Review by Daniel Rester
My mother once told me that the first time I actually sat down quietly and watched a film was in 1994. The film was The Lion King. I was two years old.
I now see films on a regular basis, falling in love with characters and their worlds of all kinds. I escape into stories beautiful, dark, funny, and sad, as do many others who love the art form. Examining a film and thinking about its relationship to you and others is a great thing. The same can be said of basically all aspects of life, but each is special in their own way.
Film was perhaps never more special to someone than it was to Roger Ebert, the subject of the documentary Life Itself. The movie, directed by Steve James, explores the famous film critic’s long and interesting life. It is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, but the film also covers things past the point of his death on April 4th, 2013.
James’ film is a heartfelt one, and one that Ebert deserved. Thankfully, though, the movie isn’t just “hero worship” the entire time. It presents Ebert as a man with many passions and qualities, but it also isn’t afraid of showing his flaws in character and illness in health. Itself shows the real man. This is the way Ebert wished it to be, as he states in the film.
The movie covers a lot of ground. It discusses Ebert being an only child to a bookkeeper and an electrician, and how he went on to develop his writing in both high school and college. Eventually he ended up at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he began working as a film critic for the newspaper in 1967. The film explains that, at that time, Ebert was the youngest daily film critic in America. He remained a critic for the Sun-Times until his death.
Of course we also get to see a lot of Ebert’s relationship with fellow film critic Gene Siskel, who passed away in 1999. While Ebert worked at Sun-Times, Siskel worked across the street at the Chicago Tribune. The film explains that they hardly spoke to each other for the first five years of knowing one another, seeing themselves as competing forces. Eventually they ended up working on the TV shows Sneak Preview and At the Movies together, helping popularize film criticism on TV.
Siskel and Ebert’s relationship famously contained both respect and tension, which James explores thoroughly in the doc. Ebert had won a Pulitzer Prize and is painted as having been a bit of a control freak at times, while Siskel had more of natural flow on TV and is said to have been very competitive. It also seems that Ebert was a bit more reserved compared to Siskel, with the latter even having partied with Hugh Hefner quite a bit.
Itself presents to us bloopers and arguments from the TV shows that are hilarious and revealing; a story about the two and a note on an airplane is also memorable. Marlene Iglitzen, who was Siskel’s wife, explains that Siskel once said, “[Ebert’s] an asshole, but he’s my asshole.” What a great summary of their partnership.
The most important relationship in Ebert’s life, however, was with his wife, Chaz Ebert. Roger and Chaz were soul mates, and James really gets across the deep love the two had for one another. With past footage of their wedding and family trips, and newer footage from before and after Ebert’s death, the film shows how much Chaz and other family members meant to Ebert – and the other way around. Itself even discusses some of the early tension within the families for Roger being white and Chaz being black.
While Ebert’s relationships with Chaz and Gene take center stage in Itself, the film also presents many other aspects of Ebert’s life. Such things as his early taste in women, his alcoholism (he took his last drink in 1979), his work on the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), and his involvement with the Conference of World Affairs are touched on. We also get bits of filmmakers talking about Ebert’s influence on them; this includes people like Martin Scorsese (an executive producer on Itself), Werner Herzog, and Ramin Bahrani, three directors that Ebert loved. Ebert’s reflections in his blog and his acceptance of death later in life are also talked about.
It might seem like I’m giving a lot away, but I’m not. James’ film is so rich and well-rounded in its exploration of Ebert’s life that a 10-page review couldn’t fully do it justice. The editing of the picture, done by James and David E. Simpson, allows for an immersive experience; the pacing is perfect and the frame movements are smooth and beautiful. The use of multiple narrators, from James to Chaz to Stephen Stanton (a man with a voice like Ebert’s who reads passages of Ebert’s book), allows for continual freshness in presenting points of view.
Though James’ film is remarkable, what’s a review without a bit of criticism? Itself feels slightly soft in its touch at times, despite its covering of Ebert’s flaws. Part of this problem lies on Joshua Abrams’ music score, which feels a bit too light and bouncy. The film also could have explored the film critic’s relationship with his parents and his overall childhood years a bit more. Also, there is no mention at all of Richard Roeper and his work with Ebert in the early 2000s. It’s almost distracting to think about why such a topic might have been left out, though I guess it doesn’t make for a flaw in the film itself.
Now at age twenty-two, I continue to look at film as a very important part of my life. I think I’ve loved the art form ever since those images of The Lion King hit my eyes all those years ago. As I am a person who practices both film criticism and filmmaking, Ebert has been and will continue to be an inspiring person in my life. I know many others had similar feelings toward Ebert and his admiration of movies. I encourage them all to see Itself.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).
MPAA Rating: R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language).
Runtime: 1 hours and 55 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: July 4th, 2014 (limited).