“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…And then one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.”
These are the closing words of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, part of America’s greatest film critic, Roger Ebert’s, favorite passage in all of literature. And it’s impossible to read these words without thinking of the Ebert we meet in Steve James’ documentary, Life Itself, it’s title pulled from Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name.
The documentary is nothing short of terrific. It paints an illuminating study of an exceptional man, while asking large questions both personal and professional. Heartbreakingly, it captures his physical demise as well.
I say physical because Ebert lives on. During his lifetime, he became the most-powerful and influential film critic to have existed (a mantle he still carries today), while also legitimizing the form entirely. He was one of the first newspapermen to write solely about films–as he points out in his memoir, before him, newspapers used to run their movie reviews under the byline “Mae Tinee” (or, matinee). Whoever on staff saw the movie would write the review.
Ebert was also the first film critic to win a Pulitzer prize, one of a few to have done so. He was a wonderful writer, and a grand champion of film: directors Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, and Ramin Bahrani cite Ebert’s influence on their self-confidence (if not their art). Laura Dern gifted him a puzzle once owned by Marilyn Monroe.
He also transcended the written word. As part of ‘Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,’ he formed one half of the legendary critical machine that could float or sink a movie with the power of two thumbs. In Siskel, he also found his life’s great rival. The men, famously, did not get along, and it’s a credit to their collective professionalism that their show was a success at all–let alone a nationally syndicated behemoth that breathed life into not only studio flicks, but underseen and unrecognized works of cinema.
This was Ebert’s great power as a film critic. He was not only an arbiter of taste who had a way of speaking and writing that conveyed great intelligence without condensation – he celebrated the form. He wanted to watch everything, and he wanted to like it, too.
His cancer and its effects on his body (not to mention his wife, Chaz’s, life) are well documented. For years the rehab and treatment affected little his ability to work, to write. It gave him perspective. But by the end, as we’re shown in the film, his desire to keep fighting, to keep living ran out.
As a young man, he battled alcoholism (he met his wife in AA years later) and, at various points, lost his will to live. Sobriety and his work appeared to bring him a measure of peace, but as his physical and mental condition declined beyond an event horizon, so too did his will to live. In his last days he signed a DNR order, of which his wife was unaware, and faded out.
Of course, Ebert is far from gone. His life’s work lives on, as RogerEbert.com remains a bastion of film criticism and he remains Chicago’s favorite son. But for all of that, Ebert is a relic of the past now. Someone for whom future film buffs will find and build upon. For that’s his legacy. In his memory, tomorrow we will run faster and stretch our arms farther. We will beat on, boats against the current.
Director: Steve James