What surprised me most about Life Itself? Seeing just how genuinely Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel must have disliked each other. The movie critics' bickering was part of their television shtick, of course, but in the documentary we see outtakes in which the two are fiercely, profanely hostile in their interactions. These scenes are hard to watch, and they're not the only ones. A very good movie, Life Itself is an unflinching look at the life and career of Ebert, who wrote a memoir with the same title. He's a worthy subject for a documentary feature -- probably the most famous movie critic there ever was and, given the shifts that have occurred in movies and movie criticism, ever will be.
In the name of full disclosure, I should tell you about a bias. I loved Roger Ebert. He's probably the single most important reason I got into writing about film. Reading his Pulitzer-winning criticism for the Chicago Sun-Times, I learned a lot about conveying honest opinions with unadorned prose. I'm a fan of other film critics, too, but I always came back to Ebert. I have long obsessively sought out reviews of movies I see, and I used to read Ebert's first. And can I tell you a secret? After his death last year, I was less interested in reading movie criticism.
I mentioned that Life Itself is unflinching. I'm thinking especially of the many scenes director Steve James captures from Ebert's final days. It's well known that debilitating illness transformed the last part of Ebert's life, and much of James' film documents Ebert's difficulties. These scenes, too, are hard to watch. Ebert, who was famous as a garrulous broadcaster, is now silent. Much of the lower half of his face is gone. He winces as a medical professional performs suction on him, and he winces as he does physical therapy.
Sometimes he is cheerful. But at other moments, he is cranky, even angry. His disability has fundamentally changed his circumstances, and this clearly is aggravating for him, and discomfiting for the people around him. I really admire James' honesty in presenting these sequences. I have some experience caring for a loved one with a long-term fatal illness; I have seen this anger, and I have known this feeling of helplessness. These scenes lift Life Itself out of the realm of conventional documentary. They make the film more than, say, a really good American Masters installment on PBS. We see scenes from Ebert's fabulously successful life. He had a dream job, befriended famous people, hobnobbed at Cannes. We also see him ill and disfigured. The contrast is jarring and mysterious -- like, uh, life itself.
Ebert seems to have wandered into his life's calling, his globetrotting fame. We're not told of any particular obsession with movies during his childhood in Urbana, Ill. He wanted to be a newspaper guy. As a kid he was dazzled not by the glittering lights of Broadway or Hollywood, but rather by overnight radio broadcasts from Chicago, an altogether humbler city. He picked up the film beat because he was assigned it. His beginnings on television were likewise humble; he and Siskel look awkward in fuzzy 1970s footage from their early broadcasts. As their renown grew, they came to define a certain kind of film criticism -- for better or worse.
I have mixed feelings about Ebert's broadcast career. It is amply documented in Life Itself, and much of the footage is juicy. But for many years I resisted Ebert, because I mainly thought he was a goofy guy from TV.
I lived in Chicago for most of my 20s. It was the 1990s. I was a film geek and frequented the city's excellent art theaters and college cinemas, as well as the multiplexes. One day a friend said she liked Ebert's reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times. I respected her opinions, and I was perplexed. My local movie writer of choice was the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum. Sharply opinionated and esoteric in his tastes, Rosenbaum was the perfect critic for the aesthete I imagined myself to be in those days. But I trusted my friend, and I started reading Ebert. Eventually I subscribed to the Sun-Times, just so I wouldn't miss his reviews. I became a committed fan in July 1997, when James Stewart and Robert Mitchum died at more or less the same time, and Ebert wrote marvelous, authoritative remembrances for the paper. Pieces like that were Ebert at his best.
Still, I seldom watched his show, which in those days was called Siskel & Ebert at the Movies. I wished for more in-depth coverage of the films, and I found the hosts' abrasiveness off-putting. I later got into the newspaper business and came to realize that their brittleness and antagonism were, ha ha, pretty typical of newspaper journalists.
I wish there were less about the show and more about Ebert's writing in Life Itself -- although, as he once observed, "Movies about writers are notoriously hard to do, since writing by its nature is not cinematic." But I think there is enough, and there is much compelling material about his tastes, and his passions, and his championing of young filmmakers (including James, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was an Ebert cause célèbre). Appropriately, we see a lot of his widow, Chaz, whose devotion is palpable.
Life Itself is a fitting tribute to a great film popularizer, and a man who taught me so much. I miss him.