Sundance 2014: Roger Ebert makes an enthralling documentary subject in 'Life Itself'

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Image Credit: Kevin Horan

The first time we hear Roger Ebert talk in Life Itself, a deeply enthralling documentary about the late film critic who changed film criticism, he’s giving a speech (which he did quite often — sometimes, I can testify, when he was just standing in a room with you), and he observes that every one of us is more or less trapped inside the person we are. It is therefore our job, says Ebert, to attempt to understand who other people are; that’s basically the premise of civilization. And that, for Ebert, is where movies come in. Movies, he says, are “a machine that generates empathy,” and that’s just about as perfect an evocation of the primal appeal of movies as I have ever heard. It’s also a great example of why Roger Ebert was such a compelling writer, thinker, talker, and human being. It didn’t even matter whether you agreed with him — he had a way of putting things that was pithy and practical and philosophical all at the same time. He stopped drinking in 1979, but the easy, flowing panache of the barroom raconteur never left him. His thoughts, and the way that he expressed them, were catchy, infectious, contagious. Even when you did disagree with him (which, in my case, was often), the way he put things created a logic of enchantingly fused thought and passion.

Over the last few years, when Ebert struggled, heroically, against the cancer of the jaw that resulted in his drastic facial surgery and the loss of his voice, his life became more public than ever before, largely because Ebert chose to make it public (in his blogs, his talk-show appearances, his memoir). So I wondered: What does the movie version of Life Itself really have to show or tell us? A great deal, it turns out. The movie was directed by Steve James, the documentary master who made Hoop Dreams, and what James has done, using Ebert’s final, sickly months as a prism, is to put the pieces of Ebert’s life together with extraordinary fascination and vision. The hard-drinking newspaperman who never abandoned his beloved working-class home base at the Chicago Sun-Times (he even turned down an offer from the ardent Ben Bradlee); the obsessive film fanatic who became, early in his career, both a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and a shoot-from-the-id Russ Meyer screenwriter; the sweater-wearing, thumb-wielding TV icon who turned his weekly on-air battles with Gene Siskel into a take-no-prisoners conversation that defined what criticism was for a new generation; the dazzlingly brilliant and insatiable writer; the cancer victim who lost his ability to speak yet responded only by heightening the eloquence of his voice and even welcoming death: In Life Itself, they all add up to a man on a spiritual quest, who has now become what Ebert himself would have called a great movie character.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know about Ebert that I learned from Life Itself. I’d always assumed that his rock-steady gaze and toweringly brash, domineering personality grew out of his status as America’s most influential celebrity movie critic — but, in fact, those things were fully there when he was in college, editing the school newspaper with a fearsome, cocky-beyond-his-years arrogance that made him a campus legend. I knew that countless filmmakers were indebted to him, but I didn’t know that Martin Scorsese, crawling out of his heavy addiction period, credited Ebert (and Siskel) with bringing him back from the dead through the tribute they organized at the Toronto Film Festival in the early 1980s. And though the movie should have done more digging into how Ebert first hooked up with Russ Meyer (it presents his penning of the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a fait accompli — and neglects to mention that he wrote several other, far more tawdry screenplays for Meyer), it’s pretty up front about Ebert’s involvement, for years, with reckless and unstable women. I bring this up only because it gets to Ebert’s dual nature: He was a tubby, ink-stained Midwestern geek who walked on the wild side.

Speaking of which, the single most extraordinary fact unearthed by Steve James isn’t about Ebert at all but about Gene Siskel. Did you know that before he became a movie critic, he was part of Hugh Hefner’s inner circle? We seeĀ  early-’70s shots of Siskel on the Playboy private jet, wearing a caftan and a Harry Reems mustache. Siskel the playboy and Ebert the Russ Meyer partner/parasite: No wonder these two critics, beneath their mutual antipathy, got along. Yet, of course, they also famously didn’t, and the ongoing soap opera of the Ebert-Siskel relationship is the most surprising — and, believe it or not, moving — thing in Life Itself.

At first, they truly despised each other. Then they learned to tolerate each other, but with a competitive anger that didn’t really allow for anything you could call camaraderie. Then they were joined at the hip (or, as one wag puts it, at the butt) by multimillion-dollar contracts, at which point Siskel lived in terror of Ebert abandoning the partnership. The open abrasiveness of their weekly movie debates was like an early version of reality TV (at times, they just about slapped each other with words), and James includes some of the luscious cutting-room-floor clips of the two openly, but always wittily, insulting each other. (The wit was part of the competition.)

All of this raises a question: Is what they had, as has often been observed, an embattled “marriage”? I think so, but in a very odd way. Lots of married couples start off in love and then square off in anger. For Ebert and Siskel, the opposite happened. For a long time, there was no love lost between them. They looked at each other with toxic rivalry and contempt. The more their partnership went on, though, the more they recognized what neither one of them would admit: that no matter how much they disagreed, they not only needed each other as critics, they mirrored each other. In an odd way, it was the intensity of their mutual antipathy that brought them close. Life Itself takes a good long hard look at how Sneak Previews and At the Movies changed popular culture, and not always for the better. The Ebert-Siskel show (in the film, Time magazine critic Richard Corliss aptly describes it as a sitcom about two guys who live in a movie theater) brought impassioned conversation about movies to a vast new audience, but James also gives the contradictions and even corruptions that were built into the show a workout.

The way that Life Itself lingers on the last few months of Ebert’s life, giving us close-up views of his Ghost of Marley jaw, his debilitating physical challenges, is not always easy to watch. But it’s part of the film’s lacerating honesty. That Ebert, cared for so tenderly by his wife, Chaz, wound up facing death this boldly is certainly a sign of his courage — but then, many people who aren’t famous face death boldly. Watching Life Itself, what strikes me most about the way that Ebert lived out his final days, when his body was disintegrating yet his mind was purified, is that it truly was a continuation of the way that he had always lived: at full spiritual volume, hungry for the taste of experience. His ego was so implacable that it was truly at peace. In a lifetime at the movies, Roger Ebert consumed a lot of empathy, so there’s something almost luminous about seeing him take that empathy and shine it back on himself.

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