I had, and nurtured them, as he did for many others. He sent me my first Criterion film and introduced me to Simenon, Colette, Cather, McCarthy. We talked about Bresson. “You know… when someone falls in love with Bresson, it’s the sign of a true cineaste. Not everybody does.” A few weeks later, Notes on the Cinematographer by Bresson arrived in the mail. I didn’t tell him about my first film until it was finished. He never asked why, only that I send a DVD instead of an online screener. Then he wrote me a beautiful note, and it was enough. I’m not sure why he believed, but I am so, so grateful.

And that is all. When I saw the news on twitter (which he fittingly got me onto), I stared for a full long while and then clicked refresh, and refresh, and refresh, until the condolences started to blur and my chest felt hollow. I cried. I called my dearest friends and told them what an amazing person he was and how it is unfair and how I wish there was more time, but there was not. Then I found myself walking outside, down streets, walking like Rog once loved to do. It was sunny and people were coming home from work and everyone looked happy, but I felt numb. Eventually I ended up at a park that overlooked the freeway down a grassy hill with the sun shining brightly and dogs running around, playing (he would’ve liked that). I picked a spot and sat down, clasped my hands, looked to the tallest tip of a lone power tower on the horizon and said my goodbyes. Then, a gust of wind blew by, and I thought maybe somewhere he is looking down and saying: Gracie, I’ll get back to you.

Rog 3

Chicago, May 2011. Photos by Grace Wang

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47 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    April 5, 2013 7:59 AM

    He may have lost his voice years ago, but, even today, you have given him one.

  2. April 5, 2013 9:03 AM

    This is a lovely, lovely piece, Grace. I’m so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. And at the same time–I am so happy that you & Roger met, that he brought you to Ebertfest and that I have had a chance to meet you and other wonderful film lovers! Life is curious sometimes, with all its twists & turns. See you soon.

  3. April 5, 2013 10:42 AM

    What a wonderful tribute.

  4. Justine permalink
    April 5, 2013 10:54 AM

    beautiful post.

  5. Sarah permalink
    April 5, 2013 11:00 AM

    really sweet gracie

  6. April 5, 2013 12:21 PM

    You do him justice with your beautiful words. Anyone who has ever read Roger’s reviews will love this.

  7. April 5, 2013 3:35 PM

    Yesterday I felt empty and lost, but dry-eyed. Today, the tears have come twice: once when thinking of your film opening an Ebertfest that will be more like a remembrance than a film festival, the second time when I started reading your penultimate paragraph.

    I remember when I met you at Ebertfest, but I remember even more your meeting up with Roger. It was the year you came a couple days late. When he saw you, his eyes glowed (as did yours). For you, it was an honor for your film to be selected as the opening night film for Ebertfest, but for him, I’m sure it was an equally great honor to be able to show it. I mean, he programmed Days of Heaven SECOND.

    My sincerest condolences on the passing of our friend. I can’t imagine my life without the people in it who I met, in some way or other, through Roger Ebert. The world may be a little emptier without him in it, but how much fuller it is because he existed at all.

    • Grace permalink*
      April 5, 2013 3:52 PM

      No, no. He admired DAYS OF HEAVEN greatly. It is normal programming procedure to have a short play before a feature.

      I thank you for that memory. It was a blur for me. I am glad you saw what you saw.

  8. April 5, 2013 4:57 PM

    Awesome tribute to Roger. Thank you.

  9. April 5, 2013 5:06 PM

    Reblogged this on ellidwek and commented:
    Yes. This is beautiful.

  10. April 5, 2013 5:20 PM

    Very interesting. You definitely had a privileged relationship with him. I feel like I know him a little bit better thanks to you.

  11. April 5, 2013 5:28 PM

    What a lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing from your soul.

  12. April 5, 2013 7:01 PM

    ‘Beauty is truth, truth Beauty’ Keats.

  13. April 5, 2013 8:09 PM

    What a wonderful man he was. I saw his wife on tv last night and how much she cared for him. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  14. April 5, 2013 9:28 PM

    Beautifully written. What a fine tribute to a fine mine. I am sure he would be honored.
    I am so sorry for your loss…and for our collective loss as a culture.
    Warmest thoughts are with you

  15. April 5, 2013 9:48 PM

    One of Roger’s more brilliant ideas, the Far Flung Correspondents on his site. It was made possible because you and others made it real in his mind. And he was of course right. Thank you for this beautiful piece, Grace.

  16. April 6, 2013 12:14 AM

    Beautiful post.

  17. April 6, 2013 1:16 AM

    A beautiful and heartfelt tribute. Thank you.

  18. April 6, 2013 1:22 AM

    Thanks for this – I have to admit I’m not that familiar with him because I do not watch TV. But of course I’ve heard of him for years – I have a sense of why people are so bereaved because of reading your words. Thanks
    Congrats on FP

  19. April 6, 2013 1:36 AM

    Gone, but not forgotten.

  20. April 6, 2013 3:02 AM

    Best movie reviewer ever. I even loved reading his reviews I had zero intention of ever seeing.
    Thanks for the heartfelt tribute.

  21. April 6, 2013 5:11 AM

    Wow. What an amazing tribute to a wonderful man I really knew so little about. Of course I’d heard his name, but the personal connection? None. I now feel I missed out, but I am glad for his life and that he will be remembered for forever. Thank you for this.

    I can now confidently say, “Robert, you will truly, deeply be missed.”

  22. April 6, 2013 5:12 AM

    We never had At The Movies in Ireland, but Roger Ebert was my go-to film critic online when I wanted to know whether a film was worth watching or not. He wrote beautifully, whatever the topic, and he will be missed.

