A few years ago, a grandparent from each side of my family died within months of each other. They, improbably, thankfully, were in the 90s. My mother and father were, not ready, you can never be ready for the death of a parent, expecting, not shocked, because their mother and father respectively had been sick for some time before their passing, and we had visited both in the hospital and in the home. After the wake, I told my mother that I thought one point of life, of living, was learning how to accept one's own death, and others, so that it would not sneak up on you.
Of course, I was full of shit.
For I had thought this a while, but the thought wasn't based on any hard evidence, by which I mean experience. I hadn't gone through any trauma, any cataclysm, any upending of my world before my grandparent died in formulating my axiom. The people I love were and are still alive, and while I loved my grandparents, I didn't know them as my mother and father did, and didn't know them at all until they late in life decided to immigrate to this country. In saying that to my mom, I was really saying, "Well, yes, this may be the philosophical ideal of how you should react, and live, but it comes from someone who has no first hand knowledge of death, and of grief, so you can rightfully say I don't know what I'm talking about."
Roger Ebert was not full of shit. He lived my maxim, and, boy, did he live it hard. Watching the beautiful Life Itself, Steve James' incredible how-did-he-do-that? documentary on a mammoth life, I found myself recalling what I said to Mom. This movie is many things, including multiple love stories, but it is a philosophical essay, and perhaps that is its greatest value. It teaches us how to live, love and die.
That's not surprising, because Ebert was always a philosophical character, and he earned that rep for actually living his worldview. One other thing life teaches, or should, is time management. Some of us are hopeless at it. The great lives are not: they fit in so much experience and people and activity and just stuff in a finite number of years,that you are amazed they could do it all. Ebert was one of those men. He was a Renaissance Man. He led a Theodore Roosevelt sized life. How did he find the time? Fuck if I know.
James chronicles all of that, but does it in a very appealing aesthetic style. This is a movie that could take place in bar. The many photos of Ebert's life are glued to this brown wall, fake, CG, it's the screen, but their placement and angles look like the wall of a bar. He interviews Ebert's closest and longest friends in a bar, while they drink beer (and literaly curse Pauline Kael). He has a pretty good impersonator read scenes from his titular autobiography (emphasis on the tit) and plays jazzy music below it, as if the man were holding court at his local, favorite pub, telling us his life story.
But then James pulls back—this movie is both intimate and epic—to the grey, wintry Chicago skyline and Ebert's final months. Not final, final, maybe six months before his death, which I guess are final. Ebert has a hole through his mouth, where you can almost see to the back, the mushy skin of his destroyed jaw hanging, a permanent smile on his face. We see in graphic detail how that area is suctioned. About that smile: of course it's what the lower half of his face formed into, without his control, but it's damn appropriate, as if a higher power made him physically into what he was as a person.
That person is an incredible optimist, a very positive man, who retains even in his final days the capacity for wonder. When I say optimist, I don't mean delusional. No, he was a realist, first and foremost, but his joy came honestly, after going through hell, he still retained it. There's an explanation: he tells us that since he was a kid, he thought about death. That seems the right thing to do. In order not to fear death, or at least fear it as little as one can, you have to constantly have it in your presence, like your shadow as you walk down the street. We've all heard how people on the verge of death feel incredibly alive. But don't obsess about it, death, but know that it's there, become used to it in the background, so when something terrible happens—as it will—you are not floored. The Stoics taught this. The Epicureans too. The Stoic writer Seneca in his letters says expect the worst, so that when it comes, you are not surprised.
But in the meantime, Roger Ebert lived his life, and instead of being morose about his own death, he was so very happy that he lived, and that made him live a great one. The movie starts with his famous quote about movies being empathy machines. The man spent his life and career in the arts, and the arts to him encompassed everything, including how to live, and how to die. Of course he would have such poise and equilibrium when his mortal clock was up. One of the things this movie is a brief for, maybe without the director realizing it, is how the arts are so very crucial for how human beings become big-hearted, love other human beings, and learn how to die. What am I saying? Of course the director realized this, of course he made the film this way.
The love stories are interwoven in Ebert's life, as the film itself goes back and forth in time recounting it very elegantly, and in different ways. Here are who Roger Ebert loved: 1) His parents 2) Himself 3) His voice 4) His holding court to enraptured listeners 5)Booze 6) The Movies 6) Gene Siskel 7) Chaz, who became his wife 9) Her family, kids and grand kids 10) Acceptance and serenity. A man who exactly knows what life is, and how to die, loves that many, that much. I knew the film would focus on Chaz but I was surprised an equally loving relationship, in the most contentious sense, would be with Gene Siskel. The film spends quite some time on their relationship. They went from hating each other to loving each other. They could have been brothers. It was heartbreaking that Siskel did not tell his partner and his loved ones of his cancer, because he didn't want them to grieve in his last days. The impetus of Ebert's own very public announcement of his own cancer, probably the autobiography itself, and certainly the movie, are based on that. Even though Roger felt very hurt when Gene didn't tell him, that act was his final gift to his friend, and therefore to all of us, who would not get the beauty and philosophy of Roger's writing and attitude.
See the movie. It's a wonderful movie as a movie; it's a wonderful movie encapsulating the best of a man's life; it's a wonderful tool on how to die, and how to grieve when you—and all of us—face mortality. Nothing will prepare you for the experience of someone close to you dying, or you dying. It can't be done. We can have all the maxims we want and see all the movies about death, this kind of movie, we see, but nothing will prepare you. But, maybe, it'll lessen the pain, bring back the wonder of living, and give us the peace in dying.