Camp Ebert

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Usually at this time of year, I am at the University of Illinois, taking in the sights, scents and sounds of Champaign Urbana. At this moment, I’d be waking up in the Illini Union, taking in the abundance of youth walking through its halls. Inspired by the vigor and hope I see in the students that I would see walk past me.

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I would walk out of the back entrance and be in awe at the Quadrangle, overcome by even more campus denizens walking through the grounds. I’d walk along with them, looking at the history in the green and mahogany around me. The architecture, the trees, the sheer space and Spring is intoxicating, if only for the short time that I would have it at UIUC.

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But I’m not there this year, not there to share in Ebertfest, where wondrous films will be seen in a secluded place far away from the world’s worries and concerns. I won’t be able to see dear friends I’ve made in the past two years, people who I’ve come to care for deeply because we care about the same things. These silly little treasures called movies, the kind that stay with you, grab you, and don’t let go. My heart aches.

The Far Flung Correspondents

The first time was the best. Speaking at panels, illuminating my world of film with foreigners curious about what lies beyond their borders. I share strange perspectives with fellow strangers from strange lands, but without the alienation. Just love and enthusiasm. We don’t speak in an auditorium down to an audience. We share in a room just paces away from those facing us. We see each other closely. We listen.

The Virginia Theater

Then come the movies in the Virginia Theatre. An actual Movie Theatre! Not one of those fancy multiplexes with cushy seats. It’s got history in it. Donald O’Connor of “Singin’ In The Rain” danced up on its stage in the age of Vaudeville. Would that be something you’d want to tear down just for a comfortable derriere?

The theatre is lush, with hues of rouge surrounding you. Taking my seat, I stepped back in time, recalling those old saturday matinees of my youth. The screen is majestic, wide in its breath, larger than most theaters without the overpowering feel of an IMAX screen.

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There is a balcony. An honest to goodness balcony that seems to have gone the way of the dodo everywhere else. There’s popcorn and snacks, but how I miss the sandwiches being cooked right outside the theatre. You can see the sausages smoking. You know it’s cooked.

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There’s the audience. That Midwestern small town feel that you never want to leave. Before and after screenings, people chalked up random conversations with me. “What do you think it will be like?” “What did you think?” The most common question I would always hear was, “Wasn’t that great?”

I’ve also been scolded for chatting during a screening. I welcomed it. These movie lovers don’t mess around.

These people around me weren’t merely an audience. For those five days, they were my neighbors, a concept that seems to be sadly disappearing. I would see many folks in the same seats day after day, coming to see overlooked films because they knew they weren’t going to be disrespected, and loved the communal moviegoing experience that might go extinct. They stay long afterwards to ask moviemakers questions, and the moviemakers are moved that we are moved.

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There are no movies that are being marketed or sold. No paparazzi chasing down stars for sound bytes. There is a trust that exists here that you can find nowhere else. It exists because Roger Ebert reaffirms that trust by what he selects and how he maintains this festival landscape.

As a film critic, I miss Ebertfest dearly for these reasons and more. I miss knowing that a major critic gets to ride in the trunk of a 4×4, just as I did. I miss finding out Chaz Ebert’s favorite karaoke song is Rapper’s Delight, and seeing her tearing up the mic. I miss the BBQ at Black Dog, the double guacamole steak burgers at Steak N’ Shake, chatting with David Bordwell (with him doing most of the chatting), hearing people in the know dishing out the dirt, and meeting some of my heroes, whether they write about films, or help make them.

I miss it because I learn something every time I set foot on its grounds. I miss meeting fellow movie lovers I’ve met online and off, who have gone on this pilgrimage with me. I miss disagreeing with my critic friends after a bad film, and smiling with them in quiet unison during a good one.

Most of all, I miss spending quiet moments with Roger, a friend and teacher who gave me so much. Who gave all of us so much. This is one of the very few things I can do for him in return. I think we should all call Ebertfest what it really is to all those who love him and film.

Camp Ebert.

Roger and Me

I rarely mark down memorable dates on my email inbox. But Jan 13, 2010 is one I’ll never forget. It’s when I received this email from Roger Ebert:

Dear Michael,

Do you think it would be possible for you to come to Urbana-Champaign to attend Ebertfest 2010? …

We would like you to appear on a panel discussion, “Film lovers in the age of the internet,” on the morning of April 23. …

I hope you can accept. Your writing on films and other subjects has greatly impressed me. …

Here was my panicked reply:

My jaw dropped. My heart stopped. I’ll have to think about this very carefully. But if I am given the go signal, I’ll go in a heartbeat. …

I was living at the time in Saudi Arabia. In the first quarter of 2009 my company in Malaysia let me go because of the global economic crisis (it’s not just Americans who have a beef with the buffoons of Wall Street). My wife became the breadwinner at that point, but our income was not the same, and our savings were at risk of being hit. After looking for two months, every scarce job opening was fought for tooth and nail, and opportunities for expats were next to nil. An opportunity opened up in Saudi Arabia, one of the few places not affected by the financial crisis.

I would have been a fool not to accept. I did and off I went by myself.

Being in Saudi Arabia was… interesting (that’s another blog entry). It pays incredibly well, but if money’s all you want, that’s all you’ll get. I dealt with a culture and norms that went against my very principles, but you do what have to do to survive.

