‘Life Itself’ a fascinating documentary on Roger Ebert’s fascinating life

Commentary by Andy Ray

Siskel and Ebert were perhaps the primary reason I became interested in classic films in the first place. Their television movie review shows made motion pictures interesting to me.

It didn’t matter what they said about the latest summer blockbuster. Who cared? If they didn’t like it, it would still earn millions.

Instead, their purpose, at least for me, was to uncover little gems, often indies, that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. It was because of them that I studied film history and film critique in college.

I always liked Gene Siskel better. I believed he made every effort to review motion pictures with his head, as opposed to Roger Ebert, who had a tendency to review with his heart. Granted, a little emotion is necessary when reviewing anything, but I felt Roger’s heart overwhelmed his sense of reason.

To wit, he didn’t like my favorite film of the 1970’s, Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Nor did he like my favorite film of the 1980’s, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” – claiming both were hard to watch. They were, but that made them fascinating to me.

On the other hand, Roger’s favorite picture of modern times, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” is the big-budget movie I hate the most – all that build-up just to hear Marlon Brando mumble a few incoherent lines about life and war? Really?

The knock on Siskel and Ebert was that they cheapened the art of film review. They’d spend two or three minutes discussing a picture which might inspire a full hour of in-depth debate, concluding with a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs down” – thereby eliminating any possibility of shades of gray. In other words, why couldn’t their thumbs have ever ended halfway up or down?

After cancer cost Roger the ability to speak in 2006, he devoted his life to his reviews, his blog and connecting with his fans. If anything, his writing became even better during his later years. It was during this time that Roger published his memoir, “Life Itself,” which has now been made into a fascinating documentary by Steve James, who directed “Hoop Dreams” in 1994.

James is an interesting choice for this effort, as he did not previously have a personal relationship with Roger – as opposed to Executive Producer Martin Scorsese, who did. This allows James to keep a necessary professional distance from his subject.

“Life Itself” hits the milestones of Ebert’s life, concentrating on his young years in the newspaper business and his relationship with Gene Siskel. I knew Roger was a born writer, but “Life Itself” hammers home this point, using archival footage, interviews with his old colleagues from the Chicago Sun/Times, and interviews with other critics and directors.

I also knew the relationship between Siskel and Ebert was frosty at first, but that they became like brothers during their later years. I found the interviews with Siskel’s widow and Ebert’s widow to be of particular interest during this segment.

But with all the narrative information and interviews, I still found “Life Itself” lacking on a couple fronts. First, absolutely no mention is made of Richard Roeper, who replaced Gene Siskel after his unexpected death from a brain tumor in 1999. Not much is ever written about the relationship between Ebert and Roeper (although I’m guessing it was a strong one, since Roger hand-picked him).

I would have thought James would have at least mentioned Roeper, if not interviewed him (or explained why Roeper refused to be interviewed for this documentary, if that is the case).

And while I am certainly not a morbid person, I would have liked more information on the cancer that took Roger Ebert’s life.

James’ camera concentrated so much on the grafted flab of skin that became Ebert’s lower jaw that I would have liked to know how his disease developed from his thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2004 to his eventual death in 2013.

For once, I actually wanted more medical information in a movie, not less.

Still, any fan of the movies will want to see “Life Itself,” and I would sit through it again. Roger Ebert lived a fascinating life. Perhaps one day, I’ll know the rest of the story.

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