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Interview with Life Itself director Steve James and Roger Ebert widow Chaz Ebert

Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was a pioneer. Famously the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, he also pioneered film criticism as televised entertainment with Sneak Previews and At the Movies, both of which he hosted with fellow critic Gene Siskel. And he was surely one of the first critics to leverage his personal brand (ugh, did I just write that?) into a significant internet presence. By the end of his life (he died in 2013 after a long and courageous battle with cancer), he was known to some people as much for his blog posts on all and sundry as he was for his film criticism. His blog served as a return to the reporting and commentary of his youth, only now he had a worldwide audience that bore him great heaps of goodwill.

Chaz Ebert in Life Itself

In 1992, he married trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, and she is a central figure in Steve James’s fine documentary on Ebert, Life Itself.

Steve James

Matthew Lickona: What question do you wish you’d gotten to cover in the film that you didn’t?

Steve James: One will seem fairly obvious, the other, maybe not so much. I know that I really wanted to talk to him about Gene, because I felt like, in his memoir [also titled Life Itself], he had taken such a wistful tone about Gene. He was looking back fondly on the relationship. And I knew from the interviews that we were doing with people that there was much more tension and vitriol and competitiveness there than he was talking about in his memoir. So, I really wanted to press him on that, to get him out of this present-day mode and into the heat of the battle.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Another thing I was very curious about was the fact that [Time magazine film critic] Richard Corliss had been very friendly to Roger — they had gone to Cannes and hung out a lot, and they counted each other as friends, not just colleagues. And yet Richard put this piece out in Film Comment where he really lambasted Ebert’s TV show. And one of the things I wanted to ask was what impact that had on Roger personally. Richard Corliss in subsequent years started to write these beautiful essays about Roger, where he kind of addressed some of that time and was a bit regretful, I think. I was very curious about that relationship.

Chaz Ebert: It didn’t affect it at all. Roger didn’t care if people took him to task. He was a good debater and he could hold his own. He knew that he had valid reasons for doing the show and that what he did on the show was not reductionist, in the sense that he said he knew it was television, and there are certain things that you do in television that you don’t do in long-form writing. He did both. He published books. He was so secure in himself that he could take criticism from someone like Richard Corliss and remain friends. Every year at the Cannes Film Festival, there was a night where Richard and his wife Mary Corliss and Roger and I would go out together, even after Film Comment.

Richard Corliss

ML: What made it worth it to Roger to show what he was suffering as his health worsened? It’s certainly harrowing to watch his throat get suctioned, but he says he’s glad to have gotten it on camera.

CE: Well that was the reality of it. I think Roger thought that our culture and our society turns away too much from illness and disability, and from the brutality of...the underbelly of what it’s like to be a person who is physically or medically compromised. And I think he wanted to show that this was so much a part of his reality. He wanted to show what it was like for him to get through life on a daily basis. He thought it was what people needed to see, because it was the gritty reality.

Ebert in the hospital

ML: Do you have any thoughts on from whence he drew his ironclad upbeat disposition in the face of suffering? How he avoided bitterness?

CE: My answer is going to sound New Agey, but I think that was part of his mission here on this earth. I think that part of his contract, coming into this life, was bringing this emphasis on empathy and on being more decent to people. And it’s all the more surprising because his profession was that of a critic. I think it’s a companion piece: the critic and the lover. I think about this sometimes and wonder: when you see the part of the film about Roger when he was the editor of the Daily Illini, and the things that he was talking about, [racially motivated murders in the South]. That’s not the background that he came from, even though it says that he got his political beliefs from his father. But still — growing up in central Illinois, with not a lot of people of different races or cultures around him...I think he was just born into this world like that. He developed it and it evolved over time, but...it’s the million-dollar question that we can’t answer.

Young newspaper editor Ebert

SJ: I think that if you look at it in a way...here’s a guy who came from central Illinois, very humble beginnings. And then he goes to Chicago, and he falls into this adventurous life of a newspaperman, and then falls into this job of becoming a film critic. And then, at the age of 32, he wins a Pulitzer Prize. And then, not too long after that, he gets involved with this show that no one ever could have expected would turn into this huge phenomenon and change the face of film criticism. And then after that and then after that....

