Life Itself

Directed By: Steve James

Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Ava DuVernay

Nearly three years ago, Sobriety Test Movie Reviews (STMR) was born.  This time in 2011, I was planning content, finalizing designs, and figuring out what this site could really be.  I was doing it all because of my endless love for film.  After all, it takes a special kind of person to watch and write about multiple movies on a weekly basis.  Still, that's not to say that my love for cinema outweighs that of the multitude of other critics, bloggers, and self-designated movie buffs.  This love is just what drove me to launch STMR, and it's what drives me still today.  One conclusion at which I have arrived over these three years is that all the movie bloggers on the public square of the Internet today stand on the shoulders of critics past who changed the way we look at movies.  There may be no critic more influential than the late Roger Ebert.  This weekend, we celebrate this pillar of fine film criticism and what he meant to the world of cinema with his documentary Life Itself.

The documentary chronicles the life and times of Ebert — his upbringing and start in journalism, his success in print as a critic, his contentious yet defining relationship with Gene Siskel, and his time later in life with his soul mate Chaz Ebert.  While the film focuses on the career of the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and his many contributions to the world of cinema, it also covers his years-long battle with cancer that took his voice, his ability to eat and drink, and eventually his life.  It chronicles how doing what he loved — watching and writing about movies — gave him the perfect distraction in the darkest moments of his life.  Life Itself is the machine that generates empathy about the quintessential film critic, a “soldier of cinema” as Werner Herzog refers to him.

As most of you know, I don't typically write about documentaries.  It's not for the lack of interest but for the lack of time.  I have a day job and a life beyond the big screen as well.  Regardless, I had to make an exception for Life Itself because it is about such an important figure in film criticism.  It's about the man many of us bloggers emulate on a daily or weekly basis at the movies.  More importantly, it's about the people who defined who he was.  Perhaps with the exception of his wife Chaz and his parents, there may be no one more influential in Ebert's life than his feisty brother in cinema Gene Siskel.  With this in mind, I come to the movie with a rather energetic curiosity and nostalgia.

There are few things more entertaining to me than watching Siskel and Ebert banter back and forth about the latest and greatest flick in At the Movies (or the many other titles their show was called over the years).  Watching and learning about their often contentious relationship undoubtedly piques my interest (and I'm sure that of many others as well).  These gladiators of criticism were the first to take discussion of movies to the public square.  Life Itself both recognizes this milestone and honors it.  Immersion into their world is an incredible experience as we watch archival footage of the two bickering on and off screen.

Steve James's documentary gives us a holistic depiction of Ebert, not just the iconic cinephile who argued endlessly with Siskel about whether a movie has any merit.  It gives us the husband who has a deep love for his wife and family.  It gives us the generous, affectionate soul who influenced the lives of so many others in the film industry.  It gives us the warrior who spat in the face of cancer for nearly a decade and marched onward with his life.  At the same time, the documentary touches upon some of the darker facets of Ebert's character.  It addresses his arrogance and petulance in his early combative years with Gene Siskel.  It addresses his alcoholism and his struggle to achieve sobriety.  It addresses his slow and painful confrontation with the grim reaper and the toll it took on him physically and emotionally.

Life Itself gets a sober rating.  It's the consummate film about this towering figure and a fond farewell to a life well lived.  Roger Ebert himself is inextricably linked to cinematic history and is emblematic of film criticism at its finest.  Like his writing and all the good deeds he did during his time in this world, this documentary will endure.  Life Itself will live on for generations to come.