Thursday, October 02, 2014

A Life Worth Watching: Roger Ebert

I first became serious about filmgoing when I was in high school. Before my husband and I started dating, we went as friends with a couple of other people to see a film (War of the Roses) and then once we began dating a couple of weeks later, films became our main source of entertainment, aside from concerts. I was still in high school, and Siskel & Ebert’s At the Movies came on every Sunday, and I watched it religiously. I often disagreed with them (and often agreed with them) but whether you loved or hated them, you could tell they were passionate about what they did.

When I went to university, I was probably going to see three or four films a week. I graduated from At the Movies to reading Ebert’s film criticism books. I started taking film courses. And then I went to grad school in Toronto and started seeing even more movies, sometimes more than one a day. By the time I was working, I would take a week off to go to the Toronto International Film Festival, doing 30 films a week and writing about them. And inevitably, I’d cross paths with Ebert. He was usually focused and heading to his next film, but he’d always smile at people and give them his time if they walked up to him. I heard stories of him walking out of screenings and complaining about the way things were run, but so did all of the other critics. The Ebert that I saw on the street seemed to be a nice guy.

And then I had kids. And we all know what happens to your regular movie-going then.

Recently I went to see the film Life Itself, a posthumously-released documentary about Roger Ebert’s life, and his final months. As many know, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and eventually lost his entire lower jaw and all of the skin attached to it. In his final few years, his throat would be bandaged and his bottom lip would just hang there, with his mouth perpetually looking like it was pulled up into a massive grin.

The documentary is beautifully done by Steve James. Ebert probably had his pick of who would be the director to recount his life, and the director of Hoop Dreams — one of Ebert’s all-time favourite films — seems like an obvious choice. Steve handles his subject matter carefully but honestly. There are interviews with people who worked with Ebert in the early days at the Chicago Sun-Times, a paper he refused to leave even when he was getting lucrative offers from other outlets over the years. Drinking buddies, fellow journos, and even directors and actors whose careers he made (or broke) through his reviews all weigh in on this man.

But of course, the one we associate most closely with Roger Ebert would be his partner and frenemy, Gene Siskel. Theirs was a volatile relationship both on-screen and off. At one point I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “You should see the YouTube video with the outtakes of them” and I barely had the sentence out of my mouth before they showed it in the movie. If you want to see the height of two guys hating each other, check this out.

And yet, make it to the three-minute mark and you can see the good-natured ribbing and the deep caring they had for one another. In Life Itself, it’s revealed that Roger was deeply hurt when Gene died, because he died not having told anyone — including Roger — that he was ill. Roger refused to do the same thing. You can tell that Ebert misses Siskel terribly, and they have several other people in the documentary talking about how close they were, despite their prickly nature towards one another. However, that closeness was, of course, laced with antagonism, and it’s in the interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow that this comes out the most. Despite how many times she talks about them being close, she usually has one barb or another about Ebert, as if the pain Siskel felt from their relationship outweighed the good. She tells a story of Ebert grabbing a cab in front of her when she was eight months pregnant, then waves it off as if she’s past it, but clearly she still carries around her annoyance of him.

Ebert’s wife, Chaz, is the hero of the film. I adored her. They married when he was 50 years old, and she stuck by him right to the end, and even now you can see how protective she is of him in her interviews. You can see him getting frustrated with various medical procedures in some scenes, and she remains calm throughout. She was clearly his rock throughout their marriage, and he hers. The portrait of them as a couple was one of my favourite things about this documentary.

But the stand-out interview is with one of his granddaughters, who talks about how she grew up sitting on the couch next to Grandpa Roger, watching one film after another. In one of his final weeks, he uses his voice software on his computer to chat with her, and tells her excitedly about the new documentary he was watching, 56 Up (I am obsessed with the Up Series, so I was thrilled to see that this was one of the last movies he reviewed). She sits by him, hanging on every word, asking excited questions as he passionately nods and gestures at her, then begins furiously typing to her again. She talks to the camera of how her entire childhood is marked by watching films with him, and that he taught her everything he could about film when he could. Her voice catches with emotion as you see the waves of reality wash over her face, knowing that her days of watching films with Grandpa Roger are numbered. But I thought, could you imagine learning about the history of 20th century film with Roger Ebert at your side as your personal film-viewing companion?

His was an extraordinary life, and this is a beautiful film.


Ashlie Hawkins said...

Have you read the book yet, Nikki? It's really wonderful to hear his story in his own words, especially the way he wrote about Chaz.

Nikki Stafford said...

I haven't, and it's one of the few books of his that I haven't read. After seeing the movie, I must read it. :)

humanebean said...

I am unable to be rational, or to avoid welling up with emotion, when I think about how much his film criticism, his memorable voice, and ultimately his honest and brave duel with fate meant, and means to me. I watched movies with Roger in my head, parsed them afterwards while I watched the show, read his books, or sought out reviews online. I feel as if I knew him well, which is perhaps a singular distinction of his writing style - since so many others have expressed this about him. Simply put, my world was larger with Roger Ebert in it, and I will always be grateful for the gateway to art and entertainment that he provided.