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Life Itself

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Chaz and Roger Ebert on their wedding day.

As a huge fan of the work Roger Ebert has done (read my previous story on him here:, I was excited to see this documentary. Even more so when I found out Steve James directed it. He did the interesting documentary Hoop Dreams, which Siskel & Ebert both said was the best movie of the year (it wasn’t, but it was good). It must have been a thrill for Ebert to have James behind this project, although that’s part of the problem. Ebert was a little too instrumental in the whole thing, and he was insisting on the filmmaker showing so much of his pain and struggles with rehab and surgeries. A little of that goes a long way. It started to get redundant and at times, gross. If they would’ve cut the various hospital scenes in half, they could’ve shown a few of these topics the film never covered:

—      Ebert’s lawsuit with “At the Movies.”

—      Ebert fighting with various filmmakers. For example, after slamming the movie Brown Bunny, actor/director Vincent Gallo called him fat. To which Ebert responded, “I can lose weight, but you’ll always be the guy that directed Brown Bunny.” Oh, there were a few fights like this

—     Ebert complaining about how studios would pull a positive quote from a film he gave a “thumbs down” to make it look like a positive review, to which he’d go on his show the following week to trash the film all over again.

—     More on his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and on drinking and partying in Hollywood.

—      More of his written reviews shown. This guy could write. Show a few more of the films he was gushing over. Show a few of the reviews that he really knocked. The famous one is of North, where he wrote “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering, stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anybody would even like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

—      More about his past relationships. He went on a date with Oprah – no mention of that. He was never married, but they talk about a prostitute he brought into the bar. Why was this not explored more?

—      The way he took notes during a screening (a huge note pad, and he’d loudly rip pages off when they filled, and throw them on the floor).

—      His wife Chaz is an incredible woman for all she did for Ebert, yet most of what she said was about cancer or his rehabilitation. I read stories years ago that were so much more interesting. She talked about their first date at the “Steak and Shake” and how they argued because her favorite movie was A Clockwork Orange. He gave it a ‘thumbs down.’


It was a great thrill to see Martin Scorsese (who also produced) comment and get teary eyed. I was moved by hearing Werner Herzog say a few words, as well as some of his old drinking buddies and newspaper writers from the early days.

As painful as it was looking at Ebert’s face – it was glorious to see his expressive eyes, and the joy he had for life and cinema. And hearing that Stephen Hawkinsesque voice from his computer, with a witty quip he just typed in – brings tears of joy to your eyes.

Perhaps here in San Diego, this will be a bit sadder. I couldn’t help but think of our pudgy local hero – Tony Gwynn – who passed away a few weeks earlier. He had similar surgeries on his jaw and face, and seeing how painful all of this was…well, it could be rather hard to take at times. When they showed the second suctioning of his throat, I was wondering what the point of that was.

A little of the enjoyment was taken away by the fact that many of these stories I heard before. Yet there were some that will be new to everyone. One of those involves a letter and gift sent to him from actress Laura Dern.

The fights with Gene Siskel we’ve all seen, but they’re always good for a laugh. I was thrilled to hear somebody yell something I’ve wanted to for years – “F*** Pauline Kael!”

It was surprising to see that at the afternoon screening for this documentary, the Hillcrest Landmark was almost full. The day before, there were only 10 people for the horrible Tammy. Perhaps there is hope for society.

As flawed as this documentary was, it gave me a few more hours to spend with Roger Ebert and for that, I’m thankful.

Many critics have wondered what Roger Ebert would say about it. Well, he’d probably say, “It had a very intelligent and charismatic protagonist, but it was a bit long. And just because the subject was willing to let cameras in everywhere, it’s a directors job to shape a more interesting and well-rounded documentary on said subject. For director Steve James, it wasn’t catching lightning in a bottle twice. No, this wasn’t the slam dunk Hoop Dreams was. It was more like a mid-range jumper from 15-feet out. A marginal ‘thumbs up’ from me.”


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