Roger Ebert's passing in April 2013 may have been the most important and devastating celebrity death of my life. There are others that rank high up there, mostly in the realms of literature and cinema—names like Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Foster Wallace come to mind—but these pale in comparison when you consider the level in which they managed to directly inconvenience me. Wallace will never write another novel again, and Hoffman will never make another movie, but their work occurs once in a while, whereas week after week, since 1995, I read nearly every word Ebert published in the Chicago Sun Times and elsewhere. At the height of his productivity, that amounted to three or four film reviews a week. Through both his written reviews and his television show, "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies," the duo taught me and I'm sure many of you how to watch any movie critically and intelligently. Fellow film critic A.O. Scott describes Ebert's prose as having a "clear, plain Midwestern style that doesn't simplify or condescend." He's the single greatest influence on not just my movie reviews but also my prose style overall.
Which brings us to the topic at hand, Steve James' documentary Life Itself, a project that began as an adaptation of Ebert's memoir of the same name, and became something else when Ebert died of complications from cancer five months into filming. The film's worth is practically self-evident: If you're a fan of Ebert's work, then ipso facto you're a fan of cinema in general, and this is a skillfully made, pitch-perfect celebration of both. There's a bit of clearly biased hero worship at work here that may prevent the film from being a full-on masterpiece, but I say that's fine.
James is the man behind Hoop Dreams, among the most important documentaries of the last 30 years. (Here's a fun, somewhat irrelevant fact: I was devastated when last year's documentary The Act of Killing didn't win the best documentary film feature at the Oscars, but did you know that in 1994, Hoop Dreams wasn't even nominated?)
Ebert fell ill to cancer in 2006. He later had to have his jaw removed, which left him both physically disfigured and incapable of speaking. For some time afterward, it seemed like we would lose him for good, but as the documentary exposes with unflinching access and detail, Ebert fought diligently to keep writing despite one health challenge after another. It's unpleasant but necessary for the film to dwell on the realities of living and working without a jaw, but thankfully that's not all we're given.
Ebert started writing professionally at 15 years old as a sports writer, and only later found his way into film criticism. We learn that he was a great lover of drinking and women, both of which he eventually gave up, save for his longtime wife Chaz. Their inspiring romance ties the film together and serves to strengthen my theory that the best time to meet your soul mate is in your early 50s.
The film also explores the dynamic relationship between Ebert and Siskel, whose rivalry wasn't just a convenient television contrivance; they really were that bullheaded and competitive. Just listen to the way they argue passionately over Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, a film Ebert had the audacity to not recommend. Knowing there were people out there taking the movies as seriously as I do made me feel less alone in the world. I never got bored watching the two of them bicker, and when Siskel died suddenly in 1999, I mourned with a likewise dramatic, teenage fervor.
Life Itself truly is a good documentary in its own right, an important distinction to make, since the subject is so meta. I particularly admire the way it seamlessly incorporates clips from important films transposed with Ebert's reviews. If I were going to gripe about anything, I'd say I would have preferred even more of it. (Films about films is the ultimate cinefile indulgence: It's like taking a warm bath, eating pizza and having sex all at once.)
As Ebert says in the film (via the aid of a computer-generated voice), death is inevitable, and he lived a fulfilling, productive and extraordinary life. Of course it's moving to hear Chaz narrate his last moments, and you'll probably cry, but otherwise the film takes the right tone by presenting his death with an appropriate dose of humor, levity and outright joy.
To borrow one of his trademark sentences, so indicative of that straight-talk we've all come to know and cherish: "This is one of the best films of the year."
Life Itself continues at the Wilma.