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About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Life Itself - Documentary about Roger Ebert

Uploaded: Jul 9, 2014
Life Itself is an honest portrait—by turns deeply moving and funny—of America's most beloved film critic Roger Ebert, named after his memoir of the same title and directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams). Although watching a film about a film critic watching movies may sound either a bit meta or a bit soporific depending on your aesthetic tastes, I think this just may be one of the loveliest documentaries we'll have this year.

The plot line is familiar to anyone who grew up in the early-90s or earlier: a kid from Urbana, Illinois grows up into an assertive newspaperman. He becomes one of Chicago's most popular film reviewers and gets a TV show where he battles hilariously and crabbily another popular film critic. Together the two critics make film reviewing democratic and popularize the phrase "Two Thumbs Up." He meets his true love and develops a strong relationship with her and her family, but then develops throat cancer.

Although the bare outline is known to many of us, what richness we experience the interviews with Ebert before he died! The movie starts with Ebert in a rehabilitation facility towards the end of his life. He experienced a mysterious hairline fracture that had no known external cause. Later you will learn it was a recurrence of cancer. Ebert's countenance was ravaged before his death —his jaw is missing—but you will move past the unease quickly because he is, even with his computer generated voice, so willing to be vulnerable that you can't help but want to be engaged with his onscreen presence.

The documentary follows a talking heads approach. We learn that Ebert was principled and opinionated even while running his college newspaper and how he happened into the work of film criticism. We learn of Ebert's relationship with Scorsese and how he co-wrote the screenplay for 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. More interesting is a segment on how Ebert championed Errol Morris's fascinating 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven (about the pet cemetery business), giving one of our most fascinating filmmakers a career by talking about his little-shown film over and over again. And there are the interviews with Chaz, the last one of which brought me to tears.

It's also inspiring to see Ebert's unflinching willingness to engage with anything and everything. It is a quality I noticed in a few of his blog posts before he died. A number of commenters, angry about his political positions, told him to stick to movie reviews (rather than engage with environmental issues) and he refused. I was never a fan of the "thumbs up" "thumbs down" approach, which seemed to me to be a reductive way to watch movies. But the spirit of his work—that movie criticism could and should be accessible, even in connection with wildly artistic movies— is definitely an approach that has brought weirder movies to a general audience and helped democratize filmmaking, which I wholeheartedly support.

If you love movies, you should see this movie. If you're reluctant to drive up to San Francisco or Berkeley to see it, you can stream it through AT&T U-Verse's On Demand.

Comments

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 10, 2014 at 12:08 am

I found out about Roger Ebert when he and Gene Siskel had their wonderful Sneak Previews show on PBS. That show was great. I found out about so many good movies that I otherwise would probably have had no idea about and got interested in all kind of documentaries, foreign movies, offbeat and strange movies. I liked Roger's reviews better than Gene at the time, but they both had a lot of offer and the show was top notch.

Then they left PBS, or the PBS show changed and all of a sudden most of what we heard about were big production Hollywood Box Office draws with the big name actors, remakes, sequels, prequels, etc. Movies steadily got worse and it seemed like Roger started thumbs-upping more movie than ever.

When he started talking about how great "Pirates Of The Caribbean" was and the sequel I realized there was really nothing left. Sadly Roger became a Hollywood fixture, a property used to market movies and over time I started to actually dislike him or rather, just ignore him.

I was so sorry to hear of Gene Siskel's passing, and Roger's illnesses and will always remember the great movies they turned me onto back in the early 80's I think it was. Rest in peace Roger, Gene and "Sneak Previews".


Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 10, 2014 at 7:26 am

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

@CrescentParkAnon - I know what you mean re: being disenchanted with Roger's later reviews of big budget Hollywood movies and wondering whether being embraced by the establishment had made him too willing to give thumbs up to garbage. Eventually, maybe over the last five years while reading his blog - I thought maybe he was trying to engage with every movie on its own terms, rather than trying to impose his will about what a movie should be the way that so many critics do. Thanks for reading and your comment.


Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jul 11, 2014 at 10:40 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Another good topic, Anita. My experience of Ebert and Siskel matched the comments from Crescent Park, especially the first part.

