I’m not going to pretend that we were close; nonetheless, you were my friend. You were generous and supportive, and I never properly expressed to you how much your generosity and support meant to me. You were the only person I’ve ever asked for advice.
When I learned that you’d died, I had just filed a review for your website. I was about to start wrapping up one for this site—a pan of Simon Killer. I no longer feel like working on that review. I don’t feel like writing about bad movies at all. I want to write about good movies and good people.
In the past 24 hours, I’ve given several interviews about your death and what it meant to work with you. The thing that I’ve tried to stress in all of them—aside from your generosity—is that good criticism always comes from a place of love. A critic’s credibility depends on their honesty, and their love for a medium and its possibilities. You had both.
The first time we met was in September of 2007. You had already lost the ability to speak. I was working for a film festival and had to deliver a print of The Last Mistress for you to screen and review. Someone asked me to ask you whether your seat was comfortable. Maybe they were intimidated. I asked; you gave me a thumbs up with your left hand. You wife, Chaz, was next to you, holding your right.
A little over three years later, you approached me in a screening room and asked me to write down my phone number on one of your notepads. I did. About six hours later, Chaz called me and asked me to come over to your house. I knew where it was; I’d delivered screeners there three years earlier, slipping them in through the mail slot. Still, I pretended not to know and had Chaz dictate me the address. I borrowed my girlfriend’s car and got there 20 minutes later.
Chaz let me in. She made a cup of tea in the kitchen. We sat down around your living room coffee table. Chaz described to me your idea for a new version of At the Movies. She told me that you wanted to have additional contributors beyond the two main critics. She said you’d read my writing and liked it a lot. Contributor screen tests would be held in a few days at a hotel in Palm Springs. Would I drop everything and fly out with you the next morning?
It was November in Chicago. I’d never been to the West Coast. I came overdressed for the warm, dry desert air. We flew in and headed straight for the hotel. That evening, I met Christy Lemire in the hotel restaurant. We had dinner together and drank wine. She was tiny and very intimidating. I could tell that she was trying to gauge me, trying to figure out why you’d flown me out there at the last minute.
The next morning, we taped the auditions in a hotel ballroom. You and Chaz were the audience. I stammered. I lost my train of thought repeatedly. I don’t know what you saw in me, but you saw something. A few weeks later, you asked me to come into the production office to learn how to read from a teleprompter. You told me to be careful about body language. Then you asked me to come back again. And again. And again.
On December 31st, Chaz called me and asked me to come over to your house. She offered me the job of co-host alongside Christy. I said yes immediately. She asked me if I needed some time to think about it. I said no; I'd just proposed to my girlfriend ten hours earlier and compared to getting married, this was an easy decision.
I was married in the basement of the county courthouse 11 days later. The judge was about to take her lunch break, and the ceremony was conducted in a hurry. The next day, we began rehearsals for Ebert Presents: At the Movies. The first day of taping, I couldn’t stop playing with my wedding ring, which felt foreign on my hand. I’d never worn a ring before; I could always feel its weight, its presence. Now, on the rare occasions when I take it off, my hand feels naked, too light.
Now people ask me what it was like to be mentored by you. I don’t know; I didn’t know you before we started work on the show. You never gave me any directions or advice about criticism. The only time we talked about writing was in regard to teleprompter copy. We never talked about movies. All I really know is what it was like to be around you and to know you as a person.
Anyone who has read your writing—especially the writing you did in your final years—knows your intellect, your clarity, your mental energy. What they don’t know was how difficult it all was for you.
I remember how hard it was for you to go up a flight of stairs. You would steady yourself on the railing and hoist up one leg at a time, like a toddler. You couldn’t sit down or stand up without assistance. You communicated largely through your computer, but you typed slowly, your hand hovering over a key before pressing down. It could take you thirty seconds to type out sentence. I remember the stains on the bandages around your neck. I remember the flakes of old-man dandruff that would collect on your shoulders because you couldn’t brush them off. I remember holding you hand, helping you make your way down the aisle of a movie theater. Your skin was soft and papery. I was afraid of squeezing your hand too tightly.
Everything about you was fragile. You were so thin that your clothes would hang off of you like sacks. When you stood up, I would tower over you. Your hearing was fading. You would cup your hand around your ear and I would lean forward and talk loudly, and then wait while you scribbled out a response on your notepad—usually just one or two words, often illegible.
But you were also resilient and concentrated and driven. You could doze off during tapings and then crank out a review, one carefully typed letter at a time. You had these intense, gleaming eyes. You were a great silent actor, gesturing everything you couldn't say. You'd sit in your recliner (straight-backed chairs were too difficult in your condition) and preside over a discussion without ever saying a word. You would tap your knee with your notepad and everyone would stop talking.
I often wondered whether you were in pain. You must've been. I would watch you slowly inch up the stairs and wonder what it was like to be you. I imagined that every joint in my body was sore. I imagined how the remains of your jaw—a dangling, toothless flap, frequently swollen—must've felt to you. I would wonder, secretly, whether you still had a tongue and whether it was wrapped up under your bandages and then I would feel ashamed for wondering.
I would wonder all of these things as you would make your way up the stairs to the second-floor den where you worked and then you would slowly sit down into your recliner with the help of a nurse and scribble out one or two words with a question mark on your notepad and hand it to me and start a conversation. You would send e-mails in the middle of the night—notes on the show, encouragement, observations. I treasure every one of them. It must've been so difficult and you made it all seem so goddamn easy that I took it for granted.
The last time I saw you was about a month and a half ago. I came by your house to pick up a screener. I went up to the second floor. You had other visitors. I said hello. We’d catch up sometime later. I went down to the kitchen and had a cup of hot tea. One of the visitors—a filmmaker you'd championed—came down and we drank your tea and talked about you and about Ebertfest and digital filmmaking and Anthony Mann. Then I went upstairs to briefly say good-bye and went home.
In e-mails, you were enthusiastic about the future. You and Chaz were taking control of your website—the first step in an ambitious digital expansion. You were carefully managing every aspect. You sent me an e-mail with detailed instructions about formatting for review aggregators—business stuff. You ended it with: “Ignatiy, someday your newborn will click on that link.”
Thank you for your friendship, and for the friendships I made through you. Thank you for your generosity, which meant more to me than I ever told you. I’m proud to say that I knew you.
Best, with love,