Anyone over the age of forty and even some around twenty remember fondly watching “Sneak Previews” and then, “At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert” when it moved from PBS to ABC. These were two erudite, comical and often satirical men who would sit in the balcony of a mock theatre, reviewing movies every week. They became part of Americana even to the point where every year they would sum up the Oscar favorites and then chose their list of who should go home with the coveted statue.
For most of us, this is what we know, however, “Life Itself” delves into the story behind Roger Ebert, before he met Gene, and before they became icons whose names evoked thoughts of wistful critiques on everything from “Porky’s” to foreign films such as Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. There are interviews with friends who knew him from his early days when he was the editor for the Chicago Sun Times, to Martin Scorsese, Gene Siskel’s wife, Marlene Siskel and Ebert’s widow, Chaz Ebert. Thus, we move seamlessly through a collage of his life, using pictures, interviews and clips.
We learn not only who Ebert was as a film critic, but also his thoughts on how movies relate to people. He felt that cinema was a means to not only show but teach others the concept of empathy. This film was his attempt to establish a rapport with others, not just about who he was a film critic, but truly with regards to the cancer that eventually took his life.
He had within his character a raw drive, which not only helped him become a media mogul, but which drove him to combat personal struggles such as loneliness and alcoholism. This did not mean he was a saint, he could be arrogant, obnoxious, insensitive and highly competitive, however, all these qualities in the end helped him to stay in the game, and fight the disease that was eating away at his body.
“Life Itself” is based on the book which Ebert wrote (of the same title). There are moments of hilarity, (such as an interview on the Johnnie Carson Show) when Carson asks Ebert what the worst film he saw that year was and he says, “Three Amigos” which starred Chevy Chase, who happens to be sitting right next to him.
These scenes are nicely placed as they give us a breather from the heavier ones, such as when a nurse needs to suction his throat. We know this is real, and so as we watch his face turn deep purple and his eyes wince from the pain, there is a palpable reaction. Do we turn away, or can we watch and feel with him, allow ourselves to know his pain? That Ebert permitted this to be shown says more about him, than any words could possibly convey.
This film is hard to watch in places, due to the graphic nature of what he endured, yet it is also not a staid documentary, because so many of us knew this man. He came into our homes weekly, he wrote columns for the Chicago Sun Times and later his blog, which allowed him to write when he could no longer speak. He said of this, that he was happy because he could finally speak out about all the things that were on his mind, and pick and choose the subjects that he wanted to talk about.
While cancer took his voice, it did not eat away at his ability to write or think coherently. In addition, because he had a blog he felt in sense a real liberation of the mind. He was not obligated to write about films he hated, and he could openly comment on anything he wanted to. Thus, he felt a sense of joy that lifted him above the pain he was suffering.
There were two pivotal parts of his life though, that really spoke to who he was. After he met his wife Chaz and married her, he changed and became a more caring person. In addition, after Gene Siskel died, due to the fact that he did not share with Roger that he was ill, nor anyone outside of his family, Roger felt an anger and sadness that he did not get to say good-bye. Roger was the boy from Illinois who got a Pulitzer Prize, and who worked for the everyday man’s paper The Chicago Sun Times, as opposed to the more elitist Chicago Tribune, got his farewell.
It is that sense of closure with Gene, that he did not have, which hurt him. This film was his good-bye to all of us. However, it was also his voice, his way to show, and make clear to others, what he went through, to elicit empathy in a world which is sadly lacking the ability to form meaningful dialogue with others, much less feel someone else’s pain. To this end, he has hopefully achieved that goal. It is not just the world of cinema lovers that lost someone it is the world at large.