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We’ve all heard how great Steve James’ Robert Ebert documentary, based on the critic’s memoirs, is. Now that I’ve seen it, I can echo and verify the general sentiment and it is a well-made and entertaining movie, one that gets significant mileage out of Ebert’s fragile physical state before he dies. But, like so many other documentary features, Life Itself is an incomplete story. James chooses to focus on Ebert’s many and varied positive accomplishments (a brief stint with alcoholism helps to humanize the man without damning him) and I find myself mostly agreeing with his sentiments. But, for the sake of balance, I’d like to sketch the other side of Roger Ebert: Film Critic, as opposed to Roger Ebert: Human Being. Despite his important place as one of maybe three people that popularized the concept of film criticism and his tireless devotion to the art form (which helped to build the reputations of budding filmmakers and pull a number of movies from obscurity), Ebert was a perpetual boogeyman in the horror/cult fan community for most of his career. He didn’t simply ignore the genre like so many other mainstream critics of his generation – he railed against it, while welding righteous moral indignation.

 Life Itself
What made Ebert’s contempt so frustrating was the patronizing way he treated the audiences that enjoyed the films he didn’t. His review of David Fincher’s Fight Club (not a horror film, obviously) wasn’t unique in that he didn’t like the film, but the following passage encapsulates his elitist opinion on the matter of popular entertainment:

Quote: Of course, Fight Club itself does not advocate Durden's philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess; one critic I like says it makes ‘a telling point about the bestial nature of man and what can happen when the numbing effects of day-to-day drudgery cause people to go a little crazy.’ I think it's the numbing effects of movies like this that cause people go to a little crazy. Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument. Certainly, they'll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and Norton pounding on each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden's moral philosophy. (…)Whatever Fincher thinks the message is, that's not what most audience members will get.

He only trusted other ‘sophisticates’ to understand the film and, like most of the people that advocate media censorship, assumed that the unwashed masses will devolve into savage beasts if they saw it. Was he right to assume that some people would misunderstand the movie and start their own fight clubs? Absolutely (I know a couple of them personally). But to state his fears of the proletariat response as a valid reason to give Fight Club a largely negative review is outrageously arrogant. Yet, this is how Ebert has always operated, for better and worse. Not only were his opinions on art and entertainment as more important than those of the general public (a vital component to any critic, if we’re speaking frankly), he knew what was best for them in their social lives. And when audiences and filmmakers didn’t follow his moral lead, he reacted the same way a parent would react to a naughty child – he scolded them.

One of Ebert’s favourite whipping posts was Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave – an inarguably brutal and exploitative film, one that is perhaps beyond rational defense. No one could condemn any critic for harping on Zarchi’s shortcomings or the film’s cruelty. But, when he first reviewed I Spit on Your Grave in 1980, Ebert largely ignored the specifics of the movie itself to draw focus to the audience’s reaction to the violence. Six paragraphs of his nine-paragraph review reference his disgust with the rowdy grindhouse crowd:

Quote: I do not often attribute motives to audience members, nor do I try to read their minds, but the people who were sitting around me on Monday morning made it easy for me to know what they were thinking. They talked out loud. And, if they seriously believed the things they were saying, they were vicarious sex criminals. (…)I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine. I wanted to ask If she'd been appalled by the movie's hour of rape scenes.

In 1980, Ebert and his friend/co-host Gene Siskel (who also, sadly, died of complications due to cancer) hosted a special episode of their weekly television series Sneak Previews entitled Women in Danger. It was a stern warning to the movie-going public about the dangers of slashers or any other then-recent exploitation movies that victimized women. Though there was a very interesting discussion to be had concerning the rise in popularity in slashers during the early ‘80s (as well as a discussion on why the fad burned itself out so quickly), Siskel and Ebert weren’t really concerned with exploring any correlations. They were much happier lobbing angry hyperbole (not even witty hyperbole, which was an Ebert specialty when he wrote) and, again, complained specifically about the people that offend their sensibilities by watching and enjoying these films.
 
