If you enjoy films, chances are you’ve heard of Roger Ebert. While Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris might have been the most academically influential film critics of the 20th century, it is Roger Ebert that became a beloved global figure and the go to person for film criticism in America and beyond.
Early on in Life Itself, one of Ebert’s acquaintances says that he was the central figure and the star of the movie that was his life – and he was also the director, bringing in cast members and creating events. Ebert’s influence is clear in Life Itself – based on his best-selling memoir of the same name, the film is something of a memorial service – but one in which Ebert, although sickly and unable to speak conventionally, is still very much present.
While the film was originally intended to be an adaption of the memoir, Ebert’s condition worsened and instead, the film follows Ebert in the rehabilitation clinic and briefly at home, with the bulk of footage coming from the archives and in the form of interviews with his friends and colleagues, including Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese.
Director Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame crafts a respectful and moving documentary, with his trademark cinéma vérité influences clear and welcome. Near the beginning of the film, Ebert demands that James film himself in the mirror, and we are constantly reminded that yes, this is a documentary, and yes, this is a collaborative work. Ebert is the subject of the film but is also a creative influence. Throughout the film, email correspondence between Ebert and James pops up on the screen, and it keeps reminding us that while Ebert may not be able to speak, he still has plenty to say.
For someone who can only aspire to the greatness Ebert achieved, Life Itself is inspiring. From his Chicagoan working class beginnings (his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife), Ebert became a full-time film critic in university, won a Pulitzer Prize, and starred in a television show that syndicated all over the USA. He was a prolific and prescient writer, and a celebrity in his own right. His populist approach to cinema was inclusive but never condescending.
But although Life Itself addresses these brilliant milestones, these aren’t the biggest moments of his life (except perhaps the Pulitzer!) Rather, the documentary observes the extraordinary ability Roger Ebert had, to really touch people’s lives – there are appearances by several filmmakers whose films would perhaps have been overlooked or entirely vanished into oblivion if Ebert had not written what he had written. At the age of 50, he married Chaz, an African-American civil rights lawyer who appears in the film too, of course, and there are home videos of him with her extended family. Before they met, Ebert had been quite sure he was headed into a lifetime of loneliness – something that is apparent when the film looks at his early life of excessive drinking with friends, only to wander the streets alone when everything had closed.
One of his friends reveals, saying that she doesn’t think he would regard her saying it as a betrayal, that he had said that sometimes he wished he were dead. It’s a very different side to the jolly, energetic man that we see in Life Itself, even if Ebert’s days are numbered while we watch.
It also looks at Ebert’s public struggles with his health, drawing a parallel with his co-star and fellow reviewer Gene Siskel’s brain cancer. While they were constantly butting heads – sometimes in jest, sometimes more seriously – they were almost like brothers, according to Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen. Siskel kept his cancer a secret from almost everyone until his death in 1999, including Ebert and his children, something that Ebert took hard. It was one of the reasons Ebert was so upfront about his health issues.
Life Itself is a gorgeous, well-made film – at no point does it wallow in sentimentality or try to make Ebert out to be a saint. But it is poignant and touching. It simply relies on real life to come across through the camera onto the screen, which it does. James’ delicate touch ensures that no moment feels exploitative, even if the images of Ebert struggling to get a point across, without paper and unable to speak, or of him sleeping, looking old and tired, or of his wife, Chaz, in tears, feel a little intrusive.
Two thumbs up to a luminary of cinema.
Life Itself opens exclusively at Cinema Nova on January 8.