I’m Your Man, by David Bax
Anyone familiar with the work of documentarian Steve James will not be surprised to find that his new film, Life Itself, is much more than a puff piece about America’s most famous film critic of all time, the late Roger Ebert. The movie takes its name from Ebert’s autobiography and it takes its central philosophies from the man and his work as well. It’s about the equalizer that is communication in all its various forms. Be it art, the written critique of art or just simple conversations, Ebert believed that the more we yearned to understand one another and remain in contact, the better it made us as people and as a society. Life Itself illustrates that beautifully.
Ebert, an Illinois native, spent his professional life (which started quite young) writing about movies for the Chicago Sun-Times. He remained at that paper despite reported offers from multiple major outlets because he loved Chicago and he loved what the Sun-Times meant to him. For better or worse, the paper has a reputation as the average citizen’s alternative to the Tribune. Ebert was a populist without condescension. The deceptively breezy style of his writing could be sharp as knives, making an impact on the reader without bludgeoning her or him. He was not writing for other critics or preaching to the choir. Whether he was writing common language about high art or high language about common art, he wrote for movie audiences but never failed them by presuming they lacked astuteness or discernment.
All these traits make James the perfect ally in chronicling Ebert’s life on film. James leans into big topics and is not afraid to reveal his ideologies to the viewer. He is a literate and academic filmmaker but his success is in his refusal to ever be dry or esoteric. He has taken on topics as sprawling as life in the inner city for black, American youths (Hoop Dreams), as personal as his friendship with a troubled man who would become a criminal (Stevie) and as seemingly niche as concussions in sports (Head Games). All of these efforts connect because James understands the importance of narrative and the dispensation of information.
In their interactions in Life Itself, it’s clear that Ebert and James get along. As the film details, Ebert maintained many friendships with the auteurs whose work he often praised but sometimes criticized (as he did with his friend Martin Scorsese’s film, The Color of Money). His ability to remain both a friend and an honest analyst speaks to his commitment – and when Werner Herzog describes you as a “soldier of cinema,” you’re doing something right. But it also illustrates one of his core doctrines. Very near the beginning of the film, James uses a clip of Ebert describing movies as machines that generate empathy. That, James implies, is exactly what Ebert expected his friendships to generate as well.
I knew Ebert by his writing. I must admit that I’ve viewed precious little of his television work alongside Gene Siskel. But James spends a very large chunk of the movie on that relationship, not simply to illustrate what a cultural force it became but also because the director’s impulse toward character and story seeks to describe a passionate and bitter friendship for the ages. The two critics’ distaste for one another was the seething undercurrent of their program for many years. Yet by the time Siskel died, Ebert was ready to insist that he had never felt closer to another man. Empathy and more had been achieved.
Siskel died of brain cancer almost fifteen years before cancer of the throat took Ebert. Both would seem ignoble deaths for men held in such esteem. But James and Ebert are intent on sticking to the film’s title without exception, recognizing and even embracing the truth that sickness and death are a part of life. Scenes in the hospital show Ebert, having had his jaw removed, being visited by nurses who arrive to shove a plastic tube into a hole in what’s left of his throat in order to suck out fluids of some sort. The sound of the suction and the obvious pain on the face of the voiceless Ebert make these scenes as disturbing as anything you’ll see in cinema this year. But after, both director and subject are glad to have the footage. Post-procedure, when his pupils return to the center of his eyes and he is nearly able to sit up, Ebert is ecstatic.
It may seem like a sidebar to say that Life Itself is, among all these other things, a film about Chicago. But that special place, both punishingly cold and warmly Midwestern, is a key to understanding who Roger Ebert was and how we was formed. He remained at the Sun-Times out of loyalty and a belief in the paper itself, yes, but also because of its location, a city that is cosmopolitan but also, literally and figuratively, at the center of the country.