Roger, Werner and the Ecstatic Truth

SimpaticoAs Jim Emerson mentions on his marvelous Scanners blog — from which I have nabbed the image at right — Roger Ebert has written a letter to Werner Herzog, thanking the director for having dedicated his new film, “Encounters at the End of the World”, to him. It’s quite lovely and heartfelt, and you should read it.

Ebert mentions seeing the film at a Toronto film festival press screening. I was there, too, a few seats away. And since the story of that screening is one of the best moments of my career, I figured I’d tell it.

You see, no one knew about the dedication, but everyone knew Roger was in attendance.

(Yeah, I call him Roger. We’ve met a couple of times, and had a few e-mail exchanges over the years. So there.)

Anyway, Roger was hard to miss this year. Having endured a series of surgical procedures designed to correct the post-operative complications that nearly killed him last summer, he looked kind of terrible: His jaw was fixed in place thanks to a complex, obtrusive apparatus that resembled the chin-holder thing you use during an eye test, and he’d had a tracheotomy, so he couldn’t speak or move his head all that much.

But his eyes were bright and alive, and he smiled (or tried to) whenever someone came over to say hello, though most of us sort of shuffled around him so as to crowd, or possibly we just felt uncomfortable or ghoulish going over to the guy when he was so clearly not in the best of shape.

And then the lights went down, and the movie started, and we were all immersed in Herzog’s latest collection of charmingly off-kilter observations. The “demented penguin” sequence — which Roger references in his letter with precisely the right tone, by the way — had the whole room heaving with melancholy hysteria, if such a thing is understandable.

Finally, the movie ended, fading to black. And then, the dedication. You could hear at least half the room draw a sharp breath — the half that had seen Roger there. He’d arrived early, while the lights were up, so there’d been plenty of time to register his presence.

And then, the room just exploded in a crashing wave of applause — applause for the movie, applause for Roger, applause for the grace note of Herzog’s dedication, call it what you want to. But it was a joyous thing, a release for everyone in the room. I can’t quite explain it; I wonder whether anyone who was there could. It just happened. And it was beautiful.

Stuff like that makes spending a quarter of one’s life in the dark seem like a good idea.