To write about Roger Ebert is to follow in the footprints — or rather the footfalls, as his legacy is even now still reverberating in the ears of every matinee-prowling punter, fanboy, cinematic autodidact or professional film journalist — of a more inimitable commentator, a fiercer advocate, and keener viewer of film-as-an-artwork of affect and expression than you might ever hope to countenance or encompass.
It’s been said innumerable times over so that it’s now beginning to assume the well-honed burnish of immediate cliché, but Ebert was the Voice of Movies. He lived to engage with them, he lived to evaluate and demystify them, he lived to cheerfully disdain those he hated, he lived to champion and venerate those he loved, but most significantly, Ebert lived to substantiate the claims and validity of film discourse and film reception and film criticism — never to trivialise or condescend to it.
He was, he is and he remains the best access point into an industry, a microcosm, a dialogue, an imaginary, an aesthetic project, and a personal communion with living narrative conjured on screen. The impact and readability and longevity of Ebert’s voice is wholly contingent on his humanism, his sagacity, his droll delivery, and his lifelong journalistic investment to cut through the bullshit. Above all else, Ebert’s chief virtue was — in the context of his status as a forefather to conventional syndicated film criticism within the domain of populist mass media, but also as an unwitting tastemaker responsible for legitimating public debate over art — his policy to profess an irrefutable honesty which no newspaper or organ of cultural address can buy.
Ebert’s virtue as a man is less frequently emphasised, though no less evident nor documented nor storied if one desires to pursue the macro story, and accommodate oneself to the fact that not much of Ebert’s life was easy or untroubled.
This is what Life Itself, Steve James’s seminal feature-length documentary — a deftly compelling, bibliographic companion piece to Ebert’s memoir of the same title — is most facile at delineating: isolating or interrogating those moments, those verities and sincerities, those sorrows, those charged private disclosures, those memories, those verbal spats, those eloquent defences which constituted the meat of his final moments. What is emotively apparent is that Ebert the man is an extension of the values represented in his writing. Under James’s warm and approving — albeit never hagiographic — scrutiny, Ebert the man is shadowed as he undergoes specialist physical rehabilitation treatment for the hip-bone fracture and jawbone cancer that would later claim him, is simultaneously mythologised and disburdened of the disquieting freight of genius, is made ordinary, is revealed as a wry, wisecracking Midwestern holy fool, an exponent of the human enrichment which empathy for others external to oneself affords, and is presented as possessing a gratitude for being the one to lure us back under the flicker of the projectionist’s beam.
Ebert is a man who navigated those vertices of the map beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He kept fast to his path, aiming straight at the peaks of cinematic reclamation. He’s now perched forever in the forebrain of moviegoing America. He spoke so passionately and for so long he lost his voice along the way, but the echoes of its bright cadences surround us still.