Two themes popped up on my radar at the movies last year: the Bible and film criticism. I covered the former in my Exodus: Gods and Kings review, but didn't appreciate the latter until writing about Steve James' beautiful and insightful documentary on Roger Ebert, Life Itself. Where Chef and Birdman mostly dished up the same surface representations of critics we've been fed for years (the stuffy, bitter aspirant best personified by Anton Ego in Ratatouille, whose only relationship to art is destroying it through clever diction) James paints a three-dimensional portrait of a man whose art was the act of making serious film discussion accessible to the masses.
Ebert didn't set out to be a critic. While working as a journalist for The Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, he filled a sudden vacancy at the paper and simply never left. His writing was fueled by a working-class drive; liberal politics; a penchant for holding court nightly at after-hours bars; and, of course, a lifelong love of movies. The resulting colorful commentary convinced readers that they were getting trustworthy recommendations from a friend (or at least a friend-of-a-friend).
The jovial TV critic many of us grew up watching doesn't appear in Life Itself until several minutes in. We're introduced to Roger and his wife, Chaz, at the end of his life--as a recurring bout of cancer gears up for another match. Our engaging orator is chair-bound, unable to speak, and must be fed through a tube that requires regular, painful cleaning. An approximation of his voice emerges, Hawking-like, from speakers connected to his ever-present MacBook, and he cheerfully pantomimes the myriad jokes brewing behind those wide, fiery eyes.
From here, James escorts us on a trip through Ebert's past, via photo-and-clip montages and talking-head interviews with friends; voice actor Stephen Stanton narrates much of this journey, uncannily reading as Ebert from his 2011 memoir.
What a life! Ebert's inquisitive spirit led him to slay many dragons in pursuit of the ultimate real-world screenplay. From beating booze to teaming with a professional enemy* and helping resurrect Martin Scorsese's career, every obstacle was an epic story problem to be solved. He even donned the role of filmmaker by scripting Russ Meyer's kitsch classic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and wrote a beyond-the-spotlight book about Cannes. His reviews and editorials were dispatches from wild adventures--relayed not in the studied, stuffy language of ivory tower elites, but in the sharp, unabashed excitement of a neighborhood raconteur.
I've seen Life Itself twice, and I love it. But I can't shake a couple nagging critiques that, I'll admit, may be unfair. James makes a strong case that Ebert (and, to a great extent, his weekly show with Gene Siskel) not only transformed society's relationship to film criticism, it also informed the generation of thinkers and art appreciators who would inherit the Internet. We're introduced to RogerEbert.com, a site designed to house the author's life's work and provide a stage for bold new writers worldwide. We're told how influential Ebert was, and continues to be, for digitally democratized criticism. But none of these testimonials comes from an actual Ebert acolyte.
I would love to have seen, even briefly, a "Millennial" address the man's legacy--someone inspired to write about films professionally, having grown up in an age where Siskel & Ebert dominated the pop landscape. Better yet, what about a writer with a different take on Ebert's importance in the everyone's-an-expert era?
The closest we get are two interviews with two filmmakers whom Ebert encouraged to follow their dreams; these are at once lovely and distracting vignettes. Also absent are interviews with (or commentary from/on) the people who famously stepped in after Gene Siskel's passing and Ebert's early retirement from TV. No Richard Roeper. No Michael Phillips. No Christy Lemire. I'm sure there's a reason for these omissions, and maybe I'm looking for a different movie--but at two hours, the film feels a tad incomplete in a some key areas.
I first saw Life Itself last July, in a packed screening room that included Ebert's colleagues, friends, and family. He'd passed away the year before, and this event felt like an unofficial wake. A bouquet of flowers decorated his chair, and sniffles punctuated James' expertly crafted tribute film. There were no speeches; only laughter, tears, and hugs. Walking out, I couldn't have been more fired up to be a movie critic, or more intimidated by the long, loving shadow cast by this eloquent titan of creative populism.
Roger Ebert inspired me to study, to not be afraid of my own opinions,** and to be diligent in my craft. Through his work, I learned that criticism is a craft. When done correctly, it requires just as much education, intuition, and sweat as creating "legitimate" art. The master stroke of an artist's life, however, is achieving balance between an overactive psyche, the creative exorcising of that psyche, and the human need to build a strong relationship with the outside world. Steve James dispels the critic myth, presenting us with a man who loved his life and lived it--instead of sniping bitterly from the flicking shadows.
*The Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel; the two hosted various movie-review shows for decades and created the controversial "Thumbs" rating system.
**No matter how frequently they clashed with the greater consensus.