Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Roger Ebert has always held a special place in my heart. We share the same birthday, and he was basically my hero growing up. I grew up wanting to be a film critic, partially because of Roger Ebert. He taught me a lot about film, as did his partner in crime, Gene Siskel. Their show introduced me to a world of film beyond the latest blockbuster or the most recent "The Corey's" film (please remember the time period I grew up in.) It was because of them I learned about Scorsese and Herzog. It is because of them that I dragged my Father to the city (that would be the best god damn city in the world: San Francisco) to see Hoop Dreams. I waited anxiously every Sunday to see what films they would give the "Thumbs up" or the "Thumbs down."
Well, I didn't become a film critic. I became a highly educated retail worker who makes rich people feel better about themselves. Things don't always work out like you planned. I have never lost my love of film though. Sometimes, it is the only things that gets me through. And I have never lost my appreciation of Roger Ebert, a "populist" film critic who led me in directions which changed my life.
I was thrilled to be able to view Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert directed by Steve James, the genius behind Hoop Dreams. I expected this documentary to be amazing- I was familiar with Ebert's life story: the struggles with alcohol, his career, his love/hate relationship with Siskel, his marriage to Chaz, and finally, his battle with cancer. What I wasn't prepared for was the 2 hour cry-fest that commenced in my living room. It got so bad my dog started barking at me and the cat offered to make me a drink.
Where to begin? Ebert wasn't perfect, and the documentary certainly doesn't shy away from that. He could be an asshole, especially to people who didn't agree with him. But he loved film, he loved his amazing wife (he didn't marry until he was 50), and he loved his work. After the cancer took away his ability to speak, he began a highly successful blog, which not only addressed film, but political issues as well. He never gave up, until he was ready.
My favorite part of this documentary goes into his relationship with Siskel. For much of their partnership it was hate/hate. Siskel knew how to push Ebert's buttons. Ebert does come out a bit of the "bad guy" in this relationship, which is something that surprised me. When I watched the show growing up, I admired Siskel, but I related to Ebert. In the end, they had a great respect for each other, and Ebert admitted it was one of the most significant relationships in his life (cue waterworks). I watched their show every Sunday with my Father, who always encouraged my interest in film. We took their recommendations as gold, and eagerly awaited their "Year End Special," where they would name their top 10 and bottom 10. Then we would make sure to watch all of those films.
Ebert was no great fan of Horror, neither was Siskel. Maybe my love of the genre was a way to "rebel" against these parental figures. And that is was they were. I learned so much from them. And as I grew and mistakenly believed I was becoming smarter and more mature, I rejected them. When I finally realized that is was ok to love what I love, and no one knew everything, and the whole thing was farce anyway, I came full circle. Ebert made film accessible to all. He loved it, even the bad. I think that is a pretty good philosophy for life itself.
Please check out Ebert's website, mentioned in the film, here.