Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 0; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 (NIV)
Hoop Dreams director Steve James’ documentary Life Itself is a two-thumbs-up tribute to film critic Roger Ebert. No 5-star movie is more dramatically moving, which should not be surprising in that Roger Ebert himself was a 5-star person. Well, maybe a 4-½ star, as the documentarian does not hold back on revealing some of the flaws in the film critic’s full and colorful life, such as his interesting association with sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer. This is about as honest a look at a person’s life as can be found among the many available biographical films.
Based on Ebert’s memoir of the same title, James’ film covers the critic’s life from his childhood writing to his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism; his nearly 25-year TV partnership with Gene Siskel on their film review TV show that led to his becoming an iconic commentator on our culture; and then, to the most powerfully moving part, Roger’s painful battle with thyroid cancer and his coping with the physical disability that failed to silence his voice–until death itself took him from us.
James, whose own film career owed much to Roger’s championing of his first film, gained almost complete access to Ebert during the last of his series of hospital admissions. Neither realized at the time that this would be the final four months of the critic’s life. We see the filmmaker visiting his subject in his hospital room, as well as exchanging emails. Roger offered so many suggestions that he essentially became co-director. He always kept his laptop close at hand, using it for vocal communication after he lost his voice due to cancer surgery that removed his lower jaw. And, every day he wrote for his blog. Equally close was his incredibly supportive wife Chaz. She proved a revelation to me—I knew so little of the critic’s personal life that I did not know that she is African American. The dramatic high points of the film are several segments of her talking about their life together and shots of her gently caring for him.
Through archival photos and footage we learn of Roger’s mixed past—his boyhood venture into publishing a neighborhood newspaper; his editorship of his college newspaper for which he wrote many editorials and articles in support of the Civil Rights Movement; his days at the Chicago Sun-Times where he became the youngest movie critic in the nation. Loving to hang out at the local watering hole with fellow journalists, he eventually sank into alcoholism. Several of his drinking buddies recall those days. Deciding to quit in 1979, he met Chaz, a Civil Rights lawyer at an AA meeting, and his life of loneliness came to an end. (Hence my selection of the Romans passage above: surely in his case God did work “for the good.” )
Thus the film is also a tribute to Chaz and her unflagging support during the terrible series of operations to combat his cancer. It is also a tribute to Gene Siskel, his longtime TV partner, with whom he often argued passionately. Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, recalls how the men at first barely spoke to each other because they worked at rival newspapers. However, after working together for several years, the freeze between them thawed and they became friends, contentious often, but friends and colleagues who respected each other. Roger was hurt that Siskel kept the news of his brain tumor a secret, the latter’s death leaving him totally unprepared for the sudden end to their partnership.
Also included are interviews with several film critics, three of them well known–Richard Corliss of Time, Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader, and A. O. Scott of The New York Times—who assess Roger’s place in the field of film criticism. Corliss had once crossed swords with Ebert because he thought that Siskel & Ebert were dumbing down film criticism by summing up their comments with their famous thumbs up or thumbs down signature. Several film directors also pay homage, the most lengthy one being Martin Scorcese’s testimony, whom Siskel & Ebert once helped bring out of the doldrums when they staged a retrospective of his work in Toronto. Ebert’s scathing honesty is highlighted in this section by his strong attack, despite their friendship, on Scorcese’s The Color of Money, the director visibly wincing as the clip of Roger denouncing it plays out.
There is so much I would like to write about this film, but I have promised my Roger Ebert-loving friend and colleague Doug Sweet to yield to him in assessing the critic’s career and this film more fully. Doug attended more than a dozen of the Roger Ebert’s Film Festivals where he met and got to talk with him. One of his prize possessions is a photograph of Siskel & Ebert autographed by both of them. His take on Ebert will run in the September issue of our Visual Parables journal.
No one has done more to spread the knowledge of film and help beginning filmmakers get their shot at success than this generous man. And from what we see, no one has faced pain and debilitation from cancer more bravely and innovatively than Roger Ebert. The title of this film and the book might bring to mind a Japanese film, said to be one of Roger’s favorites, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. The Japanese title translates into “to live,” and it is about a Japanese bureaucrat who, also faced with imminent death from cancer, decides to make his obscure life meaningful by pushing a proposal for a children’s park through the municipal office where he works when he discovers that the plan has been sidelined in a bureaucratic maze. That film is not mentioned by name in Life Itself, but if you watch closely, near the end you will see a short clip of a little man sitting in a park swing. In a far larger sense, Roger Ebert made his life count even more, and all of us who love films are so much the richer for him.