As with many eulogies, the new movie Life Itself, a documentary about Roger Ebert by fellow Chicago filmmaker Steve James, induces mixed emotions. Shot during the last months of the 70-year-old journalist’s life, using a voice actor to read from his blogs and memoir, and featuring tributes from his friends, both famous and not, is a tribute and historical perspective on the man behind a pop-cultural phenomenon. Ebert created a certain image of what film critics do in the public’s mind: Arguing, waving his thumb up or down, like a Roman tyrant, speaking in confident paragraphs about movies great and small and mostly, in-between.
Reviewers, many of whom were acquainted with Ebert, have been emotional and positive about the film. When it had its debut at Sundance Film Festival in January, the room was reportedly filled with weeping. No doubt, they have a professional bias toward the subject matter. Many, including me, were slightly acquainted with Ebert and liked him. In his honour, I will try to use the word “I” several times in this review.
I have several reservations, including whether it’s helpful to watch Ebert in his declining days, having his G-tube suctioned, or struggling with weakness. This spectacle of private pain and celebrity voyeurism, even in the name of unflinching documentary honesty, is troubling. I think with a shudder of Oprah Winfrey, who had Roger Ebert on her television show in 2010 to demonstrate the voice synthesizer before she yelled out to the audience: “And he’s CANCER-FREE!” Had she never had a conversation with an oncologist?
Then, of course, there’s the contradiction between the critical skepticism of Ebert’s profession and celebrity greeting line of the film’s talking heads.
What do we make of those movie marquee adjectives such as “beloved” and “great” applied for a movie critic? Couldn’t we settle for “useful?” The tributes here, from filmmakers Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese, who also serves as an executive producer, and estimable critics from Richard Corliss, A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Howie Movshovitz, are all kind in their comments about Ebert’s populism, freedom from ideology, and democratic approach.
To be blunt, I think they’re being kind. Most film writers would privately agree that Ebert had a lot of experience and energy but was not an exceptionally insightful critic. He offered good plot synopsis and a lot of first-person pronouncements on life and art. He was not one of those more sophisticated critics, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum or J. Hoberman, that educated other critics. Nor do I think his passing has any significance to the overall fate of film culture and criticism, which is dying in print but flourishing online.
Gerald Peary, a former Globe and Mail contributor and director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, wrote in 2013 in response to the wave of Ebert appreciations: “Ebert was hardly the best critic we have. I can name half a dozen people with far more interesting and stylish things to say about the cinema.”
Peary described Ebert as “a very hard-working, daily journalist who, as he should, watched thousands of movies and wrote about them in a very clear, concise, fairly interesting but obvious way.”
There’s no doubt that his television work was more influential than his copious writing. For about 35 years, Ebert was involved in reviewing movies on television, first with his partner, Gene Siskel, and, after Siskel’s death, with various other critics. At its peak, Ebert was syndicated to more than 200 stations and made he and Siskel a national institution. (Or, as Time magazine critic Richard Corliss says in the movie, the stars of a sitcom about two guys arguing about the movies.) Ebert seemed to really liked the spotlight and gripped it tightly. Critic David Edelstein called him “a public man in a private profession – the Mayor of Critic-Ville.”
Given that office, His Honour worked diligently to stay on top, making public appearances on television, at festivals, on cruises, and writing more than 20 books, not only on film, but books about how to use a rice cooker, walks in London or how to keep your computer virus-free. Later, after 2006 when he was silenced by cancer, he wrote copiously – reviewing, blogging, tweeting more than 30,000 times, and interacting with a new generation of readers. He also wrote the memoir, Life Itself, which director Steve James adapted into this film.
Ebert’s treatment for cancer forms the bookends of his autobiography, told with archival video clips and photographs, talking head interviews, accompanied by a reading of Ebert’s work from an actor who sounds remarkably like him. While the assemblage aims to be lively portrait of Ebert’s beginnings, none of it is particularly exceptional. His friends say he was a brilliant student editor and writer though the phrases from his copy, while clearly expressed and emotional, seem ordinary. Later, when he became the youngest film critic at a daily newspaper, working for the Chicago Sun-Times, one pal asserts admiringly that Roger could turn out a “fully thought-out review in 30 minutes.” The tales of his hard-drinking days from his bar buddies are a reminder that with bar stories, it’s better if you were there.
More intriguing is the account of how he took time to write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for his friend, Russ Meyer, principally, according to friends, because of his interest in large-breasted women, and perhaps his fascination with fame. (One of the most entertaining parts of the film is Martin Scorsese’s playful commentary on that turkey.) Ebert’s issues around women seem worthy of more investigation. One friend talks about his consistently awful taste in dates. Another mentions a Linda Rondstadt-lookalike prostitute who Ebert passed on to him to care for. Ebert has said he felt he couldn’t marry until his mother died because he was concerned about her disapproval – a level of maternal dedication worthy of Norman Bates.
Ebert’s truculence is mentioned and forgiven. The childish squabbles with Ebert between takes have long ago made their way onto YouTube, though they’re still bizarre to watch. The relationship, which graduated from hostile rivalry to sibling affection, remained financially tricky: Each depended on the other for their considerable financial success with the television show.
Ebert’s internal demons, if that’s what they were, subdued before the show really took off. In 1979, he stopped drinking. He met his wife, Chaz, an African-American lawyer, through Alcoholics Anonymous and married her when he was 50. In spite of his obesity, she found his confidence “sexy.” He married at 50 and spend his last two decades in a loving and supportive relationship with his step-family.
And what of the fame years? James offers the views of Ebert’s critics, though often it seems their complaints are raised only to be quickly refuted. Did Roger push mainstream movies at the expense of smaller ones? On the contrary, he made new careers and rescued ones that were in trouble. Was Roger too friendly with celebrity directors such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog whose movies he also reviewed? Nonsense – he revived the 19th-century concept of the artistic community of artists and critics! Was Roger Ebert less intellectually important than Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris? Well, fornicate Pauline Kael, bellows one of his friends, because Roger was more influential than Kael ever was. Well, there’s another important bar-room argument settled.
As it happens, Kael, the flashy, captious, late New Yorker critic, was a writer Ebert admired and has quoted approvingly “I go into the movie and I watch it and I ask myself what happened to me.”
Now, colour me Canadian, but I have to draw a line at this kind of first-person criticism: “What happened to me” sounds too individual and solipsistic: A film experience is inter-subjective, a shared psychological event, so change that phrase to “what happened to us” and Life Itself mostly works: The fear of cancer, the love of a brave spouse, the story about a man who has measured out his life in reviews, reviewing his own life, has an inexorable existential clutch, and something useful to teach us about life’s last act.
The Kael quote may be a clue to understanding why Ebert’s writing gained new vigour in the last years of Ebert’s life, as several of the people interviewed in the film notice. Though his voice was silent, and he was unable to eat or drink, his keyboard was constantly tapping, sending thoughts about his health and trove of memories in cyberspace, in a way that felt like an experiment in a new way of being. When it came to describing what was happening to him, Ebert was forthright, clear-eyed and admirably free of neurosis and self-pity.