ON AIR NOW

LISTEN NOW

Weather

clear-night
81°
Sunny
H 100° L 78°
  • clear-night
    81°
    Current Conditions
    Sunny. H 100° L 78°
  • clear-day
    96°
    Afternoon
    Sunny. H 100° L 78°
  • clear-day
    96°
    Evening
    Sunny. H 100° L 78°
LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Krmg news on demand

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Krmg traffic on demand

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

Krmg weather on demand

00:00 | 00:00

National
‘Life Itself’ offers empathetic look at late movie critic
Close

‘Life Itself’ offers empathetic look at late movie critic

‘Life Itself’ offers empathetic look at late movie critic
Photo Credit: Kevin Horan
This undated photo released by Magnolia Pictures shows film critics Gene Siskel, left, and Roger Ebert used in the documentary "Life Itself." (AP Photo/Magnolia Pictures, Kevin Horan)

‘Life Itself’ offers empathetic look at late movie critic

Critics review films, sometimes they even appear in films, but films are not made about them. Roger Ebert, however, did things his own way, and “Life Itself,” a fine and moving new documentary that tells his story, shows us how and why he stood out.

Starting with his Pulitzer Prize-winning print reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, continuing with his hugely influential television partnership with Gene Siskel and culminating in his early adoption of social media, Ebert had a large presence and an expansive personality.

Ebert was a colleague and friend for two decades before his death last year, and I always marveled at how deftly he handled the personal aspects of his job, how much he enjoyed reaching and touching people. As Ebert himself says in a clip that begins the film, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” that enables us to understand the dreams and fears of others, and no one created that one-on-one connection with more aplomb than he did.

It’s typical of the astuteness with which director Steve James has chronicled this critic’s life that he starts “Life Itself” (named after Ebert’s autobiography, which serves as a starting point) with that quote.

An experienced documentarian whose films include “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters” and the too-little-seen “Head Games,” James has unerring instincts as to what parts of Ebert’s story are worth spending time on. It’s another mark of the director’s skill that he took me deeper into aspects of that life that I thought I knew the most about.

Though he could not know it when he began, James started this film five months before Ebert’s death, and a key element of it shows how indomitable the man was in the face of ever-increasing health difficulties. Determined that this film be as honest as possible about what he was going through, Ebert insisted that even the medical procedures that were hardest on him be photographed.

Cancer ate away at Ebert, but after the removal of his jawbone cost him the ability to eat, drink and speak in July 2006, he turned to a computerized voice synthesizer, and his blog, to communicate.

Using segments read from Ebert’s autobiography as voice-over, James goes back to the critic’s youthful passion for journalism, which led him as a child to write and publish the Washington Street News, about his neighborhood in Urbana, Ill.

When happenstance led him in 1967 to become at age 21 the youngest film critic at a major newspaper in America, he threw himself into what he felt was the romance of journalism, holding court at a Chicago bar called O’Rourke’s, drinking too much (he joined AA in 1979) and at times being, in his own unsparing words, “tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat.”

It was also chance that led to Chicago’s public television station joining Ebert with the Chicago Tribune’s Siskel in a show called “Sneak Previews” that eventually made these two men the best known and most influential critics in America, helping to jump-start the careers of such directors as Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris.

As bristling outtakes from the show demonstrate, both men possessed strong egos and did not take well to being disagreed with. Siskel was, says one observer, “a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.” Yet over the years, especially after Ebert met and married his wife, Chaz, the men became closer.

Another of “Life Itself’s” strengths are the sections that deal with Ebert’s relationship with Chaz, especially as their vibrant marriage took on the cataclysmic series of illnesses that marked the final decade of the man’s life.

The cascading surgeries that Ebert went through would have toppled a less determined man, and it is difficult to watch the scenes that show him in obvious discomfort. But this behind-the-scenes look at what Ebert meant when he said that Chaz’s love was “like a wind pushing me back from the grave” is deeply moving, as are what the film tells us about the specific circumstances of Ebert’s last day.

“Life Itself” may sound like it would be of interest only to those who knew Ebert personally or to fellow film critics, but the opposite is true. Because of Ebert’s remarkable ability to connect with individuals and enlarge their lives with his passion for film, it wasn’t just a few people who knew him that well. It was everyone.

Read More
VIEW COMMENTS

There are no comments yet. Be the first to post your thoughts. or Register.

  • A woman is arrested for child endangerment after her young son is found wandering through an apartment complex. We're told Jana Clem had forgotten to lock the door after she took her prescription medications Thursday at the Chapel Ridge Apartments. Someone called Rogers County deputies after finding the 4-year old alone. Clem said she didn't realize that the boy had left their apartment.
  • A Tulsa man is dead after pointing a gun at a police officer during a traffic stop. We're told 52-year old Joshua Daniels was shot early Thursday near Neosho, Missouri after he tried to drive away from a police traffic stop for a second time. Neosho police say Daniels may have been intoxicated.
  • Rogers County deputies are investigating the report of a woman leaving her two children inside a parked car during the day Thursday. We're told Crystal Shell had left the car operating with the air conditioner on and parked at the county courthouse. Deputies informed her that, even so, her actions were too dangerous. When deputies ran an identity check on Shell, she was arrested for having outstanding warrants.
  • Yes, the airlines are taking what many agree is well-deserved flack lately, but passengers are not all angels. The Telegraph reports that flight attendants list some of passengers’ most annoying traits on a Facebook group. Those traits include taking forever to decide what drink you want (especially when you've seen the cart coming down the aisle for 10 minutes). Physically poking a flight attendant to get their attention, instead of just saying, 'excuse me,' is a major annoyance. Asking to borrow a pen for customs forms doesn’t go over well. And handing flight attendants, tissues, toothpicks, and (believe it or not) dirty diapers, actually happens. Put 'em in the barf bag, attendants say. You can read more about the story from the Telegraph here.
  • A rare baby Amur tiger cub at a zoo in Philadelphia was neglected by its mother after its birth earlier this month. The cub named Zoya, which means 'life' in Russian, is being sent to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. Zoya will integrate with a tiger cub litter there. The Philadelphia Zoo says 10-year-old Koosaka gave birth July 10 to a litter of five cubs.  Two were stillborn and one was accidentally injured by the mother and died.  The zoo says the mother never showed maternal behavior toward the remaining cubs and they were moved to the zoo's animal hospital, where the fourth died. Amur tigers, also called Siberian tigers, are endangered in the wild. They're found in eastern Russia and northeastern China.