Life Itself: Portrait of a Film Critic as a Man

GameStop, Inc.

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On April 2nd, 2013, Roger Ebert wrote what would be his final written work, a blog post entitled A Leave of Presence. Two days later, Roger Ebert passed away at the age of 70. For any young cinephile, Ebert was a rock star of film criticism. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris made film criticism acceptable for the intellectual set, but Roger Ebert with his longtime partner/adversary Gene Siskel brought film criticism into the home of millions Americans every week. Borrowing its title from Ebert’s 2011 memoir, Life Itself contains just about everything a great movie should – laughter, tears, and unflinching honesty.

Given intimate access by Roger and his wife Chaz, director Steve James doesn’t make a film that dabbles in hagiography. From the opening scenes with Roger in a hospital room to the outtakes from Siskel & Ebert where the two argue and throw insults at one another, Life Itself is only concerned with presenting Roger for who he was – a flawed man who loved and was loved. James doesn’t exclude the rough patches that occur for Chaz in having to constantly care for the man she loves, nor does he exclude the harsh medical reality that dominated Roger’s final decade of life.

Featuring interviews from colleagues, friends, and filmmakers, the film easily fluctuates between inspirational biography to downright comedy. When Martin Scorsese discusses Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the cult classic penned by Ebert and directed by Russ Meyer, Scorsese calmly states, “It was over my head.” In the next moment with Scorsese, the great director wells up recalling how being honored by Siskel & Ebert at film festival helped him overcome his troubles with cocaine addiction. There are a number of these anecdotes throughout the film. Errol Morris recalling how Siskel & Ebert championed his Gates of Heaven three times on their show, practically ensuring it was seen by a wider audience. Werner Herzog recounts when he dedicated his documentary on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, to Roger. In an interesting piece of film memorabilia, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani displays a jigsaw puzzle that Alfred Hitchcock gave to Marilyn Monroe which was passed from Laura Dern to Roger to Ramin on the condition that Ramin bestow upon someone worthy in the future.

The film delves deeply into the relationship between Roger and Gene Siskel, their professional battles of ego. Clips of the two of them passionately arguing over the merits of Full Metal Jacket then Benji the Hunted from the same episode are a riot. But the sad revelation that Siskel kept his terminal brain cancer a secret from Roger led to much sadness and regret. Siskel’s secret is what inspired Roger to be open about his many ailments. The film gives time to the detractors of the show’s format – thumbs up or thumbs down – seeing it not as film criticism, but a simple yea or nay consumer guide.

If it weren’t for Roger Ebert and his life’s work, I’d likely not be writing this now. His influence on the world of cinema and film criticism is immeasurable. The film critic for Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, I often visit his website to see what he had to say about some older movie I’ve just watched. I used to frequently read his blog with topics as diverse as whether video games are art, religion, his battle with alcoholism, or issues related to his declining health. Luckily for fans of Roger and his work, RogerEbert.com continues to put out fine work, the excellent Matt Zoller Seitz serving as editor-in-chief. More than anyone else, the legacy of Roger Ebert is being kept alive by his wife Chaz. Their romance gave the both of them strength in the toughest of times. Their love is the foundation for Life Itself, a wonderful story told beautifully.

 

Life Itself is in select theaters and available for VOD rental through Amazon and other outlets.

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