How do we measure a life? In Roger Ebert’s case, his time could be measured in the prodigious output of film reviews from the 1960s through an overflow of Tweets and online writing in his final years. It could also be measured in the number of movies and careers he helped establish through his television show with Gene Siskel. But as Steve James’s documentary illustrates, it may be best be measured in the many lives he impacted and changed. As the full, unvarnished portrait of the people’s critic, Life Itself is surprising, touching, and unforgettable. It vaults to the rarefied air of the very best documentaries about the history of cinema; if you care deeply about the seventh art and the life’s work of Roger Ebert, you will love this film.
The doc covers Ebert’s evolution from his early years as editor of his college newspaper, The Daily Illini, where he wrote profoundly on current affairs and maintained a moral high ground, stopping the presses to avoid an insensitive layout involving John F. Kennedy and proclaiming that the racist actions of George Wallace left “blood… on all of our hands.” Soon after becoming a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, the film critic position dropped in his lap – this at a time when the industry’s respect for film criticism was exemplified by the fake reporter nom de plume “Mae Tinee” (an anagram of ‘matinee’). Ebert wrote as eloquently on movies as he had in more respectable areas of journalism and quickly began to transform the esteem of the film critic; by 1975, he had a Pulitzer Prize, but also a history of struggles with alcoholism and depression. Almost forty years later, Life Itself fills in his time as one half of the “Two thumbs up” behemoth, new status as happy husband and family man, and finally an emblem of courage and commitment in the face of cancer and surgery.
The film’s abundance of amusing anecdotes and priceless outtakes complement a no-holds-barred view of Ebert’s final months in the hospital; we get the full purview of Ebert the man. The audience is privy to the bickering between Ebert and Gene Siskel, his nemesis from “across the street” (meaning The Chicago Tribune) whose dissenting views on films would often result in incisive arguments, name-calling, and practical jokes on airplanes. We also see Ebert’s long-time affiliation with the Conference on World Affairs, where he would do marathon sessions of Cinema Interruptus, a seminar of many hours in which classics like Citizen Kane and The Godfather were screened and paused at any given time for analysis. Ebert’s view of film was populist, in that he remained open to every type of movie, regardless of genre and degree of pretension, but he also never shied away from pointing out that not everyone would be a critic worth heeding. Through his example, the way in which we appreciate film expanded to new levels of passion and appreciation, a case which Life Itself makes through narrating segments of his reviews, excerpting his television appearances and speeches, and most powerfully, through the words of his friends and colleagues.
I was especially impacted by Life Itself in it’s inclusion of filmmakers whose lives and careers were changed by Ebert’s encouragement. Ramin Bahrani, director of Man Push Cart, reflects on hopefully inviting Ebert to see his film at Sundance in 2005 and amazed to find that Ebert was one of the first waiting in line to make the early morning screening; years later, Bahrani visits Ebert in the hospital and receives a priceless gift. Ava DuVernay elaborates on Ebert’s appreciation of her first films and describes his status as an “honorary brother.” But it is the remarkably raw recounting of Martin Scorsese that left me with tears in my eyes, as Scorsese climbed out of a pit of drug-fueled hopelessness in the Eighties thanks to Ebert’s retrospective on his work. And Life Itself’s existence with Steve James at the helm is largely due to Ebert’s encouragement of James’s documentary, Hoop Dreams, one of the first Sundance success stories.
Finally, the film holds its heart in the love of its subject’s life, Chaz. Ebert said that he “waited 50 years to find” her, and footage from the wedding and the couple’s subsequent vacations with the whole family show another rarely seen side of the man. We witness hospital treatments and deliberations without censure at his request, allowing Chaz’s patience and steadfastness to shine through, from the fortuitous playing of their favorite Leonard Cohen song to the launch of Ebert’s comprehensive website. Those who knew Ebert best open up about his fascination with death and mortality; Ebert ultimately decided when he was ready to leave this earth. Ebert’s desire to embrace his “capacity for wonder” (his favorite passage from all of literature, the final page of The Great Gatsby) is a fitting epitaph for his life, for Ebert’s “wonder” knew no bounds. He leaves behind an astonishing legacy in the realm of cinema, and I can think of no higher praise than to say that he would have loved Life Itself.
Note: This year’s Sundance was the rollout of Roger Ebert Scholarship for Film Criticism. For more information, please visit: http://www.rogerebert.com/chazs-blog/roger-ebert-scholarship-program-for-young-critics-goes-to-sundance