Thursday, July 17, 2014

Roger Ebert's life -- as it was

Life Itself -- director Steve James's revealing look at the life of film critic Roger Ebert -- is difficult to watch. This isn't because Ebert's life had its bad patches (which it evidently did), but because in his post-cancer, post multiple-surgeries days, Ebert's face became unrecognizable.

Even before filming started, Ebert was left with a flap of a jaw that didn't always conceal the holes created by cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and the surgeon's knife.

I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that there were times when I had to look away from the screen.

Those who knew Ebert -- and who didn't feel as if they knew him after his lengthy career on TV's Siskel & Ebert and the Movies -- were accustomed to seeing him looking a good deal more robust, and it's shocking to see him inching toward his last days.

Still, if Ebert didn't shrink from showing us how he looked, we must respect his choice. Even before James's film, Ebert had released photos of himself that were enough to take the wind out of anyone's sails.

Those of us who knew Ebert from the festival circuit (which is to say that some of us were acquainted with him) knew him as an indefatigable worker, an astonishingly prolific writer, a good journalist and an adventurous critic who was willing to attend events that sometimes were not as well known as he was.

I don't know if anyone's movie reviews will (or even should) stand the test of time, but Ebert's interviews with actors and directors remain some of the best ever written.

More than a cancer chronicle, James's biography is also a sketch of an amazing career. The movie begins with Ebert's childhood, covers the budding journalist's college years and his early newspaper life at The Chicago Sun Times.

The movie also charts Ebert's rise on television, which -- we're reminded wasn't meteoric. Siskel and Ebert began on Chicago public TV long before either of them expected to attain a national profile.

Later, Ebert would fill his popular web site with reviews, interviews and more.

Perhaps eager to avoid an exercise in hagiography, James tries to show that Ebert could be less than pleasant -- less in his reviews than in his personal life. I should say that Ebert always displayed generosity toward me.

In hindsight, all of Ebert's missteps (the alcoholism he overcame; his egotism; his purported bad taste in women during his younger days) seemed to lead him toward a kind of personal redemption that culminated with his marriage to his wife Chaz.

I suppose that the rivalry between Gene Siskel and Ebert will interest those who are fascinated by the wave of pop-cultural oomph they created, their thumbs turning up and down for our amusement and occasionally, our edification.

It's possible that Ebert's life as a journalist was unique. I doubt whether a career such as Ebert's ever will happen again. Newspapers have declined. Movie critics with stable positions are more difficult to find.

TV still creates personalities, but it's difficult to imagine that one of TV's lights ever again will shine so brightly on another film critic.

Once, at a Telluride Film Festival, I asked Ebert if he planned to retire. As near as I can recall, Siskel already was dead, and Ebert had partnered with Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper to preserve the show's down-to-earth informality. The TV show wouldn't last forever, Ebert said.

But, said Ebert, he thought his Web site would allow him to continue writing no matter what else happened. He was right about that. He continued watching movies and writing as long as he could, turning a blog into a kind of personal and philosophical journal.

I don't mean this as a sick joke, but even now, I sometimes half expect Ebert to weigh in on a current release. He was a critic who became a touchstone. There always will be good -- even great -- film criticism, but it's unlikely anyone will take Ebert's place in the national conversation. With his passing in the spring of 2013, that sun has set.

1 comment:

Rosanne said...

What a nice homage to your friend and colleague.