Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Life Itself – The Passions of Roger Ebert

Life Itself - Roger Ebert | A Constantly Racing Mind
R oger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013, however he lives on in a documentary film by Steve James.  This isn't a review about the film, instead, it is my subjective and completely biased recommendation to you to go out and see this film.  Like many of you, I grew up watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert battling their points of view, on first on PBS and then on commercial television.  I enjoyed the two of them and soaked up their opinions.  That is not to say I agreed all the time with either of them.  I learned from Siskel and Ebert that talking about film should be fun, informative, passionate, but most of all, respectful of other people’s opinions.  

When Gene Siskel died in 1999 of cancer, a fact he kept to himself until near the end.  Roger was hurt that his friend did not confide in him.  So, Roger and his wife Chaz decided that they would document his life as child, an adolescent, his college years, his time with the Chicago Sun-Times, his time with Gene Siskel, and his time after.

Roger was battling cancer since 2002, as he relapsed and other types of cancer were discovered, and more surgery ensued.  As his condition worsened, he continued to review films and continued to live.  Of his many books that he wrote, he saved the best for last.  In September 2011, his memoir "Life Itself" was published.  

The documentary discusses Roger's life candidly.  If you thought you knew Roger, and haven't read the book or seen the film, then you don't know Roger Ebert.  I am not going to go into detail about what is on the film, but I will tell you that it is all about life.  Present throughout the film, his wife of about 20 years is his wife Chaz.  Roger and Chaz married about 20 years ago, and in doing so, Roger became an instant stepfather and step grandfather.  


Life Itself - Roger & Chaz Ebert | A Constantly Racing Mind

Throughout the film, the present day Roger is either in a hospital bed, or being wheeled around in a wheelchair.  As you watch the film, you become painfully aware that Roger's jawbone is missing and his jaw hang limply in an almost constant grin.  Don't be alarmed, this too is part of life.  Roger lived a good life, and most importantly, he died a good death.  Yes, death is a part of life.  Death is an essential experience all humans are obligated to participate in. 

I must warn you, some elements of the documentary are hard to watch.  Watching a vibrant, loud, and opinionated man becomes silent and bedridden.  Did I say silent?  That is incorrect.  Roger Ebert is never silent.  His voice continued in his personal blog in which he wrote just about everything.  Roger would write on any subject that he fancied.  In some cases, he would repost his reviews from his official Sun Time's web page on his blog so he could get the public's opinion on the film.  Roger was very transparent about the review process.  

Life Itself - Roger & his laptop | A Constantly Racing MindIn Roger's Blog Post titled "WHOLE LOTTA CANTIN' GOING ON"

"All the same, if you say you dislike "The Godfather" or "Shawshank," I can't say you're wrong.  The one thing you can never be wrong about is your own opinion."

My thoughts on his post were:

"I think that anybody who directs a film, writes about film, as a critic, reviewer, or a bloggist, opens themselves up for a debate.  In the days before the Internet, I think the best a person could do if they didn't like a movie review was write a letter to the editor.  Today, we can blog, write our own reviews, or even better twitter or chat with the reviewer.  One of the major reasons we watch a film is to get a mental or emotional catharsis.  Leaving the art and science of film criticism aside, I think it is a good exercise for anybody who disagrees with a review, to write their own.  Not just if they liked the film or not, but also to write what was it they liked and why they liked it.

The point is, not to get more people to agree with you, nobody is paid for that except for the folks in advertising, but rather to make one think critically.  The fact of the matter is that liking or not liking a film is a personal choice (as you wrote).  I don't read reviews before a movie, as I want to think for myself.  I do read reviews afterwards to get an idea if I missed something critical in the film, and I do want to see other points of view.  Now as we all know, some films that were panned at by the critics at the time of their release are now considered classics.  I think the classic example is Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life.”  Hell, there are films I hated ten years ago, now make me think, I was wrong.  Either way, talking about a film should be fun and an enjoyable experience.  However, talking about how lousy a film is despite increasing box office sales totals doesn't change film executive’s minds, nor does it change the directors.  If there should be a backlash about anything in the film business today, should be, in my opinion, is the 3D revolution and higher prices and up-selling at the theater.  Any person, who gives up their right to make up their own mind, doesn't deserve an opinion."

The documentary runs just under two hours. Roger Ebert was a human being and his life was not limited to PG-13.  In fact, his life is rated R for real because he was. 

Ultimately, when Roger Ebert wrote a review, he was writing about "Life Itself."

Movie Data

Genre: Documentary, Biography
Year:  2014
Staring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert. Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Gene Siskel 
Director: Steve James
Producer(s): Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper,
Writer: Steve James 
Rating: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: 7/4/2014