Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Roger Ebert - "Life Itself"

Since I'm an Academy member, I get sent a lot of documentary films that are in competition for the Oscar.  I just received the wonderful documentary "Life Itself", a chronicle of the life and tragic death of Roger Ebert, directed by the famed Steve James.

The first time I met Roger was in 1989, I believe, when I was at the Telluride Film Festival with my film "How to Kiss".  A few friends and I were chatting with him on Main St. (I was listening, mostly).  I was very nervous, naturally, because a good word from him could have ignited my career.  So,  I encouraged him to see my new short.  He then realized he was late for a screening and asked what time it was.  Forgetting I had a drink in my hand, I raised my hand and rotated it to read my watch, naturally unloading my full drink all over my clothes.  After having a good laugh at my expense, everyone soon scattered to their screenings.

The next time I met up with him was at the Salt Lake City airport, at the end of the Sundance Film Festival.  I had screened "Mutant Aliens" there, and of course since it was an adult animated feature, it got no coverage and no buys.  I saw Roger sitting alone, reading in the gate area.  Gathering all my courage (and hoping he'd forgotten the spilled drink episode) I walked over to him and asked him if he could look at my new animated feature film, and I handed him the DVD.  You would have thought the film had Ebola all over it, because he refused to touch it, saying he had too many films to watch.

Later, this refusal really pissed me off - here was a guy who supposedly championed the independent filmmaker and also supported animation.  He was a huge supporter of Richard Linklater's animated film "Waking Life", which I thought, apart from the breakthrough computer techniques, really sucked.  And again, when my friend Nina Paley created "Sita Sings the Blues", he became best friends with her, promising to do all he could to get the film distributed - which was practically impossible since Nina failed to get the rights to some of the wonderful music she used.

So, maybe you can see why I have some bitter feelings about Mr. Ebert.  At the time I was the only truly independent animator making a career out of my feature films, and he couldn't at least acknowledge my work.  It's very frustrating.  And now, he's gone and it's too late.

Perhaps eventually I'll find a critic who can champion my career.  By the way, I give the documentary "Life Itself" a B+.  

--Bill Plympton

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