LIFE ITSELF, the first ever feature-length documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, covers the prolific critic's life journey from his days at the University of Illinois, to his move to Chicago where he became the first film critic ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, then to television where he and Gene Siskel became iconic stars, and finally to what Roger referred to as "his third act"; how he overcame disabilities wrought by cancer to became a major voice on the internet and through social media.
Director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS) has conducted interviews with over two dozen people, including lifelong friends, professional colleagues, the first ever interview with Gene Siskel's wife, and filmmakers Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Gregory Nava, Ava DuVernay, and Martin Scorsese, who is one of the executive producers along with Steven Zaillian.
I'm reading back through my archive of stuff written by and about Roger Ebert and I realized I've never written about my favorite piece of his: Dwarfs, Little People and the M-Word. It's nothing particularly earthshattering or insightful, but the piece demonstrates what I really liked about Ebert: humanist, happy to be corrected when in the wrong, not afraid to poke fun at himself, and a lover of both language and knowledge.
I had no idea the word "midget" was considered offensive, and you are the only person who has ever written to me about it. In my mind it is a descriptive term, like "dwarf." "Little People" has seemed to me to have a vaguely condescending cuteness to it. If I am now informed that "midget" is offensive, I will no longer use it. What is your feeling about "dwarf?" Is "Little Person" always the preferred term? Our newspaper's style book, based on Associated Press, does not consider "midget" or "dwarf" to be offensive terms, but perhaps we have not caught up.
Ebert, 70, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, and who was without question the nation's most prominent and influential film critic, died Thursday in Chicago. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.
He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. "No point in denying it," he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.
Always technically savvy - he was an early investor in Google - Ebert let the Internet be his voice. His rogerebert.com had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 "Person of the Year" from the Webby Awards, which noted that "his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web." His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers.
Ebert was both widely popular and professionally respected. He not only won a Pulitzer Prize - the first film critic to do so - but his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, among the movie stars he wrote about so well for so long. His reviews were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide.
What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.
At the same time, I am re-launching the new and improved Rogerebert.com and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, Ebert Digital, run by me, my beloved wife, Chaz, and our brilliant friend, Josh Golden of Table XI. Stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and roll out other projects under the Ebert brand in the coming year.
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
"Citizen Kane" speaks for itself. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is likewise a stand-along monument, a great visionary leap, unsurpassed in its vision of man and the universe. It was a statement that came at a time which now looks something like the peak of humanity's technological optimism. Many would choose "Taxi Driver" as Scorsese's greatest film, but I believe "Raging Bull" is his best and most personal, a film he says in some ways saved his life. It is the greatest cinematic expression of the torture of jealousy -- his "Othello."
The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It's the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can't depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out.
The problem with using 3-D for feature-length films is not so much the technology or its lack of contribution to the storytelling, it's that human eyes were not designed to focus and converge on images at two different distances. Walter Murch, the legendary sound designer and editor, explains in a note to Roger Ebert:
The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the "convergence/focus" issue. A couple of the other issues -- darkness and "smallness" -- are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.
But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.
"Rosebud." The most famous word in the history of cinema. It explains everything, and nothing. Who, for that matter, actually heard Charles Foster Kane say it before he died? The butler says, late in the film, that he did. But Kane seems to be alone when he dies, and the reflection on the shard of glass from the broken paperweight shows the nurse entering the room. Gossip has it that the screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, used "rosebud" as an inside joke, because as a friend of Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, he knew "rosebud" was the old man's pet name for the most intimate part of her anatomy.
The new show will appear on PBS and feature Elvis Mitchell & Christy Lemire as the main hosts.
"I believe that by returning to its public roots, our new show will win better and more consistent time slots in more markets," added Ebert. "American television is swamped by mindless gossip about celebrities, and I'm happy this show will continue to tell viewers honestly if the critics think a new movie is worth seeing."
