Friday, April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert

It's hard for me to write these days. I'm not entirely sure why.  I used to write for the sheer relief and joy it brought me.  Now, I stare at a blank page for much longer than is comfortable when I need to even send an email.  Sometimes I think the post-traumatic stress I experienced, and still experience, from when my son was in the hospital has fundamentally changed me, and not for the better. It seems to have a lasting impact on my ability to express myself -- or perhaps even to feel joy. My mind tells me it's too dangerous. 
One person who helped teach me about the joy in writing was Roger Ebert.  He died yesterday, and I am quite sad. Ebert showed me a lot of things - I learned so much from him, and a surprisingly small percentage of it about film.  A huge part of the beauty of his written film reviews, for me, was his fascination and comprehension of human nature, and his thoughtfulness about the human condition.
I used to sometimes watch Siskel & Ebert growing up, and I think that's how I first encountered Roger. I enjoyed it.  They were entertaining.  I didn't think much about who Roger was as a person. I could see he had a great sense of humor. I liked him. He was overweight, which I also liked. In my earlier days, I was fond of people who could be overweight or disabled or whatever and risk going out in public.  In my own mind, if I was fat, I shouldn't be seen in public. And I was rather significantly overweight in my early 20's. I was not significantly overweight at other times, yet still thought of myself as fat and therefore of less value.  (I still think like this, but at least now I'm conscious of it and don't have to believe what I think.)
In 1990, I moved from New Jersey to Boulder, Colorado.  I fell in love with Boulder. I'm still in love with Boulder. I was fortunate enough to get hired into a position at the University of Colorado at Boulder (known, to my own consternation, as "CU").  Every year, CU would host the Confernce on World Affairs (CWA).  The CWA was, and is, a unique conference that everyone is invited to at no charge.  All those who participate, whether presenters or audience, pay their own way, find their own housing, etc.  And year after year, people come.
Roger Ebert was one of them.  For 25 years, he came and did what he called 'Cinema Interruptus'.  He would pick a film.  The film would be showed on the first night of the conference, with no interruptions.  The next 4 nights, everyone would gather and watch the film interruptus-style.  Anyone could yell out "STOP!", and ask a question or make a comment.  Roger would answer or comment as he saw fit. The first time I went, I hardly knew what to expect. It was my husband ozzie's idea to go. I loved the experience, and came back as many years as I could. I considered it one of the many incredibly positive side effects of living in Boulder. While it was certainly about the film, for me it was really all about Ebert - in the best possible way.
What one learned about Roger at Cinema Interruptus was quite a bit. He's thoughtful, intelligent, funny.  He's good company.  Beneath that was compassion, love and an incredible humanity. Roger could see the wholeness of humans, from best to worst, and he could articulate his thoughts so well. 
There were comedic downsides. There was the guy who always sat in about the 10th row on the far right side.  "Roger?!", he'd yell out when he had a comment. He was frequently looking for approval and validation.  One of the surprising things about Ebert was how great a crowd-handler he was.  He could usually find the right way to keep things moving and yet still be kind. Interruptus could have been downright maddening if the right person hadn't led it. Like talk radio without Neil Conan. The cast of audience characters was remarkably static year after year.  Even the most annoying commenters I began to think fondly of over time. And I was one of them.  One year, Ebert mentioned, as he occasionally did, that he had chosen to 'not necessarily believe in God'. I don't remember if he used the word atheist. I asked him, in front of everyone, why he had chosen that?  Some people booed - they thought I was some God-loving religious type trying to castigate him. In fact, it was a simple, authentic question, because I love hearing about how people experience the world, spiritually. He later wrote an essay with a beautiful answer to that question (I don't mean to say that he wrote it because I asked it.)  Also, it was good to know I could survive getting booed by a few people.
At some point, Roger was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and the salivary glands. He lost a lot of weight because of it.  He went through devastating treatments and surgeries. He eventually lost his ability to both eat and to speak. Perhaps two of the things he loved most.  But he could still write - and thankfully so. He took to blogging and tweeting and had many strong opinions that he seemed to relish expressing.  And I relished reading them. I missed his "audible" personality at the CWA.  For a couple of years, he kept coming and would type his comments, using a computer voice to read them. After a few more surgeries, he came for one last year. His face was disfigured; his spirit was anything but. I turned to my good friend Paul and said "I guess when you really love somebody, it doesn't matter what they look like."  I was reminded of my grandfather, who had a stroke at about age 60. It didn't matter to me that half of his face was kind of frozen or that he couldn't speak very well. I loved him no matter what. When I looked at Roger, I didn't see his physical appearance as much as I saw him. And I loved him, too.
The last year he was there, Paul and I were sitting down in the front when Roger and his wife Chaz walked by on their way to the front of the room. We both smiled, with much love, and said hi to him. He smiled back. At that time, his face kind of always looked like he was smiling.  But you could tell, somehow from his energy, when he really was. 
The CWA now calls the session "Ebert Interruptus", and other film critics now host it.  I doubt I will go again. As Ebert used to say, doing the week-long session was self-indulgent.  But doing it with him was far beyond that.  It was full of elevation, inspiration, awareness and love. I'm a lucky girl to have been in that room.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

Winston Churchill

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