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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Life Itself

Remembering Roger Ebert

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They were the oddest couple on television, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and at the end of the night, they were never buddies. The show that eventually aired as “Sikel and Ebert” pitted the skinny, cosmopolitan Siskel against the rotund, working-class Ebert in animated discussions over the merits of movies. Smart and opinionated, both had a deeper, wider sense of reality and life’s possibilities than the sort of movie nerds that clutter the Internet nowadays. After a while, the secret was out: these guys didn’t hang together after show time for a beer. They barely spoke unless it was absolutely necessary.

Siskel and Ebert are dead now; the former exited this world with a murmur while the latter remains a celebrity even after passing on. A Siskel documentary might be interesting, but his old rival beat him to it with Steve James’ feature, Life Itself. James records the tragedy of Ebert’s end, shooting at his hospital bed after the critic’s jaw had been removed from cancer. The images are sometimes shocking and disturbing, yet what shines through is Ebert’s resilience. He seems happy, adjusted to the necessity of communicating through blog posts and a voice synthesizer, and prepared to carry on through the moment when death finally claimed him in 2013.

Ebert was in love with words and used them well, writing in plainspoken Midwest English. He arrived as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic at just the right time, the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which signaled a new golden age in Hollywood as young directors inspired by world cinema broke the tired old molds of moviemaking. Ebert was one of their champions.

As exemplified by Dwight Macdonald, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, the New York intelligentsia had occupied the commanding heights of film criticism until the popularity of “Siskel and Ebert” set new standards for cinema discussion. As Time magazine’s Richard Corliss famously pointed out (and reiterates with a resigned shrug), there was a downside to the S&E formula. While thumbs-up-and-down was catchy television, it implied a good-bad, either-or, yes-no mentality. On the other hand, Siskel and Ebert sought out new and unknown filmmakers, and their often-argumentative discussions (and yes, they did sometimes agree) gave rise to nuanced understandings. Famously, they were credited with (or accused of) “democratizing” film criticism by wresting it from the murky theorizing, impenetrable prose, pseudo-intellectualizing and unctuous ideologies of academic culture studies.

Like many documentarians nowadays, James insists on injecting himself into the proceedings as a walk-on character, but the story is focused where it should be, on Ebert, the critic’s Illinois upbringing, love of newspaper culture and eventual abstinence from alcohol through AA where he met his wife and soul mate, Chaz. For Ebert, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Thumbs up!