I WAS NOT A devotee of Roger Ebert, but Life Itself makes me wish I’d paid more attention to a career that transversed more than five decades.
A word of explanation is in order. As a writer myself, I’m well aware of the unspoken hierarchy of newspapers—and when Ebert arrived to the Chicago Sun-Times, in 1967, the film critic was a lowly person, well down in the order relative to the foreign correspondent and the editorialist and even the theatre and symphony reviewers. Indeed, it was Ebert himself who changed our views of writing about the movies.
That last sentence merits another scan: writing about the movies. I first encountered Ebert, like most, on television. He was a Pulitzer-winning journalist, but it was as a critic of film that he entered national, and soon international, consciousness: he was what would today be termed a “television personality.” Only with the arrival of the Internet and the blog, in the 2000s, would I come to think of Roger Ebert as what he was all along—a writer.
The irony here is that Ebert’s rise had everything to do with the unscripted nature of his television work. In the late 1970s, Ebert found himself partnered with his Tribune nemesis, Gene Siskel, co-hosting Sneak Previews and, later, At The Movies With Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert. (And, later still, Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.) The chief appeal of this program, in my view, was the heat these two indepedent minded thinkers would generate. With Siskel and Ebert one beheld a television rarity: for-real, principled and intelligent dialectic. They could have been discussing politics or culture or social issues, and it would have been just as compelling. But come to think of it, they were discussing these—and it is this fact from which the title Life Itself derives. Life itself is what movies, and criticism about them, reflect. And Ebert’s reflections were poised in a prose style that was at once simple and incisive.
Life Itself raises an unanswerable but essential question. What course might Ebert’s life have taken had he not inherited the job of movie critic with the departure, in April 1967, of Eleanor Keane? He might well have earned his reputation as a journalist, but it’s difficult to imagine Ebert distinguishing himself as anything other than the host of At The Movies. His was a case of good timing and good fortune. Ebert arrived to American film criticism at a propitious time—with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and his exact contemporary Martin Scorsese, in whose career Ebert played an active and decisive role. This was a time of innovative American film-making, when taboos were being discarded and directors were treating serious themes in an auspiciously bold manner.
Ebert launched into the age of the Internet, which he saw as a rebirth of journalism, with joy and exuberance. But, then, he could afford to do so. Born in 1942, he’d been solidly of the old order, when you could make a decent living as a journalist, traveling the world on the employer’s dollar to turn out a daily column for decent pay. That time is gone, and no young writer can watch this movie without feeling that more than a life itself has departed this world. Most writers who will come after Ebert will hit the virtual ground of the Internet running, not having had the good fortune of an established old-media career. Again, an instance of happy luck. But when Ebert did take to the weblog, he distinguished himself as before a thoughtful and compelling writer. He showed he could evolve and adapt, although his later work was in many respects simply a return to the early days of the Sun-Times.
Director Steve James’ Life Itself is, we are told, based on the memoir of the same title. But like any film it both elaborates upon, and deviates from, text. We see Ebert in hospital at the end of his life, and we get details that are not included in the book. (One such detail concerns the first meeting of Chaz and Roger.) The movie draws ably from the bits of Ebert’s early years that survive—photographs and film and so forth. Life Itself unfolds in a roughly chronological manner, but there is a flexibility to the narration which discloses a good sense of story-telling. The plain fact of the matter is that Ebert’s early life was a glory-days romp across the golden age of print journalism, and that his late life was a messy and unromantic encounter with disease, pain and mortality.
At both ends the story is told honestly and without coating: the happy, young Ebert is among other things, we are informed, an arrogant alcoholic, while the elder Ebert confronts his impending death with courage and grace. Across his life he is shown to be intellectually honest, empathetic and outgoing. Ebert had strong feelings about film because he conceived a movie as a way to understand, hence to empathize with, the interior lives of fellow human beings. A well-made movie expands our emotional and intellectual capacity and, in short, makes us more fully human. Ebert’s approach to film was essentially moral in character, in the sense that he appeared to believe that movies not only entertained but improved us. It’s difficult for me not to regard him in this connections as inflected by his Catholic upbringing, especially when I consider his visceral disgust with movies such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
Ebert was neither a prude nor an elitist. He judged movies in context, considering whether they succeeded at what they had set out to do. He understood that Citizen Kane and Spider Man-2 existed within non-overlapping categories, and reviewed them accordingly. He brought his personal experience and the events of the day to bear upon his reviews, and at times objected to a movie on grounds that were not strictly cinematic but rather political. Because life and film for Ebert were inseparable, it’s especially gratifying to see the life of this critic given the big screen treatment. Ebert was a film critic, but, more to the point, a writer; it was as a writer that I watched this movie, curious to learn about the development and trajectory of his life. What I learned however matters less to me than the fact that I was inspired and provoked—inspired to write with his honesty and passion, and provoked to do so as much as I can in the years I have left. For one never knows.