Without Roger Ebert, I never would have dreamed of writing about movies. Just as he was for countless others, Roger Ebert was my gateway into both cinema and the value of criticism. When I was only first getting into film, somewhere between the ages of 12-17, I would read Ebert religiously. His opinion always meant a great deal to me, and as a young cinephile, reading his review of every movie I saw was a ritual that always left me in anxious excitement.
When I was discovering Kubrick in my late teens, I distinctly remember reading every one of his Kubrick reviews one afternoon on a metro to Washington, D.C. A Clockwork Orange was my favorite film at the time, and I was devastated but intrigued to read his stern, 2-star review of the movie, calling it an “ideological mess” that “celebrates the nastiness of its hero”. Whether I agreed with his opinion or not, his writing always brought a consistently engaging blend of naive honesty and intelligent commentary that remains unparalleled to this day. It was thrilling to see my opinion validated in Ebert’s simple yet eloquent prose, but it was just as riveting to read him tear the films I loved to shreds, as in the case of A Clockwork Orange. He lived and breathed film till the day he died, and never for a moment succumbed to the fatigue or pretension that overcomes so many other critics.
Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2018 Amazon film of the same name), tells Roger’s life story both through his own words and those of the people who loved him. Shot and compiled in the last year of his life, the film is narrated directly from his autobiography of the same name, and includes interviews with friends, family, filmmakers, and critics alike. It’s a remarkably beautiful tribute to one of cinema’s most endearing figures, a man whose shrewd ability to articulate the elusiveness of film captured the hearts of over forty years of moviegoers.
Life Itself begins by giving us an intimate and honest view of the critic’s final months, at a time when he completely lacks the ability to speak and is barely able to walk. Despite his health challenges and physical pain, Ebert is shown to be optimistic and in good spirits, still writing excellent film reviews and entries for his blog. We then take a step back and look at the beginning of his life in a somewhat linear fashion, showing the various stages of his career and contextualizing them within the greater world of film criticism. Much of the film centers around his complex working relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, who entered Ebert’s peripheries as a rival and later ran the iconic ‘At The Movies’ TV show with him. We also see the profound effect that Ebert’s wife Chaz had on his life, who continues to champion and further his legacy to this day.
Just as Charlie Chaplin is fundamentally synonymous with cinema, Roger Ebert is synonymous with film criticism. At only two hours, Life Itself can’t possibly capture the profound impact that Ebert had on entire generations of moviegoers like myself; nevertheless, it does a wonderful job in honoring that deep love of cinema that Ebert inspired in millions. It’s always sad to see a pillar of inspiration pass away, but Life Itself, much like its larger-than-life subject, views existence with the simple care and optimism of his signature phrase, “I’ll see you at the movies”.