Remembering Roger Ebert

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“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.”

- from Roger Ebert’s last blog entry “A Leave of Presence”

I am still trying to deal with the sad news I received this morning. When I woke up in the morning, I turned on my computer and checked my e-mail account, and there were the e-mails from Jim Emerson, the dependable editor of Roger Ebert’s website, and my Far-flung Correspondents. The title of the first e-mail instantly told me I should prepare for what I have been dreading since 2010 Ebertfest at the small corner of my brain, and now I come to feel vividly that long-time thought on how I will describe in my future talks and writings that precious moment at the Stake ‘N Shake restaurant in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois during the afternoon of April 25th, 2010: “That was the last time I saw my friend Roger Ebert – and, sadly, I would never meet him in person again after that.”

Yes, I do not meet him again after Ebertfest 2010, but our short but exciting friendship has continued during the last three years. I had a great time with him and many wonderful people around him through the meetings at Ebertfest, and I have been always grateful to him for encouraging me as my friend and mentor. I was reluctant about writing reviews for his Far-flung Correspondents at first in early 2010, but he persuaded me to give it a try. I chose to write a review on a terrific South Korean thriller “The Chaser”(2008), and I was excited by the positive responses from the visitors of his website after the review was posted.

He continued to help me in many ways. When I was quite depressed later due to the unexpected withdrawal effect after 2010 Ebertfest, he indirectly pulled me up to the stage by posting my piece about the memorable experience with Fritz Lang’s great silent movie “Metropolis”(1927) at the international film festival held in my hometown Jeonju. I initially did not intend it as a FFC essay and I just wrote it for my blog, but Roger generously uploaded my writing at the FFC website, and his act of kindness gave me strong conviction; I must continue to write about the movies I want to talk about, or I will be very unhappy

small_IMG_0071I kept writing about the movies that intrigued and impressed me. While filling my private blog with routine reviews, I also wrote the reviews for the FFC website like my fellow FFC friends and peers, and I slowly gained my confidence as an amateur film reviewer as learning valuable things about writing reviews through his help and support. He did not directly teach me, but he showed me that I can be a good reviewer as long as I write with honesty and clear opinions. I always worried about whether I was writing a total bullshit or not, but Roger was always there for me. I was neurotic and paranoid about grammars and vocabulary, but Roger taught me I could be relaxed a bit because there was always the chance for correction.

At this point, I wrote 52 pieces for the FFC website, and I have jumped a lot between various kinds of films, and I enjoyed every minute of watching them and writing about them. I appreciated the small gems such as “Venus”(2006), “Under the Volcano”(1984), and “Fresh”(1994). I looked for something different in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”(2010) and “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”(2011). I searched for something more than entertainment in the movies like “Minority Report”(2002). I willingly pushed myself to the B-horror movies like “Motel Hell”(1980) and “Dead Alive”(1993). It was a short but fun journey, and I was happy even when I struggled for hours to find and confirm right ways for expressing my thoughts and feelings.

And I and Roger have interacted with each other through Internet in this fun process, and my admiration toward him has been growing more than ever. He was near death right after the surgery for removing the cancer in his salivary gland in 2006, and he lost his jaw and vocal cord during the emergency treatment, but he kept moving on with his dear wife Chaz Ebert standing by him. He lost his voice, but his writing skill remained as sharp as before, and he became more active and focused than before in the world of Internet. His personal blog was quickly filled with eloquent and beautiful entries, and some of them are now included in his recent autobiography “Life, itself”. He was initially rather skeptical about Twitter, but he eventually became one of the most popular twitter users through his useful/entertaining twits. He also kept writing reviews, interviews, and columns as before, and he wrote more than 300 reviews in the last year. The last film reviewed by him at present is that forgettable film named “The Host”(2013), but, to our small relief, Jim Emerson later reveals that Terrence Malick’s new film “To the Wonder“(2013) is the real last one, and it will be soon posted on the Roger’s website.

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Like many people have already said, Roger was a kind, generous, and lovely soul to be remembered, and I sometimes marvel at how we came to know each other and then meet each other. Like many of you, I came to hear and know about him through my interest in cinema, and I was gradually accustomed to his reviews as I grew up and became more interested in movies. I remember well that my first experience with Roger’s review was when I happened to come across his 4-star review on Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”(1998), which was translated and published in one South Korean movie magazine. His review warned me not to read further if I was not familiar with its synopsis, but I continued to read it because I was curious. I was exposed to spoilers because of that, but it was an excellent review, and I became determined to watch the movie. I did watch it at the local theater in my hometown, and it is still one of my favorite movies.

Roger’s reviews kept expanding their place in my memory bank along with lots of information and knowledge about movies. I was fortunately at the right time and right place when my interest was growing fast. I enrolled in Jeonbuk Science high school in early 1998, and its isolated but progressive environment was a fertile ground for my passion and love toward movies. There was a movie club where the serious movie magazines came handy to me, and I could access to IMDB at any time thanks to the common computer room at the school. There were usually Roger Ebert’s reviews at the top of the external review sections whenever I rummaged through IMDB, and I eagerly devoured and engulfed his reviews.

