I can only write about what I know and what I’ve experienced. Anything else would come off as false and disingenuous, but worst of all readers tend to pick up on that easily. This was never a problem for the great Roger Ebert, one of the most skilled wordsmiths of our time. His turn of phrase could turn the tide in favor of or against a film. I’ve been going to film screenings for over 4 years, which gave me the opportunity to actually meet Roger on several occasions. Although I knew very little about his personal life, let alone details about his past, I still held him in such high esteem. After someone’s death, we tend to romanticize their lives, basically granting them sainthood and forgetting about the real person, flaws and all. Doing that to Roger Ebert’s life would be a mistake, because the man is as much his mistakes as he is his greatest successes.
Life is full of happy accidents, as you’ll soon see. It’s 2011 and Roger Ebert just released his memoir Life Itself, and not too long after it gets picked as a documentary that will be directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive produced by Ebert’s close friend Martin Scorsese. Filming began, and around this time, Roger’s health had started to deteriorate at a greater rate, inevitably resulting in his death. Steve James was able to capture the last few months in the life of Roger Ebert, giving us a rare opportunity to see the man that had brought us great joy and laughter throughout the years, and witness his transition from man to legend.
Don’t be fooled, Life Itself doesn’t sugarcoat Roger’s life. We find out about the ambitious boy who always had a penchant for rhetoric, and the parents who nourished his gift. Then we meet the college student who lived and breathed newspaper writing. Although he never pursued a career in it, Ebert always had a love of film. He would have remained a news writer if he wasn’t basically forced into filling the newspaper’s open film critic spot. With his natural talent, everything came easily to him, and alcohol addiction was no exception. One of the funniest parts of the film involves the exchanges between the famous duo of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and the clashing of egos. Roger’s great intellect and need to be right made him an affable jerk. I say that with the great love of course, and you might think both terms are contradictory, but the dichotomy made Roger both sympathetic and greatly respected (rarely out of fear). The single most defining moment didn’t come when he won a Pulitzer, but when he won the heart of a greater prize, Chaz.
The end of his life is a lot less cheerful. Roger was still mentally sharp as a razor, but his body was less than obliging. This is where Steve James’ persistence and directing came in. James did a great job finding some of the independent film directors that Ebert single-handedly helped along the way. More than just professionally, Ebert helped acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese on a personal level when Scorsese was facing a dark (and possibly fatal) time in his life. Perhaps James’ greatest achievement in the film is his tenacity in filming the Ebert families darkest moments, even if at the time it didn’t seem the appropriate thing to do.
Like life itself, Life Itself is as dark and bleak as it is humorous and revelatory. Most of us were at the least vaguely familiar with the name Roger Ebert, but few of us realized just how much of an influence he had in our lives, our society, and the film industry as a whole. Roger Ebert epitomizes the success of reaching out and grasping the American dream. One of his favorite quotes comes from the end of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Roger Ebert overcame his past and used it to reach the previously unattainable green light, and his is an example we need to see more of. For now, I’ll see you at the movies, Roger.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★(10/10 stars)