I had known Roger Ebert for a couple of years when I formed my first lasting impression of him. After a movie we’d just watched for the first time, we walked to the exit and I asked what he thought.
His answer was clear and thoughtful, as I’d expect from many of my critical colleagues. The remarkable thing was how articulate it was, coming in perfectly formed sentences making a perfectly shaped case for his nuanced opinion about a movie that ended about 10 seconds ago. If there is such a thing as a natural-born critic, I said to myself, he is walking up the aisle with me now.
Roger’s eloquence took multiple forms in the course of his long career. Starting in 1967 he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, and in 1975 he became the first movie reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. In that year he began talking for a living, as well, joining Chicago Tribune scribe Gene Siskel to launch the TV show that became Sneak Previews and made “Two thumbs up!” an inescapable (and sadly simplistic) meme. By the late 1970s the show was airing on almost 200 stations, and by the early 2000s Roger’s columns were being syndicated to more than 200 outlets in America and elsewhere. The onset of thyroid and salivary cancer understandably slowed him down, but not a whole helluva lot: He kept on writing, tweeting, blogging—his numerous books include a cookbook, penned when he could no longer eat—and talking, thanks to a Stephen Hawking-style voice synthesizer. The guy was unstoppable.
He was also amazingly open about his illness, the horrendous treatments and surgeries he underwent, and the radical disfigurement he suffered when his lower jaw was removed. His candor pays rich dividends in Steve James’s new documentary Life Itself, based on Ebert’s eponymous 2012 memoir. Like the book, the movie shuttles between present and past, giving vérité views of Roger’s struggle with cancer and collage-like accounts of his life, his career, and the enormous influence he wielded for almost half a century. It also presents a stimulating opportunity for reflection on the state of film criticism, in an age of Twitter reviews and leaner-than-ever print media pickings.
James hadn’t read Life Itself when a producer suggested making a documentary out of it. Reading it and liking it, he contacted Ebert to discuss the idea. One might have thought the celebrated critic and the award-winning filmmaker knew each other well, especially since Ebert was an early and enthusiastic supporter of James’s acclaimed Hoop Dreams in 1994. But their respective positions in the movie world tended to separate rather than join them, and they’d met only a few times since the Hoop Dreams days. “I feel there’s a firewall between critics and filmmakers,” James told me recently. “I’d e-mail Roger when I had a new film coming out, and I was always careful to keep it short and direct, and I never expected to hear back from him, and I didn’t. It wasn’t until I read the memoir that I came to understand there were a handful of filmmakers he’d gotten to know quite well and had real friendships with.”
Firewalls aside, Ebert liked the prospect of sharing his experiences in a feature documentary, and James saw fascinating possibilities in a film about a film critic—and about this film critic, whose fabulous career was moving to a close under shadows that he made it his business to dispel, or (literally) die trying. As always with documentaries, though, events took over from plans and expectations. When shooting started in December 2012, no one—certainly not Roger or Chaz, his indefatigable wife—knew he was entering his final weeks. James wanted to chronicle Ebert’s current life as an example of “courage and will and determination” in the face of overwhelming hardships. “But we ended up showing that with even higher stakes,” he says now, “because he’s actually in the last four months of his life, and he still possesses all those qualities.
“Usually when people are famous the candor is much more controlled, more choreographed… his sharing with the public never felt self-indulgent to me, it never felt egotistical. I always felt he was doing it for the right reasons. He wasn’t just saying, ‘Look at me and how brave I am.’ It was because of what [his openness] might say to other people who were going through similar things.”
These things said, Ebert’s willingness to expose the worst details of his condition—the suctioning procedure, for instance, that drained his throat several times a day—posed unique challenges for James, who had to consider how much audiences would be able take. In public, Roger had sported a black turtleneck that covered the lower part of his face. Seeing him without the sweater, as he’d usually appear in the film, James was jolted. “There was no ‘there’ there, past his jaw,” he recalls. “It was open, you could see his neck through it. There was more disfigurement than I’d thought. And things like the suctioning were more graphic than I’d anticipated.” Chaz didn’t want the suctioning filmed—“She was more protective of Roger than he was of himself”—but Roger was fine with it, so she acquiesced. “I was relieved,” James says, “that he wasn’t looking to be the Roger who went out in public. He was looking for a higher degree of candor and honesty in capturing his life. I felt that spoke more than well of him, and for a documentary filmmaker, having a subject who feels this way is a tremendous gift.”
The most obvious danger confronting a film like Life Itself is, of course, the old hagiography trap. James’ admiration and affection perceptibly colors the movie, although its partisanship is balanced by unflattering moments along the way. As much as he loved the ephemeral pleasures of the screen, Roger equally loved the pleasures of the flesh, weighing a hefty 300 pounds (despite the daily walks he took before illness struck) and eventually joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he and Chaz met. (Roger’s drinking was well known in its day, but Chaz reveals her alcoholism for the first time here.) You see him groaning under the strain of physical therapy, and you witness an altercation between him and the endlessly patient Chaz as he cringes at the bottom of a short stairway he’s expected to climb at home. You even hear about him stealing a taxi from Siskel’s wife—when she was eight months pregnant!—although this was Roger in the pre-Chaz period, before marriage and domesticity settled him a bit. Neither of the Eberts had any editorial control over the film; this rested entirely with James, apart from a few standard issues (length, language, and the like) involving CNN, who stepped in after other potential funders—to James’ considerable surprise—expressed little enthusiasm for the project.
