If you’re a boxer, a gangster, a soldier or a globetrotting super-spy, you must get used to seeing your own profession portrayed in films. Certain types of journalists—crime reporters, gossip columnists—must be accustomed to it, too. But I had never seen a film devoted to a film critic until I saw “Life Itself”, Steve James’s superb documentary about the late Roger Ebert.
Admittedly, one reason why the film is so whirlingly entertaining is that Ebert wasn’t just a critic. He reviewed several new releases every week for the Chicago Sun-Times for over 40 years, but he was also a Falstaffian bon viveur who used to prop up the same bar as the author and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel and the rest of Chicago’s newspapermen. He was a motor-mouthed television star, with a long-running, sometimes hilariously fractious onscreen partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel. He wrote a science-fiction novel, a screenplay for Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”, and a political blog with a fervent following.
But some of the most powerful sequences in “Life Itself” have nothing to do with his career. Ebert died last year having endured various forms of cancer over the previous decade, and when James was shooting the documentary Ebert was horribly ill. There is some deeply upsetting footage of him wincing with pain as a nurse pushes a tube into his neck and sucks out the mucus. And yet, these sequences aren’t just a shockingly candid depiction of terminal illness; they are a celebration of Ebert’s extraordinarily strong marriage, and of his own humbling perseverance and humour. When the film was being shot, he could no longer eat, drink or speak, but he never stopped typing jokes into his MacBook. And he never stopped responding to questions with his televisual trademark, a raised thumb.
“Life Itself” merits its grand title. Ebert is such an inspirational character, and James (“Hoop Dreams”) is such an energetic director, that the documentary will enlighten, move and amuse viewers of all kinds. But, at heart, it remains a profile of a Pulitzer prize-winning film critic, so if you happen to be a film critic yourself, watching it is like being a boxer watching a Muhammad Ali documentary: it’s a treat to see someone doing your own job on the big screen, even if they make your achievements seem paltry by comparison. Many of the scenes and settings in “Life Itself” rang bells with me: the screening rooms, the trips to Cannes, the debates with other critics. And it was a rare thrill to see film-reviewing being taken so seriously. “Life Itself” discusses whether Ebert and Siskel’s thumbs up/thumbs down judgments were harmfully reductive; whether Ebert compromised his integrity by befriending directors like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog; and whether the trade had been damaged by the internet, a medium which Ebert embraced wholeheartedly.
But when I saw “Life Itself”, the moment that really shook the assembled critics was when someone mentioned that Ebert took a mere half-hour to write each of his long, considered, knowledgeable, fluent and unfailingly readable reviews. There were gasps and bursts of bitter laughter from every corner of the screening room. Never mind the Pulitzer prize or the TV stardom; it was the ability to write so well at such speed that we envied most.
"Life Itself" is in British cinemas now, and available on demand