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.