The House That Jack Built
Ultimately, it’s more of an inconsistent cry into the void than the conversation starter it could have been.
It is hard for me to write about "Life Itself". I remember when we, your Far Flung Correspondents, learned just a couple of years ago of your memoirs being turned into a motion picture. Those were esctatic times, having been recently welcomed into your world of cinema, convening almost annually at Champaign-Urbana for your film festival, Ebertfest. Surely, we thought, that such a film would be screened here. Imagine. Your life. Your festival. Your movie. We looked forward to sharing that momentous occasion with you.
But "Life Itself" forced you to take a leave of everlasting presence. Reflecting on your life story now bears near unbearable poignancy. You chose us to write about movies, to help point out those that deserved the spotlight. My dear friend, if any film deserves it, it is yours.
I do not pretend to feign objectivity for your movie, as most pieces of film criticism do. You have always said that cinema is an emotional art form, where it doesn't have to be logical, though it has to make some sense. We as its sentinels have to defend films of worth by reasoning on how we feel, as contradictory as it sounds. And just like cuisine, which can nourish and enthrall, we are bound to play favorites. I need not explain why your life story falls into my favor.
After not seeing you in person for over two years, watching "Life Itself" was a cavalcade of joy and sadness. I relished hearing your friends, peers and other pillars of your life expound your story with their tales of your exploits, demons, and triumphs.
Your friends at the Daily Illini, such as Roger Simon (now chief political commentator for Politico), note how you really did stop the presses as an Editor-in-Chief way beyond your years. Your drinking buddies, mostly from newspaper days at the Chicago Sun-Times, tell of your "terrible taste in women" and how you held court as a raconteur at O'Rourke's. They also tell of how you sank deep into alcoholism and how you fought it back, inspiring one of your best friends to quit too. We hear how you used to lord it over your friends with you Pulitzer, how you got involved with your friend Russ Meyer in writing "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls", along with a uproarious one-word answer from your great friend John McHugh on why you did.
We see your rise with Gene Siskel as you both become, "the most powerful critics of all time, in any realm," and learn how an upstart show from Chicago became the center of the movie reviewing world. We hear from master filmmakers such as Errol Morris, Gregory Nava and Ramin Bahrani who tell of how you helped start and save their careers. The most moving account for me came from Martin Scorsese, whose career wasn't the only thing you helped save. Until then, I had never seen him pause to hold back tears. I wept because you saved me in the same way.
We meet your peers in Jonathan Rosenbaum, Richard Corliss and A.O. Scott who help explain your effect on film criticism. Just like you and Gene, they don't hold back in their assessments. But I did find it remarkable that when it came down to critics and filmmakers measuring up your place in cinema, it would be the latter defending you from the former. That speaks for itself.
We meet your wife Chaz and see just why we should thank her for having you around for as long as we did. We see how tireless she was in caring for you, pushing you back from the grave as you've said. We see her protectiveness, of her privacy and of you, as a complement to your generosity. But we do see her open up, revealing where you really did see you for the first time and in moments confronting your disfigurement and mortality.
I saw how Steve James, the great documentarian whom you wisely gave the reins to, uses his immense gift of sensitivity to the dramas of seemingly ordinary human experience. Nothing he portrays feels forced or manufactured. From your pals at the bar, your fellow newsmen at the press or your loved ones at the hospital or at home, he films and listens to your life's witnesses in contexts that define them. He somehow exhibits great respect in even your most intimate moments. He probes but he does not push. His lens is not sharp or hard, but patient and welcoming.
These accounts from those who know you well will captivate those who have always been fascinated about you. But they are interwoven into the final few months of your life. And for those who have known and followed you all this time, they will also be devastating.
For the last few years, your presence online has been formidable, feeling all-encompassing at times. In public, you have always projected an effervescence regardless of your circumstances. You never complained about the cards life dealt you and soldiered on while the rest of us tried to catch up. Little did most of us know how bad it had gotten, as you wouldn't let us agonize over your agony.
After the last Christmas you revealed your fractured hip, I always dreaded the worst, and understood why you had to curtail your online connection with us. To actually see your suffering so intimately is so jarring. Watching you on my laptop, I caught myself several times trying to reach through the screen, wishing I could hold your hand when you needed it most.
Some viewers may ask why? Did we really need to see the tube in your throat being drained? To see your therapy struggles to walk let alone stand from your chair? To hear of your wishes to die? I never thought I'd ever read you saying, "I'm fading. I can't."
But I know you did it out of honesty. I know how you hated BS. You revealed your face in Esquire saying, "I ain't a pretty boy no more and so what?" We loved you not just because you could write, but because in your writing you revealed yourself, piece by piece, in all your wisdom and folly. And you do it again here in "Life Itself", because life isn't a bed of roses.
And I say "you" because as you say to Steve James, "This is not only your film." You were co-director in your own joint, as you should have been.
"I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me." - Roger Ebert, "Life Itself"
Thank you for entertaining us Rog. It's been a privilege.
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