Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 1: Life Itself (2014)


After viewing & reviewing every feature film in Russ Meyer’s catalog over the last few months, I’ve found myself in need of a new film-watching project to break up the monotony of chasing down every newer release that hits the theaters. I’m getting some fulfillment on that end with the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. MCU retrospective I’m tackling with Boomer, but I’m in the need of something more ambitious & longerm. Recently, reading the excellent Russ Meyer biography Big Bosoms & Square Jaws a second time finally lead me to tackling Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself, an endeavor that’s been intimidating me for years due to the potential emotional toll. Something I noticed while reading Life Itself was how eclectic & intimidating the list of movies Ebert references in the book is. Among titles I have already seen one hundred times (The Wizard of Oz, Reservoir Dogs, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, etc.), there were a ton of Important Movies I’ve been meaning to watch for years (Citizen Kane, Casa Blanca, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.) & even more films I’ve never heard of (Bwana Devil, French Peep Show, Breakheart Pass and so on).

So, as a means of self education, I plan on visiting all 200+ films referenced in Life Itself, both the book & the documentary of the same name. Unlike the Russ Meyer project, which took just a few months to complete, I expect putting myself (and whoever’s reading) through Roger Ebert Film School will take at least two years to complete. I do believe it is a worthwhile effort, though. Since Ebert naturally referenced these films in his writing instead of assembling a definitive list (like his Great Movies feature), they should be a very interesting overview of cinema’s highest highs & lowest lows. I’m looking forward to both ends. That being said, let’s get started. The class bell has effectively rung.

Where Life Itself (2014) is referenced in Life Itself: On the cover, naturally.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Unfortunately, he died before it completed filming, so he didn’t get a chance to see the final product.


As I said, I had been avoiding reading Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself, for years by the time it was adapted into a feature length documentary by Steve James in 2014. James’ movie gave me an excuse to delay the inevitable even longer. I’d be able to digest Ebert’s life story & indulge in some healthy sobbing all within two hours’ time, then walk away from the ordeal. I even made a sort of party out of it, dragging a group of friends to Chalmette Movies to watch it on the week of my 28th birthday. Having since read the book, I can happily report that James’ film is an excellent adaptation, considering the length of its runtime. It touches on nearly all of the topics covered in the print version of Life Itself, but with understandably less depth than the way they’re explored by Roger’s pen (except, of course, the more up to date health problems & eventual death that occurred during filming). James could’ve easily expanded Life Itself to match the massive runtime of his seminal work Hoop Dreams, if not longer, but as is the film is a touching, concise overview of Roger’s life & career from start to end.

Besides expediting the process of reviewing Ebert’s life story, the film version of Life Itself offers something inarguably valuable for the life story of a man who spent so much of his time in cinemas: imagery. Photographs, movie scenes, interview footage, and clips from Ebert’s fellow Chicagoan critic Gene Siskel add a whole layer of depth to Life Itself that the autobiography couldn’t afford due to the limits of its medium. The book version of Life Itself is 100% Roger’s voice, which at times can be overly humble or self-deprecating (especially when discussing his alcoholism) in a matter of fact sort of way. The film, on the other hand, is more concerned with his legacy. Talking head interviews with his loving wife Chaz & filmmaker heavyweights like Scorsese & Herzog make Ebert out to be a perfect angel in a way that would’ve made him blush had he been alive to see the final product. It’s very telling that the film also only lightly skims his relationship with perv auteur Russ Meyer, an area where Roger’s life most likely saw its most salacious lows. What’s most invaluable here, though, is the contentious outtakes of Roger going at it with Siskel. In the book he tends to sugarcoat the nastier side of their rivalry, which is entirely understandable given that his friend & colleague was deceased when he wrote it. The movie paints a much more complicated picture & it’s fascinating to watch the extremes of their brotherly (in a thoroughly competitive way) dynamic play out for the camera.

As a documentary divorced from the instant-likability  of its subject, I’m not sure that Life Itself is necessarily a grand feat in modern filmmaking. James’ camera is fearless in capturing Ebert’s hard-to-stomach bouts with cancer, as was Roger himself for putting those struggles on public display. There’s also the strange detail that passages from the book are read by an eerily accurate Ebert impersonator, so it feels as though you’re being spoken to from beyond the grave (not unlike the digitized Marlon Brando in Listen to Me Marlon). For the most part, though, Life Itself is firmly a Wikipedia-in-motion type of documentary. It adds some new information not included in its source material, especially when discussing how Roger championed small voices in filmmaking & opened doors for names like Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog, and Steve James himself. Life Itself mostly works as a companion piece, though. Ebert’s autobiography is loaded with priceless ponderings on the nature of cinema and, well, life itself. James’ film matches imagery to those ideas & boils them down to an easily digestible morsel.

A filmmaking feat or not, Life Itself is a very moving portrait of one of America’s all time great writers in any medium. It’s a film that has moved me to tears on all four of my viewings (this time it was DuVernay’s story about meeting Roger as a child that choked me up). It may not be a mold-breaking or technically ambitious film, but is an undeniably indispensable one. Highly recommended for those who’ve yet to have the pleasure.


Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (4/5, 80%)


Next Lesson: Persona (1966)

-Brandon Ledet