Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Life Itself

"I take it this isn't yours" Chaz Ebert asks her husband Roger before they leave the hospital. She's referring to what appears to be a Gideon's Bible in the night table drawer. Roger shakes his head.  It's a moment I'm certain that director Steve James included in the new documentary LIFE ITSELF to provide some perspective on the famed film critic's not exactly crystal clear religious leanings. I've often wondered about them, ever since I read his review of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In his closing paragraph:

Here is a film that engaged me on the subject of Christ's dual nature, that caused me to think about the mystery of a being who could be both God and man. I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully. The film has offended those whose ideas about God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus.

Ebert also once mused on death:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013 following several years of battle with thyroid cancer that would cost him his lower jaw and the ability to eat and drink. But he was as lucid as ever. His output increased and included some of his most choice writing, ever. Not only movie reviews.

I began reading Ebert's reviews in annual editions published by Andrews & McMeel in the mid-80s, several years after I had first seen him on PBS's Sneak Previews. Whether vocally or in print, a very particular persona emerged - erudite, yet curiously down to earth. A real love for the art form. Infectious.  When Ebert was reduced to communicating through a computerized voice, his public appearances grew fewer, and it was unspeakably sad to see him that way. I remember almost gasping when I first saw that cover of Esquire. But the "voice" remained, right up to his death.  That keen mind, that personality was as alive as ever in his writing. I felt privileged to get to read it. A friend who never left.

LIFE ITSELF, based on Ebert's 2011 memoir, is a fascinating, sometimes heart wrenching warts-and-all biography of the man who taught a few generations how to watch and critique films. Certainly there were many before him, famous kvetchers like Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael, who gets a mention or two (one hilariously profane) in this movie, but their prose was far too stuffy and esoteric for most Americans. Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel took a populist approach, discussing cinema with the type of no nonsense language you might hear in a bar between White Sox and Cubs fans.

A good example, there, perhaps. Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun Times, a more blue collar paper, from the 60s onward. Siskel worked across the street at rival the Chicago Tribune, a bit more academic. This seeming mismatch provided the perfect team, foils to each other that introduced audiences to passionate film debate. Starting on a small local Windy City program and eventually going national. Siskel & Ebert became the most recognized and imitated of any film critics. They became pop culture legends. This would be to the dismay of some other voices, including Time magazine critic Richard Corliss (who appears in the doc), who felt the duo dumbed down the process.

LIFE ITSELF spends a significant amount of time discussing the S & E years, tracing their histories, both colorful. Ebert wrote a few screenplays, including the infamous BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (a few clips are featured) for softcore maven Russ Meyer. Siskel hung around with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and his harem riding on the "Black Bunny" jet and, as one pundit remarks, "actually living the sort of life Roger only wrote about" in those naughty scripts. Much is made about the critics' often contentious rivalry; their cinematic (and personal) arguments would continue well after the cameras shut down. Siskel also enjoyed playing practical jokes on his partner. We're treated to some amusing clips of the duo insulting each other as they attempt to cut some promos.

Siskel died in early 1999 from a brain tumor. He had kept his illness a secret from many, including Ebert. When Roger would face his own brand of cancer in the following decade, he did just the opposite. And there we are, with Steve James' camera in the hospital as our subject has his throat suctioned and in the rehab center as he struggles to take another step. Chaz, ever the tower of strength, usually smiles through but is shown breaking down at least once.  LIFE ITSELF spends a lot of time, more than many viewers may want, showing Ebert in his final days, weakened and weary, but never defeated. But there was a moment when the white flag would finally be raised. When that moment arrived, did he imagine a journey to Nothingness, that content place he had been before he was conceived?

James, who directed the celebrated basketball doc HOOP DREAMS in 1994 (excitedly championed by Siskel and Ebert), has assembled an even, comprehensive elegy to a complicated man, never shown to be saintly or cloyingly optimistic. We hear about his long-ago alcoholic fueled nights in a watering hole, sometimes with a prostitute by his side. There are the descriptions of his egomania, selfishness, and pride to balance the positive attributes. A man who changed for the better when he got married at the age of 50. 

Anyone who grew up watching and/or reading Ebert will find this film engrossing, from the descriptions of some of his controversial dismissals of films like FULL METAL JACKET and BLUE VELVET, to an amazing story of how Leonard Cohen saved his life. To exec. producer Martin Scorsese's numerous recollections of Ebert, including the time he convinced the director to not end his life. 

The heart of it all, the thing Ebert "loved more than movies", is Chaz, a woman we get to know well throughout this indispensable documentary. We don't just hear her words, we see her heart and soul. She continues to write on Ebert's site, right there along with volumes of her late husband's incredible talent. It's nice to have them. 

And I still wonder what Ebert found on the other side.....
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