After tweeting admiration for the Roger Ebert biodoc Life Itself, a colleague needled me for watching it at home, on demand, outside a movie theater. "Just doesn't seem right," he replied, and I had to agree. But it wasn't yet booked in a Tampa Bay theater.
Then I was reminded that Ebert in 1987 predicted a future in which cinema gems deserving fairer shakes than Hollywood impatience offers — movies like Life Itself — would be available anywhere, practically anytime.
"We will have high-definition, wide-screen television sets and a push-button dialing system to order the movie you want at the time you want it," Ebert told Omni magazine. "You'll not go to a video store but instead order a movie on demand and then pay for it."
Ebert loved being right, craved it, so watching Life Itself on demand is sort of a tribute, and yet not since the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic would argue theaters are where all movies belong, especially one about him.
Steve James' documentary was filmed over the last five months of Ebert's life, after thyroid and salivary cancer disfigured his face and silenced his voice but not his words. Ebert became a prolific blogger, sharp as always on movies and keener than ever on life and death themselves. James owes his career to Ebert, who championed his 1994 breakout Hoop Dreams. He hands over this movie to his subject's desire for the same truth found in documentaries he loved.
The latter stages of Ebert's illness aren't pretty; his jawbone removed, leaving a sagging curtain of flesh, his open mouth exposing a bandaged neck. Twice we see Ebert having mucus suctioned from his throat, obviously in pain, as much during physical therapy. Yet always upbeat, thumbs-up raring for the next movie or visit with his adoring, interracial late-in-life family, until ending James' Q&A e-mails by simply, sadly typing: "I can't." The words land heavy since Ebert was someone who usually could. He died in April 2013.
Life Itself impressively covers the elements of Ebert's memoir, his only-child Illinois upbringing and journalism roots, a precocious college newspaperman graduated to Chicago after-deadline barfly. Becoming the Chicago Sun-Times film critic practically by default in 1967, coincidentally when American cinema was reborn. His legendary pairing with Gene Siskel, a Chi-town rival and eventually the pesky brother Ebert never had. His unlikely screenwriting menage with Russ Meyer and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
This movie is a bounty for film buffs, with digressions into examples of Ebert's reviews — Bonnie and Clyde and Cries and Whispers among them — complete with clips and actor Stephen Stanton's uncanny vocal impersonation. Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog share impressions, and indie filmmaker Ramin Bahrani shares a gift from Ebert guaranteed to make cineastes envious.
Above all, there is Chaz Ebert, a black woman with backbone in love with her man and desperate to keep him alive. She and Roger met in Alcoholics Anonymous, endured the doubts of a mixed marriage, and brought out the best in each other. Their relationship is one inspiration in a movie of many, a frank and funny tribute to a life spilling over any screen you prefer.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.