The movie had been controversial. The president of the festival jury, Tennessee Williams, already had vowed that it would win a prize only over his dead body (it won the Grand Prix; Williams lived). The key people at the press conference were Martin Scorsese, the film's director, and Paul Schrader, who wrote it. The French critics were lobbing complex philosophical questions at them in French, and then the English-language translators were wading in, and everyone was getting nicely confused.
Someone finally condescended to ask a question of the little girl down at the end of the table - the one, you might assume, who'd been brought along to France as a treat, along with all the ice cream she could eat. The translator grabbed for the microphone, but Jodie Foster waved him off and answered the question herself, in perfect French. There was an astonished round of applause: At last, an American who spoke French! And less than 5 feet tall!
He both writes and thinks about food in the present tense. Ask about favorite foods and he'll scribble a note: "I love spicy and Indian." An offer to bring some New Jersey peaches to his summer home here on the shore of Lake Michigan brings a sharp defense of Michigan peaches and a menu idea. "Maybe for dessert we could have a salad of local fresh fruits."
"Food for me is in the present tense," he said. "Eating for me is now only in the past tense." He says he has a "voluptuous food memory" that gets stronger all the time.
"I can remember the taste and smell of everything, even though I can no longer taste or smell," he said.
Here are the opening couple of paragraphs from the post that evolved into the cookbook:
First, get the Pot. You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you're all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block. No, I am not putting you on the Rice Diet. Eat what you like. I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker. You, lovers who like to cook together but don't want to put anything in the oven. You, in the witness protection program. You, nutritional wingnut. You, in a wheelchair.
And you, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food. You, shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog's documentary about life at the South Pole. You, early riser skipping breakfast. You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest,, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver. Yes, you, reader of the second-best best-written blog on the internet.
Film Critics GENE SISKEL and ROGER EBERT join Terry Gross on stage in Chicago for a "live" audience version of Fresh Air. This was recorded in February 1996. The duo began their TV collaboration in 1975 on Chicago Public Television station WTTW. After two successful season, the program became a national PBS show. In 1981 it moved to commercial television.Their show is now known as "Siskel and Ebert" and is heard in 180 markets. Gene Siskel is film colmnist for the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert is critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Siskel and Ebert" has been nominated for five national emmy awards. Ebert has recieved a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.
I don't know how people in the industry feel, but for me, the internet is the best thing that ever happened to radio.
He was in the hands of medicine. He was hopeful but realistic. He will come to feel increasingly like a member of the audience in the theater of his own illness. I've been there. There were times when I seemed to have nothing to do with it. One night, unable to speak, I caught the eye of a nurse through my open door and pointed to the blood leaking from my hospital gown. She pushed a panic button and my bed was surrounded by an emergency team, the duty physician pushing his fingers with great force against my carotid artery to halt the bleeding. I was hoisted on my sheet over to a gurney, and raced to the OR. "Move it, people," he shouted. "We're going to lose this man."
Anderson Cooper asked Hitchens whether he'd been moved by the prayer groups supporting him to pray himself:
"No, that's all meaningless to me. I don't think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation." There was a catch in his voice, and the slightest hint of tears. That was the moment -- not the cancer or the dying -- that got to me. Prayer groups also prayed for me, and I was grateful and moved. It isn't the sad people in movies who make me cry, it's the good ones.
Hitchens added that if there should be reports of his deathbed conversion, they would be reports of a man "irrational and babbling with pain." As long as he retains his thinking ability, he said, there will be no conversion to belief in God. This is what I expected him to say. Deathbed conversions have always seemed to me like a Hail Mary Pass, proving nothing about religion and much about desperation.
I wrote this at Snarkmarket at the beginning of the week:
Recent efforts by Tony Judt, Christopher Hitchens, Atul Gawande, following on slightly older ones by Joan Didion and Phillip Roth, make me wonder whether we've achieved a new breakthrough in our ability to write about death -- perhaps especially protracted death, death within the context of medical treatment, in a secular context, which as Gawande reminds us, is comparatively new and certainly much more common.
