I was living in a wasteland when I first made true contact with Roger Ebert, out in the desert of Al-Jubail in Saudi Arabia. My family was in dire financial straits, as I lost my job in Kuala Lumpur due to shenanigans rippling from Wall Street. I had to feed my family by finding work in the only place that I knew was unaffected. I went alone, not wanting to subject my wife and daughter to the indignities of the Kingdom.
I wondered at the time how I ended up being a globe-travelling programmer, who realised perhaps too late that writing about movies was what he wanted to devote his life to. Here I was with my video games and movie files, the only things keeping the world vibrant and alive in my isolation.
Movies always seemed to be a constant in my life. I would always be recommending videos to see every weekend to my family, long before I knew it was an actual profession. Who knew I would meet one of its most beloved champions. From afar. In a land were movie theatres do not exist.
I became aware of Roger in my late adolescence growing up in the Philippines. “Two thumbs up!” seemed to be on every videotape and Laserdisc in Manila. His words lit me up, giving shape to my unformed notions of cinema. I sought out more of his words and found myself more and more sated. In the World Wide Web’s infancy, he was the only critic of any kind that I could find.
I emailed him many queries, hoping that the “Movie Answer Man” would answer. When he did, I thought I had won a cinephile’s jackpot.
I was hooked.
I could tell you which films Roger liked, how many stars he gave, and why he gave them. Lethal Weapon? Four stars. Mrs. Doubtfire? Two and a half. The Usual Suspects? One and a half. All because of Kobayashi. When SiskelandEbert.com went live in the early 90s, I finally heard him speak, but this time with his counterpoint in Gene Siskel.
It seemed magnificent back then. Filipino Film Critics when on TV appeared by solely by themselves. They told us of the good and the bad, and we had to take them at their word. With Gene and Roger, you had confirmation or conflict, providing a richer picture on what to expect from a film. When they defended their opinions, it was instructive, compelling and endearing. Not only did we know they were knowledgeable. We knew they cared.
I gravitated to Roger right away. His explanations were more eloquent and firm. His speaking voice was unlike any I’d ever heard, sparkling with intelligence with no hint of disdain. He could elucidate at length without pause or hesitation, providing a sense of assuredness and thoughtfulness. His criticism when pointed, still felt kind and considerate, even if he said he “hated hated hated” a film. And somehow, I was touched to see his sensitivity to Gene’s jabs about his weight. Even Roger’s vulnerability was an asset.
As he continued to write, his prolificacy and consistency became my comfort. You would not dare disturb me on Fridays, when he would publish his critique for the week. If he did not see everything, it sure felt like it did. Several reviews, broadcast TV, interviews, answering fans, writing books and God knows what else. Come rain or shine, Roger would deliver.
But it wasn’t his quantity that was impressed me so much as his presence. The word “critic” can conjure an undesirable figure. One that is bitter, condescending and cynical. But to read and listen to him would feel anything but. He was the only journalist and critic I knew who would reveal so much of himself, piece by piece, in his pieces. Like the time he revealed his parents demise at the hands of tobacco in his review of The Insider. The self-questioning of his anger toward the film Iris due to his affection for its subject. And his classic review of E.T. as a loving letter to his grandchildren. No cinephile has made his love of film so personal since Pauline Kael. And no author whose primary body of work has been as varied, intelligent, humane and proflic since Isaac Asimov.
I followed his transition to his new domain, RogerEbert.com, which expanded his online breadth with his past writings preceding 1985. It was a treasure trove. A window into the past. It was also an informative look at the evolution of his writing and views. It was around this time when he replied to me for a second time as I had asked him why he bothered to review Chaos. His reply confirmed once more how much he cared about movies.
When Roger had his first life-threatening battle with cancer, my comfort was disrupted. A good film critic is a trusted friend, and without him I was left adrift. I had come to know others whom I had admired for their insight and skill, but none who would assure me. I was also struck by how much I deeply cared for his health. This master of empathy had made me empathize with him, through the delicate revelations of his life.
It was gloomy when he lost his ability to speak. I would no longer hear his wise, calming yet passionate intellect, encountering it only in my dreams. But to my amazement, his voice became louder.
Roger started his own blog to reach out and heal. It connected and united his readers in deeper ways than even he could have ever imagined. I, like many of his longtime admirers, was finally able to send him my sentiments more freely and more attentively than ever before. He responded in kind to his readers through his blog, even going so far as to write about which of them he liked to read. When he cited me as one of them, I was flabbergasted.
