Red carpet, press wall, hors d’oeuvres. This was it, my first real film event: the New York City premiere of Life Itself. I’d trekked down from Connecticut through a snowy New York jungle to see the movie for a second time. But as excited as I was for the film, I knew the real treat would be the chance to speak with some of the people who helped give my career form and direction. And just as I suspected, the gathering at the Paley Center for Media was a veritable who’s who of the many writers, bloggers, and film aficionados that populate the movie websites I read every day. Heaven.
Unsure what to do after walking into the lobby, I soon found myself standing in the corner of the room as people arrived. I was holding some delicious, sweet champagne of truly excellent stock. I don’t normally make note of such things, but the champagne was beyond expectation; this particular brand (Piper-Heidsieck) is reportedly an annual facet of the Cannes Film Festival, as if there weren’t enough reasons for me to want to go to Cannes some day. To top it off, the small snacks offered by the wait staff – mushrooms, salmon, cheese, rabbit – were phenomenal. All in all, the showrunners outdid themselves with the refreshments.
Food in hand, I was anxious to engage with my fellow movie lovers. However, I wasn’t sure who I should (or could) start talking to. As I pondered this question, a bouncy, bespectacled man suddenly appeared at my side. “How’s it going?” he asked. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out that this was none other than Odie Henderson: computer scientist by day and film writer for both his own sites and for RogerEbert.com by night. I told him I also ran my own website, and that I was a contributor at ScottFeinberg.com. The experience of meeting someone equally entrenched in the world I loved was instantly rewarding.
All of this spurred a delightful discourse on film and film writing. Odie and I started our discussion with a spirited debate about Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, which I loved and he hated. From there we proceeded to the films of Spike Lee, entering a fascinating dialogue about blackface and the strange misfire that is Bamboozled. He told me about growing up in New Jersey circa the era of many of Spike Lee’s New York-based movies and how those stories resonated with him. I related my mother’s own surreal experience of watching Brooklyn as portrayed through Lee’s eye; she’d lived in Bensonhurst as a child while Lee’s work often focuses on the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene neighborhoods. I loved that for both Odie and my mother, the overlap between Lee’s vision and their own lives was clear.
Following the champagne reception, we trooped downstairs to the theater for the screening of the documentary. Odie and I found comfortable seats toward the front of the small but beautiful and well-preserved auditorium. We were offered a few grateful words from Rooftop Films and Paley Center for Media representatives before director Steve James arrived; he had just braved the inclemency to get into the city. Recovering from his harrowing trip, he took to the podium and briefly thanked the audience for supporting Life Itself.
Then the film began, and I was struck by its sheer emotional heft, just as I had been when I saw the movie weeks before. Sitting beside so many other Ebert acolytes was new to me, but it provided the much-needed communal support I’d lacked in my previous viewing. Both Odie and I had seen the film and so we made it through most of the picture without breaking down. Still, Mr. James managed to get the better of our tear ducts as the film came to a close. Thank goodness a healthy amount of time had passed before the lights came on again.
Once the credits had rolled and the lights were raised, a panel of distinguished guests filled the empty chairs on stage. Here were the people featured in Life Itself, just a few feet from us: Steve James (the director), A.O. Scott (New York Times critic), Chaz Ebert (Roger Ebert’s wife), and Ramin Bahrani (a writer/director whom Roger Ebert had championed). It was a thrill to see them in person.
Chaz Ebert took the floor to offer a welcome commentary about the death of late, great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. She said the news had hit her particularly hard, as Roger Ebert had always been a big fan of his work. According to her, Mr. Ebert had even gone so far as to say that if a movie were ever made about him, he’d want Hoffman to play the role. The audience grew somber at her sentiment.
Then Ms. Ebert broke the audience’s heart again. She talked about how hard it still was to see the movie, even though she’d watched it a few times before. To her the film seemed to bring her husband back to life. Referring to a key moment late in the documentary where a jazzy Dave Brubeck piece hearkens Roger Ebert’s passing, she said, “Until I hear the music, I think he’s still here.”
She was clearly still raw from his passing just a few months ago, but her stalwart courage was obvious and admirable. She praised James’s efforts and stated that she’s glad the film exists. A.O. Scott, the panel’s ad hoc moderator, soon redirected the conversation in a lighter direction.
Ms. Ebert and Mr. Scott then told a sweet story about a visit he and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips had made to the Ebert household. Ms. Ebert recalled her guests observing as she stood in one end of the house while her husband was in another. The Eberts seemed to be having a legitimate conversation, but neither Mr. Phillips nor Mr. Scott could see any phone or computer that would allow one Ebert to hear what the other was saying. Absent any logical explanation, all involved concluded their back and forth must have been the result of a latent telepathic connection. This brought on a happy chuckle from the audience.
Next, Ramin Bahrani offered some insight into his relationship with Mr. Ebert. He stated that he firmly believes Mr. Ebert was his ticket to success, and his sincere recollection of his encounters with critic demonstrated his thanks. He had kept in regular contact with Mr. Ebert until his passing, and said that his correspondences mostly pertained to literature and discussions about life. In one revealing anecdote, Mr. Bahrani remembered regularly finding Amazon packages outside the door to his home. These were books Mr. Ebert had ordered and had delivered to his house, encouraging Mr. Bahrani to read them. Chaz Ebert confirmed that sending surprise books to people had been one of her husband’s secret pastimes.
