The Television-Styled Puff Piece Called Life Itself

| September 5, 2014

Life Itself (2014) is a documentary about the late and great film critic Roger Ebert.  Rather than focusing on his life, as its title implies it will, the film focuses on his death.  It opens with footage of Ebert in the midst of his last battle in the war against cancer.  Steve James, the director of Life Itself, depicts his subject just as Werner Herzog describes him: “the solider of cinema, a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore but he soldiers on.”  We are forced, more than once, to watch the always-charming Ebert struggle painfully as he sucks up a meal of gray paste through a straw sticking out of his throat while bound to what will shortly become his deathbed.

Following the opening close-up footage of a dying Ebert is an uplifting clip showing a healthy Ebert make an inspired speech to a large crowd.  “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” he says.  And as an empathy generating machine, Life Itself is a cinematic wonder that could even draw a tear from the eye of a mummified narcissist.  Ebert’s ability to remain positive despite losing his fight against cancer induce instant empathy in the viewer, but it is the scenes showing him use the last of his mental and physical strength to compose his latest blog posts that are the most powerful.  With these scenes the film portrays Ebert as a writer who literally lived for the written word.

In his 1995 review of the documentary Crumb, which masterfully chronicles the life of the legendary underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, Ebert writes that art saved the artist’s life and that it is “a film that gives new meaning to the notion of art as therapy.”  While Crumb’s art helped him survive his fucked-up childhood and sexual perversions, Ebert’s art — his film criticism — helped him survive many of the battles in his war against cancer but also, earlier in his life, his bout with alcoholism.  In what is the most entertaining segment of the film we get to see a young and talented Ebert rising simultaneously through the ranks as a film critic and a Chicago barfly.  But he eventually realizes that he can’t do both, that he has to chose one occupation over the other, and he chooses to give up drinking so he can continue writing.

As a reader and writer of film criticism, I wanted to see Life Itself because of Ebert’s writing.  I didn’t want to see it because of his drinking.  I didn’t want to see it because of his popular television show, Siskel & Ebert.  I didn’t want to see it because of his love for his wife, Chaz.  And I definitely didn’t want to see it because he died brutally from cancer. For me and I imagine many others, Ebert’s reviews acted as a guide through the movies and, because of the medium’s influence, as a guide through life.  His career spanned four decades, and his reviews undoubtedly shaped both the sensibilities and moralities of his readers.

Being John Malkovich (1999), for example, both enchanted and perplexed me.  I didn’t understand why a film about people entering the brain of another person captured my imagination like few other films could, but Ebert pointed out the obvious: “Spend a lifetime being yourself and it would be worth money to spend fifteen minutes being almost anybody else.”  With this simple sentence, his review helped the adolescent me grasp the importance and possibilities of that uniquely American idea of reinvention — an idea that has since become a staple of my life crisis kit.

Then, sometime after 1999, I remember happening upon Last Tango in Paris (1972) on one of the movie channels.  My hormones went haywire and my brain went berserk.  I was afraid to turn to my pops for help. . . but I wasn’t afraid to turn to his copy of The Great Movies by Roger Ebert.  In it I found a review of that Bernardo Berolucci mind-blower in which Ebert explains that Marlon Brando’s character is “a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality.”   It was a relief to learn that the bedtime behavior I witnessed wasn’t typical, and I was and still am thankful for that review because I’m sure it saved me from a lifetime of relationship disasters.

Through its simple wisdom, Ebert’s writing evokes a liveliness that is regretfully missing from Life Itself — the documentary that will forever represent the critic and his criticism.  Unfortunately James, the film’s director, dedicates too many minutes to the struggles leading up to Ebert’s death and not enough to the writing that made up his life.  The majority of the film, in fact, seems to take place in a sterile hospital room that acts as a constant reminder of his approaching death.  Although the shocking straw-sucking scenes accurately represent the lengthy concluding chapter in the story that is Ebert’s life, they should not have been the focus of a film about a man whose writing brought so much life into the world.

We all have people who love us.  We all have dealt with tragic deaths.  And some of us, like Ebert, have had to battle cancer.  However, as these words you’re reading illustrate, very few if any of us can write with the clarity and honesty that oozes from Ebert’s reviews.  And Life Itself fails because it skims over his reviews.  It shows a few clips from Ebert’s favorite movies with some corresponding blurbs — Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is “pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful” — but it quickly moves on to more melodramatic material.  A good documentary, as Ebert himself wrote in his 1970 review of Woodstock, provides news: “it reports, it shows, it records, and it interprets.”  Life Itself gives us lots of news about Ebert’s cancerous death, but only a little about his literary life.

In fact, instead of revealing the greatness of Ebert by giving persuasive examples of his written work accompanied by clips of the films he loved and hated, Life Itself tries to convince viewers of his greatness by attacking his film critic peers in an infantile manner.  The depiction of Pauline Kael, for example, is absurd but also inexcusable.  “I don’t know Pauline Kael,” says some drunken hack of a reporter who neither you nor I have heard of or read, but “Fuck Pauline Kael.”  Was this pathetically uninformed opinion of a woman I consider genius supposed to convince viewers of Ebert’s talent? I can’t say. . . but what I can say is that Ebert would not have approved.

After Kael died in 2001, Ebert published a piece titled “In Memoriam: Pauline Kael” in which he called her “the most influential American film critic — maybe the most influential critic of any art form — of her time.”  He also acknowledged the fact that “her long article on Scorsese’s Mean Streets essentially launched his career.” Martin Scorsese produced Life Itself, so I don’t know how James, the director, got away with including such an unnecessarily slanderous clip, or why he would want to.  Maybe he resents Kael for never reviewing his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, and maybe the career-launching thumbs-up that Ebert gave that documentary must still be so far up James’ ass that he felt the need to discredit the film critic that, for some reason, he feels is a threat to Ebert’s legacy.

Although James, with Life Itself, does show-off some of the skills that earned him Ebert’s thumbs-up for the admittedly amazing Hoop Dreams by making the difficult task of structuring a biographical documentary with a non-linear narrative look easy, his choice to focus on Ebert’s death rather than his life was wrong.  I don’t doubt that those who are still mourning Ebert’s death, which took place last year, will find the scenes showcasing the dying film critic heart-wrenching and life-inspiring, but I do doubt that those scenes will have any significant meaning on viewers in the decades to come.

Fifty years from now people will watch Life Itself to learn about one of the greatest film critics to ever live and write in America.  They will want to know the details of his life, his writing, and they will want to see and understand how they were one in the same.  But I regret to say that they will be just as disappointed as I was because Life Itself is about Ebert’s death, not his life. . . and definitely not his writing.  It brought some tears to my eyes and it entertained me in spots, but Life Itself was really nothing more than a television-styled puff piece.  And I think Ebert would agree.

About the Author:

Christopher lives on the edge of San Francisco. He's published in VICE, The Rumpus, and SF Weekly. Last Gasp distributes a few books by The Forsley Brothers, and PORK has recently started carrying their Dirty Klown comix. For the last ten years he has been working on the same screenplay.
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