The first night of Ebertfest 2014 was about Roger Ebert and in the documentary on his life, “Life Itself,” we got to hear Roger Ebert’s voice–as simulated by a voice actor (Steven Stanton), from the archives of the TV show that made him famous and in the form of his computer-generated voice after illness silenced him. This might be the last time Roger Ebert gets to speak at the film festival he founded 16 years ago at his hometown. The evening was clearly an emotional night for the film community he had created at the Virginia Theater, for his far flung correspondent family and for his widow, Chaz, who was too emotional to speak immediately after the screening.
This is the second time I’ve seen the documentary. The first time, I saw it streamed on the Internet at the same time the Steve James’ documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. For me it was an act of mourning. To see it was to admit that Roger Ebert was indeed gone and there were in my mind many missed opportunities, times when I waited too long and held back.
The film is a very public memorial to a man who didn’t get to attend Harvard as he originally dreamed and instead had to settle for attending the University of Illinois in Urbana. At some point, perhaps during his college days as a “tactless, egotistical and a showboat” editor for the college newspaper, he became stubbornly proud of his roots in Illinois. After he won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism at the Chicago Suntime, a job he fell into, he refused to move away to New York or Los Angeles or anywhere, but Chicago and the Chicago Suntimes. In Chicago, he would take on the film critic at the more upscale newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel and together they would change the world of film criticism by taking us to the movies in the TV programs, “At the Movies” and later, “Siskel & Ebert.”
Although the documentary began shooting during the last year of Ebert’s life, when Roger was struggling with health problems, James’ editing deftly draws out the humor. Current day interviews with fellow critics such as A.O. Scott and Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, as well as directors such as Martin Scorsese (who was one of the executive directors) and Werner Herzog are interspersed with segments of Roger Ebert struggling with his medical problems. Who knew that Martin Scorsese was a comedian? Who thought that the verbal fighting between two competitive film critics, behind the scenes and on their show would be so funny and yet so touching.
He wasn’t always nice, particularly when he was drinking and he was a drinker. Eventually he did stop drinking and he found love and it was his marriage to Chaz that changed him for the better. Roger was tireless in his interest in people and it was his interest in people that made him love movies and guided his movie criticism.
On the second viewing, I couldn’t help but try to build a timeline. At this point in time, is this when Roger Ebert sent me this email? Is this when he took the time to write the long passages? Is this the time when he would still show concern for my mundane legal travails? Or is this the time, when he was in such pain, that he wrote simple short sentences, usually without any capitalization or punctuation?
Although based on Roger Ebert’s autobiography of the same title, “Life Itself, the documentary goes beyond the autobiography and provides a epilogue. Roger reached out to people and was accessible. Here, in this documentary, he gave James permission to show him in pain, in the hospital and in rehab. This isn’t what one usually sees in documentaries made under the guiding hand of its subject. The documentary is brutally honest about Roger’s ego, his competitive nature and his physical frailty in old age. Oh, Roger, how we miss you and how I hope we can do you proud at Ebertfest in the future years.