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A Documentary of Film Critic Roger Ebert

I was born inside the movie of my life… I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.

Roger Ebert, Life Itself- a memoir

The fascinating life of film critic and writer Roger Ebert is captured gloriously by director Steve James in this stunning documentary.

Roger Ebert became a professional writer at a very early age and ended up being the film critic for the Chicago Sun- Times by 1967; at which point he was the youngest daily film critic in America at only 25 years old. Roger remarks it was a very exciting time to be a film critic and was privileged to write reviews of films such as “Bonnie and Clyde.” He describes said film as “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heart-breaking and astonishingly beautiful.”

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Roger Ebert was a facile writer, with the ability to complete a thoroughly thought out film review in thirty minutes. He lived an exciting and busy life in Chicago, telling stories in a bar known as“O’Roukes” and creating a network of writers and people in the business to socialise with. Roger explains he paid a price in hangovers and eventually quit; 31 years later he outed himself as a recovering alcoholic.

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This is a stark contrast to his life at the time of the documentary; where his illness had rendered him unable to drink, eat or even speak. He jokes unless he goes insane and puts alcohol into his IV, he believes a relapse to alcoholism is unlikely. He even finds humour when receiving an uncomfortable and painful suction procedure in his throat, remarking you never see suction on TV. When asked if he missed the ability to speak, he explains his blog and had become his new outlet. His determination in the face of a debilitating fight with cancer is truly admirable.

This remarkable man’s career has been very vivid. In the middle of the documentary, his friends comment in confusion about how on earth Roger Ebert ended up being the screen writer for a Russ Meyer film, titled “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”– a film startlingly crowded with themes attempting to portray satire, serious melodrama, rock music, comedy, violent exploitation, a skin flick and a moralistic exposé of the horrors of show business. Another friend jokes how one would try to appreciate the art of cinema when watching the film, when it in fact had earthlier appeals as there was a huge feature of large breasted women.

On another note, the documentary’s focus on the family life of Roger Ebert was fascinating. It is reminisced how Ebert’s parents strongly supported his school work and took home every day the“Chicago Daily News” for him to read. When Ebert stood in the kitchen door and used a sentence with a new word in it, his parents looked up from their coffee and their cigarettes to applaud him. His father was an electrician and his mother a housewife; their unconditional love was a driving force for him to pursue writing.

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Likewise, his devoted wife Chaz was an enduring determination to carry on in the face of his illness.

Her love was like a wind pushing me back from the grave.

Ebert didn’t marry until he was fifty, and her love changed him. Her devotion and patience is observable throughout the whole documentary. She is a strong woman.

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And of course, the documentary focused on the relationship Ebert had with co- host Gene Siskel. These two film critics came from very different backgrounds and were asked to work together on a television show. They both told the producer they would rather do the show with someone else, anyone else! Siskel came from a privileged background, studied Philosophy at Yale, was more elegant and worked for the Chicago Tribune, which was aimed at wealthy readers. Whereas Ebert’s parents didn’t have the money to send him to Harvard as he intended, and was one of the “good old boys” at the paper the Chicago Sun- Times, the rival of the Chicago Tribune, aimed at a wider audience including the working class. They were perfectly matched opposites and were transgressively aggressive in their discussion of films, consequently encouraging individual watchers to be interested in the film. Their impact on cinema was phenomenal, influencing the likes of film director and producer Martin Scorsese.

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The tragic death of his partner Siskel had a great emotional impact on Ebert. For the sake of Siskel’s young children, they kept his terminal diagnosis of brain cancer a secret. Siskel’s wife Marlene recalls how one of Siskel’s birthdays after his death, Ebert tweeted every hour on the hour with links to memories they shared together on the screen. The experience moved Ebert to vow that he was not going to keep any secrets about his death. The purpose of the documentary was that Ebert wanted people to know who he was and what he was going through.

This film successfully depicts the painful struggles of his illness and his determination to carry on writing despite the fact that he can’t speak. People are still interested in what this man had to say, despite the fact that he could not express it in a conventional form. This man possessed a Pulitzer prize (which is rare for a movie critic) and had been writing for half the history of feature films. He also wrote novels in weekly instalments and was a feature of the Cannes Film Festival. He was a definitive mainstream movie critic who appreciated cinema as an art form without getting attached to ideologies of what cinema should be. A popularist at heart, he wanted all to be able to understand his writing.

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I love how raw this documentary is, and I would recommend it to anyone who feels in the mood to be inspired.

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