"We're off to Ebertfest so Kelly can meet this pen pal of hers," Jeff announced on his Facebook page early Thursday morning.
We had been invited to a breakfast reception at the Illini Union honoring Roger Ebert. This was part of the kick-off festivities for Ebertfest, his annual film festival held over five days in Champaign, Illinois, Roger's old stomping grounds, coincidentally six miles from our house. Not the kind of people who typically do well in "meet and greet" situations, and definitely not the kind of people who are used to wearing tags around our necks that say "VIP," we were a little intimidated by the whole scene. Attendees included a number of Ebert's film critic proteges from all over the world, such as Ebert Presents wunderkind Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, festival donors, and a smattering of Ebert Club members (you should join the club!).
In our usual tragically punctual way, we were the first people to arrive at the reception, and after some awkward "are we even in the right place?" confusion, we hung up our coats and shyly wandered into the ballroom. Soon we were met by a few other attendees, many of whom were staying in the Union for the duration of the festival, and we helped ourselves to the muffin-and fruit-laden buffet.
(Gah! My least-flattering angle. "Your forehead is glowing nicely!" --Jeff, upon seeing this shot.)
About an hour passed during which we became acquainted with some of Roger's Far-Flung Correspondents and young film critic pals, including Kevin B. Lee, Ali Arikan, Kenji Fujishima, and the guy from The House Next Door who calls himself "The Odienator." These obvious festival "cool kids" already knew each other but were nice enough to include the two oddballs whose connection to Ebertfest was tenuous at best. I gave them postcards of my painting of Mabel as I explained the random yet awesome way that Roger Ebert had changed my life this year. And then...
Enter Roger Ebert.
After the applause died down, a representative from Ebertfest whose name I sadly can't recall made a few remarks about the film festival as Roger looked on, studying the crowd. We made eye contact a few times, and I'm sure I was grinning ear to ear.
When I was a teacher, I could always identify The Smart Kids at the beginning of the school year. It's in their eyes--a constant processing of visual information along with a spark of appraisal. Even across a large room, Roger Ebert had the most intense gaze that I have ever encountered. "His eyes were like lasers," I told Jeff's daughter Melissa the next day. This man has made his fortune thanks to his extraordinary ability to see, understand, edit, and evaluate--how could his gaze not be intense? And the fact that he is unable to speak has to have made his eyes even more expressive. I should have been prepared for that, but I wasn't. It was slightly unnerving but altogether wonderful to be caught in his line of vision.
Roger moved to a leather couch beneath two paintings of pheasants several feet away from our table. Rather sweetly, he had each of his forty or so guests stand and introduce themselves. I babbled something about being a local painter whose work Roger was quietly promoting on his blog and Twitter before turning to him and dissolving into "thank you thank you thank you" as he clapped for me. Later, whenever new people entered the room, Roger was the first to notice, and he made sure that they too had a chance to introduce themselves.
After the introductions, Roger sat back and watched the people whose lives he had touched and woven together. One by one, "like kids visiting Santa" as Jeff said, guests approached him, offering gifts and starstruck praise. He wrote brief messages using a black G2 pen on a small spiral notepad and posed for photos.
Monica Valero, artist and wife of Far-Flung Correspondent Gerardo, was featured along with me a couple of months ago in this blog by Roger. She was at the breakfast and presented Roger with a small, detailed watercolor of him with Gene Siskel. He beckoned me to come over and see it. It was a beautiful piece. "Both are artists," Roger wrote on his notepad, pointing back and forth between the two of us. I shook his hand and sincerely thanked him once more--again with the lasers, although these were extremely kind lasers--and he underlined the word "artists." Meanwhile Jeff was locked in a discussion with The Odinator, facing away from Roger's couch, so he didn't get a chance to take a photo of me with The Great Man, but that was okay. I'd had my moment! Not wanting to monopolize Roger's time, I moved on and talked with Monica a bit before returning to Jeff.
Eventually all of the Cool Kids were stopping by Roger's couch, saying things like, "My mom would kill me if I didn't get a photo with you," and Jeff volunteered to do the honors, juggling multiple cell phones, because that's the kind of person he is. I stood beside him and managed to tell Roger between photo-ops, "This is my husband Jeff." He wrote on his pad, "A fine unit." Heh!
Many of the attendees had to participate in Ebertfest panel discussions elsewhere in the Union that morning, so the breakfast ended about an hour after Roger arrived. We put on our coats and exited the room. Roger was standing in the hallway with his nurse. Jeff managed to officially greet Roger and get a handshake, and soon we were on our way back to our car.
The festival itself was incredible, and thanks to the passes that Roger was generous enough to give us, Jeff and I were able to see whatever films we liked and sit in a plummy reserved section of the Virginia. But that's for another post. Today I just wanted to tell you about the time I met that pen pal of mine.
And now, a postscript from Jeff, the other half of this here fine unit.
So many thoughts were flowing through my brain when I shook Roger's hand. It's difficult to summarize a lifetime of admiration for a person into "hello." In my previous job, I had opportunities to meet a few celebrities, but this was different because I don't think of Roger Ebert first as a celebrity, but as an intellectual, and those meetings are rare.
Roger certainly speaks truth to power, and, as Tilda Swinton so eloquently stated during the festival, he does so from a foundation of hope. He has been challenged in these last few years, but what has emerged is a growing breadth of writing that increases the web-o-sphere's awareness of beauty and politics and science and, of course, mortality.
I told him that I admired him. What I also wanted to say is that I understand him. Even if he knows it, I wanted to tell him that so many of us do. He is a voice, a truly lasting voice for those of us who want the world to be as he imagines, but who do not have the ability to say so in such eloquent ways.
PS I also wanted to pitch The Troll Hunter for Ebertfest 2012. :) [I do not concur.--K]