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The Bittersweet Celebration of Life Itself

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.

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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.

5 Comments on this Post

  1. Anything I could ever say about that man would just be repeating your article. He is the reason I fell in love with film criticism and, like you, eagerly awaited reviews from him, McCarthy and Honeycutt. When I found out he died that hit me in the most profound way the death of a writer ever has. His reviews became part of my life.

  2. david

    Growing up whenever’s I wanted to see a movie,the first thing I always did was look for Roger Ebert’s review!!!! It was a bad review I wouldn’t see it

  3. My Ebert story:

    At 22, I landed my first professional newspaper job. Just six weeks out of college, I was hired to write sports and community news for a mid-size daily newspaper in a secluded Northern California county. It was a dream job, the vocation for which I had studied, for which I had strived, and toward which I had been pointed more or less my entire life. I was going to be a professional writer.

    Still, classrooms, books, and teachers can only prepare you so much and cannot prepare you for what it is like to put yourself out in the public sphere, to be vulnerable, and to open yourself to the world. That is when the phone calls and emails started – vitriol directed at me because at whom else would it be directed. I was the man at the desk.

    My editor, who had taken a chance in hiring me and to whom I remain grateful to this day, assured me it was nothing I had done. He urged me not to take it personally and to remember this is just the way it is. He had been the man on the Sports desk for 10 years before I got there, so he knew a thing or two about being the target of unchanneled rage.

    But he had nearly two decades in the business on me. I was still green and less capable of accepting this as part of the job. It must have been me and something I had done. I had only been there three months, and already, I was wondering if I was in the right profession. Had I made a terrible mistake?

    It was around this time, May 2011, that Roger Ebert wrote about Thor. Ebert would, on numerous occasions since he dove head first into the Internet, write something that stuck in people’s craw. He wrote about everything – gun violence, religion, evolution, etc., all topics bound to generate intelligent debate and childish name-calling in equal measure.

    What Ebert wrote about best, however, were movies, and on this occasion, his review of Thor had so riled the fanboys he felt the need to write a blog post in response. On May 15, 2011, he posted “My mighty hammering over ‘Thor.’” With his usual sharp wit and deadly logic, he addressed his critics head on while still providing a forum for their criticisms – the comments section. Ebert was famous on his blog for personally vetting each comment, publishing it to the site, and responding when he felt it was warranted.

    This confluence of events – the criticisms lobbed at him over Thor and my new-found since of dread every time the phone at my desk rang – led me to post a comment. I am not, by nature, a commenter. I read. I consider. I prefer discussion. But in this instance, I felt a need to comment. If you scroll down at that link I provided, you can see my comment. It is essentially what I have explained above, but it was also a thank you to Ebert.

    I wanted to thank him for continuing to put himself out there, and I wanted to say to him, from one journalist at the beginning of his career to another approaching what would prove to be the tail end of his, I appreciated his work and the platform for discussion he provided. Ebert published the comment with this addendum:

    “Ebert: If they always like you, you’re doing something wrong.”

    He had responded to me. Nine words, and I felt as though I had won the lottery. I’m still a journalist now four years later, and Ebert is a huge part of why.

    My review of the movie is here if anyone’s interested (http://lastcinemastanding.blogspot.com/2014/07/new-movie-review-life-itself.html), but you said it perfectly Sasha.

  4. Best line in the movie is delivered by one of Ebert’s friends:

    “FUCK Pauline Kael!”

    Truer words won’t be spoken on a movie screen this summer! Ebert’s intelligent populism was a great antitode to the smarmy self-importance of Kael.

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