Roger Ebert loved movies, but you and I both know that. Even documentarian Steve James knows that. But it does not stop him from saying so, often, throughout Life Itself. A low brow effort, consisting majorly of Ebert’s writing and backstory, photographs and former articles. They are not referenced or talked of but copied verbatim, and they make up the bulk of the film. What little is left to show is a tired and defeated man, depression porn used as a block for the slower moments. It would be shlock if it were fiction, but it is the mismanaged endearment and lack of focus that drags Life Itself away from its clear goal of detailing the life and times of Roger Ebert.
James juggles too many ideas. His desire to balance the final days in the life of Ebert with a passionate analysis and foundation-level view of his fifty-year career is an admirable, foolhardy choice. There is no pacing to what James wishes to discuss, leaping from hospital bed to the early days of Ebert’s career without so much as skipping a beat. Here is the heart-wrenching opening with the man in his final months, cutting suddenly to an extract from his memoir. It is a tangible link that works on paper, but not in execution. It is the editing style and sudden cut that make it feel disjointed and unmoved. All the usual guff and puff is presented. He was a great writer, and his confidence was backed up by his gift. Nothing new is touched upon, aside from one or two brief flutters with his news writing days, which is effective, impressive, and superior to his books.
Life Itself shows Ebert never lost his warmth or spark, he could always throw a bit of wit out there, as he does in early scenes where, to us at home, it looks like he is at his worst. He garners a chuckle or two, even when he is in pain, and I suppose that is the man he always was. Someone who could find light in the dark, and shine it on the joy he had brought to those close to him, and still does to his readers. This implies background knowledge of the man, and as documentaries go, very few will reach a broader audience by planting us in a scenario where past experience and knowledge is necessary. It is why the work of Werner Herzog or Joshua Oppenheimer is so good (they tackle experiences that, known or unknown, showcase the basics with equal importance to the specifics), and why James’ documentary will only succeed if the viewer has a love or fascination for the work of this Pulitzer winning writer.
These glazed over moments will be detailed enough to confuse first-time audiences to the craft of Ebert, but shallow enough to alienate his core of fans. Skimming over his screenwriting credits on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, his collaboration with Gene Siskel, and the life he led after his show came to a close, there is detail, but not enough to open the eyes of anyone who has heard the phrase “Two Thumbs Up” in passing. Clips scalped from YouTube, audio files left lingering that can piece together odd pockets of his appearances on panels and readings, but not anything that has an impact. Some of it comes across as ghoulish, some parts feel earnest, but the balance between the two is often off-kilter. It was effect and influence James’ work clamours for, and it is what I had expected too.
But now, I find myself saying farewell to a man who inspired me into the field I pursue. As my tastes have grown and I’ve begun to find my own voice, I have, in turn, fallen out with the prose and experience Ebert offered audiences and budding young critics. He is a force to be reckoned with and offers great advice. I have read his works, I have watched his show, and the more I write, the more I realise I do not want to be like him. I would like to be better than him. His book, Your Movie Sucks, showcases the stagnation that hit him in his latter days, but Life Itself does not. Life Itself merely rides the coattails of such talent. It wishes to keep the glorified image alive, of the man who championed film criticism and took it to the grave when he passed. A new era has certainly defined itself in the post-Ebert landscape, but Life Itself would have its audience believe that Ebert was the first and last of his kind. I would not be typing these words if I believed that for a second.