“A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. ‘Get a life,’ they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as if they’ve gotten everybody else’s.”
Such a sentiment should come as no surprise from Roger Ebert, the man who has often been referred to as the definitive populist film critic. But this Friday, with the release of Steve James’s highly lauded documentary adaptation of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, the tables will be turned. For the first time, we will go to the movies and spend a few hours in the well-worn seat of Roger Ebert.
James’s rendition of the book shows the arc of an inspired life and, in true cinematic fashion, the end. Ebert’s slip from this world to the next is palpably and powerfully depicted. When work on the film began, no one knew that Ebert had only four months to live. When it becomes clear that the project will be, in some respects, a deathbed tribute, we watch Ebert and his wife Chaz grapple with the reality. We see the final emails between Ebert and James, in which James presses Ebert with lingering unresolved questions. We are made gently aware of the director’s own resistance to release, to letting go of a force of unmatched insight, of not believing it can really be finished yet. The rendering is heartbreaking and masterful, as the correspondence between the director and his subject dwindles to Ebert’s “I’m fading…” And at last, “I can’t.”
But before all of that, in grand sweeping effect, we witness what came first. We see the man who, in all of his portly exuberance—buoyant, assertive, shrewd and unfalteringly accessible—has widely been considered the most influential film critic of our time. His life is chronicled from a Catholic schoolboy in Ohio who wrote and distributed his own newspaper to his neighbors with grave solemnity to his rise as a newspaperman in college and then at the Chicago Sun-Times. The film indulges us with raucous stories of Chicago newspaper life—at the office and at O’Rourke’s pub (in equal parts relevance). We see his descent into alcoholism and his subsequent love affair with sobriety. We see his crackling, hilariously competition-fraught rapport with Gene Siskel, his legendary “frenemy.” He falls in love—a truly breathtaking, life-altering love—with his wife and partner Chaz. There is hope before each reconstructive surgery followed by the aftermath and, finally, the acceptance that there would be no more operations. There would be no more eating, or drinking, or speaking—no more hope for normalcy. Things would not go back to the way they were.
But always, always, there would be writing. With his vocal and physical abilities diminished, Ebert embraced social media with voraciousness unusual to his generation of writers, gesturing to a spirit of prolific resilience. A spirit who believed—as only a little boy with a toy printing press and a rubber stamp byline could—that his voice was needed.
And of course, he needed his readers more than ever. It was this duality—of bold confidence and deep humility—that made Ebert’s voice irreplaceable. There was an underlying earnestness, despite his devilish quick wit and hardscrabble Chicagoan sensibilities, which Ebert offered consistently to his readers throughout his life. He was his generation’s chubby Midwestern cowboy, reviewing the wild bronco of cinema off into the sunset, and he always shot from the hip.
We live in a time where much of our culture, and in effect much of our criticism, has assumed a tongue-in-cheek approach to rhetoric. On the one hand, there is the intellectual impulse to deflect commitments to absolute truths. We often resort instead to spinning intricate webs of references that wink ironically at past modes of thought but add little fresh substance to whatever conversation is being had. Perhaps we feel hopeless at times, as if everything has already been said—that someone is always lying in wait in the comments section, ready to prove this to us. And on the other side of the coin, or maybe the same side, we are barraged with the Internet’s high-octane turnover, which encourages writers to whip out didactic op-eds, churning up the social media waters and racking up page views before the media moment is over. Most of this is not particularly informed by earnestness, unlikely to convey great joy, because it leaves little space for vulnerability.
“Joy” is not a fashionable word. It is perhaps only slightly less fashionable than the quality of earnestness. Nonetheless, I use the word “joy” because it is the only term I am familiar with that salutes the vast, open, sky-meets-earth wonder of living. To be happy is one thing, to have joy is quite another. Happiness is an emotion; joy is an elusive state of being.
Ebert brought the joy and wonder of the movies to every impassioned review he wrote. He was a complicated person; there have been many attempts to sum up his essence succinctly. I have tried myself and failed. But if he was any one thing, I think that he was joyful.
James’s documentary captures all of this in the starkest and yet loveliest light. Ebert wanted to be represented in full. He knew that there was something worth putting on the screen when he let James film the painful process of a nurse inserting his feeding tube into his throat each day, or the moments of exhausted frustration when he couldn’t summit a three-step staircase.
The last review that Ebert filed was of the ethereal 2013 film called, markedly, To the Wonder. In the review, Ebert left us with these words:
“Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?”
Ebert never took for granted that his job was, as Siskel used to say, “covering the national dream beat.” It seems that the greatest gift we can give each other in remembrance of him is to stay open and surprised by life—by the wonder of our dreams and the dreams of everyone we may encounter. And sometimes, if we are lucky, we just may find them at the movies.