“Life Itself” is a very worthy documentary about legendary film critic Roger Ebert
I write because of Roger Ebert. He isn’t why I love movies. I loved them long before I read his column. But he is the reason I write. I discovered him as almost everyone did, though the Siskel and Ebert television show.
When I was younger, I always agreed with Gene Siskel. Siskel seemed to understand my point of view, my youth and what I was interested in. Ebert was always more sophisticated in his tastes, and my 7th-grade mind wanted no part of those pretensions. But I grew and read and saw more film. I blundered my way through a literature degree and retail work and saw more film. And I read Roger Ebert’s column from the Chicago Sun-Times. I read about movies I’d never see, from directors I’d never heard of. I read them because I liked the sound of his writing. I liked the music it made in my head.
What I found was that as Ebert wrote about movies, he wrote about other things. He expressed other opinions and connected films to other subjects. It was Ebert who taught me that films are not made in a vacuum and a “New Criticism” approach to their discussion is not always valuable. Roger Ebert found the emotion in film to be the thing and emotions are never just self-referential.
They are at times abstract, but more often a simple connection with the world. In “Life Itself,” the 2014 documentary based on his memoir, he speaks about film generating empathy. Empathy and love are the emotions found in abundance in “Life Itself.” It is without a doubt the best film of the year.
The film loosely follows the structure of the memoir, introducing the critic as a young man. It captures the voice of a man who had so much to say, about so many things, all of them worth hearing. The hardest part of writing is finding something to say. Expressing the essential parts of yourself through words is both daring and frightening. Roger Ebert showed no fear.
The film explores every part of his life: his introduction to film criticism, which was not yet an important position, his strange relationship with Russ Myer and his screenplay for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” his rise to legend status through the weekly verbal sparring matches of “At the Movies” with his original partner Gene Siskel, his marriage to Chaz, and ultimately his sickness and final days.
Ebert passed away during the filming of the documentary but solidly refused to have the camera cut away. We see him as he was—a brilliant mind despite a failing body. Ebert knew that a documentary must, above all things, show the truth.
The scenes of his sickness are the hardest to watch, particularly for those who followed his work. It is difficult to see others speak for him and his frustration at not being the man he was. Ebert wrote furiously at the end of his life, updating his blog and offering his reviews to devoted, even rabid followers. He posted his final entry the day before he died, raging against the dying of the light. I was one of those followers.
Before I wrote movie reviews, before I wrote anything of note, I wrote to Roger Ebert. In particular, I wrote to him about how the cool air in autumn reminds me of football and marching band. He responded with a link to a video of my high school band playing their Halloween show. I have never been more proud of anything I’ve written because the man I admired responded to me in a personal way.
He couldn’t know that something so small could mean so much to me. The film gives great insight into this aspect of his personality. He had time for people and loved to discuss their ideas.
I write because of Roger Ebert. Movies are my subject for now because they encompass so much. In my time writing for The Pulse I have expressed opinions on poverty, foreign policy, history social justice and religion. My beliefs are found here because movies give me an occasion to express them.
Roger Ebert showed me that I can do that. I have pages and pages of my thoughts published because Roger Ebert told me I could. He believed that anyone could have their say. That I get to have mine here is a boundless joy. I have never been one for celebrities—I don’t have a real desire to meet any one person. But I wish I had met Roger Ebert.