I could only think that this was as good as it was going to get. In the time that I had followed Roger, I tried to establish my own career as a film critic, even if the path I took career wise was in I.T. Filipino Film Critics can hardly put food on the table by writing about film alone. I was fortunate enough to be good at problem solving, attending to my film critique on the side. Sadly, I could never fully devote myself the way Roger did, even today.
Roger’s posts were some of the most poignant and stirring reflections I’ve ever read online. Perhaps, some of the very best writing he has ever done. Samuel Johnson was right in saying that nothing sharpens the mind quite like death. Roger came close to it. So did I.
I nearly died one Al-Jubail morning on my way to work as a bus rammed into a car I was in. I wrote about my car crash and what I had gleaned from it. After he read about it, I was touched by his concern.
Good lord! I’ve never had an experience like that and never want to. I was just going to write you in another matter, but not now, not like this. Heal. Calm. Rededicate your life which has been given back to you.
Though I was immensely grateful, I kept on wondering what it was he wanted to tell me. When that message came, it would change my life.
By the way, what do you think about the Foreign Correspondents? Do you want to be in or out?
Disbelief. Panic. Joy. Roger wanted me to write about film, just as I thought I would never do so again. After settling down, I accepted. He tweeted my pieces. I felt whole.
It would somehow get better.
Do you think it would be possible for you to come to Urbana-Champaign to attend Ebertfest 2010?
I hope you can accept. Your writing on films and other subjects has greatly impressed me.
More disbelief and joy. Of course I agreed to go. I had saved enough to sustain my family for several months. And though the job market in Malaysia hadn’t exactly picked up yet, dying in car crashes was a very common occurrence on Saudi roads. My accident happened on the same day my Dad passed away many years ago. I could take a hint.
I went to Ebertfest reinvigorated. I met Roger at a Pizza Party before the Festival had started. My eyes welled up as I was beside myself. As we hugged, he patted me on the back. I then gestured, touching my heart with my hand, as he would so often do ever since he lost his speech. He smiled widely with his eyes. He knew how much it meant to me. I was in heaven.
In my fellow Foreign Correspondents, I gained a brethren of film lovers who by the looks on their faces, were in their own epiphanies. I never had people whom I could share my deeply held love for cinema, even amongst my family. But in meeting my new friends, my new family, everything was fluid and understood. It was all smiles. It was joyous.
I met filmmakers and cineastes whose lives truly depended on cinema. I realised just how much clout Roger had, helping bring attention to what were previously unknown and undistributed movies, thus helping launch and sustain movie careers. His influence may not have been as concrete as he would have liked it to be. But it was considerable and unparalleled in his field.
After Ebertfest I continued to write for Roger. I focused on my efforts on honing my skills in editing Video Essays on films and Cinematic subjects, a craft I would have never considered if it weren’t for Roger prodding me to record a video introduction upon joining his circle. I merely thought it would make me stand out. Little did I realise that it was something I was good at, and could possibly devote a career to.
That so called circle of his, the Far Flung Correspondents, some of whom I’ve never met in person, are now my dearest friends. We bonded quickly and almost effortlessly at Ebertfest, much to our delight. I’d like to think it’s because we have much in common through Roger. If we were the Solar System, he was the sun.
The bond between Roger and I grew over the years, as I shared with him some of my deepest wounds, my family secrets, my painful losses and whatever else life threw my way. He didn’t have to answer every time I shared my own delicate revelations. But he was there. He listened, and he answered without fail.
One time when a close friend of mine was dying of Cancer, I had no one else to ask but Roger on how to bear the pain with my friend.
There is not much you can do. In great illness, life closes in and consists of the immediate situation. People need to know they are loved and valued…
I took that advice to heart. Especially when cancer struck my Aunt next. In my depression, Roger gave me solace.
Death has visited me so often in recent months.
Whenever I tweet about a loss, you always send condolences. That means a lot to me. You are a good man, Michael. By taking this chance in Australia, you are continuing the tradition of your father and mother in helping others.
When my cousin Jay, whom I had met for the first time in Chicago on my first Ebertfest trip, died of a heart attack, Roger wanted to share my tribute to him even though he had never met him.
This is a deeply sincere and moving essay his children will be so proud to read and show to their children.
With your permission I will tweet and Facebook.
In his face there is a universe of character.
