Roger Ebert is dead. Long live Roger Ebert. If there’s one thing that’s plain from documentarian Steve James’s warts-and-all tribute to perhaps the most famous film critic ever, it’s that his influence will continue to be felt for many decades to come, at least. Not only through the younger critics he inspired — including yours truly — but through the filmmakers he lobbied for and supported… such as Martin Scorsese, who here says that he would have given up (not just on movies but on life) if not for the recognition and public acclaim he got early in his career from Ebert and his partner in film criticism on TV, Gene Siskel. Life Itself, based in part on Ebert’s memoir, does not ignore the “radioactive” relationship that fired the two Chicago critics and their highly influential televised sparring over movies. The film couldn’t ignore it, in fact, because it appears to have been part and parcel of the dedication to principle and unabashed strong emotion that characterized Ebert’s approach to movies, which he defended mightily. Ultimately a quite touching biography, Life Itself is also an accidental look at the tremendous upheaval that journalism has weathered in the past half century: gone is the “unspeakably romantic” — those are Ebert’s words — hard-drinking boys’ club of the 60s and 70s, one that was almost exclusively white and male (as the parade of Ebert’s fellow critics talking about him here demonstrate). Ebert may have helped foster intelligent conversation about film on the Internet once he lost his speaking voice to cancer, but he was also overseeing the decline of the impact of critics’ voices as the money and power drifted away from the discipline and criticism stopped being able to compete with marketing and PR. We must lament not only Ebert himself but the likely fact that we really won’t see a critic with his authority again.
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