Roger Ebert died on April 4th, 2013. That’s a year and three months ago. There are certain moments in a person’s past that feel so intangible that it may as well have happened to someone else. Then there are those few moments that simultaneously feel as if they happened yesterday and feel as if they are so buried into your consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine what life was like before then.
When Einstein articulated that time was relative, he was greeted with prizes and a status in our culture that has yet to be equaled. Why? Was it because he used numbers? Everyone, even the smallest child capable of conscious thought and memory, can describe the moments in their life where it’s impossible to measure time in any meaningful way. It’s only when someone looks at those moments do they realize how fleeting the human experience can be.
I don’t know what it says when I say that Ebert’s death was one of those moments for me. I never met him, I was never in a position where I could have met him, and the more I learn about him, the more I’m convinced he wouldn’t have cared for me too much. But still, his death remains one to me. Ebert was a figure I greatly admired as I read, not just his reviews, but his battles against his illness and his thoughts on current events and complicated political subjects. I certainly didn’t always agree with him, but he was an important stepping stone for me in examining why I felt the way I felt and why I think the way I think.
I write this preface to surrender myself. When watching a movie, you must wait for it to have its effect. I walked in knowing what its effect would be on me and I would be dishonest if I tried to ignore that.
But we need a review. So goes nothing.
Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoirs, began production about five months before his death. Ebert worked with director Steve Jones (of Hoop Dreams fame) to document his life and what he was going through. One can get a sense that Ebert really felt this was the last big project he would be involved in. At one point, Ebert predicts that he will not live to see the documentary get released. We see footage of him in the hospital during his last great health scare over a broken hip that turned out to be the first sign that cancer had returned to his body. This footage interspersed with friends talking about him and clips of Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. We hear Ebert’s voice read from his own memoirs. (I have no idea if this narration was recorded before or after his death. It’s possible that Jones used the same computer program Ebert used in his final years.) It’s an ambitious project that not too many people would have signed up to do.
The hospital sequences show Ebert in a previously unseen human light. I think my favorite scene in the movie is when Ebert is going home after his next to last hospital stay. He is wheeled in his wheel chair and then told to stand up and walk to the stairs. Ebert grows frustrated, making hand gestures and slapping his leg to signal for someone to bring him a note pad so he can write down instructions. We don’t see Ebert’s face (his back is to the camera) but it’s easy to imagine the pain he was feeling.
Ebert had always put a brave face on when talking about his illness and the effects it had on him. I was constantly wondering how he could maintain this. Didn’t he miss talking to his wife? Didn’t he really miss eating? I am not in any position to judge those writings or guess just how he was really feeling, but I did wonder just what else was happening. We see it all here. But, despite the physical pain, Ebert still found time to make jokes about what was happening.
Life Itself shows us, for better or for worse. I know many people will be uncomfortable by those scenes of Ebert in obvious pain. But for me, they bring him down to a new level that I had not seen Ebert at before. We see him in the hospital, having his throat irrigated. I had seen the famous Esquire picture before of Ebert after his jaw had been removed, but here we get nice, long looks at his face. He’s still making jokes and reflecting on his favorite parts of Chicago.
I realize now the point of the film isn’t so much about Ebert. It’s about someone who knows they don’t have much time left in their life and what that means. It’s also a reflection of what happens when anyone is gone. Chaz Ebert is the undisputed hero of the piece. She grows frustrated at times, but is always there and the way she describes Ebert’s final moment (Ebert’s final days are not captured on camera, as the doctors refused to grant Jones permission to film)…well, it doesn’t depend on what happened. What matters is Chaz’s expressions as she told it. Maybe that’s the secret to life itself – finding someone who will be able to tell your story in that way after you’re gone.
The rest of the movie focuses on his past and has people affirming what he wrote about in his memoir. Friends talk about his working at the Sun-Times. Martin Scorsese (who is also an executive producer of Life Itself) is barely able to hold back tears as he discusses carrying Ebert’s review of his first movie around in his pocket. Ramin Bahrani (the director of Man Push Cart) talks about a gift that Ebert gave to him. And we see clips and outtakes of Siskel & Ebert of the two men constantly bickering but finding mutual respect for each other.
If I have any complaints, it’s that these scenes are not presented in any particular order. We cover the largest events – his beginnings, his Pulitzer, his work with Gene Siskel and the response to his death, his work with Russ Meyer (including the sex scenes scenes that probably gave the movie its NC-17 rating), his love of Cannes, his illness. But there’s really no order to it. We go to his alcoholism, to his early years, to Siskel, to Meyer, back to his childhood, and back. It was hard for me to find the connections to Ebert’s own memoirs or see where the biography was going. Maybe that just means I need to watch the film again?
I certainly don’t an excuse. As an obituary and a tribute, I can’t think of anything better than Life Itself. Now that a year has passed, I think it’s time that we not mourn the fact that there won’t be any more reviews. I think instead it’s time to step back and look at Ebert’s accomplishments. Life Itself is the perfect place to start. We hear from the people who cared about him and the filmmakers who were encouraged to continue after hearing his words of encouragement. Steve Jones was one of the filmmakers inspired by Ebert and it’s easy to see he cared for his subject. If everyone cared as deeply about their subject as Jones did, documentaries as a whole would replace the summer blockbuster fare that threatens to drown out his movie. That’s unfair. Life Itself deserves to be seen and cherished for as long as films can be watched.