As a budding film critic, I was destined to love Life Itself no matter what. Everything I’m doing at this very moment would be utterly fruitless without pioneers like Roger Ebert. I’m 25. I’ve only been writing about cinema for a few years “professionally.” I didn’t have the pleasure of watching Siskel and Ebert banter weekly about new releases, nor did I actually gain a proper respect for criticism during print-paper times. I come from a generation of critics raised on thumbnail pictures posted on RottenTomatoes, sifting through a heap of “approved” movie reviews more noticeable by online publications than critics themselves. Ebert comes from an era that lives only in grandiose dreams of wide-eyed film journalists like myself, and in that landscape, Roger remains one of few golden Gods. He was powerful, opinionated, respectful, and in-touch with an entire artform – and that only scratches the surface of Roger Ebert.
Chances are, you know Ebert as the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic who graced the Chicago Sun-Times for some 46 years, but what about the college newspaper editor who broke news with equal wit and intelligence? What about the social activist who attended conferences with some of the world’s most influential thinkers? Ebert was as eloquent a critic of everyday life as he was a cinematic analyst, and without such a fierce, unflinching tongue, passionate attachments to his favorite films never would have materialized. It’s one thing to mechanically dissect a flawed film, pointing out plodding screenplays and wooden performances, but without a true emotional connection, how can one emphatically recommend a wildly invigorating masterpiece? Ebert made us care about movies because he himself cared so dearly – each review became a labor of love, no matter how positive or negative.
Documentarian Steve James captures the last months of Ebert’s life, before health problems sadly became far too painful to combat, but James also catches the illuminating critic in his most vulnerable, yet uplifting moments. Accompanying her ailing man every step of the way is wife Chaz Ebert, someone Roger so affectionately refers to as his angel, because without the support of such a vivacious, strong-willed counterpart, the writer claims his will to fight might have died out years ago. James captures a sweet love story being told during unfortunate circumstances, but despite painful physical therapy, bad news, and impending realities, their bond never breaks – nor does Ebert’s ongoing work. The simple joy of movies forms a grin visible even without the muscular ability, as Ebert’s post-surgery form never once scares him away from owning James’ camera, fueled by passion, undying love, and an embracing of a new voice in the form of blogging. What would have squashed the spirits of lesser men only transitioned Ebert into a new frontier, finding his voice any way possible – a lesson in never letting inner flames flicker out.
Of course, you can’t mention the name Roger Ebert without also calling upon “rival” Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, a polar opposite personality who would eventually become an unlikely partner and dear friend. Bringing cutthroat criticism to mainstream airwaves, these two Chicago pioneers took over every televised market including, Los Angeles and New York City, through emotional rants, biting arguments, and undeniable intellect. A dynamic duo no one could have predicted, the dapper (in comparison) Siskel and schlubby Ebert made a career out of being genuine, studied minds who weren’t just pretty faces in suits, building a brand off individuality. Their aim was true and never corrupted, be it Ebert’s dismissal of close friend Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money or the team’s sincerely combative nature, but once again James captures the raw beauty in their pairing – two men who should have been mortal enemies coming together as a legendary television powerhouse. It’s mentioned that Siskel’s biggest fear was Ebert walking instead of signing another contract, but behind all the competition, the yelling, the fights, was nothing but adoration between two men at the pinnacle of their game.
As a young critic, of course it’s my lifelong goal to reach the status of a Roger Ebert type, but this peeling back of the curtain reveals the blueprints for attaining such accreditations the RIGHT way. Ebert’s path wasn’t paved in gold, there were demons he faced along the way like so many socialite writers, but his openness and admittance of darker qualities made him strong, and might be relatable to a large handful of likeminded souls. Being the life of the party is one thing, but Ebert’s battle with alcohol could have ended tragically had he not corralled an undying thirst for popularity and acceptance. Despite AA sobering the writer, he also found a soulmate in fellow attendee Chaz, thus discovering a new purpose in life to supplement an adoration for cinema. Life Itself doesn’t gloss over Ebert’s more sullied moments, but James always finds a silver lining to report.
While many old-school critics of Ebert’s status have denounced internet film criticism, calling an end to golden years when studs like Siskel could party with Hugh Heffner (still waiting for my invite to the Mansion, Heff), the Chicago icon remained one of the stronger voices claiming a new breed of film criticism. Personally being part of that ever-churning roster of reviews lumped in with about 100 others on RottenTomatoes, MetaCritic, or CriticWire, hope bubbles up when someone like Roger Ebert sees unbounded future potential – but I can’t help being a little discouraged by current trends.
Critics used to be these well-respected figures representing class, demeanor, and proper debate, but after years of hate-filled critics throwing nothing but sarcastic quips and unintelligent insults, the state of criticism once again has this ugly black eye. Publications are firing senior critics, people’s attention spans for in-depth musings continue to decrease, and in a generation of listical-reading robots, a need for razor-sharp analytics is becoming less and less demanded – but we need booming voices like Ebert’s who are still willing to fight the good fight. Don’t get me wrong, they exist, but what happens when Generation-Blog completely takes over, and reviews migrate completely online to sites who aren’t willing to invest in people, only content? People need time to discover voices, hone skills, and create a lasting relationship with audiences, but unfortunately the internet wants instant results. From the bottom of my heart, I hope Ebert is correct in his backing on internet criticism, for my sake and so many other colleagues, as Ebert’s infectious positivity provides a hearty kick-in-the-ass to keep less experienced fingers typing.
Life Itself is not a tragedy, which every hand involved assures, but instead a brilliant celebration of one man’s life, his tremendous outreach, and cinephilia. Roger Ebert critiqued with the best of intentions, sincerely wanting movies to reach their deserving audience no matter what the budget, language, or any other unnecessary detriment. Critics who don’t appreciate the medium they’re writing about are essentially journalistic parasites, smearing an unfavorable streak over the pure, true, commendable works of people who would rather use their soapbox for good. Ebert was so respected at his post, he could get away with negatively reviewing Martin Scorsese on national television, yet have the famed director understand completely and continue singing his praises – that’s the film critic I someday dream to grow into, hoping to possess only half the spirit and fight of the late, great trailblazer.
The only thing more beautiful than our perception of life is Life Itself, something I’ve independently learned by digesting movies as often as possible, but such a romantic enlightenment is better explained by the master himself.
Every young film critic needs to see Life Itself to become a better professional. I know this because I am one of those young critics, and my eyes are now open wider than they've ever been.