My wife and I saw the film Life Itself the other evening. Watching a movie about death was our way of welcoming in the new year and the start of a new school semester; a way of reminding ourselves that as time continues inexorably to pass, we are all inescapably hurtling toward oblivion.
Life Istelf is about the life and death of the Chicago Sun Times movie critic Roger Ebert. I became familiar with him when I was a kid and would religiously watch the PBS television show called Sneak Previews that he hosted with Gene Siskel. It was a one of a kind program consisting of two guys (Siskel and Ebert) sitting around and arguing about the latest motion picture releases. Often the arguments got very passionate, which was part of the fun. Despite their emotion, the exchanges between these two hosts were never superficial. They always gave considered and reflective reasons for admiring or loathing the various films under review, engaging one another in intelligent discussion that always was tinged with a sense of humor. It was clear that the two of them were rivals; however this rivalry contributed to the program’s edgy, yet good natured, character.
One of my most vivid memories of Sneak Previews was the episode during which the two critics reviewed George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. When it was first announced on their program that they would, the following week, discuss this film, I was so excited. As a kid, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was one of my favorite movies of all time. I was a freshman in high school when Dawn of the Dead was released, and for me this was the most exciting event of the decade. The problem was that due to issues with the ratings board, Dawn of the Dead was to gain only a very limited release. The MPAA had decided that its violent content warranted an “X” rating, which Romero refused to accept, so he ended up defiantly releasing it without any cuts to content and without any rating. This, however, meant that many theaters would not show the film; and this in turn meant that many fans might not be able to see it.
The fact that a national program like Sneak Previews would review a film like Dawn of the Dead, which was on the margins of the mainstream, was actually quite extraordinary. What was also notable was that both Siskel and Ebert, who often had widely differing tastes, both gave the movie a “thumbs up,” as they both admired its brash and intelligent social commentary. With this episode, my admiration for these two critics was cemented, and in me they had a fan for life.
Ebert’s life, as chronicled in Life Itself, was very full and unusually unified. I was fascinated to learn how single-minded he was throughout his career in pursuing a single passion: writing and talking about films. He began working as a newspaper reporter at the age of 15, and in college he was the editor of his school newspaper while also working at the Chicago Sun Times, where, after graduation he eventually became the in-house film reviewer. In 1970 he worked with Russ Meyer, scripting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. In 1975 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism and also started the TV program Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel. After Siskel’s death from brain cancer, Ebert continued his movie review show, which still airs today as At the Movies. His entire life seems to have been incredibly focused with no real distractions or side-tracks. If the film is to be believed, the only really dramatic setbacks he ever experienced involved a bout with alcoholism early in his career, and his fight with cancer at the end of his life.
Life Itself begins with scenes of Ebert in the hospital as he undergoes treatment for the disfiguring cancer that will eventually kill him. Due to radiation therapy that he underwent as a child, Ebert ended up contracting cancer of the thyroid and jaw when he was in his 60s, going through increasingly aggressive surgeries until his entire lower jawbone was finally removed. Remaining was a flap of skin, roughly defining his lower lip and chin, which remained hanging beneath his upper row of teeth. Looking at the front of his face, you could see through this flap to his chest. Where his tongue and throat once were, nothing remained. The manner in which the remanent of his jaw hung, lax and loose, made it appear as if he had a perpetual smile on his face, masking what must have been been a great deal of pain and discomfort.
The imagery of Ebert’s disfigured face really stayed with me after watching this movie. The face is the most unique and distinctive aspect of a person’s appearance, and to have it progressively sliced away and disfigured must be terrifying and depressing to a degree that I just cannot imagine. As the title of the film hints, perhaps the fact that Ebert was willing to go to such extremes in order to salvage a chance at life extension is evidence that nothing about the physical body is really as precious as “life itself.” I’m not sure if I was in the same circumstances that I would have the bravery to go through with such aggressive surgery.
It was, in any case, extremely heartwarming to see how Ebert’s friends and family continued to treat him, after his surgery, with a sense of humor and love. His grandkids gave him a toothbrush for a Christmas gift – something that was utterly useless to a man lacking a lower jaw – and Ebert, unable to speak, accepted it by rolling his eyes upwards and hitting himself over the head with the gift in mock outrage. He obviously appreciated the joke, just as it was obvious that his wife and grandkids loved him dearly.
Life Itself was a very moving film. For me, the most powerful thing about it was to see how Ebert and his family faced not just death, but Ebert’s progressive surgical disfigurement with resolve and courage. While Roger Ebert’s writing and movie reviewing are what defined his career, the way that he faced his death is what imbues his story with themes of universal human interest.