Life Itself

Life Itself photo starrating-4stars.jpgMy introduction to Roger Ebert (and to film criticism in general) began at a very young age. I used to watch Sneak Previews on channel 9 which was the public television station in the San Francisco Bay area. He, a writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, would co-host along with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. As far as I was concerned you couldn’t mention one without the other. They critiqued enough movies that kids could enjoy to maintain my interest. However most were pictures I was either too young for or had no interest in seeing at that age. It was my dad who initially watched the show and he like me enjoyed the back and forth when they would disagree, even more than the actual review. They spoke intelligently about movies but at a level where I could still understand.

Life Itself is based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name. It’s presented somewhat in chronological order but not always. Sections of his life that pertain to the Siskel & Ebert stuff or his wife Chaz have a constant presence. We’re reminded of what chapter is being addressed in the lower left hand comer. The numbers jump around as the document picks and chooses vignettes that seem most relevant to tell a story. As it charts his career, it touches upon the high points of his days at the University of Illinois as an influential reporter for the Daily Illini on through his job as critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. His rivalry with fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel, their eventual show and the lasting impact that it had, are important milestones.

The best documentaries don’t take sides but rather present its subject for the audience to come to a conclusion. Director Steve James, who also helmed the highly acclaimed Hoop Dreams, doesn’t hide the fact that is clearly a fan.  Roger Ebert enthusiastically promoted his work as well. Life Itself unfolds like a celebratory memoir of a great man who revolutionized film criticism with a more populist approach. It treats Roger Ebert like the be-all, end-all authority giving Ebert a lot of credit for starting what groundbreaking reviewers such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were doing long before him. To be fair, the director does namecheck them.

Occasionally director Steve James allows a little grit. Critic Richard Corliss was particularly disapproving of Ebert’s quick “fast-food” style approach to reviews on TV. His scathing 1990 Film Comment article, “All Thumbs” is mentioned. Ebert could be a bit snippy and egotistical too. His trashing of the movie Three Amigos on The Tonight Show as the movie’s star Chevy Chase sat right behind him is pretty awkward. It reveals Ebert’s prickly personality much better than any wordy description ever could.  The best moments come from the footage of him and Gene Siskel recording their TV program. A series of recorded promos which expose the two bickering like children, provides a candid window into the man. Excerpted footage where they vehemently disagreed in their assessments is provided. The clips highlight their appeal and why no one has ever been able to replicate their chemistry since. Talking head interviews are also particularly enlightening. Gene Siskel’s wife recalls some private anecdotes. How he stole her cab while she was 8 months pregnant sticks out. Film greats Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog wax poetically on the influence he had on their careers.

Life Itself features Ebert’s love of movies just as much as his love for Chaz Ebert his wife, whom he married at the age of 50 in 1992. Their relationship forms a major part of the narrative in the third act. The film is a life lived and it is at various times informative, fascinating and yes sentimental. It would almost have to be. In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which was successfully removed in February of that year. 4 years later he had surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The results of which altered his life to where he ate and drink through a tube. At times the unblinking gaze of the camera on his appearance is difficult to watch. Unable to speak, he communicated via text-to-speech computer software. There’s an undeniable sadness that must permeate the proceedings. Chaz has a perspective that humanizes a man with an outsized ego. Chaz and Roger’s love for each other is profoundly touching. Their devotion is just as important a component as his thoughts and feelings about film. These scenes contrast with his often cantankerous relationship with his famous cohort Gene Siskel. Although those displays are where the documentary soars, the final act provides a poignant coda on the life of a man who left an indelible legacy on film criticism.

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37 Responses to “Life Itself”

  1. martin250 Says:

    nice review Mark. This was a very good documentary.my favorite film critic is Ebert. But do you agree that this is worth buying even for those who dont consider him their favorite?
    Many good scenes.but its funny how Siskel (RIP)mentions Benji the Hunted together with FMj.

  2. Rented on Amazon – hoping to watch it today or tomorrow…

    • I’ll make a prediction. It will become your favorite documentary of 2014.

      • Wholly possible but then it hasn’t had much competition yet this year and I don’t foresee that much the rest of the year…you know?

      • Ok so you’re thinking it’ll just be the best by default.

      • In fact I won’t know till I watch it…and then we shall see…and then it’s a matter of what if any other documentaries I see the rest of the year (of course already having seen things like Errol Morris’ THE UNKNOWN KNOWN and JODOROWSKY’S DUNE)

  3. Victor De Leon Says:

    This film was incredible. Great review, Mark. Your write up was very insightful and I appreciate the way you pointed out Ebert’s influence and how the Doc gives us various looks into his life and vocation. Nice work! Hope to have my review up very soon as well.

  4. It seems I can’t get to this one soon enough! I look forward to seeing a dissection of this influential man’s career and private life, although I’m fairly sure there won’t be a great deal of stuff that will be eye-opening.

    Unless there is.. . .

    I wouldn’t call myself the definitive Ebert fan, but man I love the guy. Even if I disagree with him a ton. And that tidbit about his trashing of Three Amigos on The Tonight Show. . .haha. Wow. A prime example of why film criticism is so great. I would have to vehemently disagree with his reaction to that movie. That was a comedic gem!

    • I wish the documentary addressed more of his controversial opinions. It touches on how he hated Blue Velvet and Full Metal Jacket. But there were so many more that people might find surprising. He disliked A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Dead Poets Society too. Personally that just makes him more of an iconoclast to me.

