Why ‘Life Itself’ (about Roger Ebert) is one of my favourite documentary films

One of the most entertaining, moving, inspiring and powerful documentary films I have watched in a long time is ‘Life Itself’, about the life of the famous Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. It’s also the title of Ebert’s own memoir published in 2011.

The film by Steve James (who made the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams) unintentionally documented the final months in the life of Ebert, who had long battled thyroid cancer, losing his lower jaw in the process, his ability to speak and eat but never his wit or brilliance.

It’s quite shock seeing Ebert for the first time in his hospital bed, missing a large part of his face. But he has these incredibly sparkling eyes, still full of mischief as he types away on his computer, making jokes through a voice synthesizer, writing film reviews and responding to emails.

Just a few months into filming, Ebert passed away in his hospital bed after another medical setback, surrounded by his devoted wife Chaz (who has continued to run rogerebert.com since his passing), friends and family.

The documentary moves between past and present telling the story of how Ebert started out as a young journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times – one of the city’s two main newspapers – and how by chance he became its film critic after a sudden vacancy emerged, a role he maintained and cherished for over four decades.

In 1975, Ebert whose non-snobbish and direct style of writing made film criticism accessible to all who loved the movies, became the first film critic to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism and later a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But it was his on screen rivalry with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel (of rival paper the Chicago Tribune) on their show ‘At the Movies’ that would make Ebert almost as famous as the actors and directors whose movies he reviewed.

The documentary features interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene – Siskel died from cancer aged just 53 in 1999 – who wonderfully channels the love/hate relationship between the pair as well as with director Martin Scorcese, who emotionally praises Ebert for helping resurrect his career when it had sunk to a low point in the 1980s due to cocaine addiction and depression.

The documentary also includes interviews with current film critics like the New York Times’s AO Scott, who wrote of Ebert’s passing that he along with Siskel helped to make Chicago “the first city of movie criticism”

“Every medium [Roger Ebert] made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and aspirations those movies represented,” wrote Scott.

Someone who reviewed hundreds of films a year, wrote books and blogs even when battling cancer, he still had time to answer letters, and emails from schoolchildren and college students, said Scott,

In James’ film, Ebert is a larger than life figure with boundless energy. In his earlier years he was always the last person to leave the local bar in the early hours of the morning (his drinking almost killed him) and then later entertained readers with his offbeat and colourful stories from the Cannes Film Festival.

Someone whose well-chosen words could ruin a movie at the Box office (as could the ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down reviews given on television by he and Siskel), Ebert was also one to champion lesser known film makers and smaller independent pictures – among his most ardent admirers is German filmmaker Werner Herzog who dedicated one of his films to him and said, when Ebert passed away that not only was he “the good soldier of cinema” writing about cinema for four decades but that he was also the “wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on”.

A statue of Roger Ebet outside a movie theatre in Champaign, Illinois where he had is first newspaper job.

Never someone who wrote anything  out of malice or spite, Ebert was controversial at times, most notably in his review of David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet, a film Ebert despised, but one praised by many critics as a masterpiece.

Ebert gave it one star noting that the “movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart”.

But even if Ebert criticised movies, he would often find things in them to praise (including in Blue Velvet). Scorcese called Ebert’s review of his movie The Colour of Money starring Paul Newman “condemning and helping”.

Still I wondered why the documentary film moved me so much. I hardly knew much about Roger Ebert, apart from having read some of his film reviews, and had not followed his career closely, or his battle with cancer.

Reflecting on that question, I think it has a great deal to do with the storytelling – James is a master storyteller – which manages to capture the totality of Roger Ebert’s “grand adventure” from his small town roots to becoming arguably the famous film writer in the world, with a love of movies that never died.

It’s also this idea of a man who loved sitting in a darkened cinema for 40 years, watching and writing wonderfully about movies, and the emotions and feelings they conveyed (and it’s a nice break from almost every other documentary film I watch and like, which seems to be about true crime, especially serial killers and maniacs).

James also manages to capture Ebert’s magnetic and warm personality and his mischievous nature seen – when most of his body had failed him – in his sparkling eyes.

I give it two thumbs up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s