Our first meta-review, guys! Because how do you review a documentary made about the man who made movie reviews famous? Roger Ebert wasn’t the first film critic, and probably not the best, but he’s the one I grew up with, him and his thumb, and whichever way he was wielding it, it had power.
This film, made in the months immediately preceding his death, is an ode to love of film, and love of life. Indeed, we are privileged to meet the love of Ebert’s life, and she is brave enough to share their story with us. For that reason alone, this film is worth the watch.
It also gave a fascinating glimpse of the relationship between Siskel and Ebert. With some behind the scenes outtakes from their early days of television, we see the two not just butting heads but activiely disliking and dismissing one another. The animosity is awkward and seething and you can only imagine what it must have been like to work on the set of that show. At one point we hear Siskel refer to Ebert as an asshole, and though that’s not the origin of this blog’s title, we are the Assholes Watching Movies, and that little bit of trivia caught my breath. By the end of their tenure they seemed to have grown into genuinely respecting and even caring for each other – Siskel later said that Ebert was an asshole, but “he’s my asshole.” The film pays no mention at all to Siskel’s replacement, the comparatively bland Roeper, and most people felt the zing went out of the show when Ebert lost his favourite sparring partner.
Life Itself (although the title of Ebert’s memoir) explores the nature of Ebert’s criticism. He was a populist who wanted to like every movie he saw, and he saw an enormous amount (although probably not as many as we watch – we don’t technically get paid to watch movies, but we mostly get paid while watching them, which is almost as good). He took his job seriously and defended his position vehemently. He sometimes introduced new voices to the world. He championed Scorsese, who probably didn’t need it but seemed to really value it nonetheless, is his early, unknown days as a budding film director. Werner Herzog says of him “He reinforced my courage.” He measured movies against his own moral code and if they violated it needlessly, he could be ruthless. But he also believed in reviewing movies within a context, which is something I hope we’ll replicate here. We’re part of the fan culture that he helped create with his accessible reviews. We aren’t trained critics, but neither was he (he started out as a sports writer, apparently). He wanted his reviews to be only the starting point, and that’s what we’re hoping for here too – to have a conversation with whomever wanders in and reads the blog. Write us comments. Let’s discuss.
Roger Ebert’s disease was eating away at him. Without a jaw, he still managed to not only be witty, but infectiously so. He could still be expressive even without his voice. It was when words started failing altogether, when he could no longer type nor communicate that he seemd to lose his will to live. It hurts to watch this decline but it helps a bit to see this film as a celebration of a man who lived for movies, and lived as if he was in one.
Rest in peace.