What would film criticism look like today had Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel decided not to take the plunge into TV more than 40 years ago with the WTTW-produced “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You”? Would we have today the multiplicity of voices and opinions that can be found on such websites as The Dissolve, efilmcritic.com, Ain’t It Cool News and Roger’s very own website?
The French publication Cahiers du Cinema and U.S. critics Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and Stanley Kauffmann may have given film its due as a legitimate art form. They inspired dozens of young cinephiles to follow on their footsteps. But Siskel and Ebert took film criticism to the next level: they made it accessible to the masses. They turned it into water cooler talk. Through their television show, both shone a bright spotlight on those films —like Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams,” Louie Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” and Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven”— that deserved a fighting chance against the big guys.
Roger may have written about film most of his life, but he was a journalist through and through, a product of Chicago’s rough and tumble, hold-no-prisoners school of journalism. Ink ran through his arteries and veins. With his death last year, Chicago lost one of its giants and cinema one of its greatest champions. His legacy, however, is preserved in the dozens of books he wrote, on his website, on the countless clips in You Tube of his and Gene’s verbal jousts and on DVD commentaries. But hearing Stephen Stanton’s Ebert-like cadences in “Life Itself,” Steve James’ compelling portrait of the film critic, hits you like a sucker punch; you don’t realize how much you miss hearing that voice until you listen to Stanton’s reading of portions of Ebert’s memoir on screen.
Shot and edited in a year, “Life Itself” is as urgent, as engrossing as any of Roger’s feature stories and interviews without ever succumbing to hero worship. Little did James know, when he, co-executive producer Martin Scorsese and writer Steven Zaillian announced almost two years ago that they would be working on a documentary based on Roger’s memoir, that he would be documenting his final days. Given complete access to the hospital and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago after Roger was diagnosed with a new hip fracture six years after losing his jaw to cancer, James unflinchingly shows us what Roger, wife Chaz and their family went through: the good, the bad, the disheartening and the painful. His throat drained by suction, the grueling treadmill exercises, the joyful family visits and Roger’s smiling, mischievous eyes as he cracks jokes through his computer voice box are all captured by James’ camera.
James weaves Roger’s rich life into these intimate moments, leaving as many stones unturned as possible. We hear from friends and colleagues about his early days as an editor of the Daily Illini, where he wrote eloquent columns about the Civil Rights movement and quite literally stopped the presses once due to the inappropriate placement of an ad. We relive the tough, hard-drinking glory days of Chicago journalism through Roger’s own experiences as a reporter and critic who held court in the city’s most notorious bars. And yet, he could crank out in half an hour a review that needed very little editing. Roger’s struggles with alcoholism came to an end in 1979 when he called it quits and joined AA.
Then there’s that television show that eventually became known as “Sneak Previews” and later “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.” We learn as much about Gene as we do about Roger. The clips James has chosen of their behind the scenes bickering is television history at its best: both critics were engaged in an eternal, bitter game of one upmanship. The story of how they went from mortal enemies to the best of friends may have been told countless times but never with this much verve and energy.
However, some film critics felt at the time that their TV program diminished the role film criticism played in our culture by reducing it to a Consumer’s Digest type guide. The documentary features two of those critics: Richard Corliss who wrote a memorable essay on the matter for “Film Comment” magazine (which Roger later responded to with an essay of his own in the same magazine), and Jonathan Rosenbaum. But it also gives voice to filmmakers like Gregory Nava and Ramin Bahrani whose works and careers were given a significant jolt by both Ebert and Siskel.
The documentary rightfully devotes a significant amount of time to the love story between Roger and Chaz: the devotion they felt for each other, the way Roger embraced and became a member of Chaz’s family, their disagreements, and the way she became his Guardian Angel later in life. No documentary or feature-length film has captured the essence of what makes marriage life work quite like James has. This is no sugary sweet love story but one that feels true to —shall I say it?—, life itself.
Even at two hours, “Life Itself” is the kind of documentary that leaves you wishing for more, especially if you are from Chicago (I can’t barely imagine how much material was left out and how much might be included as extras in the eventual DVD release). I wish James had spent some time with Roger’s editor, Laura Emerick, talking about what it was like to edit his work; and I wish he had made mention of the e-mail Roger wrote the infamous Conrad Black (he who helped sink the Chicago Sun-Times) when Roger came out in full support of a strike in 2004. And the absence of Richard Roeper, his sparring TV partner in latter years, is rather puzzling.
But by talking to so many friends, filmmakers, film critics and family members and by relying on so much primary material (photos, documents, etc.) and on Roger’s own words, James delivers a document that not only pays tribute to the man but to the city that he called home. “Life Itself” is much more than a biography about the most influential film critic of our time; like James’ very own “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” “Life Itself” is also a paean to a city and to the people who made it (and continue making it) great.