I don’t quite know where to put Roger Ebert’s death right now.
I can’t say that I am shocked. But Roger has taken a step back before, only to come on stronger. I am now guessing that his “leave of presence” note was written over weeks, and as directors have said about films, “escaped” as late as possible rather than being “released.” Roger was not one to give an inch – in terms of his work – if he could help it.
I saw his wife, Chaz, at the Independent Spirit Awards at the end of February and we talked about this year’s Ebertfest. I got the impression that she thought it might be the last one for Roger… whether he attended or not. In recent years, his attendance was not inevitable, but everyone – led by Chaz – carried on as though that recliner at the back of the Virginia Theater that was installed for Roger after he first fought off cancer was filled. And it was, really. Roger’s passion filled it and the room and for five days every year, his entire hometown.
The 15th Annual EbertFest (nee’ The Overlooked Film Festival) will start in just 13 days. It’s been a tough weekend for those of us who were pre-cancer and post-cancer in Roger’s life. The party that Roger and Chaz and Nate (and so many others, especially Mary Susan Britt) started 15 years ago evolved into a bit of a tribute event… everyone thrilled to get to see The Man and to hear a few words from his talking machine, inspired by his passions.
We used to go to Steak-n-Shake, 20 or 30 strong, after the late show each night. Roger told jokes. Roger sang. Roger picked up the tab. Roger took pictures with college kids who often didn’t recognize the stars and great filmmakers who were sitting just feet from them.
Even though he could no longer participate in the grub, the Steak-n-Shake would still put up the “Welcome Roger Ebert” sign. In the last couple years, they didn’t, though his name was emblazoned through the restaurant, the center of their marketing campaign. At first, those of us who used to go with him would go inside and eat, in honor of what was. Then, it just started to feel weird. We were honoring this man’s great pleasure… from which he had forced himself, in an insanely brave way, to move on.
Ebertfest started doing group lunches and dinners for guests of the festival after the first couple of Overlooked years. Back then, Roger hosted and did every Q&A and ran back and forth to the Cultural Center where lunch was hosted. He’d eat something and kibbitz with everyone and make sure that he barely had a moment to breathe. After he stopped eating, Roger still showed up, just to shake hands and offer hugs and to remind us all how alive he really was.
We lost Dusty Cohl, one of the founders of TIFF, and “collaborator” of Roger’s a few years ago. It wasn’t the same. Roger was ill. Chaz was working non-stop. Nate was coming in from Georgia. 70mm prints were getting harder to get from studios. Family reunions get hard when the leaders of the family pass. We still have Joan Cohl (who has been a great force for good in my life) and Chaz, of course… but the four of them were connected… the foursome was a whole.
Roger took me on from just about the start of my career on the internet, 15 years ago. He used to be the star writer for Yahoo! Internet Life. The Hot Button, as it once was known, and roughcut.com, as it once existed, got a lot of praise from him on those pages. He called my column “gossip of the highest order” and that compliment stuck in my craw for… well, it still does. It still comes to mind more often than I wish it would.
As we developed more of a relationship, it got more complicated. I can’t say we were close. There was always an arms length. But there was always a big smile and a hug from Chaz and a moment taken from his busy schedule. A few minutes at TIFF the first year he returned after his throat surgery… he wasn’t being brave… he was living. No giving up. And professionally, he was very generous with me.
I’m going to stop writing now. Try to figure out what I am doing in the days to come. Am I going to Ebertfest? Can I deal with it? Can I deal with not going?
Anyway… who gives a fuck how I feel about it? My friends do, I know. Friends I shared with Roger do, I know. So today, I mourn. Tomorrow, I start to sort out the rest. And I’ll write some more.
Bye, Roger. You left this earth a better man. You gave to others. You embodied your legend. You gave so much of your life to the art form you loved… the only other vice to stay with you to the end being your epic wife, Chaz, who embodies the love and loyalty that every bride and groom dream of on their wedding days. You will be missed in so many ways by so many people.