My life would have been different if Roger Ebert had never existed. To say that I wouldn’t have had the same passion for movies that I do would be overstating it, but I definitely would not have the same motivation to write about movies that I do now. Ebert gave a very public face to film criticism and this opinion was like some sort of religion, especially when I started this blog. After I watched a movie, I would look on his page to see if he had written about it. If he did, I would immediately read the review. If I agreed, I would examine why I agreed and try to form my own ideas. If I didn’t agree, I would already be starting my review as a direct response to what he said. This is all to say that the subject of Life Itself, Roger Ebert, is too close and personal to me to give a completely unbiased review. All I can do is record my ideas and my thoughts about him and about the treatment he gets in this film.
The structure of the film echoes his memoir and for those of us who have already read the memoir, a lot of the observations may seem a bit like rehashing old territory. If you have not read his memoir, which is titled the same as this documentary, I would suggest you do right away. It gives much more insight into the way Ebert thought than a two hour movie ever could. However what the memoir could not get across is the daily struggle and the awkward moments his condition brought on him and his wife. There is one scene in particular where he struggles to walk after getting a hairline fracture in his hip that I found so painful to watch. The camera does not shy away from looking directly at his mangled face or from showing his daily suction procedure which I assume is how he gets nutrients or how his wounds are cleaning. To watch someone waste away like that is extremely hard and I know it must have taken a lot out of his wife, Chaz. And yet she is so strong and never once gives up hope. When they are in the hospital after they hear yet another terrible diagnosis, Chaz exhibits an inner strength that is heart wrenching. She is hopeful and she allows herself to laugh at Roger’s terrible jokes that he makes on the computer. To me this movie is just as much about her as it is about Roger. Her love for him makes her capable of soldiering on, even after his death.
Just like in other documentaries, this one is littered with famous people talking about their experiences with the subject. While most of the time these famous people talking about how much they love x y or z seem mainly just a marketing ploy to get an unfamiliar spectator interested in the subject, here it felt organic. Through his show and his newspaper column, he was able to promote so many different kinds of directors and movies that they almost became his children or they were at least colleagues at the movies. So when Scorsese said that Ebert and Siskel helped him reinvigorate his career, I believed him. Or when Errol Morris said that he probably wouldn’t have a film career because of him, I believed him. Or when Herzog went on and on about something that was quite frankly amazing and incomprehensible, I believed him. They didn’t seem forced, like they usually are in other films.
In all that I do related to film, I aim to be like Roger Ebert (and a couple of other people, but those are posts for another day). Although this film could never replace Ebert and my emotional connection to him, I am glad it exists.