Throughout the touching and surprisingly heavier than expected bio-doc of Roger Ebert, the editors intersplice narrated snippets from some of his most potent reviews along with the inevitable scenes of arguments with Gene Siskel from their classic TV show I grew up watching. One great sparring was from an episode where they reviewed Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted. Siskel was appalled that Ebert was giving the Kubrick film a thumbs down while recommending the Benji flick. Ebert expertly argued (and even went as far as shaming Siskel) that you can’t compare the two. They have to be reviewed in their own context…Benji the Hunted as a kid’s film and Full Metal Jacket as a KUBRICK (for crying out loud, one that he thought wasn’t up to snuff with the master’s best output). I remember going to see Benji the Hunted in the theaters as a kid, and you know what…Ebert was right about the context. I liked the Benji movie back then. And later in life when I watched Full Metal Jacket, I loved it, but I will admit…it might be a lesser Kubrick, and I respect those who may not have connected it with it as a work of art.
And that’s what was great about Ebert and Siskel – they could argue and disagree, and it was okay…in fact, it was hoped for. The point of going to the movies was not just to be entertained, but to get a glimpse into another person’s point of view (a director’s, a character’s, a place and moment in time alien to your own) and to find those moments of empathy…and hopefully give you something to talk about with other people. Whether through blogging or in person with the people I experience the films with in the movie theater, talking about films (and sometimes passionately disagreeing about them) is a favorite pastime. It’s a way to connect…to get to know yourself and hopefully someone else.
Life Itself does a commendable job of painting a man’s life on-screen (a man, who not surprisingly, always felt as if his life was a movie) without whitewashing it. Who knew that Ebert could be such an asshole (but as Siskel so lovingly pointed out, he was his asshole), was rather full of himself, and was such a hard-drinking good-ol-boy with horrible taste in women (until later in his sober life he found true love with his wonderful wife Chaz). Yet when he was a critic, he never came across as pompous, avoided hyperbole even when gushing about a film, and always painted his reviews in a populist hue. He loved the movies the most that spoke about us. He was above all, a man of the people, and for him films were the greatest way to connect people. Later in life while he publically battled cancer and lost his ability to talk, he refused to silence his voice, still churning out reviews and turning to prolific blogging. His output from this time was legendary, and his review of Malick’s The Tree of Life in the last year of his life was a masterpiece of populist, personal, film appreciation.
In the end, it was the relationships Ebert had that defined his life: his relationships with film, his relationship to Siskel, his relationship to Chaz, and his friendships with the artists he critiqued (the anecdotes from Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani specifically tug at the heart-strings).
Life Itself isn’t a perfect documentary or a perfect film, but neither was Ebert’s life perfect. But you’d be hard-pressed not to feel a little empathy after experiencing it. And that’s what film…and life…is all about.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Oh, I had forgotten while I wrote this that Malick’s “To The Wonder” was Ebert’s FINAL review…and what a doozy of a review it was, almost an apologist take, one master explaining and forgiving the faults of another, appreciating the art for what it was.
Great review as always David, but the best part of the movie for me was watching Scorsese react to Ebert’s review of The Color of Money. I wish, however, the film had spent more time exploring Ebert’s relationships with filmmakers. I remember seeing Siskel and Ebert on Howard Stern or David Letterman (something like that) and Siskel was bashing Ebert for hanging out with directors and he said, “He thinks they’re his friends!”
This movie whitewashes those relationships, oddly, by saying 19th century critics did it and it worked fine, but that doesn’t really jive for me. There were clear conflicts in those relationships and they couldn’t help but color his reactions. Of course it wasn’t clear cut sycophancy–The Color of Money is a great example–but I always felt like Roger Ebert was too easy on movies and I later wondered how much of that had to do with his personal relationships (or desired personal relationships) with filmmakers.
Otherwise the movie is quite good, a bit of a tearjerker, and managed to rekindle my flickering love of movies (books have taken over the past several months as my relatively inactive ICM account will attest).
Jason – Interesting points you raise – the Scorsese bits were great. I do recall Ebert being awfully soft on certain films…but he was also hilariously harsh on others. I wish they had done a bit on his review of North (an execrable movie) which if I remember correctly is the source of the quote, “I hate, hate, hate, hate this film.”
Skip to 11:10 to see Siskel and Ebert bash North. Ebert looks horrified to even be watching the clip from the movie.
I loved that he was morally offended by even the premise of the film (the premise is jokey and dumb, yes…but amoral?) God, it was a shit movie though.