A documentary on late film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself (its title and narration taken from Ebert’s autobiography) is a touching story of a man’s fight to the finish and what he brought to film criticism.
After a brief introduction of heyday Roger Ebert, Steve James (At Death’s Door) brings us face-to-face with his last days and it’s quite shocking to see the former film critic’s face, contorted with pain, as a feeding tube is inserted into his throat. “I will have passed by the time the film is ready,” he says in the flippant manner of one who has accepted his fate. These touching scenes are used a framing device throughout, building up to his death.
There’s the expected childhood and first steps into journalism and onto his position of film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times with the expected stock footage mixed with personal photos. It gets into his style, his heavy drinking and of course his screenplay for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There’s also an exploration of what film criticism should be, and how a critic can bring attention to small films (Ebert’s championing of the documentary Gates of Heaven) and helping kick-staring directors’ careers; Scorsese here attributes his start to Ebert’s strong review of Who’s That Knocking At My Door? and, later, rescuing him from his early eighties doldrums.
“He’s a nice guy… but he’s not that nice,” says one talking head but sadly James never gets into that. What he does get into, and this is surprising, is other critics scoffing at the classic thumbs up or thumbs down review style synonymous with the Siskel and Ebert review show, At The Movies: to strip a film back to either good or bad, one critic says, is ‘insulting’.
It’s when James gets into the Siskel and Ebert friendship/rivalry that Life Itself really steps up. With Siskel writing for the ‘upmarket’ Chicago Tribune, they didn’t see eye to eye and the two didn’t want to be paired together for their seminal review show. But what a pair it turned out to be, as the two weren’t afraid to tear into each other. One marvellous clip has Ebert bashing Three Amigos on the Johnny Carson Show with Chevy Chase making faces behind him.
One thumb up.