Monday, July 21, 2014

Life Itself

Ebert with his longtime personal assistant Carol Iwata

LIFE ITSELF             A-                     
USA  (115 mi)  2014  d:  Steve James             Official site

Gatsby’s house was still empty when I left — the grass on his lawn had grown as long as mine. One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside; perhaps it was he who drove Daisy and Gatsby over to East Egg the night of the accident, and perhaps he had made a story about it all his own. I didn’t want to hear it and I avoided him when I got off the train.

I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive. One night I did hear a material car there, and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.

On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby finale, 1925, Ebert’s favorite literary passage

Arguably the most powerful documentary seen so far this year, as it’s like witnessing the passing of a close personal friend, adapted from Ebert’s 2011 autobiographical memoirs, written five years after thyroid cancer left him unable to speak, eat, or drink, but he “began to replace what I lost with what I remembered,” making a resurgence on the Internet with his interactive Ebert blog where he only became more prolific and influential as a writer, where his legacy is contained on his revamped website ( that currently receives 110 million visits per year, where there are some 70 writers offering diverse opinions and views carrying on his name.  The only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and for almost 30 years he was the only film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975 for outstanding criticism.  Ebert was also an honorary member of the Director’s Guild of America, working as the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013, his reviews were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and Canada.  Ebert also appeared on television for four decades, including twenty-three years as cohost of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (1986–99), becoming the most popular and best known film critic of our time, eventually accepted as a familiar household name.  While the sadness of his death was a tragic loss, much of it expressed in an outpouring of affirmation at his public funeral service (Roger Ebert), much of this film captures behind-the-scenes glimpses of Roger and his wife Chaz while he was undergoing extensive rehabilitation treatment in the hospital, which includes the dramatic mood swings that come with the territory of reaching the end stage of one’s life, where this film doesn’t sugar coat it, showing the depths of exasperation and depression, where despite his overall positive attitude, there were times when he preferred to end it.  This is no movie version of death, but brings the viewer into the wrenching personal moments when he was simply overcome by the devastation of his illness.   As he is unable to speak, Chaz acts as the narrator of his thoughts, reading personal notes that he writes or recounting his innermost feelings that he shared.  His death serves as the backdrop to what is otherwise an exposé of his life. 

Born as a middle class kid from Urbana, a small Midwestern town in central Illinois, his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife, where they subscribed to three newspapers to accommodate Roger’s voracious interest.  While he hoped he could follow in the Kennedy’s footsteps to Harvard, his working class family could only afford the nearby University of Illinois where he became the editor of the school newspaper, spending late evening hours setting the type press, a notable experience to others who remember Roger as he already knew how to write in a distinctively mature style, as evidenced by an article he wrote after a Birmingham church bombing (16th Street Baptist Church bombing) killed four young black girls on September 15, 1963, beginning with a quote from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who told then white separatist Alabama Governor George Wallace “The blood of four little children…is on your hands.”  At only 21, Ebert took issue with King’s comments, suggesting in The Daily Illini that the blood was on the hands of not just one man, but many, as legislated white separatism must pass through the minds and thoughts of hundreds, then voted upon by hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions more voters before it is enacted into law, enforced by still more police, sheriffs, district attorneys, juries, and ultimately judges who sit upon the wisdom of such racially divisive practices.  While he moved to Chicago as a doctoral student in graduate school at the University of Chicago, the economic reality meant he also needed money, so while he intended to be a freelance reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times while still attending classes, he was actually hired as a reporter and feature writer.  In less than a year, without asking for the position and without so much as an interview he was offered the job as full-time movie critic when Eleanor Keane left the paper in April 1967, becoming the youngest film critic in the nation at age 24, a job he never relinquished until his death.  Enriched by old black and white archival photographs, narrated by a few old clips of Ebert himself, but mostly voice actor Stephen Stanton as Ebert, there are plenty of recollections from friends, colleagues, and drinking buddies, recounting tales from Ebert’s drinking days at O’Rourke’s Pub near Old Town where a bartender recalls, “Back in the old days, Roger had the worst taste in women of probably any man I’ve ever known.  They were either gold diggers, opportunists, or psychos.”

