Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)
Roger Ebert watched approximately 10,000 films in 25 years, and reviewed 6000 of them. And my friends think I watch too many movies – pfft. But no number is too many when you’re a professional film critic (I yearn for the day), and Ebert was arguably one of the best. Both an ally and an enemy to filmmakers the world over, Ebert’s reviews had the potential to make or break a film. Succumbing to throat cancer, he was rendered unable to speak or eat at age 64, but continued to write up until his death at age 70. In his final year, he became the subject of Steve James’ documentary Life Itself, based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name.
As is necessary, James picks and chooses which aspects of Ebert’s life to focus on. We rush through his university years which saw him become editor of the school newspaper, onto his employment at the Chicago Sun-Times where he was soon given the position of film critic. About two minutes are spent on his alcoholism. Greatest attention is paid to his relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune with whom Ebert hosted television show Sneak Previews (similar to At the Movies in Australia). We see them bicker both on air and behind the scenes and while this provides numerous laughs, their relationship is fraught with such negativity that you wonder whether they truly did hate each other. When we hear of Ebert’s true feelings towards Siskel following Siskel’s death, it makes for the most touching moment in the film. I certainly got a lump in my throat.
While the sway of film critics in general is debatable, Life Itself portrays Ebert as a huge influence on film success stories. Various filmmakers are interviewed who cite Ebert as a key player in promoting their otherwise little-known films, with one of them being the not-so-little-known Martin Scorsese who holds back tears during his remarks. Of further interest, the film explores the risk in befriending those individuals whose future films one must critique without bias. Reassuringly, it turns out that Ebert can still separate the film from the individual – he wasn’t impressed with Scorsese’s The Colour of Money at all.
One of the most enjoyable scenes in Life Itself is one of Siskel and Ebert’s many arguments on Sneak Previews where Siskel takes Ebert to task for giving a children’s film (I can’t remember the title) a higher star rating than another film reviewed earlier in the same episode. Ebert admits that yes, the other film was better but the children’s film will be adored by kids. He then turns the tables on Siskel, accusing him of being one of those wanky critics who only gives pretentious/’high-art’ films positive reviews. For that I wanted to give him a pat on the back, though what makes this scene interesting is that both sides have a point. Some would accuse Ebert of being inconsistent in his approach to film criticism, but he has argued he has a “relative, not absolute” approach. Food for thought.
Considerable attention is also paid to Ebert’s battle with throat cancer, which saw him have surgery to remove his lower jaw. The fact that he should lose his voice is tragic, but his ability to go on writing is inspiring. The man we see being interviewed by James is far from the image we see in old footage, but he has maintained his wit and charm. The love and support of his wife Chaz is immeasurable, with her recollection of his dying moments extremely affecting.
Though presented as a flawed individual (as we all are), Roger Ebert commands respect and appreciation for his contribution to film criticism. Life Itself has a head-start in the Oscar race for best documentary feature for obvious reasons, but a win would be justified given Steve James’ wonderful portrayal of a gem of the industry. Two thumbs up.
(and 4 stars)
Life Itself was recently screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival. A general release date has not yet been confirmed.