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Ebert Fellows in Quarantine: Good Morning, World

Editor’s note: The 2019-2020 Roger Ebert Fellows at the University of Illinois College of Media, working with advisor/mentor Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, are finishing up their fellowship with a most unusual spring quarter. After a school year including Ebert Fellowship workshops in writing, criticism, podcasting and on-camera work in Champaign, Urbana and Chicago, they’re waiting out the pandemic in different ways and different parts of the world. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown I didn’t spend any time outside until our treadmill caught on fire.

It was mostly a neglected thing, just sitting in our basement, rarely used. I figured the shelter-at-home order would be a good time to wake it up. The treadmill wasn’t up for it. I noticed the smell first. Then the display counting my miles and minutes crushed to black. Then came the smoke. The terrible electrical fire smell filled the basement. My family ended up keeping all the windows and doors open for hours.

But I needed to finish my run and couldn’t leave the miles and minutes hanging there, suspended and unfinished. Our house is far outside the city of Mt. Vernon, Ill., and our street is without sidewalks, but it’s rare to see a car driving by so I decided to do another mile and a half on the road. After a few minutes, I glanced at a field across the street; it was about the size of a quarter-mile track, and I could see a house on the far side. There was something about that field that really amazed me—the waist-high grass, dead but golden brown, waves swaying in the afternoon breeze. It reminded me of Russell Crowe walking through the wheat fields in “Gladiator.” I was struck by an image of director Ridley Scott standing on the street, watching the grips set up a dolly track, trying to figure out how he could get his star to walk through the field without getting covered in chiggers or cockleburs.

Mt. Vernon is where I’m finishing up my semester. On the back end of the round-trip run, as I neared my house, I passed by a family on an afternoon walk. Their daughter, just a toddler, was wearing a face mask. She looked at me, confused, maybe wondering why she was wearing a mask and I wasn’t.

It took a while for me to really start to pay attention to the coronavirus. Until recently I hadn’t read much about infection rates, mortality rates, all of the preexisting health conditions which help the coronavirus kill you faster. But I had watched “Do the Right Thing.” I watched as Spike Lee picked up a trash can, screamed “hate!” through a crowd, and threw the bin through Sal’s Pizzeria window.

I haven’t seen any relatives besides my parents. They both work from home for now; my father, a corporate lawyer, made that decision after the head of the company’s “Coronavirus Action Team” got back from a trip to Disneyland. I know that my grandfather continues to go out (and I can imagine him wearing his little flat cap) like nothing has happened. I know he has gone into the grocery store without gloves and a mask, his weak heart and old lungs just asking for trouble.

In quarantine, it hasn’t been easy to keep my attention focused in one direction. Even the simplest of class assignments become exhausting. “Analyze how Hitchcock uses point of view in ‘Rear Window’ to comment on the medium of television.” I think about making a cup of coffee and getting a bagel and bringing them over to my desk where I can eloquently just ... spray my essay onto the page. I have all the time in the world, after all.

But that doesn’t happen. I’ll write a paragraph, or two if I’m lucky, and then my mind flips an internal switch and I’m onto something else. All that’s missing is the exaggerated cartoon sound effect. Zip! Wham! Hitchcock can wait. For now, I’ll try reading about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

Until recently I’d been working my way through the book Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly, looking forward to catching up with the 1999 Martin Scorsese film it inspired. My mother walked past me while I was reading it the other day. She opened the front door with a cheery “Good morning, world!”

“The world is dying,” I replied, having just read Connelly’s line on page 119: “I was a grief mop, and much of my job was to remove, if even for a short time, the grief starter or the grief product, and mop up whatever I could.” The world could use a mop right about now. Quarantine has made me cynical. Sunlight sifted through screens. Filtered air. Vitamin-D deprivation. Easy things to fix if one only takes the time, but being in quarantine, with everything uncertain, keeps me inside after my run.

Still in pajama pants, I finally watched “Bringing Out the Dead” only to be surprised by how the overexertion in visual style underwhelmed me, along with the lack of emotional depth in character exploration, pacing and focus. For me, a longtime Scorsese fan, it felt as if he were asleep at the wheel this time. I imagine how let down Joe Connelly might’ve felt at the movie’s premiere. When it was over, I thought about my mother opening the front door, and the field I saw on my run, the dead high grass still swaying.

Bio: Hallin Burgan is a junior at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign where he studies film, creative writing, and philosophy. Outside of classes, he works in script editing and script coverage for Number 11 Entertainment. He is also pursuing a career in writing, his recent efforts earning him a finalist position in UIUC’s Undergraduate Fiction Awards.

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