A Life and a Legacy

Life Itself
(USA, 118 min.)
Dir. Steve James
Feat. Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert.
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in Life Itself.
Photo credit: Kevin Horan

“Two thumbs up.” It’s a term so iconic and synonymous with film criticism that Siskel and Ebert had the term trademarked to prevent fraudulent doubling. The legacy of Siskel and Ebert is apparent on nearly every page of the web, for Facebook pages, YouTube links, and whatnot use enthusiastic thumb emoticons to note approval. Anyone can express himself or herself in clear terms.

Life Itself looks at this particular layman’s style of film criticism that characterizes the work of one-half of the “Two thumps up” pair, Roger Ebert. Ebert, arguably the most influential voice to date in film criticism, receives a film that does his brand of passionate social commentary justice. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, of which Ebert was a champion) conveys Ebert’s story in a poignant and genuinely moving film that examines not only Ebert’s passion for the movies, but also his unparalleled ability to relate to the masses how the greatness of a film extends beyond the work itself.

James chronicles some inspiring footage as he follows Ebert and his wife, Chaz, during Ebert’s lengthy experience with cancer. The images of Ebert in the hospital might be upsetting for anyone who grew up watching the film critic on TV, or followed his career even after he took a leave from “At the Movies,” for it’s upsetting to see a man with such a powerful, persuasive voice participate in interviews without the speech with which viewers are familiar. The image of Ebert, with his profile altered following the removal of his bottom jaw, is equally troubling at first glance, although the honesty with which James and the Eberts depict Roger’s fight marks the kind of integrity that Roger Ebert appreciated in films and injected into his own reviews. The film doesn’t shy away from confronting the reality of a fight with cancer, which Ebert himself was so open with sharing.

Ebert, unable to speak audibly for several years due to aggressive cancer, still speaks as passionately as ever thanks to his blog and computer that deliver his wizardly writing as quickly as he can turn it out. Life Itself uses Ebert’s genuine love for the movies, and for writing about the movies, as its driving thread. James smartly uses the critic’s own words as passages from Life Itself narrate the movie of Ebert’s life as it chronicles his rise as a shrewd and perceptive journalist to a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic and then some. Ebert’s frankness with his battle with alcoholism is rendered soberly and candidly, and the ease with which he talks about his struggles illuminates some of the later works and reviews that shape the film.

Much of Life Itself, as expected, focuses on Ebert’s relationship with his long time reviewing partner Gene Siskel. James assembles a roster of snippets from “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” that illustrate the friendly rivalry between the critics as their analysis inevitably escalates into banter and argumentation. The only treat better than revisiting these highlights and outtakes of the show is watching them interspersed with accounts from various contemporaries of Ebert and Siskel who explain how the critics either elevated or altered the way people create and consume film criticism.

Life Itself acknowledges the arguments against Ebert’s style of democratic cultural commentary that sometimes is likened to a dumbing down or a simplification of the art form. Life Itself feels very urgent in an age where conversations of what film criticism should or shouldn’t be feel more prevalent and prescriptive than ever. Life Itself resonates strong and one can’t help but situate Ebert’s work within similar barbs that characterize the policing of film criticism today. The argument against Ebert is somewhat ludicrous, although Life Itself offers a few contemporaries of Ebert, namely Pauline Kael, as a contrast for highfalutin intellectualism in film criticism, as well as a handful of other critics who prefer to keep the conversation in prose and print. The television show’s binary “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” way of evaluating films also receives a brief mention, but James focuses mainly on the positives of Ebert’s career that greatly outweigh the perceived negatives.

James does this mostly through the in-depth accounts of the relationship between Ebert and Siskel. The two critics embody bipolar aspects of cultural commentary even though they come together and butt heads on the same show. Life Itself, in a way, almost doesn’t need to give ample time to Ebert’s critics since the argument is fully on display in the archival footage of Ebert’s own work: both poles of cultural criticism can co-exist. Ebert, moreover, injects into film criticism a level of pragmatism that says one may review any film in any variety of contexts, which is perhaps best conveyed in the snippet in which Ebert disagrees vehemently with Siskel’s “Thumbs up” rating for Full Metal Jacket, but then goes on to raise his thumb for Benji the Hunted. The jovial yet heated conversations between Ebert and Siskel demonstrate one step of the critics’ invaluable contribution to the movies. The simple digits of their rating system show that film is essentially a popular medium and that anyone can embrace a film so long as one may defend one’s position passionately and thoughtfully.

Life Itself also shows how Ebert never pandered despite the inevitable mainstreaming of the conversation as film criticism became a national television show. The film uses Ebert’s own reviews, as well as additional excerpts from his show with Siskel and conversations with critics and with filmmakers whose work Ebert brought into the spotlight, to show how the accessibility of Ebert’s work ultimately brings higher art closer to the masses. Enthusiastic reviews—thumbs up, even—for eccentric documentaries, foreign films, independent films, and films by alternative voices have just as much place, if one a greater one, than the populist popcorn movies that frequently headlined the show.

Excerpts of Ebert’s reviews, especially his landmark appraisal of Bonnie and Clyde, reveal how his highly readable and personal prose situates essential and groundbreaking films into everyday conversation. Ebert’s highlighting of the way the bold intensity of Bonnie and Clyde vibrates with an urgency of the here and now offers the kind of personal yet literate criticism that both educates a reader on the workings of genre revisionism and, in turn, gets a reader excited to see a bold new film. Even in the context of Ebert’s personal arc, such as his review for The Tree of Life, does Life Itself reveal how the candid, almost diary-like assessments in Ebert’s work unpack a film more substantially, intelligently, and clearly than do most reviews.

James tells Ebert’s story in an everyday mode that fits the critic’s own democratic style. There’s nothing stuffy or pretentious about James’s approach. It’s a film for film buffs as it unpacks lovingly the work of film’s most influential voice, but it’s also a film that can move anyone to share Ebert’s passion for the movies. Life Itself is a beautiful love story just as much as it is a eulogy for the great critic as it builds the story of Ebert’s relationship with Chaz as its final arc. Chaz’s testimony in the film is as candid, thoughtful, and intimate as anything Ebert ever wrote, and there’s a bittersweetness to the final arc as she carries Ebert’s legacy by giving films and film criticism a wide reach. Anyone can relate to Life Itself because it is so profoundly personal.

The sweet and refreshingly sentimental finale to Life Itself uses the basic pleasure of the film experience to touch a viewer and teach him or her that the appreciation of the movies, and the appreciation of sharing one’s love for the movies with others, is ultimately an appreciation of life itself. The warm, personal, and passionate voice of Life Itself is a life-affirming reminder of the experiences we share with others. The only shame of Life Itself is that one can't read Ebert's own review, but James brings his voice to life in every frame of the film, and every assessment of the film, big or small, feels like a mark of Ebert's legacy.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Life Itself screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair until July 17.

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