A few questions followed from the audience, moderated by A.O. Scott. I was fortunate enough to ask mine of Steve James. “I’ll be candid,” I said, “When I heard there was going to be a film based on Life Itself, I thought I was in for another disappointing adaptation. I was delighted that the film turned out not to be a straight book-to-movie translation, but a sort of companion piece to the memoir. It offers insights not present in the text, and elaborates in places so that it really complements Mr. Ebert’s work. I was wondering if you could speak to that?”
Mr. James, a man after my heart, responded kindly. “I like that description of the film, hadn’t thought of it like that before,” he said. “I’ll have to use that.”
He went on to say the movie had begun as a more straightforward adaptation, but that the movie had taken on a life of its own given Mr. Ebert’s deteriorating condition. His subject had wrested some control of the movie, and the result was not what he had envisioned. But in that process, James said the film turned into something new and important in its own right. I concurred.
This dialogue concluded the panel, and everyone gathered their things to leave. Odie went up to speak to Chaz Ebert as I waited patiently in my seat. Odie returned shortly thereafter and we headed up to the dessert reception. Along the way, Odie told me Chaz had asked him who I was; apparently, she thought she might know me from somewhere. I knew this was unlikely but I found the prospect of Chaz Ebert asking after me exciting nonetheless.
When I had reached the lobby once again, A.O. Scott had chanced up the stairs, as well. I took my leave from Odie and walked over to introduce myself. Here I was, an amateur writer, finally meeting one of the country’s premiere critics. I was breathless. This being the first night he’d seen Life Itself, we quickly launched into a discussion of the screening.
He told me hosting the Q&A panel after seeing such an emotional film was jarring, and that he’d had to collect himself before getting onstage. He found the movie to be a sympathetic and rather complete portrait befitting its subject. We discussed Steve James’ approach to the piece, and decided Life Itself had successfully tapped into the empathetic core of cinema that Roger Ebert was so fond of.
We parted ways on this simple yet poignant analysis, and I was subsequently approached by a shock of red hair. This lovely young woman was Lanford Beard, an Entertainment Weekly staff writer with whom I’d had some Twitter correspondence prior to the event. We had connected because we were both donors to the Life Itself campaign, and Lanford said it was good to finally put a real face to a digital one. I agreed. I was happy to learn that, like me, she was also a sucker for the champagne. We discussed the movie as we quietly reveled in both the fanciness of the evening and the quality of the drink offered to us.
One of my favorite encounters of the night was with Columbia-educated filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. The man simply embodies humility and general kindness of spirit. In the film, he expresses unabashed appreciation for Roger Ebert’s influence on his career. This was immediately apparent in conversation. He has an easy-going, soft-spoken nature, but his enthusiasm was always palpable.
I told him the scene where he talks about the puzzle Mr. Ebert had given him was perhaps my favorite in the whole film. I said that he was now part of an incredible legacy that dated back to the hands of Alfred Hitchcock himself. He took my praise with a sheepish smile, and I knew then that Mr. Ebert had chosen well. Here was a man who took nothing for granted, and who valued history dearly. Mr. Bahrani told me he’d have to give the prized puzzle away some day. As to who, he had no idea – but he was excited to meet the critic, writer, director, or actor that would inspire him to pass it on.
Turning from Mr. Bahrani, I finally had the chance to meet the woman of the hour: Chaz Ebert. With a wide grin and intent eyes, she absolutely exhibited the brilliant warmth one would expect given her appearances on television, in film (Life Itself), and in print (RogerEbert.com). As soon as I approached her, she immediately asked where she knew me from. I said I had no idea, but that perhaps it was product of some sort of latent telepathic connection. That earned me a laugh.
I told her it what an honor it was to finally meet her. Two other attendees had happened into the conversation, and together we reassured her about her reservations regarding the film. There is one scene where she stubbornly encourages her equally resistant husband to get out of his chair and climb some stairs. She felt she came off as mean-spirited in that sequence considering his disability and imminent passing.
Reiterating that Roger Ebert was sharp as a tack until the end, we promised her that sequence demonstrated strength. She never stopped treating him like the wisecracking, prolific, opinionated giant that he was, disability or no, and that that was admirable. I emphasized that not only did I think the scene was far from embarrassing, but that it was a critical moment of honesty. She seemed comforted by our words.
Bothering her just a bit longer, I asked that Chaz sign my well-worn copy of Life Itself. She did, to my delight, and then I left her to escape the throng of fans into the snowy New York night. I left the Paley Center myself shortly afterward with Odie, who kindly walked me to the nearest subway station. We parted ways as he headed back to New Jersey and I hopped on a train to stay with some very generous friends on the Upper East Side.
I hope this moving film and its screenings give Chaz and Roger Ebert’s friends and loved ones some modicum of closure. It is clear from this event that Mr. Ebert was so much more than a mere newspaperman. Nine months later, he still has legions of adoring fans sending him off with sweet champagne and crispy bread adorned with savory mutton and salmon.
We all wish he were still here, but I have to say: what a way to go.
This article was graciously republished on RogerEbert.com on February 5, 2014.