Last year, legendary film critic Roger Ebert died from cancer at the age of 70. At the time, director Steven James (Hoop Dreams, Head Games, The Interrupters) was making a documentary about Ebert – a film that Ebert knew all too well he’d never live to see through to completion. “It is likely I will have passed when the film is ready,” he poignantly noted.
Life Itself is an affectionate yet unflinchingly honest portrait of the late writer and the legacy he’s left behind, and the calibre of the people both in front and behind the camera – Steven Zaillian and Martin Scorsese are producers, while Scorsese and Werner Herzog are among the interviewees – is evidence of just how respected and admired Ebert was and still is.
Using his autobiography of the same title as its basis, Life Itself follows Ebert’s path through university (he’d wanted to go to Harvard, but his parents couldn’t afford the fees), via his tenure as editor of a newspaper in Illinois (The Daily Illini) to his appointment as film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967.
Ebert’s youthful energy (he was the youngest film critic in America at the time) coincided with the renewed sense of creative vigour in American cinema: he was a young writer at a point when Hollywood seemed young again. In his review of Bonnie And Clyde, Ebert recognised that, although the film was set in the past, its themes and aggressive filmmaking style were unmistakeably current. “It was made now and it’s about us,” he wrote.
Mixing interviews with contemporary photographs and archive footage, Life Itself builds up a rounded picture of Ebert’s intelligence and talent for writing, but also his flaws, such as his battles with alcoholism and depression. The mixed reaction to his curious venture into screenwriting – he wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls in 1970 – isn’t glossed over, while the film’s illustration of his strained relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel is downright hilarious.
Having found themselves thrown together on a local Chicago TV station, Siskel and Ebert’s dislike for one another frequently spilled out onto the small screen, as they frequently disagreed over the relative merits of whatever film they happened to be reviewing that week. One candid outtake shows the pair bitterly sniping at one another as they attempt to film an introductory piece to camera.
And yet, for all their antipathy, the increasing popularity of their show made them inseparable, and as they continued to work together through the 80s and 90s, they grew to respect each other all the more. How tragic, then, that Siskel died in 1999 without giving his old sparring partner a chance to say goodbye.
Siskel’s secrecy over his illness led Ebert to be bravely open about his own fight with cancer, which began in 2002. To see just how cruelly the disease had treated him in Life Itself is shocking, and it has to be said that there are several scenes in James’ film that are difficult to watch. But they’re undoubtedly important, because they show just how courageous Ebert was. Far from slowing down, he became more prolific than ever in his final years. He immersed himself in his writing, from his film reviews to the blog posts he wrote on a broad variety of subjects. Most of all, we see that, through all his suffering, an intelligent, optimistic glint remained in his eye until the very end.
It’s this sense of optimism, perhaps, that is best captured in Life Itself. Over his career, Ebert watched several thousand films, most forgettable, and some downright awful. But we sense that he never lost the sheer joy of stumbling on a beautiful piece of art. It was something he constantly expressed in his writing, and something that comes across in this documentary: he recognised emerging talent when he saw it, nurtured it when it stumbled, and championed it when others ignored it.
There are moments in Life Itself that are desperately sad. Yet overwhelmingly, this is a film about a talented writer’s passion for his family, his craft, and, of course, the movies. How appropriate, then, that a writer who devoted much of his life to sharing his passion for cinema should have such a moving film dedicated to his memory.
Life Itself is currently screening at the Sundance film festival, with a wider theatrical release still to be announced.
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