Rooster Illusion consists of folks who write about movies. We do this because we enjoy it (and the bossman has promised us a multi-million dollar bonus for every year we work, which I’m sure will come any day now, not that I’m complaining). We love movies, and we love talking about them. Thus, at least a few of us have an affinity for Roger Ebert, who helped elevate and democratize film criticism as something for everyone.
I personally only began to follow his reviews in high school, and thus had only read him consistently for four or five years before his passing. What I learned from him, though, is inimitable: when I get into a formula for reviews, I think of how he so accurately captured a movie just by talking about how it impacted him. Moreover, his blogs and interviews showed that he privileged passion and compassion, thought and thoughtfulness. He is an important figure in the world of film criticism, internet writing, and writing in general.
The documentary Life Itself attempts to capture the multifaceted Roger Ebert, and the director, Steve James, takes a fairly traditional approach. Fortunately, James has clearly mastered the format, as he presents a documentary that might be standardly made, but captures its subject as well as Roger captured movies in his reviews. We hear excerpts from his biography, Life Itself: A Memoir, that describe his life up to and through his stint as house film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
More impactful, though, are the scenes of him with his wife, Chaz Ebert, in the hospital. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Roger Ebert became terribly sick in the last decade of his life, and ended up losing his lower jaw. He could not talk, but used a computer program instead. He continued to write online. The intimacy of these sequences capture a side of him that we both are and are not familiar with: his vulnerability, yes, but also his resilience, optimism, and, of course, humor. James does not shy away from scenes that are somewhat difficult to watch, including when Roger notes that he is not likely to live long enough to see the documentary finished.
His illness and relationship with Chaz do receive a lion’s share of the film’s emotional weight, but they do not dominate it. Roger notes that he is ready to pass because his life has been fantastic, and we absolutely can see that in this documentary. His frame-by-frame deconstructions at the Conference on World Affairs, his championing and exposure of several young talents (including Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese), and his relationship to Gene Siskel reveal the extent to which his heart and mind reached many of those around him, sometimes in complicated and complex ways. He and Gene certainly had a love-hate relationship, and James fully captures the tensions and beauty in their interactions. It’s tastefully done.
Having the Zog give an interview certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Life Itself risks being a simple summary with some inherent emotion due to Roger’s passing, but it goes beyond that. It understands the complexities of a man that has affected many of us, and—in so doing—welcomes praise and criticism of the man that make this portrait more complete. Life Itself is a lovely documentary, one that I was happy to watch as a movie lover and a fan of the subject. I think it is a fitting honor to his legacy. The film is currently on demand on Google Play and Vudu, and I recommend watching it while it is available. Film critic, fanatic, whoever you are, put aside some time to see passion in motion.