It's odd living in a world without Roger Ebert.
I don't know about the rest of you, but the man was there for me more in my life than my father (whoever that sumabitch is). I remember all the way back to when I was four, watching Ebert and some balding dude named Gene Siskel bicker about newly released movies on the public-TV show Sneak Previews. I followed them as they bounced from PBS to syndication, continuing their routine on At the Movies and, eventually, Siskel & Ebert.
Obviously, these men were very influential to me, seeing as how I grew up to be a film critic myself. (Unfortunately, unlike them, I'm not making a successful, lucrative career out of it.) But since they were always a constant in my life, I took for granted that they'd always be around. I realized how mortal these men were — and how inevitable it was that they wouldn't be around for much longer — when Gene died in 1999 after publicly struggling with a brain tumor.
We would have Roger for 14 more years, but it was a time with many epic highs and pummeling lows. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, eventually losing his jaw and the ability to speak, he also became more consistent and prolific a writer. He would bang out more reviews and churn out a heavy amount of blog posts on a bevy of subjects, eventually starting up his own website, RogerEbert.com, which includes many film writers on its masthead (including, full disclosure, me — it all comes full circle!).
Those who think Ebert lived only the last years of his life as fully as he possibly could before shuffling off this mortal coil obviously don't know much about the man. That's what the new documentary Life Itself is here for. Directed by acclaimed documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Life, which is based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, shows how Ebert lived a memorable, enthralling existence way before thyroid cancer put a timer on him.
James gets access to Ebert during his stays in hospitals and rehab clinics leading up to his death, catching all the less-than-flattering moments of his last days (having his throat drained by suction, getting frustrated with his loved ones). These scenes frame Ebert's life story, as James drifts back and forth into his timeline, using a dead-on Ebert soundalike to narrate passages from his memoir and having good friends, co-workers and filmmakers he admired (and who admired him) to give their remembrances.
Ebert was born to be a newspaperman; he edited and distributed his first newspaper as a kid. This eventually led to him being the idealistic, altruistic editor of his college paper during the '60s. After that, he eventually joined the Chicago Sun-Times as its film critic, a job that was passed around the newsroom in those days like a hot potato. Of course, Ebert would become the paper's star critic, landing a Pulitzer Prize for his reviews and getting paired up with Chicago Tribune critic Siskel for a lifetime of butting heads over the movies.
While Ebert had no qualms taking pictures with the celebrities and filmmakers whose movies he reviewed, he could still take them to task for wasting their talents. Martin Scorsese (who also serves as one of the movie's executive producers) recalls how crestfallen he was when Ebert and Siskel slammed his The Color of Money. But Scorsese also gets emotional when he's reminded how these early champions of his films were there for him during a drug-addled low point in his life.
Ebert had low points of his own: Early days of hard drinking turned him into a lonely wreck. Thankfully, he gave up the bottle and started going to AA — where he would meet his future wife, Chaz, who stayed by his side right up until the end.
Considering how much Ebert has meant to me over the years — and I could say the same for James, who has yet to make a doc that's wasted my time — I'm starting to think it was a bad idea for me to review Life. I sat through it twice, and I can't find fault with it. (A critic or two out there has objected to James quietly pitting Ebert against New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, suggesting Ebert's unpretentious style was more readable than Kael's, even though both were quite relatable.) Life Itself is a stirring, moving tribute to a well-respected critic. But it's also a portrait of a man who left this earth fully satisfied in the knowledge that he did everything he wanted to do in life, and then some. We should all be fortunate enough to do half of what he did. I know that's what I'm trying to do.
In conjunction with the movie, The Belcourt offers public screenings of two Ebert favorites, Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde (July 16) and Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (July 20), as well as a film-criticism seminar for high school students July 21-24. More information at belcourt.org.
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