The most important thing one can do as a critic, whether it be of movies, books, music or any other art form, is to draw attention to something worthy and wonderful so that it won’t slip through the cracks of time and be forgotten. What critics do is not necessarily considered art; it’s often thought of in the same terms that Michael Keaton screamed at Lindsay Duncan’s theater critic in Birdman: “It's just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons... None of this cost you f***ing anything… You risk nothing!” It's true that the risk in writing about art is not as great as the risk one takes in creating it and pushing it out into the world to hopefully be found by an audience who appreciates it. However, if you can find and expose a piece of great art to people who might not have ever heard of it otherwise--if you can use your voice to help it find the audience it deserves--you can find true satisfaction in your work.
Roger Ebert, the dearly departed film critic with the most famous thumbs in the world, devoted his life to doing just that. Seeing independent filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani discuss the impact that Ebert’s reviews and support had on their careers is just one of many inspirational moments in Life Itself, the documentary based on his memoir of the same name. Yes, the man who was famous for his thoughts on the movies has now been immortalized in one. Ebert passed away from cancer in 2013, while filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) was still emailing him questions and shooting footage of his time in rehab as he recovered from yet another failed surgery. At this point, Ebert had lost his voice, and could only communicate via the means that first brought him into public consciousness and earned him a Pulitzer Prize: the written word. Yet even using a Stephen Hawking-esque voice generator, he still has a sense of humor and vibrancy that makes him just as charismatic of a character as those who earned raves in his reviews.
Using narration pulled straight from Ebert’s memoir, the film chronicles his childhood in Urbana, Illinois, his time as editor of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois and his beginnings at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was appointed film critic in 1967. There, he takes us into a world that, for many too young to have actually been there, will perpetually feel like a smoky black and white snapshot: the glory days of the newspaper business. The glamor extends to his memories of the sunsoaked and starlet-filled Cannes Film Festival and his friendships with various iconic filmmakers--ranging from Martin Scorsese, with whom he shares a powerful sense of Catholic guilt, to Russ Meyer, for whom he wrote the screenplay to the buxom B-movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Less glamorous, but no less compelling, is his battle with alcoholism--not to mention the gruesome cancer. And naturally, no film about Roger Ebert could avoid discussion of his volatile yet loving relationship with fellow critic, co-host and rival, Gene Siskel, best summed up by Siskel’s quote: “You may be an asshole, but you’re my asshole.”
Fellow critics such as A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss jump in to debate how Siskel and Ebert’s TV shows affected the medium of film criticism by bringing it to the living rooms of the masses--for better or for worse--while the aforementioned indie filmmakers discuss how someone with Ebert’s clout could make average Americans care about seeing a movie that they otherwise may have never heard of. It’s altogether fascinating stuff, whether you make movies, write about them or just plain watch them. However, the true heart of the film is Ebert’s relationship with his wife, Chaz, a tough yet tender woman who kept Ebert moving, writing and living throughout his illness when he could just as easily have given up. For Life Itself is, in the end, a love story. Ebert's love of Chaz, of movies and--above all--of just living life seeps into every frame and makes the film feel as though it is about to burst off of the screen and wrap the viewer in a warm embrace--ironic considering how much detail his friends go into describing the pricklier aspects of his personality. His cheerful attitude up until the very end of his life, when he was sick, in pain and in no doubt of the brief amount of time he had left, is truly inspiring. “I have lived a beautiful life, and death is a part of life,” he says, with no regret. We could all do with learning a bit about life itself from him.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
The Blu-ray release of Life Itself includes deleted scenes, a Sundance tribute to Ebert, an interview with James, a trailer and a featurette.
"Life Itself" is on sale February 17, 2015 and is rated R. Documentary. Directed by Steve James. Starring Gene Siskel.