Life Itself and the Undying Passion of Roger Ebert

20131120122527-SRCHP280_Ebert_pulitzer_newspaperYou all know Roger Ebert, or at least his work; he’s very likely the most famous film critic in history. And despite that lofty perch, he left behind a populist legacy that, Life Itself suggests, lives on in each and every internet critic out there, myself included. But while that might be the most immediate and relevant part of the film for me, Life Itself is so much more than that. It’s an examination of a man who was known for his love of movies, but was not defined by it. Life Itself not only demonstrates Ebert’s passion for film but his passion for everything and everyone in his life, and the passion that was reciprocated by his loved ones and fans, and even the filmmakers he critiqued.

While the fact that Ebert was one of the most influential film critics is certainly what draws people to Life Itself, that’s far from the only (or possibly even most) arresting part. Director Steve James takes the time to portray Ebert as a flawed but ultimately virtuous figure, one who was an active social commentator in multiple ways beyond just film. The movie describes Ebert (sometimes in his own words) as a once-hard-drinking newspaperman who was more than willing to espouse his opinions to a crowd, but whose personal life (by necessity) had to mellow out in a way that his opinions did not. It also has a surprisingly intimate look at Ebert’s struggles with his cancer and its aftermath at the end of his life, showing some of the bleaker aspects of his day to day routine, but also showing the clear love and strength between him and his family, particularly his wife Chaz. Not only does James illuminate the level of passion Ebert had for movies- that he could continue to write about them while going through so much- but it reminds us that there was a whole life that Ebert lived around the movies that many of us probably never knew about.

But in the discussion about Ebert’s work as a critic, I found plenty of things that resonated with what I’ve been trying to do here. Ebert’s emphasis on populism at the movies, and trying to bring lesser-known films and filmmakers to the broadest possible audience, is what I hope I’m accomplishing here, and what I’d like to see from every critic. It also becomes clear that the core of the Siskel and Ebert format was also a great thing for the DISCUSSION of film. Rather than just the cultural elite pontificating from on high, it was two men of different taste and background expressing their opinions on films and having an honest (if truncated) debate about them.

Now obviously people took the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to be an objective judgment of a film, or treated the show as the ultimate examination of a given film, which even Ebert himself would say was bullshit. But the show did provide one thing that most criticism of the time did not: conversation. It wasn’t monologue it was dialogue, which is almost always preferable (unless you’re the one trying to do the monologuing). And while the internet has taken this to extremes to the point of nullifying the positives of a potential conversation, it did set the stage for a more give-and-take kind of film criticism, even if that potential has only been partially explored since.  It’s something that the film world needed more of, and still does (particularly on this site, where the responses to my posts are few and far between).

In the end though, while it might provide some added resonance given my current pursuits, what makes Life Itself really hit home is how well it captures Roger Ebert as an individual. Hearing about his friendships, his family, his demons and his illness, all served to ground a man who, despite his own populist tendencies, had become something of a titanic cinematic presence. It was already clear to me that we had lost a compelling critical voice in the world of film, but by the end of the movie it was just as clear that we had lost a truly great man, and how saddening- but ultimately life affirming- his time on this plane was. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download 5 different Ebert books… I’ve got some catching up to do.


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