The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize with other people…For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
— Roger Ebert
TELLURIDE – “I was born inside the movie of my life,” writes Roger Ebert in his memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011.
In 1975, Ebert, the only child of an electrician and bookkeeper in Urbana, Ill., became the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer, for his work at the Chicago Sun Times, where he worked from 1967 until his death, on Aug. 4, 2013, sometimes reviewing as many as six movies in one edition of the paper. Of his graceful glide from daily reporting into film criticism, he once said, “I learned to be a movie critic from reading Mad magazine.”
Ebert rose to global recognition on the weekly television movie-review show, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, which took root at a Chicago PBS affiliate in 1986, and exploded nationally three years later.
He was devastated when his dear friend and faux rival Gene Siskel, film critic for the rival Chicago Tribune, died quietly, from a fast-moving brain tumor, days after taping what became the duo’s last show, in early 1999.
“All these years later, the top half of Ebert’s face still registers sadness when Siskel’s name comes up,” wrote Chris Jones, in a comprehensive Esquire profile in 2010, three years after Ebert’s multiple surgeries for a cancerous thyroid, salivary glands and the removal of his lower jaw, followed by devastating ruptures of his carotid artery, left him unable to eat, drink or speak, without a keyboard-activated computer speaker.
“His eyes well up behind his glasses, and for the first time, they overwhelm his smile,” Jones wrote in Esquire. “He begins to type into his computer, slowly, deliberately. He presses the button and the speakers light up. ‘I’ve never said this before,’” the voice says, “‘but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert.’ He thinks for a moment before he begins typing again. There’s a long pause before he hits the button. ‘I just miss the guy so much,’ the voice says. Ebert presses the button again. ‘I just miss the guy so much.’”
Deeply affected by losing Siskel so quickly, and with so little information about his friend’s failing health, Ebert determined his own decline would be a veritable open book, to which end he appeared regularly in public, a black turtleneck hiding his bandages, a hole visible, upon close inspection, behind his permanently parted lips.
“I saw him out publicly, in the years after the surgery, on a few occasions,” recalled Steven James (Hoop Dreams; The Interrupters), director of Life Itself, the 112-minute documentary chronicling the last five months of Ebert’s life that screens tonight at the Abel Gance Outdoor Cinema in Telluride’s Elks Park. Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) are two of its executive producers.
Siskel and Ebert’s early championing of the Chicago-based Hoop Dreams, which began life as a PBS documentary, arguably helped it s surprise status as a popular hit. “It’s hard to imagine a three-hour documentary on two kids and their families in Chicago that no-one has ever heard of would have become successful as a theatrical film – and beyond,” James reflected, in a telephone interview this week, “if not for the way he and Gene championed it, starting with Sundance, when that was the only place you could see it, and then for a solid year or longer, every chance they got.
“Beyond Hoop Dreams, which is enough, Roger continued over the years to write very smartly and supportively of my other films. It certainly had quite an impact.”
After Ebert’s potentially devastating surgeries, James recalled, “He was always wearing this very sporty black turtleneck. I always thought it was a fashion statement, although “I knew he was disfigured; it was obvious.
“But I did not know the extent of the disfigurement,” James said, until he visited Ebert in the hospital, prepping for the film.
“He happened to be taking a nap when we first arrived, and you could see right through his jaw,” in one of the first images in the film. “It was hanging down when he was not awake. When he was asleep, that jaw hung way down; I think that when he was awake, you know, he pulled it up for many reasons.
“I thought, I’m going to film this, but omigod, will people be able to handle this?” James recalled, of the stark view of Ebert’s disfigurement.
“Then he woke up – and you can see this in the film – he smiled,” a now-exaggerated smile, due to the surgeries, but one that somehow lit up the love in his face, and in his blue eyes most especially.
“And there was Roger,” said James. “That’s Roger,” he remembered thinking.
“In a way I owe a lot to Roger,” James said, “although one thing I did not feel I owed him was a film on him.” The idea for a film took hold, however, after he read Ebert’s memoir, also titled Life Itself. “I was kind of intrigued by that curious title,” James reflected, and by the fact that “here’s a guy who made his life and reputation clearly as a film critic, and there’s almost defiantly no reference to film in the book.
“When you read the book, you get the sense – and I think I tried to capture this in the film – that Roger was one of those guys who really fully embraced living. Not in that it was all one big parade of fun and success. It wasn’t. He had his share of ups and downs, and obstacles to overcome, and yet he seemed to be one of those people who are fairly acutely appreciative and understanding of the sort of grand drama that life is.
“And his appreciation for life is why I think he began the book. ‘I was born inside the movie of life’ – that’s the first line in the book.”
Over the course of making the film (which premiered earlier this year at Sundance), James said that Ebert’s “love of movies and his love of life emerge,” with the film medium offering viewers “this tremendous opportunity to see life through others’ lives, in an emotional and powerful way, and in a way that few other art forms can match.
“He defined movies as, at their best, ‘like a machine that generates empathy,’” James said, of Ebert’s perhaps most defining statement.
“I’ve never heard a better definition of what the potential and power of great film is.”
Life Itself screens Thursday, Aug. 28, at approximately 8:30 p.m., at the Abel Gance Open Air Theater, in Telluride’s Elks Park, as part of the Telluride Film Festival open-the-the-public festival screenings. Steven James and Ebert’s wife, Chaz, will be present.