When film critic Roger Ebert passed away last year I’ll be honest . . . I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I started reading some of the many remembrances and tributes that I really got the sense of how big of a deal this guy was. Yeah sure he had that movie review show back in the day and the man did help coin the most recognizable rating system in the world, but outside of that I never really knew who he was or what made him so great.
Did I ever read him? No. Do I have aspirations to be like him? No. Then why the interest in watching a documentary about him? Since his passing I’ve read up on some of his work and I’ve come to better understand who he was and why he meant a lot to the film community. He helped turned film criticism into something that was legitimate, something that people read and respected, and had the forum to reach a lot of people and talk to them about film. He was knowledgeable, eloquent, and wrote with a voice that was quite unique. In the end, watching Life Itself is something that I felt I just needed to do in order to continue calling myself a movie lover.
Going into my viewing of Life Itself there were only a handful of things that I knew about Roger Ebert. There are the basics of course: he had the first tv film criticism show Siskel & Ebert with Gene Siskel, he was from Chicago and worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, he was husband to Chaz, and that he had lost the use of his voice due to cancer. While this knowledge base is probably more than most people know of him, Life Itself examines many other facets of his life and really dives into the things people knew most about him.
The film is broken up into three parts: his early life and his rise to being a film critic, the years of working with Siskel and Ebert colleague Gene Siskel, and his final years after the loss of his voice. Clocking in at two hours, the film gives you more of a look at Ebert’s life than you would expect. Documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) leads us through the usual steps in Ebert’s life, interviewing friends, family, colleagues, and other film related acquaintances along the way. Probably most heartfelt are the scenes of Ebert shot while in the hospital or in rehab as we get to see him at moments where he appears worn down and is a far cry from the critic that we knew him as on his tv show.
While a lot of the info from his early life that sets up his rise to being the consummate film critic as well as his more recent medical troubles was all very interesting; it was probably the portion that focused on his relationship with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune that was the most fascinating to watch. I had heard somewhere that they bucked heads a lot, but I didn’t realize to what extent until this documentary. Here you have two men, very knowledgeable, both very self assured, and both with strong viewpoints; opposing each other on many different occasions. How could the most recognizable film criticism show in the world happen with two men that were almost always at odds with one another? The answer . . . film.
From practical jokes on one another, to trying to out scoop each other covering the world of cinema, to taking pot shots at each other while filming the show; the sense that you get from the film is that these two men tolerated each other because they always wanted to be the best and the other guy was alway there to challenge them. Probably the most disheartening thing in the film is that both of these men didn’t realize the unlikely friendship (yes, friendship) they had until it was too late for both of them.
To kind of put a bow on the whole thing, Life Itself isn’t for everyone. It’s a documentary first so if you’re looking for fiction then this definitely isn’t for you. As for the subject matter itself–I found much of it engrossing. But then again, I love movies and I like talking about them so Life Itself is definitely in my wheelhouse. And that’s the kind of the demographic this film is for, for those that really love film culture. With just about a two hour runtime, it will probably wear on the average movie watcher. If you’re in the target demographic with me, then get your popcorn and be prepared for a film that I give two thumbs up.
Cinematic Scene: Tube Cleaning
With documentaries being rather straightforward (visually) and filmmakers using employing file footage and one-on-one interview shots, I was fearful that I would have to omit this portion of my review. However, one scene in particular stand out as soon as I saw it. By this point in the film Ebert is in the hospital and director Steve James does not shy away from some of the more unpleasant activities that he has to go through.
In the scene, a nurse is seen at Ebert’s bedside. She asks him if he’s ready for his tube cleaning or suction. At first you’re not sure what is about to happen, but then you see her make a motion near Ebert’s throat and next thing you know you see him wincing in pain. Up until this point we’ve never seen Ebert weak or sickly–even with his operation and the loss of his voice. He’s always remained upbeat and full of energy. However, this is the first time we see a chink in his armor; and it’s a startling one. It’s mainly because you can almost feel the pain he’s going through just from watching the reaction on his face. I’m not sure how painful that cleaning procedure actually is, but watching Ebert go through it sure looked like hell.
3.5/5 stars // rated R // 2hrs