Editor's note: Life Itself opens in Little Rock today. It is also available through various video-on-demand services.
Steve James' Life Itself is a documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, shot in his last months of life. It's not the movie James set out to make, although Ebert's death in April 2013, at the age of 70, was hardly a surprise. He'd been sick for a long time. Since 2002, he had been dealing with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands that eventually necessitated the removal of most of his lower jaw and deprived him of his ability to eat, drink and speak.
Still, when the filmmaker contacted Ebert and his wife, Chaz, about the project, he outlined a project that would explore the critic's day-to-day existence. James' plan was to follow Ebert to movie screenings, show him at work on his reviews, explore his relationship with Chaz -- whom he married when he was 50 years old -- and his step-grandchildren. While Ebert's determination to keep working in spite of his health problems would be an important part of the movie, James did not imagine he would be making a cinematic eulogy.
I wish he'd been able to make the other film.
I say that for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was not close to Roger, but I considered him a friend. We communicated via email and through Facebook. We literally passed notes. I respected him immensely. He struck me as an uncommonly generous, decent person and I wish I had known him better. That I didn't was entirely my fault.
Secondly, it might have been a more interesting movie. I would have liked to have heard Ebert holding forth on his literary influences, what movies were important to him as a young man, how he approaches his work. I would have liked a movie more about how Ebert was living in the present tense. I would have liked to see how he might have reviewed such a film.
As a film critic, he was extremely useful. About the best analogy I can come up is to say he was the Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter of film critics: solid, reliable and genuinely talented, with a remarkable work ethic, but a bit overrated by his fans. As one of his friends says in the film, meaning it as a compliment, Ebert was "a very facile writer." It came easily to him; he could write a review in 30 minutes.
There was a problematic aspect to his being the most famous and most influential film critic in America -- he was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers, which lent him enormous power. And, as critic Richard Corliss points out in the film At the Movies, the television show Ebert co-hosted with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel wasn't real film criticism; it was consumer advice or "a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater." To be fair, Ebert understood that the television show was different from his critical work. Still, the show popularized the idea of the critic as a little tyrant turning thumbs up or down on an artist's work.
Newspaper writers serve a general audience instead of a cult of self-identified cineastes, and they rarely have the luxuries of time or space allowed their counterparts in magazine (or on the Internet). I never really warmed to Ebert as a stylist until he started blogging. In retrospect, I appreciate his reviews, but he wasn't my favorite critic. (He wasn't his wife's favorite critic either. Chaz admits when she started dating Roger, she actually preferred Siskel's reviews.)
Those raconteurial long-form blog posts -- about his life, his battle with alcoholism, his adventures with Russ Meyer (and the Sex Pistols, although that episode isn't covered in the film) -- eventually resulted in Life Itself, the memoir that serves as a backbone for the namesake film.
James, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert (who called it "one of the best films about American life [he had] ever seen"), employs an array of TV and movie clips, archival photographs and interviews with Ebert's friends and colleagues (including sportswriter Bill Nack, critics A.O. Scott and Corliss, and Siskel's widow, Marlene Iglitzen) to lead us through the various stages of Ebert's development. A precocious teenager, Ebert was writing sports for his local newspaper when he was 15 and went on to be a legendary editor of his college newspaper. He fit in well with his hard-drinking confreres when he joined the Sun-Times, where, in 1975, he became the first film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Then he was teamed with Siskel on a televised movie-debate show, a partnership that continued until Siskel's death of brain cancer in 1999.
The heart of James' movie lies in the often contentious and deeply complicated relationship between these two men. It seems they genuinely disliked each other at the beginning, and most of the time only respected one another. They grew closer over the years, but the shock of Siskel's sudden death apparently wounded Ebert, who wasn't privy to Siskel's health problems (Siskel had kept his cancer a secret to spare his children). The film suggests the lack of resolution in Ebert's relationship with Siskel might have contributed to his candor in discussing his own health problems.
Much of the story is told in Ebert's voice, uncannily re-created by impressionist and voice actor Steven Stanton, who narrates portions of Ebert's book. (After losing his voice, Ebert was outfitted with a computerized voice synthesizer much like the one used by theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. For a time, Ebert worked with a Scottish company that was trying to produce a vocal synthesizer that would allow him to speak "in his own voice" by using sound clips culled from his television appearances. It's not covered in the movie, but that experiment never panned out.)
Meanwhile, James periodically returned to Ebert's then-current health struggles, spending a little too much time with the man and his family in his hospital room.
The hospital sequences are hard to watch, and though Ebert himself seems eager to have his tribulations documented, they occasionally struck me as voyeuristic, as exploitation under the color of unflinching journalism. I don't know that we needed to be reminded quite so often that dying is not usually an easy business, and the film certainly wouldn't have been harmed by trimming a few minutes off its running time.
That said, this is a warm and winning portrait of an infinitely interesting man. Ebert was a remarkably curious and engaged person, deeply interested in the world and its workings. Early on, he saw the promise of the Internet, and his investments in tech companies such as Google and Apple paid off handsomely. He was an early adopter of Twitter, an indefatigable commentator on all aspects of human endeavor, and an inspiration to us all.
And I miss him.
MovieStyle on 07/18/2014
Print Headline: Filming the critic/On the life, and end of life, of Roger Ebert