Document 59129

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‘Life Itself’ celebrates Roger
By Ty Burr
JU LY 03 , 20 14
Roger Ebert (front) in the screening room with TV partner Gene Siskel.
A documentary about a film critic sounds like the height of perversity — could there
be anything less cinematic than watching somebody watch movies? — but of course
Roger Ebert wasn’t your average representative of the species. For mostly better
and occasional worse, he was the most famous film critic in America, the man who
with his TV partner Gene Siskel democratized the way people talk about movies,
broadened the kind of movies we watch, and popularized a thumbsup/thumbs-down approach to quality control that lives on via websites like Rotten
But that isn’t the reason the gifted director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) decided
to make “Life Itself,” or why his documentary is tremendously moving even if you
haven’t been to the movies in years. As Ebert himself would appreciate, this is
simply a great story — a cantankerous young newspaperman who became a
passionate and tireless cheerleader for an art form, a lonely soul transformed by
love late in life, a cancer victim whose sufferings seemed only to purify him.
Named for Ebert’s 2011 memoir, from which it quotes at length, “Life Itself” is a
chronological biography that keeps looping back to the critic’s final months before
his death, in April 2013. An unending series of surgeries has left him without a
lower jawbone and the ability to speak; when the film opens, he’s heading back into
the hospital after fracturing his hip. James dispassionately confronts his subject’s
ravaged features and waits for us to get over the shock, which we quickly do. Ebert
is adamant about that. “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that
doesn’t contain the full reality,” he writes the director in an e-mail. “I wouldn’t want
to be associated. This is not only your film.”
“Life Itself” amasses a crowd of talking
heads from all areas of Ebert’s life, from his
childhood in Urbana, Ill., to his colleagues at
Life Itself
the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini, to his
drinking buddies at the Chicago Sun-Times,
where Ebert landed a part-time job out of
college and five months later was reviewing
movies. (He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975,
MPAA rating: R
MPAA rating reasons: (brief sexual
images/nudity, language
the first film critic to do so.)
Running time: 121 minutes
Ebert’s timing was lucky: It was 1967 and
American film was making its great leap
forward, with movies like “Bonnie and
Clyde” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” leading
the way and critics like Pauline Kael and
Andrew Sarris setting the stakes. Ebert
never belonged to the high-culture in-crowd,
and that seemed fine by him: He was a born
newspaperman and a natural writer whose
tastes could be far outside the mainstream
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin
Scorsese, Werner Herzog
Director: Steve James
Playing at: Kendall Square
Four-star reviews by the
Globe since 2012
Graphic: Movies archive
but whose attitude rarely was. The New York
Times critic A. O. Scott praises the “clear,
plain Midwestern newspaper style” of Ebert’s writing while filmmakers Werner
Herzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese are on hand to testify to his crucial
impact on their careers and even their lives.
There are some fine, funny stories here, including how Ebert came to write Russ
Meyer’s demento 1970 classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” “Life Itself” avoids
portraying its subject as a saint, though, and once the film gets into the years with
Siskel and the stunning success of their TV review show — it had many names over
the years, beginning with “Sneak Previews” -- his competitive nature emerges.
“He’s a nice guy, but he’s not that nice,” an old friend comments, and even without
Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, describing the rivalry between the two, outtakes
from the show reveal Siskel and Ebert sniping at each other with hilarious
By the time of Siskel’s death, from brain cancer, in 1999, their bond had deepened
and broadened, and Siskel served as best man when Ebert married Chaz
Hammelsmith in 1992. As much as her husband is the soul of James’s
documentary, Chaz is its heart, and the scenes of her managing Ebert’s life and
health issues are a study in unassuming daily heroism.
Unable to speak except through a computerized voice, Ebert ironically became
more loquacious than ever online, and his blog postings at RogerEbert .com took
on an eloquence and wisdom that moved far beyond film to address, well, life itself.
Ebert was kinder to movies than he had been before and too kind in some cases;
some of his later reviews only seem naïve until you realize he’d simply ceased to
find cynicism useful. There’s something in that for all of us (and critics in
particular): an appreciation of life that extends to a grateful embrace of so much in
it. Ebert once described the cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.”
Watching James’s lovely film, you know exactly what he means.
“Life Itself” trailer:
More coverage:
- Four-star reviews by the Globe since 2012
- ‘Snowpiercer’: Train in vain?
- Movie review archive