Life Itself (2014)

Dir. Steve James

Like any good 20th Century icon, Roger Ebert sits on a throne of contradictions. He was half of the pair who made “Two Thumbs Up!” and a partner in reductivism, in his own way part of dumbing down the movies as much as Spielberg, Lucas, Eisner, or Katzenberg. It is also true that Ebert will go down as one of the three or four greatest film critics of all time, and that his movie process – how he watched them, what he looked for, what he liked – has become highly influential. Honestly, I think Ebert would have made a much better 21st Century icon than a 20th Century icon. As much as he was in the right place at the right time, positioned to swoop fortuitously into the Chicago Sun-Times movie reviewing job, he would have been like a fish in water in our present times. His blog and the vast store of his film reviews which are currently on his website, a godsend for a movie tenderfoot like me are evidence that he would have been a force in the Internet Age if he’d been here for more of it. Ebert could have been on every podcast, and probably could have hosted his own with whoever the modern Gene Siskel is. (He wouldn’t have shared a podcast with anyone, least of all the modern Gene Siskel.) Is that as good as being on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies? Maybe he would have been less famous, and the thumbs up system would have vanished into the ether, but I like to think that the Roger who loved Errol Morris and Werner Herzog would have been even more prominent. He would have had more opportunity, or maybe more leeway, to have his own tangents and forge his own paths.

Life Itself is largely based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, often used as fodder for narration. (Amusingly, director Steve James relies more on interviews and archival footage to talk about Siskel & Ebert.) The documentary has no illusions about what we want to know; it does not beat us over the head with factoids about the life of the Young Ebert, but provides us with a couple of anecdotes from his college years to give us a sense of how he was developing. In both incidents at the college newspaper – stopping the presses when an ad with a gun was pointing at John F. Kennedy’s head, and writing an editorial about the Birmingham church bombings – we see someone with strong moral convictions as well as someone with more than his share of stubbornness. The film doesn’t try to give us any sense that his stubbornness is a primary element to his professional success, which I thought was refreshing; indeed, it’s really implied that being bullheaded with someone like Gene Siskel made his life harder than it needed to be. (Marlene Iglitzen, Siskel’s widow, recounts a vignette about how Siskel made Ebert look like a jackass on a plane during one flight; her telling doesn’t make it sound like it was a friendly joke.) It’s in his personal life where Ebert’s obstinacy, given some clarifying reason to become determination, is actually useful. The most public example, at least until his cancer took away his ability to speak or eat, was his alcoholism. He quit drinking, joined AA, and was sober for more than thirty years; to me, that’s as clear an example as any of a man exercising his will.

The film witnesses some of Ebert’s final weeks and days, providing a dignified but revealing look at his deteriorating condition. By the time of the documentary, Ebert had already lost much of his jaw and throat to his cancer. It is hard to see, especially in concert with some of the images and sounds of a younger Ebert. Personally I had not reckoned with the extent of how much was gone from his face, or at least never thought much about it, and it takes some time to grow used to it while watching the documentary. In one close-up shot in the hospital, James manages to steal a glance at Ebert looking at his computer, working on some piece of writing. The shot is framed in such a way that it cuts off Ebert’s mouth entirely, and you can see so clearly that it’s the same man as the man who was on TV and who won his Pulitzer back in the ’70s. It’s the film’s most reassuring shot; I like to think it’s the way that his family and his close friends, many of whom are interviewed for the film, would have been able to see him. What is clear even before that shot, though, is how much personal strength Ebert has exerted. Although he stays in the hospital for two months due to a hairline fracture in his hip, a fracture he can’t explain, he is largely in good spirits for James and his camera. His physical therapy is exhausting, and he appears mostly frustrated at how hard it is to walk or ascend stairs, but while sitting down, he seems more or less himself. He speaks about death without seeming worried, and he can reminisce freely without becoming bogged down by memories of better times. He recognizes more than once that he is a fortunate man who has had a very good life, so what use is it to cry over this last chapter? The stubbornness which defined a younger version of him has become plain fortitude.

