I’m listening to Dave Brubeck on a warm, still Independence Day afternoon, in the stale July hour just before the grill is fired up and the lawn chairs get pulled across the uneven ground cover to watch Legoland fireworks. The reason why I’m listening to a Brubeck song is a long story.
I’ll try and tell it.
As a kid, I was almost a fan of Siskel & Ebert At the Movies; to me they seemed like a couple of grumpy guys who feared for the movie industry, but they told me about what was happening the world through cinema. When I moved out on my own, I saw as much film as I could afford (one of the reactions to long-term isolation in a farming community), and the duo came back in with suggestions.
For some reason I wasn’t completely sold on Roger Ebert until he was considered by some to be “voiceless,” a term that applied to him physically but not in any other sense. For me, Ebert the writer was far superior to Ebert the TV Personality, but that could have been due to my lack of love for television. But when I was sold on him, he was a quiet presence on social media that drifted into view occasionally with a TED talk (expertly utilizing friends and technology to “speak”) and Oprah appearance. One kind of thought he might be around forever in this capacity, expertly maneuvering the real application of E.B. White’s fictional Louis the Swan with his Mac on his lap.
But we weren’t that lucky.
After his death over a year ago, I thought we would occasionally be reminded of him, but I was not aware that his last months were spent making a movie of his own life with “Hoop Dreams” documentarian Steve James. But yesterday, nerd that I am, I started listening to NPR’s Fresh Air and was surprised to learn of that movie that would celebrate Ebert’s life and of many of the little stories around it. At first I felt that isolation again from the Ohio days: where was I going to see an independent documentary in San Diego County on July 4th? I searched iTunes to find out when it would be in rental/purchase release, and…that would be today! I rented “Life Itself” immediately, and watched it this morning.
It’s probably the most fitting statement of the movie when Ebert sends the message to James that this movie isn’t “just your movie,” particularly during medical aspects of the movie that might be uncomfortable to watch but are so very necessarily human in application. I gained so much insight in watching the smallest (and probably overlooked by most viewers) of details: Ebert’s father thought that Roger would make an excellent professor from an early age, and doesn’t the best aspect of a critic dwell in teaching us to look deeper into art so that we can question it for ourselves? It seemed he had the biggest classroom on the face of the planet, just different classrooms in different stages of his life.
James isn’t squeamish about any aspect of Ebert’s life; he reveals Ebert’s early warts and shortcomings in on-camera recollections from friends. Ebert was a boob man, we learn, and he was not very chivalrous prior to winning his wife Chaz. (He apparently stole a cab from Gene Siskel’s wife when she was eight months pregnant, but, she was quick to point out, Chaz changed that in him.) But his determination to stay open to change in himself and the world transformed him, his critiques, and his relationship with those in the Hollywood scene.
Striking, then, that technology brought his movie to me when I have been feeling the most limited, most trapped, and most frustrated. It was a fresh start, and treatment for a hurt all who loved Ebert have shared.
At the end of the film, Chaz speaks about Ebert’s last moments. He loved Brubeck, and so “Take Five” played while his family held hands in a human link around the room. As she described his passing, the first drifting dusting of the snare crept in behind her words, and then the warm clarinet, and…