 Life Itself
After an introduction and a clip from Fred Walton’s rather harmless When a Stranger Calls, Ebert says:

Quote: I think a lot of people have the wrong idea. I think they identify these films with earlier thrillers, like Psycho or even a more recent film, like Halloween, which we both liked (referring to Siskel). These films aren’t in the same category. These films hate women. And, unfortunately, the audiences that go to them don’t seem to like women too much, either. Now we go to see these films in movie theaters – these are not the kinds of movies where they have nice private little screenings for the critics – and to sit there surrounded by people, who are identifying not with the victim, but with the attacker – with the killer – who are cheering these killers on is a very scary experience.

Siskel goes on a tear about horror movies that put women in danger as being a reaction to the women’s movements of the 70s (an interesting point-of-view that is lost in vitrol). He refers to it as a ‘primordial response.’ Ebert says he’s ‘basically right,’ then uses scenes from Denny Harris’ Silent Scream and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th to prove that the filmmakers consider independent behavior in women a killable offense. Next, he points out the use of first-person camera perspective as a technique to feed the audience’s surrogate need to kill women themselves.

The key part of the discussion isn’t the fact that Sean S. Cunningham was shooting first-person to hide the identity of the (female) killer (a technique he stole from Italian giallo filmmakers) or the fact that Siskel & Ebert are projecting an awful lot of psychological subtext into common genre tropes that had been amplified, due to growing acceptance of sex and violence in movies – the key is the way both critics keep separating themselves and their moral superiority from the heathens in the theater. Exploitation movies don’t make special accommodations for critics, forcing them to sit in a theater with these people and experience something that makes them uncomfortable.

Later in the episode, after Siskel says something about how depressing watching horror movies is, Ebert further discusses his I Spit on Your Grave experience:

Quote: We go to see these movies and, in a way, I almost feel like I don’t belong in the theater, because everybody else apparently went to these movies – movies like this – voluntarily. They’re happy to be there, they’re reacting. I feel like an undercover spy in the dark.

I went to see I Spit on Your Grave and I was sitting next to a fairly nicely dressed middle-aged man, maybe in 50s or 60s, who was talking back to the screen with lines like ‘Boy, she’s really asking for it now’ or, you know, there’s a rape scene coming up, ‘This’ll be a good one’ and so forth. This guy is, to my way of thinking, a vicarious sex criminal. He has very antisocial attitudes. I felt creepy sitting there.


 Life Itself
Once again, he was offended by the plebeians and their gross behavior, and spent most of his critical energy scolding strangers, calling them vicarious sex criminals. Because he and sophisticates, like Gene Siskel, knew better. Siskel can’t believe he saw couples in the theater when he was forced to review I Spit on Your Grave, fearing that maybe some people will reenact the film. He passes off to Ebert once again, saying ‘You know, they outlawed bull fighting, because it was cruel…I almost feel the same way about these kinds of movies.’ Even though Ebert later says he’s against censorship, he agrees with Siskel, effectively advocating censorship of things they don’t like. Ebert says that he hopes that Women in Danger won’t give the slasher movies any free advertising.

Quote: Our intent is to report on this trend and warn unsuspecting viewers going to these films, thinking they’re good, old-fashioned horror films, the kind a lot of people used to enjoy. Because there’s a difference between ‘good and scary’ movies and movies that systematically demean half the human race. There is a difference between movies which are violent but entertaining and movies that are gruesome and despicable. There is a difference between a ‘horror movie’ and a ‘freak show.’

He boils criticism down to binary responses – ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ and ‘mine’ vs. ‘theirs.’  

