Monday, July 7, 2014

New movie review: Life Itself

At 22, I landed my first professional newspaper job. Just six weeks out of college, I was hired to write sports and community news for a mid-size daily newspaper in a secluded Northern California county. It was a dream job, the vocation for which I had studied, for which I had strived, and toward which I had been pointed more or less my entire life. I was going to be a professional writer.

Still, classrooms, books, and teachers can only prepare you so much and cannot prepare you for what it is like to put yourself out in the public sphere, to be vulnerable, and to open yourself to the world. That is when the phone calls and emails started – vitriol directed at me because at whom else would it be directed. I was the man at the desk.

My editor, who had taken a chance in hiring me and to whom I remain grateful to this day, assured me it was nothing I had done. He urged me not to take it personally and to remember this is just the way it is. He had been the man on the Sports desk for 10 years before I got there, so he knew a thing or two about being the target of unchanneled rage.

But he had nearly two decades in the business on me. I was still green and less capable of accepting this as part of the job. It must have been me and something I had done. I had only been there three months, and already, I was wondering if I was in the right profession. Had I made a terrible mistake?

It was around this time, May 2011, that Roger Ebert wrote about Thor. Ebert would, on numerous occasions since he dove head first into the Internet, write something that stuck in people’s craw. He wrote about everything – gun violence, religion, evolution, etc., all topics bound to generate intelligent debate and childish name-calling in equal measure.

What Ebert wrote about best, however, were movies, and on this occasion, his review of Thor had so riled the fanboys he felt the need to write a blog post in response. On May 15, 2011, he posted “My mighty hammering over ‘Thor.’” With his usual sharp wit and deadly logic, he addressed his critics head on while still providing a forum for their criticisms – the comments section. Ebert was famous on his blog for personally vetting each comment, publishing it to the site, and responding when he felt it was warranted.

This confluence of events – the criticisms lobbed at him over Thor and my new-found since of dread every time the phone at my desk rang – led me to post a comment. I am not, by nature, a commenter. I read. I consider. I prefer discussion. But in this instance, I felt a need to comment. If you scroll down at that link I provided, you can see my comment. It is essentially what I have explained above, but it was also a thank you to Ebert.

I wanted to thank him for continuing to put himself out there, and I wanted to say to him, from one journalist at the beginning of his career to another approaching what would prove to be the tail end of his, I appreciated his work and the platform for discussion he provided. Ebert published the comment with this addendum:

“Ebert: If they always like you, you’re doing something wrong.”

He had responded to me. Nine words, and I felt as though I had won the lottery. Such was the impact of Ebert, and that power is what lies at the heart of Steve James’ wonderful new documentary, Life Itself.

Based in large part on Ebert’s 2012 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of an old-school newspaperman who became one of the most influential voices the medium had ever known. A Pulitzer Prize winner who proved serious film criticism is also serious journalism, he used all the media at his disposal to bring real, thought-provoking discussion into as many homes as he could, starting with newspapers, through his television show with Gene Siskel, and eventually on the Internet.

James is the director of such Ebert-championed documentaries as The Interrupters and the masterpiece Hoop Dreams, and as his filmography suggests, he has a knack for taking broad, all-encompassing topics and breaking them down in a digestible fashion without pandering or selling his subjects short.

Here, he has the unenviable task of doing the same with the whole of one man’s fascinating life. James handles the assignment with aplomb, structuring the film around the four phases of Ebert’s private and professional life – his early career at the Daily Illini and the Chicago Sun-Times, his and Siskel’s television show, his life with wife Chaz Ebert, and his death.

Each section is revealing of a different aspect of who Ebert was. He was a brilliant storyteller who was often the life of the party. He was a prideful and ornery co-worker who butted heads with his equally strident and intelligent co-host. He was a generous family man who discovered later in life that love truly could be a guiding force. And he was a cancer survivor and eventually victim who took his disease and turned it into what he called “the third act” of his life.

The film paints stunning portraits of each of these men and shows how they were all derived from the same complex, flawed, and brilliant individual.

There are interviews with his fellow journalists, his old bar chums, and the filmmakers he critiqued and sometimes befriended. These are fascinating documents and will appeal to anyone passionate about film, journalism, or the journeys we all take in life. But the real hero of this piece is Chaz Ebert.

She comes across as a strong-willed, patient, caring, beautiful, and smart woman who knows one thing above all else: She loves this man. And he loved her. Ebert wrote at length about the joy his wife brought him, that without her, the loneliness and darkness would have consumed him. When Chaz Ebert speaks, you see in full the woman who could have that effect.

Most of all, it is seen in the couple’s interactions as the disease chips away at who Ebert was – a man of voracious appetites who could no longer eat or drink; a gifted storyteller who could no longer speak; a grandfather whose walks with his grandchildren brought immense pleasure into a once-empty life who could no longer ascend the stairs of his home. She is by his side every moment. She is the lighthouse guiding him safely into harbor and into whatever lies ahead.

Their great fortune and ours is that his mind remained sharp and his passion for writing endured until his final hours. In his last years, after the cancer had come and gone and come again, he produced more than many of us will in our entire lives. His life was a joyous one, and the sadness is ours that he will produce no more, that we live in a world in which Roger Ebert has written his last words.

See it? Yes.

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