For viewers of a certain age, the late Roger Ebert was the beginning and the end of film criticism, or at least half of it. His work with fellow critic and professional sparring partner Gene Siskel (Ebert hailed from the Chicago Sun-Times; Siskel from the rival Tribune) brought movie reviewing to the masses via their televised bantering sessions, each culminating in a Romanesque thumbs up or thumbs down review. It was a simple system, but one that worked.
The partnership began with the ’70s-era PBS program Sneak Previews, but it was the later At The Movies series that really cemented their legacy. (For the nostalgic, there is a treasure trove of their old shows available for viewing at siskelandebert.org.) A big part of what made that program so great wasn’t primarily that the critics were so knowledgable, but that they were so impassioned—they reallycared about it all, even when they were reviewing a true dog. When Siskel died young, Ebert would write “We never had a single meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program,” before going on to describe the wonderful relationship born of their professional needling. That, to me, sums up a great deal about what made Ebert so special; however much he cared about the art, it always felt like he cared about people more.
Life Itself, a new documentary screening this week at Amherst Cinema, shines a light on the man who so often sat in the dark. Based on Ebert’s memoir and directed by able director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the film explores not only Ebert’s work in the film world, but also his wider social commentary, and especially his writing after being diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s. Surgeries later removed much of Ebert’s jaw and robbed him of the ability to speak, but the disease was never able to take away his voice. As long as he could write, he did, right up until the end—it’s possible that in those years his non-film writing meant more to his readers than his reviews ever did.
James, it turns out, was with Ebert for the last four months of his life. A sore hip the critic complained about right before the start of filming would turn out to be a fracture, which led to a hospital stay, rehab, and a sudden end that surprised us all.
Oddly enough, it was Ebert who really gave James his start in the business; when Hoop Dreams premiered at Sundance in 1994, Ebert (with Siskel) put all the weight he could behind the three-hour documentary, helping raise awareness of what he sensed was an important film that could be all too easily overlooked. (He would later name it the best film of the decade, beating out Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction, and Goodfellas.)
Twenty years later, with his earlier film screening as part of an anniversary series at the 2014 festival, James debuted his new film to honor the life of the man who helped him on his way. For the rest of us, it’s a loving reminder that films, in the end, are not about themselves, but about how they change the people who watch them.
Also this week: If by some chance you haven’t seen Hoop Dreams, the full documentary is available for streaming online from both Netflix and Hulu. Following two African-American teenagers in their pursuit of a career in the National Basketball Association, the film confronts issues of race, economic division, and education as the young men at its center struggle to make their dreams a reality. Watch it, and you’ll have a sense of why Ebert, however famous he may have become, would always remain the critic of the people.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.