Beyond the Valley of the Thumbs: Life Itself celebrates Roger Ebert — and the critic's capacity for joy

Two thumbs up for Roger Ebert in Life Itself.
Two thumbs up for Roger Ebert in Life Itself. Kevin Horan/Magnolia Pictures

Beyond the Valley of the Thumbs: Life Itself celebrates Roger Ebert — and the critic's capacity for joy

Life Itself
Directed by Steve James.
Opens Friday, July 11, at Plaza Frontenac.

To call Roger Ebert one of the great populist film critics is to damn him with faint praise. Though he took pride in working for the scrappier of the two Chicago dailies, the Sun-Times, and though we do have him to thank — or curse — for popularizing the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to criticism, his approach to moviegoing was actually refined. When he died last year, he left behind both a body of writing and a way of looking at movies that opened them wide to the world. So many critics write to show off how much they know — it's a way of keeping you, whoever "you" are, at arm's length. Ebert wrote to let you in. To read him is to feel you're pulling up a chair.

Director Steve James captures that quality and more in Life Itself, his documentary about Ebert's life and, notably, the last few years of it, after recurring health problems and multiple surgeries left the critic unable to speak. That didn't mean Ebert lost his voice: He was one of the first old-school print critics to approach the Internet as something other than an unfriendly alien, and in some ways we all got to know him much better in his later years, through his blog and his Twitter feed. James — the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters — gives us a sense of Ebert as a man who kept reinventing life as he went along, out of necessity, sure, though he also took some pleasure in adapting. It couldn't always have been easy, but that, too, is part of the story.

James picks up all the salient and interesting details without getting too bogged down in hagiography, beginning with his subject's childhood in Urbana, Illinois, in a household that subscribed to three newspapers just for him. After graduating from the University of Illinois (he'd hoped for Harvard, but his working-class parents couldn't afford it), where he was editor of the school paper, Ebert intended to go on to graduate school. Needing to rustle up some money, he thought he'd make a pit stop at the Sun-Times for a few years. He ended up staying the rest of his life, first working as a reporter before inheriting the job of film critic. He won a Pulitzer in 1975, a time when journalism's most coveted prize was rarely awarded to film critics.

Life Itself (based on Ebert's memoir of the same name) is also a portrait of two marriages: Ebert met his wife, Chaz, when he was 50; their union was tested by the most devastating of circumstances, but James captures the casual, bantering devotion between them, even during what must have been the roughest times. Ebert's "other" marriage wasn't so harmonious but perhaps just as significant, at least to his audience: Most non-Chicagoans got to know Ebert through the television show he cohosted with rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, which ran in various incarnations from the mid-1970s until Siskel's death in 1999. James captures the friction between the two — it's especially apparent in an on-air disagreement over, of all things, Benji the Hunted — but he also shows how all that mutual abrasion, year after year, made the two men almost closer than family. (And maybe you didn't know that Siskel was at one point a pal of Hugh Hefner's, frequently riding around in Playboy's "Big Bunny" jet. I didn't.)

James calls on all sorts of luminaries, from the worlds of critics and filmmakers alike: New York Times critic A.O. Scott delicately explains Ebert's attraction to the films of Russ Meyer, making the case that movies offer all sorts of pleasures, including the "earthier" ones. (Ebert wrote the screenplay for Meyer's trashily magnificent Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and a few clips are included here.) Life Itself also flirts with the idea that Ebert's friendships with filmmakers may have sometimes caused him to pull his punches, although one of those friends, Martin Scorsese (also a producer of Life Itself), doesn't seem to feel that way: He gives testimony to how stung he felt by Ebert's negative review of The Color of Money.

Scorsese is also quick to note, though, that as a critic Ebert was never unnecessarily cutting or unkind. In real life, too, even those who knew him only casually, as I did, would probably agree. Life Itself seems about as comprehensive as it could be, though perhaps it doesn't adequately stress Ebert's generosity toward younger critics, even those not so much younger than himself. I knew Roger mostly through the occasional e-mail 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, who tend to take themselves way too seriously. When Roger learned, a few years back, that my husband had bought me as a Christmas gift an original poster for Camelot — one of the most beautiful works of movie-poster art, by one of its greatest artists, Bob Peak — he seemed as excited about it as I was. When he found out that my gift wasn't the standard American one-sheet but a huge French grande, measuring an incroyable 47 by 62 inches, his review was glowing and succinct: "That's way cooler."

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