The film’s intimate portraiture overshadows but doesn’t obscure its other main concern: film criticism, the driving engine of Ebert’s life. As chair of the National Society of Film Critics for the past decade, I’ve watched the ranks of regularly employed reviewers diminish in quantity—via firings, layoffs, buyouts, and retirements—and in quality, with practiced (and decently paid) veterans being replaced by less experienced, less expensive newcomers, or not replaced at all. Roger was a faithful NSFC member, and as some posthumous tributes to him have noted, a pivotal transition figure in the recent history of the field. He started as a traditional newspaper writer, pioneered a new kind of broadcast reviewing, and finally eased seamlessly into the Internet—which he helped legitimize by virtue of his expertise, eloquence, and bone-deep conviction that critics aren’t so much pundits as guides and friends to filmmakers and moviegoers alike. Although he could trash a picture with the best of them—see his books I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (2000) and Your Movie Sucks (2007) for proof—it was all for the good of cinema as he saw it.
James embarked on Life Itself because he greatly enjoyed the memoir and the time-traveling biography it spins out. He also, however, has a pragmatic interest in the ups and downs of critical commentary on movies in general and, reasonably enough, his own movies in particular. I ask him for his take on how the profession affects his profession, and he acknowledges the truism that critics have little effect on major Hollywood releases beyond perhaps getting more tickets sold.
“Critics still have a crucially important role to play with documentaries and smaller, independent films in terms of bringing films of note to the attention of audiences. People hear about a film like The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, 2012) or—closer to home for me—The Interrupters [his own 2011 documentary], and they say, ‘I hear it’s good and important, but do I really want to go out and see a film about abuse in the military or urban violence? No. I’ll catch it on Netflix or on DVD or some other way.’ But they take notice of it, and that matters. The Interrupters didn’t do any great business at the box office, but it had a [subsequent] life that never would have happened had critics not rallied around it. So they have an incredible role to play; it just doesn’t show up in box-office numbers the way it might have at one time.”
And when his own pictures meet with skeptical responses, or worse? “I look at my films and think they’re incredibly flawed,” James says, “so I don’t come out of a film thinking I’ve made an amazing thing and everyone should love it. When a critic is negative it’s important to see what they talk about.” And some favorable reviews don’t really get the film at all. “When a critic sees Hoop Dreams and thinks it’s all about the triumph of the human spirit, I think, it is about that, but there’s a whole lot more to it. At least I hope there is.”
“Critics have an incredible role to play; it just doesn’t show up in box-office numbers the way it might have at one time.”
James isn’t above checking Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes to get a quick read on what reviewers are thinking, although he doesn’t like to read much about a movie before seeing it (me neither). He also shares the sardonic fondness that all thinking moviegoers have for reviewers whose opinions are skewed to the point of insanity by arrogance. One such is a critique of Reel Paradise, his 2005 documentary about the adventures of two American cinephiles (producers rep John Pierson and Janet, his wife) running a movie theater in tropical Fiji for a year. I may be prejudiced because I know the people involved, but the film is nothing if not amiable, easygoing, and fun. Which didn’t prevent a website reviewer from declaring that he “wanted to rip the DVD out of his player and throw it down the street,” James recalls with a laugh.
Another case in point involves Stevie, about Stephen Dale Fielding, a deeply troubled young man James knew who was facing serious penitentiary time for sexually abusing a child. It has been a controversial film since its release in 2002, in part because of James’s compassion for Fielding, compounded though it is with frustration and regret. “I tripped across a site where a group called Media Educators of America posted comments from their membership,” James says, “and there were some positive ones [but] there was also one that said, ‘Steve James should be in prison right alongside Stephen Fielding.’ I thought, wow! You have to be thick-skinned to some degree.”
You also need a sense of proportion. “When I look back at my films,” he says, “the ones where opinion was divided are appealing to me. That means [the film] really engaged people…They really remembered it.” And he remembers the reviews. “You read the positive ones and they somehow go out of your brain,” he says, laughing. “You can quote the negative ones years later.”
The transition from newsprint to cyberspace may never become definitive— paper isn’t going to disappear—and for now it’s a zone of contention. In a Huffington Post blog in 2008, I wrote that “critics who earned their cred in newspapers and magazines are far from unanimous about the virtues of Internet criticism, which many see as a domain of egotistical hacks whose main motivation is to get quoted in an ad someday. Returning the cynicism in kind, some Internet critics see their print counterparts as outdated elitists too intoxicated with their paychecks to realize they’re a dying breed.” Things haven’t changed much, but even then I acknowledged that Internet reviewing has interestingly fuzzed the boundaries between experts and amateurs, remembering that the latter term comes from the Latin for “love” and “lover,” just as “cinephile” comes from Greek.
Roger was an imposing presence on the Internet (his website, rogerebert.com, is still alive and well) but by the same token, his departure may strengthen the democratization that characterizes reviewing today. Whether this is good or bad depends on your view of the authority wielded by powerful critics. I can’t sum up the issue better than James does: “Roger was an incredibly powerful critic who used his power incredibly thoughtfully. He trashed many a film, but he really went out of his way to raise up films that otherwise might very well have disappeared. He was a terrific writer with a tremendous populist touch who wrote from the heart, whether he was trashing or praising. There is a downside to critics with great power, but there is value in having singular voices who can make a difference. One wonders whether that will ever be possible again.”
I have to add that even the most potent movie pundits have less sway than they might like to think, and Roger was cheerfully aware of the limitations on his clout. Appearing in another film about critics, Gerald Peary’s delightful For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009), he tells a story about a reader who called in 1972 to ask about Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers. “The reader said, ‘What can you tell me about it?’ I said, ‘I think it’s the year’s best film.’ And the reader said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like anything we’d like to see.’ Now how can you account for that? That’s human nature!” Roger laughs with pleasure at the recollection, knowing as well as anyone that when it comes to taste in movies, we’re all just lighting candles in the dark. MM
Life Itself opened in theaters on July 4, 2014. It is released on Blu-ray and DVD February 17, 2015 courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment. Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2014 issue.