It’s always a little weird, thinking about my entire life and the way it’s been affected by someone as massively important as Roger Ebert. I almost want to talk as though I’ve known the guy my entire life, because even though I haven’t, he’s always been a major presence. As far back as I could use the Internet well enough and had access to a backlog of his reviews (and whatever new one was coming out that week), I found myself reading them. It wasn’t always because I agreed with him because I can’t always agree with the kind of man who hates Blue Velvet, Dead Man, and even something like Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which is the only time I’ve ever been actively disappointed in the way he wrote something. It was because almost every time I read one of his reviews, I felt like I was listening to someone who respected the medium, respected the filmmaker, and most importantly, respected me.
When I was just starting off in criticism and trying to figure out how to write, there wasn’t really anyone I was accustomed to reading besides Ebert. Sure, I’d always read about the films in the local newspaper before jumping to the comics section, but it wasn’t until later in my still pretty short life that I started reading all sorts of film historians, critics from the past, and random folks whose writing I liked. It was all about Ebert really, and I’m thankful for his popularity and constant presence throughout circles that weren’t necessarily full of cinephiles. For all I know, if it wasn’t for his influence, I wouldn’t be here writing about films today. Now that I’ve gotten my personal feelings out of the way, which are as abundant as usual, it’s time to discuss Steve James’ documentary on the critic, Life Itself.
James, whose heavily-praised Hoop Dreams I have admittedly not seen yet, knows his subject well. To cover the heavy scope of a life as full as Ebert’s in the span of two hours, one needs to cover things as swiftly as possible. For the most part, Life Itself does as much as possible to present how he went from the kind of kid who stamped his “By Roger Ebert” byline on just about everything he had at home to the man who introduced the world to as many great films as possible with a simple thumbs up. We’re treated to a sort-of timeline of the man, being offered all kinds of details on his life by sources like his wife Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen, and friends from his past, with critics like A.O. Scott coming in to comment on how he affected criticism as well.
The rest of the time, and arguably with a bit more focus than it deserved, we’re shown Ebert in his last five months of life. He recovers, watches films, and writes in the hospital, communicating with filmmaker and visitor alike through a notepad and synthesized speech. These portions of the film, while sometimes rough to watch (especially as the film progresses closer to his death), come off as personal as possible. They make one feel like they’re right there in the room with him as often as they can, showing us footage of feedings and moments where he simply wants to listen to a beautiful song. But as important as it is to present these images, the cutting back and forth between timeline and present day hospital takes away from the momentum just a bit. As someone who hasn’t read the novel that James claims he was trying to stick to as much as possible, I can’t say that he didn’t ground his novel in the present day, constantly looking back. Regardless, it’s a documentary that might have paid off with a little more linearity.
Even with that minor problem, Life Itself is still as informative and impressive as a work on Ebert will likely ever come. As downbeat as many portions of his life — the cancer, surgeries, and alcoholism he suffered through — are, most of the film truly shows how delightful and fulfilling the famous writer’s life was. Some of the most entertaining clips from his past are awkward outtakes of Siskel and him arguing and calling each other assholes just after watching them fight about films. If anything, my favorite scene was one of its most ridiculous and arguably unnecessary, which was watching filmmaker Ramin Bahrani imitating Werner Herzog’s accent.
Watching other filmmakers like Herzog himself, along with Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese, discuss how unbiased the man was even though he maintained personal friendships with them is exactly what made him so influential in the history of film criticism. The critic always had an opinion, whether positive or negative, and was never afraid to share and stand by that opinion, even among friends. Even though he was sometimes easy to disagree with, Roger Ebert was a man who truly loved movies. In so many ways, Steve James captures the essence of who the man was from the very first quote from his memoir, ”I was born inside the movie of my life… I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” And seeing our own lives through the same lens we’d see a movie we loved is something every critic out there should aspire to.
Life Itself is currently available for rental on Amazon Instant Video.
Directed by Steve James; starring Roger Ebert; 115 minutes.