Pulitzer-winner Ebert

I wonder if he looked at all that was going on in his life and he felt like it was a combination of luck, pluck, and the gods, and he just always was able to kind of step back from his life and appreciate all that had happened. Even when it was not all good. He says at the beginning of his memoir, “I’m living in the movie of my life, and I don’t know how I got here but I’m going to enjoy the ride.” And there’s almost a sense, not in a facile way, that he looked at it as this grand adventure film of his life, and that allowed him to kind of roll with the punches more.

CE: It still doesn’t explain how he developed that kind of empathy so early in life.

SJ [to me]: But you were asking about that ironclad, positive...

ML: Right. People I’ve known who have suffered greatly toward the end of their lives have relied heavily on religious belief, and Roger was famous, from what I gather, for not having a lot of use for organized religion or that kind of source of comfort.

CE: Not for organized religion, but Roger was one of the most profound seekers of the divine that I have ever met, despite the fact that he didn’t want to couch it in terms of organized religion or even a believing in God. There’s no way that someone with his depth of compassion, generosity, kindness, and just plain goodness does not have some...he knew that there was something bigger in this universe than us.

Altar boy Ebert

And if you go back and read any of his reviews about anything having to do with religion, you’ll see some of the most beautiful writing that he does. He takes people to task if they get something wrong about what happens in the Catholic Church. Even though he called himself a lapsed Catholic, you can still see that being an altar boy and all that stuff never truly, truly left him. He would say he didn’t believe in God, but he believed in something.

Ebert and Scorsese

He had such a spiritual side, and he also had this sort of intuitive side that I marveled at, watching. And at the end, when we had the conversation where he talked about going into this other world, and experiencing the past, present, and future simultaneously, and he said, “I always was seeking the divine from the outside, but I forgot about the divinity within.” I mean, those are some pretty powerful statements from someone who is an agnostic. And he said in his column that he wrote in March of 2013, “Don’t call me an atheist.” Because that requires a level of knowing or unknowing that he didn’t have.

Herzog and Ebert

SJ: Well, you know, it’s true that when you read his memoir, the chapter he devotes to Martin Scorsese and the chapter he devotes to Werner Herzog.... One of the things he loved about Scorsese’s work is the way in which his films are a dialogue and a wrestling with the Catholic faith. And with Herzog, one of the things he loved most about his work, if I’m remembering correctly from the chapter, is the sort of spiritual quest of Herzog’s films to try to make meaning of the universe. And he loved to talk to Herzog about those things.

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Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was a pioneer. Famously the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, he also pioneered film criticism as televised entertainment with Sneak Previews and At the Movies, both of which he hosted with fellow critic Gene Siskel. And he was surely one of the first critics to leverage his personal brand (ugh, did I just write that?) into a significant internet presence. By the end of his life (he died in 2013 after a long and courageous battle with cancer), he was known to some people as much for his blog posts on all and sundry as he was for his film criticism. His blog served as a return to the reporting and commentary of his youth, only now he had a worldwide audience that bore him great heaps of goodwill.

Chaz Ebert in Life Itself

In 1992, he married trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, and she is a central figure in Steve James’s fine documentary on Ebert, Life Itself.

Steve James

Matthew Lickona: What question do you wish you’d gotten to cover in the film that you didn’t?

Steve James: One will seem fairly obvious, the other, maybe not so much. I know that I really wanted to talk to him about Gene, because I felt like, in his memoir [also titled Life Itself], he had taken such a wistful tone about Gene. He was looking back fondly on the relationship. And I knew from the interviews that we were doing with people that there was much more tension and vitriol and competitiveness there than he was talking about in his memoir. So, I really wanted to press him on that, to get him out of this present-day mode and into the heat of the battle.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Another thing I was very curious about was the fact that [Time magazine film critic] Richard Corliss had been very friendly to Roger — they had gone to Cannes and hung out a lot, and they counted each other as friends, not just colleagues. And yet Richard put this piece out in Film Comment where he really lambasted Ebert’s TV show. And one of the things I wanted to ask was what impact that had on Roger personally. Richard Corliss in subsequent years started to write these beautiful essays about Roger, where he kind of addressed some of that time and was a bit regretful, I think. I was very curious about that relationship.

Chaz Ebert: It didn’t affect it at all. Roger didn’t care if people took him to task. He was a good debater and he could hold his own. He knew that he had valid reasons for doing the show and that what he did on the show was not reductionist, in the sense that he said he knew it was television, and there are certain things that you do in television that you don’t do in long-form writing. He did both. He published books. He was so secure in himself that he could take criticism from someone like Richard Corliss and remain friends. Every year at the Cannes Film Festival, there was a night where Richard and his wife Mary Corliss and Roger and I would go out together, even after Film Comment.

