Thursday, 16 July 2015

Ebert's Life Itself

Reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert look like professors on TV
On my flights to and from Paris recently, I limited my time watching movies and such as I needed to get as much sleep as possible. But I made sure I watched a few documentaries.

The first one was Life Itself, documenting the last few months of Pulitzer prize-winning film review Roger Ebert's life as he was dying of cancer in 2013 at the age of 70.

Filmmaker Steve James deftly wove Ebert's memoir of the same name with scenes of following him around as he went in and out of hospital, or at home, and interviews with friends, filmmakers, and his wife Chaz.

Ebert the day after he won a Pulitzer Prize for his review
We learn that at an early age Ebert, who hailed from Urbana, Illinois, loved words and writing. By the time he started in newspapers as a undergraduate, he was already writing stories like a seasoned reporter.

His colleagues talked about how Ebert would just take charge of the situation, or just the way he wrote a story showed how observant he was, and chose words that perfectly summed up the situation or his opinion of something.

Later he got a job at the Chicago Sun-Times and was loyal to the end, despite the paper going through financial difficulties. It was here that he was assigned to review movies from 1967, and latched onto the beat like it was a natural thing to do.

An interesting fact is that he helped Russ Meyer write the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which had a crazy combination of sex, violence and bawdy dialogue. It didn't do well in the box office, but now is considered a film that was ahead of its time.

In 1975 he and Gene Siskel began doing film reviews on television. As their former producers pointed out, these two did not have the look for TV at all, looking like university professors, and Ebert in particular too keen to show off his expansive vocabulary.

For his wedding to Chaz, Ebert splashed out on the nuptials
What was also pointed out in Life Itself was that the two hated each other. There were outtakes of them verbally jousting with insults that were quite intense. It's amazing they didn't kill each other on camera.

But as they became more successful on television, they realized they needed each other to keep the show going and their relationship became more amicable.

However, when Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 1998, he did not tell Ebert, and died in February 1999, much to the shock of everyone.

Ebert was very upset, and according to his wife, decided that if he was ill, he would go very public with it to let everyone know. What was very sweet was seeing him and Chaz together -- you could tell they loved each other very much.

He married her at the age of 50, and accepted her children and grandchildren as his own. She is successful in her own right, a trial attorney, but it seems towards the end of his life she spent a lot of time looking after him.

Cancer did not keep Ebert's spirits down -- he kept writing
In 2002 he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, and though it was removed, cancer kept coming back, to the point where he was unable to speak. He adopted a computerized voice, and in many of the scenes, it's horrifying at first to see there is a giant hole in his mouth, the chin part hanging out because his lower jaw is gone.

However, he still kept up his spirits, chiding his wife, or being light-hearted. Director James had so many questions for Ebert towards the end that he couldn't answer them all, which is probably why he turned to Ebert's memoir -- that thankfully is narrated in his own voice -- as well as interviews with friends to give some answers.

What was interesting was that despite being ill, Ebert was keen to keep writing. He started a blog and tweeted. He embraced these new online mediums so well that it enabled him to not only keep in touch with his existing fans but garner new ones too.

One young African American filmmaker reminisced about meeting Ebert when she was a young girl, and took a picture with him in the 1980s. That chance encounter inspired her to make films, and when Ebert reviewed her film and gave it a good review, she emailed him with the picture they took decades ago, telling him the story of how they met.

He immediately blogged about it, complete with the picture, which she found so touching.

Ebert knew he had a good run, and wrote this three years before he died:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

I remember watching him and Siskel on television, making passionate arguments for and against whatever movies they were reviewing. Ebert was the more studious-looking one, Siskel more suave and debonair. I didn't like one more than the other, but found it interesting how much they loved movies.

Watching Life Itself helps viewers understand where Ebert came from, his passion for writing, for movies, for life. He was admired by his colleagues and directors, particularly Martin Scorsese, who was indebted to both Ebert and Siskel for supporting him and his career. The Raging Bull and Gangs of New York director executive produced the documentary.

Ebert lived an amazing life and enjoyed every moment, and he is indirectly encouraging us to do the same.

I thought I would only mention each documentary briefly, but it turns out I'll save the other two for the next blog post!

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