Life Itself (2014)

Directed by Steve James

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Life Itself chronicles the career and life of famed film critic Roger Ebert.  The documentary is directed by Steve James who made the four year odyssey of Hoop Dreams, another Chicago-set story and a film which Ebert himself was very fond of.

The documentary begins by acknowledging Ebert’s recent passing, but then we meet the older, ill man in a hospital with his wife Chaz.  James talks directly to Ebert, even responding to some playful direction from the ailing man.  It becomes clear at this point how involved Ebert was in the telling of this story, not so much in how the story is told but just through his candidness.  This isn’t one of those documentaries made about a legend after their death, but rather one made more organically, one with Ebert’s own touch.

A lot is covered within this two hour film, but Ebert’s involvement is important.  It might just offer the most insight into the theme of all his work and say something about how he lived his life.

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” – Roger Ebert

When Ebert’s longtime friend/nemesis/costar/fellow film critic Gene Siskel passed away in 1999 from a rapidly spreading brain cancer, he had for so long hidden the information from many around him, including Ebert.  Despite the two men’s sometimes (humorously) contentious relationship, they had a certain closeness that made Ebert feel betrayed by being kept out of the loop.  After Siskel’s death Ebert told his wife, Chaz, that were something to happen to him he would not want to hide it away.

In the mid-2000’s Ebert announced at a conference that he had cancer in his jaw.  Soon he had his jaw removed, taking away his ability to talk and eat/drink on his own.  When James meets him to discuss the documentary, only months before his death, Ebert is in the hospital because of a hairline fracture in his hip that he soon learns is due to a spreading cancer.

Roger Ebert was very ill when he took part in the documentary, meant to be made with his involvement and not in anticipation of or reaction to his death.  The camera rolls on several intimate and even jarring moments.  In one, Ebert insists that James film as a nurse irrigates his throat, complete with that sucking sound you associate with a visit to the dentist.  The experience does not look pleasant, but Ebert does look pleased when he knows James got it on camera.

Life Itself tracks Ebert’s health over his final months parallel to a description of his life and career as a whole, pulling passages from Ebert’s own memoir.  He combines that with interviews of friends and former coworkers.  They talk about Ebert’s college years, his beginnings at the Chicago Sun-Times, eventual rise to something like stardom and a stubborn, heartwarming refusal to leave the Sun-Times for the Chicago Tribune or even a bigger newspaper.  After Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize he could’ve gone anywhere, and yet he remained in Chicago for all his life.

A large part of the film documents Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel, the rival film critic for the Chicago Tribune.  Together they hosted Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, and their feud onscreen was anything but contrived.  The two men often disagreed and fought like brothers.  Despite Siskel’s younger age, one interviewee says Ebert saw him as a big brother.

This section of the film is the most entertaining and heartwarming.  It follows a conventional rise to stardom kind of arc, with the two critics becoming unlikely television stars and then fighting between themselves like any movie ever made about a band that makes it big.

James shows us behind the scenes clips of the critics recording promos for their shows and mercilessly tearing into each other when one makes a mistake.  They really seem to hate each other, and while there vitriol is undeniable, later clips will show a great deal of warmth between them.  The fighting turns into mean-spirited joking which just turns into joking that they both laugh about.

The heartwarming nature of this relationship mirrors that of another, between Ebert and his wife Chaz.  Roger is presented as something of an oddball in his younger years, even through his forties I suppose.  Despite his career success, he was so married to his career (really his passion) that he kept the same small apartment and seemed to avoid dealing with the same things as other adults.  As Gene Siskel is believed to have said, when Ebert got married it was a sign that he would soon have a montage and other financial burdens that would equalize the playing field.  This meant to Siskel that Ebert would not leave their show despite their constant fighting, something which made Siskel nervous.

The relationship between Roger and Chaz covers multiple areas in the film.  First there is the talk of how it calmed Roger down and gave him the family he never had.  Then there’s a discussion of it being an interracial marriage, something they both had slight qualms about, and this leads into Ava DuVernay discussing how Roger’s marriage to Chaz might have helped him be more open to other perspectives that some critics of the old guard would’ve turned away from.  Finally there’s ample coverage of how Chaz works with and cares for her husband in his final months.  She discusses the challenges of caring for Ebert while still pushing him to be his best self, to do what he’s still capable of doing.  In a sense this kind of tough love mirrors Ebert’s own perspective on the films and directors he covered.

Ebert is shown to be an incredibly caring, empathic person but one who didn’t let this affect his commitment to his profession.  In one sequence we see how he championed the early work of Martin Scorsese and, alongside Siskel, asked Scorsese to attend a ceremony in his honor at a point in Scorsese’s life when things weren’t going very well.  Scorsese expresses how humbled he was by the experience, and this follows a sequence in which people explain how Ebert openly fraternized with the people he was covering, something other critics abstained from for fear of letting it influence their work.

It certainly didn’t influence Ebert’s work.  When Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) was released, Ebert panned it in his review.  In an interview Scorsese can only laugh, clearly remembering the pain of such a review but acknowledging that it demonstrated Ebert’s objectivity in his work.

The documentary covers things like Ebert’s alcoholism in his youth, his consistent visits to a Boulder, Colorado yearly conference, his writings and drawings on topics that had nothing to do with film, his interest in journalism outside of film at a young age, his startling fame as well as a backlash to what was considered to be low brow film criticism of his show, Ebert’s influence on young filmmakers, Ebert’s love for the yearly Cannes film festival, Ebert’s love for talking about film just for the sake of talking about film as well as his relationship with Chaz’s family.

This all paints a portrait of a kind, enlightened, selfless soul but one who wasn’t above the occasional childlike petulance.  He was an only child, after all.

These occasional forays into Ebert’s less glamorous (though still pretty harmless) side helps make him more human.  He’s still just a guy, someone who sometimes gets things wrong, and he has an ego just like any of us.  Still he transcended that ego and grew out of certain reckless ways and into an older soul who seemed to have a sense of the bigger picture.  In reviews he often referred to his own experience as well as ways in which he has changed.  The documentary includes excerpts from his reviews over the years demonstrating his life philosophy and the way he wove it into his writing.

My lasting memory of this film will be the image of a delighted Ebert, within the last years of his life, clapping eagerly while an employee of the Sun-Times shows him and Chaz how he has digitized all of Ebert’s work, placing it onto this blog: https://www.rogerebert.com

Ebert can’t speak without the use of a keyboard and computerized voice, and the results of his cancer and multiple surgeries is strikingly clear.  Still you can see the joy in his eyes and mannerisms.  He’s giddy and proud, someone who found what he loved and spent his life doing it as best he could.

Up Next: The Limey (1999), Hard Eight (1996), Solaris (2002)

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