Based on the memoirs of late American film critic and social commentator, Roger Ebert.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Roger Ebert knew he wouldn’t live to see Life Itself screened for its first audience. Conceived as a companion piece to Ebert’s 2011 memoir, Life Itself documents the last months of the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic’s life, during which the cancer that claimed his jawbone in 2006 recurs and proves terminal. Directed by fellow Chicagoan Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the documentary is both a personal history and a tribute to one of the movies’ loudest and most prolific modern champions.
"a tribute to one of the movies’ loudest and most prolific modern champions"
He was also a man well known for his appetites, though it’s still jarring to learn of his years as a rampant alcoholic (if it weren’t for the vicious hangovers, Ebert says, he may have happily drank himself into oblivion) and his enthusiasm for prostitutes. 'He’s a nice guy," says one of Ebert’s colleagues at the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert’s home for over 40 years, 'but he’s not that nice."
In the memoir and in this film, Ebert describes his life in cinematic terms. 'I was born inside the movie of my life," his book opens. 'The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not unnecessarily. I don’t know how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me." He conceived of himself not as a Saul Bellow character but a Saul Bellow type—a Chicagoan, in other words, tough-minded, tough-built, full of hustle and tough talk. He started as a reporter in the 1960s and became a film critic by accident (as film critics seem to do). In that capacity he demonstrated a direct, accessible critical voice, one informed by film history and balanced by a keen appreciation for the new and unexpected.
'Populist' and 'facile' are two words his contemporaries use to describe Ebert in Life Itself. Backhanded compliments both, those words came to define Ebert’s place in the culture, first as a newspaper critic and later as a television personality. In one of my favourite of the documentary’s many clips, a younger Ebert describes observing for years the reporters who would file by the desk of the paper’s music critic, always respectfully acknowledging his latest review of another obscure or otherwise rarefied classical piece. Those same reporters, Ebert says, would then stop by his desk, usually to tell him how wrong he’d been about film X or Y. Populism, at least, leaves room for popular dissent.
No one dissented with Ebert more often or more publicly than Gene Siskel, with whom he co-hosted several television shows. Not surprisingly, James’s look at the partnership is one of the most entertaining and illuminating parts of Life Itself. Another critic describes their long-running show, in which they discussed the week’s latest movie releases, as 'a sitcom about two guys who live in a movie theatre." Footage of Ebert’s early, solo attempts at television suggest how badly he needed his sparring partner; testimony from Siskel’s wife and some hilariously bitchy outtakes confirm that Ebert could be a real shit. Siskel 'was a source of madness in Roger’s life," we are told, "a rogue planet in his galaxy." Life Itself settles once and for all speculation about the toxic nature of their bond, yet it looks a lot like love to me.
Siskel’s influence on Ebert extended past the former’s death in 1999. When Ebert became ill a decade ago, he decided not to keep his health problems secret, as Siskel had. A new love, his wife Chaz, had entered Ebert’s life, and she saw him through the surgeries that robbed Ebert of his ability to speak and to eat. The footage of Ebert enduring continued medical travails is difficult to watch, but he insists on its inclusion. We also learn he is morbid enough to take some pleasure in dying a dramatic death, in giving his movie a killer ending. He did not believe in the possibility of somehow looking on, after death, from afar — cinema was his only religion, as testimony from the many filmmakers he championed and befriended, including an emotional Martin Scorsese, confirms. But the rest of us can still find him at the movies, just like he said.