I came late to Roger Ebert’s movie reviews. Though I had read some over the years, and watched his TV show, “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies,” occasionally, it was his 1998 review of Alex Proyas’s “Dark City” which turned me into an Ebert fan for all-time. I had followed the making of the film for a while, as Proyas’s previous film, “The Crow,” sat atop my favorite films list at the time (it’s currently #2), and I couldn’t wait to see the film itself. The morning it came out, I was in my second year at Georgia State, and before my Friday classes, I went to get a paper to see showtimes, and I went online to read Ebert’s review. He had given it four stars, and that got me truly excited. After classes were done, I raced to the AMC North Dekalb Mall theatre to go see it, and I left two hours later enthralled. When he put it at the top of his list of best films of 1998, I was inspired, and when I got into DVD in 2000, the film was one of my first purchases. The reason? Ebert had done an audio commentary for the film.
This film, directed by Steve James, whose film, “Hoop Dreams,” inspired even more enthusiasm and passion in Roger than even “Dark City” did, takes it’s title from Ebert’s memoir, and it’s a fitting title. For two hours, we hear, both in Ebert’s own words, and in the words of others, about the critic’s life, his work, and the declining health in his later years that forced him to adjust his life, and set him on a path far more rewarding for fans, as Roger took to social media and blogging in a way that brought his fans closer to him, and made us feel like we were on that balcony with him, engaging him, and inspiring a back-and-forth that made the movies come to life greater than ever before. (You can still go to www.rogerebert.com, read his reviews, and see what his later years inspired in terms of not just his writing, but the communal act of film criticism in the internet age.)
Watching Steve James’s film, I teared up more than once as we heard friends and colleagues, ranging from his wife Chaz and other journalist friends to film critics such as Richard Corliss and A.O. Scott to filmmakers he had become acquainted with like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, discuss Roger, his life, and his impact on not just film criticism (after all, he was the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize), but the people who came to know him. A good portion of the film is devoted to the syndicated TV show he did with Gene Siskel, and the relationship they had which started with deep bitterness, but became a profound friendship that transcended Siskel’s death in 1999 from a brain tumor. But some of the most important, and moving, passages of the film show Ebert in the hospital and in rehab, where he spent most of the last four months of his life due to problems with his hip. After complications with thyroid cancer over the years, he had lost his jaw, and the ability to speak, except through a robotic voice when he typed, and his written words. Four years ago, the greater public got their first look at Ebert’s physical condition with what was a controversial image for an article in Esquire magazine, but James, with permission from Roger and Chaz, gives us an even deeper look, and it’s both heartbreaking and courageous. I also couldn’t help but notice that, at times, what remained of Roger’s mouth resembled a smile; given how optimistic he seemed at times, that feels fitting.
When he died in April 2013, Ebert’s death lingered long in my mind. He was one of my primary influences in terms of film criticism, and an online article he penned for Yahoo! in 2003, where he espoused the idea of fan commentaries that could be shared online, is what led myself, and my friends Ron and Dave, to record commentaries of our own, many of which can be found on Sonic Cinema (or are at least linked to). In October of last year, my father passed away, and that loss has shaded the past eight months in some surreal, and emotional, ways. But watching “Life Itself,” the feelings I felt about Roger Ebert dying returned, and even became intertwined with the emotions of my own father’s death. In an odd way, Ebert was a father figure to me over the past 15 or so years, even though I never met him, and never really communicated with him except when I would comment on his blog posts. While I wouldn’t put him on the same level as my father or my grandfather Mitchell, who died in 2000, Ebert really did have a startling influence on me in my life, and why I have followed the path I have in terms of writing about movies, and wanting to make my own. I don’t know that he ever saw my website, or heard our commentaries, and even if he did, I’m not sure whether I’d want to know what he thought of them. I think he’d be pleased, at the very least, to find another voice trying to bring their passion to this medium he loved so much.
Documentaries are a difficult thing to review. On the one hand, there are those documentary filmmakers who try approach the medium with objectivity, who stand apart from their subject and just film the reality they try to capture. On the other hand, there are filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who (sometimes shamelessly) throw themselves into the middle of the narrative, and sometimes risk overshadowing their subject, making true objectivity impossible. Does one approach have validity over the other? Not necessarily, although the latter is certainly rife with perils. With “Life Itself,” James is straddling between both approaches, which most viewers will know well, since Ebert listed James’s first feature-length documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” as the finest film of the ’90s (note– it deserved the praise), and Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List,” “Moneyball”) are executive producers. (Had Ebert lived a bit longer, and been a bit healthier, it might have been interesting to see his story told by another documentarian Ebert greatly admired, Errol Morris, whose “Gates of Heaven” was another film famous by virtue of Ebert’s enthusiastic praise of it.) James does a good job maintaining his objectivity, because he knows well that what matters is the central story, regardless of how close he is to the subject. Add to that the emotions for Ebert and his work I carried into the experience, and it’s little wonder “Life Itself” impacted me the way it did, and is getting the grade it is. I feel closer to one of the people whose work means a great deal to me as an individual, and as a creative person, and is someone who will remain one of the defining influences of my life as it progresses over the years.