In 2013 we lost Roger Ebert, perhaps the most loved film critic of all time. He lost his battle against cancer, which cost him his voice and jaw, but left on a high note with a touching final blog post that ended with “I’ll see you at the movies”. A Steve James-directed documentary about the man, named Life Itself after Ebert’s memoir, was released the following year and I’m glad I got around to watching it before the year in question came to an end.
After a scene that shows Ebert in the hospital on one of his final days, the documentary delves into his childhood, his education, his beginnings as a young and ambitious newspaper editor in the 60’s, and of course, his eventual ascension into not only a tremendously celebrated critic, but also a social commentator known for his sharp tongue, witty writing and powerful speeches. And of course, the movie wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t move on to explore his brother-like friendship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, which it certainly does.
In interviews with old friends and colleagues, Ebert’s extraordinary ability to quickly craft thought-out movie reviews and hold lengthy but enlightening lectures on individual films is brought up, as well as his thick skin and unusual taste in ladies. These scenes are intercut with old photos of Roger or people whom Roger knew and excerpts from his memoir, read aloud by a man who sounds somewhat like him. We also see interviews with Roger’s wife Chaz and film directors like Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, all of whom provide touching words on the late critic.
There is archive footage from the original Siskel & Ebert TV show and the ever beloved film critic duo in interviews with the likes of David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey. Although Ebert’s relationship with Siskel isn’t the only interesting one in Life Itself, but also the one he shared with Russ Meyer, the man who’s softcore porno Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Ebert actually wrote the screenplay for in 1970! Very few of the interviewees can answer why one of the world’s most respected and influential writers would agree to write an erotica script but they speculate that Ebert liked boobs.
This journey through Ebert’s passionately film-oriented life is a heartwarming and touching one, but can be hard to watch when it moves back to “present day” and shows the man being fed through a tube and making futile attempts to regain his walking ability. He seems uncomfortable, but his optimism shines through and makes it better almost instantly. He didn’t let anything kill his confidence – one of the reasons Chaz fell for him – and his confidence is just as inspiring to me as his writing was and continues to be. This film gave me tears of both joy and sadness.
Ebert was the first film critic to be awarded with a Pulitzer price and it isn’t hard to see why. Nor is it hard to see how the whole world could fall for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as a duo. They had distinct looks, funny interactions and unforgettable arguments on their Siskel & Ebert & The Movies programme between 1986 and Siskel’s untimely, tumor-induced passing in 1999. They fought a lot and everyone who knew them knows it, but they were friends, seemingly brought together by destiny. Siskel would say of Roger: “he’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole”.
It is equally moving to see interviews with the film buffs and filmmakers that Ebert inspired with his work. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay was ecstatic to meet Ebert when she was just a small girl who looked up to him, and would feel even more ecstatic decades later when the very same man gave his trademark approving thumbs-up to her films I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. Then there’s Ramin Bahrani, a young director and Ebert fan who was given a box by Roger that contains the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This is the box that Alfred Hitchcock once gave to Marilyn Monroe. Roger instructed Ramin to one day pass on the box to someone who “deserves it”. Ramin has never finished the puzzle.
I can’t help but feel happy that Steve James, James’ crew and Ebert’s loved ones made this film happen. It is a great tribute to great man, and simultaneously it celebrates film and the passion for film that thousands shared with him. Roger Ebert’s life was a movie and I believe that he would think Life Itself comes close to doing his own movie justice. It is a reminder of why we loved him and why we will always love film. To quote a hero of mine, I’ll see you at the movies.
“I was born inside the movie of my life… I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” – Roger Ebert, Life Itself – A Memoir.