Sunday, July 06, 2014

"Life Itself": a moving biography of film critic Roger Ebert, based on his memoir

Life Itself” is the name of the late film critic Roger Ebert’s own memoir (2011) as it become the title of the film biography by Steve James.
James photographs some of the painful last days of his life, as he tries to do rehab from a malignancy-related hip fracture, and then returns suddenly to the hospital from home, where he takes his “leave of presence” and then, with all the support from his wife Chaz, passes away.
To be honest, Ebert’s appearance is startling.  In 2006, unsuccessful surgery led to his entire lower jaw being removed.  The mouth opening leads clear through to light,  and he is tube fed.  Ebert communicates with his computer, and his mind and intellect remain as sharp as ever. I wondered about his being able to have a computer and Internet access in the hospital, because most hospitals don’t offer it at all.  It would be reassuring to me if the nearby Virginia Hospital Center would offer it. (See comment.  There may be a bigger problem with cell phone use than with wireless per se.) 
Roger Ebert, in fact, started his official “blog” in 2006.  But of course his career as a writer and editor extended to his days as a pre-teen in southern Illinois.  At age 15, he edited a local paper.  In his early 20s, he had a job with the Sun Times. At one point, he ordered withdrawal of a newspaper edition that showed an ad for a gun pointed at president Kennedy, at the time of the assassination.  He also covered the bombings in Birmingham.  In 1967, he had a formal job as a film critic, which would lead to a 1975 Pulitzer Prize.
There's a curios image of a headline he saw when starting to work as a newspaper editor as a young men, "married men may be exempt from the draft".  That was a proposal by JFK in 1962, well before Vietnam became an issue. 

The film spends a lot of time on his professional relationship with Gene Siskel, with whom he did a syndicated movie review show for years. Their relationship was tense at first, as Siskel came from the more upscale Tribune.  Siskel would pass away rather suddenly from a brain tumor in 1999, and the secrecy around that is covered.

Ebert was always “loyal” to Chicago, battling to get his syndicated show aired in New York and LA.
The documentary mentions Ebert’s own screenplay “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (directed by Russ Meyer), his own sequel to Mark Robson’s film of Jacquelin Susann’s novel “Valley of the Dolls”, which I saw in downtown Richmond on Feb. 7, 1968 on my last night of freedom before being inducted into the Army.
Ebert’s reviews always impressed me with their originality.  He always had something novel to say about every film.  I often watched their show on PBS when living in Dallas in the 1980s. He disagreed with Siskel on David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”. 

I perceive Ebert as like an English teacher.  I appreciate the way he saw movies as a form of experiencing empathy with other people.  

One of Ebert’s favorites (not mentioned in the documentary) was “The Year of Living Dangerously.” 
I would personally not be up to an intimate relationship like the marriage in this film late in life.  I have made it to 71 intact, but I wouldn’t be able to receive or give this kind of support if a prolonged medical catastrophe happened to me. It's significant that Ebert, like me, was an only child. 
The official site is here. The film has theatrical distribution from Magnolia, and will air on CNN.  I saw this film before an almost sold out audience Sunday afternoon at the Landmark E Street in Washington.   Landmark, by the way, will build a new complex near Union Station in NE Washington DC. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Chicago transit picture.  


Unknown said...

Virginia Hospital Center does provide free wireless internet access. Our patients, their visitors and our other guests are welcome to access it from their laptop computers, smartphones or other wireless-enabled devices.

Best wishes,
Sue Anne Cassidy
Marketing Director
Virginia Hospital Center

Bill Boushka said...

I hope that this means that patients, if well enough, can get wireless Internet in their rooms, even if they have to pay for it and it isn't covered by insurance. Keeping things going can be important to the mental well-being and recovery of many patients. This could matter to me some day.