Film Notes: Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself”

I finally saw “Life Itself,” a documentary about Roger Ebert, a well-known film critic with Chicago Sun-Times. The film is a warm portrait of Ebert and at times it is difficult to watch the film as we see him valiantly beat his cancer. The only reason I did not bail out was because of  Ebert’s happy and determined attitude that was infectious. It floored and inspired me to see Ebert’s happy smile and enjoy his great passion in life – watching films. How did he achieve that state of mind and that determination was the central question on my mind as I watched this film. I never did get a complete answer and can only wager he was born with a sunny disposition and that determined attitude.

The film traces Ebert’s life from his childhood in Urbana, Illinois to his life as a film critic and his last days surrounded by his wife Chaz Ebert and his family. It is based on Ebert’s autobiography by the same name.

The film is a wonderful homage to Ebert and we get to the film critic with warts and all. We find out how he got to meet Chaz, his great love at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, and the somewhat difficult relationship with Gene Siskel, his fellow film critic. His friends and associates share personal stories about his love for films, writing, food and hanging out with friends at bar.

Ebert hung out with filmmakers and had great relationships with many of them. Ebert’s reviews of new films helped the career of many emerging and well-known filmmakers. Martin Scorsese shares how during one of the lowest points in his life, Ebert  recognition of his work gave him a second chance in his life. But that same Ebert, who loved Scorsee’s earlier films went on to criticize one of his later film “The Color of Money.” That is Ebert for you.

The film also traces the bristly chemistry between Siskel and Ebert, whose weekly TV show called Siskel & Ebert was a must-watch for all film lovers. They sorted out their differences by tossing a coin and that is how the name of the show was also selected. Siskel won the toss much to Ebert’s chagrin as we find out in the film.Siskel was an elegant man with a quiet voice and calm demeanor, while Ebert was the voluble one. But when they spoke about films their passion shone through and they did not pull any punches on why they loved or did not love a film.

Ebert loved films and went to great lengths to make sure that he shared his love for films through his newspaper columns, TV show, his blog and tweets. Yes, he was prolific on social media and sent tweets from his hospital bedside on a regular basis. If you love films then “Life Itself” is a film worth watching.

“Life Itself” is available on Netflix. It is directed by Steve James.