What qualifies anyone to be a critic? What makes critic any different from the average Joe bitching to his wife about another failure of ex-governor of California on the box-office? Roger Ebert gave the answer to that question long time ago. He said that film-critic has his respected audience which appreciates his writing. Average Joe not so much. “Life Itself” is a documentary about life and work of Roger Ebert, first film-critic ever to receive a star on Hollywood’s walk of fame and possibly one of the last great critics before the birth of the internet criticism.
Steve James directed the story in cooperation with Roger and Chaz Ebert. Mr. Ebert knew that the end of his life is near, and he wanted to go with a bang. “Life Itself” is dedicated to his memory and it is very inspiring to every fan of the moving pictures. Important difference between Siskel & Ebert and a lot of critics out there today is that they genuinely loved movies, they went to the theatre expecting to be delighted, left in wonder, just like children do. Movie critic, Ebert said in one earlier documentary, is the greatest job in the world but sometimes (more often than not) you have to watch bad films. Then it seems like the hardest job that ever was. Ebert & Siskel redefined the movie criticism and through their fascination with the media they gave the chance to the authors that were as far from mainstream as they could be. Siskel & Ebert, although the elite critics, couldn’t care less. The argument here is that Ebert recognized passion in those unappreciated authors, passion that was almost equal to his own.
“Life Itself” is focused more on Roger Ebert personally. His work is not important as his life, relationships and in the last stage his fight with cancer. Ebert continued to write to the end. When his speech was gone, he was still speaking through his writing. Some would say that in that stage he wrote some of his best work. Web, Ebert says, has become his way out. His voice. All that energy that he put in TV shows was now channeled into his blog and his web page. I noticed some similarities between Stephen Hawking and Roger Ebert in the last phase of his life. Although heavily disabled and without possibility to speak, Ebert continued to do what he did best. He watched films and he wrote about it. Ebert was also the first ever movie-critic to receive Pulitzer for his work. With Ebert, together with Siskel, Sarris and Kael, movie criticism became an important branch of journalism.
Some critics argue that “Life Itself” is playing on the empathy card. Pathetic of the heavily disabled Ebert is something that is, for them, hard to handle. This is documentary and I’m not sure would it be any good for anyone if that part of Ebert was hidden under the rug. You can object to the fact that Steve James played the emotional card too much but he obviously did so because of an appreciation and admiration. He admired Ebert’s will to fight, to write and to love all that movies represented. Ebert without that emotion, in that physically wrecked state, wouldn’t be true to himself. Documentary, for sure, wouldn’t be true to its title.
When Ebert’s work is on the screen it is approached with reverence. From his critic of “Bonnie & Clyde” to his alcoholism, screenplay attempt with Russ Meyer (“Beyond the Valley of the dolls”) and his seminal TV criticism with Siskel (“At the movies”), guest appearances at Johnny Carson and Letterman… We get the picture of Ebert as arrogant, self-righteous prick with big heart and sometimes childish imagination. His rivalry with Siskel ended with profound friendship. Chaz Ebert, his wife, saw through façade of arrogance into that playful, childish side of his character that just wanted to be delighted.
Critics he wrote are relative, just as every critic by its nature is. But sometimes we need them in this hectic world we live in. You can’t write about movies only because of money or prestige and still have the heart and sincerity in your criticism. You have to love movies, even when you say “I hated this movie” or “This movie sucked” you still need that passion.
Because of that I won’t rate this documentary in a usual way. With due respect I will give it … TWO THUMBS UP.