At the beginning of Life Itself, which premiered at Sundance on Sunday night, Roger Ebert gives his description of movies as a "machine that generates empathy." Based on the audible sobs from the audience as Steve James' documentary, and Ebert's life, neared their ends, this machine did its job exceptionally well.
The Q&A that followed the screening, which was also watched live by contributors to Life Itself's Indiegogo campaign, served as a miniature panel discussion on Ebert's life and work, with James joined by Ebert's widow, Chaz, Marlene Siskel, the widow of Ebert's longtime TV companion, and Ebert's friend William Nack.
The first question came from a visibly overwhelmed young man who began, "Five years ago I had no interest in movies. Then I found Roger." Through tears, he told a story of his life falling apart for reasons that were hard to make out, and the crowd grew uncomfortable as he kept speaking, before finishing up: "Roger saved me." The moderator took the opportunity to remind audience members to keep their questions short, but Chaz got to her feet and looked the young man in the eye.
"Roger would say 'Don't give him the hook.' It took a lot of courage to say that, and he would love it."
Ebert went into the hospital two days after Life Itself began filming, so for most of the film he's confined to a hospital bed, with James' camera watching as nurses suction-clean the tube in his throat. "It's good you got that," Ebert remarks via the text-to-speech program on his MacBook. When it's revealed that the hairline hip fracture that put Ebert in the hospital was a result of cancerous tumors on his spine, James told Ebert he wasn't sure Chaz wanted that information to be public. But Ebert emailed James that he needed to include it. "This isn't only your film."
"During Roger's entire career as a critic," Chaz said, "he said that the films that touched people the most were when you really saw someone warts and all, when you had a more authentic experience. He said if he was going to participate in this film, he couldn't change the rules for himself."
One of the subjects Life Itself addresses is the unusually close relationship Ebert had with many of the filmmakers he championed, and whether those friendships might have jeopardized his objectivity. A questioner turned that equation around to ask James if his own relationship with Ebert made it difficult to be objective.
"Life's too short to do a film on someone you don't admire in some way," said James, who before the screening credited Ebert, and Sundance, with establishing his career by embracing Hoop Dreams. "But I also felt and knew that Roger wanted this to be a real portrait of the man."
Life Itself's most wart-free passage concerns his often-contentious relationship with Siskel, including the famous outtakes where the pair's attempt to tape a promo for an upcoming show devolves into them hurling insults at each other. But it also paints their relationship as an increasingly close and eventually loving one. Marlene Siskel, who has previously avoided speaking publicly about her husband's death, said that she felt "I had to participate because I know that Gene would have wanted to be a part of it. He would have wanted to be in it more, though."
The playful echo of their rivalry continued with Chaz rebutting Marlene's statement from the film that Gene was the "elegant" member of the duo.
"As an Ebert to a Siskel," Chaz said, "Gene was not more elegant than Roger."
With perfect timing, Marlene responded, "It's your night, Chaz."