Critics Corner: LIFE ITSELF

Read two critical perspectives on Life Itself  (2014, Steve James) , from Frako Loden and Dennis Willis.  Life Itself  opens in San Francisco at Landmark Cinema’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, Landmark’s Albany Twin in Albany, and Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on Friday, July 4, 2014. 

Roger Ebert. Photo by Art Shay.

Roger Ebert. Photo by Art Shay.

Affectionate, Almost Hagiographic

by Frako Loden

It was one of those moments that couldn’t make Roger Ebert look better than if he had staged it himself.  A dozen years ago at a Sundance Q&A for Better Luck Tomorrow , Justin Lin’s film about the dark side of overachieving Asian American teens, an audience member berated the film for being “amoral for Asian Americans.”  Ebert stood up on a chair waving his arms, attacking the questioner’s “offensive and condescending” comment to cheers from the audience.

Good one, Roger!  I’m not sure why this moment wasn’t included in the new documentary, Life Itself  (USA: Steve James, 2014).  But it would have epitomized Ebert’s love for grandstanding as well as his championing of minority filmmakers—two of the more endearing of his impulses featured in this affectionate, almost hagiographic portrait of America’s best-known film critic.

Having passed away after a long, well-publicized struggle with cancer on April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert didn’t get a chance to see the documentary about his own life and legacy, partially based on his own memoir of the same title.  Maybe director Steve James, who many feel was robbed of a Best Documentary Academy Award for his 1994 Hoop Dreams  (and which Ebert called the best film of its decade), will snag an Oscar for this doc.  I can see the Academy loving it.  Curiously, in it James does not mention Ebert’s role in supporting his own filmmaking career.

Early on, Ebert seemed to be headed for a reputation as a bigger-than-life Chicago literary type as movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times: a “facile” writer who could knock out a review in half an hour, a heavy-drinking regular at O’Rourke’s, holding court and showboating for hours every night.  But in 1979 Ebert took his last drink, joined AA and fortuitously met the love of his life, wife Chaz, at a meeting.  Their marriage stabilized his life and made him and his Chicago Tribune competitor Gene Siskel nationally known movie reviewers, notorious for their thumbs up / thumbs down verdicts.

At the time I didn’t want to admit that I paid attention to them—they were too mainstream and I didn’t often get around to seeing the films they reviewed—but I dutifully time-shifted my VCR to record their show every Sunday evening.  I did enjoy it when Ebert and Siskel got incredulous and indignant with each other.  Later we even enjoyed slagging the duo’s successors—Michael Medved, Richard Roeper—who are not mentioned in the film.

Not that Life Itself  doesn’t address criticism of America’s last influential movie critic, but it deflects it in a way that would persuade those less familiar with the filmmaking apparatus.  In his 1990 Film Comment article, Richard Corliss characterized “Sneak Previews” as “a sitcom … starring [an odd couple] who live in a movie theater and argue all the time” in a way that vulgarized film writing and avoided analysis.  But next we’re shown Ebert and Siskel arguing passionately about Apocalypse Now  and Scarface .

We’re told that Pauline Kael elevated film writing while Ebert and Siskel are introducing a barking Bowser for “Dog of the Week” and being mimicked by Chevy Chase on Johnny Carson for dissing Three Amigos —making all this seem a lot more fun than consuming Kael.  Countering Jonathan Rosenbaum’s charge that Ebert’s show was just another part of the Hollywood system, a host of independent filmmakers including Gregory Nava and Errol Morris credit Ebert with jump-starting their filmmaking careers.

Ebert’s off-screen kindnesses and courage yield plaudits by Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart , Goodbye Solo ) and Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow , Selma ) and even a dedication by Werner Herzog, who claims Ebert “reinforces my courage.”  And where other critics might find one of their kind hobnobbing with filmmakers to taint their integrity, Ebert’s intervention for Martin Scorsese, pushing for a tribute to him at Toronto, is seen as a heroic resuscitation of the director’s then-troubled career.

The best segments of the film analyze the love-hate relationship between Ebert and Siskel: their differing class backgrounds, their cross-town newspaper rivalry, their inability to control the other, and their joined-at-the-butt need for each other on the TV show.  Siskel’s choice not to tell his partner about his terminal brain cancer deeply wounded Ebert and led to his decision, a few years later, to be transparent about his own struggle with cancer.  When he finally lost his ability to speak, Ebert’s blog presence and his enlisting of younger writers to write for it was a fitting tribute to his legacy as a popularizer of film writing.

