I have never known Roger Ebert before I entered the world of movie-blogging. And to be honest, among other modern movie critics, he is not my most favorite critic. (My fave? James Berardinelli from ReelViews. It’s not a lame choice, isn’t it?) But no man has ever win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism before Roger Ebert and that is among other reasons to make him special. LIFE ITSELF captures the life of Roger Ebert, from the beginning of his career until the day he passed away.
LIFE ITSELF was based on a 2011 similarly-titled memoir written by Roger Ebert himself. Not only resurrecting fragments of the memoir, the bio-documentary also contains footage and interviews. LIFE ITSELF shows Roger Ebert’s family, early career as a local journalist, and pioneering in movie-criticism. It’s kind of structured in a semi-flashback between Roger getting medical treatment in hospital months before his death, and footage and interviews, with attractive text animation and jazz songs. Some notable appearances and interviewees are Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife; Gene Siskel, Roger’s competitor-turned-friend; Marlene Siskel, Gene’s wife; filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, and Ramin Bahrani; and many other working critics and producers.
I started to think, earlier in the film, that LIFE ITSELF assumed everyone who is going to watch it has already known who Roger Ebert is. That is not a wrong assumption, actually, although it would be better to introduce him more generally, more openly, so more people who are not involved in movie industry, or who do not enjoy movies that much, or even who do not care about the industry at all, might accept the film more easily.
There are parts of the film that will be hard for null-experienced viewers to absorb, especially the part of the film where is shown how Roger and Gene are used to be competitors (and how awful they argued when they crossed opinion about a movie—in their television show, “Siskel and Ebert”). There is not enough introductions for either Roger and Gene, which will cause lack of empathy and involved-ness towards their rivalry.
But then I realized, LIFE ITSELF is a dedication for all movie lovers around the world, not only for those who admire Roger Ebert and all his high-and-low points of life. This is not necessarily a documentary for everyone; this is a work of love that re-builds the love of people loving film industry, no matter professionally or as amateurs.
Even though you are viewing it as a total stranger, there are many heart-melting moments of LIFE ITSELF. Most of them comes from the last days of Roger. It is painful to see him lost his bottom jaw due to thyroid cancer, but his face never tells that it is painful. He always looks happy; for a sick people he is too happy to write and hit the keyboard of his beloved Macbook, with the support of his beloved wife. Even in his sickest days at hospital he still writes, either email or blog post or even film reviews. This touches me personally, since I’m becoming lazier these days to write about things I once proudly considered as what I love most.
But it is obvious to see that Steve James, with LIFE ITSELF, does not want to put Roger on the top rank of the most special movie critic of all time, even though we know that Roger is—say—the first movie critic to ever win a Pulitzer. LIFE ITSELF shows that he is also a human with all his envy, and selfishness, and proud. It is mostly shown when the film captures his rivalry with Gene Siskel. If I had lived in the time when “Siskel and Gene” was still airing on TV, I would have been shocked by how two experts could argue and debate that harshly about a movie, by delivering every blatant adjectve that eventually slipped through their own tongue, in a public television. That shows how they love movie so much and how expert they are about movies.
I quoted from the film, and I consider this quote is what makes LIFE ITSELF is an important documentary especially for movie lovers. This is a quote by Roger himself:
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Hence the title: LIFE ITSELF. What I love most about movies is how they imply life to connect through my emotion. The movie is the life itself, and for every movie Roger has watched and for every review Roger has written, he contemplated the life itself. We love you, Roger, and we miss you.