I have now had a night to sleep on Life Itself. I remember more of the film as I reflect on it, for much is covered in the film. This review will not cover everything, just as the film did not cover every aspect of Roger Ebert’s life. Yet I hope it will retain the essentials, as the film did.
Despite some pauses during the film when my slow-as-crap browser was having trouble streaming it, I have few things to complain about. Indeed, the film addresses one of my main complaints about the book, which is that there isn’t enough information about Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel. He got one chapter (and a lovely chapter, at that), a few mentions, and that’s it. With this film, director Steve James is able to interview Marlene Iglitzen, Gene’s widow, as well as others who knew Siskel and Ebert, resulting in a better and more complete portrait of their complicated professional and personal relationship (and includes the clip where Siskel got angry at Ebert for giving Full Metal Jacket a thumbs down in the same program that he gave a thumbs up to Benji the Hunted). Just as their relationship was the center of their careers, so it forms the center of the movie. The viewer learns that Siskel was terrified every time their contracts came up for renewal that Ebert wouldn’t renew his, which would put him out of a job (one of the reasons he didn’t tell Buena Vista Television how sick he was when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor is that he didn’t want to be replaced on the show), and how incredibly happy he was when Ebert got married, because that meant he would have a mortgage and bills to pay and so would never leave the show. Also, since the film can’t interview people who are dead, it spends more time covering those filmmakers whose careers Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert by himself, helped — a list that includes Martin Scorsese (executive producer of this film), Errol Morris, and Ramin Bahrani. In this way, it makes the film more personal, and cuts out interesting stories in the memoir that gave great portraits of famous people in Hollywood, but did not strengthen the reader’s understanding of Ebert.
I must mention his eyes. Robbed of his ability to speak, Ebert speaks with his eyes in this film, where more is expressed than his computer voice, or the notes he scratches on his notepad, can provide. They are often bright, happy, filled with joy and mirth, but sometimes –as when his throat is suctioned — they close in pain. This is something the written word can convey only imperfectly, which shows that perhaps, for Ebert, a movie better conveys his life than a book can. When he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ebert said, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.” In this way, the film helps us empathize with Ebert in a way that a book cannot.
Of course, a movie just shy of two-hours can’t show everything, and so nothing is mentioned of Ebert’s stay in South Africa while in college, or much about his parents, or what happened to Ebert & Roeper after Ebert left (which probably would have added another half hour to the run time). His childhood is likewise glossed over, though I got a better sense of him as the student editor of The Daily Illini than I did from his memoir, mainly due to the people in the film who remember him from his college days. So what sense do we get of the man? That he could be stubborn, but that his stubbornness may have been how he persevered through his multiple battles with cancer. That marrying Chaz helped him to become a better person. That he and Siskel were like brothers caught in a perpetual state of adolescence, who discovered only late in their relationship that they really did like each other.
The real question, however, is this: did James manage to show the man, apart from the movie critic? Yes, in a way that isn’t revealed in the book. Sure, Ebert bared his soul in his memoirs, but the problem with memoirs is that only one point of view is revealed, and it’s one that only one person shares, whereas in a biography or a documentary, many different viewpoints help flesh out the entire person, and since everyone except you sees you from the outside, these perspectives give a better portrait of who that person actually was, and how they appeared in life. That is the treatment Ebert gets here, from fellow critics (Richard Corliss, A.O. Scott), directors (Werner Herzog, Gregory Nava, Ava DuVernay, plus the ones mentioned above), coworkers (John McHugh, Thea Flaum), friends (Bill Nack, Bruce Elliot), and family (Chaz Ebert, Raven Evans), to name just a few. We find out about his newspaper days, his drinking days, his TV show days, and his final days. There are excerpts read from his memoir, there are quotes lifted from his reviews, there are clips shown from his TV appearances, and there are photos shared from private collections. And, at the center of it all, there is Roger Ebert, who answers — one-at-a-time — the questions that James emails to him, until his final illness begins to overtake him, and his replies become short and sad, none more heartbreaking than his simple reply of “i can’t. Cheers, R”
I cried two times during the film. The first time was when Raven Evans, his step-granddaughter, tears up when talking about time spent with him. The second time was at the end of the film, when I cried almost as hard as I did the day he died.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” This film has revealed someone who lived that way: a man who had flaws and overcame the worst of them, had ambitions and met the greatest of them, had loves and shared the majority of them.