What we know about life: it lasts mere seconds by any measure. What we know about Roger Ebert: No one knew this better than he did.
Ah, the horror and the beauty of this fleeting life. Time goes by too fast. There is too much beauty. Everywhere. The film about Ebert is a fitting tribute to a man whose life was so much bigger than movies but whose legacy is nonetheless tangled up in them. He loved his work, but more than that, he recognized that the work is the thing he’d leave behind so he didn’t waste a single minute of the remaining seconds, writing constantly, publishing reviews, books – building websites, using Twitter. But no amount of praise a person can heap upon Ebert isn’t said better in the film, Life Itself.
Drawing from bits and pieces of the legacy that is now Roger Ebert, his history as a self-made reporter, his ever-expanding world view, his partnership with Gene Siskel and the love of his life, Chaz, Life Itself puts Ebert’s work into proper perspective. Yes, in a way it was everything. In another way it couldn’t buy him a minute more of life. He beat back his own mortality as his cancer and the treatment of cancer simultaneously kept him alive and killed him. He gripped tightly to what remained.
It should not be missed. I started my website in 1999 as oscarwatch.com. What I would do is each time a film came out I would watch the critic reviews. There were so few then and their voices mattered so much it was easy to track them. Waiting on a Todd McCarthy or Kirk Honeycutt review was a nail-biter. What would they say? You see, back then it mattered what they thought more than it mattered what I thought. Back then, not just anyone could be a film critic, not like now. Owen Gleibermann, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Manohla Dargis, AO Scott, Glenn Kenny, Peter Travers – these were the tastemakers. So much has changed since then but Roger Ebert was always one of the major voices not just for films coming out but for the changing internet, which eventually swallowed up and destroyed film criticism as we all knew it then.
Ebert evolved as the internet evolved. That is what made him so ahead of the game. My entire experience watching Oscar for 15 years is woven with Ebert’s opinions all over it. Railing against him before he got sick, trying to not pity him after he got sick. I once got in an email fight with him about Crash vs. Brokeback. He was a supporter and advocate of Crash because he, unlike almost everyone else who writes about film, cared about the imbalance of white stories vs. stories about people of color. Only Ebert was both an activist and a film critic. Critics now do not take such things into consideration – as was witnessed last year with 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity. Ebert would have loved both films but he would have been the only critic, and a powerful one at that, who would have really gotten the importance of 12 Years a Slave’s presence in the race at all. He got it because he watched film history for 46 years and because he cared more about the big picture than about his own limited perception of what he was seeing on the screen. Critics who see the bigger picture still exist but they are disappearing fast.
Life Itself tells Ebert’s story from Ebert’s perspective, and from the perspective of those who knew him, worked with him, were influenced by him. With a national audience at his fingertips, Ebert brought the genius of Martin Scorsese to the mainstream. Without Ebert’s early advocacy and support, who knows what might have happened to Scorsese. I watched with horror as critics spit on the brilliant work of Xavier Dolan, a very young up and coming artist, at Cannes – and I suddenly realized the impact someone like Ebert can have on film overall. Ebert saw Scorsese’s promise early on with Who’s That Knocking on My Door. He wasn’t the guy being flown out to see the fancy set of some powerful film director to help build up the fan base. He was recognizing talent and advocating for it.
At the same time the film doesn’t back off what an arrogant asshole Ebert could be – and that might be the final irony of what a fatal illness can do to a person. Petty things don’t matter anymore when you’re facing the big sleep. He found love. He found family. He found satisfaction in his work. He really had a wonderful life, too wonderful of a life that he didn’t want to let it go. Watching Life Itself is inspiring that way. In truth, we’re all just sitting around here waiting to die. But this film is like a battle cry to anyone who has the luxury of sitting around thinking about anything at all: get busy living or get busy dying.
He leaves behind him an unmatchable legacy and perhaps one that flourished because Ebert himself evolved with the changing times not by becoming part of the status quo but by defying it; he became a leader and pioneer, always, with each new phase of his ever-changing life.
If you miss Ebert, look for him. He’s everywhere. As Walt Whitman describes in Song of Myself:
I depart as air,
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Life Itself is currently playing in theaters and on VOD.