Film Review: “Life Itself” — The Roger Ebert Story, Told Brilliantly
Film critic Roger Ebert was a complicated man and this documentary does a superb job of exploring his different sides, detailing the evolution of his personality over the decades.
Life Itself, directed by Steve James. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, and other screens throughout New England.
By Tim Jackson
For at least three decades Roger Ebert was the best-known film critic in the world. Did his arguments with Gene Siskel and their popularizing of the thumbs up/thumbs down approach to criticism compromise serious film discourse? This issue is secondary to the extraordinary life portrayed in Steve James’ brilliant documentary Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same title. James, the director of the landmark film Hoop Dreams, takes an approach that is similar to Ebert’s memoir. It moves in and out of his subject’s personal history and politics as Ebert reflects on his life. (The writer requested James to complete his legacy in film.)
For over three years, suffering through numerous surgeries, Ebert had struggled with papillary thyroid cancer and then cancer in his lower jaw. In the film, his jaw has been removed; the remains of the flesh that was his bottom lip and jaw hang from his face. He speaks through a voice simulator. From his hospital bed, America’s most vocal and recognizable film critic is essentially mute. But Ebert still smiles with his recognizable toothy grin. He writes, blogs furiously, finishes his memoirs, and at time even directs the movie. Through the encouragement and enduring support of his wife Chaz, together with the voices and memories of his friends and colleagues and some terrific archival footage, we are given a moving portrait of a life that is as much about love and courage as it is a record of achievement.
At first the disfigurement is hard to watch. As Ebert requested, the camera doesn’t shy away from focusing on him as he was in his final days. The camera often rests on his eyes, which are still filled with joy and inspiration. His stories detail the arrogant, hard drinking days of his youth and his coming into huge national success; they expose his personal battles and obsessions, and celebrate how his life was transformed after he met his true love, Chaz. In the present, Ebert reinvents himself on-line and on Twitter with neither the director nor the subject fully aware that he would die during the filming. With his gift for pacing and evoking emotion, James reveals Ebert’s family past, his rise as a young and brilliant journalist, and his unintended notoriety as part of a duo that became the template for reviewing film on TV: Siskel and Ebert At the Movies. Theirs was not an easy relationship. There are some hysterically funny outtakes of the two sparring and needling one another with off-camera insults. But always we return to Ebert in his bed, typing copy, his computer-synthesized voice offering perspective, his wife by his side.
The film weaves in passages from Ebert’s book, Life Itself, which are read by actor Stephen Stanton, who nicely catches the cadences of Ebert’s midwestern speech. I recommend the book, which I read before seeing the film. It has little of the braggadocio of his TV appearances or his books like I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie or Your Movie Sucks. Those volumes gave him an opportunity to vent about terrible films, but more than anything Ebert remained an authentically passionate lover of film.
Ebert was the venerable golden boy at the Chicago Sun-Times; he was assigned the job as the newspaper’s film critic at the age of 25, and he stayed there his entire life, despite numerous offers to leave. Some of Ebert’s most vocal supporters are directors whose early careers had impressed him. He helped revive the reputation of Martin Scorsese when the director was at a personal and profession low. Of Werner Herzog, Ebert writes, “Herzog took residence in my mind. . . I felt a spiritual connection.” Herzog’s work refers to the critic once directly: the closing dedication to his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World reads “For Roger Ebert.” Herzog pays homage to the ailing critic in the documentary: “He is a soldier for cinema. He is the wounded comrade. He plows on and that touches my heart. He reinforces my courage.”
Ebert also befriended Ramin Bahrani, admiring the young director’s meticulous realism in films such as Chop Shop and Man Push Cart. Paradoxically, the critic was also vocal fan of the pulchritudinous camp burlesques of Russ Meyer, who became a good friend and for whom he wrote Beyond the Valley of Dolls. About that film Scorsese muses: “It went over my head. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. I liked the editing . . . ”
Ebert acknowledges that the “Siskel-Ebert Effect” had its limits when it came to substantial film criticism. He was a populist and loved being on TV. The show made talking about movies fun even for film geeks weaned on critics such as Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael and others. At my house my kids used to remind me that, “Dad. It’s time for Siskel and Ebert.” That was regular family viewing every week. When my wife and I would discuss the merits of a film, our 6-year-old daughter would interject: “But dad, Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up!”
Ebert was a complicated man and the film does a good job of exploring his different sides, detailing the evolution of his personality over the decades. His insight and easy writing style made him the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. He was arrogant yet deeply humanist. He could be egomaniacal, but he was also supportive of marginal efforts (he began a festival for lesser-seen movies) and interested in educating the public about the cinema (he led frame-by-frame discussions of films). He spent most of his life as a bachelor and then fell head over heels in love.
His friend Howie Movshovitz recounts that Ebert was once asked by a student: “Who do you think you are that you get to have all these opinions? I saw Porky’s and I think Porky’s is great. Why don’t I get to talk?” Ebert responded: “I have two things to say. First, Marshall Fields who owns the Chicago Sun-Times appointed me film critic. And second is a question. Would you want to listen to you?”
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.