“Life Itself” poignantly reflects Ebert at the center of the “empathy machine”

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“I’ll see you at the movies.”

This was the last line of the last blog post written by Roger Ebert the day before he died. By the time I was old enough to be conscious of what was on TV, the program was already called “Ebert & Roeper.” The glory days of famed film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s movie review program, “Siskel & Ebert,” were gone by then, as Gene Siskel died of complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor in 1999. Roger Ebert was the only critic I knew the name of before I became obsessed with movies. And as someone whose primary work for this newspaper has come in the form of reviews, he is still someone I look to for inspiration and validation in my own opinions.

Last weekend, the Culver Center of the Arts at the UCR Artsblock showed the film “Life Itself” as part of its film series. The film, directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), takes its name from Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir. James and Ebert began the project as an attempt to adapt the memoir, before complications in Ebert’s health led to his eventual death in April 2013. The film then turned into something of a memoriam and introspective look by Ebert and James at his life’s work, and a look into his struggle against his ailing body.

The film takes a fairly basic approach to the documentary format, but when its subject had such a rich backstory, it doesn’t really matter. Interviews with colleagues and friends chronicle Ebert’s childhood to his time as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini, to his famous career as a Pulitzer prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and as co-host of “Siskel & Ebert.”

The film truly packs an emotional wallop, as interviews reveal how dedicated he is to his friends and family underneath his highly sarcastic exterior. The camera also doesn’t flinch from showing the tough parts of his life as a recovering alcoholic. Squeamish viewers may find it difficult to watch some hospital scenes in which Ebert, who had much of his jaw removed due to thyroid cancer, has suction tubes put down his throat to clear up congestion.

When it is revealed that his cancer has come back, Ebert says matter-of-factly in his computerized voice that he doesn’t want to hide anything, and wouldn’t want to be associated with a film that does not show the truest side of him. For anything the computerized voice takes away from Ebert, his facial expressions and body language make up for — when he admits in front of his wife Chaz and the camera that he may not be alive when the film is finished, he simply looks at the camera blankly and shrugs.

It is difficult to criticize a film trying to cast a clear portrait of a dying legend, especially one as deeply entrenched in the making of the film as Ebert was. If there is something to be criticized, however, it is that the film could explore more of the history of Roger’s criticism and his actual thoughts on film. Sure, you could say we’ve heard it a million times by reading and watching him, but in a film such as this, about as important a figure as this, it matters.

That being said, seeing the trademark stubbornness and resiliency of Ebert translate across all areas of his life, up until his death, is fascinating to watch. His embrace of new technologies and commitment to understanding film through criticism is inspiring to anyone struggling to give their all to their passion — and particularly poignant to myself as a critic as well.

The best part of his reviews — as the film points out — is that they are simultaneously intellectual and populist. One interviewee in the film says that Ebert believed everyone should be able to “get” movies. The film student, the politician, the parent and the child could go to his reviews and understand the balance between technical achievement and unexplainable intangibles in films. One of Ebert’s great quotes says that movies are an empathy machine — and for this writer, Steve James and millions more, “Life Itself,” shows this is true.


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