Life Itself

Posted by Joel Copling on July 10, 2014

I own nearly every one of the late Roger Ebert's "Movie Yearbook" compendia since the 2002 version (I lost the 2003 edition and never owned the 2010 one), and I still remember when I got that first one. My brother, Jason, was in law school in Pennsylvania at the time. My family and I had traveled there to visit him and tour the university, and one day in a book shop, I noticed said 2002 compendium on a shelf and randomly opened it to a page near the front. It was a review of "Bringing Out the Dead," Martin Scorsese's great 1999 film starring Nicolas Cage as a haunted paramedic. His opening statement, I see now, quotes Cage's character, Frank, describing himself as a "grief mop," and Ebert's review proper begins by noting that Frank's "journeys into the abyss of human misery provide the canvas for Martin Scorsese's [film]."

At this point in my life, I had already been enamored with motion pictures from a young age, when I viewed the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" sagas, devoured old Disney movies on VHS tape (Remember those?), seen "Aladdin" seven times in a theater setting when I was only three, and obsessed over those little ratings in the form of stars and, later, graded letters that the Dallas Morning News published. But until opening it up to page 91 of an assortment of printed reviews and reading that single sentence, I had no idea that film criticism was actually a thing in itself, an artful process by which those whose function is to write can write about the cinema they love. But in that moment, I understood it, and my upbringing as a lover of film was suddenly thrown into greater relief: This is what I'm supposed to do (Needless to say, Jason bought it for me, so I can blame him for all of this).

The point is that this was Ebert's gift. He called the movies a "machine that generates empathy," and he was spot-on. There is a comfort level to the escapism that cinema provides, a fact Ebert understood but never took granted. He believed, as showcased and outright stated in an episode of his weekly review show with the late Gene Siskel, that the judgment of each film exists relative to its own merits. Take the episode in question, during which the two have an enormous disagreement over a pair of films (from 1987) they are discussing. Ebert felt "Benji the Hunted" would delight the kids, while "Full Metal Jacket" struck him as unoriginal; when Siskel berates him for it, Ebert sticks to his guns, noting that the former is nowhere near the achievement of the latter but, in the face of the relative effect of each film, the dog-tale installment was more successful.

It is this ideal by which many--myself included--strive to consider each movie they are reviewing, whether it be praising a movie that has otherwise nearly unanimous opponents or criticizing one that has just as unanimous supporters. Director Steve James' magnificently affecting "Life Itself" captures Ebert's headstrong support of this ideal, as well as his popularization of the critical format through his aforementioned show with Siskel and the advent of the phrase "two thumbs up" (and the derivatives therein) so widely polarized by other critics. A scene in which film critic Richard Corliss recalls an article he wrote criticizing this trend and being rendered speechless by it is particularly telling, thoughts of an inconsequential system that simply categorized the "good" and "bad" with "no thought for the in-between" turned into deep admiration for people who spoke their mind.

"Life Itself" alternates between two focal points of narrative--the contentious relationship between Ebert and Siskel (Their names were in the opposite order onscreen, a reason for resentment on Ebert's part, since he was more or less the showrunner) and the illness that led to Ebert's death in April 2013--but there are the well-known biographical elements, too. Growing up a paperboy in Urbana, Illinois, before being picked for movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times when the resident critic there retired, Ebert soon became the country's premier voice in film criticism. He co-wrote Russ Meyer's X-rated satire of sexploitation pictures "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" in 1970 and met future wife Chaz in 1992 (She "saved me from a life of being alone," says Roger, and considering Chaz is now one of the major voices at the memorial website devoted to Roger, we can see why each was a perfect match for the other).

The major core of the film, though, is the love story between Roger and Chaz, a connection made all the more meaningful when Roger contracts thyroid cancer and, later, salivary gland cancer. She sticks by him, and the most touching scenes of a particularly touching movie are of her persistence through treatments that remove a considerable portion of her husband's jaw. Their relationship was one in danger of ridicule, she confesses easily, for its interracial status, but it never bothered either of them; each completed the other. When Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer and kept it private until just before his February 1999 death, Chaz was Roger's shoulder on which to lean; a photo of Roger helping to carry Siskel's casket is particularly moving.

And that's an enormous part of the film's second "love story," as well, and the first part of that narrative focus. The platonic connection between Ebert and Siskel is described by one of their mutual friends as "radioactive." A series of outtakes during their "Siskel & Ebert" television program unveils a relentlessly competitive duo, each of whom didn't particularly feel much compassion toward the other (Each wanted a different co-host than the other, and the early episodes of the show are stilted and awkward as a result) but certainly respect (Stiltedness became heated but passionate discussion about movies from people who clearly shared a love for the art form, whatever disagreements they often had).

Finally, there is the disease itself, which he discovered in 2002 after feeling a lump under his chin. The final half-hour foregoes mentioning the newer iteration of Ebert's review show (which he continued with Richard Roeper until a longer hiatus in 2006, at which point the show became far more nebulous before being cancelled altogether) to show without vanity the final stages of Ebert's life. The lack of vanity is a crucial point--as Ebert illustrates when pointing out to James that direct suction of the esophagus is not something that is likely to have been seen in a commercially released documentary before--because it so clearly models the life Ebert himself lead and the values regarding cinema that he followed. He said that he is the star of the movie of his own life, and that he continues to enjoy it. Without pretension to something greater, James has ensured that he does the effect justice.

Film Information

A documentary directed by Steve James.

Rated R (brief sexual images/nudity, language).

115 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 4, 2014.