Directed by Steve James
The new documentary Life Itself, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week in advance of its theatrical release and subsequent airing on CNN (as this is a CNN Films production), is a rare beast. It is an honest and unflinching celebration of a man’s life, a man who helped reshape and shift the parallel worlds of cinema and criticism over the past 50 years. The late Roger Ebert has left, in his wake, a powerful mark on so many of us–filmmakers, reviewers, audience members–that it is impossible to watch the film without the experience becoming intensely personal, even to those of us whose interactions with the man were limited to sending a question or two to his Movie Answer Man feature over the years. As such, it’s pointless to write this review without acknowledging its specific effect on me.
The two heroes of my childhood were Roger Ebert and Michael Jordan. (Even though I grew up in Western New York, I apparently, a bit unconsciously, longed to live in Chicago. That said, I’m sure more than a few other people my age idolized one or both of these men throughout the 80s and 90s.) Jordan has, since he left the Bulls, soured a bit in my estimation, in part because he’s become equally, if not more, defined by his braggadocio as by his past talent. (For proof, refer to his induction speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, in which he mostly reminded a lot of people with whom he’d feuded that he was better than them.) But Ebert, as he did for so many people, endured. As Life Itself documents, Roger Ebert was not a perfect man; Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene, even uses that word, “braggadocio,” to define how Ebert behaved with his longtime rival. But for a kid living in the sticks near Buffalo, a place not known for its burgeoning cinematic scene, he represented an ideal of sorts: here was a guy who was paid to watch and discuss movies, and did so in an insightful, clear fashion free of condescension.
I mention all of this as a sort of preamble, because I do not think I have before felt the type of pain that nearly overwhelmed me in portions of Life Itself, watching one of my heroes laid low by a devastating medical diagnosis. A few years back, Esquire profiled Ebert and, on the cover, featured his face, disfigured by cancer and numerous surgeries; it was a gut punch, a totally unexpected look at a man who I’d known as a gregarious, passionate, lively avatar of cinematic discourse. I also watched the recent PBS revival of At the Movies, in which he’d “read” a review via a computerized voice box. I knew, like many, of the man’s physical changes. But watching him struggle to climb up three stairs with the aid of a physical therapist, or seeing the agonizing pain in his eyes as a nurse calmly but forcefully pushes a tube through his neck (or what used to be his neck and jaw) for purposes of suction, is both heartbreaking and massively uncomfortable. Heroes may age, but the best ones don’t die, and here was one of mine looking frail and helpless.
But, of course, it would be patently unrealistic to not show Ebert in such a radically different state from that with which we remember him. It’s important that we see Ebert, through e-mail communication with Life Itself’s director Steve James, say that he wanted this film to show “the full reality.” No doubt, this movie could’ve been longer. There could be a feature documentary or two that detail the impact Ebert made on countless filmmakers’ lives, including those we see here, from Martin Scorsese to Ava DuVernay to Ramin Behrani. There could be a feature documentary just about the rise of Siskel & Ebert, both the show and the men. And there could be a feature documentary about Ebert’s last years, fighting against the implacable, unbeatable odds of nature as well as the limitations of medical science and technology. That we get a taste of all three stories in the 2 hours of Life Itself is a wonder. James’ ability to jump from the personal to the professional, interweaving anecdotes from longtime friends with archival footage is masterful. (Regarding the latter, the easy favorite is a clip of Siskel and Ebert on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where Ebert calmly criticizes Three Amigos, while Chevy Chase makes funny faces behind his back.)
The balance that James strikes between depicting the last few months of Roger Ebert’s life, punctuated by visits from his grandchildren and the constant attention from his wife, Chaz; and his growing popularity in the 1980s and 1990s is truly impressive. The determination in Ebert’s eyes, as he reacts to the possibility of seeing another movie on the big screen as opposed to reviewing something on a DVD, is a fine and necessary antidote to seeing him battle the elements. But James’ camera doesn’t turn away; late in the film, Chaz and Roger sit together, she talking about how the doctors have been telling her since 2006, on one occasion or another, that he might only have one day left to live. She looks to him for approval or agreement, a tacit acknowledgment that he’s not done fighting; he just looks at the camera and rolls his eyes a bit, a sign that he’d become aware that the end was near, and that he’d accepted it well before anyone else. It is here that we see, as Ebert demanded, “the full reality.” On one hand, it’s strange watching these scenes of domestic imperfection (or another scene where, after returning home from the hospital, Ebert stubbornly attempts to avoid climbing up the stairs); however, these moments are not chinks in the heroic armor that I may have bestowed upon Ebert in my mind as a child. They only affirm his grace and honesty; in these scenes, specifically, I found myself both humbled by his courage and fearful that, if I was in the same position, I wouldn’t be able to match it.
Perhaps the best part of Life Itself, which is a truly excellent piece of work, is that it made me reflect further on Roger Ebert’s impact on me, you, and everyone who’s spent time at Sound on Sight, or Letterboxd, or Twitter, or Facebook, or a personal blog, or anyplace where we attempt to discuss and analyze cinema in detail. Life Itself does revive the debate regarding the popularity (and populism) of Siskel & Ebert for a few minutes, specifically the written battle that Ebert had with Richard Corliss in the pages of Film Comment. Was this 30-minute TV show turning the art of criticism into a cheap sideshow? Or did the show have value? It amazes me now, as it has always amazed me, that this is a debate we have or need to have. There was always value in the show, as there is value in all types (OK, most types) of criticism. What this film demonstrates is the extraordinary value Roger Ebert had in his life, to his family and friends, and to everyone watching. I am one of God-knows-how-many people who watched Siskel & Ebert, was truly introduced to criticism for the first time, and decided to go out in hopes of doing likewise. That this film even exists, that people donated money to aid in its completion, is proof enough that Roger Ebert’s contribution to the art of film criticism is immeasurable and infinite. It is this knowledge that counteracts any pain I felt watching Ebert struggle in his last days. Trite though it may be, while his physical form passed on last April, he won’t ever really leave us.
Roger Ebert still remains the chief inspiration of my meager venture into criticism, as my reaction to Life Itself—even its final, conversely hopeful and bruising moments where Ebert accepts his impending passing—attests. He has helped encourage countless critics, directly or indirectly, less because he wanted to be a kingmaker, and more because he understood the importance of the democratization of criticism. And, through his reviews, he gave many filmmakers the strength to keep going; his praise was a sign that someone, anyone, was watching their work and appreciating it. The tangible facts of Life Itself may inspire tears, but the way in which it reminds us of Ebert’s influence is a joyful thing to consider, something worth celebrating all by itself.
Full disclosure: I was very happy to donate to the Indiegogo project for the film. I assumed in advance that it was money well spent. Now that I’ve seen Life Itself, I know it to be true.
— Josh Spiegel