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The Personal Side of ‘Life Itself’ Reviews

The Personal Side of 'Life Itself' Reviews

There may be no better illustration of the reach of Roger Ebert’s influence than the New York Times review of “Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary about Ebert’s life and work. It’s not the review’s substance that’s remarkable (although it is quite fine), but the byline from Geoffrey O’Brien — his first for the Times. The paper of record had to reach outside the realm of working film critics to find a writer untouched by Ebert’s hand.

It’s not surprising, then, than many of the reviews of “Life Itself” dwell on Ebert’s relationship to the critics writing them. At Ebert’s site, editor Matt Zoller Seitz follows in his footsteps by filing his review from the hospital where his father is recovering from a stroke. (The prognosis, mercifully, is good.)

Why did I just tell you that? Lots of reasons: First, Roger often worked personal details into his reviews. Second, a good chunk of “Life Itself,” a documentary inspired by Roger’s same-titled memoir, takes place in a hospital; director Steve James shows us graphic medical details that were previously hidden from public view, including shots of Roger, whose cancerous jaw was cut off in 2006, having his throat irrigated. Third, Roger was a professional father to me, as he was to a good many people, a fact that I’m more keenly aware of than usual at this moment, sitting on a couch under florescent lights, typing on a laptop at midnight.

Seitz, who previously wrote about how Ebert inspired him to keep writing at a personal and professional low point, is hardly the only critic to feel his encouragement first-hand. While I wasn’t as close to him as many of my peers, I grew up on his writing, which was syndicated in my local newspaper, and a little over a year after I got my first staff job, he granted me what seemed like an awfully generous interview to promote an upcoming visit to my city. (We met for the first on the trip James Berardinelli describes below.) I’m almost scared to go back and listen to the tape, lest I hear a hint of impatience creep into his voice — I’m sure I would have been impatient with me — but at the time, I was gratified, and a little bit stunned. 

Read through the following excerpts and you’ll get a similar sense of Ebert’s generosity to up-and-coming writers, and a little bit of his fierce competitiveness with those he thought of as rivals. To an extent that many younger writers have internalized (not always with benign results), Ebert made criticism personal, and with “Life Itself,” many critics have returned the favor.

Daniel Fienberg, Hitfix:

No critic is going to be able to sit at their computers to write about “Life Itself” without some measure of personal investment. Roger Ebert didn’t make me want to become a critic. That was all on Pauline Kael. But Ebert was a regular part of my critical consumption and showed me the many ways and places a critic could express himself.

Tim Grierson, Deadspin

When Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013, it felt like a death in the family, not only because I’m a film critic, but because he and Gene Siskel are a huge part of the reason why. The different incarnations of their Siskel & Ebert show were instrumental in my upbringing, driving home the idea that movies weren’t just these amazing things to experience yourself, but also something worth defending and debating with others. I never knew the man personally, but I knew the writing, and I followed the arc of his life as avidly as I would a favorite filmmaker’s or musician’s. 

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly

I always felt a powerful long-distance connection to Ebert. (I met him several times on the festival circuit over the years but wasn’t lucky enough to call him a friend.) As a kid, I watched him and his on-air sparring partner Gene Siskel act out their love-hate Laurel and Hardy routine on a small black-and-white television in my bedroom. I hung on every opinion, insight, and insult lobbed across the aisle. 

Joe Leydon, Thompson on Hollywood

Roger and I were not bowling buddies, and I would be grossly overestimating the intimacy of our relationship if I said we were extremely close confidants. But our friendship was a long and mutually respectful one. (“I first met my old friend Joe Leydon when he was the film critic of the Houston Post,” he wrote in 2009. “When we see each other at the Toronto Film Festival, we are usually the oldest active critics in the room.”) And we were close enough for me to contact him when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years back, and for him to offer me not only sympathy and encouragement, but also a few good laughs as I underwent radiation treatments… So when I say that “Life Itself” offered me a welcome opportunity to share quality time with an old friend, well, that’s only because it did. And for that, I am immensely grateful.

