I traditionally write about television, but I recently spent some time watching Steve James’s wonderful documentary, Life Itself, about the life and death of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. The experience was so powerful, so intense, that I felt compelled to write. If it helps, then I did watch it on AppleTV. That counts, doesn’t it?
The documentary chronicles the last few months of Ebert’s life as he battled valiantly against the many ailments that plagued him. We are presented Ebert’s beginnings, his improbable rise to fame as a film critic, and his end. We get to know his wife Chaz, the love of his life. In the saddest moment of the documentary, it is Chaz who relays the final moments of his life in a joyous and yet still obviously painful recollection. We get a peak into the hospital room in which he died and are made to feel as if we were standing there with Ebert and his family. I’m not sure I drew a breath as it was an intense way to close the documentary. The only way it could have been done.
To say that this film hit me like a ton of bricks would only show how the English language sometimes fails to capture the true range of human emotions experienced. It took me to places I hadn’t visited in years. It made me face life events that I’ve chosen to ignore. As the best documentaries do, it told me a great deal not only about the subject but also about myself as a human being. It shamed me as Ebert himself once did. Let me explain how.
I grew up in a rural area of North Carolina. The only child of hard-working parents, I was often left alone with my imagination and penchant for theatrics as my only companions. With cable television not available in my area, my parents bought a massive satellite dish – the kind one sees in films about scientists trying to study life on other planets. To me, it was my lifeline to a greater world.
I had been to movie theaters before, of course, as my mother often took me to morning matinees at the local 2-screen multiplex. This was before the days of VCRs or DVD players, so I was able to see big screen presentations of the Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. Later, my father discovered that father/son time would not involve shooting hoops in the backyard, as I was not an athletic child. Instead, he took me to the original Star Trek (the one with the bald chick), to ET (where I screamed and cried for two hours), and to movies he wanted to see such as the Richard Pryor remake of Brewster’s Millions and (later) Platoon.
This education was supplemented by the advent of the satellite dish. The first film I saw when the installer plugged the receiver in was A Christmas Story. My cinematic education blossomed from there, and what it taught me was that I wanted to contribute to that language. I wanted to become a writer and a director, giving back to the world that saved me as a child.
Enter Roger Ebert. I discovered Siskel and Ebert in the late 80s. This bizarre pair of Laurel and Hardy-types instantly became my first film professors. They taught me that there was a difference between movies and great cinema. They taught me about great actors and powerful directors, including introducing me to the great Martin Scorsese. I gravitated more toward Ebert’s opinion. He seemed to understand that there was a place for almost any film and seemed to appreciate film’s intrinsic value more than Siskel.
And, as a heavier child, I saw someone on television whose weight didn’t seem to bother him. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed by it. He had greater things on his mind. Still, I remember the day Siskel harangued Ebert for liking the 1993 film Free Willy. Siskel accused Ebert of relating to the whale. It was the lowest blow I’d ever seen on television, and Ebert brushed it off.
In college, I carried on a brief email communication with Ebert. I’d been obsessed with Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and I questioned its merit and its rampant violence. I never dreamed that Ebert would actually respond, but he did. We exchanged two or three emails about the film, discussing its meaning and the filmmaking behind its message. He recommended other films that I’d never seen. He took his time with a total stranger, and it made me feel genuinely special. As if I were the only person he’d ever emailed in his life.
And, then, he shamed me.
Anxious to carry on the discourse, but still cinematically naïve, I asked him the most pointless question you could ask a film expert. A question that, later, I discovered true lovers of film would never ask. I asked, “Do you think The Lion King will be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar?”
It wasn’t that he shamed me by responding negatively or scoffing at my naivety through email. It’s that he didn’t respond at all. The silence was truly deafening.
I’m sure he received thousands of emails a week from kids just like me, but, to me, the exchange was akin to talking to God himself. To have that relationship severed, on my end so abruptly, was a devastating event. I was still a kid, after all, and was reaching out to someone who could help me understand. I’d blown it.
But I moved on. When Siskel died, I cried, and the Siskel and Ebert show was forever lost. I still loved film, but I started to move my life in different directions. I focused on a career and wrote less and less. I got married and focused on raising a family. Film became something I started to share with my wife and children rather than something I wanted to use to build a career.
Until this weekend when Ebert shamed me again.
I remained disconnected from Ebert’s life through his struggles. Embarrassingly, I could not look at him after surgeons removed his lower jaw to stop the spread of cancer. It wasn’t personal. When my own uncle rapidly declined from colon cancer, he became a shell of the man I’d known since birth, and I couldn’t look on him. When my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s and deteriorated in a nursing home, I would not see her wallowing in filth and decay. Death and I, we didn’t get along, and I wanted to preserve the memory of these people so close to my heart as I’d known them in their prime. So, it wasn’t a personal thing against Ebert. It was a pattern. How I did things then.
Watching Life Itself, you cannot look away from Ebert. I had no idea that the removal of his jaw allowed you to see through his mouth to the bandages wrapped around his neck. I saw the nurses drain fluid from his throat. I saw him struggle to walk. Struggle to communicate. And rage against those there only to help him. I saw a man die. And, again, this man shamed me.
Through it all, not only did I realize there was still a vital, intelligent, productive man behind the distorted visage, but this man continued to write. To live his dream. To produce more meaningful content than he ever had before. I couldn’t help but look to myself, of sound mind and able body, and think about all the time I’d lost to my passion.
I do not regret getting married and raising a family for these people are vital, critical parts of my life, and I love them deeply. What I regret are the days I’ve wasted, doing nothing. The hours I’ve let drift like petals on the wind with nothing to show. The apathy and laziness that creeps in with depression. I let it get to me. When I look at Ebert in the documentary, he did not let it affect him. He pushed through and stayed true himself.
I will always be grateful to Roger Ebert, my greatest teacher. He had no idea even who I was save for a brief email exchange most assuredly long forgotten. But, to me, he was the greatest professor I have and will ever have. He taught me the difference between movies and cinema. He taught me to not to obsess over silly things but, instead, focus on deeper subjects. And, finally, he taught me about life itself and, despite the challenges and hardships we face, we should never give up on who we are and what we love.
Lately, I have been lucky enough to be welcomed into a community where I can express my thoughts and opinions through my writing, allowing me to waken and hone muscles I haven’t used in years. Watching the great Life Itself has only reaffirmed that dream, my passion for writing.
It is a passion I will never again ignore, and dream I will doggedly pursue.
I have you, Roger Ebert, to thank for that.