So what does it say about me that the most I’ve cried at a movie in a long time is a documentary about a pudgy film critic? Well, I found myself tearing up quite a bit at Life Itself, the film based on Roger Ebert’s memoir. It’s a fascinating celebration of a fascinating man, a man who lived a great life and died a great death.
The director is Steve James, just one of many unknown filmmakers that Ebert helped in his career. James directed Hoop Dreams, a film that Ebert championed and named the best film of 1994. That film, which was emotionally powerful and superbly edited, lends some of its traits to this film, though the subjects couldn’t be more different.
The film covers Ebert’s life in roughly chronological order, from his days as a boy reporter to his tenure editing the Daily Illini to his days as a Chicago newpaperman. Then he became a Pulitzer-Prize winning critic, and after being teamed with Gene Siskel on television, half of the most powerful film critics the media had ever seen.
Through all this we see Ebert in his last days, at first in rehab after a fractured hip, then after a bout of pneumonia. Cancer had robbed him of his jawbone, which meant the skin of his chin dangled uselessly, leaving him unable to speak, eat, or drink. We see some grueling treatment, such as suction (a tube is stuck directly down a tracheal opening). Yet his spirits remained high, mostly due to his constant work on his blog, and his wife Chaz.
From the first I knew of him I have admired Ebert. He was a great humanist–the beginning of the movie, in which he is awarded a star in front of the Chicago Theater, has him saying that civilization requires us to get know others we don’t know, and that movies play a part in that–they are “a machine of empathy.” We learn what a great guy he could be, mostly from his cronies in his Chicago newspaper days, hanging out until last call at a dive bar. But we also learn what we could have guessed–he tended to be full of himself, was a control freak, and could be a big baby.
Most of this is shown with his difficult relationship with Siskel. At first they hated each other. Siskel, who is knew how to press Ebert’s buttons, is described by a friend as “a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.” We see some of their great arguments on the show, plus outtakes of teaser ads, in which both drove the needle deeper when they make a mistake. Siskel finally says, “Join us this week on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies and the asshole.”
But the two entered on such a wild ride that they couldn’t help but feel closer. Siskel would later clarify his statement: “He’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole.” My first time tearing up is when Siskel died, in 1999 (he did not tell Ebert he had a brain tumor). Siskel’s widow reads the beautiful letter that Ebert wrote her, and it’s heart-rending.
Later the film covers how Ebert met his wife, Chaz (it was at an AA meeting, which Chaz had never admitted before). Ebert was fifty when they married, and was immediately part of an extended African-American family. Everyone who knew him said she changed him for the better. As someone who is about to get married for the first time in my 50s, this was the second time I cried.
Of course, Ebert and James did not know that Ebert would die before the film would end, but he did, and as Ebert indicates, it makes for a better story. When Chaz describes his final moments, with the whole family holding hands in a circle, it was crying time number three.
But there’s a lot more, including some laughs. Why did Ebert like the films of Russ Meyer (for whom he wrote a screenplay)? “Boobs.” Martin Scorsese recalls a touching moment when he was at the end of his rope, and Siskel and Ebert invited him to the Toronto Film Festival for a tribute, and if we can understand it clearly, saved his life. Other filmmaking friends express their love and admiration, such as Werner Herzog and formerly unknown directors, like Gregory Nava, Rahmin Bahrani, and Errol Morris. Morris, who had made a small documentary called Gates of Heaven, which the two mentioned on their show three times, credits Siskel and Ebert for making his career possible.
We hear a few respectful criticisms. Richard Corliss wrote an article about the dumbing down of criticism by using a “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” system, but in retrospect he doesn’t seem so convinced of it. Jonathan Rosenbaum feels that Ebert went too mainstream, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that’s not true, as they both went out of their way to find and champion small films. It is true, though, that someone like Pauline Kael would have never worked with a dog, as Siskel and Ebert did.
The greatest takeaway from Life Itself is that Roger Ebert lived a great life. He was a polymath, something of a genius (he could write a fully realized review in half an hour. I can do that, too, but mine aren’t near as good) and a great friend. He got dealt a tough break in his last years, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
His final words, written on his blog the day before his death, were “I’ll see you at the movies.”
My grade for Life Itself: A.