Shortly after the beginning of director Steve James’ Life Itself, a text insert appears over an image of a packed out theatre. It is a quote from the film’s subject, veteran critic Roger Ebert: “I was born inside the movie of my life…I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me”.
Entertainment is most commonly associated with activities that provide pleasure or happiness, but the true meaning of the word has never been that specific. In the days when crucifixions were events that families attended on a Sunday afternoon, did people not go to be entertained? Shock and pain can be part of it. Part, too, of life itself — or Life Itself as the case may be.
Ebert, the first film critic to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was hit with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. Unable to talk or eat, he spent his final years without a lower jaw, his mouth drooping towards the floor in a permanent freaky smile.
A shot of Ebert consuming nutrients via a straw stuck into his “G tube,” accompanied by an intense gurgling noise, is confronting footage, but James’ documentary is neither horrific nor idolatry.
The director met Ebert (who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times for over four and a half decades and was a well known TV personality) and his widow Chaz five months before his death. Ebert complained of a sore hip and the very next day he was in hospital. James captures his final months, inserting present day footage into a conventional cradle-to-the-grave account of his life modeled from his memoir (also called Life Itself).
There are lots of talking heads and plenty of archival footage of a man who spent much of his life in the public eye. Reflections from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog provide extra gravitas; Herzog, with that dulcet German voice and generous turn of phrase, describes the late writer as “A soldier of cinema; a wounded comrade.”
James’ film is more under-stated. He balances accounts of Ebert’s skill, passion and heart with warts-and-all glimpses of ego and hubris. “He was a nice guy but he wasn’t that nice,” says one interviewee. “He was full of himself,” says another. These moments offset a broad feeling of a life celebrated rather than sentimentalised.
The most enjoyable bits are outtake footage of Ebert and his At the Movies TV co-host Gene Siskel bickering and arging and accompanying anecdotes about their off-camera tiffs. They were two clashing personalities engaged in what, at least to them, was awfully important gladiatorial film critic combat. The pleasures in watching them verbally spar are immense.
There is nothing extraordinary in the way Life Itself is structured and edited. Through coincidence James narrowly missed documenting Ebert’s existence pre and post removal of his jaw, which would have given the film fascinating contrasts, though that’s hardly a criticism. The story of the man at the heart of it –a big, lovable, determined character — cannot help but inspire.