Martin Luther King (to George Wallace): “The blood of these innocent children is on your hands.”
Roger Ebert (21 Years Old, On King): “That’s not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, very old and, as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not wash away.”
Leave it to Roger Ebert to deepen a statement by Martin Luther King and put elegance to inelegant truths. Of course, King was trying to be persuasive and make an emotional appeal, he was being practical, whereas, Ebert was being academic, historical, and philosophical.
Life Itself is a journey through Roger Ebert’s personal and professional life and beyond, into his very soul. Early on, his interpretation of movies is communicated: “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.” And this film helped me to identify with Roger Ebert and those in his life—not just a little—a lot more.
This film gives us extended glimpses into Roger Ebert’s long suffering with various cancers, a hip fracture, pneumonia, and all the appropriate medical treatments and rehabilitation. Then there’s the fabled loss of speech and the disfigurement. Yet, Ebert found his voice on his blog, a real winning moment for the inventors of computers, internet, and social media. I was one of his blog readers. I often posted my comments hoping to get direct replies from him, never did. Once, I spent much time on an entry and it wasn’t showing me that my entry was successfully submitted, so I kept hitting enter, repeatedly and then I saved it to a document and decided to try it later. Later on, I got an email informing me that my comment was entered like 10 or 15 times. It was directly from him (it had his signature salutation as seen in the movie, “Cheers, R”). I was both a little embarrassed and a little gratified. I didn’t get an actual reply on the blog, but I got an email.
I loved the he was a populist, on the progressive end of the political spectrum. Yet, I have many disagreements where movies are concerned. For instance, we have different positions on 3D.
There were many revelations for me. I learned that he was a heavy drinker (and bar regular), he was a provocative speaker, he hired escorts, and he was seen with all manner of odd women. I never knew his younger years were so colorful. In college, as editor of the student newspaper, he stopped the presses, following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to change the location of a visually offensive ad displaying a musket pointing at Kennedy’s head. He was a student hero for this tough call, requiring him to stand his ground against older adults.
This film offered up some rather penetrating insights into Gene Siskel’s life as well. We see how Gene Siskel was ushered into Hugh Heffner’s entourage. I had no clue that Siskel caught Heffner’s attention. We see Siskel on yachts and on the private Playboy jet, and in hot springs with a topless model. Gene was living it up.
Then they made the headlines real with highly emotional coverage of Siskel’s last year with cancer. His wife chokes up and we see pictures of a defiantly smiling Siskel, who didn’t want his kids to anticipate his death nor have to witness their sadness. It’s like he never really died until I watched this film, because the news just didn’t convey the gory emotions of the family reality.
Siskel and Ebert’s uncomfortable behind-the-scenes rivalries are presented. Siskel calls Ebert an asshole on one occasion, and they verbally spar with smug faces and curt tones. They blamed each other for ruining takes, always having to be superior to the other. They rose to the top of their field together while waging a war of egos. But then, with time, they started to love the rivalry and things grew friendly. They laughed when once they would have been rolling eyes and condescending. They became inseparable when once they resented having to work with that other critic, one critic cramping another’s style.
We witness the noble and generous Chaz Ebert. We witness her choke up on screen too. Chaz and Roger’s emotions during the marriage, during world vacations, and during the difficult times are all engrained into the viewer’s soul. We witness the inter-racial magic of this union. And we wonder how can anyone still hold opposing beliefs?
Roger Ebert was a man of magnanimity. Ramin Bahrani, the director of Man Push Cart, tells of how he and Ebert became intertwined over the course of his film’s promotion and debut. One scene introduces Ebert’s adorable grandchildren while Bahrani visits. Hearing it from the grandchildren and Bahrani is a testament to the genuine existence of Hallmark sentimentality in our world. I never heard of Man Push Cart until this film, now I’ve got required viewing.
Martin Scorsese also exhibits rarely glimpsed emotion (choking up). Ebert validated Scorsese right at the beginning of his career, and both Siskel and Ebert saved Scorsese from his own despair at one point. These anecdotes are astonishing to behold. There’s so much going on in each and every scene of this film, so much in their lives, and so much to live up to as we continue our own lives.
Roger Ebert was at the top of his field, he won a Pulitzer, he won a Webby for his remarkable blogging, and he continues to be one of my primary influences.
NEXT UP: CANADIAN SCREEN AWARDS (WHEN IT'S FINALLY READY)