Director: Steve James
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.
Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.
James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.
James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.
Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.
The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.
It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”
I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.