Here's the section of Gawande's recent New Yorker essay I was thinking of:
For all but our most recent history, dying was typically a brief process. Whether the cause was childhood infection, difficult childbirth, heart attack, or pneumonia, the interval between recognizing that you had a life-threatening ailment and death was often just a matter of days or weeks... [A]s the end-of-life researcher Joanne Lynn has observed, people usually experienced life-threatening illness the way they experienced bad weather--as something that struck with little warning--and you either got through it or you didn't.
An unexpected cost of the secularization/medicalization of death is that we lose the language we need to talk our way through it:
Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one's faith, repenting one's sins, and letting go of one's worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.
These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition--advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn't. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty--with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost.
That's one of the stunning things about Gawande's essay -- how much of what it describes is a failure of language. No one can speak, at least directly; we can only watch.
But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing -- it's like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It's not the food or the drink he worries about anymore -- I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note -- but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left.
I've always liked Ebert and I consider this version an upgrade...he's doing his best work. (thx, david)
What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They're the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done -- probably most of our recreational talking. That's what I miss.
Health care in Colonial America looked nothing like what we'd consider medicine today, but the debates it triggered were similar. The danger of smallpox and the high cost of its prevention led to divisive questions about who should pay, whether everyone deserved equal access, and if responsibility lay at the feet of the individual, the state, or the nation. Epidemics forced the early republic to wrestle with the question of the federal government's proper role in regulating the nation's health.
I am told we cannot trust the government. I believe we must trust it, and work to make it trustworthy. We are told the free enterprise system will sort things out, but it has not. When insurance companies direct millions toward lobbying and advertising against a health care system, every dollar is being withheld from sick people. When it goes to salaries, executive jets, corporate edifices and legislative manipulation, it isn't going to Amy Caudle.
1. The Night of the Hunter, Laughton 2. Apocalypse Now, Coppola 3. Sunrise, Murnau 4. Black Narcissus, Powell & Pressburger 5. L'avventura, Antonioni 6. The Searchers, Ford 7. The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles 8. The Seventh Seal , Bergman 9. L'atalante, Vigo 10. Rio Bravo, Hawks
Lots of notable titles missing...and only a couple post-1980s films make the list.
Sita is a goddess separated from her beloved Lord and husband Rama. Nina is an animator whose husband moves to India, then dumps her by e-mail. Three hilarious shadow puppets narrate both ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana. Set to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as "The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told."
I put on the DVD and start watching. I am enchanted. I am swept away. I am smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord. You might think my attention would flag while watching An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Quite the opposite. It quickens.
We both thought of ourselves as full-service, one-stop film critics. We didn't see why the other one was quite necessary. We had been linked in a Faustian television format that brought us success at the price of autonomy. No sooner had I expressed a verdict on a movie, my verdict, than here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me. It really felt like that. It was not an act. When we disagreed, there was incredulity; when we agreed, there was a kind of relief. In the television biz, they talk about "chemistry." Not a thought was given to our chemistry. We just had it, because from the day the Chicago Tribune made Gene its film critic, we were professional enemies. We never had a single meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program. Alone together in an elevator, we would study the numbers changing above the door.
"When these cars were new," I said. "They weremuch faster than '57 Corvettes or T-Birds. The salesmen would put a client on the back seat, put a $100 bill on the front seat, and tell the client he could keep the money if he could overcome the force of the acceleration, and lean forward and pick it up while the Hawk was doing zero-to-60."
Ebert owned a Golden Hawk for several years before he had to sell it because he couldn't maintain it properly.
The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been "seen with" somebody, who has been "spotted with" somebody, and "top ten" lists of the above. (Celebs "seen with" desire to be seen, celebs "spotted with" do not desire to be seen.)
The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a wall.
As in most matters, Ebert speaks for me in this regard, the smashing in particular. His final line -- "The news is still big. It's the newspapers that got small." -- is spot on and, I'm increasingly convinced, the way out for newspapers in the long term. The news is big and newspapers need to get back to covering its complexity, significance, and interestingness.
