Combustible Celluloid
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With: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, Marlene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gregory Nava, Gene Siskel (archive footage)
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Steve James
MPAA Rating: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language
Running Time: 115
Date: 07/02/2014

Life Itself (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Thumb Role

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For many of us in this business, Roger Ebert (1942-2013) was a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. I never met him, but I saw him at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010; he had already lost his speech and used his computer to address the audience. Four grateful filmmakers, Philip Kaufman, Errol Morris, Jason Reitman, and Terry Zwigoff, spoke on his behalf, and Roger used the evening to show a movie that he loved that he felt needed more attention, Julia.

I tried to use some of my contacts to get a handshake after the show, but it was not to be; everyone in the auditorium wanted to meet him that night. I had one more chance, at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but he was too ill to attend the press day for Moonrise Kingdom. His lovely wife Chaz came instead. (I had a nice little chat with her.)

I wrote to Roger a few times over the years, but never received a reply for whatever reason. I often agreed with him, but sometimes did not. (If you search my site for "Roger Ebert," you'll find many mentions, both friendly and exasperated.) However, I was thrilled to discover that he quoted me in his 2007 review of Killer of Sheep.

Now he's gone, and I will never get a chance to tell him that, as a kid, watching the Siskel & Ebert show on TV, I learned a whole new way of looking at, and talking about, movies. I saw how the two of them opened their arms (thumbs?) and hearts to movies of all types, from all over the world. I saw how they tried to help out little films and struggling filmmakers. I believe I learned empathy from them.

The rest of the nuts and bolts of Roger's career are covered in Steve James's new documentary Life Itself, based on Roger's own published memoir of the same title. In essence, Roger and Gene Siskel popularized film criticism. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris had a famous rivalry in print and got hardcore cineastes discussing film, but Siskel & Ebert got nearly everyone discussing film.

Roger was the editor of his college paper, and then landed a job at the Chicago Sun-Times. Within months, he was offered the film critic job, and he took it, in 1967. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975, and was the only film critic to win that prize until Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post joined the club in 2003. (Since then, three more of our ranks have won.) He stayed loyal to the Sun-Times for the next 45 years, turning down offers to work for much bigger papers.

We learn a little about Roger's writing the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), which just seems to have baffled everyone (except the film critic Richard Corliss, who considers it one of the best films of its era). The Siskel & Ebert TV show came along, and with it the volatile relationship with Gene. The movie describes it as a brotherly relationship, with the two fighting constantly, but also with a deep affection for one another.

Life Itself also deals with rough stuff like Roger's drinking -- he quit in 1979 and never touched another drop -- as well as some of his shortcomings. As one of his friends says, "He was nice, but he wasn't that nice." He knew how to get what he wanted. It also spends a great deal of time on his love story, meeting Chaz, and marrying her at age 50. But the hardest stuff to watch is the footage that director James managed to film in late 2012 and early 2013 during the final months of Roger's life. A great majority of it takes place in the hospital, as Roger complained of a pain in his hip. Since Gene had kept his sickness secret, Roger vowed that he would not do the same thing, and hence allowed James's cameras to see everything. We even see nurses suctioning out his airways, which is... just... gross. But it's also part of life.

Subtly, the movie touches on some of the things that made Roger great. To write about movies every week for 45 years is not something that just anyone can do. I have done it for 15 years now, and I have sometimes wanted to throw in the towel (such as last week, sitting through the fourth Transformers movie). I have known many that quit after a much shorter time. To make it this far, you must love movies with the core of your being. You must understand how they connect to life. You must be able to confront them about their failings and praise them for their successes. You must have an open heart.

Roger was also a middleman between ordinary people and famous people. He easily mingled with stars and filmmakers and celebrities -- he was a celebrity -- and some of his filmmaker friends (Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani) turn up here for interviews, but he also communicated to people in a language they could understand. We felt like he was in our living rooms, having a chat. Some critics like to distance themselves from the business side of things, but I like to believe that critics are a part of the whole machine. Roger embraced that. He embraced everything.

Life Itself doesn't ignore the movies. Over the years, Roger wrote many memorable reviews, helping to establish the reputations of movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Cries and Whispers, Gates of Heaven, Crumb, and James's own Hoop Dreams. I only wish it had included the line from the documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, about a phone call Ebert once received.

Caller: "We live near the Wilmette Theatre, which is showing Cries and Whispers. What can you tell us about it?"

Roger: "I think it is the best film of the year."

Caller: "Oh, that doesn't sound like anything we'd want to see!"

That's a great story, and I'm guessing Roger told it more than once over the years. And that probably says more about him than anything else. He was a storyteller. He believed in ritual and repetition. (Chaz confirmed this in my recent interview with her: he was a man that, if he did something once, did it again the same way forevermore.) He loved movies. He loved the art of movies, and the way that movies could affect us. He loved teaching and passing on the things he found out about movies and about life. And, as the title indicates, he loved life itself.

This film, and my "enthusiastic thumbs up" review, is a fine a way as any to pay tribute to a man that has meant a lot to me, despite the fact that I never got to shake his hand.

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