On April 6th, 2013, just two days after his passing, Roger Ebert’s final review was published, that being for Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Oddly enough, the title of Malick’s film is the perfect way to bring the legacy of Ebert’s career full circle. A man full of wonder and energy beyond description, Ebert’s passion for cinema, as well as his eloquent writings and collaborations with Gene Siskel, have justly cemented him as the greatest film critic of all time.
Almost a year and a half has passed since his death, and the sting isn’t even close to receding. Ebert kept us coming back, time and time again, but it was his passion for life itself that made him such a fascinating individual. Taken from the title of Ebert’s memoirs, and directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams (one of his favorite films), Life Itself is a film that shows us in unflinching detail the struggles, triumphs, and bumpy circumstances of Ebert’s long, celebrated career. Simply put, the film is fantastic.
Steve James met with Roger and his wife Chaz Ebert one day about the concept of a documentary centered on Ebert, and this idea soon became a chronicle of Ebert’s last few months, and while his physical voice may have been taken due to cancer, relying on a voice synthesizer, his creative voice was still every bit as strong and unrepressed as ever.
On the one hand, the film is heartbreaking to watch. Seeing Ebert’s condition deteriorate him is never easy to sit through, especially during sequences when he is being fed via feeding tube. Aspects of his personal life, including his struggle with alcoholism, are presented with equally saddening detail. However, it’s also quite inspiring to see how the man overcame all of these hardships, and even after such devastating things have happened to him, he stills manages to find joy in living, even when facing his imminent death, of which he looks at in a macabre fashion.
Ebert is a fascinating individual for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason of all is for his unbridled passion for cinema. In a way, I can’t help but compare his spirit to Tim Burton’s interpretation of Ed Wood. Granted, Ebert was much more of a professional in his field than Wood was in his, but they both have such a passionate drive for everything they do. There are many artists in their field who are among the best at what they do, and yet, they can’t stand what they’re doing. With Ebert, the thing that made him stand out, and made us keep coming back to see him and Gene Siskel bicker week after week… is how seriously he took the artform.
Whereas many were stubborn to consider movies as anything beyond escapist entertainment, Ebert knew before any of us the untapped potential that lie in it. He never looked at his job with the slightest hint of cynicism (We have Armond White to thank for that). Whether he were reviewing something as revered as The Tree of Life, or something as thoroughly horrible as The Raid, he never saw it as an easy paycheck, a hobby on the side, and never took it for granted. He knew what an impact cinema had, and whether he were talking about films from Citizen Kane to 2001, or from Beauty and the Beast to Transformers, he always knew his facts, could back them up, and always loved discussion, analyzing every inch of a product and the worth of each element, even affectionately painted as a man taking notes in one hand while eating popcorn with the other.
It’s also fascinating to see what a champion for new talent he was, whether he shows support for Rahmin Bahrani of Man Push Cart fame, or hailing then newcomer Martin Scorsese for Who’s That Knocking At My Door, claiming he would be the American Fellini in ten years time. He even made friendships with many of these artists, which you would assume would cloud his judgment with bias, but his thoughts were still as candid and objective as ever. It’s actually kind of hilarious seeing him praise Scorsese’s Raging Bull as one of the great American sports movies, then proceed to rip apart Scorsese’s The Color of Money. Speaking of which, another thing that kept us coming back to him is that Ebert is and was a very funny man. His playfully heated debates with Gene Siskel provided some of the most thoroughly entertaining reviews out there, with Siskel even affectionately labeling Ebert as “An A$-hole, but he’s my A$-hole.”
Passionate right up to the very end, Ebert is the reason for film criticism becoming more popular than ever. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if it weren’t for his influence, and I feel that’s the case for many a critic. For anyone to have even an ounce of that passion and drive for anything, movies or not, anything at all, they would pretty much be set for life. His influence remains strong, his spirit will never be lost, and nobody can ever fault him for that. The future is always uncertain, and the sting of a great man’s loss will never subdue, but one thing I do know for sure, no matter what, the world would never have been the same, or as good, without him.
Two thumbs up! Here’s to you, Roger…
****1/2 / *****