Santa Cruz Good Times

Thursday
Sep 18th
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

 

Catwalk on the Wild Side

Meet the artists and designers behind this year’s edition of FashionART, SantaCruz’s most outrageous fashion show

 

The New Tech Nexus

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

 

Feeding Frenzy

Culinary journey ‘The Trip to Italy’ isn’t the foodie film you’d expect 

 

Watch List

From Google to the government to data brokers, why your privacy is now a thing of the past
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Sweet Treats

Local cannabis bakers win award for cookies

 

What fashion trends do you want to see, or not see?

Santa Cruz  |  High School Guidance Counselor

 

Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX

 

Santa Clara Wine Trail

My memories of growing up in England include my mother pouring port after Sunday dinner—and sometimes a glass of sherry before dinner. My family didn’t drink much wine back then, but we certainly made up for it with the port and sherry.