Frako Loden is a free-lance film writer who contributes to and Fandor.  She teaches film history and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.  She doesn’t like anyone messing with her assigned seat at the Pacific Film Archive.



Siskel and Ebert. Photo by Kevin Horan.

Siskel and Ebert. Photo by Kevin Horan.

Truths Emerging From the Margins

by Dennis Willis

As the producer and host of one of the many mid-’90s movie review programs, the long shadow cast by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel followed us everywhere.  We weren’t anything like them.  But you just can’t put two guys in chairs and give them four minutes to argue about a film’s merits without drawing that comparison.

At the time, the ubiquitous duo were two halves of the same whole.  As much as either one thought the other dispensable during the decades-long run of their show (which endured numerous name and network changes), it wasn’t until Siskel’s death—and later, Ebert’s cancer struggles that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink or speak—that his voice came fully into bloom.

Ebert (an early adopter of the internet and social media) began blogging, and it was a glorious thing.  He wrote of movies, trends, politics and expressed just about everything he could think to express.  He also wrote an autobiography called Life, Itself —the book on which director Steve James’ documentary is based.

James and Ebert’s paths first crossed in 1994 when the latter named the director’s Hoop Dreams  the most important film of the year.  If James hadn’t made this film, either Werner Herzog or Martin Scorsese might have.  Both were friends of Ebert’s but understood that when he gave them a bad review, it was coming from a good place.  Scorsese, Herzog, Gregory Nava, and numerous other filmmakers credit his clear-headed positive reviews with starting their careers.

Life makes a lot out of Siskel and Ebert’s contentious relationship—two critics from rival Chicago newspapers that forged a tenuous onscreen marriage into the birth of its own art form, the capsule movie review, packaged with shiny clips and thumbs on top.  Their success rankled “serious” critics, but how could any format that got people talking about movies be a bad thing?  To the director’s credit, he included the duo’s infamous bloopers, the best of which still reside on YouTube.

The Eberts granted James unprecedented access to a life in decline, but Roger would have it no other way.  When he first blogged about the striking Esquire photo in which his ravaged face was revealed sans jawbone with the lower half dangling in a perpetual smile, he fully supported it.  “Running it that big was good journalism,” he wrote.  “It made you want to read the article.”

The movie reveals the unexpected decline that left him hospitalized for two months and led to his death on April 4, 2013.  As much a punch in the gut as that Esquire picture was, seeing Ebert struggling to walk and communicate is as heartbreaking as much as it is good journalism.

Many truths emerge from the margins, such as his undying love for Chaz, his wife of 20 years, the woman he credits with rescuing him from a life of solitude.  Sure, the fact that theirs was a mixed-race union had to come up, but it quickly gives way to as soulful a love story as ever has been written.  When his step-granddaughter fights back tears remembering the things he taught her, the message is loud and clear: Roger Ebert is gone.  We cannot learn anything more from him that’s not contained within his 8,000+ archived reviews and blog entries.

It’s not always a rosy portrait, but such is life.  Early on, Ebert was a braggart, a party animal, a show-off, and sure loved to wave his Pulitzer prize to checkmate any debate.  One lady describes being eight-months pregnant and Ebert snagging the cab before her.  But even she admits he became much nicer after meeting Chaz.

But casual fans will notice several things missing: Ebert’s year-long attempt to resurrect the show on public television with a rotating stable of hosts, any mention of Gene Siskel’s unexpected death in 1999, Ebert’s touching tribute, and the resulting Ebert and Roeper format that continued for almost a decade.

Come to think of it, where the hell was Richard Roeper?  It also might have been nice to end the film with the celebration dance held at Ebertfest, led by Tilda Swinton in a joyous expression of life.

How would Roger Ebert review this film if he were not the subject?

I believe he would ignore the movie’s faults and go straight to the meat and potatoes: the story of an unflappable man of principal and arrogance whose larger than life persona took him around the world and into fantastic situations.  And if nothing else, Life Itself  promotes the idea that films are, and continue to be, vital expressions of art that can inspire, delight and challenge.

If nothing else, Roger would love that.

Dennis WillisDennis Willis is an award-winning producer, editor, writer and film critic. He produced and co-hosted the TV programs Soundwaves, and Reel Life (later called FilmTrip) and anchors the weekly Flick Nation Radio show. In addition, he hosts the weekly radio features At the Movies and Home Media Guide; and produces the annual Soundwaves Christmas fundraiser.  He is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association; the director of All You Need is Myth: The Beatles and Gods of Rock  and the author of Barca’s Jackpot.

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