Not long after I started watching movies like I do now, I began reading the reviews of Roger Ebert. His reviews and thoughts on film are ssome of the opinions I respect most. Ebert has been a strong influence on me recently, He is one of the biggest reasons I am typing right now about his documentary. It’s not a hidden secret at all that Roger Ebert loved movies. It says so on the home page on his website. One of my goals as a film enthusiast is to watch movies like Ebert did, being able to gain so much out of two hours of watching a screen.
I was excited when I saw this documentary show up on Netflix. I had been wanting to see it ever since its July 4th release, but never found the right time. Now that I have finally seen it, I am going to do my own review of the film about the most famous film critic ever.
Life Itself is directed by Steve James, who has a career in documentary filmmaking. He made 1994’s Hoop Dreams, which Ebert said was the best film of the 1990’s. In this film, he interviews Ebert in the hospital after his cancer surgeries and chronicles his life up until his death. There are also interviews with people like Martin Scorsese, the executive producer, Ava Duvarnay (Selma), Chaz Ebert and many other people who were affected by Ebert. These were the parts that I enjoyed the most, because it showed how much of an influence he had on so many people, and how loved he was, by most.
To be completely honest, film criticism is not an integral part of our society. It’s not curing cancer. It’s a person writing about a movie crafted in Hollywood studios. But somehow Ebert did more than review movies. He connected with his audience, and provoked interest in those who didn’t care about movies. He’s one of the few reviewers I read today and feel there is a human writing it. So many reviews look at movies objectively, and come of as a report. But we all have a subjective response to movies, and Ebert was able to use his film knowledge to tell us how he felt watching a movie.
There was a lot I did not know about Roger Ebert that this documentary explored. From his alcoholism to relationship with Gene Siskel and overall personality, I did not know a lot. He was quite arrogant, which caused turmoil between him and his At The Movies co-star, Siskel. They did not get along well at all. There were some great behind the scenes footage of them going at one another. This aggressive back and forth showed on screen too. Like the documentary said, they only cared about convincing the other that they were right.
Ebert was also very aware of who he was. He almost flaunted the fact that he had a Pulitzer and no other film critic did. Within his own circles, he was not the most liked guy. Other reviewers were happy to discuss why they had some resentment towards him. In the end though, there was always respect. Even though Siskel and Ebert were very different people, they respected each other and kind of connected over their arguments. Perhaps Ebert respected the fact no matter how much he pushed, Siskel would not back down.
I would have liked to see more of what went into writing a review by Roger Ebert. Film criticism was clearly not the main focus of this documentary, but I would have still liked to see more into that. Now that I’m doing my own little version of what Ebert did for years, I would love more insight into how he crafted a review.
The heart of this movies lies in the relationship with Roger and his family. He was loved unconditionally by them. Some of this was filmed while Ebert was in the hospital. It was at times very hard to watch what he had to go through the last years of his life. His wife, Chaz, never gave up on supporting him. I didn’t know the details of what happened when he died before seeing this, so I won’t reveal them here. It is heartbreaking though, to see his wife cope with it.
While in the hospital, Ebert started a blog and launched his website that is still there today. The last article he wrote the day before he died was called “A Leave of Presence”. He talked about how we was tired and needed to take a break from writing. He would only write select reviews, and use a team of trusted writers to add to the site.
What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away.
This was the perfect article to end with in my eyes because of the quote above. Ebert says that he is not going away, and he’s right. I read his old reviews almost daily on RogerEbert.com. To me, he continues to live through his reviews. He has left us, but will always be present.
I give this film two thumbs up!