Life is, in large part, accidental. As recounted in this superb documentary based in part upon his memoir, Roger Ebert, perhaps America's most famous film critic, didn't set out to become a movie reviewer. He fell into it in 1967 when the critic at the Sun-Times left and the boss appointed him to the job. Now he is the subject of a movie himself, a film by Steve James, the Chicago documentary filmmaker who has given us unforgettable pictures like "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters." James makes films about Chicago lives, and in that sense "Life Itself" is very much a Steve James picture.
Ebert adored female breasts. We get a generous amount of footage from "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), the notorious picture he wrote for noted breast-man Russ Meyer. It was for this move that Ebert penned the immortal line, "This is my happening, and it freaks me out!" Musing on "Dolls," A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, says with a smile (and I paraphrase): when we discuss film as an art, we mustn't forget that there are earthy pleasures for which film is uniquely suited. Watching clips from "Dolls," with its guns and gals, it is no wonder Ebert would later become a champion of Quentin Tarantino. (We do not, however, get much of a mention of Meyer and Ebert's ill-fated Sex Pistols movie project.)
We come to the Siskel and Ebert years (never Ebert and Siskel, much to Roger's chagrin), from the days when he was first stuck with this man he wasn't even sure he liked, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, to the days when this unlikely pair (they looked like clowns, someone sums up bluntly) became, in a very real way, America's film critics, appearing over and over on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
"Sneak Previews" and "At the Movies" reached down into my house in southeastern Ohio in the early-mid 80s. As kids, we called them "the fat one" and "the skinny one." I remember we were scandalized by their championing of something called "My Dinner With Andre." This was hilarious evidence of the baffling, perverse taste of film critics, that they would care to sit and watch a movie about having dinner with some fellow called Andre. We favored fare like "Friday the 13th," which Siskel and Ebert had the matchless effrontery to slam. (I grew up to love "Andre": it is one of my all time favorites.)
Still, while my friends may have found the duo impossible, I was always intrigued, and I always looked forward to the show. Even now, those iconic, droll opening credits, which James shows, where the two men leave their offices, then they're on the Chicago streets waving the Sun-Times and Tribune trucks respectively to back up so they can pose like peacocks in front of themselves emblazoned on the side, and then their meeting up in front of the theater, arguing even on the way in, takes me right back to gathering myself expectantly on the living room floor crosslegged in front of the TV.
Siskel & Ebert would champion adventurous films, advocating for foreign, independent, documentaries, films that otherwise might have passed through without ever being seen, little pictures that didn't really have any advertising budgets. Without Siskel and Ebert talking about them, people might never have gone to see them. If there is still any justification, any need, for critics (and there is, maybe more than ever), I believe it is just that.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
no stars (utter shite)