Monday, March 23, 2015

Life Itself: A Documentary About Robert Ebert, The Soldier of Cinema

by Drew Martin
Looking back at everything I watched as a kid on television, one of the show's I liked the most was Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert's At The Movies. It brought to television an argumentative conversation about the pop culture of movies by two frenemies from Illinois who were movie critics at competing Chicago newspapers. I loved how they locked horns but I always appreciated more Ebert's insight and intellect so I was delighted to see there is a documentary about him on Netflix called Life Itself. It is an very intimate look at Ebert's life (1942 - 2013), from his struggles with alcohol to his medical issues including the removal of his jaw because of cancer. Werner Herzog, who dedicated his film about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World to Ebert, called him the soldier of cinema because of his perseverance and steel will.

The documentary opens with a speech Ebert gave in 2005:

We all are born with a certain package; we are who we are - where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We are kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

This occasion for this speech was for his star dedication: he was the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and 30 years earlier he was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize. The ubiquitous "thumbs up" image in social media is a direct descendant of this simple rating system introduced to television by his show. Ebert was certainly ahead of his time (and the Twitter phenomenon): he introduced the idea of direct reporting from Cannes about the movies being shown during the film festival, in a time when the rest of the critics took notes during the events, and then wrote about the movies they reviewed after they returned home to their respective media outlets.

The aforementioned speech is followed by a text quote from him that is centered on the screen:

"I was born inside the movie of my life...I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me."

If his own life was a movie, then the best supporting actor goes not to Siskel but his lovely wife Chaz, who we see a lot of in this documentary. Ebert was an active blogger and his blog can still be seen at, which includes a blog by Chaz.