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Chicago film critic Roger Ebert found his voice at the movies

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Life Itself

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His four decades as a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times made him a household name around the country, but in Life Itself, a documentary on Roger Ebert, filmmaker Steve James doesn’t make a big deal of showing us photos or footage of Mr. Ebert’s workplace, his desk or the type of pens the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic used to craft his more than 6,000 film reviews.

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To be sure some might consider the squat, rectangular structure on the west bank of the Chicago River unremarkable--especially with all of the great buildings on surrounding streets.

And filmmakers always lead with their best stuff. So James instead shows us the red and white Chicago Theatre marquee allowing viewers a few seconds to gaze down the broad and very remarkable State Street.

That vista early in the film is symbolic, I think, of very the character of the city of Chicago and its effect on native and transplanted residents. Whether you’re a minister who gives sermons on the sidewalks of State Street everyday, a talk show host from Mississippi who determines that her purpose is to help Chicagoans, and later the whole world, live their best lives, or a community organizer from Hawaii who arrived, expressed his hopes for America and now occupies the White House, the perspective at the corner of State and Lake Streets seems to illustrate the bigness of Chicago. And, if you are a person who has thoughts that resonate with the so-called “windy” politicos, the disadvantaged, the thinkers, the artists and the makers in this town, you can find a platform for your message.

Mr. Ebert is among those who migrated to the city, found an audience and flourished. What’s now a highly coveted newsroom position came to him not because he asked for it, but because he was “in the room” just prior to a new era in film making.

It probably was inevitable that the man would find an outlet to express his commentary on society. As a Chicago-based critic during a time of experimentation in film production, Mr. Ebert took the opportunity to examine things that a boy from a farming town in central Illinois had not seen, dissect them and challenge the media makers on the East Coast and West Coast to create more works that honestly reflected the changing society, demanding content that gave himself and moviegoers a view of the universal principles of life itself.

The film features footage of Mr. Ebert during the final four months of his life at Northwestern Memorial hospital battling the complications of thyroid cancer interspersed with archival footage, excerpts from his memoir Life Itself (2011) and remarks--first from fellow writers, drinking buddies, colleagues and later his wife Chaz. It also includes recollections some of the indie filmmakers he began reviewing as the craft of film making expanded from Hollywood movie houses to also include makers of independent documentary.

Mr. James, a self-transplanted Chicagoan originally from Virginia as detailed in my review of his film No Crossover (2010), also has found among the streets of Chicago a place to nurture his cinematic dreams. Even as his admiration for Mr. Ebert is clear, he doesn’t present a heroic version of the film critic. In all his brilliance as a writer, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Ebert might appear, even to some to friends and colleagues, to be a little annoying--not always a humble a guy when it came to reminding colleagues of his 1970 Pulitzer Prize win. Marriage, maturity and the recognition of his mortality tempered those traits, as it does for many.

Perhaps the best parts of the film show Mr. Ebert’s personal and professional growth as Mr. James explores his major relationships with his wife Chaz and Chicago Tribune film critic and co-host Gene Siskel.

After receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 Mr. Ebert was free to take his craft anywhere. The Washington Post invited him to come to the nation’s capital. Once there he probably could have done more ladder-climbing and ended up a writer New York City. But Mr. Ebert decided he liked Chicago’s broad streets and the room they gave him to exercise his craft, He chose to continue on at the Sun Times and later co-host the show “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” which later became “Siskel and Ebert.”

Part of Mr. Ebert's and Mr. Siskel's testy relationship may have been personal, but it also represented of one of the best newspaper rivalries in the history of the newspaper business. As a testament to how fiercely the Times and Tribune competed for Chicago readers, my father maintained daily subscriptions to both papers for years always saying that they offered different perspectives on the news.

The twenty-year relationship between the two men may have not have been possible in other towns. But in a city of co-existing and competing State Street department stores Marshall Field’s and Carson's and co-existing and competing baseball clubs, the White Sox and the Cubs--stadiums just a few miles apart, it was not unusual that these two film critics be expected to compete and co-exist on the same broadcast program.

And it worked. Mr. James reveals how that initial acrimony and competitive spirit sharpened both men as well as film criticism--even in the construct of a half-hour television broadcast. Individually, they were good critics, but they knew that they were better as reluctant co-hosts. Their unscripted television fights over films also put Chicago, a manufacturing town, on the map as the place for rigorous analysis of the craft of film making.

Similarly Mr. Ebert’s marriage to Chaz appears to be the juxtaposition of two people from different worlds even as the two met in a recovery program. The construct of their relationship illustrated in the film shows a remarkable emotional connection between two people who by outward appearances may seem to have nothing in common or at best be limited to the stereotypical relationship allowed for people occupying their race and gender. As we watch their interaction the audience forgets that technically, this relationship is “interracial.”

The film screened in D.C. as part of this year’s AFI Docs’ film festival and featured a post-screening interview between Mr. James and Mr. Ebert’s friend Chicago journalist William Nack, who revealed another seemingly complex contradiction between the man and his career.

Although Mr. Ebert's appearance was enough to bring crowded restaurant to silence, he didn’t bask in the celebrity or define himself by the celebrity that his life’s work as a television film critic bestowed upon him. Even so, Mr. Ebert’s path drew followers.

“Roger’s life made him the kind of critic that more people could relate to,” Nack said.

Life Itself opens July 4th at several theaters across the country, including in Washington, D.C. at Landmark Theatre's E Street Cinema.

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