Santa Cruz Good Times

Thursday
Jan 29th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Roger That

fm ebertThe late film critic Robert Ebert profiled in lively doc, ‘Life Itself’

You don’t have to be a movie buff to enjoy Life Itself, the fascinating biographical documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert. It’s not like you’re going to be subjected to a lot of obscure intellectual pronouncements on the art of cinema. Instead, the film, adapted by Steve James from Ebert’s best-selling memoir, is a lively chronicle of a robust life buoyantly lived, and the bittersweet final days of the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, early pioneer of the dueling critics TV format, and courageous cancer warrior.

Filmmaker James may be best known for co-directing the extraordinary 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. A three-hour exploration into the lives of two inner city youths hoping their skills on the basketball court will get them into the right high school and out of the projects; the ambitious film was like an entire season of a reality TV show in one giant installment. As unorthodox as it was, it was championed by Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel on their nationally syndicated TV program, Sneak Previews; they never missed an opportunity to tell people to go see it. So James comes from a position of obvious respect and friendship as he documents Ebert’s rich and busy life.
Through a wealth of family snapshots and interviews with old cronies, we meet Roger as a boy in suburban Illinois. The only child of an electrician and a housewife, he was obsessed with newspapers and writing early on, and used to type up his own neighborhood “newspaper,” make copies, roll them up, and deliver them to his neighbors’ doorsteps.

He started out as a sportswriter for a local paper at age 15, then became the editor of his college newspaper—where he wrote about world events like the JFK assassination. As a Ph.D candidate at the University of Chicago, he was offered a temporary job on the staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. In an unforeseen turn of events (but typical for so many critics, including me), when the film critic at the paper retired, Ebert inherited the job.

The film recounts Ebert’s stint as a regular raconteur and borderline lush at a seedy Chicago bar where newspapermen hung out, his decision to stop drinking in 1979, and, of course, the origins of Sneak Previews. Produced by Chicago's NPR station, WGN, beginning in 1975, and featuring Ebert and Siskel, his cross-town rival from the Tribune, the show ushered in the era of the celebrity film critic. (Interestingly, as wildly popular as the show was in syndication all over the country, the last two markets to grudgingly begin airing it were New York and Los Angeles—whose film communities resented these upstart critics from the Midwest.)

The complex, snarky, often combative relationship between Ebert and Siskel, on and off-camera, is a thread that runs throughout the film. But their understanding of show-biz was acute; they were frequent guests together on The Tonight Show. And Ebert parlayed his reconcilability into some 25 years of dispatches from the Cannes Film Festival, filing daily newspaper stories and broadcast snippets long before the invention of modern social media. (Although, of course, in later years, he established popular Twitter and Facebook accounts.)

The other relationship that glues the film together is between Roger and his wife, Chaz, whom the lifelong bachelor married when he was 50 years old. Chaz and her daughter and grandchildren provided the stability of a family life that Roger had never had. And it’s Chaz’s strength and good humor that supports him through his disfiguring battle with thyroid cancer in the later years of his life. When surgeries rendered him unable to eat, drink, or speak, Ebert continued to write about movies on his blog. “The blog became my voice,” he wrote.

Some eloquent moments come from filmmakers who credit Ebert with starting or saving their careers. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris says persistent praise for his first film on Sneak Previews “gave me my career.” Martin Scorsese even praises Ebert’s disappointment over his The Color of Money—not a “toxic” or “poisonous” review, notes Scorsese, just a respectful nudge—for getting him back on track creatively.

In James’ affectionate telling, Ebert’s life, itself, was bountiful indeed.


LIFE ITSELF *** (out of four) With Roger Ebert and Chaz Ebert. A Film by Steve James. A Magnolia release. Not rated. 115 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Throwing It All Away

Everybody’s for recycling, right? So why are we all doing it wrong? Our reporter gets down and dirty to uncover 10 secrets that will finally make the recycling process make sense

 

Aquarius Calling, Humanity Rising

Aquarius (11th sign after Aries) is the sign of service—serving one another, building community. Aquarius is fixed air, stabilizing new ideas in the world. When new ideas reach the masses the ideas become ideals within the hearts and minds of humanity. Air signs (Gemini, Libra and Aquarius) are mental. They think, ponder, study, research, gather and distribute information. For air signs, education and learning, communicating, writing, being social, tending to money, participating in groups and creating sustainable communities are most important. One of the present messages Aquarius is putting forth to the New Group of World Servers is the creation of the New Education (thus thinking) for humanity—one based not on commodities (banking/corporate values) but on virtues. Humanity and Aquarius Aquarius is the sign of humanity itself. We are now at the beginnings of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Humanity (rising). The “rising” is the Aquarian vision of equality, unity, the distribution and sharing of all resources and of individual (Leo) creative gifts for the purpose of humanity’s (Aquarius) uplifting. This is the message in the Solar Festival of Aquarius (at the full moon) on Tuesday, Feb. 3. We join in these visions by reciting the World Prayer of Direction, the Great Invocation.Tuesday’s solar festival follows Monday’s Groundhog Day, or Imbolc (ancient Celtic fire festival) the halfway mark between winter solstice and spring Equinox). The New Group of World Servers (NGWS) during these two days are preparing for the upcoming Three Spring Solar Festivals: 1. Aries Resurrection/Easter Festival (April); 2. Taurus Buddha/Wesak Festival (May); and 3. Gemini’s Festival of Humanity (June). Aquarius and the new and full moons together are the primary astrological influences behind all of humanity’s endeavors. The NGWS are to teach these things, calling and uplifting humanity. Join us everyone. (301)

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Job Insecurity

Woman fights for her job in thoughtful, life-sized ‘Two Days One Night’
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Jeffrey’s Restaurant

Why quick and friendly service matters at a local diner.

 

If you didn't live in Santa Cruz, where would you be living?

I would live in Kauai because the water is warmer, and I just love it there. Maureen Niehaus, Santa Cruz, Dental Assistant

 

Clos LaChance Wines

Pinot Noir 2012

 

Striking Gold

A taste of Soquel Vineyards’ five gold medal-winning Pinots