By Guest Contributor Josh Glick, Assistant Professor of English and Film at Hendrix College, Mellon Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University in the Integrated Humanities
Watching Life Itself (2014) in Washington D.C.’s E Street Cinema, I felt director Steve James’s recent portrait of the late Roger Ebert strike a personal chord. As a wide-eyed teenager attending a summer program at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in 2001, I was fortunate to be exposed to the writing of Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Manny Farber as part of a broader menu of cultural criticism. Reading film reviews helped me to cultivate an appetite for all kinds of movies. Now, as it’s my job to teach others a critical awareness of how moving images shape and are shaped by the world around us, I have come to appreciate how it is often the written word that coaxes even the most reluctant spectators to become eager viewers.
[caption id="attachment_3951" align="alignleft" width="300"] Poster for Life Itself (2014), image from Geeknation.com[/caption]
For the documentary enthusiast in me, there was much to like about Life Itself. It’s a moving biopic that explores the personal travails, professional successes, and tragic illness of the most well known and widely read movie critic in the English language. Life Itself also shines a light on Ebert’s long-time enthusiasm for nonfiction and his friendships with some of the art form’s most esteemed filmmakers.
James pursues a poignant form of storytelling, matching Ebert’s own insightful and accessible prose with an intimate and straightforward style. Through cinéma vérité-style scenes, family photographs, interviews with friends and colleagues, and voice-over excerpts drawn from Ebert’s 2011 memoir, we see how an up-and-coming writer – equal parts talented, ambitious, and arrogant – glided from news reporting to film criticism at a time when American film culture was experiencing a renaissance. It’s riveting to watch how the daily grind of work and play in the Windy City shaped the brash young journalist. He labored with pride for the Chicago Sun-Times, the working-class counterpart to the more bourgeois Chicago Tribune, eventually forming a “frenemic” partnership with the Tribune’s jet-setting Gene Siskel, with whom he co-stared on the PBS movie review program Sneak Previews. Always looking for new ways to reach the largest possible audience, Ebert moved beyond traditional broadcasting and print journalism in the twenty-first century, embracing Twitter and an expansive website.
Throughout the film, James’s lens does not shy away from sensitive or emotional issues. In addition to placing Ebert’s struggle with alcohol and his relationship to the indomitable Chaz in clear focus, James also confronts the physical effects of Ebert’s battle with thyroid cancer. He is direct without being exploitive, showing how Ebert's inability to speak has not stilled his voice.
The origins of Life Itself no doubt stemmed from James’s appreciation for the man who was one of the crucial supporters of his early film, Hoop Dreams (1994), but also out of admiration for a person who had done so much to popularize nonfiction. Ebert championed such projects as Michael Apted’s Up series, which looks at the lives of a sample of individuals from in and around London every seven years, and Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978), which focuses on the mercurial affection people feel for the memories of their dead pets.
In his pithy and perceptive prose, Ebert describes how these as well as other documentaries encourage us to empathize with individuals that might be very different from ourselves. He asks audiences to reflect on the meaning of what it is to be human. While watching the film, one often desires to know more about the evolution of Ebert’s tastes and how his daily responsibilities as a journalist lead him to pen scathing critiques as well as pieces of glowing admiration. For that kind of perspective, one must delve into Ebert’s professional biography by reading the reviews themselves on his website.
In a voice resonating with gravitas, Werner Herzog, the great bard of nonfiction’s surrealist impulses (who Ebert often praised), claimed that Ebert was “the soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore but he soldiers on. That touches my life very deeply.” Ebert served as a booster for the medium for almost half its life. His tireless advocacy has helped documentaries find a home in international festivals, in mainstream theaters, on personalized screens, and in everyday conversation.