4.05.2013

When Writers Die: My Tribute to Roger Ebert


One of my personal heroes died yesterday. I'm still prone to weeping when I think about it, and I doubt I'll get through this with dry eyes. And rather than judge myself as silly or weird for feeling this way, I will instead do what I do best. I'll try to express why this hurts so damn bad.

I remember being nine or ten years old and watching Siskel & Ebert on television, like millions of others. But it was when I realized one day, while scouring our local newspaper for the funny pages, that Ebert's reviews were syndicated in the Oakland Press that I became a reader of his, and that was when I became a fan for life. Eventually, I would race for the Friday Ebert reviews in the Lifestyle section before I went to the comics. When I was old enough to go to the movies alone and pay for my own tickets, it was Ebert's reviews that rode along in the back of my head, guiding my movie purchases. I would then look for the things he mentioned in his reviews, and it was his words, along with the wisdom I eventually gleaned from several film classes through high school and college, that kindled in me a love for film and film-making that has endured to this day. It was because of him that I felt inspired to review movies on my blog. Even when I didn't agree with Ebert's assessment, I was grateful for his viewpoint, and I think the man was also grateful for any opposing banter that came his way, if anything because it opened the floor to discussion about the thing he loved the most. I'm sure Gene Siskel would have agreed. Ebert taught me that it's okay to disagree with the people you love. He's still teaching me that.

The day Ebert responded to one of my emails, a brief missive about the ending of the special edition of The Exorcist, was one of the greatest days of my life, ranked right up there with getting a response to the letter I wrote Stephen King, my other personal hero. It's nice touching base with the people who have enriched your life, even if it's just a passing glance.

I followed his writings from newspaper onto the internet, where up until the day he died, I was a regular visitor (I can't be right now, because unsurprisingly, the site is down). When he started blogging about issues of politics, religion, science, and life in general after his illness took his speech, I became an even bigger admirer and I realized we were kindred spirits. I imagine we would have been fantastic friends.

The thing is, Roger Ebert was my friend, even if he didn't know it. And now that I've read that so many times from so many people in the waning hours since the terrible and sudden news of his passing, I know I'm not alone.

When writers die--whether they write blogs, film reviews, novels, movies, or music--it hurts in much the same way it hurts when a friend dies, because their words became a part of our own personal narrative. They insert themselves into our brain waves and harmonize with our own voices. The act of reading their work is akin to checking in on them and seeing how they're doing. Their writings keep us company when we're feeling lonely. They keep us warm when we're feeling a spiritual chill. As readers, we have a privilege to look into someone's soul just a little bit. And our brains, fooled they may be, believe on an emotional level that this person is a close relation to us. When their voices go forever silent, the grief is immediate. No more will I get to see a movie and then check in with my "friend" Rog and see what he thought of it. No more will I get to have a conversation with him in my mind about what I disagreed or agreed about with a particular film, and then carry that conversation to one of my actual friends, where all our views will co-mingle into this mind-opening intellectual soup of awesomeness.

The truth is, I'm crushed. When writers die, the world loses a unique frequency. Some voices may come close to matching it, but it will never be the same. I imagine when Stephen King dies, I'll be locked into my room for a week.

But there is a silver lining to all of this. When writers die, they also leave so much of themselves behind, an invaluable treasure trove of words to be read and re-read again and again. And when you do read those words, you realize you can still hear the person who wrote them, and for briefest moment your traitor brain allows you to believe they're still here, and that everything feels as it should.