Improbably, or perhaps not, Roger developed a close association with schlock sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer, writing the screenplay for the cult film BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), which captured the thoughts of young director Martin Scorsese, who started amusingly with the title, claiming they meant it when they say it goes “Beyond…Far Beyond,” always remembering the editing sequence when the girl has sex in a luxury Bentley car, which edits the grill of the Bentley into the middle of the sex act.  Scorsese recalls the interest a young Ebert took in one of his earliest efforts, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), seen when it was entitled I CALL FIRST, already recognizing the talent behind the camera, which he recalls in his book here, Scorsese by Ebert by Roger Ebert, an excerpt.  In one of the lowest periods of Scorsese’s life in the early 80’s, after several failed marriages, he acknowledges he was actually contemplating suicide, but before he had the chance to act, he received an invite from Siskel & Ebert to join them in a retrospective panel discussion about his works at the Toronto Film Festival, something he never forgot, as it literally saved his life.  Scorsese’s comments were particularly heartfelt, even as Ebert lambasted his film THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), which struck a nerve, but he insisted that even when writing a negative review, Ebert never lost his professionalism or went for the juggler, a trait that describes his innate humaneness.  Similarly, Errol Morris attributes much of his success to Ebert’s enthralling endorsement of his first documentary film GATES OF HEAVEN (1978), a small film about pet cemeteries that Roger championed throughout his life.  The same could be said about Werner Herzog, who calls Ebert a “soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade,” but it is Morris who acknowledges, “Here I had someone writing about my work who was a true enthusiast.  His enthusiasm has kept me going over the years, and the memory of his enthusiasm will keep me going for as long as I make movies.”  The director’s own association with Ebert dates back to 1994 when Siskel & Ebert used their television show as a platform to endorse his unheralded urban basketball documentary HOOP DREAMS (1994) as one of the best films of the year, where both listed it as their #1 Best Film.  All of this attests not only to his influence, but his personal generosity, reflected by countless others who recall how Ebert took the time to acknowledge their work when nobody else was, like Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (1979) or Gregory Nava’s EL NORTE (1983), where kindness is a recognizable human attribute one never forgets. 

After winning the Pulitzer Prize, The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee tried to lure him away with a big-money offer, but Ebert continually refused, replying, “I’m not gonna learn new streets.”  Much is made of Ebert’s professional legacy, specifically the thumbs up/thumbs down shorthand of film criticism, a technique that film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dismisses, claiming it is not film criticism, which Ebert is not ashamed to acknowledge, as television time restraints demand a simplistic rating system, a short cut style of divulging sufficient information for viewers to make an intelligent choice.  But other serious cinephiles were equally appalled by the system, including this erudite March/April 1990 Film Comment attack by Richard Corliss, All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism? that attacks the dumbing down, sound bite mentality of movie reviews as little more than television marketing.  In the next edition of the magazine, Ebert's reply may be as meticulously detailed, lengthy, and well-argued as the original piece, delivering a strong defense for the show.  This perfectly illustrates Ebert’s clear-headedness, as according to newspaper colleagues and friends, Ebert never spent more than a half hour writing a review, that he comes from a newspaper background where the secret is outlining the ideas in your head before you start to write.  Ebert had the ability to write, and speak, in whole paragraphs while retaining the ability to remain clear and concise, displaying old-fashioned Midwestern logic and common sense.  Even when writing about complex artists like Bergman, Dreyer, or Bresson, Ebert never wrote above the heads of the audience by describing often incomprehensible film theory (which he was known to do in classrooms, spending hours dissecting movies shot by shot), always aware that he was writing for the widest possible readership.  When paired with philosophy major and Yale graduate Gene Siskel, a man who never met one of his own opinions he didn’t prefer, Ebert was often stunned by his inability to convince his partner of the error of his thinking, where both stubbornly refused to acquiesce to the other, which provided the fireworks for the show.  As someone ingeniously acknowledged, “Gene was a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.”  Of course there are film clips from the show, including inflammatory shouting matches objecting about the incredibly poor taste of their partner, over BENJI THE HUNTED (1987), of all films, where Ebert strains to yell over another Siskel snide remark, “I disagree particularly about the part you like!”  But the worst behavior occurs during a series of outtakes where both are seen continually trading personal insults, captured on camera as they dutifully flub line after line of promo shots, eventually walking off the set in a huff.  Eventually, perhaps because of the amount of time they spent in such close quarters together, they grew a special affection for one another.   

