'Life Itself' and How Roger Ebert Inspired Me to Write


How did I come to be writing movie reviews on the Internet? I’m pretty sure I’m an introvert by nature (if those Myers-Briggs tests have anything to say about it), and so it seems out of character for me to be sharing my thoughts in such a public forum. Even so, if I were to make a list of the reasons I run this site, Roger Ebert would be one of them.

I can’t remember when I first started following his work. Maybe it was his syndicated reviews in the newspaper, or maybe I caught snippets of his TV show with Gene Siskel. What I know for sure is the version of Ebert’s work I came to know the best was his presence online. His site, RogerEbert.com, became one of the only sites I bookmarked on my first computer, a massive Windows 98 machine with (gasp!) a hefty 8GB hard drive. Week after week, I’d return to his home page, both to learn about new movies opening in theatres, and to comb through his accessible, elegant writing.

That’s not to say I agreed with everything Ebert wrote. He sometimes came down hard on movies I really liked – his review of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, for example, fixated on what he saw as clumsy, ineffective alien tripods, while I saw the monsters as legitimately chilling. And while reviews like that would sometimes frustrate me, they would also prompt me to take a closer look at the movie in question: why did Ebert’s review and my reaction differ? Could I learn anything new from the movie by considering Ebert’s take on it?

Now we have the release of a new documentary about Roger Ebert called Life Itself, after Ebert’s 2011 autobiography of the same name. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the film charts Ebert’s life from his time writing for his campus paper to his final days in hospital, having lost his ability to speak but keeping his prolific output alive online.

Ebert's sense of humour is well documented in the film, even when he's in hospital.

Like the memoir on which it’s based, the film is consistently heartwarming and enlightening. Ebert’s love of storytelling and travelling is infectious, and the clips of his behind-the-scenes bickering with his colleague and friend Gene Siskel never get old. But the film is equally painful and sobering, especially when James turns his lens on the excruciating treatments and rehabilitation Ebert undertook in his last years of life. Everyone in the screening I attended winced during these scenes – it was hard to watch, but necessary to understand Ebert’s inner character.

Nevertheless, we know how committed Ebert was to continue writing throughout his struggle, to continue promoting the love of cinema and to offer his thoughts on other topics, like gun control, religion and politics. Ebert’s faith in Internet publishing was abundantly clear, and I think that belief trickled down to me over a time. Knowing that people on the Internet still have an appetite for long-form writing about film encouraged me to try it out for myself.

What some don’t realize is the true journalistic quality of Ebert’s writing. His reviews were more than simple "good/bad" reactions to ephemeral entertainment. They were complex analyses of art and culture, where he often skilfully blended in references to his own personal life, which helped us relate to him as much as we did to the movie in question. As Ebert once said, “the movies are a machine that generates empathy” for our fellow humans – and when we think of movies in this way, why would they not be worthy of serious journalistic inquiry?

Even the day before his death, Ebert was still writing. I often look back on his blog post “A Leave of Presence” as an example of someone who refused to let illness distract him. It’s possible that he knew his time was drawing short, but he used the post to re-commit himself to more work. As someone whose own close family has been touched by cancer, I find yet more inspiration in Ebert’s refusal to give up. An illness should not be allowed to limit important discussions, especially when they’re about something as magical and unifying as film.

Have you seen Life Itself? If so, what did you think? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!