Watching “Life Itself” on my Netflix stream I am reminded of a glorious occasion years ago at the Chicago International Film Festival that I was lucky enough to attend. Life Itself is a documentary film about the life of Roger Ebert and is certainly worthy of comment but first please pardon my digression into the time I saw Roger Ebert in person.
It was shortly after 9/11 in October of 2001, that Richard Linklater’s new film, “Waking Life”, an inspirational philosophical meandering, had a special screening and not only would the director be appearing in person at the screening, he was to be adoringly interviewed on stage by Mr. Roger Ebert. Ebert wore a green corduroy suit and served as an eye-popping green blob in front of the large red velvet curtain on the stage of the Music Box theater, old and grand with clouds projected on the ceiling and a live organ player. I was moved very much by the film that day. This was the kind of escape I appreciated. Not much violence, sex or even much of a plot, but rather gratuitous quantities of strange ideas and endless philosophical possibilities.
Much as I had pretended to be unaffected by “The Events” of the month just past, this film screening was just the tonic I needed to be reminded that it was still ok to look at the world through one’s own prism of perspective and feel safe enough to then go out on a philosophical limb and ask questions of the Universe.
“Life, Itself” is the name of a memoir that Roger Ebert wrote toward the tail end of his life. It is also the name of the documentary by directed fellow Chicagoan Steve James filmed around the same time. The documentary is a great tribute Roger, but also to the spirit inside us all and how we can value our limited time here. Toward the end of his battles with thyroid cancer, the bottom half of Mr. Ebert’s face looked like a hanging pair of wax lips in a permanent smile not unlike The Joker’s that can even open and close, but no sound comes out. Occasionally he does speak using a computer voice software on his laptop.
Roger reviews the documentary footage of his own excruciating hospital experiences as we are watching it, saying, “that’s great stuff” in a texted commentary on-screen. I am not one who normally enjoys watching filmed operations 0r surgeries or even much gore in general. “Movies are a machine for creating empathy”, Mr. Ebert once posited. Not only does the film reduce the overall pain experienced by the viewer, it even feels downright triumphant. It is a proud and hilarious ride through sickness and onto death that we’ve been invited to experience from across the screen. His sense of humor was so acute toward the end of his time that anyone who came anywhere near him would end up laughing heartily. Not particularly known as a funnyman, Roger, with a constant self-effacing wit surmounted the obstacle of his own horrific physicality toward the end of his life all in service of making others smile like he was.