Anyone interested in studying film within the past few decades has been affected by Roger Ebert in one way or another. My first introduction came from back when I was probably about 10 or 11. As I can recall, I was flipping through the newspaper my parents left out on the kitchen counter when I came across a movie ad with a recommendation by Roger at the top. At the time I didn’t know who he was other than a name on a poster; it was only a couple of years later when I started getting serious about film when I discovered the rich history and writing of this critic. I followed Roger’s thoughts, read his books, and took his recommendations to the extent that I can almost fully contribute my love for cinema because of him. When Roger passed away last year, I grieved for a man I knew only in writing, but his prose made him seem that I’ve known him all my life.
Life Itself, based on Roger’s memoir of the same name, celebrates the famed critic and follows his life story. The documentary is a loving tribute by Ebert’s wife Chaz, but is perhaps almost equally personal for director Steve James. James’ picture Hoop Dreams was bolstered from the indie scene by Roger’s thunderous applause (he later named it the best picture of the ‘90s), and he has continuously been supported him throughout his career. In fact, Roger has played influential roles for many filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese (who serves as executive producer for Life Itself) and Werner Herzog to Errol Morris and Gregory Nava. While undeniably a mainstream critic, Roger was instrumental in smaller movie markets and did not neglect a picture by distribution.
Compressing one man’s life into a two picture is no easy task and indeed James does glimpse over a few details (Roger’s personal contempt for Blue Velvet, still controversial event to this day, receives a brief reference), but as a whole Life Itself is a complete and beautiful portrait of Ebert. Roger’s family and friends recall personal stories about him while his fellow critics (including Jonathan Rosenbaum, A. O. Scott, and Richard Corliss) describe Roger’s unique approach to criticism, particularly as juxtaposed to contemporaries Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. Highlights are included in Roger’s life, such as his Pulitzer Prize win, his embracing of new technology and formats of film analysis, and his impact on the movie world as well as some career lowlights and embarassments (his alcoholism and arrogance early in his career receive full attention as well, not to mention his screenwriting credit on Russ Meyer’s exploitation picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).
Perhaps most importantly is Roger’s rivalry and friendship with his rival Chicagoan critic Gene Siskel, who partnered up with him for Siskel and Ebert, the syndicated TV series that coined the “thumbs up/down” rating system. While Siskel and Ebert has been criticized some for its general appraisals (Corliss accused the duo of dumbing down film reviews while Rosenbaum addresses some concern about the commercialization of critical analysis), it was a true force in introducing audiences to more obscure pictures as well as challenging many of the ongoing trends in Hollywood (such as colorization and cropping). What’s really focused on his the bond between Roger and Gene, who act almost as rival sibling; despite how much they bicker truly do love each other (demonstrated through clips of the series as well as interviews with Marlene, Gene’s wife).
More than anything seen beforehand, Life Itself reveals the full extent of Roger’s cancer (even his blog posts did not go in such graphic detail). After battling cancer and facing surgery almost a decade ago, Roger lost his jawbone and ability to speak, eat, and drink (James pulls no punches as he shows painful images of Roger being fed through a tube). Having access to Roger and his family in the final few months of the critic’s life, James shows not only the agony Roger has experienced but also the joy and pleasure he has lived throughout his life. Life Itself is sure to make fans such as myself cry with its loving respect to Ebert, showing a man’s strides, kindness, and courage throughout seventy years.