In one of the flurry of eleventh-hour e-mails that Steve James sent to the subject of his documentary - Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert - the director asked what the title of his memoir, Life Itself, meant.
James never got an answer.
Life Itself, the touching, inspiring film based on Ebert's 2011 book, begins and ends with the famous thumb-slinging cinephile propped up in a bed, communicating via computer. He had been battling cancer for 11 years, had lost his jaw and chin, was being fed through tubes, was in visible pain, but managed to blog, e-mail, tweet, and text until the very end. The kid from Urbana, Ill., who in the 1950s delivered his own self-published newspaper to neighbors and later won a Pulitzer Prize (the first for a movie critic), was an early adopter, to say the least.
James, a fellow Chicagoan whose Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert, offers a powerfully affectionate portrait of a man who lived, breathed, and dreamed movies. Ebert wrote with clarity and concision, conveying what moved him about a film (or didn't), be it Hollywood spectacle or Bergman or Bresson. He never wrote down to readers, and during his nearly 25-year on-air relationship with his Windy City sparring partner, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, Ebert never talked down to his TV audience, either.
He did, however, condescend to Siskel. The Siskel & Ebert at the Movies outtakes in Life Itself are rife with sniping and swiping, from both parties. They were like boys in the schoolyard, hurling insults instead of punches. Yet, despite an aggressive professional rivalry, in the end they were friends. The anecdotes from Siskel's widow, Marlene (Siskel died in 1999, of a brain tumor), are some of the most telling in the documentary.
Thanks to the duo's variously titled TV shows, which began on PBS and then became syndicated through Disney, Siskel and Ebert's influence was immense. Ebert's reviews in the Sun-Times were syndicated, too, and he produced a shelf of books and hosted (and later curated) festivals. But it was his TV presence, and his guest stints on Johnny Carson and David Letterman's talk shows, that had the most impact. In the days before aggregators, bloggers, and fan sites, a thumbs-up from Ebert meant everything.
The proverbial third act in Ebert's life, and in Life Itself, centers on his relationship with Charlie "Chaz" Hammelsmith, an African American trial lawyer he met through Alcoholics Anonymous. (Ebert, who hit the bars frequented by Sun-Times staffers as soon as he finished for the night, was a recovering alcoholic.) They married in 1992, when Ebert was 50. He embraced her grandchildren as if they were his own; step-granddaughter Raven Evans' reflections on him are particularly poignant. The family's summer trips abroad became as much a ritual in his life as his annual pitstops in Cannes and Boulder, Colo. (for the Conference on World Affairs, where Ebert, a long-standing fixture, talked films, politics, social media).
If Ebert's personal connection with filmmakers - he was friends with directors, writers, and stars - raises ethical issues, they are quickly put to rest with a clip James uses of Ebert thoroughly trashing Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. Scorsese, a dear friend (and an executive producer of Life Itself), speaks of how deeply that review hurt, but also how instructive it was. Other directors - Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani - express their deep regard for the man who shared their passion.
Two days before his death in spring 2013, Ebert sent a final blog post to his (yes) hundreds of thousands of followers. It was headed "A Leave of Presence," and he ended it this way:
"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."
And see him at this movie. Life Itself is quite a story.
Life Itself ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Steve James. With Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Marlene Iglitzen, Ramin Bahrani. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.
Parent’s guide: R (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.