The first real conversation I ever had with Roger Ebert was about science fiction. It was 2005, my first year of attendance, and we were all spinning from sugar and meat at Steak N Shake. It was back when the festival denizens hung out there every night after screenings, back when co-conspirator Dusty Cohl still presided over the table with his bright, discerning eyes peering out behind his wide-brimmed hat festooned with pins of every form and function. Although I wasn’t unaccustomed to meeting celebrities (an occupational hazard of working at Us Weekly) and rarely was cowed by them, I was terrified of Roger. It wasn’t that he was unfriendly—he radiates a genuine, general warmth—but I so deeply respected his opinions that I feared what he might see in me.
Somehow the conversation got around to science fiction and I confessed that growing up, I’d been a fierce fan—my grandmother had obligingly bought me a subscription to Isaac Asimov Magazine every year for Christmas—and I even wrote my college thesis on a science fiction novel (Marge Piercy’s unsurmountable Woman on the Edge of Time). Roger looked at me: “I was a huge fan,” he said, and something told me that it was the genre’s promise of transcending seemingly intractable limitations that had appealed to him, too.
I thought about that moment yesterday at the opening ceremony of the 12th annual Ebertfest. It was a gorgeous night at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s President’s House and while I looked around at the many familiar faces, Roger’s estimable partner-in-crime Chaz talked of how he had always been a “cybergeek.” I suddenly recalled that exchange all those years before, and feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, in which she famously once wrote: “"We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”
Although it is an undeniable crime that Roger Ebert has been stripped of his physical ability to speak, it occurred to me last night that this was a man who would not only always adapt to his circumstances, but would transcend them in whatever way technology would afford him. He’d been doing that since he was a young boy reading, within the five mile radius of where we were all standing that night, of cyborgs and wireless telephone devices and strange computers that could connect you with the world. As I watched him in the mild spring air, I contrasted his wordless smile with his many acerbic, on-point tweets I read daily, and grinned. In these last few years, I thought, Roger has become a cyborg. He is as present and influential as ever; his voice as loud and clear, both on his blog and in his tweets. Perhaps more.
The future is now.
I flashed on all the people I’d connected with here over the years, and realized that they all still felt present—whether they were in a different geographical place, like filmmakers Terry Zwigoff or Guy Maddin or Karen Gehres, or gone from this Earth now, like dear Dusty. The past is now, too, in other words. And if we can collapse time like that, perhaps we’ve already achieved the one facet of science fiction that still seems elusive: we have all become time travelers. All that is required to defeat linear time is an ability to stay open, whether it’s to a film ( a fact I was reminded of at the later screening of You, the Living) or to each other or to the life we still have.
Welcome to Ebertfest 12, dear old-new friends. I'm looking forward to talking with you all.