by Emily Reuben
While a good portion of any film festival is comprised of new films being showcased for the first time, another privilege of attending these festivals lies in seeing older films with input from cast, crew, and interview subjects. Last weekend, Heartland Film Festival hosted a special screening of the director Steve James’ 2014 documentary Life Itself. Detailing the life of one of America’s most influential and prominent film critics, Roger Ebert, Life Itself is an emotionally impactful, beautifully crafted look at Roger’s career. For this special screening at Heartland Film Festival, Roger Ebert’s wife, Chaz Ebert attended and hosted a brief Q&A session after the viewing.
As a young film enthusiast, Roger Ebert is one of my greatest inspirations. I was initially introduced to Roger Ebert sometime in middle school. I had taken to watching online film reviewers, notably Doug Walker, better known as “The Nostalgia Critic.” I loved the comedic approach of looking at old, nostalgic content and found myself watching frequently. In one episode of Doug’s online review show, the criticism was directed at the film North. While the film had come out before my time, I had heard about its ridiculously racist attempts at humor and overall poor presentation, which piqued my curiosity. In the review, Doug made reference to a Siskel and Ebert episode of At the Movies in which Ebert boldly stated his distaste for the film.
In his written review, Roger went further:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
I thought this blatant dismissal of North was hilarious and immediately began to look more into Siskel and Ebert.
Now I’m a college student majoring in Film Studies.
Roger Ebert is one of the world’s most well-known and beloved film critics and for good reason. He always had a way of articulating the heart and soul of a piece with unique style that other critics could not hope to replicate. The Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic became the first film critic to earn the much sought after Pullitzer Prize, forever changing the world of film criticism by giving it much more of an important focus in mainstream media.
Roger Ebert is celebrated not only for his independent criticism but for the work he had done in tandem with the Chicago Tribune’s film critic, Gene Siskel. The 1975 PBS program, Sneak Previews was a weekly series that ran for nearly two decades on public broadcasting, bringing film discussion straight into the homes of Americans. Following Sneak Previews was the duo’s most popular joint venture, At The Movies, which began in 1986. Widely known for establishing the infamous thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, At The Movies cemented Ebert and Siskel as America’s most recognizable critics. The two’s often heated debates and apparent rivalry was an instant hit for television audiences and more relatable than the academic, dry media critics of the time.
All of this and more is covered in the documentary, Life Itself. While the film documents Roger’s life as a critic and his effect on the industry, it manages to both humanize and contextualize him. For example, when detailing Roger’s early days in the journalism industry and his subsequent successes, the film is careful to not shy away from his quirks and faults. Roger was a leader who took initiative, but he was also an alcoholic. He could write a stellar review in 30 minutes, but he was also overly confident in himself. Roger and Gene hosted a televised hit, yet the two could not stop fighting one another. Here, the faults demonstrated don’t make Roger less appealing but more human.
In 2002 Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Ebert underwent treatment but was diagnosed with bone cancer on the right side of his jaw in 2006. After surgery, Ebert was unable to speak or eat without a tube and communicated primarily through his wife, Chaz, though eventually he was able to make use of a computerized voice. Sadly, Ebert passed away of thyroid cancer on April 4th, 2013. Two days before his death, Ebert said in his last blog post, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Life Itself is an exceedingly intimate film. Roger and Chaz Ebert allowed cameramen to film them at their most vulnerable moments. Seeing Roger Ebert, a man who eloquently and passionately lectured at film panels and review on television unable to verbally articulate his ideas is devastating. Ebert’s illness complicated his life and worse yet, often kept him from his passion: going to the movies. The film allows us to see this vulnerability and emphasize with it.
Despite showing Roger’s declining health before his death, Life Itself allows the audience to celebrate Roger’s life and dedication to reviewing films. Ebert could no longer speak, but he most certainly could write. His blog became his voice and his outlet. To see this ill man diligently doing work in a hospital bed, often with undeniable wit and a massive smile, is heartwarming to say the least.
It would be easy for this film to romanticize Roger and his career. While it does give plenty of credit where due, Life Itself doesn’t make Roger out to be some godly entity with no faults. Had the film not been diligent about this, Roger Ebert would be seen as less human, and thus less relatable.
While Roger Ebert is the subject of the film, Chaz is also a key element. According to RogerEbert.com, “Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 18th year.” After the screening at Heartland, Chaz Ebert led a short question and answer session.
Having the unique experience of hearing the views of someone involved with the film certainly offers a new take on the experience.
Chaz mentioned that she had not seen the film since the year it debuted, and her love and subsequent passion managed to pierce the hearts of everyone in the theater. She briefly explained some aspects of her late husband’s approach to criticism and how she has kept his vision alive through managing the other reviewers on the website. I had seen the film previously, but seeing Chaz’s reaction to the film and hearing her own take made the experience a unique one. An audience member asked Chaz if there was any film that she and Roger had disagreed on, to which she answered that she loved a A Clockwork Orange and Roger hated it. On the other hand, Roger loved Joe Versus the Volcano, which Chaz didn’t find it all that interesting. With Chaz present to answer questions, Heartland film-goers were able to gain further insight into the pair’s relationship as well as personal film preferences.
Throughout the years, people have welcomed Roger Ebert into their homes through At the Movies and through RogerEbert.com. While those avenues provide a detailed and even at times nuanced version of the man, none will ever be able to compare to the complexity shown through Life Itself.
You can read Roger Ebert’s reviews and those of other critics at RogerEbert.com.
Featured image from IMDb
Expertly shot and incredibly informative, 'Life Itself' offers a personal, in-depth look at the life and career of Roger Ebert. For those interested in Roger Ebert's work or a glimpse at his effect on film criticism, 'Life Itself' certainly won't disappoint.