Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Life Itself


This is a difficult movie to watch. It is spoken of as a celebration of Roger Ebert’s life, and I guess it is in a lot of ways. I mean, it chronicles his life, his rise to fame as America’s number one movie critic. It has a lot of anecdotes from his early days, and all through his career, stories mostly good, but some that revealed a few of his shortcomings. Hey, we all have them. He transformed movie reviewing (with a big assist from Gene Siskel), taking it away from the academics and all those snooty critics in New York and Hollywood, by giving a short and cogent analysis of the film. And yes, he knew just as much or more about movies than those snoots, but he didn’t shove his erudition in everyone’s face. It chronicles his difficult and ambivalent relationship with Siskel. I watched him religiously because, frankly, his opinions agreed with mine more than any other reviewer I ever read or saw. Sure, we had our disagreements (he really had his head up his ass about A Clockwork Orange and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I just didn’t get his problem with Blue Velvet), but by and large I felt I had about a 95% certainty that if he liked a film, I would, too.

But the sad fact is that this movie is more about his sickness, his decline, and eventual death than anything else. I guarantee you that the image you will retain is not of chubby, jolly Roger hanging out with Studs Terkel and Mike Royko in the dive bar where newspapermen used to gather and drink themselves sick. (He was an alcoholic, met his wife, the wonderful Chaz, at an A.A. meeting.) No, you will remember the horror of his face a few weeks before he died.

See, his cancer had three stages. After the first operation, his mouth just looked a little lopsided. He was able to continue his life largely unchanged. But then the cancer came back, and you have probably seen the pictures of him that he bravely allowed to be shown, in fact insisted that they be shown in all their ugliness. Here I am, he seemed to be saying. Deal with it. And I dealt with it just fine, listening to his synthesized voice because he could no longer talk.

What you might not have seen is how he looked after the third operation. They took off his entire jaw, his tongue, and a lot of his neck. They left a horrible little flap of skin where his lower lip used to be. It twitched every time he tried to swallow. You could see right through the hole to the bandage around his neck.

Okay, it made me queasy. I’m not ashamed of it. I applaud his will to live, his determination to squeeze the last drops of experience out of his life. But I’m also not ashamed to say that I would have checked out long before he did. I just think that at some point I would feel that I already had squeezed the last drops from the lemon of my life. And he finally did, too, after breaking his hip without even taking a fall, having another relapse, and getting pneumonia. He signed a DNR form while Chaz was not there, because he knew she would oppose it. But in his terminal moments, she finally realized that dying was much better than what his life had become.

I highly recommend this movie, with the caveat that it is harrowing and horrifying, and not the sort of film everyone would like to see.