June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013
Even as a disciple, I learned things about Roger Ebert (and Gene Siskel) that I didn’t know before. Life Itself is a tremendously affecting documentary on the life of the world’s most famous film critic, and an inspiration to the art of writing. I already knew that Ebert was a dedicated news writer before he fell into the film criticism job in 1967, but it’s illuminating to hear what incendiary social commentary he contributed in his mere college newspaper days. Such as his outrage of the Birmingham Church bombing of 1963 that resulted in four African-American girls’ deaths and his judgment at the slothfulness of liberal America to expedite the Civil Rights Movement.
Of course, in lighter notes, we get clips and flash quotes on Ebert’s most significant reviews such as 1967’s “Bonnie & Clyde” for the Chicago Sun Times, a piece that really attracted to him to journalistic stardom. There are people who care about movies and people who don’t, but we get the idea that Ebert garnered faithful readers even by people who didn’t normally read movie reviews. Ebert was a boozer throughout the 1970’s, which was during his screenwriting of the T&A flick “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Even when he won his Pulitzer Prize in 1975 – the first critic to win – he continued drinking, but when he quit in 1979, I never knew he was temporarily suicidal. This acknowledgement makes it clear as to why Ebert was so empathetic towards self-destructive addiction types throughout his life.
Innumerable friends and colleagues participate throughout the documentary, and tell how Ebert was obsessed with being in control with others. But Gene Siskel, his rival at the Chicago Tribune whom he would pair up with on his first “Sneak Previews” review TV program, is shown to be the only person in the world that could control him. And Ebert envied Siskel like no other. Did Siskel fans even know what a player he was, hanging out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion regularly? The pictures are here to prove it.
There are embarrassing Ebert moments recalled, such as hiring skanky women as company with his fellow boozer pals in the early days, with trashing “Three Amigos” on the “Tonight Show” while star Chevy Chase sat right next to him, with the Siskel and Ebert promo outtakes where two grown men pick at each other like children, with mercilessly trashing Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” on the air to unreasonable degrees. A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum, two critics, weigh in on their recollections, too. However, my caveat, Rosenbaum is so pompous (one of my least favorite critics), I wish there had been somebody else discussing Ebert.
There are plenty of voices to be heard about Ebert. With hindsight, there is chance that Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris and Steve James wouldn’t have made it had Ebert not jumpstarted their careers. James is the director of 1994’s “Hoop Dreams,” which Ebert regarded it as perhaps the best documentary ever made. This is skimmed over modestly since James is actually the hand-picked director by Ebert, before his death, of “Life Itself.” With “Life Itself,” James covers the span of life and career that Ebert deserves.
The film also spends time watching Ebert struggle in his remaining years with throat cancer, also showing how Ebert “soldiered on” (Werner Herzog’s words) and wrote some of the best material of his career even when he lost his jaw. He used up-to-date computers to do the speaking for him, or scribbled notes, and had food fed to him by tubes (he still wrote a cooking book). Wife Chazz was every bit the match of Ebert, and you can see in home videos of their family life flourishing, but you can see her implacable patience on display in the final couple of years when she gently cared for him even during his tantrums. We sadly get hints of Ebert fading away in the final days before his death, as if it was his choice, he was done fighting.
The most integral thing about Ebert is how much good he did for others in this world. Both throughout his life, where his voice boosted the voices of others, and even in the aftermath. He gave jobs to young critics and website managers, which also assures his writing will live forever. And today, whether it is movie reviews or politics editorials, Ebert’s is still the best stuff to read on the web, so fresh and relevant it could have been written yesterday.
112 Minutes. Rated R.
DOCUMENTARY / INSPIRATIONAL / WEEKEND VIEWING REFLECTION
Film Cousins: “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970); “Hoop Dreams” (1994); “Crumb” (1995); “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” (2001).