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Life Itself: Telling Roger Ebert’s story

On Sunday the film Life Itself was screened at the NHFF, followed by a Q&A with Producer Zak Piper.

The movie opens with a shot of the marquee of the iconic Chicago Theater displaying the words “Roger Ebert – A Celebration of Life, with love from Chaz – 1942 – 2013”. This image, along with a soundtrack replete with blues and jazz, sets a rich tone for the story of Roger Ebert’s career as a newspaperman, movie critic and writer, which began at the Chicago Sun Times. However, along with telling us the story of a talented and driven man who left a mark on the history of the entertainment industry, Life Itself shares the journey of a thoughtful soul, examining his own departure from the world.

Conceived by Steve James and shot in an unexpectedly short time leading up to Ebert’s death, the movie was intended to be not just a biography of his past but to include details about his current work and life. Only four days before shooting was scheduled to begin though, Roger Ebert was checked into the hospital with a fractured hip and most of the footage shot of him was inside the hospital or during rehabilitation.

The story of Roger Ebert’s childhood and early career moves along quickly but endears us to him as a person who always pursued not just truth, but truth in the context of the world. As a student he was editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini, the independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois.  There he notably forced a re-print of the paper in order to prevent an ad depicting a pilgrim holding a blunderbuss to John F. Kennedy’s head from appearing the day after the president was assasinated.

Ebert’s early career and stories of his exploits and gravitas in O’Rourke’s Tavern in Chicago lead us to his struggle with alcoholism. At this time his value for openness is illustrated by his public announcement of his participation in AA, where he would later meet his wife Chaz. It later comes to bear again when in 2005 at the Conference on World Affairs he announced, “I am a sick person,” and provided full disclosure regarding his cancer.

Commentary on Roger Ebert’s past from friends, family and colleagues like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and A.O. Scott,  take us to the time the film was being made, during his stay in the hospital. The images of his disfigurement are at first hard to handle, but as we see him interact with his loved ones, work to begin walking again and continue his tireless writing we see not only his frustration, but also determination, patience and the humor in his eyes and gestures.

Online a commenter asked, regarding the loss of his ability to eat, drink and speak, “Do you miss it?”

Ebert replied, “Not really.” His words, even when projected from a laptop, are the indelible being of Roger Ebert.

As the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, Ebert’s career became that of a television personality. Unwillingly paired with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, Ebert co-hosted the show Sneak Peak on PBS. Their show title later changed to various versions of “At The Movies” and grew in popularity and acclaim. Meanwhile, the relationship between Ebert and Siskel became increasingly contentious, but simultaneously a friendship grew. Outtakes from their promos brilliantly displayed the progression from childish bickering to outright insults and then eventually to a playful and even affectionate, version of both.

Although Roger Ebert left us in 2013, the conversations that he began during his lifetime about film, society and life, live on in his numerous other writings, many of which can still be found on the blog he began shortly before his death: http://www.rogerebert.com/.  There over 70 contributors including Chaz Ebert have been gathered to continue the conversations.

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