Roger and Me: A Tribute to Roger Ebert, Part 2 – LIFE ITSELF

Herein lies the 2nd and final (for now) part of my tribute to the late film critic Roger Ebert, which primarily focuses on the new documentary Life Itself, now playing in theaters and VOD.

When I began the process of writing this tribute to the late film critic Roger Ebert I had lofty ambitions.  I imagined that it would be a work in three parts – the first would focus on how Roger and his work touched my life, the second would primarily be about his memoir “Life Itself”, and the third would naturally segue into the documentary adaptation of that beautiful work.  It all seemed so simple in the planning.  I knocked the first part out quickly enough (and was rather proud of how it turned out) and devoured his insightful memoir in short order.  But when I had to sit down to write the second part of the tribute the words simply wouldn’t flow.  I didn’t want to regurgitate passages from Roger’s memoir without any context.  I also didn’t want the piece to turn into a review of a book that has been out for several years now.  Worst of all, I had titled the tribute “Roger and Me” and there was certain to be a curious lack of ME in the second piece as I had planned it.  It was a nut I couldn’t crack, and so I kept setting the piece aside while assuring my editor it was indeed coming… eventually.  Writers by their very nature are procrastinators, especially when whatever they are working on is near and dear to their heart.  They want it to be as close to perfection as possible.  At least, that is my excuse.

A couple of months ago I thought I had solved the riddle of the piece and declared to my editor – “I’ve solved it!  Expect the second part soon!”  And indeed I did sit down and start writing, but it was all for naught.  My solution was to come at the memoir by writing about it as if it were a love story.  That is something I could relate to as I had already professed my love of cinema ten times over in the earlier piece.  It was something Roger and I shared and that he honestly gave to me, along with my own father’s passion for the classics.  But time and again I found myself thinking, “Roger’s words trump my own”.  His straight-shooting, eloquent prose steeped in years of worshipping Chicago-style journalism could tell that love story so much better than my own.  And so now I might as well say it – if you haven’t read his memoir, do it.  It is filled with humor, LOVE, and great humanity.

I knew that the one thing left that could get me to finish what I started was seeing the new Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) documentary aptly titled Life Itself.  Yes, the very same as Roger’s memoir.  I knew that it was a project close to Roger’s heart, by a filmmaker he cherished and championed early in his career.  I also knew that Roger died unexpectedly during the making of the film and that it would hold even greater revelations about his life than any book possibly ever could, even one written by the man himself.  There is tremendous power behind the moving image.  Cinema has a way of illuminating the truth in almost every situation.  As Roger himself says at the beginning of the documentary –

For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.  It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

I can easily report that the new film Life Itself does exactly that.  It shines a light into Roger’s world and takes us deep into his personal struggles and his triumphs both large and small.  You come away from the documentary with a rich appreciation for life, cinema, and, most assuredly, the power of love.  It is a remarkable motion picture befitting a man whose life touched so many.  There is a reason Roger Ebert is the most famous film critic in the history of the medium and this film provides that answer.

And yet, after viewing the film I ended up right back where I started.  The documentary, just like the memoir, is undoubtedly a love story.  A love story about the three great loves of Roger’s life – the movies, his late partner Gene Siskel, and Chaz, the woman who saved him from a lifetime of loneliness.  But after arriving back at this revelation of love I was no longer confounded about how to write this tribute.  In fact, I was invigorated by the viewing and had to get this down as quickly as I possibly could (though perhaps still not as quickly as my editor would like).

Life Itself is busting with interesting factoids from Roger’s life both grim and uplifting, including his struggle with alcoholism and his subsequent healing through Alcoholics Anonymous where he met Chaz for the very first time.  The picture is filled with Roger’s close personal friends, family, and colleagues who shine a light on his idiosyncrasies and his will to live life to the fullest.  It is remarkable to see Roger up close as he struggles to get through his 5th bout with physical rehabilitation due to his cancer causing one hip fracture after another.  The camera is often in tight close-up on Roger, displaying his malformed face (due to numerous failed surgeries to reconstruct the jaw he lost in his fight with cancer) with careful loving affection.  At one point in the film Chaz displays reservations with director Steve James having so much access to Roger in the hospital, especially once the doctors declare he may only have another few months to live.  Roger, ever the staunch defender of filmmakers, simply stated – “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality.  I wouldn’t want to be associated.”