It's hard to overstate how unique and engaging their original PBS show was. By 1980 they'd become household names, and iconified their thumbs-up thumbs-down symbolism. There was nothing remotely like it -- "the highest rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting." My university apartment-mates and I would tune to PBS just for it.

The chemistry in the show itself was the intense, yin-yang clash of both views and personalities. The incisive, exacting Siskel vs. the easy-going, inclusive Ebert. "Prickles and goo" on prime time. When sharply divided on a point, they showed stubborn distance, edges of controlled animal emotion, even anger. These clashes were frequent enough to give the impression the two might not socialize.

And yes, they helped make famous all sorts of movies outside the pop-culture mainstream. People who were adults in the 1980s might remember the re-awakening of concern about nuclear weapons during the decade, and the slew of books and shows describing their creation. That all stemmed partly from a landmark documentary film "The Day After Trinity" Web Link which many Americans heard of, and saw in theaters, only because S & E talked it up compellingly.

After a few years establishing their trademark style on PBS, the pair left and "went commercial" in the early 80s, and their new show slowly, imperceptibly, lost its edginess in both style and subject matter. (While PBS kept the groundbreaking "Sneak Previews" on air using replacement commentators who were pale shadows of the originals. They often showed boring, polite consensus -- all goo, no prickles.) I drifted away from watching either of the competing shows unless curious about a new film. No doubt Siskel and Ebert felt the practical pressures of working for a more advertising-dependent platform, whose big sponsors could have interests related to the works under review.


Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 11, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Hi Max - The clips of Siskel and Ebert sniping each other and the backstory of the Chicago Sun Times (Ebert) v. the Chicago Tribune (Siskel) is fun to watch in "Life Itself" as is their slow evolution from bitter competitors into cherished friends. I'd caught the tail end of their time on Sneak Preview as a very small child, but the bulk of my memories of them on television were on their next two shows when they were still bantering, but over time, not quite as bitterly. Until I started reading his blog as an adult, I didn't realize how catholic and generous Ebert was - I remember being very impressed with the defense he gave Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow (a film that shatters the model minority stereotype of Asians) at Sundance more than a decade ago (http://www.filmthreat.com/festivals/737/) and his reviews of Asian American films generally. Thanks for your comment.


Posted by Ebert rules, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 12, 2014 at 11:11 am

Definitely do not think that Ebert went "Hollywood". Maybe you are mistaking him for Harry Knowles. But would like to see any proof that he "sold out" (and garbage is in the eyes of the beholder).
Think that Ebert brought film criticism to the masses. His "thumbs up/down" system says it all--unlike the 4 star system or the man in the chair used by most other newspapers.
What I am thankful to ebert for is that during the 80's and part of the 90's I lived in the Midwest and south--not many art house or independent films there and that was in the pre-internet days. Thanks to him I became aware of many many foreign independent and art house films that would have
missed otherwise. Was not able to see them all in theaters but caught up with them on video.
And, yes, his defense of Better Luck Tomorrow as one of his points!!


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 15, 2014 at 11:40 am

> Definitely do not think that Ebert went "Hollywood".

I define that as a consistent failure to point out the low and declining bar Hollywood has taken over the years in terms of most of the movies released being so formulaic, similar, exploitative, violent, patched together out of demographic notes carefully designed to appeal to everyone.

When Siskel and Ebert left Sneak Previews I recalled them getting other replacements, and some other changes. One of them was Michael Medved who turned out to be a far right wing religious fantastic pretty much who, in my opinion, really undercut any attempt at criticism by branding all as fanatical prudish Christians.

I'm not a practicing Christian, but I have been really disgusted by the movies that come out these days. Not only that but it's hard sometimes to even watch the preview trailers because they beat you over head with these images and sensations that if you really examine them are fairly often offensive and ugly.

The prevalence of movies that start with a happy family, showing the same scenes of family life, and then it is disrupted by a horrible shocking explicitly violence crime, and then the "hero" minus his family, seeks bloddy revenge. There have been movie after movie of this same meme with different actors and minor tweaks ... Ebert never said a thing.