Life Itself runs for about two hours, and of those two hours it seems that just less than half of it is devoted, somehow, to Siskel & Ebert. (And somehow, Richard Roeper is not even mentioned in this movie.) Certainly Siskel & Ebert is an absolutely huge chunk of our understanding of Roger Ebert, the primary vessel that Ebert rode to national fame, but I know I was surprised while viewing that so much of the film relies on Siskel & Ebert to make its points. I think if James is honest, much of the reminiscence is simply to find more yelling. Ebert’s rivalry with Gene Siskel is useful in showing us Ebert’s aforementioned stubbornness, for one thing, but it’s also a way to discover how the stubbornness degenerated into out-and-out nastiness from time to time. There are some outtakes from one intro to the show which are really just ugly; obviously, neither man would be proud of the things they said if given the chance to look back on that tape even a few weeks later. All in all, I’m inclined to give James the benefit of the doubt for spending so much time on Siskel & Ebert for three reasons. First, Gene Siskel died when I was eight years old and thus I’m not really in a position to remember the cultural cachet of the program. Second, I think James recognizes that most of the controversy over Roger Ebert as a person centers on his work on the show, and that the controversy does not necessarily start with Ebert as a person. Some of it certainly is; I refer to the personal rivalry between Siskel and Ebert, a rivalry which the documentary is not shy about saying had much to do with quantifying certain parts of the male critics’ anatomy. And some of it, more interestingly, has to do with Ebert’s place in the critical firmament.

One of the major questions that James has left for Ebert to answer during Ebert’s final decision to give up the ghost has to do with his arguments with Richard Corliss from the early ’90s. (It’s a question which sneaks in there along with grandiose, graduate-thesis level questions about the direction of the film industry and how it will continue to change.) Again, part of me wonders if this isn’t an opportunity to squeeze more yelling into the movie like it’s a delectably sour segment of grapefruit, but as a professional it’s worth wondering. Reading back on the original article from Corliss, as well as Ebert’s initial response, some of the venom that the film implies is probably a little overstated. Corliss throws some shade at Ebert, and Ebert throws a little less shade back, but on the whole I don’t see a feud in the making. Indeed, both articles are cliches (especially now, when one would have followed such a controversy on Twitter for a minute and then it would have been largely forgotten). Corliss’ thesis boils down to “I miss the good ol’ days” and Ebert’s to “But we have more platforms in the good new days,” which are arguments that pop up within every discipline at least once a year. On the whole – and even for Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who are most vocally critical within the film of Ebert’s position as one of film’s “Roman emperors” – I don’t think anyone would dispute that Ebert’s actual writing on film is essential to the canon. Every now and then James will float a sequence of a film (Cries and WhispersL’argent) with some of the words from Ebert’s review over it; to me, those are far better representations of Ebert than any of those segments from Siskel & Ebert, significantly more indicative of his style and his contributions to criticism than the whole run of the At the Movies series. Corliss compares the Siskel & Ebert segments to chicken nuggets for moviegoers, and he’s not necessarily wrong. But it’s not fair to suggest that Ebert’s best or most lasting role as critic will be the guy who throws the frozen nuggets into the deep fryer, not when this series is on his website and free for people like me (or you!). Ebert’s “Great Movies” reviews are the tasting menu of a Michelin starred restaurant, and while At the Movies is long dead and very few of us are scouring YouTube for episodes, those reviews, filled with his warmth and his guidance and his analysis, are there for the taking.

The third reason I’m inclined to give James the benefit of the doubt on the Siskel & Ebert kick is that the presence of Roger’s wife, Chaz, is strengthened by giving us the dregs of Ebert’s TV personality. She shows a different side of Roger to the camera, one which is much more in line with the individual writer whose work I’ve loved since I started going through his reviews. The Ebert I’ll always think of is the one who wasn’t afraid to talk about movies as a primarily emotional experience, something you felt as much as you thought. For example, when he made a comparison to another film, he made it in a way that heightened one’s understanding of both rather than using it as a stamp on his credibility. He showed that it was possible to react emotionally to a film, to be moved by its contents, and that one could make an analytical judgment on it based on the techniques used to build those emotions in the first place. And in his relationship with his wife, one can see that man in action. In home videos, we see him happily take up the role of stepfather and step-grandfather, glad to engage with children who aren’t biologically his own (and, at age fifty, not likely to come up with any who are literally his own). Instead of keeping up some procedure of his life as a bachelor, just with a wife, he made himself part of her family. In the home videos we see, and the interviews with his kids and with Chaz, and in the interactions he has with Chaz in the hospital, we can tell that the professional was never all that far from the personal all along.

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