A few months ago my father was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer.  It has been a hard road to travel thus far.  He was administered the most aggressive form of chemo and radiation available to combat the cancer and it has left him weak and frustrated.  My dad has always had a rich love of food, drink, family, country and life.  A month ago I went home to see him and the harsh reality of the situation hit me hard.  The gaunt frame before me was but a pale imitation of the man I know and love, but there was still a hint of that glimmer behind the eye and that irascible but loveable demeanor showed through, even through all the pain.  I’m glad to report that in the month since things have improved, and he and my mother are even planning a trip to come see me perform in a production of Les Miserables (my father’s favorite musical) in Chicago.  We still don’t know if he beat the cancer, but what we do know is that my father has the will to get back on the horse and keep on living life on his own terms, cancer be damned.  While watching Life Itself I couldn’t help but think of my father and his own determination.  And just like Roger he has a woman by his side who refuses to let him slip back and give up.  Sometimes all it takes is a strong-willed woman.

Roger’s love of film is intoxicating.  Watching clips of him and Siskel duking it out no-holds-barred remains some of the most thrilling television in the history of the medium.  Their journey was a long one, but their natural combative chemistry was a thing of beauty.  Here you had two titans of criticism determined to best the other in their estimation of a film’s worth and it is entirely possible that their ilk will never be seen again.  Life Itself gets to the heart of their rivalry, but also explores the deep-seated compassion they had for one another.  They were brother in arms fighting for the integrity of the art form.  And their love of movies translated into love for one another.  It’s rare to find another person willing to engage on that primal of a level about the art of filmmaking.  Oftentimes most filmic debates come down to petty squabbling.  I’m lucky to have my friend and editor David to spar with from time to time, and we can go round in circles with the best of them, though distance relegates most of that to Facebook chats or the occasional round table on this here site.  Every film lover needs some kind of Siskel.  (Though it certainly is debatable which of us is the Ebert.)

Roger used his love of movies and his new-found critical power to be a champion of up-and-coming filmmakers.  Errol Morris flat-out proclaims that he owes his career to Roger and Gene due to their reviewing his documentary Gates of Heaven no less than three times on the show while the film was stuck in a no man’s land market.  Martin Scorsese movingly explains that they saved his life and his career in the 1980’s when they gave him a special tribute award at the Toronto Film Festival – an award he keeps in his home to this day.  And there are countless others that Life Itself parades out with similar sentiments including Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, and Ramin Bahrani.  The film reads like a gift back to Roger and the world of filmmaking as it was he and Gene who lavished high praise on director Steve James when Hoop Dreams debuted, changing the trajectory of his career forever.  And there couldn’t be a finer gift.  James includes many examples of Roger’s writing and interviews in which he celebrates the moving image with every ounce of passion contained in his body, even after he lost the ability to speak.  The most alluring of these examples is when Roger would do a shot-by-shot analysis of classic films such as Vertigo at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado.  These events could last upwards of five hours.  What I would have given to attend even one.

In a year I will be thirty years old.  In that short amount of time I have traveled much of the westernized world (Asia and New Zealand are my next conquests), I have been a student filmmaker, I graduated from college, I have been a musical theater actor, I have worked in the food industry for over 10 years, I have made a home in Chicago, I have taken small steps in my dream to become a film critic, and most importantly I have met the love of my life.  I’m a firm believer that we all find the love we deserve eventually.  Roger found his at age 50 and the next twenty years of his life were filled with joy, laughter, and the heartwarming bond that only family can bring.  Chaz is responsible for that, as she is responsible for giving him the will to live and fight through a long fierce battle with cancer.  I imagine it wasn’t easy and she alludes to as much in the film.  But they did it together because their love was more powerful and all-consuming than any disease could be.  My partner Elliot and I have yet to go through anything as trying, but where there is love there is strength.  He is the one who keeps me grounded, he is the one who pushes me forward, and he is the one who will always be there no matter the stakes.  Roger and Chaz experienced so much together in the twenty years of their marriage.  We can all only hope that we can do the same.

So where does that leave us?  I’m not entirely sure.  All I know is how I feel and what I feel is love.  Love for a man I never knew, but who inadvertently taught me so much not least of which is the unique power of the moving image.  Roger’s passion became my passion.  So this was a love story after all; unwieldy as this tribute may be, it was the only way I knew how to write it.  I want to thank not only Roger and Chaz, but also Steve James for the gift to film lovers everywhere that is Life Itself. You have provided a window into the soul of one of the greatest minds in the history of cinema.  It is a gift I will cherish forever.  So yes, I will be leaving this tribute at two parts for now, but Roger Ebert is a man whose life and work is worth exploring in more than a mere 2000 words.  Who knows what I may write further down the road… but for now, this is it.  I can only say thank you in so many ways.  And yes Roger, I will be seeing you at the movies.

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