Tonight, at the Carolina Theater, the Full Frame Winter Series will conclude with a free screening of Life Itself, a documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert. Steve James, who is best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, directed the film. He was honored with a Tribute at last year’s Full Frame Festival, which was one of many festivals where Life Itself was an audience favorite. Throughout 2014, film critics heralded Life Itself as one of the best documentaries of the year, though the film was snubbed by the Academy for Best Documentary.
When Life Itself aired on CNN a couple weeks ago, I watched it with the intent to write a review in anticipation of tonight’s Full Frame screening. However, part way through the film, I realized I had become too emotionally invested to write a standard review. Life Itself is aptly named, for its subject, Roger Ebert, is presented with such intimacy that I felt like I was watching not a film about his life but actually his life itself. Therefore, in lieu of a standard review, I have written the following letter to Mr. Ebert, who died of cancer on April 4, 2013.
Dear Mr. Ebert,
Before watching Life Itself, I saw no compelling reason to learn about your life. Although I believe your film criticism reflects the best of the genre, I am not one who is particularly interested in the details of a writer’s biography just because I admire his talent.
However, your life, presented on the screen by the brilliant Steve James, made for the kind of film I believe you yourself would enjoy. Like many of your favorite characters in the movies, you faced life as a flawed man but one whose growth and humanity defined you more than your imperfections. Your willingness to expose not only your flaws as a young man but also your most vulnerable moments in the last year of your life made Life Itself one of the most intimate films I have ever seen. Furthermore, your development as the real-life protagonist suggests there is hope for the rest of us flawed but striving human beings.
As a writer, and an admirer of your writing, I also appreciate the way Life Itself illuminates your approach to film criticism—an approach that has profoundly influenced my own. You were the people’s film critic, writing not for the litterateurs with PhDs in Art History and English but rather for everyday moviegoers. Yet your commentary was never elementary or simplistic. You provided the average reading American with a language to discuss movies with sophistication and thoughtfulness but without pretension.
Such an approach to film criticism is uncommon. Most film critics seem to adopt one of two opposite approaches: either they write primarily to demonstrate how superior their knowledge of film history is compared to others’, or, as is common among bloggers, they offer little more than their personal opinions and reactions to the films they see. Neither approach helps the reader learn much and therefore defeats what I believe to be the purpose of film criticism. Although I am not yet—and perhaps never will be—as adept as you were with the written word, whenever I write about film, I try to provide information and insight that will deepen readers’ understanding of specific films and appreciation for film in general. If my writing is ever half as lucid as yours, I will consider myself a successful writer.
In closing, I want to thank you for your willingness to put your life on display in Life Itself. You have astutely described film as a “machine that generates empathy,” a description especially apropos for the film about your life. Your family and friends should view Life Itself as a success, if for no other reason than for its solidifying empathy as a significant part of your legacy. With admiration and enthusiasm, I give a thumbs-up to both the film and your life—a life lived not to perfection but with passion and with empathy for your fellow characters.
The Carolina Theater will present Full Frame’s free screening of Life Itself tonight at 7:30. Viewers are advised to arrive early. Full Frame also has passes on sale for this year’s festival, April 9 – 12.