PARK CITY, UTAH: Roger Ebert was the first one to tell us that film criticism does not exist in a vacuum — that critics carry their personal experiences into the theater with them, and that not only should they not ignore those experiences, but they should use them. Yet for that reason, readers may be hard-pressed to find reviews of Life Itself, the new bio-documentary portrait of Mr. Ebert that premiered at Sundance this weekend, that are solely about the film. For many of us, Roger Ebert is the reason we write about films, his television work and books and online reviews inspiring us to be the kind of people who, well, would like to trudge through Utah for a week in January to see movies and write about them. No film in the festival is as critic-friendly; watching it, I finally understood how football players must feel about Brian’s Song.
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) uses Ebert’s wonderful 2011 memoir as his starting point, adopting not only its title but its organization, which emphasizes theme over chronology. Via archival footage, interviews with friends, old photos, and text from the book, James explores Ebert the journalist, Ebert the alcoholic, his romance with wife Chaz, his friendships with the filmmakers he championed, and most entertainingly, his relationship with co-host and crosstown rival Gene Siskel. There’s a lot to cover here, but nothing is done too lightly; James and editor David E. Simpson deftly cut sound bites and review excerpts to make them into conversations and dialectics (the discussion of the “Siskel and Ebert effect” and the mainstreaming of film criticism, for example, remains quite relevant).
And their handling of the Siskel material is masterful. It’s not just that they get the easy laughs of using those hilarious promo outtakes that have been making the YouTube rounds for years; through conversations with those close to both men, the film perceptively gets to the root of their competitiveness, of their resentments, and how they escalated. Yet James and Simpson still understand how the duo had a reluctant admiration, respect, and (ultimately) love for each other.
That final point becomes clearest in the passages dealing with Siskel’s terminal illness — which he chose to keep secret from all but those closest to him, a circle that (to his eventual disappointment) did not include Ebert. That experience, we’re told, greatly influenced Ebert’s decision to fight his illness in such a public way. And that decision, in turn, influenced how he lived those last few years of his life, and even how he participated in this film.
“When we started,” James explained at yesterday’s Sundance screening, “I thought that what I was gonna be capturing in the present was just how vital and active he still is, despite all he’s been through. Right before we were gonna start filming, he was still going to screenings, he was throwing dinner parties — we had all this planned.” But then, just a couple of days before they were to begin, Ebert went into the hospital due to pain from an unexplained hairline fracture. “In the entire four months that we filmed him, in those last four months of his life, he was only out of a hospital or rehab situation for two days. So the film became different in that way. It’s still, in my view, about how vital he is. But it’s also about a man dying. And a man making peace with that.”
Ebert was not one for modesty or vanity; James’ camera captures the difficulties of his day-to-day existence, from simply getting around to non-verbal communication to the insertion of his suction tube. But Life Itself is not just some grim account of a dying man’s final days. His interactions with his loving wife and step-grandchildren are heartwarming. The tributes from artists like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog (“He reinforces my courage”) are genuine. And even off-screen, the love for his work and power of his influence can be felt throughout Park City, as the countless film lovers and film writers he inspired are seeing Life Itself, and finding themselves moved by it. According to James, Chaz’s only real regret about the project is a simple one: “That Roger’s not here to see it, and be a part of this.”
Life Itself screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.