By John Esther
**"Life Itself" opened in limited release last weekend (July 4th) and is currently playing at Landmark Century Theater here in Chicago — FIND SHOWTIMES.**
As someone who spoke to Roget Ebert at the Sundance Film Festivals, it was a bittersweet experience to see the late film critic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, not at the Eccles Center or on a Park City bus, or on Main Street, but rather through the medium of film.
Making its world premiere at Sundance's MARC Theater to a sold out crowd, the latest film by noted documentarian Steve James (The Interrupters; Stevie; and Hoop Dreams), Life Itself chronicles a man who became the world’s most famous film critic.
Born and raised in Illinois, Roger grew up, studied and spent nearly all his early life in Urbana until he was accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. At the same time, Roger was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times. It was clear from the beginning, Roger was a natural writer. Due to his work load, however, Roger never earned his PhD, which was probably a good thing for his television career later as most Americans do not care to consume film criticism offered by people with PhDs.
Although a prolific writer on various subjects, including life in Illinois (Illini History: One Hundred Years of Campus Life), this “Chicago character” began his film critic career in 1967 writing for the Sun-Times. The fact that Roger would continue to write for the Sun-Times, the same publication until the year of his death, some 46 years later, is astonishing when you consider the advent of social media, the demise of legitimate film criticism in the United States, and the treatment of popular film reviewers by corporate media.
Of course, what made Roger famous was his film reviewing on television. During the mid-1970s Ebert co-hosted a weekly film review show, Sneak Previews, produced by Chicago’s public network, WTTV. When Gene Siskel, a film critic and journalist for the Chicago Tribune, joined three years later the show was picked up by major television and broadcasted weekly on ABC.
What was initially intended to be a show about film reviewing, Siskel & Ebert & and the Movies, soon started taking its focus off of the movies and onto its odd couple film critics. Gene was a philosophical, east coast trained, conservative reviewer, who just happened to be thin and balding while Roger was a neo-liberal populist who happened to have lots of hair and few extra pounds. How they would react to each other mattered to audiences more frequently than the movies they discussed. Thanks to the show, the books, the reviews, etc., by the late 1990s Roger’s popularity grew to the point where he was the third most recognizable Chicagoan — behind Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. Considering our anti-intellectual, fitness-obsessed, youth-centric culture, Roger’s popularity is quite an American anomaly for an overweight, bespectacled, gray-haired guy who reads and writes for a living.
While Life Itself offers an amusing recount of Roger’s formidable years, career and relationship with Gene, its real value comes in Steve’s documentation of his last year on earth. Originally diagnosed with cancer in 2002, for the next decade Roger would go through various surgeries, remissions and cancers. Eventually his face would be drastically altered, eventually leaving a hole in it. Rather than hide or manufacture an untrue image, Roger, and company, invites us to watch his pain, his decay and his courage in the face of death. Whatever you think of his film criticism over the years (or his liberal politics in general), it is hard not to have respect for and sympathize with this man who was generous with his time and talent.
Steve, a fellow Chicagoan, obviously admires and respects his subject, but that does not prevent him from offering criticism on Roger’s life and career. Unlike the protagonists in so many of those Hollywood movies that were the subject of his reviews, Roger was all-too human. Roger was an alcoholic; he could be arrogant; he could publish reviews that would contradict his liberal beliefs. Of course, knowing how much Roger cherished honesty found in the best of documentaries, this kind of criticism from the filmmakers on their subject would have only made Roger happy.
Filled with pathos, nostalgia, reference and joy, whether you knew Roger from near or afar, as a documentary, Life Itself offers an exceptional film-going experience.
For those who sat with Roger at Sundance, Life Itself reminds us that no longer would there be quick chats with the gregarious film critic before a sold-out screening at Sundance, or watching Roger get bombarded by elderly viewers (in terms of Sundance Film Festival goers) for Sundance Film Festival recommendations, nor would there be another incident of a film critic being photographed by strangers as he walked down Main Street, Park City, UT.
Now, Roger’s life is relegated to our memories, his work and at the movies.