Living there was a blow to my movie-going habits. The only film I saw in my time there was AVATAR (and I had to go all the way to Bahrain to see it). My film awareness was on life support, and Roger’s film reviews and commentary were my IV. I came to know Roger a bit better after he mentioned my blog among “The blogs of his blogs”, which stunned me. I’m a regular on his, and never did I think he would take the time to really delve into my interests. It shows how open-minded and generous he really is.

Then came my traffic accident (which I blogged about here and here), one of the worst experiences of my life. It took me about a month to fully recuperate. When Roger learned of it, I was touched by his concern.

So imagine my succeeding astonishment when he asked me to be one of his foreign correspondents:

December 21, 2009

By the way, what do you think about the Foreign Correspondents? Do you want to be in or out?

As usual, my scaredy cat reply:

O man, I would love to be in, But if I need to be on video, I think I’d crap all over myself.

What would I need to be in that doesn’t involve my double chin?

And then came my “What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy?” reply:

On 2nd thought. I’ll give it a shot. I’m just nervous, but what the hell. 🙂

So far I’ve done 6 pieces for the Foreign Correspondents page, all of which I put a lot of work in and am very proud of (rehearsal is king). Because of Roger’s belief in me, I’ve rediscovered my passion for movies again (the classics especially). I hadn’t written about film for what seemed to be the longest time, because it wasn’t what put food on the table. I found my voice again, which I thought I had lost for good. Though it’s not my day job, I’m trying to bring back film criticism back into my life again. I understand now fully what A.O. Scott told me: Criticism is a way of life. Without it, I’m not whole.

As for Roger’s invitation to attend Ebertfest, as of now, I have been writing this piece since 3am in the morning at The Illini Union where I will be staying until the festival ends, too giddy to sleep, with too many thoughts running through me. I have left my job in Saudi Arabia, and will be working again in Malaysia next month. I’ll be serving as a panelist and getting a chance to discuss a film with the great film critic David Bordwell (Yes, I’m OMG-ing in anticipation and mostly fright). I’ll also be blogging about Roger Ebert’s Film Festival from here on.

This is the first time I’ve written an entry like this. I was immensely concerned that this would come across as arrogant, “tooting” my horn so to speak. It’s not my style to be write so much about myself, as I like to keep low key.

Asking for advice, fellow Filipino film critic Francis “Oggs” Cruz (among others) told me to just do it, and not to be too modest. “You worked hard for it.”

In my own way, yes I did. But I’ll never forget Roger’s kindness in helping me get here. From a near-death event, I’m now seeing my dream come true. He has become in his own way, a dear friend to me.

Roger wrote me after my accident:

December 10, 2009

Heal. Calm. Rededicate your life which has been given back to you.

Thanks to you Roger, I will.

Roger wrote about… me?

So there I was checking up Roger Ebert’s blog, being the fan that I am.

The blogs of my blog” it was titled. In it, Roger reveals that he likes to roam around his reader’s blogs just like anyone else. Of course, anyone who reads his blog knows what an infinitesimal rarity it is: One that contains intelligent commentary of the highest order from both its author and its readers (well, with the readers… most of the time)!

Roger’s entries usually surround his life’s passions, yet this one stood out. Here, he chooses to recognize his readers by highlighting their blogs. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say this is the first time I have witnessed any blogger or writer (a Pulitzer Prize winner at that) recognize his constituency in such a comprehensive and thoughtful way.

“The blogs of my blog” highlights several bloggers of varying interests. Roger goes to great lengths to provide excerpts of their writings and backgrounds. If that isn’t proof of an author who actually takes time to listen to his audience, please show me a better one.

I recognized the regulars (as I am one of them). Grace Wang, S. M. Rana, Seongyong Cho, and Marie Haws; no doubt they would be mentioned. I’ve delved into their musings in my extra time and find their words absorbing and invigorating. Their prolificacy, along with Roger’s, is something I envy. I used to write just as much, and as often if not more so. But writing is an activity which you cannot live on where I come from (that’s another blog entry). I hadn’t updated my blog in months, and before that, a year. Still, with my writing aspirations still flickering now and then, I hoped Roger would cite me.

“Michael Mirasol at Flipcritic came to my defense last May when I wrote negatively about a Filipino entry at Cannes, “Kinatay.” Outraged Filipino readers accused me of xenophobia, racism, stupidity and worse. He discusses the dust-up here.

Like a great many overseas readers and bloggers, he has an understanding of American pop culture that would shame many an American. Here he has well-written appreciations of George Carlin, Cyd Charisse, and Stan Winston.”

As Roger would say, “Good Gravy!”

To be completely honest, I thought this was being too kind. I never thought of my writings in ways Roger described. But it meant a lot knowing he actually took the time to read what I cared about. Imagine this recognition, coming from someone who opened my mind not only to the world of film, but to storytelling, art, and a bit of life as well. He did so by revealing a bit of himself to all of his readers over the years, and that is why he is not only respected, but admired. And yes, loved.

Roger taught me how to watch a movie, how to be honest in assessing it. His prose gave form to mine, and his words form to my understanding. I feel so indebted to him; seeing my name recognized as it was, was like a pat on the back. This was the best encouragement I could possibly get.

Orson and Jason, my two best friends, have been egging me on incessantly to keep on with my writing, and yet I held off with one excuse after another (Sorry guys). With this, there are none left.

Roger, from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.