For most movie critics living today, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert is their patron saint. While I rarely read his reviews, I know that he's influenced me more than I even know, starting from when I was a little kid watching At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, which I still think is the perfect format for a movie review show and probably contributed to me wanting to be a critic in the first place. The new documentary Life Itself traces Ebert's life and extraordinary career while also chronicling the final four months of his life before he died after a long battle with cancer which took his ability to speak but supercharged his compulsion to write. Watch the trailer for Life Itself below.
Based on Ebert's book of the same name, Life Itself traces Ebert's career as a born writer who eventually became a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times where, at the age of 25, he was made their full-time movie critic (then an unglamorous job) when the previous critic quit. But Ebert's talent and intelligence quickly elevated the reviews, eventually earning him a Pulitzer, to the point that someone got the then-novel idea of starting a movie review TV show pairing Ebert with Chicago Tribune critic and rival Gene Siskel.
It's this part of the film, detailing the evolution of the show and Ebert and Siskel's relationship, that I found the most fascinating and fun since footage and interviews (including the first-ever interview with Siskel's widow Marlene) reveal that the enmity and differences between Siskel and Ebert went even deeper than they appeared on a show famous for their testy exchanges. The two were an odd couple in every way, but their dynamic led to them becoming the most famous and powerful film critics in history and eventually the closest of friends -- a journey that could make a great film on its own. And filmmakers, several of whom are interviewed, recognized Ebert not as a scourge or scold, but a lover of film who only wanted them to do their best work.
Throughout, Life Itself returns to 2013 as Ebert continues his work and convalesces from an injury, only to learn that his cancer has spread, giving him only months to live. As the end approaches, we're given an intimate look at his relationships with Ebert's beloved wife Chaz, her family, and the meaning they brought to his life.
Life Itself is directed by Hoop Dreams director Steve James, who attributes the success of his film to Siskel and Ebert's early and repeated support. But Life Itself -- at nearly two hours -- is not a puff piece, examining both the celebrated and unflattering aspects of Ebert's personality, from his intelligence and writing skills which were obvious at an early age to his reputation for being an arrogant, sometimes mean attention hog. It's a terrific film about the man, loving movies, cancer, and the role of honest criticism that you don't need to be a critic to enjoy, though it inevitably leads this critic to think about why I do what I do.
I don't think of myself as a disciple of Ebert, but his influence on me is undeniable. When I was still a little kid, Ebert (I preferred him to Siskel) showed me that movies should be enjoyed in context for what they are, not in comparison to an alleged golden age or an idea of what movies are supposed to be, and that movies could not only be art, but art that could be enjoyed and understood by everyone -- provided it was done well. He was intellectual yet not condescending, part of the populist streak that ran through all his work -- something that I relate to and probably unconsciously emulate.
I see my reviews as not being about me knowing more about movies than you or telling you how to think, but simply as an attempt to explain clearly why I feel the way I do about a movie while being honest about my biases and shortcomings, which is why I never apologize for movies I haven't seen. After all, I'm not a movie expert or someone trying to be what I think a critic is supposed to be, but simply a guy who loves movies and loves writing about them.
But above all else, I share a belief that Ebert states early in Life Itself: that "movies are like a machine that generates empathy." Movies are the most powerful and accessible storytelling device that humans have created, possessing a unique power to educate and enlighten, whether it's through presenting information, letting you into the lives of people different from you, or by putting a character you relate to in a situation you've shared or maybe never experienced. By doing this, movies can challenge your beliefs and preconceptions, make you feel less alone, or at least provide viewers with a shared experience that can spark a conversation based on each individual's unique interpretation of it. And it's only through empathy and discussion that we'll be able to put aside our differences, emphasize what connects us, and make the world a better place.
These might be lofty ideas for a guy who runs his mouth about movies. But Roger Ebert showed that talking about movies can be a pretty wonderful thing. And if you don't believe me, Life Itself will almost definitely change your mind.