Watching the show in real time proved a challenge. In the early nineties South Florida “Siskel & Ebert” aired Monday morning at one. I’d record and watch the following afternoon home from work. I had already discovered Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael and was renting or watching (alone, usually) about fifteen movies a week, so while Gene and Roger didn’t keep me away from a movie, they introduced me to things in their “Video Pick of the Week” or, better, in the essays on “Great Films” included in Ebert’s collections: Le Samourai, Tokyo Story, and The Third Man. Ebert loved Hoop Dreams. He couldn’t stop talking about it. There was no way I was going to watch a four-hour documentary about inner city kids who want to play basketball — then and now. But in the year of Pulp Fiction and Red it was the kind of rogue pick that made a hash out of consensus.
Steven James, who directed Hoop Dreams, returns the favor with Life Itself, a commemoration of the indefatigable Roger. Dying of the cancer that robbed him of speech before taking his jaw, he wrote another hundred thousand words after 2006, a torrent of blog posts ranging from political ruminations to autobiographical confessions written in prose that was a newspaper editor’s dream: declarative sentences shorn of adjectives and the windy generalizations that often studded his reviews. More than a critic, Ebert was a reporter. Reporters discover new facts and present them to the public. The film makes the point that the boy from Urbana, Illinois whose parents subscribed to three papers didn’t go away — it condescends to boys, Urbana residents, and rural America. But James does follow the most powerful and chilling of Ebert’s demands: to show audiences his ugly, awful decline. Chaz, the wife whom Ebert credits for saving him from a lonely old age, looks reluctant. What a cruel coincidence: both Siskel and Ebert died of painful cancers.
Other than the politest of demurrals from Jonathan Rosenbaum (“There’s a limit to Ebert’s democratizing of film”), Life Itself lacks oppositional voices. A few days ago, falling into the trap of cranks everywhere, Armond White lamented Ebert’s influence on criticism (I won’t link to the review), which is like blaming Dickens for long novels. He also confuses Ebert the newspaper reviewer with Ebert the TV personality. But I have cavils too. Ebert was so attuned to popular taste that it often impaired his judgment; he was almost a politician instead of a critic. Now critics should be enthusiasts; they should occasionally bid farewell to sense when a movie’s excellence is so obvious that audiences need to know about it right now. An enthusiast, though, is not a publicist. The latter love movies so much that they can’t see the bullshit in front of them; they don’t puzzle over paradoxes or make unusual correspondences, so swept up are they in the moment. It’s amazing for instance that Ebert could endorse Forrest Gump and most Meryl Streep and Scorsese movies. To its credit Life Itself does show a disappointed Scorsese still reeling from the thumbs down Ebert and Siskel gave The Color of Money (it’s better than any Scorsese film between 1995 and 2013 though). He was a sucker for Movies About Ideas — boy, did he love Oliver Stone. He and Siskel loved Quiz Showfor the lamest reasons: “the rare American movie about ideas” and the Death of Our Innocence. That’s not criticism — it’s public relations. To review five or six movies a week on deadline means regurgitating press releases, and believe me, I get it (a friend wrote, “The guy had to write paragraph after paragraph after paragraph about the crappiest crap for DECADES. I think you HAVE to be a bit of a from-the-hip hack to manage that”). To me his best writing is in the Great Movies section of his blog, where he did yeoman’s work introducing them to a larger audience.
Succumbing — inevitably — to the pathetic fallacy, Life Itself argues for the struggle itself as the great balm. As his body withered, he became an enthusiast about writing. Cancer got him; logorrhea didn’t.