On one level, Life Itself is a series of Valentines: to Ebert himself, to old-style journalism, to the city of Chicago, and of course to the movies. Steve James, the genius documentarian behind Hoop Dreams, owed the success of that film to Ebert and Siskel’s tireless advocacy. James handsomely repays the effort in an epic journey through Ebert’s life. James clearly loves the hero of his film, but he is unafraid to present his friend’s sometimes glaring failings.
On another level, this film is an unflinching exploration of loss. Ebert first loses the man who was his torment as well as his muse, Gene Siskel. He loses his jaw, his voice and his ability to eat and drink. Then, agonizingly, life itself slips away. Ironically, given the title, this movie is also about death itself, in sometimes excruciating detail.
Ebert was painfully honest and this film embodies that spirit. We see him flinch as fluids are drained from the flap of skin that was once a jaw. In a rare moment when his boundless joy in life fails, we witness him silently but testily argue with the infinitely patient Chaz about how to best get up what has become an almost insurmountable stairway in his home. Ebert had little patience for deceit and you won’t find it in this movie. James shares with the audience an email exchange in which Ebert joyfully celebrates that they captured that noisy, disturbing throat suction on film. Ebert didn’t want to glamorize the protracted agonies of our modern, technological way of dying.
James also doesn’t let his close friendship with Ebert veer him into mindless tribute. Ebert’s youthful alcohol dependency and exploitive womanizing receive blunt treatment His mysterious and complete lapse of taste as the screenwriter for the 1960s Russ Meyer sexploitation bomb, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, is handled with great wit. One of the film’s best on-screen presences, the masteful director Martin Scorsese, strains not to laugh as he dissects Dolls' dubious merits.
But none of these personality flaws overshadow Ebert’s tireless support of once little- known artists like Errol Morris who might have otherwise lapsed into anonymity. Ebert’s powerful, poetic words, however, are the real star of the film.
We hear from a column he wrote as a 21-year-old college newspaper editor at the University of Illinois. With amazing grace and precociousness, he gently corrects Martin Luther King’s comments after the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. King had said that the blood of the four little girls who died in that bombing was on the hands of the inflammatory racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace.
With wisdom rare for people three times his age, Ebert found guilt everywhere. “The blood is on so many hands that history will weep,” he wrote. Journalists usually spend lifelong careers never reaching that plateau of elegance. Barely out of childhood, Ebert displayed the commanding, yet unpretentious eloquence that would later land him a Pulitzer.
The film can be faulted for perhaps being 20 or so minutes too long, but even with a rare lag the movie provokes plenty of tears and laughter too. The outtakes of promos Siskel and Ebert filmed for their film review shows, and their on-air verbal jousts, still entertain. James’ interview subjects, particularly Chaz, Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen, and Scorsese, provide powerful screen presences. James also adds visual splendor, his beautiful, snowy footage of a Chicago winter poetically capturing death’s grip seizing Ebert’s body, but not his spirit.
In a negative review he wrote of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Ebert once observed that, “there is a distinction . . . that needs to be drawn, between the courage of a man who chooses to face hardship for a good purpose, and the courage of a man who is simply doing the best he can, under the circumstances.” Ebert certainly didn’t choose to endure the agonies of cancer. But he embraced the fight to find meaning even in the face of oblivion. His grace, wit, and, yes, courage in his final days, was a gift, like his many published words and his notable, authentic life itself.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.