Life itself and Roger Ebert

Life Itself hits you hard. Although it has elements of a biography and covers Roger’s overall (and quite impressive) career that led him from being an extremely talented newspaper guy even before he got to college, the gut-wrenching part is his battle with cancer. We first see him in the hospital where his near perpetual smile seems utterly at odds with the devastation wrought by cancer. Without a jaw or a voice, Roger carries on, blogging, smiling, joking and being cared for by his wife, Chaz, a pillar of compassion.
Steve James, who made the film with Roger’s considerable cooperation, was a director of Hoop Dreams, one of the great longitudinal films about youth coming of age, centering on two aspiring high schoolers with dreams of professional basketball careers. Their dreams didn’t quite work out but they grew and matured all the same. Roger’s dream did come true. He became the outstanding journalist he always dreamed of becoming, as a film critic it turns out, when his early bent seemed in politics and sports. But he was an adept writer, graceful, to the point, and never demeaning to films or their makers. The latter is a rare quality. Some critics, like, to name one, Anthony Lane, at The New Yorker, seem to pride themselves on acting superior to the films they have to review, judging by the frequency with which they display their wit at the expense of the films they discuss. Roger did not like all films by any stretch–a touching moment is to hear his give a thumbs down to The Color of Money after becoming a good friend of Martin Scorsese, but not with cheap jabs at Scorsese or the film–but when he disliked a film he remained as passionately detached from personal attack or snide wisecracks as he was committed to the films he loved.
His spirit was generous. I knew him more from his TV show with Gene Siskel and thought the thing a bit lightweight. It wasn’t until later that I became better familiar with his written reviews and his considerable gift for getting to the essence of a given film, for better or worse.
Life Itself reminds us of what a career well made means to those who share it, of what a marriage relationship and family life can be at their best, and of what a life well lived feels like to those who can now, thanks to this film, behold it. Roger didn’t just exemplify the best of movie criticism, he exemplified what it’s like to live, and die, with grace and dignity.