“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.
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.