A Moving Tribute for The Movies’ Hero
LIFE ITSELF (2014/IN THEATERS) One thing I learned while watching Life Itself, Steve James’ beautiful and moving documentary about the life, career, and death of SML Hero #1 Roger Ebert, is that Roger didn’t believe in spending longer than 30 minutes to write a review. Inspired by this fact, I gave myself the same deadline. We’ll see if I end up with a piece of writing worthy of a Pulitzer. Life Itself (also the title of Roger’s 2011 memoir, a must-read) covers pieces of Rogers life, from his childhood in Urbana, Illinois, through his beginnings as a newspaperman, his introduction to film criticism by happenstance (the paper’s other film critic quit, so they just moved Roger into the role), his industry-defining career reviewing movies on television, and his massive Web presence in the final years of his life. James interviewed Roger’s friends and colleagues, his fellow critics (those inspired by him and those in competition with him), film makers he championed and supported, and his family. I was most touched by the honest and emotional interviews given by Chaz Ebert, who married Roger later in his life and was his loving and fiercely devoted partner and who continues to expand his legacy. The film is narrated in part by a voice-imitator doing an eerily spot-on imitation of Roger’s voice; a lovely touch that was so subtle it didn’t immediately occur to me that Roger couldn’t have possibly narrated any part of the film, having lost his voice to cancer in 2006. James was chosen by Roger himself, due to the latter’s love of James’ Hoop Dreams documentary, and was given access to all areas of his subjects’ life. The unflinching footage of Roger’s physical condition and his death are handled with admirable honesty, a detail Roger insisted upon. Your SML correspondents have always felt like we knew Roger personally, having visited his film festival several years and following him nearly all of our movie-going lives. Fans of his will feel the weight of this tribute in your hearts, like we do. It is wonderful and so very sad, and it could have been 10 times longer and still not included everything Roger did or everyone he touched. It is always intimidating to write about Roger Ebert because he was such a prolific and intelligent writer. His was always the first review I read after seeing a movie, and I will always wonder, when I’ve seen something new, what he would have written about it. He would have liked this one, I think.
My 30 minutes are up so I’ll leave you with some links to more eloquent summaries: