Saturday, August 2, 2014


Globally revered film critic Roger Ebert died in 2013 after a decade of cancer as persistent and strong as his writing. This, in itself, forms the chief life lesson on offer here. The raconteur's illness attacks him voice-first. Ebert's thyroid condition spread so vehemently that his lower jaw was removed and only the skin of the jowls and chin were left. They dangle over his constantly bandaged throat like a surrealist sculpture, immediately making us wonder if he wouldn't be better off without them which is followed by the thought of how bizzarre he would then look. The spectacle of this is at first intensely uncomfortable to look at. The camera does not flinch from it and it remains central to the present tense passages of this life story: a memento mori that its possessor has long passed needing but one guaranteed to make all of its viewers ponder their own eventual deaths.

It's an interesting frame for a biography of a film critic screened at a film festival in this era when the role of the world's Eberts is threatened with the same fate. That's why this documentary cannot settle into the kind of warming eulogy that I was hoping for as my first session of the fest. I would have been happy enough with a string of gaffer-taped golden moments and talking heads saying praise him or ouch after their experiences. According to the narration by the filmmaker Steve James Ebert expressly wished against hagiography (despite some being inevitable considering the recency of his death), preferring some weight delivered by his journey to death. There needs to be little in the way of reminding us that the age of the film reviewer as frowning demi-god is coming to an end when we see it all too graphically throughout.

Ebert's serious and effective embrace of online access and social media has meant that his transition to immortality is in less danger than his cells. Meantime, we get to see how a restless and difficult child grew, through a fiery-mouthed prime to an eventual peaceful equanimity. A forced euqanimity? Sure, why not? If a life threatening cancer doesn't make you question how much of a dick you can be then you shouldn't be surprised if the relieved sighs of your loved ones aren't more profound than your own.

Keith Richards once described Mick Jagger as vain but added that you want someone like that out front. The decades of public bitchiness between Ebert and his professional other half Gene Siskel are shown to a joyful depth going from near operatic duets where they agreed to barking contests so intense they went through their tv show's credit sequences and beyond the audio fade at the production badge. The figure of the critic as social leader gets some pretty thorough exposure here. If the film shies from plumbing those depths it does at least show us enough of them for us to form our own questions.

But then we must return to the hospital bed which whenever we see it might also be a death bed and the voiceless man of opinion typing his own commentary through a laptop's synthesis. The computer's voice is much advanced from that we think of when we think of Stephen Hawking; it even resembles Ebert's own voice (perhaps through design) and however tinted by electronics it is the words it delivers are those of a master conversationalist. His facial mobility is limited to an upper row grin of the type he seemed incapable of in his younger years. His eyes above this have all the intensity of the intellectual furnace that blazed to the last. Between them and the strange, misshapen cartoonish grin we recognise someone who knows he is being judged as rigorously as he took to anything he witnessed. The film's final words are his, delivered in his own voice: "I'll see you at the movies." So he did.

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