An Unending Smile and an Upturned Thumb
By Johnny Pomatto
It’s safe to say that without film critic Roger Ebert, I would have never been inspired to write reviews myself, or even be such a passionate lover of film. I can’t remember a time in my youth when I wouldn’t watch Ebert on “At the Movies” and marvel at the clips and discussions about films that I was surely too young to see. When Ebert died last year after a long battle with cancer, it could hardly have been argued that his was a life unfinished. Though only 70 years old, he had been writing film criticism, essays, and blogs for nearly half a century and was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Now Steve James, (director of “Hoop Dreams,” a film Ebert was one of the first to champion), has directed a documentary based on Ebert’s own 2011 memoir, LIFE ITSELF, now in select theaters and available On Demand and on iTunes. I can easily be accused of being too close to or fond of the subject matter to give an unbiased review of this film, but like Ebert himself, I found the film to be pretty extraordinary.
The film covers Ebert’s whole life, and even at a two-hour running time, it still left me wanting more. Though there’s plenty of coverage of his career in film criticism, his partnership with Gene Siskel, and anecdotes about and by famous directors such as Martin Scorsese, these stories take a backseat to Roger’s personal life and the events of which that had gone previously undocumented. Personal stories of his struggle with alcoholism, tumultuous friendships, and family life are helped by revealing interviews with his wife Chaz, who you get the sense is revealing more than she would like to herself, but knows that Roger would want her to be as open and honest as possible. While not being able to speak himself, Ebert’s gaps are filled in with sound-alike readings from his audio book and real time interactions with Roger and his computer voice program.
The love/hate relationship Ebert had with Gene Siskel is presented warts and all in the film. The love the two had for one another is apparent but not constant. Whether its outtakes of the two viciously bickering while recording promos, or an interview with Roger bitterly lamenting that the show was called “Siskel & Ebert” and not the other way around, there’s plenty of footage to show that their rivalry got more than a bit ugly on occasion. When Gene died of a fatal brain tumor in 1999, Roger was devastated not only at the loss of his friend, but also because Gene kept his illness a secret from everyone but his family. I remember the shock of learning of Gene’s death and can’t believe that Roger was just as sidelined by the news as the rest of us. It was because of this experience that Roger vowed to never hide his own health problems from the public, even if it meant that our image of him changed dramatically.
It astonishes how candid and brave Ebert is in refusing to hide his illness and disability from James’ cameras. When Roger had his jaw removed in 2006, he was left nearly unrecognizable from how we had always known him. While jarring at first, his new face was almost comforting as it made him appear to have a seemingly unending smile and a positive attitude as he faced the trials of illness. While most of the film shows Roger with that toothy smile and an upturned thumb on his hand, we do also see him at his weakest and worst. It’s incredibly upsetting to see him in intense physical pain or struggling to communicate without his voice box or notepad. Roger died only a few months into filming of the documentary so much of what we see of him is of a man who is exhausted and ready to give up his battle. One can imagine this would have been a very different film if it had begun production just a few years previous, when Roger was embracing his new lifestyle. As is, it’s still a fitting swan song to a man who hardly went a day of his life without writing something that could speak volumes to who he was as a person and the passions that shaped him.
LIFE ITSELF is primarily about Roger Ebert’s own life experiences, but it’s really much more than that. Watching the film with a few friends, we all agreed that there were aspects of Ebert’s life that seemed very familiar to us. Anyone who has cared for an ailing family member will be able to relate to scenes from this film, but also there are home videos of Roger on vacations with his grandchildren that are so intimate and ordinary, that you’re reminded that though Ebert was a world known personality, his attitude and outlook on life can be universally applied to any of us. Roger Ebert was a man who was almost impossible not to love, and you need no further proof of that than seeing the usually stone-faced, serious German director Werner Herzog reduced to tears of joy and a gentle smile as he recounts walking the steps of anticipation leading up to Ebert’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I can’t imagine seeing this film and not having the very same reaction.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes
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