Saturday, July 5, 2014


I'll try to get this one done in 30 minutes, because according to Life Itself, the excellent new documentary by Steve James, Roger Ebert was so fast that he could write a full-blown  review in 30 minutes.  I usually take longer, because you never know, someone might actually read these things, and I want them to seem at least somewhat professional. I also do the bulk of my writing for magazines, so I have more time to dwell on things. But since it's the season to pay tribute to good ol' Roger, I'll pay my tribute by trying to match his 30 minute mile, so to speak.

It's hard to say anything bad about Life Itself, for it's such a labor of love that it's practically covered in heartshaped lip prints. And since Roger was so ill at the end of his life, and gallantly allowed James to film him during some pretty rough times, it would be unseemly to say anything negative. The kicker, though, is that James made a damned nice movie, a touching, funky, elegiac tribute to a man we all think we knew. It's tight as a drum without a single dull moment, and covers all the key aspects of Ebert's life, from his early days as a columnist, to his drinking binges, to his success on the Sneak Previews show, all the way to his final years, confined to a wheelchair with only his blog to express himself.

I read Ebert's blog all the time, but I never corresponded with him, or left a comment. I'm not one of those social media types who feels a great urge to contact famous people. During my own days as a sports writer a decade ago, I acquired a small following. They were generally nice people who wanted to share their thoughts about one thing or another, but the truth is that I was always too busy to deal with them on a personal level. I know they meant well. I appreciated them. I was just too damned busy. If I was busy, Roger Ebert was 10 times busier. On top of that, he was ill. I saw no real point in writing to him. Even if I did, what could I say that he hadn't heard before?

The documentary made me wish for a Siskel and Ebert biopic. Their relationship is given plenty of coverage in Life Itself, and it makes for some of the movie's liveliest moments. I'm not sure who could play Roger Ebert. I'd suggest Sacha Baron Cohen as Gene Siskel. There are some old clips of Siskel wearing a thick mustache, and it's amazing how much he looked like Borat. A Siskel and Ebert biopic would have a lot going for it. There was certainly plenty of tension between them. I think Ebert saw the TV show as his chance to shine, but he hated having to share it with Siskel, and not just because Siskel was from a rival newspaper, but because Siskel was his equal in so many ways. To look across the aisle and see someone who not only knew as much about the movies as he did, but was just as adamant in his opinions, had to be a mind blower. I was glad to know they became very close; the movie shows Siskel's widow reading a section of a letter where Ebert says he was closer to Gene than any man he'd ever known.

I loved Sneak Previews when I was a kid, and I was surprised at how the show has stayed in my memory. The clips that were used in Life Itself were probably 25 or 30 years old, and I felt like I'd just seen them yesterday. Part of this is because Sneak Previews was the only show of its kind at the time, and my brain was not yet polluted with the garbage that prevents me from having a coherent thought these days. I loved the show because it seemed like a cozy place to be, sitting in that little cinema setting.  I watched the show with my mother, who has since died. We watched it on Saturday evenings, I think, and my mother got a kick out of the "dog of the week" segment.  

I don't quite agree with some of the talking heads in Life Itself who say movie criticism is supposed to be about debate, and argument, and passion. I find all of that arguing and shouting to be nothing more than grandstanding. I tend to agree with Siskel when he tells Ebert in an old old clip, "Where's your sense of humor?" I never particularly cared whether Siskel or Ebert liked a movie or not, and I thought the "thumbs up" gimmick was silly, but I loved hearing their thoughts, and I loved reading their columns. I may be in the minority, but I read their stuff for the pleasure of reading, not so I could validate my own opinions. I was glad Bill Nack was featured in the movie. He was a friend of Ebert's, and he's one of my favorite writers. I have aped Bill Nack from time to time. I suppose I ape Ebert, too.

Ultimately, Life Itself is about a man who was born at the right place and the right time, was blessed with the talent and ambition to capitalize on the opportunities that came his way,  learned some valuable life lessons along the way, and was kind enough to share his thoughts with us at the end. There will never be another Roger Ebert, because society has changed. The public isn't quite as passionate about movies now, and the current crop of critics aren't quite as articulate or engaging.  Is that sad? I'm not sure. Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog are in the movie, sharing their thoughts and admiration for Ebert. It was nice to see them. There won't be directors like them in the future, either. And that IS sad. The real unsung hero of the movie, though, is Chaz Ebert, Roger's loving wife. We should all be so lucky to have someone like her in our lives. 

I'd say more, but my 30 minutes are up.

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