It’s hard to imagine what the landscape of film criticism would be had there been no Roger Ebert. Forget for a moment that he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize and that he revolutionized the form with his TV show with co-host Gene Siskel. His writing alone, with its unique blend of wit, intelligence and (often) very personal interpretation made him by far the most widely read film critic on the planet. And deservedly so. The documentary, Life Itself (based somewhat on his autobiography of the same name), details his journey from schoolboy reporter in his native Chicago to his last days as Cancer has left him a decimated, but determined, man in and out of hospital.
As well as featuring interviews with Ebert himself before he died (communicating through a computer voice – still with all of his trademark acerbic wit); the film combines new interviews with the people that knew and loved him. Among the filmmakers interviewed are Martin Scorsese (who was also an executive producer) who is brought almost to tears remembering Ebert’s kindness to him; and Werner Herzog, both of whom Ebert was an early champion of (the film also, naturally, includes an impression of the latter which ranks as one of the best). The film also features his devoted wife Chaz, who seems initially resistant to the intrusion on their lives but comes around, and Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene Siskel, who recounts with good humor her husband’s love-hate relationship with Roger.
Director Steve James (who Ebert also championed, particularly with his first film Hoop Dreams) doesn’t shy away from the low points in his life either, discussing with great humor a young Ebert’s penchant for ladies of the night and his battle with alcoholism which led him to meeting the love of his life in an AA meeting. Ebert himself is seen mostly at hospital and an active participant in the documentary, at one point texting James not to let Chaz know that he’s told him that the cancer has come back, until he is too weak to participate at all.
Alternatingly touching and honest (especially Chaz’s discussion of his last moments), Life Itself, while not having the breadth to do the span of Ebert’s career entire justice, is a beautiful testament to a man who went to, loved and talked about the movies.
Life Itself is screening as part of the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday 1 August and Tuesday 4 August.