Documentary of film critic Roger Ebert told with frankness & affection

Still of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in the documentary Life Itself

Still of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in the documentary Life Itself

Film critics are an opinionated lot, though why our opinions might matter more than yours is a very good question indeed. With the exception of highbrow cinema scholars of the Andrew Sarris ilk, I don’t think that we necessarily appreciate films more or analyze them with greater insight than the average moviegoer. We just tend to be better at putting our reactions into words on the printed page.

Working as I do in a regional publishing market, I don’t need to set all that much professional ego aside to concede the crown of America’s Most Beloved Movie Critic to the late, great Roger Ebert, whose popcorn spillage this humble reviewer is indeed unworthy to sweep up. Though he certainly had an encyclopedic knowledge of the art of cinema, Ebert was no snob: He was a keen discoverer of independent films by unknown directors, and could love a well-executed movie in a trashy pulp genre as thoroughly as some auteur’s masterpiece. He even wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970 as a lark, after finding himself amused by the camp sexploitation king’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

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Ebert saw the film medium as a form of public discourse, and film criticism – even when it involved yelling at longtime onscreen sparring partner Gene Siskel that his opinions of a movie were just plain wrong – as an intellectual art that any moviegoer could practice. It was for his unpretentious populism as much as for his cogent writing that movie fans around the world took Ebert to their hearts, though the thumbs-up/thumbs-down shorthand that became his and Siskel’s trademark also earned the pair some opprobrium from more academic critics. But as we learn from Steve James’s remarkable biopic now in theaters, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself, even Pauline Kael, the doyenne of American film criticism, thought that Ebert was the best of their breed, and told him so to his face.

Funded by the Hoop Dreams director through a Kickstarter campaign, Life Itself the movie intersperses the story of Ebert’s life – from wunderkind self-publisher in Urbana, Illinois through his hard-drinking early years at the Chicago Sun-Times, his volatile partnership with Siskel and his long professional relationships with the Conference on World Affairs and the Cannes Film Festival – with frank and touching footage of Ebert’s frequent hospitalizations and stints in rehab facilities in the final months of his life. Having lost his lower jaw to thyroid cancer in 2006, the garrulous, argumentative showman could no longer eat, speak or swallow – or, needless to say, host a film criticism segment on TV. But with the stalwart support of his wife Chaz, he plowed on with his writing, eagerly explored the new medium of Internet blogging and became adept at the use of electronic voice simulation software.

A complex picture of the man emerges from interviews with old friends from his Chicago barfly days, with Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen and with filmmakers whose careers got a jumpstart from his positive reviews. Ebert helped put Gregory Nava, Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani on the world cinema map by championing their early efforts El Norte, Gates of Heaven, I Will Follow and Man Push Cart respectively, and his enthusiasm for the talents of Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese bolstered their sagging mid-careers in the 1980s. We hear testimonials from all of them in this fascinating documentary.

For all the abundant affection and esteem for Ebert that this film captures, nowhere does James shy away from the darker side of the man’s personality, such as his early alcoholism, his egotism and his pugnacity – the latter especially with Siskel, vividly demonstrated in outtakes from their TV shows that make it clear that their mutual animosity was not just a gimmick to raise ratings. Counterbalancing these weaknesses in character are glimpses of his social conscience, such as a brilliant, heartfelt editorial on the death of four girls in the 1964 Birmingham church bombing that he wrote while still a student, along with many tender exchanges with Chaz, whom Ebert married at age 50, and with her children and grandchildren from a previous marriage.

The transitions from recent scenes of Ebert’s battle with cancer – he died on April 4, 2013 at age 70 – to reminiscences about his early life and stellar career are smoothed with voiceover passages from his memoir, ably delivered by actor Stephen Stanton. The entire documentary hangs together beautifully, its narrative flow as compelling as any movie critic might wish. If you ever grinned over, got inspired by or annoyed at a Roger Ebert review, or even if you just love the cinema, you owe it to yourself to go see Life Itself. As he always liked to sign off: See you at the movies.

To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.

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