Film Review – Life Itself
It’s tough to quantify how much Roger Ebert contributed to film. Through his writing and work on television, Ebert popularized movie criticism into how it is today (for good or bad). Whether you agreed with his reviews or not, there is no denying his influence. When a blogger puts up a review, or someone posts a video about movies online, more often Ebert played a role in their enthusiasm for film. I would be lying if I said he didn’t have an impact on my love for cinema. And if you’re reading this, chances are he played some part in your interest as well.
Which makes it all the more strange to be reviewing Life Itself (2014), the documentary chronicling his life, work, and untimely death from cancer in April 2013. Directed by Steve James and adapted from Ebert’s memoir, the doc traces his idyllic childhood in suburban Illinois, to being the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times (and the first to win the Pulitzer Prize). We learn what drove him to write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) for Russ Meyer. Of course, we see his love/hate relationship with Gene Siskel, and finally the last few months where his health took a turn for the worst.
It’s well known that in his last years, failed surgeries cost Ebert his lower jaw, ridding him of the ability to eat, drink and talk. James does not shy away from this. Early on we visit Ebert in the hospital, with nurses cleaning his throat with a suction tube. These are the most difficult moments to watch, to see a person who was so energetic and talkative, reduced to silence. We can see the bandages around his neck through his open mouth. But even at this stage, Ebert remained optimistic and retained his sense of humor, even directing James to shoot from certain angles.
Instead of recounting Ebert’s history in chronological order, James uses his time in the hospital as a framework for the story. He jumps back and forth between the hospital and different moments in Ebert’s life. There are three narrators: James, who guides us through the present time, Ebert (whose words are spoken using a computer voice), and Stephen Stanton, a voice actor who reads passages out of Ebert’s memoir while imitating his Chicago/Illinois accent. There is an eerie quality listening to Stanton, he nails the voice down so perfectly it feels like Ebert himself reaching out from some unknown realm.
It would have been easy for this to devolve into hagiography, but James makes sure to include Ebert’s darker characteristics. Through interviews with friends and colleagues, we learn of a person who was talented, but was far from perfect. He was cocky and a smart ass in his younger days, which was one of the reasons his relationship with Gene Siskel was so volatile. In one interview, Marlene Iglitzen (Gene Siskel’s widow) reveals that Ebert once stole a cab from her while she was pregnant. There were encounters with prostitutes, and serious bouts with alcoholism. Even in the present, James continues rolling when frustrations between Ebert and his wife Chaz boil over.
Through all this, one thing is for sure: the man loved what he did. He was as passionate about cinema as anyone else, seen through his writing and during his time on Siskel & Ebert. The entire middle portion is dedicated to the two, who could not have been more different, which really meant they were perfect for one another. We learn a little about Siskel as well (his time with Hugh Hefner is worthy of a documentary all its own). Their show made film criticism mainstream. This became a source of resentment for some critics, who claimed it did not allow for in depth analysis. Richard Corliss – critic for TIME magazine – famously denounced the show as a hindrance to their profession.
The doc works best when we see Ebert’s humanity shine through. He championed filmmakers when others ignored them. Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, and Ava DuVernay provide insights regarding his generosity. Steve James himself owes much to Ebert, when he and Siskel led a campaign for Hoop Dreams to get a wider audience. The man loved the art form, and urged people to make and write about it as best they could.
But this isn’t just about film. It’s about love, compassion, and the acceptance that life eventually comes to a close. Chaz (whose commitment to Roger is as strong as iron) works as a symbol for us to come to grips with death, and that it is not something to be afraid of. The closing scenes are heartbreaking, but full of beauty and soul. Despite his health, Ebert worked tirelessly, putting out some of his best work and marching on all the way up to the end.
Roger once said that the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It helps us understand the thoughts and fears of other people and cultures. Life Itself works in exactly this way. There are pieces I wish it would’ve expanded on (his time in Africa and his association with Richard Roeper are missing entirely). But as a whole, it is a heartfelt exploration of a man who opened film up for the world. He may no longer be around, but what he left will stay for generations to come.