Last week right around the time his film Deliver Us from Evil was about to release, filmmaker Scott Derrickson responded to a tweet directed at him stating that “critics are a cancer on art.” Derrickson went on to explain that while not all critics will like his films that there are still a core group of them that he reads on a regular basis and that he trusts. The most memorable of the tweets that followed was one about the connection that he had to the writing of Roger Ebert.
@burnthelamb I wouldn’t have become a director were it not for Roger Ebert’s written reviews. I learned more from him than USC film school.
— Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson) July 3, 2014
I think a lot of people in the film industry have that same sort of relationship to Roger. Growing up watching Mr. Ebert square off against sparring partner Gene Siskel gave me the same kind of rush that I got watching professional wrestling. Here were two people with deep convictions, incredibly different opinions, and neither of them ever backed down.
I came back to film in much the same way Mr. Derrickson did. I started out in tenth grade as a critic for my high school’s newspaper and even got a few syndicated gigs out of my writing over there. When university hit, I decided to learn how to make movies instead of merely writing about ones made by others. Almost immediately I was crestfallen. It wasn’t fun to me. None of the professors that I had made me feel like anything I did was valid, and I agreed with even fewer of them on what I thought constituted a well made film. Unfortunately for me, those were the kinds of professors who if you didn’t agree with every theory they subscribed to they would make your life a living hell. It was toxic. I switched to becoming an English major and studied literature for the remainder of my time there. I don’t regret it for a second.
Then at some point, realizing that just having an English degree is akin to saying you graduated from being a janitor to being a fry cook, I took a job as an online film critic and blogger for little to no pay (which was more than what I was previously making). I could still write, but my skills when it came to analyzing films felt a bit rusty. So I went back online to look for any old episodes of Siskel and Ebert I could find to try and recapture some of that electrifying feeling I had when I was younger, and I came across something that would change my life forever: a clip of the two critics giving advice to young film critics, writers, and journalists.
The five minutes of that one video blew my mind. It was everything that I wanted to believe to be true. No one in school ever told me this method of thinking was even remotely possible. Every word (except for maybe the bit about political correctness, which has probably been replaced by “not pissing off someone in the public relations department”) sent chills up my spine. I didn’t have to follow every film theorist who came before and simply regurgitate everything they said. I could be my own voice and I wouldn’t have to act like I was the only opinion available on the film. I could speak to an audience for any given film without talking above or below them like an erudite asshole. From that point on I plowed through volume after volume of film criticism from voices that I trusted and eventually went back to school to study film once again: refreshed, unstressed, and armed with the knowledge that I never had to compromise who I was as a person just to sound like a phony academic.
That personal connection makes the Steve James directed documentary Life Itself a bit hard to review. Positively or negatively, it’s probably a hard film for most critics to review. People always talk about how big budget blockbusters are “critic proof,” but this might be the film that fits the description better than any documentary ever made. It’s a very good film, but a hard one to not let emotion get in the way of one’s judgement.
The wonderful thing about Roger that shines through in the film was how he was a populist and a humanist at heart; a man who never subscribed to a single ideology of what film should be or should stand for. At the opening film a quote is read from Roger (by voice actor Stephen Stanton, doing a spot on impression of the late critic) about how cinema should be “a machine to help generate empathy.” Fuelled by a prolific ability to create high quality pieces and a persistent need to publish, Roger Ebert became arguably the most high profile cultural critic who ever lived.
Although James (director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) had set out to make the film with his subject’s full participation, Ebert’s health was declining rapidly. Many of the film’s most bracing and hard to take sequences are watching a chronically hospitalized Roger struggling to deal with his fragile health during what would turn out to be his final days. As such, the film takes most of its historical looks back in the form of talking head interviews with those who knew him best or from Roger’s own words out of the memoir James was basing the film from.
That can be a bit problematic at times for those who already read Life Itself. There’s not a lot new here, and in the year following Ebert’s tragic passing at the hands of rotten genetic luck there have been countless pieces written about his contributions to cinema theory and popular culture. It’s doing a wonderful job of telling Roger’s story, but maybe it was overhyped for me in some way. So many critics I know who followed Roger’s writing told me they cried during the film. I wasn’t even really teary eyed, but that might be because the ratio of things I knew to things I didn’t already know was smaller. It could also be because I already wrote at great length about Roger and what he meant to me personally, so nothing ever really comes across as too much of a shock here.
But that’s also kind of the beauty of Life Itself. James hasn’t created a hagiography or a memorial to Ebert. He made what Roger loved most of all: a movie. It’s a film about a man that follows his ups and downs in a uniquely human way and with a perspective that people could learn a lot from and see themselves within. It’s the story of a generous man who didn’t always have it easy that became a celebrity around the world despite never remotely looking like someone who should ever be put in front of a camera. It is the machine that generates empathy.
James doesn’t shy away from Roger’s early, more egotistical years, his alcoholism, the belief that Gene and Roger’s show contributed to the decline of serious criticism with its good/bad rating system, or his sometimes acrimonious relationship to his TV co-host. No one, especially Roger or his loving wife Chaz, is sugar coating things here. Roger was a difficult man at times, and it shows right to the end of his life.
He was also someone that people in the industry are deeply indebted to and who some people openly feared. Filmmakers big and small (including Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, who also acts as an executive producer here) talk about how much Roger’s influence and generosity meant to their careers. He also wrote some of the bravest and most scathing pans of films ever written. Ebert, who was never one to bite his own tongue despite his status as a recognizable figure, even bad mouths the comedy Three Amigos on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with star Chevy Chase sitting right next to him. If that doesn’t show courage or conviction as a film critic, I really don’t know what else does.
Instead of mourning Roger’s loss, the people interviewed talk about Roger simply as he was. It’s very anecdotal, but arranged in such a way that it never feels like eavesdropping on a reception following a funeral. Everyone speaks intimately of what they thought of Roger, including the man himself often admitting his own flaws and speaking about his best successes. Former producers, editors, friends, writers, and especially Chaz, who literally seems to have saved Roger’s life from an empty emotional abyss, all band together to tell his story instead of wistfully reminiscing. A good deal of that might be because some of the interviews were probably filmed before Ebert passed away, but that gives the material a lot more thrust and validity.
By the time it ends, Life Itself showcases two things that set Roger apart: unwavering honesty and constant optimism. Whether you agree with Roger’s writing over the years or not is irrelevant to the enjoyment of this film. James does an exemplary job of separating Roger’s legend from the reality that he was just as flawed and insecure as the rest of us could be. That’s what’s most important about the experience of watching Roger’s life unfold. It shows that this potentially larger than life figure had deep amounts of learned empathy and a love for life that made him a voice that resonated with so many. You might already know most of the story, but Life Itself gives viewers and the relatively uninitiated a reason to care all over again. It has the power to inspire, and maybe like Scott Derrickson and me, it could lead to a balanced and unforced cinematic education for people who want to get into the industry. That’s probably the most beneficial thing about something like Life Itself, but the stuff in between the margins is pretty great, too.