      • Interesting. And most definitely. His not liking DPS, A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club I can understand. (I’m one of the few I know who took a disliking to Fight Club, lol). But some of those other titles are quite surprising. I’ll bear the content in mind. That surprises me a little it doesn’t delve into his ‘work’ more. Still gonna be a great experience. 🙂

  5. I can’t wait to see this. Ebert was my favourite critic, not only because he was so poignant and often hilarious with his reviews, but because he truly loved film.

    Great review, really made me look forward to it!

  6. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert as a youngster. It was great when they disagreed. I didn’t know much about Roger Ebert at all. Didn’t even know he married an African American woman. I’m glad I saw this. He absolutely loved film and his family. I got to learn a lot about him. It was such an awesome documentary. 4 stars.

  7. Have not seen this yet, but am looking forward to checking it out.

  8. Nice review. It was a bit difficult to watch some of Roger’s feeding scenes and I choked up during the ending. A really great documentary that’s probably the best picture I’ve seen thus far this year.

  9. Mark,

    As you know, I was never a fan of Roger’s OPINIONS; but by looking the other way during the promotions for his beatification, I think I could find the documentary interesting — certainly the personal stuff sounds like it has possibilities.

    The poster for the movie, by the way, seems to show Roger in the middle of a vision of the-God-that-doesn’t exist.

    At least the man had the sense (I find out from your comment) to hate “Full Metal Jacket”. Wonder what his considered judgment was of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”.

    You might find some interest in the following:
    http://thatswhatidliketoknow.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/remembering-roger-ebert/

    • I’d put your knowledge of Roger Ebert above most critics. You know things about him that aren’t even in this documentary. You were there are the very beginning of his career and you even attended the same school.

      P.S. It might interest you to know the photo used in the movie poster above exists in an original form that had something taken out. I found the edit rather telling:
       photo ebert-398x300_zpsc1688f08.jpg

      • You’re ferreting out the source of the poster picture was a genuine coup. Life itself, the poster tells us, is the ONLY thing Roger loved more than movies. But how could they be sure? It turned out to be a movie, after all, that had the guy transfixed.

  10. Sent a comment on this one by email, but my email’s been screwy lately…

    Anyway.

    Loved your review, Mark. I didn’t really notice anything that hurt the movie about how much Steve James appreciated Ebert’s life. Though maybe that’s because I was pretty much expecting a celebratory piece about Ebert. Maybe, as you mentioned, the look at Ebert in comparison to Kael and Sarris was a bit overly biased, but I didn’t really notice while watching the movie.

    I’m really glad you liked this (and I guessed it, four stars!). Out of curiosity, have you read the memoir?

  11. sounds really good. definitely will check out

  12. Sharp review. 4 stars from me as well. Solid doc that provides quite a bit of inside info that I wasn’t aware of.

    • The Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars is ridiculous. Blackfish and Stories We Tell were the most recent titles added to a growing list of omissions. The category is rather controversial as to what gets ignored. If Life Itself doesn’t make the cut, it’s gonna hurt, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  13. You know Mark…I may get some shit for this but I hate the man with a passion. I do respect his love for movies and his influence to countless others. I also think the way that he went out is horrible and genuinely feel bad. Yet his view on unfair bashing of horror films (mainly slashers) has rattled me since the very first time I read a review of his many years ago…

    I feel his influence is partly to blame for the bad rep that horror has recieved over the years. He would mindlessly consider everything “misogynistic” or “senseless” when the intentions of both the writers and directors were far from! His website has continued the trend and continues to make me sick to my stomach…

    I’m a guy who wants to eventually be a screenwriter or director of horror movies so that may explain it! Your write-up is great as usual and I’m sure it is a great documentary! Not sure if I should view it though.

    • I remember he thought Babe: Pig in the City was the 7th greatest movie of 1998. That’s the sequel folks! He also loved Speed 2: Cruise Control, Junior, Cop and a Half and The Happening.

      Meanwhile he gave a thumbs down to Gladiator, Die Hard, Armageddon, Raising Arizona, Usual Suspects, The Professional, My Cousin Vinny, Reservoir Dogs, Brazil, The Untouchables, The Elephant Man. I could go on but you get the idea.

      Personally I don’t worship at the altar of Roger Ebert either. He is merely but one man’s (albeit well expressed) opinion.

      • You have a point sir! I’m all for respecting the opinions of others and wish the same for my own but I do call out pure silliness at times. Ebert is well expressed at times but he can also be lazy and straight to the knife if he hates a premise.

      • I followed Ebert’s recommendations like a bible UNTIL he married the love of his life, Chaz. From what I remembered he LOVED absolutely every film ever made.
        I’m sure that wasn’t the actual case, but I was pretty burned by some of his picks! Thinking back, it was very sweet. I still enjoyed reading his reviews, but went to Siskel or ‘Premiere’ magazine for films worth my $$.

        Mark, I totally remember watching ‘At The Movies’ on channel 9 in Santa Rosa on Saturday nights around 8:30.
        LOVED it when they really argued, both of them hit the other below the belt more often than not. GOOD TIMES 👏 RIP, S & E!!!!

      • Oh I miss the simplicity of that show – first Sneak previews and then At the Movies.

  14. Although I admit Ebert didn’t have a profound personal influence on me, I’m still very appreciative for what he did for film criticism. I’m looking forward to seeing this documentary not only to learn more about him behind the scenes, but also because Hoop Dreams is one of my favorite documentaries.

    • Steve James was just one of many filmmakers that benefited from Roger Ebert’s positive reviews. There are others, like Ramin Bahrani, mentioned in the movie as well.

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