I started to write reviews during my undergraduate years at KAIST(Korea Advanced Institute of Science technology), and then I became more active during the graduate course, which was almost ruined at one point by my uncontrollable habit of watching movies and then writing reviews. I still regret about my mistakes and failures, but I do not regret at all about the excitement and joy I got from my ‘bad habit’.

I started with writing reviews in Korean, and then I tried writing English reviews, and that was around the time when I tried to signify my thoughts to Roger. I read his blog entries, and I responded through my comments, and he sometimes responded to some of them. Not long after these interactions, I was very surprised when he mentioned my name and my Korean blog in one of his 2009 blog entries “The blogs of my blog“. It was just a temporal thing, but I must admit that it was really exhilarating to see my name being mentioned in his blog.

lake cityAnd more exciting things happened to me during the next several months, and it has remained as the best part of my life. As I mentioned above, I became one of FFC members in the next year. I also decided to attend 2010 Ebertfest, and Roger gladly invited me and other FFC members. I came to US in early April, and, before going to Ebertfest, I had been virtually drunk with the series of wondrous experiences in Chicago while looking around all these famous places in Chicago except Cabrini-Green, and I also had a great time as your average movie lover in Chicago. I bought Chicago Sun-Times and read Roger’s new reviews for the first time in my life(I clearly remember three of the movies reviewed by him at that time: “Date Night”(2010), “After.Life”(2009), and “The Greatest”(2009)), and I watched movies at the AMC theater(“Date Night”(2010), “Hot Tub Time Machine”(2010), and “Death at a Funeral”(2010)), the Gene Siskel Film Center(“Home”(2008)), the Music Box theater(“Ran”(1985) and “A Prophet”(2009)), and the screening room on E. Lake Street where many local critics including Roger come to watch the movies to be reviewed by them.

That place was where I met Roger, his wife Chaz, and his nurse Milly for the first time. We were going to watch two movies together(“Babies”(2010) and “The Girl on the Train”(2009)), and I was nervously waiting for them to arrive while anxiously turning the pages of Gene Siskel Center monthly leaflet. I could not believe that I was going to meet him, and neither did a security guard on the first floor(but he allowed me to enter the building and go up to the 16th floor by elevator).

Around 10 minutes before the screening time of “Babies”(2010), Roger arrived with Milly first, and Chaz soon came into the lobby. Roger gripped my hands with affection as soon as we met, and I fondly remember how strongly and heartily he held my hands. My nervousness was quickly disappeared, and I and Roger and Chaz had some conversation between the screenings. I am a shy, introverted guy, but I became relaxed and jovial in front of these two lovely people, and Chaz gave me a good advice on how to deal with those beggars on the streets of Chicago. I later met the projectionist Steve Krause, who has always done great job with the other projectionist James Bond at Ebertfest, and it was also great to meet Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Philips. I have always wanted to tell him how interesting it was to wait for my turn right behind him in the bathroom next to the screening room – and I also have always wanted to tell Nurse Milly that I still remember a 12-inch turkey Subway sandwich and a cup of drink she brought to me.

The fun continued during the rest of that afternoon. We went to the IMAX theater at Navy Pier for watching “Hubble 3D”(2010), and I also had some private time with Roger while sitting on the bench with him. He only could communicate with me through his notepad, so the conversation was slow and short, but it was meaningful none the less. He said he loved my photographs shot during my trip in Chicago, but I did not remember much about what I said at that time – I was nervous again because I was at a loss about what to talk with him.

small_IMG_0070Although I could not watch “Robin Hood”(2010) with him because it was an exclusive screening, I saw far better things from Roger and Chaz. When Roger was angry because I could not go to the screening with him, he ‘quarreled’ with Chaz, and, watching them from their behind in their car, I was pretty nervous about what was going on between them, but I could also see that they were not mean to each other as the couple who had spent a long time together with love and understanding. When the argument was over and Roger saw that there was nothing could be done, they became as gentle as before, and the mood became comfortable again. When I watched Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine”(2010) again for my review in last year, the failed relationship between its two characters reminded me of the fact that the marriage depends on something more than love, and what I saw from Chaz and Roger immediately came to my mind. They were frank about what they thought or felt to each other, and they understood each other well – that is the reason why they have been one of the loveliest couple I know.

I also remember Roger and Chaz’s house, another excitement during that afternoon. My first impression was that I seemed to walk into a new art gallery waiting for the opening day. I smelt paint on the wall. I saw a big painting hung on the wall at the living room. I looked into the books stacked on the shelves. I saw many photos, and I recognized not only his family but also lots of famous people from these photos. I also got acquainted with not only his kitchen but also Roger’s wonderful personal assistant Carol Iwata, who belongs to that privileged class where the age of 58 means 38.

