On Roger Ebert and ‘Life Itself’ (The Book, The Movie & The Concept)


Ask any number of film buffs who the greatest movie critic of all-time is and two-thirds of them will answer Pauline Kael. Ask any number of average moviegoers that same question, and three-fourths of them will answer Roger Ebert. Ask any random sample of people from either group who the top three film critics of all-time are, and Roger Ebert will be the only name that consistently appears across both lists.

Therein lies his strength.

Roger Ebert is the everyman, the glutton, the philosopher and the drunkard. He is the Pulitzer-Prize winner and the terminal cancer patient. He represents the intolerable and the cherished, the physically handicapped and the triumphant, the down-but-never-out, the raging underdog within us. Roger Ebert is the barroom poet, the wise, old sage, the blue-collar hero and the hometown troubadour. He is the reporter, the author, the screenwriter and the satirist. He is the celebrity, the TV star, the loyal father, friend and husband. He is our champion and our legend. He is our worker and our icon.

Like most champions, Roger Ebert found a way of maneuvering over whenever circumstances prevented him from moving up. When he hit the ceiling of the newspaper business, he found a new gig on TV. When he bottomed out on television, he reinvented his celebrity online. When Ebert became physically incapacitated, he found a way to inhabit a more vivid space entirely, using the same four basic tools – his eyes, his ears, his brains and fingers – that got him hooked on this whole gambit to begin with.

The beauty of it was – and is – that the closer Roger Ebert came to passing, the more untethered he became in terms of what he would and wouldn’t write. His life, as it remains, represents nothing short of a symphony, the type of thing – much like his memoir – you can return to time and again, like a warm blanket or a handwritten letter. Roger Ebert fell into film criticism by accident and he wound up reimagining it as an industry. He stuck with the gig, he stuck with his woman, his woman stuck with him, and Roger Ebert stuck with us. No jaw, no voice, no problem – Roger Ebert’s got it covered. He went through periods during which he could neither sleep nor eat nor drink, and through it all he just kept writing, writing posts in brilliant spurts until two days before he died.

I think about this every now and again, as I have occasion to attend various film screenings around the city. These screenings, they take place in tiny cushioned rooms. Prior to the house lights going down, there is a great deal of one-ups-man-ship going on (“I find his work a bit pretentious,” “I sat next to her one night in Cannes.”). For the most part, I keep to myself. In a room full of critics with its even greater share of hangers-on, I lack the interest or initiative to discuss why I post my criticism via a very small personal website. My work is good. I know that. I see no need for name-dropping as a means of getting over. And yet I mention this because I routinely find myself scanning the room, yet lacking any urge to wander over and humbly compliment any critic on her work.

Vincent Canby is dead. Pauline Kael is dead. And so now, too, is Roger Ebert.

Cancer. Parkinson’s. Cancer, respectively.

The good news is Roger Ebert is once again alive up on the screen, in what can only be referred to as the most triumphant coup of his career. If you were a fan, and if, like me, you read Roger Ebert’s memoir, then you really should go see this documentary. If you weren’t a fan, or, worse yet, if you are completely unaware of Roger Ebert, that’s all the more reason you should buy the ticket, take the ride. I quote directly here from Roger Ebert’s Life Itself (the book and not the film): “The main thing wrong with a movie that is 10 years old is that it isn’t 30 years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.” The same can be said for a life. And looking back upon more than 50 years of brilliant living, it is clear now, perhaps more so than ever, that Roger Ebert was – and is – a classic. He changed the way film marketing was done.

(Life Itself opens in limited release this Friday.)