Melissa Merli: Excited to see Ebert's doc again

Melissa Merli: Excited to see Ebert's doc again

After Ebertfest 2014 opened this past spring with "Life Itself," a few folks asked why I didn't write a "review."

Well, a new editor wanted me to cover other things at the time. I felt crushed, having really wanted to see the new documentary about Roger Ebert with the other 1,463 people inside the Virginia Theatre. However, before Ebertfest started I had seen "Life Itself" in March during a private screening at the Lake Street Screening Room in Chicago.

I plan to see it again at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign, where it will open Friday. The Art was Roger's favorite theater when he was growing up in C-U; he said that's where he learned about cinema, and the Art certainly carries on his legacy year-round, showing many films he would have supported.

"Life Itself" also will run from July 28 to Aug. 1 at the Virginia, also in Champaign, and home of Ebertfest for five days every April.

Everyone, of course, will bring their own experiences to "Life Itself." What struck me most watching it was Ebert's experiences as a newspaperman — starting from the time he was growing up on East Washington Street in Urbana. It was then he reported, wrote, published and distributed his own neighborhood newspaper.

I particularly enjoyed how Ebert, as editor of The Daily Illini, stopped the presses against the advice of the press foreman in November 1963 after discovering the unfortunate juxtaposition of the advertisement image of a muzzle pointing to a photograph of John F. Kennedy in an article about his assassination.

I chuckled at the information that after Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee tried to lure him away from The Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert turned down that and other offers, saying he didn't want to learn a bunch of new streets.

The documentary also paints Ebert as a Chicago character. In it many other Windy City characters talk about Roger with humor, respect and love.

In his New York Times review published Thursday, Geoffrey O'Brien compares "Life Itself" to "a wake at which intimate acquaintances warmly recall their departed friend in all his aspects, foibles and quirks along with his talents and triumphs.

"But it is a wake where the departed is still present," O'Brien wrote. "This is not only a film about Roger Ebert but also a film very much with and by Roger Ebert ..."

As reported earlier, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, cooperated with director Steve James; Roger wanted his life shown warts and all. As O'Brien wrote, scenes of the ailing critic result in "some extraordinarily raw moments of pain, uncertainty, exhaustion and grief."

I saw "Life Itself" at the invitation of Betsy Hendrick, a longtime friend of Roger who helped to financially support the making of the documentary.

Like me, she had read Ebert's memoir before seeing the doc. Unlike me, she didn't learn much new from the movie.

"I think they did a really good job of covering his life," said Hendrick, who lives in Champaign. "The part that was new to me was his personal relationships to filmmakers."

Critics seldom befriend the artists they cover; Roger Ebert did. Some of the directors interviewed in "Life Itself" talk about how important his support was for them. They include Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, who says he "didn't feel inhibited with Roger." Who did?

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

Topics (2):Film, People

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