It’s been 10 years since Roger Ebert passed away on 4 April 2013, so by now we certainly have a generation of moviegoers and commenters who may be aware of who Ebert was but never experienced the way he was for decades THE film critic. A voice that reflect on populist sensibilities in the moviegoing landscape while also being extremely readable as writing in and of itself, an inescapable watermark towards marrying the conversational prose of film writing with the curious analysis and democratizing the sophisticated principles we bring when we talk about movies in any platform. If you were cursorily interested in movies beyond a casual interest between the 1970s to the early 2010s, you couldn’t escape his influence on how the mainstream processed movies and if you were still only interested in movies as a casual timepass around that time, you probably still encountered his quotes or clips of his entertaining At the Movies broadcast he shared with rival critic Gene Siskel and then successor Richard Roeper after Siskel’s passing.
When it comes to Steve James 2014 documentary Life Itself, taking its title and occasional passages from Ebert’s 2011 memoir, it is only partially interested in presenting a hagiographic summary of Ebert’s journey into becoming the most influential film critic possibly of all time. It goes through most of the expected beats of his career: Ebert’s beginnings as editor of his college’s newspaper The Daily Illini, his time as the film critic for Chicago Sun-Times, his establishing of the Cinema Interruptus series of interactive film talks as a staple for the annual Conference of World Affairs, and of course the broadcasting of At the Movies (but curiously not even referring to Roeper at all in the whole movie). But even through the continual display that Ebert loves movies and loves talking about movies and writing about movies when his battle with cancer took his ability of speech, there’s little illustration about the movies he loves or such specifics. It’s given the broader dimensions of his desire to champion the films of promising newcomers to the point of so many talking heads crediting their career as filmmakers to Ebert’s shining a lens on them. Including James himself with his breakout hit Hoop Dreams being a favorite of both Ebert and Siskel, but he doesn’t include himself in the same company as Martin Scorsese or Ramin Bahrani or Ava DuVernay.
Instead James’ role here – heard a couple of times behind the camera or in voiceover – is as a friend making a little memorial to his own friend. Life Itself is much more concerned with Ebert’s personality as a human being than as a public figure and while it’s impossible to ignore Ebert’s contribution to greater film discussion, most of that is used to weave into how Ebert felt about life or maintained his relationships to the people in his life. Certainly, the material on At the Movies is less concerned with what Ebert and Siskel argued so heavily about but why they were compelled to argue with each other and how that informed their personal relationship outside of the television screen. Often times it was with animosity but James’ film nevertheless argues for a clear respect of the game of the argument. The invocation of Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen as a talking head provides enough balance to suggest it wasn’t always Siskel being the stinker, but Ebert could be pissy in his own right.
That pissiness segues into the candid sequences of Ebert’s frustrating late days stuck in beds and chairs without a jaw going through painful processes to stay alive if only for the appreciation of life he displays through his writing (his eyes during an early close-up watching his throat go through routine suction is an unpleasant but sympathetic visual). James, in one of his many cutesy superimpositions of emails sent between him and Ebert (a gesture that’s still more preferable than the Ebert impersonator reading from the eponymous memoir), included an email by Ebert expressing the necessity of including even the most unflattering areas of this fight that isn’t intended to acquit the film from any questions of “ethics” in the material, but to establish Ebert is driving his own story just as much as James. Meanwhile, Ebert’s widow Chaz elaborates on how those many months were exhausting and a labor of looking to optimism even in the worst of moments.
The At the Movies material and the material of Ebert’s cancer fight are not divorced from one another. When it comes to Siskel’s sudden passing in 1999 from a cancer diagnosis he kept private, Chaz elaborates on Ebert’s personal heartbreak at never being told what his partner was going through. In that context, all the honesty James and the Eberts supply regarding the unglamorous ordeal of battling cancer and slowly dying before our eyes feels like a reaction to Ebert’s betrayal (there is a late reveal from Chaz that brings another snag onto this mission when it comes to an act Roger exercised his right to without telling his wife). That becomes another layer in which this becomes a very personal document from a level of intimacy that could only from James’ personal friendship.
One could maybe moan on the aesthetics or niceties of documentary presentation being treated incidentally from a filmmaker who has mastered the form the way that James did, but he’s not approaching this as Steve James the documentarian or talking about Roger Ebert the film critic. He is approaching this as Steve James the man who was fortunate to personally know Roger Ebert the man. And invites us to learn who Ebert was wasn’t all that often hidden from the people who saw him as the film critic: a man with his thorny side who nevertheless had a deep burgeoning love for the world and all the different people and perspectives in it, channeling that into his personal love for the cinematic image and the written form all the way to his dying days.
Anyway, I’d like to end this by recommending some of my favorite writings by Ebert himself:
“Do the Right Thing” is not filled with brotherly love, but it is not filled with hate, either. It comes out of a weary, urban cynicism that has settled down around us in recent years. The good feelings and many of the hopes of the 1960s have evaporated, and today it no longer would be accurate to make a movie about how the races in American are all going to love one another. I wish we could see such love, but instead we have deepening class divisions in which the middle classes of all races flee from what’s happening in the inner city, while a series of national administrations provides no hope for the poor. “Do the Right Thing” tells an honest, unsentimental story about those who are left behind.
One searches for human touches. Riefenstahl had no eye for human interest. Individuality is crushed by the massed conformity. There are occasional cutaways to people smiling or nodding, but rarely ever speaking to one another. There is no attempt to “humanize” Hitler. In his closing speech, sweat trickles down his face, and we realize that there was no perspiration in earlier shots. Is it possible that he posed for some of the perfectly framed shots of him reviewing troops? A 35mm camera and crew would have been a distracting presence in the street next to his car; one filming him from a high pedestal would have had to be crane-mounted, and shot out of synchronicity with the event.
Is the film for teenage boys and comic book fans? Not at all, although that’s the marketing pitch. It’s for anyone who still has a sense of wonder and a feeling for great visual style. This film contains ideas and true poignance, a story that has been thought out and has surprises right to the end. It’s romantic and exhilarating. Watching it, I realized the last dozen films I’d seen were about people standing around, talking to one another. “Dark City” has been created and imagined as a new visual place for us to inhabit. It adds treasure to our notions of what can be imagined.
The camera watches Elliott moving around. And Raven, that’s when you asked me, “Is this E.T.’s vision?” And I said, yes, we were seeing everything now from E.T.’s point of view. And I thought you’d asked a very good question, because most kids your age wouldn’t have noticed that the camera had a point of view–that we were seeing everything from low to the ground, as a short little creature would view it, and experiencing what he (or she) would see after wandering out of the woods on a strange planet.
I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.