Editor’s Note: Roger Ebert biopic Life Itself is playing at Cinemapolis on weekdays and weekends at 4:25, 6:55 and 9:25 p.m.
At a moment of sobering frankness in Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary on the life and legacy of film critic Roger Ebert, the half-obscured spine of a DVD case caught my eye. In his hospital room, Roger’s wife, Chaz, dances around the subject of death, committing to optimistic estimates of her husband’s health as Roger nods knowingly into the camera, with that fixed, jawless smile of his last few cancer-ridden years. To the left of his bed rests a stack of four or five jewel cases. Only one spine faces outward, and you can make out a W, I, L, D, S: Wild Strawberries, the 1957 Ingmar Bergman movie.
I recognized it because I own that same Criterion edition; it is one my very favorites. I remember first seeing it some years ago and immediately, as I often did, searching for the Roger Ebert review. I was disheartened to not find it, especially not among the long-form “Great Movies” essays he churned out from 1996 until right before his death in April last year. But I am now left with a rave of the film I doubt even Roger, sharp a writer as he was, could put into words. I can only imagine the inner peace he must have felt watching bitter old Professor Isak Borg search for the meaning of life, fully aware the clock was ticking. Always a proponent of autobiography-inflected criticism, he must have seen a lot of himself in the old man on-screen.
Not that Roger was a bitter old man who feared dying alone. We know him to be quite the opposite; if anything, he died at a personal peak of generosity, transparency and inspiring resilience. To hear his friends describe him in Life Itself, however, he had room to grow. Once a self-obsessed blowhard who stole a cab hailed down by a pregnant woman (Gene Siskel’s wife, Marlene, a candid interviewee with both sweet and revealing things to say here), Roger matured into a lovable Zen master, a voice not only for movie criticism but for new ways to look at and embrace life. Roger started flawed and ended, well, not perfect but something like a hero. He was, at once, the architect and observer of his life’s arc, a three-act story marked by continual improvement, reflection and hard work. You know, like a movie.
Roger showed a keen awareness of this arc, as any reader of Life Itself, the memoir on which this film is a nominal adaptation, will know. That book, in keeping with the strengths of great literature, has a lot to say about the mind of its author whereas this film, by its outside-looking-in cinematic nature, does not. A few friends take stabs at picking apart his psyche (in regards to his combative on- and off-screen relationship with Gene, one asks, “Where did this determination come from?”), but it all amounts to speculation rather than profound insight.
By that, I mean to say that Roger was first and foremost a critic, and a pleasingly humble and self-deprecating one at that. The landscape of his mind, where his passions jousted with his memories, his emotions with his intellect and so on, is more fertile ground for study and appreciation than the events he lived through, as rich and surprisingly wild they turned out to be. So if there is a major shortcoming with Life Itself, the film, it is its relative straightforwardness — running through Roger’s years, in roughly chronological order, makes for more of a slideshow of Ebert trivia than a nuanced portrait of what he meant and, most importantly, felt. There are no moments like in Chapter 8 of his book, when he describes the “symphony of taste and texture” that is the Steak ‘N Shake Steakburger and you salivate along with him until, ouch, you remember: He wrote these words fully aware he would never eat this burger, or any meal, again. In other words: Just because Steve James includes a section on his subject’s alcoholism does not mean his film is “complicated,” you know?
If there is consolation that Life Itself is not some provocative work of high art, it is that its middlebrow efficiency is so pleasing to watch that this thing just may win the Oscar next year. My sold-out audience broke out in hearty belly laughs time and time again, like when Martin Scorsese offered oddly specific (backhanded) praise for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a 1970 Russ Meyer exploitation film co-written by Roger that features the two men’s favorite objects at the time: big-breasted women. After an awkward clearing of the throat, A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, goes to say that for all our talk of cinema as an art form, “there are…earthier appeals.”
That Scorsese sits down in front of James’s camera and even executive produced the documentary speaks to Roger’s unique place in the film world. Marty shares a story I doubt few heard before: how Roger and Gene Siskel “saved [his] life” when they invited him to Toronto International Film Festival for a 1980 career retrospective, in the midst of severe depression and drug addiction. Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) carefully handles an incredible gift Roger passed on to him, the latest in a royal lineage of owners that includes Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe. Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) praises Roger’s underappreciated tact — how he brought “cultural nuance,” “historical context” and some lived-in experience (being married to Chaz and all) when evaluating, in the most mainstream of media, a film made by a woman of color. And you have Werner Herzog spouting his own adorable brand of Wagnerian nonsense (in epic-ness, not anti-Semitism, I should clarify). Apparently he calls Bahrani late at night to portend, “I am worried about cinema,” and lives an actively quixotic existence, with a rather amusing anecdote about how he visited Roger’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and insisted on not staring down at it but looking off into the sunset touching the horizon. The two of them made quite an odd couple, didn’t they?
Everyone in this film points to Chaz and the year 1992, when they married, as the turning point for the mature, grounded Roger of later years. In a passage from his memoir that will make you cry, he says, “[Chaz] is the great fact of my life … and saved me from the fate of living out my life alone.” The most poignant scenes here are the simplest and most documentary-like, in the hospital rooms and hallways where James was lucky enough to have a few months (they started filming December 2013) with Roger before he passed. Chaz is there every moment, fixing his gloves and joking while doing it (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”). She raises her voice a couple times when he, in his understandable contempt for his situation, takes things out on her through inaction or ignorance. It’s as true a look at love as you will anywhere find.
Movies were, of course, Roger’s other love. He was a selfless lover, given to passive voice declarations rather than formalist critique, though he did excel at the latter when he moderated his annual “Cinema Interruptus” screenings at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I’ll admit I have wrestled with his work since his death. Plunging deeper into cinephile territory, I have fallen enamored with directors who left him cold, like Abbas Kiarostami, and distrustful of the “Oscar bait” with which he bestowed liberal four-star ratings. He loved movies so much he sometimes loved them too much, which is hardly a flaw.
As wonderful as some of the quotes Life Itself pulls from his reviews are, this film does not do justice to the act of interpretation that so many critics, Roger most certainly included, see as their primary obligation. Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the most gifted “readers” of cinema we have, writes off Siskel & Ebert, with its thumbs up and thumbs down, as simpleminded garbage, and that is all we see of him. The viewer unacquainted with his work will chuckle, “Boy, that guy is pretentious” — not an untrue observation, necessarily, but a narrow one that overlooks the fact that Rosenbaum’s rarefied tastes have stoked American interest in global art house films for the past 30-plus years. This film also says little of substance about Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, two New York critics whose ideological debates in the ’60s were, by default, elitist but also exhilarating reads. One old friend of Roger’s goes so far to shout, “Fuck Pauline Kael!” I mean, everyone who has read her has probably said as much, but to leave that as the last word? I don’t think Roger would have approved.
Roger Ebert possessed a powerful critical mind that came secondary to his wealth of feeling. If emotion is the enemy of discourse, then, well, Roger never got that memo. He wrote in a way that was empathetic, direct, somehow trustworthy — reading him, I got the sense that he knew far more than what he put on the page. He was the least ostentatious film writer out there and yet his prose had a sacred “text” quality to it that encouraged multiple readings. I am convinced his Synecdoche, New York review contains the secrets to life, secrets he only partly grasped but managed to communicate nevertheless. Life Itself, the book, gets that opaque, limitless side of Roger. It better; he wrote it. Watch the movie for the rest, which is less mysterious, but so fun and communal and present-tense what begins as a wake just nearly turns into an séance.