Ebertfest 2014: Life Itself (2014), directed by Steve James

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Last night, the 16th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival opened with a screening of Life Itself, the documentary on Roger Ebert’s life (based on his amazing memoir of the same name), directed by Steve James. Steve James’ Hoop Dreams was championed – HARD – by Roger Ebert back in the day, and it helped make James’ career. Filmed over the final year of Roger’s life, as he experienced medical setback after setback, Life Itself is a detailed and journalistic portrait of Roger’s career. It was extremely emotional, especially when I saw what exactly he was going through, and how sick he really was, at the time he reached out to me offering me a job. It was near the end. Two months before. To think that he was sending me cheery supportive emails, reading my work, sending me feedback … it’s just stunning, and a real tribute to his strength of character. Life Itself is also a loving celebration of marriage, and what Chaz brought to Roger’s life, and who they were as a couple. They had gone into the project, not realizing that he would pass away before completion. There was a sense of urgency about it: we need to get this done now. Because it was playing at Ebertfest, a film festival started by Roger Ebert, and the audience was made up of Ebertfest regulars, and friends and colleagues, it was a very intense atmosphere: explosive laughter, sudden pin-drop silence, a reverence and a listening.

Afterwards, festival director Nate Kohn, Chaz, and William Nack (a great friend of Roger’s, as well as an amazing writer himself), came onstage with director Steve James to discuss the film and take questions from the audience. In the film, William Nack said that Roger loved the fact that Nack could recite the final passage of The Great Gatsby from memory: Roger would make him do it every time they got together. After the QA period, Nate Kohn said to Mr. Nack, “How about you end the night with Gatsby?”

Nack stood up and delivered a brief speech about how strongly Roger felt about Fitzgerald’s book, and the American dream aspect of it, seen through the eyes of Jay Gatsby, a Midwestern boy setting up shop in the glittering city on the coast. The elegiac and mournful aspects of the American dream were also evocative to Roger, a man who embraced the complexities of life, as seen in the films he loved, and who really felt that movies were a “machine for compassion”. Through movies, you can enter other worlds, other lives, other people, other times. Nack also spoke about the line in the Gatsby passage, “capacity for wonder,” and how that, above all else, encapsulated who Roger Ebert was as a writer, a critic, and a man.

Nack spoke a bit about all of this, and then, with no preamble, and no fear or shyness, launched into it. He recited the entire thing, movingly, urgently, not a hesitation, not one moment of uncertainty.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I took a photo of Nack as he spoke beforehand.

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Once he started the recitation, the moment got so huge I was almost afraid to breathe.

Profound. Grateful to have been there. I will never forget it.

Nell Minow reports on the first night for Rogerebert.com.

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6 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: Life Itself (2014), directed by Steve James

  1. mutecypher says:

    I had never heard the phrase “machine for compassion” before. What an affirming view of movies. What a tribute to Roger.

  2. Kathleen says:

    That sounds like a truly awesome (full of awe) experience! Thanks for sharing. Welcome back to C-U!

  3. milt says:

    I read Roger Ebert’s memoir about six months before his death and was greatly moved by it. With each chapter I admired him more as a man. He lived life under his terms, with utmost honesty and great joy. Maybe that’s why he was able to handle his final fate with such grace, humor and fierce determination. I look forward to the documentary.

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