I finished Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself last spring. There was only one thing I knew about Ebert prior to reading his book: he was known as one of the best film critics. The memoir was filled with early and late memories, a life so full and exciting, even though I didn’t know the man at all. However, after finishing I felt I like I truly knew Ebert and after seeing Steve James’s documentary that mimics the memoir, I feel like I know the prominent people in Ebert’s life as well like friend Gene Siskel and wife Chaz.
There are many differences between the memoir and documentary, but this is one of the things that sets the two apart. The talking head interviews that feature Ebert’s past colleagues, friends, and family are intimate and reveal a different side of him. We don’t just have Ebert telling us how he feels; instead it’s almost like a conversation. Snippets from the book are read as voice-over and in the next scene the exact person he was talking about will tell their side of the story. These interviewees also aren’t afraid to tell us what they think, they aren’t afraid to reveal the sides of Ebert that were not so charming.
However, if viewers really want a more personal look into Ebert’s life, reading the memoir is the way to go. A lot of the interior monologue throughout the novel was written while he lay in the hospital bed, unable to eat and drink, so unlike the film where we see the pain on Ebert’s face or imagine what he may be feeling, we read about it in Life Itself (although the gory details aren’t a huge part). But again, this is another thing that sets the film apart from what we may have learned through Ebert’s writing. We get to see the physical aspect of his life with cancer and all his surgeries. It’s hard to believe the man whose writing strength was so present and film criticisms were still on point was the same man unable to speak or communicate like the rest of us. It’s hard to imagine all those ideas were circulating in that mind, but could only be communicated in certain ways.
The Life Itself documentary shows us how much mental and physical strength it takes people like Ebert and his family to carry on. We see what it means to truly support and love someone through the very different relationships between Ebert and Chaz and Ebert and Siskel. Most of all, I truly recognized the lack of entertaining film criticism now that both Ebert and Siskel are gone. The documentary has clips from the Siskel & Ebert show throughout and I wanted to keep watching and hearing the arguments about the different films they had seen because there is such a lack of film discussion on television today. This winter, I have witnessed many broadcasters admit to not seeing any of the “big season films” right before they interview a star or feature a snippet from one of the Oscar nominated films. The entertainment side of the news focuses instead on who wore what at the latest award shows or what the Kardashian’s next season will look like.
If you care about film, you’ll find a way to discuss it, but when Ebert and Siskel were around it seemed the public who watched TV didn’t have a choice. Film was present, it was debated, it was alive and important no matter who you were. Film was made cool and not just the films that had explosions and special effects. It seems so simple: entertainment and education from listening to two people analyze a movie, but why now, has it disappeared? Perhaps the show’s legacy holds too high of a standard, but don’t you think Roger Ebert would want us to carry on? To not let new films pass by without discussion? And hopefully the documentary will do to others what it did to me. It opened my eyes to truths I hadn’t seen but also gave me hope through all those people who were inspired by Ebert that the film industry and critic community is not something depleting but relative and climbing.