On Tuesday, The Pelham Picture House hosted a special advanced screening of Steve James’ Life Itself, a documentary about renowned film critic Roger Ebert. The film, named after Ebert’s memoir of the same title, tells the story of the critic’s rise to fame—from his beginnings at the Chicago Sun-Times and his days on television to his final moments in the hospital battling head and neck cancer. Life Itself, which comes more than a year after Ebert’s death in April of 2013, is set to release on July 4.
Director James layers a variety of techniques into his film—including clips of Ebert himself, interviews with family, friends, and fellow filmmakers (Martin Scorsese makes an appearance), and voiceovers of passages from Ebert’s memoir. We don’t just get the Pulitzer prize-winning critic and his professional history, we get the self-proclaimed “cosmopolitan” who actually flunked French five times, and we see the man who has his seat at the movie theater carefully calculated (he sits twice as far back from the screen as it is wide).
A large part of the film to Ebert’s personal relationships—from his partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel on the set of At the Movies to his marriage with Chaz Ebert. The final moments of the documentary showcase Ebert’s lively presence, despite his struggle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, which cost him his lower jaw and his ability to speak normally.
Seeing Ebert in that state was admittedly “disturbing,” according to Marshall Fine, Critic-in-Residence at The Picture House. Fine held a Q&A after the film with Eric Kohn, chief film critic and senior editor for Indiewire, as well as Joshua Rothkopf, film editor of Time Out New York.
The discussion opened with the ever-pressing question: “Will there ever be another great film critic?”
The three critics agreed: It’s unlikely that anyone will come close to the legacy of Roger Ebert.
“His chief innovation was democratizing film criticism,” Rothkopf said, noting how Ebert expressed his work in various mediums—from newspapers, to television, and finally opening it up to blogging with his own website. Ebert’s success was also rooted in his ability to “smuggle” underground films to the mainstream, added Kohn. “And that’s one of the most valuable things you can do [as a film critic].”
Ebert also was able to bring film criticism to unprecedented levels and increase its recognition as a true art form. “There was a film culture in the ‘70s where film critics held a sort of importance, but not everyone knew who they were,” Fine said of the pre-Ebert film industry. “I saw him as both a peer and a role model, because I was trying to do the same thing.” Rothkopf and Kohn were both acquainted with Ebert during their own career paths and agreed on how accessible he was, regardless of his fame.
And as for Life Itself? We think Roger would agree: two thumbs up.
View the trailer for Life Itself below.