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To be a movie critic writing about Life Itself is to feel a ghost looking over your shoulder—but then, writers are a haunted bunch. You can pretend they're the friendly spirits of those whom you admire and want to emulate. But really, they're the specters you're terrified of disappointing.
So it's a double whammy to write about this movie, a documentary about the life of Roger Ebert and based on his memoir by the same name. There's not a movie critic working today in English (and, I'd guess, a few other languages) who doesn't owe Ebert some debt. Ebert wrote about movies for the Chicago Sun-Times and then his blog for nearly fifty years, and along with Gene Siskel on their show At the Movies, his way of thinking and talking about movies profoundly influenced what Americans went to see at the theater for decades. (They quite literally invented the legendary "two thumbs up!" movie poster tagline.)
Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the film traces the contours of Ebert's life, from his youth in working-class Chicago through his years as a swaggering college newspaper editor turned storytelling tavern-goer into his career with the Sun-Times and on television and, finally, his personal life, including his marriage to his wife Chaz and relationship with her children and grandchildren. The filmmakers began making the movie while Ebert was in the hospital, and he appears in it throughout. They didn't know he'd pass away while they were still shooting.
That Ebert died on April 4, 2013 adds pathos and heft to the film, no doubt, but even without that element it's affecting—the sheer span of history it recounts boggles the mind. It's also funny and clever and witty. And further, Life Itself is an apologetic for film criticism as a vital act of cultural production, one that is in constant interplay with the movies themselves and the people who make them.
Life Itself treats Ebert's life as one of two intertwined narrative strands. Anecdotes from his past (taken from the memoir) are worked in between remembrances from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances: Siskel's widow, the bartender from the tavern he frequented as a young man, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Werner Herzog.
All speak of him tenderly, in awe of his talent and stature—but they never lionize the man. Ebert was no saint, and often very prickly, with a considerable ego. He and Siskel bicker bitterly onscreen. And in the film itself, though he had lost speech when he lost his lower jaw and tongue to cancer, he's still feisty and occasionally petulant, in between his moments of sheer gratitude and love for Chaz, and for the life he's had.
Ebert pushed American film criticism (and, by extension, American filmmaking) like no one else, and that's the other narrative strand of the film: as the story is told, we can see the development of both an art form and a genre of writing right before our eyes. Ebert had a populist's taste—he famously liked Benji more than Full Metal Jacket—while sustaining a connoisseur's eye, recognizing great film for what it was. And he wrote about films accessibly, eschewing a more academic, highbrow form of criticism being practiced by critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris at the same time.
One of the most important things about Ebert's writing, by my lights, is that his film criticism was always deeply and unapologetically personal. He had strongly-held opinions about what he liked and what he didn't, and he had good reasons for them (something the film clearly shows in B-roll from At the Movies). But when you read his writing—which you can do at his website, where his archives live on—you can see, especially as he matured as a writer, how much his personal life, background, beliefs, emotions, fears, and passions drove what he wrote about and why he wrote about it.
This is important for any critic and, indeed, any good watcher to know: who you are affects what you write. The experiences you have shape how you watch. There's little about art that is black and white; your emotional experience matters when you write about a work.
That's the fun part of criticism, though. We have a regular ragtag band of critics here at Christianity Today. But though we work together, I find that our tastes rarely intersect. I have often watched a movie recommended by a friend and found it dull or lacking—and it goes both ways. I can passionately defend my opinion, but that's just it: it's my opinion. And that's the fun of it.
Only bad art allows for a single interpretation (that's what we call propaganda, actually). Good art opens space for us to have a multitude of experiences, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. Good art isn't complete until the viewer completes it.
In his work, Ebert helped us see movies that way: vibrant, vital parts of our communal experience, made fuller by each of us who watches it and then discusses it with others. Movies help us think about who we are and how we live together. And as a movie, Life Itself is a heartfelt, clear-eyed tribute to a master.
The film is rated R; there's some nudity in some of the clips, though nothing excessive, and there's some suggestive talk. Profanities include f-bombs, especially when Siskel and Ebert get going at each other's throats. Also, Ebert's cancer meant he lost his lower jaw, which means the lower half of his face hung loose. The film treats this frankly and there's plenty of footage, but it's possible that a few sensitive viewers such as children may find this difficult to watch. (I'd challenge adults who are interested in the film to watch anyhow, though, if at all possible.)
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.