I wasn’t a reader of Ebert’s reviews. Shame on me. How is that possible, I ask myself, now that I have seen Life Itself?
I’m not sure this film is for everyone. If you love film, you’ll watch every second, waiting for the tidbits that appear amid the footage of his illness and the last few months of his life. I think it was a mistake to devote so much of the film to those last months. The man could make or break a movie in a three minute review. He treated films thoughtfully, with a reverence for the way they shaped of our lives, and he was authentic in every way. Show me more of that! Show me more snippets of his reviews of some of the great films he discussed over the course of his fifty-odd-year career. Instead, the film maker spends way too much time in hospital rooms and focusing on the fabulous wife Charlie, who may be a terrific person, but let’s face it, she isn’t the story.
I don’t mean to trivialize the difficulty of his last years. I get that he was stoic in the face of great pain, and that his rock of a wife, Charlie, was amazingly dedicated to his daily quality of life. But that’s not the whole story; it’s only 10 percent of the story, and they made it the majority of the story. The real story is a career — a lifetime — of seeing us at the movies, and then walking us through each movie’s strengths and weaknesses in an intelligent way. When Scorsese talks about a bad review he got from Ebert during the documentary, and they show Ebert’s comments about part of that movie that Ebert thought was less than Scorsese amazing, you know that the man had the ability to influence the way directors and actors worked, and to affect the industry as a whole. Scorsese cared what Ebert thought — and let’s face it, he doesn’t have to care what anyone thinks. I wanted more of those moments, and fewer moments in the hospital walking through the destruction of Ebert’s jaw and ability to speak.
While I was watching Life Itself, I couldn’t help but think of the movie Continental Divide, a 1981 John Belushi movie about an old school Chicago reporter who makes enemies in organized crime and has to lay low for a few months, so he heads off to Colorado where he is a fish out of water so to speak. Belushi’s character resembled what Life Itself shows of the nightlife that Ebert lived during his early years in Chicago, and I wondered if he had reviewed Continental Divide. He did review it, and not surprisingly, he brought a light touch of a mirror into himself to his description of the reporter.
“One of Belushi’s special qualities was always an underlying innocence. Maybe he created his Blues Brothers persona in reaction to it. He’s an innocent in this movie, an idealist who’s a little kid at heart and who wins the love of Brown not by seducing her but by appealing to her protective qualities. That’s the secret of the character’s appeal. We’re cheering for the romance because Belushi makes us protective, too, and we want him to have a woman who’d be good for him.
What about the movie’s view of journalism? It’s really just a romanticized backdrop, “The Front Page” crossed with “Lou Grant” and modernized with a computerized newsroom. The newspaper scenes in the movie were shot on location in the Sun-Times features department, and one of the quietly amusing things about “Continental Divide’s” view of newspaper life is that in the movie it’s more sedate and disciplined than the real thing. In the “real” Sun-Times features department, there’s a lot of informality and chaos and good-natured confusion and people shouting at one another and eating lunch at their desks. In the movie, the extras (recruited from the Sun-Times staff) forget about real life and sit dutifully at their video display terminals, grinding out the news.”
Funny, this is what I would have written about Roger Ebert’s character as portrayed in Life Itself. There is an innocence about Ebert’s character as he charts his course through cinematic history, as though he doesn’t know his own power. Even as he rips a movie apart, he protects those who made it and leaves the door open for them to shine a bit brighter the next time around.
I wish I’d paid more attention to him in his prime. More important than seeing this movie is going back in time and reading some of his reviews. I’m doing one a day for awhile. See you at the movies, Roger.