I remember I wrote a fairly lengthy eulogy for Roger Ebert on this very blog when he died back in April of 2012. At the time it felt like a fitting send-off, but now seems a bit modest when considering the subtle-but-profound influence Ebert had on my life, and the gaping hole he left that I had in no way anticipated. And I know I’m not the only one. About a month ago, my colleague Sean Lemme confessed that Ebert’s death had about as much of an impact on him as any recent celebrity death, and I can’t help but feel exactly the same way. I know there have been many more qualified film critics that have pointed out Ebert’s (and Siskel’s) influence on film criticism since the late Chicagoan’s death, but I think there’s something to be said about Ebert’s influence on people like myself who don’t consider themselves professional critics, and merely love cinema. I think for us, Ebert was someone that you couldn’t help but feel a connection to, due to him showing up in people’s living rooms every week. And then for people my age, who didn’t really get to appreciate Ebert until his later years, we got to know him through his heavy online presence and were able to wrestle with what the great man had to say about his favorite subject: the movies.
Perhaps it’s a no brainer that a movie be made about Roger Ebert, and perhaps it’s also a no brainer that this particular movie be directed by one of the many directors Ebert championed, like Hoop Dreams documentarian Steve James. However, I suppose it’s fairly unique for James to stage this documentary as an adaptation of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, since it’s hard to think of many non-fiction films adapted from non-fiction novels. But because this movie was a still a work in progress when Ebert passed away, James’s footage of the late critic was able to surprise me in ways I hadn’t expected. The hospital scenes — in which James was given access to what would become Ebert’s final days — in particular are hard to watch, but give the film a kind of uncompromising honesty that surely would’ve kept Ebert from giving this movie a scathing review.
As someone who read the book that this film is based on, I was pleased to see the film zero in on what made Life Itself a worthy memoir, even if it was written by a guy who seemed to prefer writing about himself more when it was in the context of a movie review. Ebert’s somewhat uneventful childhood is glossed over, while his struggles with alcohol are given a fair amount of screentime, even if the movie probably realizes that there are much more insane accounts of great writers with drinking problems than the ones that plagued Ebert’s early adulthood. But easily the most fascinating part of the memoir — which thankfully has an even more prominent part in the movie — is Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel. The sibling-like rivalry between the two co-hosts of Siskel & Ebert At The Movies is about as deep-rooted and complex as any relationship I’ve ever seen in show business, and seeing the two of them on camera in this film is just a reminder that these two had a kind of intense chemistry that could never truly be replicated. It just makes me hope that someday Shout Factory will go back through the Siskel & Ebert archives and put out some sort of box set, because those guys truly changed the way we talk about movies.
Still, as much as Life Itself captures what a unique and influential phenomenon Siskel & Ebert were, it’s not afraid to show the oversimplifying effects of the “two thumbs up” system that they coined. The movie makes a point of bringing up Richard Corliss’ 1990 article that indicted Siskel & Ebert’s approach as dumbing down the state of American film criticism. There’s also has a brief passage that brings up Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris’ more high-minded approach to film criticism, though the film shows it’s allegiances (perhaps a little too bluntly) when it allows one of its interview subjects to declare “Fuck Pauline Kael!” However, it nonetheless shines through that Ebert knew the “thumbs up/thumbs down” system wasn’t a foolproof rating system by any means, but simply made for good television. And perhaps this hints at another one of Ebert’s many charms — that he had the ability to seem like he was always on the right side, even if (as many of his reviews could prove) he wasn’t.
One last thing that I remember responding to about the book was the way in which the final chapters captured the terminally ill Ebert in a state of ease about his place in the universe. The movie is a bit different, in that it captures a determined work ethic even to the end, but also a desperation to not let the icy hand of death take you until you’ve truly stopped fighting. Admittedly, it’s some pretty heavy stuff, and it’s probably no accident that Life Itself at one point shows Ebert watching the latest installment of Michael Apted’s Up Series, which similarly features real-life characters dealing with the trajectory of their own lives. Yet even when death seems to surround so much of this film, more often than not Life Itself feels like a fair and insightful celebration of a life well lived. And for that, you can probably guess in what direction my thumbs are headed.