Few days later, I met them again at 2010 Ebertfest, and I also met my dear FFC members including Omer M. Mozaffar, Michael Mirasol, Gerardo Valero(and his graceful wife Monica), Grace Wang, Ali Arikan, Omar P.L. Moore, and Wael Khairy. I had a fabulous time as getting along with them and other various guests and visitors including Jim Emerson, Christy Lemire, Matt Zoller Seitz, David Poland, Tom Dark, Randy Masters, and Howie Movshovitz, who kindly lent me a cellular phone when I lost my way and became separated from other FFC members. We had our last meeting at the Shake ‘N Shake restaurant, and I and my friends enjoyed our last hour although the time to say goodbye was coming. Roger and Chaz eventually left, and, at PM 6:30, I said goodbyes to the others and went to the train station.

small_IMG_0197It was really privilege to meet Roger and Chaz and other people with whom I shared the love and passion toward movies. I frequently missed them even though I kept being in touch with them through Twitter and e-mail. I have tried to make life better meanwhile, and I have hoped to meet them again. While I could not attend Ebertfest in 2011 and 2012, I thought I could attend 2013 Ebertfest, but, again, I was blocked by my academic work, so I decided to wait for one more year again.

Now Roger is dead and I will never meet him again, but we had exchanged our thoughts and opinions frequently during the last three years, and, like the dying heroine of Ingrid Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers”(1972), I am grateful to my lousy life for giving me such a happy chance to meet and befriend a great movie fan/critic, even though it has been cruelly and suddenly taken away that happiness from me as I have silently worried since 2010 Ebertfest.

Roger has immensely influenced me since I got acquainted with him through his reviews, and he taught me a lot about how I should think and analyze movies. As a guy diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, movies came to me as the useful tool for communication, and I have tried to communicate with others through good movies and my reviews written about them. Roger showed me the good examples of how to do that, and I have eagerly responded to him with my FFC reviews, and I am saddened by the fact that I cannot share my thoughts on the movies like “Crash”(2005) and “Blue Velvet”(1986) with him anymore. While wishing Roger to get well, I wrote two review as I had planned yesterday, and then I prepared to move on to two good movies I wanted to review for 2013 Ebertfest during last night – imagine how I was shocked in the next morning. There are so many things I have planned to tell and show to him, but now he is gone forever, and I still feel devastated about the news.

small_IMG_0390Roger, the optimism in your last blog entry has grown on me with touching poignancy. You have struggled till the very end while striving for another forward step in your illustrious career, and I am consoled by the fact that you went gently into the darkness. You will be always remembered as one of the legendary movie critics in the movie history, and I believe what you have been doing for last 46 years will keep influencing and inspiring the people who love and care about movies. As a biology graduate, I sometimes think that we all are no more than the organic machines made of flesh and bones that can be maintained for around 100 years in the best conditions, and that death is probably nothing more than the switch getting turned off. But, remembering that you said you missed your best friend Gene Siskel every day, I sort of wish that, wherever you are, you will meet your friend in the darkness inside movie theater – and open the balcony and start discussion again.

Goodbye, Roger – my hero, my mentor, my energizer, my role model, my fellow movie fan, and my dear friend. I must accept that our ship is sailing without you now, but I already miss you a lot. As one character in “All About Eve”(1950) says, there never was, and there never will be, another like you.

“… I would never want you to think of as forgotten, although thanks for the reminder. Do you agree your writing has grown much stronger over these years? And I liked your anger in the last piece.”

- From Roger Ebert’s last personal e-mail sent to me.

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4 Responses to Remembering Roger Ebert

  1. S M Rana says:

    Movies will not be the same again. I also had a share of encouragement from him. Indeed he was a highly evolved human being and generous to share with others. Your blogpost is deeply felt.

    SC: Like my fellow FFC peer said, I feel like being an orphan.

  2. Mike says:

    Seongyong, I’ve always been amazed at your critique and its progression. I have found so insightful and clear in many of your reviews. You are one of my favorite critics to read. I remember tweeting how your skills have been honed and was delighted when Roger RT’d it. You more than belong in the FFC dude. And it is my fervent wish to see you again. Let’s not lose each other dear friend. We’re all that’s left of Roger now.

    SC: Thanks for your kind comment, Michael.

  3. lynnejordan says:

    This is so lovely! I am so happy to have found so many of us lost lambs after Roger’s passing. I get such comfort from reading all the different stories from others who were in this special group of fortunate souls whose lives were touched by Roger Ebert. I must share my story as well.
    Thank you. We must all connect. Lynne Jordan, a singer, writer and fellow movie lover from Chicago.

    SC: Oh, yes, we were lucky to have a chance to meet and know him.

  4. Greg says:

    Lovely memories, Seongyong. Thanks for sharing. Someday, I hope we will meet, as well.

    SC: So do I.

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