Roger Ebert: An essay on the man, the critic, and ‘Life Itself’

LifeItself-2014-2

“I was born inside the movie of my life… I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

Life Itself, director Steve James’ documentary about beloved film critic Roger Ebert, which is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, opens with video of fans taking pictures in front of the Chicago Theatre shortly after Ebert’s death last spring. The theater marquee reads, “Roger Ebert: A Celebration of Life with Love from Chaz, 1942-2013.” This helps set the stage for the rest of the film.

Over top of this footage begins audio of Ebert reciting a speech to the citizens of Chicago, followed shortly by video of the late critic’s public address. It is July 15, 2005, just days before “Roger Ebert Day”, dubbed so by then-Mayor Richard Daley in celebration of Ebert’s contributions to the landscape of cinema and to the city he called home. Below are Ebert’s words, a metaphor which would become famous throughout the critical arena:

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

James’ Life Itself, filmed at the tail end of Roger’s life and finished after his death, provides insight into the early life of Roger Ebert, his professional career, and some of the more intimate moments of the final months of his life. But James, always the fair documentarian, makes us aware of Ebert’s greatest attributes and his greatest flaws, both of which contributed to Ebert’s popularity and, ultimately, his legacy.

We see Roger as many remember him, at the supposed peak of his career, as the in-house critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and the second half of the “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” pairing. We also learn more about Ebert’s “Third Act”, the transitional, post-surgery period of his career in which he stood at the crossroads of film writing and technology and worked his way to the forefront, turning his blog into a celebration of both the art of cinema and the criticism of it.

But the access with which Roger and wife Chaz provided documentarian Steve James allows us to see moments that hit us much harder and move us much more than a typical relaying of events ever could. We see Roger communicate via his computer’s voice software; do rehabilitation for his newly repaired hip; get his throat cleaned and suctioned; and spend time in his hospital room with family and friends. These are the more mundane moments in a life full of verve and excitement, but these moments are the ones that generate the greatest empathy, that help us best identify with the people with whom we share this journey.

It’s clear in every frame of the film that Ebert was both lover and fighter, from early childhood until his final days. But we see that, largely because of his outlook on the world, when his time came to pass he was ready to embrace it, remembering all the good that life had offered, comforting those close to him as he breathed his last breaths. As a result, Ebert’s presence is firmly felt throughout the project.

I honestly can’t imagine myself disliking such a personal document of Roger Ebert’s life, especially one directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), but that alone really made me consider several things, not just about Life Itself but about the documentary genre as a whole.

For instance, when examining and reviewing a documentary, how much does or how much should your prior knowledge and perception of the subject factor into your enjoyment of the film? Is it possible to separate your like or dislike of the subject from the art on display? And further, how do you determine its quality if bias is, in fact, present?

And what of the documentarian’s motivations? For example, if the subject relates to politics or some other aspect of society, does the documentarian use his or her work to call you to action, to rally your support, or simply to make you think deeper about the subject? If the subject is human or some other mortal being, does the documentarian lay everything on the table, or does he or she simply spark enough curiosity that you spend the next two days on Wikipedia trying to learn more?

To all of those questions I say, “I don’t know.” I can’t say exactly what the best way to review a documentary is, especially when its subject is one as revered as Roger Ebert. What I do know, however, is that after seeing and pondering Steve James’ latest documentary, I can confidently state that I really, really liked it. And I think you will, too.

Now maybe that’s because Life Itself is a really well-made documentary — it most certainly is — or possibly it’s because I used to visit Ebert’s blog and read his reviews weekly, at minimum, until the time of his passing early last year. Maybe I enjoyed this moving portrait of Mr. Ebert because I find myself going back and reading his reviews for films I have only recently seen, many of which I likely added to my watchlist at his recommendation.

Or perhaps it’s because every time a new film is released, I yearn to check out Ebert’s blog and read his thoughts on the film. But much to my dismay, I no longer can. I now sit at my computer sometimes and scroll through the lists of critics’ reviews on Metacritic and RottenTomatoes, wondering whose writing I can read and consistently rely on now that Roger is gone.

All of this is to say that I really adored this film, but at the same time, part of that must be borne out of my admiration for its subject. I love what Ebert did for the movies, the things he stood for as both critic and bonafide movie buff, how he elevated the world of criticism, and how he embraced movies, technology, and especially life, even as his was drawing to a close.

What Roger always did so well in his reviews was explain why he liked a film or why he disliked it; even if you didn’t agree with his take on the film’s quality, you could at least acknowledge that his arguments and reasoning were well-stated and held some merit. You could disagree with the man, but Roger always garnered your respect.

So much of Roger’s life was about words, and even in the last stage of his life, when his physical voice was taken from him, he still had something unique to say about every film he saw. As Ebert once explained, the ratings he gave to films were just guidelines; every movie, he said, ought to be reviewed in context. It was never about the stars he gave or the thumbs-up approval or thumbs-down disapproval he became famous for, but rather, it was about the words he committed to paper and the ones he stated on television, all of which he passionately defended.

Just as Ebert’s writing always was, Life Itself is expressive, eloquent, and especially poignant. Steve James’ documentary very much embodies the empathy generating machine that Ebert speaks of: it fills us in on Ebert’s career and personal life, and acquaints us with the man behind those ubiquitous thumbs. The film is a portrait of the enduring icon’s vulnerability, which James portrays with a tender sincerity.

But James goes a layer deeper and does something more profound and powerful than simply using the events of Ebert’s life to move his audience and create empathy for his subject. Instead, through a combination of footage of the critic himself, interviews with and about him, and narration culled from his bestselling memoir, Life Itself reinforces the philosophy Ebert lived by, reminding us that our days on Earth are both precious and numbered, and that through something as diverse and widespread as the movies, we can better understand our journey, our humanity, and as the title implies, life itself.

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