Another example of Siskel & Ebert’s scornful behavior occurred on a 1984 episode of At the Movies. Furious about Charles Sellier’s killer Santa Claus movie Silent Night, Deadly Night (a really bad movie, even by low-budget slasher standards), Siskel read the names of the film’s producers and director aloud and literally ‘shames’ them, referring to their profits as ‘blood money.’ Ebert quickly chimes in to thank Siskel for reading the names and taking away their supposed anonymity (even though their names are on the poster and credits), then demands that these people explain to their children and their grandchildren that it’s ‘only a movie.’

The fact that he uses the phrase ‘only a movie’ at the end of the mini-tirade (he shifts in his chair anxiously while barely muffling his ire) brings up another interesting tale in the duality of Roger Ebert – he loved Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, the movie that originated the ‘Keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie…only a movie’ advertising gimmick. The same guy that wrote a negative review of George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, because it made the children in the theater cry (he has since retconned the review and now refers to it as a ‘reaction’ to Romero’s film) adored Craven’s prototypical rape/revenge thriller. He even revisited it on a special 1988 Halloween episode of Siskel & Ebert entitled Hidden Horror, calling it ‘one of the most effective horror films of recent years.’ He ignores the rape aspect, referring only to the murder of the film’s two doomed protagonists, then says ‘Slasher movies usually offend me, because nobody believes the evil is real, but, in this one, they do,’ which is a complete nonsense justification, especially considering the bile he and Siskel spit all throughout Women in Danger and his very loud condemnation of I Spit on Your Grave.

 Life Itself

Video


Life Itself is presented in 1080p, 1.85:1 HD video (the aspect ratio does change where movie and TV footage is concerned). The image quality is entirely average for type. All the modern footage, including interviews and street views, was shot using state of the art digital cameras (I think I saw an Arri logo). These images and hi-res scans of photos and movie posters all look very sharp, clean, and feature rich, natural colours. A lot of footage has been taken from television (the Siskel & Ebert outtakes were snagged from a low-res YouTube clips) and is thus covered in chroma noise and overmodulation effects. The film-based footage runs a gamut from grainy, scratched-up 8mm home videos, to crisp, bright, 35mm clips (in some cases, the video versions of film clips are replaced with HD footage, even in the middle of TV-shot images). The quality of the clips vary, but all appear to be full HD quality.

Audio


There’s even less I can say about this Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. It also meets the standards of a retrospective documentary, specifically one that doesn’t include a lot of kinetic energy. The bulk of the sound is dialogue-based, including on-screen interviews and narration, supplied by James and actor Stephen Stanton, who does his best Ebert impression while reading from the critic’s memoirs. Composer Joshua Abrams supplies a litany of quirky, jazzy music, which underlines James’ mellow tone. This music, along with some music from the Siskel & Ebert show and movies that appear in the film, gives the stereo and surround channels something to do while everything else sits gently in the center.

Extras


  • Fifteen deleted scenes (22:20, HD)
  • Sundance Tribute to Roger Ebert (6:50, HD) – Mostly made up of footage that is already in the film.
  • Interview with director Steve James (10:40, HD)
  • AXS TV: A Look at Life Itself (2:20, HD)
  • Trailer and trailers from other Magnolia releases


 Life Itself

Overall


Roger Ebert was a smart guy and self-aware enough to revisit his opinions, especially during the latter part of his life. He sometimes listened to his own critiques and even reconsidered the movies he hated (the noisiest example being his public arguments with Vincent Gallo over The Brown Bunny, followed by reconciliation and an approving review of the re-edited version of the film). He willingly jumped aboard the exploitation movie reevaluation train and defended Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill against the people that called it senselessly violent. Life Itself makes it really hard to stay mad at the guy for his snotty treatment of genre entertainment and even acknowledges his occasional bouts with self-righteousness (though it’s also needlessly defensive about the populist brand of film criticism). I recommend it most highly to Ebert’s fans and those people dealing with the specter of illness (whether their own or a loved one’s), but also believe his detractors will get something out of it. The Blu-ray looks and sounds about as good as expected from a digitally-shot retrospective documentary and the extras include 22 minutes of deleted scenes.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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