Among the many surprises of the film is not about Roger, but Gene Siskel, former playboy, who was part of Hugh Hefner’s inner circle of the early 70’s before he became a movie critic, seen jet setting around the country with a bevy of beautiful models on the Playboy private jet.  And who would have guessed that among Roger’s favorite literary works was a special affection for The Great Gatsby, often asking his lifelong friend Bill Nack to recite the final lines in the book from memory, which he proudly does onscreen, as he has done hundreds of times, where the overriding hope and optimism of a new and better world ahead seems to have been Roger’s guiding light.  At the beginning of the film he offers his description of cinema as “a machine that generates empathy,” which has an almost science-fiction feel to it, suggesting there is a healing power in cinema, which may have transformed his life.  He wasn’t particularly proud of his reckless behavior on display during the 70’s while working for The Chicago Sun-Times, describing himself as “tactless, egotistical, merciless, and a showboat,” where he was also a preeminent storyteller that could hold a room, a womanizer, and an alcoholic, eventually joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he remained sober since 1979.  In his book, Ebert claims Ann Landers introduced him to his eventual wife Chaz at a restaurant in Chicago, but the film tells another story, that he met the love of his life at age 50 in an A.A. meeting.  A former chair of the Black Student Union at her college, and perhaps the least likely person to choose a white man for a husband, Chaz steadfastly remains at Roger’s side throughout his most difficult ordeals, often understanding the underlying anguish and despair even as Roger tends to remain optimistic.  Despite the graphically uncomfortable moments where Roger has to continually return to the rehab hospital five times, each time thinking it would be his last, that it would lead him on the road to recovery, where he was initially informed, “They got it all.  Every last speck,” only to realize the cancer had continued to spread elsewhere.  This stream of medical news is exhausting and demoralizing, none of which is hidden from view, where among Roger’s more acute observations was his wife’s inextinguishable support, “To visit a hospital is not pleasant.  To do it hundreds of times is heroic.”  In a startling revelation, Chaz describes the final moment when they finally decide to let go, easily the most heartbreaking moment in the entire film, where death has rarely felt more genuine.  Yet it is this heartfelt intimacy that carries us through this film that helps us understand the power of love, where it nearly has the capacity to raise the dead, perhaps best expressed by Kenneth Turan from The Los Angeles Times:

If you had asked me ahead of time what I would have found most interesting about Life Itself, I would have guessed that it would be the parts I knew least about, specifically Roger’s harum-scarum days as a young film critic about town in high-spirited Chicago.  Paradoxically, the opposite was true, (where perhaps most surprising are) the sections that enlarged my understanding of Roger’s relationship with his remarkable wife, Chaz, particularly as their vibrant marriage took on the cataclysmic series of illnesses that marked the final decade of Roger’s life.  The cascading surgeries that Roger went through would have toppled a less indomitable man, and it was difficult for me to watch the scenes that show Roger in obvious discomfort and pain.  But having a behind-the-scenes look at the truth of Roger’s remark that Chaz’s love was ‘like a wind pushing me back from the grave’ genuinely brought tears to my eyes.

Roger loves Chaz | Roger Ebert's Journal | Roger Ebert  July 17, 2012, a selection from Life Itself: A Memoir:

The greatest pleasure came from annual trips we made with our grandchildren Raven, Emil and Taylor, and their parents Sonia and Mark.  Josibiah and his son Joseph came on one of those trips, where we made our way from Budapest to Prague, Vienna and Venice.  We went with the Evans family to Hawaii, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Venice, and Stockholm.  We walked the ancient pathway from Cambridge to Grantchester.  Emil announced that for him there was no such thing as getting up too early, and every morning the two of us would meet in a hotel lobby and go out for long walks together.  I took my camera.  One morning in Budapest he asked me to take a photo of two people walking ahead of us and holding hands.


“Because they look happy.”

Ramin Setoodeh 5 of the Film’s Most Surprising Moments, from Variety at Sundance, January 19, 2014

Roger Ebert knew that he wouldn’t live to see “Life Itself,” the documentary based on his 2011 memoir. In one of the most touching scenes of the riveting film by director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Ebert learns that his cancer has metastasized to his spine. The doctors estimate he only has six to 16 months to live, although he doesn’t make it that long. Ebert died in April 2013 at 70.

“It is likely I will have passed when the film is ready,” Ebert calmly predicts on-camera.