Edward Douglass, Coming Soon

As I got into writing about movies, I paid more attention to Ebert’s reviews — not that I always agreed with them-but one of the things that really had an impact on me was when I first saw him in person after his jaw had already been removed in surgery and he was at the Toronto Film Festival. I was way too nervous to go up and introduce myself just because I knew he couldn’t speak to have a conversation. Just seeing him there at the festival he loved so much inspired me to go to Toronto last year in between my chemo regimen and my stem cell transplant, because I figured if he could do it than so could I.

Kirk Honeycutt, Honeycutt’s Hollywood

The difficulty comes in the film dealing directly with what I’ve done for a living for so many years — film criticism and journalism. I have no objectivity where that’s concerned. I also lack objectivity when it comes to Ebert because he was the foremost champion of movies and of the role of the critic. He did more for film criticism than anybody.

Germain Lussier, Slash Film

As a young film fan, I remember scouring the TV Guide searching for the Sunday morning broadcasts of Siskel & Ebert, and devouring every episode. In particular, I’ll never forget an episode where Ebert dissected Quentin Tarantino’s camerawork in Pulp Fiction. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of film language. Ebert had that effect on a lot of people.

Stephen Silver, Technology Tell

It’s not possible that I could write about this film with any dispassion, so I’ll get it all out of the way at top: Roger Ebert was a tremendous influence on me from an early age. From probably the time I first had Internet access in the mid-’90s until his death last year, Ebert’s was always the first review I looked up of any movie I watched ,whether old or no. I had an occasional e-mail correspondence with Roger (at his old Compuserve address), he have me a quote for my senior thesis, I got a question in his Movie Answer Man column in 2004, and I once met him at a book signing.

Jason Gorber, Twitch

I’m finding I’m becoming more influenced by Ebert after his death, missing his presence more, not less. I would have loved for him to have seen Gravity, to have had him discuss passionately 12 Years A Slave. I also would have loved him to answer the rich questions that James asks, only to have Ebert’s voice falter towards the end. If the film leaves me wanting, it’s in this way, I wanted more, much more from this towering figure for people like myself. 

Scott Weinberg, Geek Nation

As a film critic, as a film lover, and as a passionate film DEBATER, I have always considered myself a student of Roger Ebert. I don’t write like him and I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as he was, and it would take fifteen more paragraphs to explain all of the things he taught me about A) movies, B) writing, and C) personality.

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

I knew Roger mostly through the occasional email exchange, but one thing that always struck me — beyond the self-evident fact that he was such a marvelous, straightforward, openhearted writer — was his capacity for delight, a quality I often find lacking in the world of film critics, a bunch who tend to take themselves way too seriously. 

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

I didn’t begin loving movies by worshipping Roger Ebert. But I never ceased to amaze at the man’s work ethic (he saw, and covered, hundreds of movies a year, filing stories even the week of his death). And I marveled at the grace with which he navigated his final, immensely challenging years.

David Noh, Film Journal

I came late to an appreciation of Roger Ebert. When — Andrew Sarris’ auteur theorizing and Pauline Kael’s loquacious stream-of-consciousness New Yorker populism be damned — he and Gene Siskel became the most famous film critics in the country through their television show, “At the Movies,” I rather turned up my nose at the sight of these two schlubby white guys having at each other over their often differing opinions, and too easily dismissing movies with a cursory thumbs up or down.

James Berardinelli, Reel Views

Even for someone like me, who knew Roger, the movie is a revelation. I don’t think anyone outside his immediate inner circle recognized how deeply he suffered during those final months and years. The reason is simple: his voice, as expressed through his reviews and columns, rang out as clear as ever. His words throbbed with passion and life. When reading his last blogs, the image I always carried of Roger was of the man I walked alongside on the streets of Philadelphia in 1998 or whom I sat next to in theaters in Toronto, Park City, and Champaign-Urbana. If Life Itself has taught me nothing else, it’s this: I have always known Roger Ebert to be a better critic than I am; I now know he was a better man than I could ever hope to be.

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