Steve James documentary celebrates Roger Ebert, a star on his way to the heavens
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Roger Ebert in “Life Itself”; photo: Kevin Horan; Rating: R; Grade: A
Near the start of the Steve James documentary, “Life Itself,” which tackles, as its subject, the legendary film critic Roger Ebert, and is based on his memoir, Ebert informs us, “I was born into the movie of my life.” What James has accomplished is nothing short of reconstructing, right before our eyes, that film, from the writer’s own words and – intriguingly – in his vibrant voice.
I wrote a tribute to Roger Ebert on my blog (terrencetodd.com) as soon as I heard the news of his passing. It was one of the few I have dedicated to film professionals, and so it is peculiar for me to have what will seem like a second attempt at eulogizing the man in this review. But, I should go on record: I hope this critique will come across as more of an homage to the man and his style, because my experience with “Life Itself,” in both its book and film incarnations, is one of those stories that will undoubtedly color my opinion of the projects.
I stumbled upon the book a few years ago during a family vacation in New York. Every time we sojourn to Peekskill to visit my wife’s parents, I make a side pilgrimage, usually alone, to the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. Without fail, I wander into The Village Bookstore across the street to peruse their aisles. This fateful stop, Ebert’s book caught my eye. Like any critic worth his salt, I’ve got collections of criticism from my favorites: Pauline Kael tops my all-time list, and I’ve even got a Kael biography on my shelf, but Ebert, up to that point, was MIA in my personal stacks. So, I snagged the used copy and settled in.
Having read Ebert every week during my college years in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, I was familiar with his voice: informed and highly opinionated, but accessible and engagingly conversational. It goes without saying, I was aware of him from the television show with Gene Siskel, too, although it was the written Ebert I recognized much more on the page.
And it was his life that was up for review in “Life Itself.” I came to appreciate the sharp wit and the snark of his voice as it dug into his own ego and the various stages of his life. There was a fearlessness here, a willingness to poke and prod himself without the clinical rawness one might expect from armchair analysis.
James taps the same tone exceptionally well in this onscreen adaptation, ducking and weaving through periods of Ebert’s life, work and personal, connecting the dots as if somehow this non-linear approach was so obviously straightforward.
The surprise for me is, in watching the film, I ended up coming full circle, back to Pleasantville for the final day of another family vacation – alone again, naturally. I sat among a small crowd, laughed, nearly cried and found myself inspired – more by a man, not a critic, and his cinematic life. This lover of Dave Brubeck and “The Great Gatsby” – two of my favorites. This man, a devoted friend and companion to filmmakers like executive producer Martin Scorsese and Ava DuVernay, who shares the loveliest story of her own about an encounter with Ebert when she was a girl, standing along the red carpet at the Oscars, waving and cheering, when she caught his attention and he came over, spoke to her and had his picture taken with her. Years later, when her first film screened and earned heartfelt praise from him, she reached out to him, sharing that picture from years ago and what that moment meant – not only to her, but to the film she had made.
It is in her story and, in some ways, even mine, “Life Itself” truly comes alive, and when it does, for every member of the audience, Roger Ebert continues to live among us.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.