Movie Review: Life Itself (2014)
When do you finally give up? When they take your ability to move? When they take your speech, your jaw, your looks, your ability to eat and drink? When they leave you with a flap of yawning, scarred flesh below your upper jaw and send you back out into the world? For Roger Ebert, forever film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, as Gene Siskel, his partner for more than two contentious decades on “Sneak Previews,” etc., is forever film critic for The Chicago Tribune, the answer is: none of the above. He took all of this and kept going. But near the end of “Life Itself,” or life itself, we find out what breaks a man even as willful as Roger Ebert.
It’s not a hagiography. It’s important to point that out. “He is a nice guy,” one of Roger’s bar buddies from the 1970s replies to the documentarian, before adding with a smile, “but he’s not that nice.”
And he’s not. He’s fiercely competitive, full of himself, at times shockingly humorless. He was a raconteur but was he a good listener? He listened to the movies and then held forth about the movies. He was kind to kids, and young filmmakers whose work impressed him (Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Ava Duvernay), and old filmmakers whose work impressed him (Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog). I would argue he was too kind to black cinema, or almost any movie that starred black people, but the doc doesn’t get into that. If it did, it would most likely spin it positively: How Roger was a champion of black cinema. It would mention, as this article mentions, the movies that topped his year-end list: “The Color Purple” in 1985 (eh), “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 (yes), “Malcolm X” in 1992 (let me double-check), “Eve Bayou” in 1997 (haven’t seen it) and “Monster’s Ball” in 2001 (no). But it wouldn’t mention that he gave thumbs ups to, among others, “Cop and a Half,” for which Siskel reamed him, as well as Spike Lee’s worst movie, “She Hate Me.”
Oddly, the doc also doesn’t mention how he and Siskel championed the Chicago-area documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which Roger listed as not only the best film of 1994 but the best film of the entire 1990s. Why not? A moment of humility. The director of that doc, Steve James, is the director of this doc.
Most of the time anyway. There’s a great, early scene that, despite its subject matter, is pretty funny. It’s about five months before Roger’s death. He’s in his hospital room with his assistant Carol, his step daughter, a nurse, and off camera Steve makes a casual joke. Roger responds, in that Steve-Hawking-style voice software, “I do the jokes around here.” Then, despite being physically helpless, he talks up his lack of control in the way that control freaks so. Of the women in the room: “I do what they tell me to do.” When someone asks a question about the doc, he says, “Steve is the director.” Almost immediately, though, he starts giving direction. “Steve, shoot yourself in the mirror,” he says. Steve obliges. Why not? He knows a good moment when he sees it.
James’ doc is both tough and moving, straightforward and complicated. Its transitions are about perfect. It keeps giving us Roger’s life story before returning us to the hospital room, or the physical therapy room, or the painful trip home for two days before pneumonia forces him back to the hospital room.
He was a journalist before he was a movie critic. As a child he created the “Washington Street News” is his hometown of Urbana, Ill., and delivered it around his neighborhood. He was editor in chief of his high school and college newspapers and wrote moving accounts of the big issues of the day: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.; the assassination of JFK. He went to Chicago for grad school but wound up at the Sun-Times, the working class newspaper, and within five months was its movie critic. It wasn’t a coveted gig. Before Roger arrived, most journalists there wrote under the nom de plume Mae Tinee, or matinee, but his arrival was propitious. He was young and American movies were about to go through a decade-long youth movement: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider,” et al. The studio era had ended and the summer blockbuster era hadn’t yet begun; in this interregnum a variety of very good movies appeared.
He was a Chicagoan above all. He was both brash and earthy, a heavy drinker at the corner bar, O’Rourke’s, until he stopped for good in 1979. After his Pulitzer in ’75, he got offers from bigger cities with bigger newspapers—Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post in particular—but he turned them all down. His excuse? “I’m not going to learn new streets,” he said.
I heard more than read Roger, of course, but the reviews we get here (of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cries and Whispers”) are spot-on: personal but all-encompassing. They remind me of how unnecessarily mired in the details I get. Like here.
It takes Gene Siskel a while to arrive but when he does, he does it with a twinkle in his eye. They were opposites in many ways, not just physically but emotionally, but both thrived on competition, and neither was more competitive than with the other. I would’ve liked a rapid compendium of some of their thumbs ups/downs. Did Siskel truly dislike “Apocalypse Now”? It didn’t wind up on his top 10 list for 1979, though it topped Roger’s list. Did Roger really dismiss “Full Metal Jacket”? Same deal, but No. 2 for Siskel that year. They argued over Vietnam War movies the way the rest of the country argued over the Vietnam War. But the doc points out they argued over everything.
Their rise is interesting. They wound up in most markets except New York and L.A., which took a coastal attitude. Chicago? Really? One of the show’s producers said the studios went “from helping us, to hating us, to fearing us.” “Two thumbs up!” became the coin of the realm, and other critics blanched. Isn’t that simplistic? Reductive? Richard Schickel spouted off in “Film Comment” in 1991 but he shows up here as a talking head to own, or not, what he said.
But they used their power for good. Saving Errol Morris’ career alone would make it all worth it, but Martin Scorsese implies they helped save his life with an award they suggested and presented at the Toronto Film Festival in the mid-1980s. Then they trashed (deservedly) “The Color of Money.”
They died in opposite ways, too. Siskel was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, told no one, not even Roger, and passed away quickly at the age of 53. A few years later, Roger was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but hung on for 10 years. He revealed his jawless face to the world on the cover of Esquire magazine in 2010. He made this doc with Steve James. He kept going.
So what finally stopped this willful man? Back in the hospital for pneumonia, he finally sounds defeated. “I’m finished,” he writes James. His hands are swollen so he can’t type, so he can’t write. Take away everything but that. But they took away that, too.
“Life Itself” is powerful, moving, funny, and often tough to watch. I felt trepidation every time we returned to the present and the flap of skin below the jaw. I also disagreed with the doc almost immediately. These are the first words we hear. It’s Roger:
We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
Empathy? To me, movies are like machines that generate wish fulfillment and fantasy. They generate dreams of power and glory. They allow us, for a few hours in the dark, and for a short time after we walk into the light, to pretend to be stronger and sexier and braver than we actually are. They lie to us at 24 frames a second.
But the above quote is true for the best movies anyway. It’s also true for this one. I’d give it two thumbs up if I could.