Life Itself review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Life Itself turns the camera around to focus on the medium’s greatest critic: Roger Ebert. The plump movie lover was well-regarded for his many movie reviews, countless books, film courses, film festivals and, of course, the Siskel & Ebert television program that coined the “thumbs up” rating. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his opinions, he always seemed to be present in the film community as a man who could both uplift a small film of brilliance and decimate a mega blockbuster of cliche. In the wake of his death in 2013, this documentary takes a hard look at Ebert from his early days up to his final months where he was still typing away his next review.
Director Steve James visits Ebert in his twilight days at the hospital for more rehab. Despite the loss of his voice from surgeries, Roger was still in high spirits through all his pain and struggles. Through his computer voice, he urges Steve to film himself in the mirror so that he can be in the movie as well. One of his grandchildren shows him a Lady Gaga toothbrush to which Ebert bashes it against his head in humorous annoyance. He’s even cracking jokes with the people around him with what little communication he has to work with. In between his visits, Steve sends Ebert questions over email that he answers with his trademark wit and elegance in writing. At one point Ebert comments on how he was glad that Steve James wasn’t afraid to film the suction of his neck. He wanted everybody to see him for all that he was and not just a faceless critic saddled behind his blog.
Lifting bits from his autobiography of the same title, Life Itself takes aim at Ebert’s life as a whole rather than just his career. Through various interviews with his friends, we learn about Ebert’s early struggles with alcohol and his questionable taste in women. Through various critics and directors, we try to comprehend his motive for writing the screenplay to Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Through many filmmakers, we learn how Ebert was able to uplift early directors with his reviews that gave attention to otherwise unnoticed talent. In particular, Martin Scorsese becomes rather choked up when the only thing that managed to get him through his rough life was Ebert’s glowing words of his early films. He must’ve just been a mess when Ebert actually invited him onto his television program to discuss the best films of the 1990’s with one of Ebert’s being Goodfellas.
Of course, the rivalry between him and Gene Siskel is covered which is how most people first came to know the man. It comes as not much of a surprise that neither one wanted anything to do with one another. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that they’d bicker about everything from who gets first billing to where they would eat that day. Though they appeared laughably dated and amateur in their first few years, something magical happened from their bickering: there was serious movie talk on television. At times when critics didn’t receive screenings for films big or small, Siskel and Ebert would talk about them. When movies seemed to be changing with the culture, you could bet Siskel and Ebert would address it on their program. While they viciously attacked each other verbally on and off the small screen, their love of movies brought these polar opposites together that eventually bred a sort of brotherly bond.
While there is plenty of archival footage to be found on Ebert’s long running movie review program, Life Itself chooses to focus on the lesser seen aspects. There is footage from his wedding to Chaz. There are photos of him with hopeful filmmakers who were honored to have their small films seen and reviewed by such a figure. There is even some footage of Ebert just relaxing and having fun with his grandchildren that is remarkable to see. Accompanying all this are Ebert’s own words, either through his computer voice or his audio book reader, displaying just how poetic one man could be even when his voice left. As someone who used to watch his program and read his articles almost religiously as a young adult, it was surreal and glorifying to see an icon I admired so human and complete. He was somebody I appreciated not just as a critic, but as a human being. His personality, encyclopedic knowledge of film and intelligent wizardry of the pen made him so much more than any other critic could offer.
Life Itself is a simply wonderful film about the man who many of us let into our homes once a week for advice on movies. He redefined how we perceive and view the medium by bringing true movie criticism to the forefront of mainstream culture. Much like Gene who died doing what he loved, Ebert never slowed down and never lost his drive. Even after losing his jaw, he kept writing reviews and even kept a syndicated movie review program going. Ebert’s passion held fast longer than his body through all his pains and frustrations that we see on screen. He did not just die with dignity; he died having lived one of the most profound lives any human could hope for. One of his many parting words he states as he approaches death’s door is that our true purpose in life is to make each other happy. For someone who still gets joy out of viewing the archival footage of his show and the musings of his many novels, I’d like to think Ebert surpassed his mission.