It’s not because I knew Roger Ebert, the subject of this heart-felt, highly emotional and unusually probing documentary about his life and final days. Yes, I knew him and his wife Chaz but not so well or closely that I can’t put that aside.
The difficulty comes in the film dealing directly with what I’ve done for a living for so many years — film criticism and journalism. I have no objectivity where that’s concerned. There has been only one other film ever made about film criticism, “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009), an earnest but frankly not very good doc made by film critic Gerald Peary.
I also lack objectivity when it comes to Ebert because he was the foremost champion of movies and of the role of the critic. He did more for film criticism than anybody.
More than James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris? Yes, those fine writers and thinkers made film criticism a vibrant, proud profession. They all forged the way for what all of us critics do today.
But by winning a Pulitzer Prize and by bringing film reviewing to television via his long-running show with his frenemy, Gene Siskel, he brought the whole idea of criticism to a mainstream if not a mass audience.
The shows were subjected to barbs from fellow critics at the time, who felt the two were dumbing down criticism by waving thumbs in the air. (Which assumes that a lot of dumb criticism doesn’t exist in print!) But their arguments/discussions were highly animated and intelligent; these were two guys who knew their subject and talked about it with wit, context and understanding.
I also lack objectivity because going to festivals in Cannes and Toronto, it was damn hard to see that Roger’s body was falling to pieces over the very short span of time. The marvel though was he kept on, refusing to let his increasing handicap keep him from the profession — and the movies — he was so passionate about.
So this empathy clouds any critical judgment. Consequently I can only pass along a few mildly negative comments I heard at the film’s L.A. premiere, that maybe the film is a little too soft and hagiographic and that it doesn’t even mention Richard Roeper, who took over the chair opposite Roger following Siskel’s passing in 1999.
I dunno, maybe i guess that’s true. I’ve seen the movie twice and still can’t look at it critically. I’ll say this: Roger knew he probably wasn’t going to live long enough to see this movie about him but I really do believe he’d give it a thumbs up.
Why? Oh, he might agree that it is a little soft, but he’d see that director Steve James — whose first film “Hoop Dreams” he helped to champion on TV and within the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times — cuts right to the heart of the matter: that a man betrayed by his body can still embrace life in all its glory and find joy in the wonderful task of writing about it.
But Roger didn’t want any sugarcoating. He was determined that James’ camera was in his hospital room to record his physical distress and tough-to-take therapy. He wanted that shot of the painful process by which a nurse must drain his throat by suction.
Just as he allowed — no, insisted — his photo be on the cover of Esquire magazine (pictured left), showing the results of cancer surgery and treatments that left him without much of his jaw and unable to speak, eat or drink.
He wants the truth of those situations: the grueling physical therapy and extraordinary handicaps but also the joyous gleam in his eyes even in those final months and his joking with nurses and kidding with his family.
The film deals with more than those final days though. It encompasses his life, the role of the critic — assessed here by filmmakers and fellow film critics alike — the literary lore of Chicago, the role of movies in all our lives — “a machine that generates empathy,” he declares — the embrace of life for all its ugliness and even the hint that Roger wasn’t alway a nice guy. Not all the time anyway.
He was the youngest critic to work for a major outlet and the first to win a Pulitzer. That fed an ego almost as large as his girth, which hit 300 pounds at one point. In bars and his celebrated TV show, he didn’t mind being the center of attention or even a bullyboy on occasion.
But he also gave up drinking — otherwise he’d have died long, long ago, he said — and grew to respect, admire and even love his critical jousting partner, Gene Siskel from the hated Chicago Tribune.
You are assured by his old drinking buddies from O’Rourke’s interviewed here that he had terrible taste in women yet he met — at an AA meeting it is revealed for the first time by Chaz — the love of his life whom he married at age 50. By then he had reconciled himself to a life of loneliness.
He would have not survived his last half decade without her. No one who saw them together or who sees this film can doubt that. He certainly didn’t.
So “Life Itself” is a great love story too.
One of the real treats is that James really gets you backstage at those television shows Roger did with Siskel under various names but always, to Roger’s chagrin, with Gene billed first — a coin toss decided that.
Early clips find the two guys stiff and ill at ease, mostly reciting their written reviews at or perhaps I should say past each other. But they were quick studies and did gain a greater understanding of how to write for the ear and how to comport oneself on the small screen.
Soon enough, they’re blasting away at one another with clear outrage at the other’s opinion. These guys were competitors and didn’t initially like each other. Outtakes of them trading insults during blown intros for the program show them like schoolboys trading taunts with Roger determined to get in the last word.
But when Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer, he told no one other than his wife but not his kids or even his partner. Roger hated not being able to say goodbye to him. So he vowed that if something similar happened to him, which it did, he would let everyone know. Which he did.
After he lost his voice, he plunged into the world of his blog and social media with abandon, writing better than ever (which is saying a lot) and ranging outside cinema topics to tackle politics, gun control, religion and other issues of the day.
Film Comment’s Richard Corliss appears on camera to explain his lengthy attack on the iconic thumps-up, thumbs-down judgments of Siskel & Ebert.
Martin Scorsese (who also exec produced the movie) appears to relate how those two men threw him a lifeline, when he suffered from drug dependency, that might have saved his career and even his life.
Other filmmakers such as Gregory Nava and Errol Morris address how Roger’s praise saved their films.
Okay, maybe James should have found some filmmaker who was savaged by Roger. Only that wasn’t Roger’s style. He never really savaged films; rather he expressed extreme disappointment or scoffed with disdain.
He believed in straight-forward, smart but plain writing rather than the Olympian reviewing style of Kael, whom he admired but refused to emulate.
When asked by my film reviewing students at Chapman University whom they should read to get an idea of good reviewing, I always say Roger Ebert. He’s the guy I want them to emulate while trying to find their own voices. He’s honest, tough but open-minded especially toward works that are fresh and new but maybe not fully realized.
He did spot the young Scorsese early and no doubt spotted new filmmakers in his final reviews that we’ll all be praising in the future. He had a good eye.
I don’t know what more to say other than catch this movie. Out of a treasure trove of old photos, archival footage, classic films clips and spot-on interviews, James gives you a man for all seasons. You don’t have to give a damn about movie criticism to enjoy this movie. You may give a damn though once the lights come up.
Opens: July 4, 2014 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: CNN Films, Kartemquin Films, Film Rites
Director: Steve James
Based on the memoir by: Roger Ebert
Producers: Zak Piper, Steve James, Garrett Basch
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Steven Zaillian, Gordon Quinn, Justine Nagan, Mark Mitten, Kat White, Michael W. Ferro Jr., Vinnie Malhotra, Amy Entelis
Director of photography: Dana Kupper
Music: Joshua Abrams
Editors: Daniel E. Simpson, Steve James
R rating, 116 minutes.