One of the greatest benefits to me of the FFCs has been, not the essays, but meeting their authors. Now I feel as if I have met Jay.
Deep regards and sympathy,
I corresponded with him often on my family’s move to Oz. It was another journey of great risk without any support other that what my wife and I had earned. I was jobless for 7 months, writing for Roger in my spare time to make up for the misery. It almost felt like losing my job in Kuala Lumpur, with our savings being eaten away while I searched for work in desperation. Roger again was there. Offering to pay me for the Video Essays I had done. I could not accept. He insisted.
Michael, you are doing WORK.
Do you have any idea how happy it makes me feel to pay for your WORK? I wish it were more.
Though I told him I would accept, I kept stalling on completing the necessary paper work. I just couldn’t fathom taking money from someone so dear to me. My wife Claire of course told me, “Take it fool!” It was a good thing that I found work the next month, in which I told Roger I would do it pro bono for good, as long as he was around.
Once we had settled in, I shared my happiness with Roger. Emigrating to Australia was something I always aimed to do since I graduated. Now everything was falling into place. I felt at peace once more. Upon telling Roger this, he replied.
I identify because I’ve been following you this whole time.
Roger suffered a fractured hip around Christmas time last year. I along with all the other Far Flung Correspondents were concerned. His lovely wife Chaz allayed our fears saying it was due to tricky dance steps, and that Roger would have to go through physical therapy. My heart sank a bit, knowing how many setbacks Roger has had ever since cancer entered his life, and knowing how difficult therapy is at this late a stage.
I thought he was more spry at Ebertfest in 2011 than he was in 2010. Though I was not able to attend in 2012, my friends told me that he seemed to be more tired than before. I vowed that I’d return in 2013 to see him again, not knowing how many more years Rog could be as active in his Festival. But I had to cancel this year since Claire and I found our own family would expand, as we await the arrival of our baby boy. I joked to him about the bad news. He replied.
On a cosmic scale, it’s all good news!
As this new year started, Rog would correspond via email now and then, but it would become more infrequent. He told all of us that he needed to devote most of his free time to his writing since he was going through therapy. And we all understood. But I couldn’t help but dread the worst.
Knowing how cancer has struck my own family, I know that it never leaves. By its very nature, it is part of those who suffer from it. Like a volcano, it is merely dormant or active. Roger’s tweets about Gene Siskel’s Death Anniversary and his understanding of why Gene chose to keep his condition private unnerved me.
Yet when he did email us, he still seemed cheerful as always, happy over whatever any of us accomplished. He never stopped cheering us on. We were his United Nations, only much more united.
The announcement of his “Leave of Presence” was devastating. None of us wanted to be too negative about it. But we knew what a recurrence meant. And we feared losing Roger. No one needed to say it. I immediately remembered the advice he gave. “People need to know they are loved and valued.”
I wrote him right away. Little did I know it would be my last letter to him.
Life is too short. So I’ll just say it. I love you Rog. You’re a human blessing. I wish I could give up so much of the good fortune I’ve had for your well-being.
You mean so much to me, to all of us who you’ve brought together in the past few years. I’m so scared of losing you. I feel so useless not being to help you. Do let me know if I can. We’re all pulling/praying for you, Chaz and your family.
We love you! Y’hear?
I can only hope he read it.
If Roger hadn’t found me, I would have been lost. I may have given up on my film vocation, easily being back in the wasteland, toiling away for a comfortable yet wasted life. Because of him, I rediscovered a passion that I thought I had lost for good and found that I was not alone. With his words I gained a clear understanding of art and a richer insight into life.
Because of Roger I realised that art is alive and not an absolute to be graded by mere thumbs or stars. Though he used these instruments, there were methods and reasons behind them. I also realised that the film industry is filled with real people, doing real work, and making real sacrifices. That for these people who really care, celebrity and glamour are illusions. True craft and stakes are involved.
Because of Roger’s example, I have seen what true discipline, dedication and passion is. He was the embodiment of kindness and generosity. Of fairness and concern. Of loyalty and professionalism. Of humility and honesty. To me, he was a connector and a uniter. A reaffirmation of human goodness. Something we all want to believe in, but not all of us live up to. He did.
How blessed I was to have Roger in my life. Sometimes it feels too good to be true. Whenever I feel that way, I read a note he sent to me after I reviewed his autobiography “Life Itself.”
We are so far apart, and yet so close in many ways.
I feel that way now more than ever. Godspeed Rog. Godspeed.