The documentary Life Itself about film critic Roger Ebert is a wonderful film. He died in April 2013, and this film by Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams, an earlier documentary that Ebert praised) appeared in mid-2014. Recently, it was on CNN and is available on DVD. The documentary has the same title as Ebert’s 2011 memoir, but the book of over 400 pages and the two-hour movie differ in many ways. For example, the former devotes more than a hundred pages to Ebert’s youth up to his graduation from the University of Illinois, while the latter spends relatively little time on this period but does feature many clips of Ebert’s friends and acquaintances talking about him. Besides several directors who greatly appreciated him, for example Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, we hear from film critics like A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Richard Corliss of Time magazine.
But the two most significant people in Ebert’s life who get plenty of air time are his loving (and strong and admirable) wife, Chaz, an attorney whom he married when he was fifty, and his longtime fellow reviewer Gene Siskel. Co-hosting TV’s Sneak Previews and its successors with Ebert, Siskel helped make their on-air reviews (and their thumbs up or down summary of the reviewed movies) the best known venue for film reviews in any media.
What makes Life Itself such a wonderful documentary—and the title so appropriate—is its affirmation of life, with all its high and lows, its joys and heartbreaks. After watching it, we should appreciate love and courage more, for we see much of it, and become better people.
Like all of us, Roger and Chaz Ebert display flaws and faults. At one time, they both had a drinking problem—Chaz tells us he first saw her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Roger also confesses that for a long time he failed to eat properly. As he says in his memoir, “Yes, I was fat for many years, but . . . . then I moved to a more vegetarian diet and for several years faithfully followed the ten thousand steps a day regime, lost one hundred pounds, and was in good shape for my age.” He also admits to being egotistical at times, and we see flashes of that flaw in some of his spirited exchanges with Siskel, who died of cancer in 1999. The two men often differed on movies—and much else—but they also came to respect and care for each other.
But despite common human flaws, Roger and Chaz displayed great love for each other. Chaz demonstrates it on screen more by her actions than words, but Roger articulated it best in a blog entry (“Roger Loves Chaz”) he wrote in 2012, the day before their twentieth anniversary. And what boundless courage the couple demonstrate!
During the last seven years of his life, before dying at age 70, he could not eat, drink, or speak, and, as he adds in his memoir, “two failed attempts to rebuild my jaw led to shoulder damage” that made “it difficult to walk easily and painful to stand.” He resorted to a computerized voice synthesizer to speak, and increasingly communicated by establishing and writing on his blog. He was often in the hospital or undergoing physical therapy. About Chaz he wrote, “She was there every day, visiting me in the hospital whether I knew it or not, becoming an expert on my problems and medications, researching possibilities, asking questions, making calls, even giving little Christmas and Valentine's Day baskets to my nurses, who she knew by name.” Throughout all their turmoil, the Eberts remained incredibly upbeat.
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In 2013, just two days before he died, he wrote: “Typically, I write over 200 reviews a year for the [Chicago] Sun-Times. . . . Last year, I wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles. I must slow down now.”
But, along with Chaz’s love and his care for her family he had married into—the film provides an especially touching tribute to him by his step-granddaughter Raven—it was Roger’s work, especially his writing, that kept him so life affirming.
Unlike many older people, he welcomed the new media of his day, and was especially enthusiastic about the blog, which with professional help, he created. And indeed it remains a great site for movie lovers. It contains his numerous reviews, including more than 300 of what he considered “great films,” and much more. For example, there is his Introduction to the reviews of an earlier Chicago film reviewer, who is also one of my heroes, the poet Carl Sandburg. And there are Ebert’s thoughts on death and religion. Although the documentary mentions his Catholic background, it says little else about his religious beliefs. On his blog, however, he states, “I was told that I was an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or a deist. I refused all labels.” This is an attitude shared by others I admire like Sandburg or Chekhov, and like those two writers Ebert is a humanist with great sympathy for ordinary people.
At the beginning of the documentary, he states:
We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
On his blog he quotes the line, "I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals.” He then goes on to write
"Kindness" covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Although I don’t agree with all of Ebert’s reviews, I do with most of them I have read, and it is partly because of the humanism they display. In the blog entry mentioned above he stated, “Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Nevertheless, he realized that because Chaz and others will maintain his blog, his reviews and thoughts would continue to live on. A few months before his death, he wrote that the French film Amour “has a lesson for us.” Like the best cinema, it has the “heedless ability to leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind's eternal audience.” I feel the same way about the film Life Itself.
Walter G. Moss