Life Itself

Two big thumbs up,

Two big thumbs up,

(2014) Documentary (Magnolia) Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, William Nack, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton (voice), Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rick Kogan, Marlene Siskel, Thea Flaum, Bruce Elliot, Steve James. Directed by Steve James

It has to be said that for most film critics, it is difficult to be completely impartial when reviewing a documentary about Roger Ebert. His influence on modern film criticism is enormous both directly and indirectly and while he may not have the intellectual cachet of a Pauline Kael (a critic Ebert himself admired tremendously) he certainly was the most populist film critic of his day.

Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed early on by Ebert and his Sneak Previews/At the Movies partner Gene Siskel, originally was tasked with filming a documentary about the film critic’s battle against cancer as a means of telling his story as laid out in his memoirs Life Itself, a book given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012. As it turned out, we would see Ebert facing the final days of his life and we are given almost intimate access – the suctioning out of his throat, the painful physical therapy recovering from a broken hip, seeing how he managed to keep his sense of humor despite losing most of his lower jaw and his voice to thyroid cancer.

James, at Ebert’s insistence, leaves no wart unseen. We hear about Ebert’s womanizing as a younger man, his alcoholism and his occasional control freak-ness. Marlene Siskel, wife of his close friend and rival, recounts how he once stole a cab from her on a rainy night while she was very pregnant.

But we also get a glimpse at his love affair with his wife Chaz, her amazing strength and support even when he is petulant and mulish, and how he adored her family. I do have a bit of a quibble here – James identifies her granddaughter as Roger’s “step-granddaughter” and while the term may be essentially accurate, I get the sense that neither Roger nor any child of Chaz’s previous marriage thinks of their relationship as step-anything. My own son is not my biological child but a product of my wife’s first marriage which ended before he was born. He has never known another father and neither one of us thinks of each other as anything but father and son. I suppose these times may require a redefinition of the term, but I digress.

We get a sense of Ebert’s importance to the art of film criticism through testimony by Richard Corliss (who once wrote that the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism of Siskel and Ebert “dumbed down” film criticism overall), Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and New York Times critic A. O. Scott. We also get a sense of his importance within Chicago through the recollections of his friends writer William Nack, columnist Rick Kogan and tavern owner Bruce Elliot.

It can be said (as RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz did) that he had two main loves of his life – Chaz and Gene Siskel. His relationship with Gene was complex. At first, Gene was the enemy – the film critic of the Chicago Tribune whose hoity toity attitude contrasted with the blue collar vigor of the Sun-Times where Ebert worked. The two barely acknowledged each other at first. They grew competitive, each attempting to sway the other through the virtue of their well-thought out opinions. While Ebert was the populist who understood that entertainment value was at least as important as artistic quality, Siskel had more of a cosmopolitan attitude towards cinema. Together the two introduced America to movies they might never have seen otherwise and as home video became popular and movies that rarely played outside of art houses found their way into video stores and eventually, streaming services, people who might not have become movie buffs got the opportunity to explore independent, foreign and alternative films in addition to the studio films they had previously been limited to.

Overall the film is very moving. We see Ebert deal with his illness with a firm sense of humor and great courage. He was in great pain but rarely seemed disposed to complaining about it. Excerpts from Ebert’s books are read by actor Stephen Stanton whose warm timbre is similar to Roger’s and captures his Midwestern cadence nearly perfectly. I must admit that I do miss Ebert’s physical voice much more than I thought I did, hearing him in clips from talk shows, interviews and of course with Siskel and listening to the two bicker and one-up each other is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

There are plenty of talking head interviews and archival footage that make up what documentaries are these days, but the access we have to Roger’s rehabilitation gives us more of an emotional bond with the man.

I cannot say I wouldn’t have become a film critic without Roger Ebert – I had already started down that road before I knew who he was. However, it is accurate to say that he inspired me to be a better film critic. He set standards that while i have no illusions that I meet I can at least aspire to them. He could excoriate a filmmaker and rip a film a new one with the best of them but it was never with malice or viciousness. He didn’t do so with any joy. The joy in his writing came in finding movies that inspired him or provoked empathy. He lived for movies that he could relate to in some way, and his writing in spelling out that relation allowed us to see a bit of his soul. For all his faults he was also a compassionate man whose progressive politics rarely entered his film reviews but whose wisdom and kindness did. His criticisms were usually valid (although he did have difficulty with horror films that he felt denigrated women as well as videogames as an art form) and while I didn’t always agree with his assessments, I usually did. As Scott remarks, he “didn’t condescend, didn’t pander” while his friend Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the movie and who credits Siskel and Ebert with giving him the self-confidence to continue directing during a particularly low point in his career) accurately added “He didn’t get caught up in certain ideologies” that film critics are prone to getting caught up in. The landscape of film criticism is a far bleaker place without him.

This is a movie that leaves me wishing I had known the man personally (the closest I came was sharing a cruise ship with him during one of his Floating Film Festivals several years back). While this movie may resonate more fully with film critics and film buffs than with general audiences, even those who don’t particularly care much about movies may well be moved at the heartfelt admiration the filmmaker has for the man. The title of the movie may sound a bit arrogant at first; movies aren’t life itself, are they? There’s life and then the movies are fantasy. But in a real sense, movies are a reflection of life itself and a good movie and sometimes even a bad movie can give us the opportunity to reflect on life and that’s never a bad thing. Roger Ebert understood that, perhaps better than any critic before or since.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting and moving. Great to hear Ebert’s voice, even artificially. Illustrates his place in popular culture.

REASONS TO STAY: Glosses over some elements of the book.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild foul language, brief sexual images and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the autobiography of the same name that the film is based on, Ebert states that he met his wife Chaz at a restaurant introduced by Ann Landers. In the movie, Chaz reveals that it was at an AA meeting, a fact that she had preferred to keep private which her husband honored.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Obvious Child

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