Richard Corliss

ML: What made it worth it to Roger to show what he was suffering as his health worsened? It’s certainly harrowing to watch his throat get suctioned, but he says he’s glad to have gotten it on camera.

CE: Well that was the reality of it. I think Roger thought that our culture and our society turns away too much from illness and disability, and from the brutality of...the underbelly of what it’s like to be a person who is physically or medically compromised. And I think he wanted to show that this was so much a part of his reality. He wanted to show what it was like for him to get through life on a daily basis. He thought it was what people needed to see, because it was the gritty reality.

Ebert in the hospital

ML: Do you have any thoughts on from whence he drew his ironclad upbeat disposition in the face of suffering? How he avoided bitterness?

CE: My answer is going to sound New Agey, but I think that was part of his mission here on this earth. I think that part of his contract, coming into this life, was bringing this emphasis on empathy and on being more decent to people. And it’s all the more surprising because his profession was that of a critic. I think it’s a companion piece: the critic and the lover. I think about this sometimes and wonder: when you see the part of the film about Roger when he was the editor of the Daily Illini, and the things that he was talking about, [racially motivated murders in the South]. That’s not the background that he came from, even though it says that he got his political beliefs from his father. But still — growing up in central Illinois, with not a lot of people of different races or cultures around him...I think he was just born into this world like that. He developed it and it evolved over time, but...it’s the million-dollar question that we can’t answer.

Young newspaper editor Ebert

SJ: I think that if you look at it in a way...here’s a guy who came from central Illinois, very humble beginnings. And then he goes to Chicago, and he falls into this adventurous life of a newspaperman, and then falls into this job of becoming a film critic. And then, at the age of 32, he wins a Pulitzer Prize. And then, not too long after that, he gets involved with this show that no one ever could have expected would turn into this huge phenomenon and change the face of film criticism. And then after that and then after that....

Pulitzer-winner Ebert

I wonder if he looked at all that was going on in his life and he felt like it was a combination of luck, pluck, and the gods, and he just always was able to kind of step back from his life and appreciate all that had happened. Even when it was not all good. He says at the beginning of his memoir, “I’m living in the movie of my life, and I don’t know how I got here but I’m going to enjoy the ride.” And there’s almost a sense, not in a facile way, that he looked at it as this grand adventure film of his life, and that allowed him to kind of roll with the punches more.

CE: It still doesn’t explain how he developed that kind of empathy so early in life.

SJ [to me]: But you were asking about that ironclad, positive...

ML: Right. People I’ve known who have suffered greatly toward the end of their lives have relied heavily on religious belief, and Roger was famous, from what I gather, for not having a lot of use for organized religion or that kind of source of comfort.

CE: Not for organized religion, but Roger was one of the most profound seekers of the divine that I have ever met, despite the fact that he didn’t want to couch it in terms of organized religion or even a believing in God. There’s no way that someone with his depth of compassion, generosity, kindness, and just plain goodness does not have some...he knew that there was something bigger in this universe than us.

Altar boy Ebert

And if you go back and read any of his reviews about anything having to do with religion, you’ll see some of the most beautiful writing that he does. He takes people to task if they get something wrong about what happens in the Catholic Church. Even though he called himself a lapsed Catholic, you can still see that being an altar boy and all that stuff never truly, truly left him. He would say he didn’t believe in God, but he believed in something.

Ebert and Scorsese

He had such a spiritual side, and he also had this sort of intuitive side that I marveled at, watching. And at the end, when we had the conversation where he talked about going into this other world, and experiencing the past, present, and future simultaneously, and he said, “I always was seeking the divine from the outside, but I forgot about the divinity within.” I mean, those are some pretty powerful statements from someone who is an agnostic. And he said in his column that he wrote in March of 2013, “Don’t call me an atheist.” Because that requires a level of knowing or unknowing that he didn’t have.

Herzog and Ebert

SJ: Well, you know, it’s true that when you read his memoir, the chapter he devotes to Martin Scorsese and the chapter he devotes to Werner Herzog.... One of the things he loved about Scorsese’s work is the way in which his films are a dialogue and a wrestling with the Catholic faith. And with Herzog, one of the things he loved most about his work, if I’m remembering correctly from the chapter, is the sort of spiritual quest of Herzog’s films to try to make meaning of the universe. And he loved to talk to Herzog about those things.

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