Like most people who write film criticism after 1967, or for that matter most people who love film, I love Roger Ebert. His writing on film was funny, lyrical, and intelligent, and I discovered some of my favorite films by reading his Great Movies column. “Life Itself,” a documentary about Roger directed by Steve James, will appeal to both Ebert fans like myself as well as those who do not know much about the great critic.
Roger Ebert, in addition to his print criticism, was one of the great popularizers of the profession through his TV shows with fellow critic Gene Siskel. The film covers the entirety of his life, from his childhood in Urbana, Illinois to his last year, which Steve James films in cinema verite style. In between there are many interviews with fellow critics, friends, his devoted wife Chaz, and filmmakers whose careers he helped launch. While Steve James was a filmmaker he championed, he does not include footage of “Hoop Dreams.” Still, the fact that one of the filmmakers whom Roger helped launch made this amazing tribute to him feels like something is being brought full circle.
One of the things that I liked about the memoir on which this film is based, also titled “Life Itself,” is the perspective it provides. Roger wrote the book after treatments for cancer had robbed him of his ability to eat, drink, or speak. While the book is about his past, the perspective is that of a man looking back on his life as he tries to make sense of his new condition. The film captures that perspective perfectly, both by having Stephen Stanton read portions of the book version of “Life Itself” and by frequently showing Roger in rehab. Those scenes, in which he undergoes suction and struggles to relearn how to walk, are hard to watch but stay true to Roger’s wish to remain open about his health.
An interesting technique that “Life Itself” uses is that it has Stephen Stanton read, in his Roger Ebert voice, excerpts of Roger’s reviews over clips of the actual movies. It isn’t a large part of the film, but it does inform how Roger connected with movies and responded to them in print. The film also makes great use of archival footage, particularly in hilarious outtakes of “Siskel & Ebert At The Movies” that show both hosts arguing like children. It is also to this film’s credit that it doesn’t shy away from Roger’s flaws, often articulated by close friends and fellow critics such as Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
The British critic Derek Malcolm once said that a movie was great if you couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing it again. This test was also part of how Roger picked the movies for his Great Movies collection. Judged from that standard alone, “Life Itself” is a great movie.