Roger Ebert is probably the single person most responsible for bringing the culture of film debate from the academic realm to the masses. Before Ebert, cinema culture and argument was thought an elitist and snobby art form, inaccessible to the workaday public.
Through his congenial enthusiasm for film and his vibrant weekly show co-hosted with critic Gene Siskel, Ebert made film opinions fun and even necessary, at once both an ingredient and a mirror of life. “In Life Itself,” a documentary by Steve James, (Prefontaine, Hoop Dreams) we get a solid texture of Roger Ebert, the person, including his wishes, his wanderings, his Shangri-las and his fears.
Eschewing a linear path, the film is a kaleidoscope of Ebert’s life in totality. We see him first in a hospital bed as he fights complications from cancer of the jaw. Ebert can neither speak, drink or eat— difficult to accept and a harsh twist of fate for such a glib and verbally flexible man who won the Pulitzer Prize. But rather than wallow, he types away. As he describes it, he was surrounded by words all of his life. Language is Ebert’s constellation and it always will be. In this new beginning, nothing has changed.
In 1963, while at the University of Illinois, he became Editor-in-Chief for The Daily Illini, writing a scathing and eloquent lament for the horrendous bombing death of four Birmingham girls at the hands of white supremacists. On the Kennedy Assassination, Roger literally “stopped the presses” as there was a cartoon of a rooster holding a gun adjacent to the murder of JFK spread.
Ebert became a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and he gained a following for being energetic, honest and brutal, but not acidic, if a film asked for it.
He went to bars, sought the company of hookers, held court, fearlessly bragged and drank more, even to the point of collapse. Later Ebert would join AA. And he was one of the first to be vocal about his alcoholism. Language could never steer him wrong.
Ebert met the soft porn wizard, Russ Meyer, became bamboozled by big breasts and wrote a screenplay.
In 1975, PBS approached him to do a TV show. It became Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Roger looked like a hedgehog in big round glasses and heavy sweater, while Gene came across as a pedantic know-it-all, as far away from the average person as he was tall. Yet both of them made film accessible and, better yet, entertaining.
The cinema salon, untethered by education or degrees was now in the suburban living room. The most fun in “Life Itself” comes from the verbal combat between Roger and Gene. Roger despises Gene’s more hard line opinions, while Gene calls him an “asshole.” They disagree on many films from “Full Metal Jacket” to “Blue Velvet.” It is fun to watch cellulose burn with Siskel leaping from his chair and Ebert percolating in snarls of fury.
The film hints that Ebert may have been jealous of Siskel’s more outwardly prolific life (e.g. family and acceptance in the Playboy Mansion). But who knows. As Ebert is an inspiration to a once coke-addicted Scorsese, and a life affirming beacon to Werner Herzog, I think he had Siskel beat.
While there is little mention of the bawdy Ebert who no doubt worked closely with Russ Meyer and The Sex Pistols, and no mention of the young one who got interested in film through reading Mad Magazine, “Life Itself” is wonderful in showing Ebert as he is. Above all else it shows a comprehensive and human cinematic mind racing against time to meet the next article.
Roger is spurred on by the voluptual love and full falsetto romance (and who wouldn’t be) of Chaz Ebert and their film savvy children. While some of the medically intimate details make hard viewing, coupled with Chaz’s flowing tears, “Life Itself” does not dwell in sadness.
Roger Ebert, in a parallel to the physicist Stephen Hawking, has given a quantum leap bringing the often esoteric language of a subject with coherence to nearly everyone worldwide.
This is enough of a gift, but a more lasting one remains Ebert’s belief that the cinema is an emotive motion-filled and transcendent experience, necessary in creating channels of empathy along with the forging of roots to better ourselves as thinking people, brave in whatever obsessions we might have.
“Life Itself” is part of our documentary streaming series with Magnolia Pictures. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org