There are scholars who blame Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for dumbing down film criticism with their thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach, the same way they blame Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for ruining movies with the success of Jaws and Star Wars. But Siskel and Ebert accomplished just the opposite: They popularized criticism and introduced it to the masses via their PBS show in which they spent a lot of time debating (and fighting) over movies before delivering their final, yes-or-no verdict. The first version of their show, which was titled Sneak Previews and aired on PBS in the late 1970s, led me to read Pauline Kael and Film Comment and American Film and the Miami Herald’s late, great Bill Cosford as a kid. Suddenly, my nascent love of movies blew up: Movies weren’t just something you watched for entertainment. Sometimes, there was a lot to find beneath their surface.
A film reviewer can’t write about Life Itself in an impersonal way, because Ebert, who died last year, cast a giant shadow over the form. He wasn’t as erudite or highbrow as Kael or Andrew Sarris or James Agee. But his writing was warm and inviting; he was incredibly prolific (he published an annual volume of his collected reviews for more than a decade); and he approached each movie on its own terms, never looking down on any particular genre (he named 1998’s wobbly sci-fi epic Dark City his favorite of that year). When he hated something, he could shred it better and funnier than anyone. But in most of his reviews, there were observations and ideas that went beyond cinematography and editing and were the work of a thoughtful, intelligent man in tune with life and all its foibles. He took movies — and their meaning — seriously.
Life Itself, which was directed by Steve James (whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams Ebert championed) with the collaboration of Ebert’s widow Chaz, is an unapologetic valentine to the most famous and influential American film writer of the last 40-something years, more famous than some of the actors and directors he wrote about. The movie, which started filming five months before he died, has the structure of a biopic, touching briefly on his childhood and college years but focusing primarily on his career. He was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, and five months later, on a whim, he was offered the paper’s movie critic job, making him the youngest in America (he was 25). Ebert was a facile writer — he could knock out a polished review in 30 minutes — and became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
He was also a closeted alcoholic who had his last drink in August 1979. He met his wife Chaz at an AA meeting years later (he weighed 300 pounds at the time). When Siskel was hired by the Chicago Tribune in 1969, the two became mortal enemies — Siskel hung out with Hugh Hefner and was a renowned playboy — a rivalry that would carry over to their TV show, giving it an extra level of entertainment (there are funny clips in the movie of the two taping promos in which they tear at each other like brothers). They became celebrities, appearing on Johnny Carson and David Letterman regularly (in one clip, Ebert trashes The Three Amigos while the film’s star, Chevy Chase, is sitting next to him). But despite their love-hate relationship, they were close friends in real life (Siskel’s daughters were the flower girls at Ebert’s wedding).
Life Itself reminds you how unpredictable Ebert’s tastes: He loved Benji the Hunted and tore Scarface and Blue Velvet apart. When Siskel died of brain cancer at the age of 53, the TV show was never the same, but Ebert continued to be as important as ever, becoming close friends with filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris (but never cutting them any slack — he panned The Color of Money).
When Ebert was diagnosed with cancer in his salivary glands in in 2003, and then had to have his right jaw removed in 2006, the diagnosis felt like the cruelest twist of fate for a man who had been so talkative and animated throughout his career. Life Itself is sometimes hard to watch because of Ebert’s appearance, but even though he could no longer speak or eat (he was fed through a tube and talked through a computer speaker), he refused to retire and wait for death. Instead, he took to the Internet and became even more productive, continuing to review movies on his blog and engaging readers and fans on Twitter. His love of life was indomitable, his lack of self-pity remarkable, and as long as his health allowed it, he continued to do what he loved best. “Movies are a machine that helps us generate a little empathy,” Ebert said about films. Life Itself is a lovely, eloquent tribute to a man who devoted his existence to showing us just that.