When film critic Roger Ebert passed away in April 2013, I wrote at length about the influence that he and his longtime TV debate partner Gene Siskel had upon my life. That entry is intro enough to explain why, when I heard there was a new documentary about Ebert, it was an obvious pick for my summer must-see list.
One contemporary peer labels Ebert “the definitive mainstream film critic”. Another, less charitable fellow in his field dismisses Ebert’s longtime TV career as doing their practice an injustice. (“Consumer advice is not the same as criticism.”) Several came together for the special occasion of Life Itself.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Director Steve James (best known for the award-winning Hoop Dreams) began the project as a companion piece to Ebert’s eponymous 2011 autobiography, a simple matter of following Ebert through daily living in the wake of his cancer surgeries. Filming began five months before his passing, though no one involved knew the plot would twist in that direction.
We follow the frustrating hardships and little daily successes as Ebert and his wife Chaz work through the ups and downs entailed by his medical conditions and his unexpectedly extended hospitalization. These moments, some inspirational and some grueling, alternate with the biography of a young journalist from Champaign-Urbana with ambition beyond his station, a high tolerance for liquor, and the on-camera charisma of a 1950s instructional filmstrip. After a few formative tries at translating his Chicago Sun-Times film reviews to local-access TV, someone got the bright idea of pairing him with local rival Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. “Odd couple” doesn’t begin to describe their acrimonious, oil-and-water relationship, but over time their debates lured in a following that made them the superstars of movie-watching and “Two Thumbs Up!” the most coveted catchphrase in Hollywood.
And then Siskel passed away in 1999. And then came cancer. More than once. A career spent sitting, watching, writing, and arguing turned increasingly cinematic and out-of-the-ordinary in its own low-key yet unpredictable way.
Hey, look, it’s that one guy!: The luminaries on hand include peers in the field such as Time Magazine‘s Richard Corliss, the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, Colorado Public Radio’s Howie Movshovitz, and the Chicago Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum as the refreshing gadfly. Adding their plaudits are a few directors who counted Ebert among their earliest supporters — Germany’s own Werner Herzog, acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, Gregory Nava (Selena), and The Martin Scorsese. We’re also honored to meet Marlene Iglitzen, a.k.a. Mrs. Gene Siskel.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? When my son wondered why I valued Ebert’s opinions above millions of other movie fans worldwide, I explained that even when I disagreed with his final analysis of a given film (a frequent occurrence, more so in his later years), his writing was possessed of a journalistic clarity and affectionate eloquence that helped me understand the mechanics behind our differences, while at the same time I envied the flourishes that rolled so nimbly from his fingertips. I heard similar sentiments echoed here by Scorsese. Ebert was a vocal fan of his early black-‘n’-white drama Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but wounded Scorsese with his honesty in his thumbs-down verdict for The Color of Money. Scorsese naturally disagreed, but appreciated what fell on his ears as disappointing yet constructive remarks. To Scorsese, Ebert’s words were always “…condemning and helping…as opposed to toxic, poisonous, unkind, ungenerous lack of charity.” Sometimes his negative reviews were scathingly funny if a film wasted his time too egregiously; sometimes they were the red-pen markings of a kindly adviser giving free pointers on how to do better next time.
Some aspects of his career were about building his soapbox, his voice, his audience, and his tolerance for Siskel, but so much more of his career was about shining a spotlight on the works of others. If you think it’s hard for an artist to get noticed in today’s social-media overcrowding, our ancestors had far fewer promotional outlets and not nearly as many places to be heard. It was a rare, glorious gift for someone on national TV or at a widely circulated newspaper, with that enviable combination of clout and goodwill, to bless you with the gift of free coverage to an audience of millions who might otherwise never hear of you.
“Mainstream” he may have been in many respects, but his viewing habits went miles beyond the crowd-pleasing summer action blockbuster extravaganzas. At the same time, he didn’t condemn those automatically on principle, either. He wasn’t gripped by the same art-vs.-commerce either/or divisiveness that skews many a writer toward the extremes of either high-falutin’ film-school elitism or movie-site comments-section boorishness. Ebert cherished cinema in all its diversity. As he wrote in his autobio, “I don’t want junk food to be the only cuisine at the banquet.”
Nitpicking? The complete omission of one-time TV partner Richard Roeper is…curious, to put it benignly. Maybe he was no Siskel, but he’s not interviewed here and never mentioned once. In fact, Ebert’s entire TV era from Siskel’s passing up to his own departure from the airwaves is bypassed virtually without comment. Maybe that’ll be covered in a Blu-ray extended-edition?
For those curious about the R rating: strong language pops up here and there with the interviewees, and the obligatory discussion of the only movie Ebert ever wrote, the exploitative Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, includes several candid shots confirming its breast-acular notoriety.
Forewarning to the squeamish: the cameras don’t shy away from Ebert’s post-surgical condition. His entire jawbone had to be removed, but the jaw itself remained in place as a flaccid, hollow flap. We see how feeding works under the circumstances. We watch him enduring physical therapy, and not always with encouraging results. As the final hours approach, we watch the dimming in those eyes that once twinkled with passion while extolling a film’s virtues. But Ebert opted out of any sugar-coating and insisted the cameras keep rolling. As he insisted over the protests of both Chaz and the director, “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality.”
So did I like it or not? The archival footage is a blast. You can track his evolution from brash twentysomething to camera-shy film buff to skilled combatant to seasoned pro. It was impossible not to laugh at the Siskel & Ebert bloopers, but my favorite clips were Ebert writing off Full Metal Jacket as mediocre while in the very same episode praising the instantly disposable Benji the Hunted. Meanwhile in the other chair, an emphatically disagreeing Siskel summons Herculean self-control and resists the urge to throw chairs at him.
The concluding scenes are tough to watch because we know the ending, but James’ accomplished mission privileges us to follow the long road to The End with dignity and sympathy. The tribulations were many, but the days were packed with as much life as he and his loved ones could cram in around them. One typical day sees Ebert, having been laid up in a hospital bed month after wretched month, enjoying a visit from his smiling grandchildren. In one moment, he chats them up with the speech synthesizer on his laptop. The next moment, he cues up streaming video on a tablet to introduce them to Michael Apted’s 56-Up.
Even in the most discomfiting of times, he lived life same as he ever did, invigorated by that same elation that pervades and animates us when something we’ve seen has affected us so profoundly that we have no choice but to tell anyone who’ll listen to us, “You have to see this.” When the old viewers pass away, some movies deserve to have new viewers take their place. If the old viewers don’t speak on their behalf, how many of those beloved movies will pass away with them?
As of this writing, Life Itself is now playing at less than a hundred American theaters, but I was thrilled to find it available On Demand. Your plentiful streaming options are listed at the official movie site.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Life Itself end credits, but I was glad to have one mystery solved: the name of the Ebert sound-alike who reads passages from Ebert’s book throughout the film. That man: voice actor Stephen Stanton, who also performed several roles on Star Wars: the Clone Wars and in a plethora of video games.