Roger Ebert was the most famous film critic of all time when he died. He had shared a spotlight with his former partner Gene Siskel spanning three decades and had learned much from Pauline Kael. There are, of course, legendary critics like A. O. Scott, Rex Reed, Gene Shalit and Leonard Maltin… but no one was as famous as Roger Ebert.
Life Itself, directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, chronicles the life and death of Roger Ebert. It is hard to imagine the face of film criticism today without him. Famous filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris and even Steve James himself owe a debt of gratitude for Ebert’s ability to bring attention to little-known and under-seen filmmakers who are at the beginning of their career. Werner Herzog, who famously told Errol Morris that Morris’s documentary Gates of Heaven would never be completed (and had to publicly eat a shoe as punishment for hubris) even dedicated a film to Ebert and made it a point that he never dedicates his films to anybody. Herzog wanted to honor the man’s bravery in never shying away from the details surrounding his inevitable death that he informed the public was soon to come.
Such was the legend of Roger Ebert, a man who loved movies. In Life Itself, Ebert tells an audience that he believes that the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If what he says is true, Life Itself is a prime example of being exposed to pure empathy. It is hard to imagine a life as intriguing as his, ending with a death as plagued with struggle and pain as his. He is the first critic to have ever won a Pulitzer for writing on film. Outside of film criticism he had written sexploitation scripts for Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens), and penned the never-produced Sex Pistols movie (also to be directed by Russ Meyer). Later in his life, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and, as a result, lost his jaw, his ability to speak and his ability to eat or drink.
Though the documentary has a dozen scenes worthy of spilling tears from the eyes of viewers in the audience, perhaps the most powerful moment is seeing Martin Scorsese, the director of quintessential tough-guy pictures like Raging Bull and Goodfellas, look into the camera with tears swelling about his swollen, reddened eyes and hearing his voice crack as he remembers his friend.
Life Itself is divided into two different narratives: One details the trajectory of the career of Roger Ebert; the other is dedicated to the man in the last months and weeks and days of his life. We see a juxtaposition of career-highs, such as Ebert winning the Pulitzer, with a scene of him in his hospital room, jaw removed and unable to communicate except through written notes and software installed on his laptop. The most painful scene in the entire film is the one where a nurse must plunge a hose into Ebert’s neck in order to drain it of fluid. It is clear that the man is in so much pain. He winces and the sound that comes out of him is absolute, pure agony. The camera never flinches or looks away and the audience must share this horrible, intimate moment with him. When it is over, he goes back to being his regular, optimistic self again.
Life Itself is not a movie made about the struggle of Roger Ebert and his unfair lot in life to be struck with such a string of rotten luck to be riddled with cancer and inoperable complications. Instead, Life Itself is about unwavering optimism and the celebration of… life itself. There is simply no time to be so saddened by learning that you will soon die when you have so much to be thankful for, and Ebert has much to be thankful for: His lovely wife Chaz; his love-hate, brilliant friendship with Gene Siskel; the legions of fans who had been influenced by him over the years and always so happy to read his thoughts on the newest films to be released.
The documentary is titled as such because it is a dedication to a man’s life. It is a documentary about facing death with dignity and bravery and loving this strange miraculous gift of existence as much as we can each day we awake. That Ebert’s life is the focus of the film is all the more empowering because he was a man who truly lived life as though it were a miracle and a gift, and it is.
The film almost certainly could have gone into much more depth about the pain and misery that Ebert had experienced in the last moments of his life and none of it would have seemed exploitative because what he went through is almost unimaginable. The pain must have been excruciating. The alienation of losing one’s ability to speak must have been some of the loneliest feelings anyone on this planet must have ever felt. Yet, that focus on misery would not have been faithful to the philosophy of Roger Ebert and how the man lived his life or wanted to be remembered.
Ebert’s tragic death is not what is important to the man’s legacy. What is important is how he lived. He was not always the most optimistic man, but when he learned that death awaited him and that the death was to be accompanied by much pain and humiliation, he did not decry life as a cruel joke. Rather, he had a chance to reflect on a life he felt was blessed and remember it as an adventure that could never last forever.
Roger Ebert was a hero to many lovers of the cinema. Even those who disagreed with him as a critic could hardly argue against his strengths as a writer. As sad as it was to see him go, I hope that this documentary has a chance to be seen by as many people as possible. The message of Life Itself is pure and true, and the message is that we need to keep dreaming as big as we can. In his death, I hope Ebert’s legacy can spread and that we can all hear his message of optimism in the darkest days of his life.
“To make others less happy is a crime,” Ebert had said in the same-titled book on which the documentary is based. “To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
Roger Ebert was a wonderful man and immensely influential. Life Itself does him great justice by showing his life in all its detail, in all its glory and all its tragedy—sadness and humor in equal measure. It has been over a year since his death and his presence is still missed as much as it was then. The world may indeed never stop missing him, but in his death may his message of love be heard. This documentary is an excellent means of gaining some sort of closure in his absence. As much as it hurts to realize, it is official and thrilling to consider the passage of time into the inevitable… and the balcony is closed, forever.