Q. Yo dude, u missed out on "Disaster Movie," a hardcore laugh-ur-@zz-off movie! Y U not review this movie!? It was funny as #ell! Prolly the funniest movie of the summer! U never review these, wat up wit dat? - S.J. Stanczak, Chicago
A. Hey, bro, I wuz buzier than $#i+, @d they never shoed it b4 hand. I peeped in the IMDb and saw it zoomed to #1 as the low$ie$t flic of all time, wit @ lame-@zz UZer Rating of 1.3. U liked it? Wat up wit dat?
Totally pwned. He's not completely fluent, but Ebert should write all of his reviews in l33tspeak.
In the early days of my career I said I rated a movie according to its "generic expectations," whatever that meant. It might translate like this: "The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose." Of course that doesn't necessarily mean I'd give four stars to the best possible chainsaw movie. In my mind, four stars and, for that matter, one star, are absolute, not relative. They move outside "generic expectations" and triumph or fail on their own.
His "I like to write as if I'm on an empty sea" line is happily filed away, to be used as liberally as possible.
This all began for me in about 1969, when I started teaching a film class in the University of Chicago's Fine Arts program. I knew a Chicago film critic, teacher and booker named John West, who lived in a wondrous apartment filled with film prints, projectors, books, posters and stills. "You know how football coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to study game films?" he asked me. "You can use that approach to study films. Just pause the film and think about what you see. You ought to try it with your film class."
I did. The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn't the teacher and my students weren't the audience, we were all in this together. The ground rules: Anybody could call out "stop!" and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them.
This article also contains the most information-rich paragraph I've ever read online...it's like an entire film class in 12 lines. Fascinating stuff. One of the points is that, generally, the right side of the screen is more positive. In a later comment, Ebert adds:
In all the years with Siskel and on all the incarnations of the show, I always quietly made sure I was seated on the right. When Roeper came aboard, the producers insisted I "belonged" in "Gene's seat." Sentiment won over visual strategy. Did I really think it made a difference? Yes, I really did.
Also, he should do this online...post film stills and let people leave comments, discuss, etc.
Ask yourself this question: Have you ever watched a 2-D movie and wished it were in 3-D? Remember that boulder rolling behind Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Better in 3-D? No, it would have been worse. Would have been a tragedy. The 3-D process is like a zombie, a vampire, or a 17-year cicada: seemingly dead, but crawling out alive after a lapse of years. We need a wooden stake.
One thing we never did, apart from an occasional special show, was depart from the format: Two critics debating the week's new movies. No "advance looks" at trailers for movies we hadn't even seen. No celebrity interviews. No red carpet sound bites. Just two guys talking about the movies. At one point, our show and two clones were on the air simultaneously. Then we were left alone again: The only show on TV that would actually tell you if we thought a movie was bad.
His criticism shows a nearly unequaled grasp of film history and technique, and formidable intellectual range, but he rarely seems to be showing off. He's just trying to tell you what he thinks, and to provoke some thought on your part about how movies work and what they can do.
Are you as bored with my health as I am? I underwent a third surgery in January, this one in Houston, and once again there were complications. I am sorry to say that my ability to speak was not restored. That would require another surgery. But I still have all my other abilities, including the love of viewing movies and writing about them.
Yes, I know it's a year late, but a funny thing happened to me on the way to compiling a list of the best films of 2006. I checked into the hospital in late June 2006 and didn't get out again until spring of 2007. For a long while, I just didn't feel like watching movies. Then something revolved within me, and I was engaged in life again.
I've never met Ebert, but his love of movies resounds so emphatically from his writing that if he didn't feel like watching them, he must have been closer than I thought to shuffling off the ol' mortal coil. It's nice to hear his enthusiasm again. (via crazymonk)
Some have advised Roger Ebert not to attend his yearly film festival because of his changed physical appearance due to recent cancer surgery. Ebert says nuts to that...he may look a little strange, but his brain still works, his thumbs still go up and down, and he can type his columns just fine. "We spend too much time hiding illness. There is an assumption that I must always look the same. I hope to look better than I look now. But I'm not going to miss my festival." I love Roger Ebert.