At the Sunday premiere of “Life Itself,” James broke into tears as he introduced his film, which will air on CNN. The next two hours were a sobfest, as most of the audience cried — and often laughed, too. When the credits rolled, Ebert’s wife Chaz took the stage joined by Marlene Iglitzen, the wife of Ebert’s longtime movie sparring partner Gene Siskel.

Chaz talked about how people called her a saint for taking care of Roger as his health failed after a thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2002. “What they didn’t know is how much my heart grew from having been with him for all those years, for loving him, for taking care of him, for having him take care of me,” Chaz said. During the Q&A, an audience member asked what Ebert would have thought of “Life Itself.” Chaz knew that “he would say two thumbs up.”

The stirring documentary, which was shot during what would be the last five months of Ebert’s life, includes interviews with Ebert’s director friends Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, as well as critics A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss. Here are five of the film’s most surprising moments.

1. Ebert never got to say good-bye to Gene Siskel. In the documentary, Marlene talks about how Gene hid his brain cancer diagnosis in 1998, out of fear that Disney would replace him on ABC’s “Siskel & Ebert.” Ebert had planned to visit Gene at the hospital, but he passed two days before the visit. Chaz said that Ebert was so heartbroken, he was determined to share the details of his own health after he got sick.

2. Ebert signed “a do not resuscitate.” In the final days of his life, he sent James emails like “i’m fading” and “i can’t.” He said his hands were so swollen, he wasn’t able to use a computer. He secretly signed a DNR at the hospital without telling Chaz, which she learned about on the day of his death. In the film, she described the moment of his passing as “a wind of peace” and “I knew it was time to accept it.”

3. Ebert met Chaz at Alcoholics Anonymous. In his memoir, Ebert claims to have first talked to her at a Chicago restaurant, after an introduction by Ann Landers. In the film, Chaz says she met Roger at AA, a fact that she had never publicly revealed. And until he started dating her, Ebert had a wild bachelor streak–according to one pal, he used to court “gold diggers, opportunists and psychos.” Another buddy recalls that Roger introduced him to a prostitute he was seeing.

4. Laura Dern once gave Ebert a present that belonged to Marilyn Monroe. After Ebert presented Dern with a Sundance tribute, Dern sent him a heartfelt letter with a special memento. It was a puzzle that Lee Strasberg had given her, a gift from Alfred Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe. Ebert later gave the puzzle to director Ramin Bahrani, with the instructions that one day, “You have to give it to someone else who deserves it.”

5. Ebert loved “The Great Gatsby.”It was his favorite book. He had his journalist friend Bill Nack recite the final lines back to him hundreds of times. Here it is, Roger: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Ebert compiled "best of the year" movie lists beginning in 1967, thereby helping provide an overview of his critical preferences.  His top choices were:

1969: Z
1975: Nashville
1977: 3 Women
1984: Amadeus
1986: Platoon
1990: Goodfellas
1991: JFK
1992: Malcolm X
1996: Fargo
1998: Dark City
2003: Monster
2005: Crash
2007: Juno
2012: Argo


  1. I'm going to have a hard time with this documentary: I didn't particularly like Roger Ebert, the film critic. (Plus, now I finally have to read The Great Gatsby, so the film doesn't spoil it to me.) I do acknowledge that he was an excellent writer, the fluidity of his texts were likely a major part in his success. But he was never able to touch me, to make me see anything in a different light. I always felt that although he was very intelligent and made interesting points, the underlying thesis of what he thought a film is and should be, remained somehow shallow and conformistic. To me he is the world's most famous film critic - but I can't quite grasp why. With all due respect, RIP.

  2. Hello again, Anton.

    Without spoiling anything, the film doesn't address a single review he wrote, or make any comparisons to Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, or the Cahiers group, though their books lined the book shelf of his office and he was certainly well read in movie criticism.

    The film takes a different tack and examines what kind of person he was and how he approached his own mortality, sharing many of his thoughts in the last 5 months of his life, where it's as much a commentary on life as death.

    You don't have to like or dislike him, as he's such a public figure, it's significant that, unlike Gene Siskel's private death, Ebert wanted to share as much of the experience as he could with the public, which includes the making of this film. Being from Chicago, it's impossible not to have been influenced by him in some ways, as he was mostly a gentle spirit that simply loved the movies.

    It's ironic that his revamped website (that is like the official Ebert library) was finally finished "after" he died, where I find it curious that there are 70 some odd writers on that site replacing what one man did for the majority of his life.