Friday, August 1, 2014

Life Itself (2014)

I never had the opportunity to meet Roger Ebert. This isn't something that should come as a surprise; by the time I began working on this blog, Ebert was living a life mostly confined to hospitals, a result of his cancer diagnoses. He was writing more on his blog than he was for the the Chicago Sun-Times, his longtime newspaper gig. I wish I could have met him once along this mortal coil, though. He was the film critic that I - not just I, but all of us who call ourselves film geeks, who take time out of their days to write about film because it's a compulsion - aspired to be. His reviews were erudite, drawing from a wealth of knowledge about the world and everything in it, but were also always accessible. You didn't have to understand literary or cultural theory to grasp the points of his writing. He was that friend you had that seemed to know everything, but never acted like he was above you. If I could write just one-tenth as well as he did…

Life Itself, a new documentary based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, paints a portrait of the man who brought "thumbs up" to the lexicon of reviewing movies. And the film doesn't pull any punches: filmed during the final months of his life, it presents Ebert as a man who was certainly brilliant, but was nonetheless a flawed man struggling to make sense of life.

More after the jump.

The film comes courtesy of director Steve James, whose films were championed by Ebert when James was first breaking through (in fact, James' Hoop Dreams - now considered one of the greatest documentaries ever - was named the best film of 1994 by Ebert). Despite being unable to speak with his own voice, Ebert is shown in generally good spirits, the twinkle in his eye endearingly mischievous. Because of Ebert's condition, James frames most of the film around anecdotes from Ebert's life, sitting down with friends and co-workers, as well as his wife Chaz and three filmmakers whom Ebert supported: Ava DuVarney (Middle of Nowhere), Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart), and Martin Scorsese. They cover the highlights of Ebert's life, from time as editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to his Pulitzer Prize in 1975, from his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls script to the success of his syndicated television program, Siskel & Ebert At the Movies, which he co-hosted with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel.

As their show made them the most famous film critics in America, a significant portion of the film is dedicated to understanding Ebert's complicated relationship with Siskel. The two were famously contentious, with their arguments over a particular film often continuing long after the cameras finished rolling. It's here that we're presented with a different vision of Ebert: a man who's stubborn and controlling, who was irritated and vicious when provoked. He could be an abrasive personality, and during his youth he had a drinking problem that nearly ended his life early. Yet Ebert wasn't shy about these things. There's a small moment in the film when he knows he's receiving the news that he won't have much longer to live. Through his voice software, he tells James to keep this in the film, because documentaries are supposed to be about truth.  This was who Ebert was: a man always interested in truth, no matter how unseemly it was.

I've written so much of this review with details of Ebert's life, without really commenting on the film itself. Ebert was a proponent of the idea that a film should be judged not on what it's about, but how it presents its subject material. What Life Itself does so terrifically is that it makes its presentation of Ebert's life feel conversational, like you're hearing it being told by the man himself. In many ways, it is; it is based on his memoir, after all. But more importantly, the film gives Ebert his voice back. This is his story told by him, giving us one last chance to listen to him speak before his passing in April 2013. And by letting him tell the story, we feel like we're getting to know him a little more intimately. As I said above, I never got the chance to meet Roger Ebert. Because of Life Itself, I feel like I have now, at least  briefly.

Most importantly, we get to know Ebert the man, rather than Ebert the critic. It's easy for some of us - myself especially - to deify our idols, to see them as perfect specimens that came to this world as pure goodness. But Ebert was a man, an imperfect human being just like the rest of us. He could be an asshole. He faced a number of problems throughout his life, and he didn't always handle them the best way. He had regrets. He made mistakes. He was just like us. He was one of us.

Life Itself, this beautiful documentary, is the essence of one of my favorite Ebert quotes:
"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 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."
We'll have more film critics. We'll have more great film critics. But we'll never have another Roger Ebert.

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