When I learned about the death of revered and celebrated film critic Roger Ebert in April of 2013, my initial reaction was “that’s very sad, I’ll miss his reviews and his uniquely brilliant writing” and pretty much put it to the back of my brain. On our Filmsploitation podcast End of the Year Show 2013, I named Ebert my Hero of the Year. I meant every word of it.
It wasn’t until the following Friday, when the one or two reviews he’d managed to write under the hefty buckle of practically terminal cancer, that the absence of any fresh text from him did I realise just how much I was going to miss him – or, to put a finer point on the situation, his thoughts and views. Having traversed the Cannes streets a good number of times at the festival each year, I remember seeing him around but never had the gall to approach him. I deeply regret this now. And, now, even though rogerebert.com has now become a shrine and force for new film critics the world over, its his mastery of thought, perception and understanding that I miss a lot.
It would appear to me now having seen “Life Itself” – a mostly autobiographical deeply rich and incisive documentary which teeters on the brink of personal burglary – that I am far from alone. This is a curious revelation; sure, we know how popular he is from his many fans and near half-decade of criticism that he was extremely well liked. He has hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers – testament to the fact that he was one of a very select few who embraced technology – and among the first to exploit – the likes of the CD-ROM-based Cinemania (which is how I came to meet him back in 1996) through to his famous website. He championed all types of cinema. And it is on this first count that I felt a kinship with him; he was the first non filmmaker (for all intents and purposes, anyway) who shared, if not completely smothered, my own obsession for the movies.
On the second count – unavoidably so – was that Ebert was among the most revered and celebrated film criticism. It has not gone unnoticed that I type this into my own critique of a film – and for once, it’s his film. There will be no counter argument from him – because he’s dead.
Director Steve James of 1994’s Hoop Dreams directs “Life Itself” with an intense yet extremely unsubtle flavour; opening with shots of the jaw-less Ebert frantically typing away on his electronic voice box with his wife sat next to him, smiling and keeping spirits alive. This is late 2012, when James has been granted permission by Roger and his wife of twenty plus years, Chaz. He’s both right at, and as far as one can be removed given the circumstances, at death’s door. He’s having saliva sucked out through the enormous cavity from his neck that cancer has chowed down on, but Ebert insists we capture every gargling, unpleasant moment. Once the routine has commenced, he half-smiles, as is his physical wont since the nasty operation, and gives a thumbs up. He hasn’t lost his sense of humour.
I doubt the Roger and Chaz would have been so willing to show this – and many other crucial and acutely private moments – if it were not for Steve James himself. Ebert awarded his magnum opus Hoop Dreams not only the maximum four star ‘two thumbs up’ (and rightly so, in my view) but also named it the best film of the 1990s, ahead of classics such as Fargo and Pulp Fiction, the latter of which I think came second. Ebert loved movies, as he saw them as revealing insights into people’s minds, and offered – for better or worse – an escape from oneself. Anyone reading reviews regularly from a variety of sources will understand this as much as they understand Roger’s (and indeed mine, born from Roger’s stance) insistence that a star rating is at best relative, and that the text really contains the review.
James unfurls the two hour’s worth of material – a collection of rare and unseen footage from personal archives, through to the classic “At the Movies” reviews and the well-worn, yet no less awesome, footage of a cranky, rattling love-hate relationship with Gene Siskel. All of this is woven across numerous talking heads; Scorsese makes an appearance, as does A. O. Scott and a number of other critics who avoid fawning and speak their minds on the man who changed their lives.
To have been a regular, straight forward affair (which in the hands of any other documentary could so easily have been the case) James takes every opportunity, as fresh as his material is, to get right to the heart of Ebert’s impact on the movies and notion that made mainstream criticism so widely available and celebrated. I thought I knew everything there was to know – but “Life Itself” quickly put me right; I, one of his biggest arbiters, knew roughly half.
I didn’t know just how strong Ebert actually was. Cocooned and condemned to a silent, malnourished, cruel and ugly fate; the man fought and fought until the fight just wasn’t worth meeting anymore. Here is a man who, after witnessing his best friend in Gene Siskel go through (he’d elected to keep his terminal brain tumour a secret till the last moments), decided to do the exact opposite; not out of respect to the media or to his fans, but, rather, to his dearly beloved wife and family; Ebert took great exception to Siskel potentially having a hold on his career – and vice versa – and took this final death blow very personally, and very badly. It informed the remainder of his life – and a real character arc begins to unfurl; here’s a man, no siblings, born to a labourer and housewife, who has grown up to be an alcoholic, egotistic, somewhat eccentric, yet deeply honest and near-infallible in nature. He ends up disfigured, extremely learned, and very humbled by the life he has led.
I consider the best documentary ever made to be Kirby Dick’s 1997 masterpiece “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist” – anyone who knows me even remotely well would, at some point, have had this documentary mercilessly foisted upon them. Hardly any of those people to this day have ever bothered to watch it. It doesn’t surprise me; it’s about a performance artist who mutilates himself, was probably meta-sexual, spent his days off as a slave to his mistress and coughed up phlegm for Kirby Dick in his final performance video which, eventually, shows him die suddenly (even though he’s twenty-five years past his prognosis) in a hospital bed; alone, cold, frightened. It’s chilling, yet so richly enervating that it defies any work that has come before it. It’s little coincidence that Ebert loved the movie, also.
It’s even smaller a coincidence that I ever saw the film because I had stumbled across Roger Ebert’s review. I seldom agreed with Roger Ebert’s reviews; but to judge any critic’s merit based on your difference of opinion is to entirely miss the point; I enjoyed reading his work.
As Life Itself neared the end, I realised that for the first time in going on for twenty years – finally – another documentary has come along to rival it in a most serious way. There are parallels at work here; both ‘Sick’ and ‘Life Itself’s nucleus concern themselves with a central figure who is articulate, interesting, witty and forced to confront life and then death. Okay, they do it via different art forms – yet nevertheless, this is art. Both are stories with a beginning, middle and – sadly enough – an end. This critic you read is an extremely tough nut to crack – but there are moments in this wonderful film where I was very close to tears. I only wish I – and everyone who I love dearly – are this fortunate to have lived and loved, and be loved, as much as this man.
‘Life Itself’ is a masterpiece by Steve James. It is a masterpiece complete within the space of two years. It is an ultra-confident about an ultra-gifted human being. It has the foresight to adapt and exploit events and allows the viewer into some seriously deep and private material – and it knows just how to reveal it within the confines of its own medium.
“Life Itself” is the film of the year, and the second best documentary I have ever seen
Author: Andrew Mackay