For awhile now, I’ve been thinking that I should put some sort of article up on Heavy Metal Ebert as a tribute to Roger Ebert. After all, I am using his last name in the very title of this blog, and I want to borrow that from him out of respect, not the opposite. There are many qualities about Roger Ebert as a film critic that I have always admired, and many which I try to take into my own film criticism. Although I disagree with some of his opinions in his later years (specifically those expressed in the 2010 article, “Video Games Can Never Be Art”), I still think that he did more for film criticism than any other critic of our time. However, I never really learned very much about Roger Ebert as a person, something that the new documentary Life Itself sheds some light upon.
Based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, Life Itself is a documentary of both the film critic’s life and his battle with cancer. The scenes from the different decades of his life are seamlessly edited together in this exceptional and informative presentation about the Illinois native’s fascinating life. The movie includes interviews with many of Ebert’s contemporaries, as well as brief appearances from his professional friends such as Martin Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani. The movie contains many excerpts from Ebert’s book read by Stephen Stanton, who does a great job capturing Ebert’s signature flat tone at a time when Roger could not record the audio himself.
One thing that I enjoyed about Life Itself was how much it focused on Roger Ebert as a person. I had never really known the human side of the famous film critic, who lived the life of an average wealthy college-aged person. In his youth, Ebert used to like hanging out in Chicago pubs, taking trips abroad, and going on dates with young women who his friends found to be questionable. He had an affinity for good art from an early age, but it turns out that his lust got in the way of this at times; in 1970, Ebert and filmmaker Russ Meyer released a shameless sexploitation flick called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a move that all of Ebert’s contemporaries in the documentary agree that he was drawn to simply because of the women onscreen in the film. The documentary also explored Ebert’s old drinking habits and how he overcame them, something that I had no idea of in the past. Later scenes in the film obviously explore Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel, a friendship that we now find out became strained by unfortunate circumstances.
Some of the harder scenes to watch in Life Itself are the scenes from the end of Ebert’s life when he was confined to his hospital bed and wheelchair. The man looks completely emasculated with his bandages around his throat and his chin hanging down with a gaping hole showing through to his neck. I can’t help but feel pity for him, but at the same time, his attitude during the whole process was very inspiring. There are some very uplifting things that Roger Ebert said during this time that I believe could be encouraging anyone in harsh medical conditions such as these, and if anything, these scenes gave me more of a sense of optimism than pity.
There are some that may complain about the length of Life Itself, and I can concede to that. Two hours is a long time for a documentary, and despite my interest in the content onscreen, there were a few times that I checked my watch to see how much time remaining in the film. Also, although I wouldn’t take off points for this, I wish that the movie explored some of the more hilarious mishaps of Ebert’s life, such as the script that he wrote for the Sex Pistols that was too much for Sid Vicious. Still, the movie shows that Ebert was a fully-accomplished man who did whatever he wanted to in life and had no regrets in his later years.
I hate Metallica’s album St. Anger, but when I viewed the documentary Some Kind of Monster, I realized that there was so much other nonsense going on in the band in 2004 that there’s no way that they could have released a quality record. In the same way, viewing Life Itself has caused me to forgive Roger Ebert for some of the ridiculous opinions that he had during his battle with cancer. It would be impossible for a mind like that to go through the experience that he had without it affecting his work, and some questionable opinions slipped through onto his blog. Could we not all be held accountable for similar things? Life Itself is a great, albeit heavy film that I would recommend to any fan of Ebert’s work. Just don’t forget to bring some tissues.