The evolution of the movie industry was something he had to have made a conscious effort to just accept. It makes sense from his point of view, but he might have added some real measured criticism without leaping off into Moral Majority mindlessness.

An interesting exercise for the reader would be to go see some old movies at the Stanford theater and compare and contrast them to the films of today.


Posted by Ebert said it, a resident of Stanford,
on Jul 15, 2014 at 11:58 am

"There have been movie after movie of this same meme with different actors and minor tweaks ... Ebert never said a thing."

CPA:
Web Link
Web Link


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 15, 2014 at 5:20 pm

From the posted link above:
Ebert> The violence in "Macbeth" is just as gratuitous as the violence in "The Evil Dead."

Just cause the guy was on TV and has now passed away does not make him a literary genius.

You're taking my comment too literally "Ebert said it", of course he mentioned it, but it was not a theme in his work, ignoring it and accepting it was ... as the above quote indicates quite well.


Posted by Rick blaine, a resident of another community,
on Jul 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm

Crescent- you are taking his content about Macbeth out if context. Read all of point 2. Pay attention to point 9. I think he addresses the violence issue, IMHO.
I an sure some people think he is a literary genius, others do not. I doubt he cared one way or another. Oh and he did win a pulitzer.
And his job was to review movies, not pass judgment on everyone.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 15, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Rick Blaine, you are clearly no Rick Blaine! ;-)

Those quotes, you brought up, were totally taken in context and I'm not going to argue with you about it, it speaks for itself, as does its implications, that he was a part of the movie industry and that it was the TV and movie industry's job to entertain ... that's all.

You make a vague claim of what you think he said, but instead of really saying it and backing it up as I did my argument, you just make the claim and say go look. I already looked and responded. If you have an argument to make, make it please, that is the way a classical argument works.

I don't really care that Ebert won a Pulitzer ... it was way back in 1974, the time, you'll note, when I said he did good work - FOR PBS.

He went with the times for the sake of his career. I'm not saying he was the antiChrist or anything, just that I think less of him when he made that choice; and he did tone down any criticism of the most moronic of movies because he had to make a living. I, personally, lost respect for him at this time when I had really liked him and Gene Siskel earlier. His reviews became useless for me in terms of deciding whether I wanted to see a movie or not. That's my opinion, you are not really going to argue me out of it ... particularly when you cannot form an actual argument.

It's fine with me whatever opinion you want to hold, but your writing is not compelling me to see what your opinion is, unless it's just to contradict me.


Posted by Rick blaine, a resident of another community,
on Jul 15, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Crescent- I gave you my take on Ebert and his stance on violence. I could not care less what you think of my opinion. And I feel no need to argue with you any longer.


Posted by Steven F., a resident of Mountain View,
on Jul 18, 2014 at 2:39 pm

am from Chicago and completely agree with the slow decline of Ebert - Errol Morris & Co. are known to us because of him and I too am eternally grateful, but he/they just got softer and softer and reviewed fewer and fewer serious movies

I cut him slack on softness, because he was the rare critic who befriended half of the filmmakers and actors in those films and just didn't want to rag on people he knew any more (the perils of critical schmoozing) or maybe he just became more generous as a person/critic as he got older - but I think as soon as you cease to be an asshole, you should have credentials revoked or else we end up with what we (in large part) have: mediocrity


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm

I never saw either Siskel or Ebert as "assholes" when they started. If they reviewed a movie badly, they were very careful about what they said about it, and not assholes at all. I think asshole is when you say a movie that is not good is good, and he did do that as he got more famous and known by the film industry people. Here is a life that is problematic, that is, when you get famous you really cannot keep doing your job, so you either have to quit or somehow maintain your integrity. I think Roger failed at that in later years. I'll bet it is stressful as heck writing stuff that the public sees and responds on. Today we see the perils of that every day in the Internet blogs, they are certainly not for the weak or sensitive, and you have to be willing to argue or wade through someone else's toxic arguments because there may be some nugget of truth in the foul way they say something.

I just stopped having anything to do with looking at Ebert's reviews after a while, I don't think he could do his job, and yet he still hung on. Understandable I guess for his family, I hate to criticize someone for that, but the job is the job.


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