    Fittingly, your tribute to him is also a beautiful piece of writing.

  23. April 6, 2013 6:37 AM

    Beautiful!

  24. April 6, 2013 6:38 AM

    Reblogged this on You Should Watch This and commented:
    Read this beautiful post about the ultimate movie critic and human being.

  25. mrtso1989 permalink
    April 6, 2013 7:15 AM

    i thought and i hoped it was April’s fool when i saw the news.
    but it was not.

  26. April 6, 2013 7:37 AM

    A lovely tribute to an incredibly talented chap! Well done mate! Reblogged.

  27. April 6, 2013 7:38 AM

    Reblogged this on MikesFilmTalk and commented:
    And yet another side to this multi-facetted man. Great tribute.

  28. April 6, 2013 3:48 PM

    I’ve been reading a lot of remembrances about Roger of the last few days, but yours really struck a chord with me Grace. Thank you for writing this and sharing your relationship with him. It made me start writing again: http://bit.ly/141b7xp

  29. April 7, 2013 12:01 AM

    Thank you for filling in the blanks on a man that I only knew through reviews. I often thought there is more to him. There must be for a person with so much insight and passion about characters, art and people. Your tribute filled in those blanks for me and helped me appreciate and understand him in ways I wouldn’t have had the privilege of otherwise. An insightful and heartfelt look at a man whose tribute shouldn’t have been any less. Thank you for being his voice, and allowing us to listen.

  30. April 7, 2013 3:32 AM

    Last year, I received the photos from 2012 Ebertfest along with “Life Itself” translated in Korean. I placed them at my home instead of my dormitory room because I wanted my parents to know how important our mutual friend was to me, but they have never looked at, and it seems that they still think I just got acquainted with him and nothing more. I finally told them about the news today, but they didn’t care much about how I felt, and that hurts.

    I have been going through something as intense as(or more intense than) what I struggled through after 2010 Ebertfest. I feared at that time that it would be the last time I saw him, and that reasonable worry is now coming into reality. I poured what I thought and felt to my recent writing after hearing the news about his death, but, boy, it still hurts and baffles me.

    I heard that Ebertfest will continue, and I am glad to hear about that news. Maybe its life is as finite as his exceptional life, but I will go there whenever I can afford to do – for meeting you and our Internet friends. Roger cannot recommend us new overlooked movies anymore, but maybe we will be able to do something about it, while following the examples shown by the wonderful man who kindly reached to us and supported us.

    Again, thanks for your eloquent writing, Grace.

    “I’ve seen this before. It happens to old people.”

    “Life is a state of mind.”

    – From “Being There” (1979)

  31. April 7, 2013 5:38 PM

    Thank you for a most moving tribute to Roger Ebert. You’re fortunate to have known him so deeply. My one encounter with Roger was at Indigo Books on Bay Street during TIFF 2011. For me, this once-in-a-lifetime experience would have to suffice from now on.

  32. April 7, 2013 6:02 PM

    thank you for writing this.

    and thank you to Roger for telling you this:

    I asked for time to think about it. “Why?” He asked. “I don’t have any academic background in film,” I said. “And you think I did?” “But I’m not you!” “You’re not me, that’s why I need you on the site. You are going to end up in a very interesting place in this lifetime.”

    got quite Weepy (in a very good way) at the humanity of you both.

    *wavingfromlosangeles*

    _teamgloria x

  33. April 7, 2013 6:38 PM

    I don’t know a lot about Ebert’s life I must admit. But one of my favourite things about him is how often, when I read the ‘Critical Reception’ section of films on Wikipedia, his views contrasted with those of most other reviewers. If a movie was panned he wouldn’t be afraid to go against the grain with reasonable and informed evidence. A small thing, but important nonetheless and something that made him a great writer and example for journalists.

  34. sl606 permalink
    April 7, 2013 7:54 PM

    A lovely tribute…

  35. April 7, 2013 10:01 PM

    He is someone I always admired. How wonderful it is that you got to meet him through your writing.

  36. April 8, 2013 10:03 AM

    Been reading days of Roger, this is simply gorgeous. Thank you!

  37. April 8, 2013 10:21 AM

    I’m glad he sent me to your blog via his blog a long time ago. I commented and commented on his blog, pouring tens of thousands of words onto it. The first time he commented to me was when I rather fiercely defended his favorite blogs (including yours, which I’ve always admired) by ripping into a rather inconsiderate commenter. He simply wrote “Owned.”

    I had to stop commenting as much as I used to a while ago because the new spam catcher hated me. On Chaz’s recent post about Roger’s passing, I commented, crying, carefully choosing words that reflected my sorrow, respect and sense of loss. And, quite appropriately, the spam-catcher caught it.

  38. April 8, 2013 12:00 PM

    Thanks Grace. I’ve been in such a state of shock, but I must come out of it and write. It was on a dare from Tom Dark, prodded by a dare from Roger that I started to blog. Haven’t made much progress due to illness, however I recall you telling me “I should, I have to write.”. I promise to get back to it in the not too distant future. Thanks to Roger, thanks to Tom, thanks to you.

  39. vishalbheeroo permalink
    April 21, 2013 10:08 AM

    Interesting and delightful. I often face writerz block.
    Vishal
    http://www.vishalbheeroo.wordpress.com

  40. Martin permalink
    January 23, 2014 12:58 PM

    Thank you for this. I found myself thinking of him today and happened upon your blog. Very nice to read. I left many comments on Roger’s blog back in the day, and he only replied to me once with a single word: “Ahem.” I never knew what he meant by that–could have been anything. But given how many people say the things you do, and how much of his character shone through in his writing, I’m going to assume he was smiling when he wrote it.

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