This may sound strange, but when I was 13 I knew I wanted to be a film critic. My main inspiration at the time was Mick LaSalle, who reviewed films for the San Francisco Chronicle. As I got older, however, Roger Ebert supplanted him in that role. Here was a man who, in his writing, never condescended to his readers, who wrote in clear, very relatable language why he liked or didn’t like a movie, and at the same time managed to convey his vast knowledge about the medium itself. I strive to compose my reviews for this newsletter the same way, but at this point—due perhaps to a lack of life experience and a certain emotional immaturity—I realize I will never fully grasp the deeper meanings present in many films. But Roger Ebert? He understood everything about them, and thanks to Life Itself, we get to understand a little bit more about him.
It seems odd to be reviewing a film about a man noted for reviewing films, but then Ebert became as much of a celebrity as the celebrities with whom he hung out—much to the chagrin, apparently, of other film critics. We learn this fact and many others, some nice and some not so nice, as veteran documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) takes us through Ebert’s life and career via photos, interviews with family members and friends and colleagues, and footage of Ebert himself during what turned out to be the last months of his life. And what a life—editor of his college newspaper, reporter for the Chicago-Sun Times and then its film critic (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize), co-host of the infamous movie-review TV show with fellow film critic Gene Siskel, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, finally marrying at the at the age of 50.
For me, the most fascinating part of the film examines Ebert’s professional relationship with Siskel. I always enjoyed their show and their entertaining, and sometimes testy, exchange of opinions. But James sheds some interesting light on their behind-the-scenes behavior, partly through watching the two film promos for the show. Of a little more interest to the denizens of Boulder, James also shows us clips of Ebert at CU-Boulder’s World Affairs Conference, and former Denver Post film critic (and current Video Station customer) Howie Movshovitz—no slouch himself in the film criticism department—chimes in quite a bit as one of the many interviewees. In one colorful, and educational, tidbit, he talks about an observation Ebert made about Citizen Kane.
For all the smiles the celebration of Ebert and his professional feats brought me, seeing what the thyroid and salivary gland cancers he was originally diagnosed with in 2002 had done to him, with the removal of his jaw and the loss of his voice, was sobering and sad. We watch him struggle to stand and communicate, see his wife Chaz trying to hold it together and, ultimately, we attend his funeral. Admittedly, these scenes are hard to watch. But as Ebert says through his computer to James at one point, the film wouldn’t be honest if it denied showing him like this. He was right, of course, being the consummate film critic. I wonder what he would think of the finished product.
Speaking of computers, throughout the film we hear what sounds like Ebert recite excerpts from his 2011 memoir. In actuality, it’s a copy of his voice constructed from recordings of him over the years. But it sounds just like him, as if he had somehow physically regained his ability to speak, and is in stark contrast to the synthesized, Stephen Hawking-like voice we hear when he talks through his laptop. Granted, we still could hear his true voice even after he had lost his physical one—through his reviews, which he continued to write until not long before he died. We briefly hear him recite his last one, of The Tree of Life, in his Ebert-sounding voice, and in hearing it, we’re reminded that though the man may be gone, what he taught the world about the movies will linger forever. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 2/17/15