Today, Dom & Blake decided to split responsibilities and discuss the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself. It’s just too good, and just too personal for the both of them to not share their thoughts and opinions. So, enjoy the roundtable review of the marvelous Steve James movie based on Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself.
Blake Goble (BG): Why hide the bias? The personal appeal? Roger Ebert was a very huge deal for me growing up. At the Movies was second to Darkwing Duck on TV in our living room. His reviews were the template for everything I’ve probably ever written. I met him in 2005 and was such a fan I barely was able to look at him.
He’s why I’m here writing about the movies. I’m just trying to pay respect and homage to his momentous legacy of discourse and appreciation.
That favoritism aside, it’s a pleasure to say that Life Itself is the goods. It’s an open-hearted love-letter to not only Roger Ebert, but film itself. This is a documentary about having passion for the movies, art, and the humanity that comes with engaging in all of it. Lofty stuff, but Steve James just goes for it.
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer (DM): Given that we’re both Chicago-based writers, I think we have a particular take on Ebert’s power. When I first learned to read as a little kid, one of the first things I would do was eagerly wait for the Friday edition of the Sun-Times at my grandparents’ house. Ebert wasthe critic. When you thought of movie critics, there was Ebert and then there were others. (Sorry, Siskel.) And James captures really well the way that Ebert became the first great populist film writer, a man of substantial intelligence and endless passion for cinema that could relate to everybody. Even a four-year-old could read his reviews and get something from them, regardless of whether or not they actually understood it all.
BG: What I loved in particular was James’ friendly approach to Ebert’s book. James made a name for himself directing the epic, miraculous Hoop Dreams, the basketball saga from 1994 that benefited from years of his involvement. He watched it evolve, engaging with the lives of two young basketball prodigies in such an intimate way. James had the privilege of access at an unfortunate time in Ebert’s life, not long after the critic was diagnosed with thyroid and salivary gland cancer. James uses his patient approach with Roger Ebert, right there, taking his time, and allowing Ebert to truly be himself.
DM: And he was. One of the things that really struck me about the film was how it understands that part of Ebert’s appeal was that he lived and bled Chicago, and how it informed so much of his perspective and worldview. I think James was one of the most perfect filmmakers imaginable to bringLife Itself to the screen, and it’s not just because he made one of Ebert’s favorite films ever. Whether it’s Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters, James is another creative figure who’s captured iconic visions of what Chicago is, could be, and sadly is not as of yet. Ebert brought that to his work. And a lot of people didn’t particularly care for Ebert’s waxing on politics in his later years, but part of the Chicago mythos is inextricably tied to them. And that’s why, agree or disagree, it was always palatable. Ebert understood that appreciating film meant being educated to some degree on a lot more than just film. It’s why his reviews always managed the perspective and empathy that so many of the interviewees in Life Itself talk about.
BG: That notion of empathy was what I found to be the crux of Life Itself. Ebert believed in and was able to relay the beauty of arts and cinema en masse. At one point in the doc, there’s a clip of Ebert getting his name put on a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and he’s speaking to a crowd.
“For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people that are sharing this journey with us.”
There’s been over 100 years of movies and one diminutive Midwesterner somehow perfectly summed up the splendor and significance of cinema with his words. Life Itself captures his contributions perfectly. But, that’s not to say this thing is a diatribe on Ebert’s sole value and importance. After all, it’s a fond remembrance of an eloquent writer, scratches and all on his living narrative.
DM: That’s especially true when talking about other people’s opinions of him. He was respected and loved, sure, but like most geniuses he could also be kind of a dick on occasion. You see it in the deleted footage James features of he and Siskel’s early days on air together, when Ebert would sometimes dig his heels into the ground and coldly reject anything that his frenemy had to say. Or in the way that he would shut down unwanted inquiries from audiences at speaking engagements. (To be fair, nothing makes me cringe more on this planet than people who don’t know how to handle Q&As properly, but still.)
BG: Hey, Ebert got one of his best pieces out of a Q&A with a sensationally sloshed Lee Marvin! But yes, Ebert was perfectly capable of being, we’ll say, persnickety. But that acknowledgement is another feather in Life Itself’s cap.
DM: The film is also fearless in addressing his brushes with death and depression in this regard. While it moves fairly quickly through his issues with alcoholism, it makes sense given that Ebert got sober quite early in his life and stuck with it from then on. Hell, the public wasn’t even made aware of it until far later. What’s a lot more painful is James’ account of Ebert’s final days, when the good humor and power of his new digital voice gave way to plaintive cries of pain. It’s a deeply difficult sequence to watch, not just because he meant so much to so many but because you watch a man who lost so much and found ways to reclaim a lot of it finally realize that his time has come. In one of his last acts, Ebert lent an unforgettable account of mortality to film. It’s appropriate for a man whose life was inextricably tied to movies that his death be as well, I suppose.
BG: That portion is most definitely difficult to watch. We see the reigning champion of the movies at his frailest physical form. Yet, his mind and voice never waned. There’s a talking head clip with German movie maestro Werner Herzog, describing Ebert by calling him a “soldier of cinema” that “plows on.”
It is impressive that he not only inspired so many readers, but a who’s who of cinematic superstars show up to vaunt Ebert as well. Herzog, Martin Scorsese (exec-producing), Errol Morris, A.O. Scott, and Roger’s wife Chaz participate, among others, and they have only the most fascinating and frank things to say. Scorsese himself admits that Ebert was kind and helpful to his new releases, until he wasn’t so kind, and Scorsese really cared and wanted to know why. It doesn’t necessarily show the influence or power of Ebert, so much as how meaningful his words were across the board. At least, until Scorsese gently ribs at Beyond the Valley of the Dolls…
It all just goes to show why there’s a worthwhile documentary about him being released today.
My only grievance with Life Itself, and this is entirely debatable, is that it left me wanting more. At a tight two hours, it covers so much, and has such fascinating insight, that I could have watched a 500-minute tome. Or even a full series, like At The Movies… Maybe it’s just the feeling of wanting more, after being used to reading Ebert week-after-week for so many years. There’s just something about listening to Ebert’s praise ofCries & Whispers being played over a clip that is so heart-warming.
DM: I felt the same way when it initially ended, that I wanted more. But then I stopped to really think about not only James’ sensibilities as a filmmaker, but Ebert’s as a lover of film. Ebert was always a resounding champion of more muted fare. While he definitely appreciated spectacle when done well, the films he tended to love the most passionately were those like Do The Right Thing, films that said a lot without gestures played to the back of the house
I also really loved that when the film ends where it painfully, inevitably ends where it must, the film sets aside most of the talking heads. The end isn’t about movies, about all the stuff Ebert did. It’s about Chaz, and their life together. It’s one of the most important parting lessons Ebert could’ve offered. It’s important to love film, but it’s a lot more important to use it as a gateway into a well-lived life.
BG: Dom, do we rip off, or rather lovingly pay homage to the thumbs system on this movie? I’ve got a big thumb and it is up for this one.
DM: I’ll concur, and conclude by saying that Life Itself serves as yet another example of Ebert’s long-running disdain for the MPAA system. There are some four-letter words and a couple of exposed breasts, and somehow a film that should be seen and felt by everybody is now restricted theatrical viewing. But it’s ultimately moot. It’s another great movie about movies, and about a man whose time on this Earth was spent teaching you and me and so many other people about how much they truly mattered, matter, and will continue to.