I’ve been avoiding Life Itself for a long time, as a book and as a film. A paperback copy of Roger Ebert’s memoir is there on my coffee table, between my chair and the screen I watch movies on. I know that cover intimately: The red velvet of the movie theater seats, his black silhouette before an endless screen that could not exist in any reality but one liberally embellished by the mind. I’ve seen movies in the same theater as Ebert, eaten a meal in the same room as him, too. In this documentary, Time Magazine‘s Richard Corliss says that Roger Ebert had been writing about film for half of its existence. He’d been writing about film for the whole duration of my life, was a fixture on T.V. every Friday. He’s been part of my life as a filmgoer and as a writer for as long as I’ve seriously been either of those things, and yet Life Itself loomed ominously, its mere existence a threat. But to what, I wondered, pulling myself through Steve James’ documentary.
There’s very little about Roger Ebert that isn’t already public record. As an extension of the speaking voice he lost through several surgeries related to thyroid cancer, he launched Roger Ebert’s Journal in 2008 and began blogging regularly in addition to his duties as the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. At first, the blog was mostly a supplement to his reviews. There were bits about his status as the only film critic who liked the new Indiana Jones film, his distaste for 3D, and so on, but every now and again there’d be an essay about science fiction or his childhood obsession with the news, something about his life, and it became very clear that Roger Ebert’s Journal wasn’t going to be a typical blog for very long. Once, he wrote that his wife Chaz was bugging him to start writing a memoir. Then his blog began exploring his life in admirable detail: His childhood, his relationship with Russ Meyer, his alcoholism, his marriage. He was writing a working draft of Life Itself the whole time, from 2008 to the publication of the memoir. It was an admirable project, one, he said, that marked the final stage of his life.
I suppose that’s what I feared: Closure. Which, I realize, is an odd thing to seek from an online relationship between a blogger and a member of his commentariat. But he had an odd way of making such a small relationship seem important. I read Ebert’s website every day for years, trying to better myself as a critic. I dropped comments here and there. Sometimes Ebert would comment back, which was thrilling stuff to a know-nothing college undergraduate whose own blog was a repository of snark and near-opinion on whatever I’d spent the weekend assaulting my brain with. When one of his blog posts became a cookbook, several of my comments were included, and suddenly I was a published author. I put this on my CV, sent it to a few colleges, and all of the sudden I was a graduate student. This was life-changing stuff for me, though it was probably nothing for him. My family still talks about it. Still. When this documentary was on CNN the other day, I got text messages from my mother. It was all I saw on Twitter. For a long time, closure meant acknowledging that whatever project Roger Ebert had embarked on was finished. Watching Life Itself, it quickly became clear how wrong I was.
Steve James’ documentary is Ebert’s conscious attempt at adapting his book into a film. Initially, that’s how the project is framed: James interviewing the living subjects of the book about Ebert and their role in his life, and interviewing the film critic to dig a little deeper into certain sections of his story, be that his connection with the city of Chicago or his debate with Corliss in the pages of Film Comment or the future of film criticism as the Internet continued to grow, presumably shrinking the influence of the daily newspaper in the process. But as Life Itself opens, Ebert is back in the hospital for a hairline fracture of his hip. Soon, he will realize that the fracture was caused by metastasized tumors, a return of cancer. He will go on as long as he can, but he is frequently too tired for filming or to answer James’ questions, so the director must go back to the book, fleshing out this story he’s stumbled onto, of a beloved literary figure who, for so long, has refused to die.
Again, there’s little that Ebert has left out of the public eye, so for a reader of his blog or memoir, there’s little new information to be parsed. The inclusion of Ebert’s friends and family, his wife and old drinking buddies like John McHugh, the women who produced his television show and Gene Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen all serve to add perspective to the singular voice of the memoir. The expected things are covered: His was a wide experience, fondly remembered. If he could be difficult, then it was for the betterment of whatever he was working on, or because he had a competitive edge that raised the game of those he worked with. The rehab sessions James witnessed were taken from his fifth visit to the clinic. He was relearning how to walk again, indefatigable. He seemed genuinely excited when James was there capturing that process, or, even better, when the camera was on to see a nurse suctioning his G-tube. A scene where Ebert is fumbling with his computer speakers while the nurse and Chaz wait around impatiently to get the suction over with becomes strange and beautiful when he manages finally to plug the jack in. The song is Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years,” and though what he’s enduring can’t be comfortable, he looks relieved, blissful even, as if he knows the music means James got a better shot.
As for the question of how to make a film about a film critic, James lets Ebert’s writing and the films he wrote about do the bulk of the work, utilizing clips from Bonnie and Clyde, El Norte, and other films Ebert gave glowing reviews to while voice actor Stephen Stanton reads the review. Moreover, Ebert’s words appear captioned on the screen, giving new life to old film reviews while showing the intimate relationship art might enjoy with art criticism were the two to be treated with equanimity. Of late (and due, perhaps in part, to the large influence of Siskel & Ebert, which was never intended as serious criticism but was frequently treated as such), it seems like film and film criticism are moving farther and farther apart. A bad review of a popular film is said to be written for attention. The influence of a popular film critic means less now than it did when Siskel and Ebert spent a year stumping for Gates of Heaven on national television.
But this is the project Ebert had undertaken in the very last days of his life, the expansion of his online reach and the opening of a new channel for young, unknown critics to develop their skills and make their voices heard. After years of breaking filmmakers like Scorcesse, Herzog, Bahrani, and James, his final project was a way of saying that the work is never done. James’ camera shows Ebert scrolling down the contributors’ page of his then yet-to-be-launched website. So many of those faces belonged to women or persons of color. All of them were of people he had influenced, in some way, to write about film. It’s a stunning gesture, allowing his name to amplify the voices of so many others, but he seemed to regard the Internet as the future of film criticism rather than its end. That isn’t closure, but a new frontier. His work continues, though not under his byline. He wrote of movies as a machine that generates empathy. By giving of himself so fully to this one, he ultimately proved his point.