As often as I’ve touted my adulation for Roger Ebert, I admit that I know relatively little about the critic. By the time my journey through film began, Siskel & Ebert & The Movies had already been replaced by Ebert & Roeper. His reviews never found a home in my local newspaper and even if they stopped by for an occasional visit, his name would have been unfamiliar to me and I would likely have ignored the byline. When my love of films fully bloomed, I began to look at Ebert in the sort of admiring hindsight reserved for retired sports heroes our parents expound on like giants. But Ebert was as much of a giant in film as the medium can manage.
Life Itself guides us through Ebert’s unsuspecting roots in southern Illinois, detailing his later newspaper and TV days, and finally giving us an intimate look at his fight with cancer. The film focuses heavily on the latter third of his life including the influence he wielded as an exorbitantly popular critic and also on his very public health woes. While I would have preferred to spend more time in his early years, his experience with death and dying is likely one that many will find relatable. And in many ways it is Ebert’s relatability that drew so many people to him. In a world defined by glitz and glamour centered on often impossibly beautiful people, Ebert stood out as a real-life every-man. Born to a blue-collar family, Ebert went to public university at the University of Illinois helming the school newspaper and sharpening his already mature writing skills. A background in journalism equipped him with an approachable style contrasting the more verbose and eloquent critics coming up around the same time. Unlike those high-brow pundits, Ebert reminded us of us. A friend in the film quotes Ebert as saying “everyone ought to be able to ‘get’ a movie,” a sentiment you might expect around a water cooler, not in newspaper ink. His back-pocket may have stretched to accommodate a Pulitzer (which he had a habit of mentioning to his peers), but his writing was simple and his tastes not always perfect. Many people scorn the examples of classics he tabled and busts he championed. But each of us have collections of terrible movies we glorify and legendary movies we vilify. In hindsight his at-times questionable verdicts allow him to appear all the more real. And his simplicity never betrayed his vast knowledge and adoration for films. In the way that Hemingway approached narratives, Ebert approached his criticism, allowing everyone to sit at the table.
Given the deterioration of his health during filming, the documentary inevitably resembles more a eulogy than a biography. And it is an honest eulogy, sometimes painfully honest, in the way that someone who spent decades in a critic’s chair would prefer. The film vacillates, perhaps necessarily, between unflattering accounts of his personality flaws (most frequently from Marlene Iglitzen) and borderline sycophantic praise. A common problem with movies of this spirit is that squeezing so many nice people saying so many nice things into such a short amount of time forces the hand of heavy-handedness. The saving grace is that these kind words come from close friends and pseudo-colleagues whom we can not begrudge for praising their passed friend. Instead we embrace their insight. Several young directors are featured behind whom Ebert threw his fame, shining a needed spotlight early in their careers and showing how his sphere of influence extended beyond the columns he wrote and into the world he scrutinized.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I first engaged with Ebert’s criticism with a Blockbuster copy of Citizen Kane (1941) way back in high school. Before discovering that copy (thanks to a Virgil-esque store clerk), the majority of my film learning was gleaned from musty library books and Wikipedia pages (I don’t know how people managed the pre-internet knowledge black hole). His commentary opened the hood of the movie, exposing its guts, style and innovations. In many ways that was the most definable defining moment in my life of movie love. The moment when movies sunk their teeth into me once and for all. Ebert and his contemporaries brought their generation to the movies and we’ve never looked back.Flashforward Premonition from July 4, 2014: One of the most influential film figures of all time (and maybe the most influential person not standing behind a camera or penning scripts), Roger Ebert’s influence on film is inescapable. For me, tracking down Ebert’s reviews (thank you internet), books and articles not only demonstrated that it is possible to invest a life in film but was also the start of my personal investment. This site’s very first blog review featuring 12 Years A Slave mentioned Ebert’s views on Goodfellas (1990), hoping to use his theories as a guide. Since that first day, this site has referenced Ebert several more times including in a post accepting blog awards where I mentioned getting “DVDs in the mail and listen[ing] to Roger Ebert’s commentary on the movies every day after school. I remember listening to him break down Citizen Kane while my brothers played outside like well-adjusted children,” and later in my review of The Wolf of Wall Street I expressed my love for “Scorsese by Ebert,” a book in which my favorite movie critic discusses the films of my favorite director. Needless to say, I will be in the theaters early and often for this film. Thanks for reading! Flashback/Backslide Link to Trailer.