Steve James’ documentary Life Itself, based on the late film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, opens at FilmScene this Friday, July 18. Having only begun production in the final months before Ebert’s death in April 2013, the documentary quotes the critic’s memoir at length to supply narration and clarity, but one of the questions James is unable to get Ebert to answer before his death is “Why did you call your memoir Life Itself?” It’s a question the film itself leaves unanswered, at least explicitly, inviting us to ponder it of James’ documentary, just as he did of Ebert’s book.
In such a meticulously structured documentary, the unexplored connections between the title of Ebert’s memoir, the title of the film and its meaning becomes a structuring absence, lingering behind the interviews, photographs and archival footage that comprise Ebert’s filmic biography. Beginning with Ebert’s trip to the hospital for a hip fracture in December 2012 — ultimately determined to be caused by the return of the cancer that in 2006 had already taken the critic’s ability to speak, eat or drink — the film flashes back to cover Ebert’s life in only loosely chronological fashion.
Instead of tying itself to chronology, the film takes up Ebert’s life thematically: His lifelong love of the newspaper business; his 40-year participation at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colo.; his impact on the way film criticism is received; his acknowledged struggles with alcoholism; the TV show and interpersonal rivalry he shared with Gene Siskel; his advocacy for little-known filmmakers; his belatedly discovered love of family life. Along the way, a diverse group of newspapermen, college classmates, barroom buddies, film critic peers, writers, filmmakers and Chicagoans give testimony, illustrating what each thematic segment says about Ebert, finally the main character in his own film.
In a diverse collection of works that run a surprising gamut from his well-known film reviews, to the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), to his contentious movie-review TV show At the Movies, to little-known short science fiction, to latter-day personal ruminations and essays on his website, Ebert left behind a lot of himself when he died. James puts this all to good use, showing us Ebert the hard-partying horndog, Ebert the principled Democrat newspaperman, Ebert the intellectual, Ebert the populist Midwesterner. It’s the combination of these elements, the movie argues, that helped Ebert change the game of film criticism: He respected cinema as both an artistic medium and as a popular one, and his writing, in style and subject, bridged the gap between art and the populus.
If there’s a bone to pick with the film, it might be its attachment to this argument about the popularization of movie criticism. Setting Siskel and Ebert’s Midwestern approach against the styles of the culturally dominant coasts, James includes a portion of an interview in which Ebert’s newspaper colleague Rick Kogan proclaims, “I don’t know Pauline Kael, I never knew Pauline Kael, but fuck Pauline Kael.”
The comment is a surprisingly aggressive one in the midst of what is a very warm film. Its purpose in the documentary seems to be to position Ebert — although he was at one point a Ph.D. candidate in English at the prestigious University of Chicago — and his At the Movies show as the down-home answer to Kael’s intellectualism. This seems to me to be beside the point, as Kael and Ebert were both members of a group of elite ’70s critics who helped change the nature of film culture in America; as Ebert once generously wrote of Kael, she “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.”
Overall, though, Life Itself succeeds in being fair-minded not only to its subject but to people like Siskel, who had a complicated relationship with Ebert. James captures much of what made Ebert unique, important and a veritable cultural force in the world of cinema. At a healthy two hours long, he’s able to construct a complex and diverse portrait of the man and his accomplishments.
James also has time to pepper the film with potential clues as to the meaning of its title. The phrase in the context of the film seems to evoke the kind of early, enthusiastic and utopian writing about the cinema one might have read in an upstart avant-garde publication in the 1920s.
After the photograph and the phonograph had shown that pieces of reality could be divorced from the places and bodies that produced them, cinema would give us “life itself.” Films are, in this way of thinking, composed of alienated moments in time that are so irrepressibly alive that they overcome their own alienation, allowing for the empathetic revelation of life.
Life Itself opens with footage of Ebert echoing these most optimistic appraisals of the cinema’s role in 20th century culture, speaking of its capacity to make us empathize with and understand others.
For Ebert, who had many different ways of addressing the question of what makes the movies special, this was always a core idea. Cinema at its best is a revelatory medium capable of giving us slices of living reality we would otherwise pass by; this is perhaps why Ebert so ardently championed the work of observant, esoteric and politically/philosophically committed documentarians like Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978), Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007) and James himself (Hoop Dreams, 1994).
This theory of cinema is also likely why his early, glowing review observes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) that, despite the fact that it’s set in 1933, it’s really “about us” — and probably why, 45 years later, he was famously reluctant to admit the virtual worlds of video games into the pantheon of “art.”
Like any good title, there are more shades of meaning here, because the irony of cinema in the 20th and 21st centuries is that it not only revealed life to us, but shaped our lives and our thought. In reflecting on the legacy of Roger Ebert, this documentary shows us the ways that cinema interpenetrated, and in a way, gave him, his life.