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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

‘Life Itself’: The Documentary About Film Critic Roger Ebert

Chaz Ebert and filmmaker Steve James attend the premiere of Magnolia Pictures' "Life Itself" at ArcLight Hollywood on June 26 in Hollywood, California. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Chaz Ebert and filmmaker Steve James attend the premiere of Magnolia Pictures’ “Life Itself” at ArcLight Hollywood on June 26 in Hollywood, California. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Roger Ebert once said that movies were an “empathy machine” — they allowed us to have more insight in to lives of other people who are sharing this human journey with us.

That may explain why he won a Pulitzer Prize and went on to become perhaps the most famous film critic in America, the “thumbs-up” partner to Gene Siskel on their TV program about the movies.

Ebert died in April of last year after a long struggle with cancer, during which doctors had to remove his lower jaw, taking away his ability to speak, although he continued to win new audiences on his blog and Twitter.

A year before Ebert’s death, filmmaker Steve James began to make a documentary about Roger — it takes us from Ebert’s birth to his last weeks in a Chicago hospital.

The documentary, called, “Life Itself,” has received critical praise. It includes extensive interviews with directors like Martin Scorcese, Errol Morris, and Ava Duvernay, director of the new film, “Selma.”

Ebert’s wife, Chaz Ebert, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss “Life Itself,” which will have its worldwide TV premiere on CNN on Sunday.

Interview Highlights

On Ebert’s rivalry with Gene Siskel

“You know, Roger and Gene really did start off as fierce rivals. In the beginning, they really did not like each other. When they would tape the show, they wouldn’t talk to each other. Later in life, of course, they became like brothers and they actually loved each other by the end of Gene’s life.”

On director Ava DuVernay’s relationship with Ebert

“I think that she is going to be the first African American woman director nominated for an Academy Award for her movie ‘Selma.’ She told me that if Roger had not championed her first movie ‘I Will Follow’ that she would not have been given the opportunity to make ‘Selma.’ You know, she talked about being this little 8-year-old girl who met Roger. She saw him and she started saying, ‘There’s the thumbs-up man! Come over! Come over!’ And she said Roger was so kind to her and she has a picture of herself with Roger when she was 8-years-old.”

On Ebert’s life philosophies

“For him the movies were not just the movies. The movies really were about life itself. He thought that if you studied movies carefully, then you could get a lesson to let you know what it’s like to be a person of another race, of another gender, of another sexual orientation.”

“When he would write blogs about different situations, he would get comments saying, ‘Oh, just stick to movie reviews. How dare you have an opinion on politics or race or religion.’ And he would say, ‘I am a citizen first and a movie reviewer second.'”


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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