Life Itself Documentary Superior to Memoir

Directed by Steve James
Magnolia Pictures, 116 minutes, R (language, brief nudity)
* * * *

Life Itself is a documentary film based on the memoir of film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013), a man who did much to bridge the gap between serious criticism, fun, and mainstream tastes. To his detractors, Ebert and longtime TV partner Gene Siskel were showboats who pandered to the public and dumbed down the movies, but that’s not the way Ebert’s champions see it. Among those who credit Ebert with lifting them from obscurity are Ramin Bahrani, Werner Hertzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese. Indeed, such is the critic's greatest power. The hoi polloi is predisposed to view any manner of pap and crap if it has a boffo box office star or big-money advertising hype behind it. What a good critic can do is alert the public of treasures lingering in obscurity.

Roger Ebert was a very, very good critic. As the film reveals, his talent emerged early. The opening of a piece Ebert wrote on the 1964 death of civil rights workers in Mississippi for the University of Illinois student paper is the most eloquent I’ve ever heard on this American tragedy. In 1975, Ebert was awarded the very first Pulitzer Prize ever given to a film critic and with good reason–few have ever written about nuanced things with Ebert’s approachable grace.  It also came easy; Ebert could knock off a publishable review in less than a half hour.

Director Steve James–perhaps best known for Hoop Dreams–gives us a warts-and-all look at Ebert, whom we first meet shortly before his death from complications related to the thyroid cancer from which he suffered the last decade of his life. Ebert wanted his demise to be documented, in part because of the secrecy with which Siskel masked his own cancer struggles before passing away in 1999. Watching Ebert isn’t for the squeamish. He had no jaw, as in none. In his final years, his unsupported bottom lip drooped down about four inches and one could see straight through his mouth to his neck. He could neither eat nor drink by mouth and needed to be suctioned several times per day, a grueling process also shown on film.

Ebert was a great writer, but blog readers will recall that I did not think his memoir was a great book. Its structure was uneven, the chronology was disjointed, and there were few logical connections in the book. James’ script upstages the memoir by revealing many of the missing links. It’s also a needed corrective to the near deification of Ebert that emerged in his later years. James fashioned order from Ebert’s hodgepodge memories and gives us enough chronological narrative to give those vignettes context. What emerges is a portrait of a complex man, at once mercurial and brilliant. Like other Chicago icons–Mike Ditka, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel–he wasn’t a native, rather a Champagne-Urbana lad who landed in the city determined to reinvent himself. And so he did, but in bad ways as well as good. James spent considerable time (with Ebert’s full cooperation) plumbing Ebert’s struggles with alcoholism.

He also shows a few of Ebert’s other unflattering traits, such as his obsession with large female breasts and his equally outsized ego. Ebert’s one movie script was for a Russ Meyer boobaganza film and Ebert stubbornly defended the brilliance of both the script and Meyer until his death–judgments hardly anyone else shares. His prickliness also led to epic battles with rival and TV co-host (from 1975-1990) Gene Siskel, who was one of the few who could match Ebert’s ego and fierce intellect. Eventually the two titans became close friends, though their relationship was never easy, as Siskel’s widow Marlene reveals.

The most likable character in this documentary is Ebert’s widow, Chaz, the African-American lawyer he married in 1992. (Ebert also briefly dated Oprah Winfrey.) Chaz was the love of his life, his partner in numerous ventures, and his literal voice for the last few years of his life. She has been active in maintaining the film festival Ebert started (which is oddly omitted from the film).

Documentaries about complicated people inevitably leave us wanting. We learn far more of Ebert’s quarrels with Siskel than of their reconciliation and friendship. The dispute that led both to bolt from Sneak Previews to Disney in 1982 flies by too fast and and Ebert’s blended family–especially granddaughter Raven– is so delightful we wish James had lingered on it for a bit longer. We find out what other critics think of Ebert, but not what he thought of them. Then we remember: Ebert was complex and there’s just so much that can be said in a few hours. A hearty thumbs-up to Life Itself.  Rob Weir

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