Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert - My Hero

I was watching an episode of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake late last night when I opened Facebook.
I read the news on a post by The Film Stage. With one hand over my mouth, I let the words sink in.

'R.I.P. Roger Ebert, who passed away at the age of 70 today. You will be greatly missed.' 

I re-read the closing lines on his final blog. I checked his Twitter to see if he had posted anything after that. Nothing. His last words on the Internet were these: "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

Are you kidding me?

The next one hour was a haze. Sadness. I haven't liked many people so dearly and I haven't seen many deaths in my life. (My Grandpa passed away five years ago and I thought that was one unique experience. I didn't feel a thing for a long time and broke down only later when he was being carried away. I wept a lot but I don't know if those tears were real. I wasn't faking it, of course, but there's this fine line I was walking.) My twitter feed went berserk with emotions ranging from shocked to tearful, overflowing with such great pieces of writing, eulogizing Ebert, that it made me happy. Happy that he passed away right when he did and not later. After his final blog announcing "A Leave of Presence", the timing was perfect. Don't get me wrong; who wouldn't want a person they love to live longer? In 2012-13, his 46th year being a film critic for Chicago Sun-Times, he wrote the most of his career: a grand total of 306 movie reviews. It's not just about leaving when one's on top of their game. This feels like a perfect, cinematic ending. He told Chaz that if this [cancer] takes him, he has lived a great and full life.

"We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition." 

I asked Vishal if I would be wrong to put his signed personal note from last year's Ebertfest as my cover picture. I went ahead and did that before he could reply. He said,"no i guess.. grief covers everything.." I realize that we have changed. Everyone. We don't deal with our grief by shutting in anymore. We have begun to grieve the same way we celebrate our happiness: by sharing and opening up. I understood that there is nothing cheap about setting a Rahul Dravid photo as your profile picture the day he announced his retirement. That a sprawling Tendulkar cover picture is our way of showing respect and taking pride. This is the new tee-shirt with the face of your dead hero. Only now more people will get to see it.

The one common thing about the many "Hey, look! I knew Ebert too." tweets was that people were fiercely showing their love and respect for him. I have been on Twitter for a long time now and many famous movie people have died. But I have never witnessed an outpouring of this scale and warmth. In my Twitter experience, this is the biggest demise since Michael Jackson's. I mostly follow journalist-types and it was evident from my feed that they had lost their one hero; a person who inspired them to become a film critic in the first place. It made me very happy that a person can touch so many lives with his work and leave such a legacy behind.

I have never written on any of Ebert's blogs because I never had anything intelligent to say. It's probably because I knew this guy read all his comments and I was never in a mood to embarrass myself. I may have sent a few tweets his way; no more than ten, I can assure you. Though I gave an impromptu speech about Ebert in college once. But apart from the one connection the members of Cinephiles have with Ebert through Krishna, there is one other thing I can think of. Sidney Lumet had passed away and Ebert being Ebert had written a brilliant obituary remembering the great director. I commented. He replied. 

It's strange that my only interaction with Ebert was about the death of another person. The only time he wrote my name, he told me that Lumet's passing was a great loss.

Like most movie-related things, I got introduced to Ebert through Arjun. His battle with Cancer had long begun and he had already lost his speech, something which I didn't know until much later. That Ebert used to review movies on Television with Siskel, I did not know. I don't know about others, but every time I tried to remember his face, a different image came to my mind (but it is mostly the one on his website's masthead.) The way I got to know him, it was different. Trying to write better has been a constant struggle and I often feel very bad about the way I write. I haven't found my true calling yet but I think it is too late to walk away from the world of cinema. I look forward to finding strength and courage in Ebert's works. I look forward to reading those 10,000 plus reviews in the years to come. I look forward to mastering the Rice Cooker. I look forward to leading a more purposeful life. I look forward to the movies.