LIFE ITSELF. Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Marlene Siskel, Werner Hertzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Gregory Nava, Martin Scorsese. Directed by Steve James. 120 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and brief sex scenes).
Life Itself is an exuberant title for an autobiography. It was the title that celebrated film critic, Roger Ebert, chose for his. And it is the title chosen for this biographical portrait as well as tribute to him.
There is some irony in this because in the years of the making of the film, Roger Ebert was often hospitalised, having a cancer of the jaw which disfigured his face, eventually prevented him from speaking except through a computerised voice. Which must have been great difficulty, despite his evident cheerfulness, because his voice was louder than life. Ebert himself, his wife, Chaz, felt that it was important for audiences for the film to see him as he was, healthy and active in his past life, confined and so disabled in his last years. There are many hospital scenes, no shirking the reality of illness – which does make some of the sequences difficult to watch but makes the audience fully aware of the reality of cancer and its consequences.
Life Itself does show Ebert’s life. He was born in Illinois, affirmed by his parents, wanting to go to Harvard but having to settle for a local university, editing the paper, showing, at 21, a talent for news and social comment, and not only participating in the production of the paper but even delivering it! It was an opening at the Chicago paper in 1967, when the film reviewing column fell vacant, that Roger Ebert took it on, found that he enjoyed it, and continued reviewing for almost 45 years.
When he had the opportunity to appear on television, audiences responded to his reviewing and his style, his wide range of interest, appreciating so many genres and conventions, and eager to communicate his views. For many years was on television with Gene Siskel, younger than Ebert, not agreeing with everything that Ebert said – and there are quite a number of clips of their on-screen reviewing as well as some cutaways to their arguments, sometimes squabbles. Siskel was to die comparatively young – and his wife is one of the talking heads throughout the film, commenting that with the two of them arguing it was really like young kids going at each other.
There is a lot of information, the fact that Ebert wrote the screenplay for the exploitation film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1969, his visits to the Cannes film Festival, his meeting with a variety of directors as well as of the producers of his program. many of them appearing here as talking heads, or with something interesting to say – including directors Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Ramin Bahrani, Werner Hertzog and, especially, Martin Scorsese.
Ebert and Siskel connected strongly with the public and, with their characteristic logo “Two Thumbs Up”, they alerted their viewers to many interesting films.
While there still some on-screen reviewers, they are, perhaps, a dying breed – Margaret and David , no surnames needed, have ended 28 year commitment to review on Australian television. Nowadays, it is radio, website or blogging. Which is what Ebert himself did, blogging, until his death in 2013.
A must for anybody interested in popular cinema – and an interesting and warm documentary for many audiences.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released 8th January 2015.
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