Director: Steve James
Writer: Roger Ebert, Steve James
Stars: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Release Date: January 19, 2014 (Sundance Film Festival) / July 4, 2014 (United States)
A testament of living and dying and all the loving that takes place therein. Life Itself is a towering and inspiring monument to Roger Ebert.
Life Itself is the story of how one man lived and how he died to tell about it. Dying is part of life and it serves as our base camp throughout this documentary between stretches of climbing mountains of memories. The man is Roger Ebert and there is an unsettling possibility that I would not be writing this review or any other review if it were not for him.
Earlier this year I worked through Ebert's memoir of the same name. It was less in anticipation of this film and more in solemn remembrance of losing one of the greatest cinephiles who ever breathed in a theater. "I was born inside the movie of my life," he begin the autobiography. It's a shame he didn't live to see the completion of his film, but Roger himself admits to the cameraman during unfettered access into his private hospital room that "it makes for a better story." A man who understood the stakes it takes to craft a well-made and well-earned climax was thinking of the audience up to the very end. His life became drama.
Roger spent some of those final months laying in a hospital bed, but that was not going to keep him down. He sat up with a laptop before him, typing away a new blog post or interacting with a reader in the comments. He had long since lost the ability to talk and by this point could not eat or drink on his own. The remainder of his jaw, which you can look right through and see his neck brace, flaps around like a fish out of water whenever he attempts to talk. It's a habit he cannot break. Ebert needed a pen-and-paper or his MacBook to communicate. Throughout most of the film it's the HAL 9000-like voice of his computer that answers the filmmaker's questions. His life became science-fiction.
As much of the film bares Ebert's final chapter, the majority of Life Itself is set in the past. We learn of his childhood in Illinois, how he became a newspaperman with a distinct voice at a young age and how he was told on April 1, 1967 by the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times that he would be replacing the paper's retiring film critic. We hear anecdotes of the wild women he would drag into O'Rourkes, how drinking became his favorite past-time and social stage and how he nearly lost it all due to alcoholism and depression. We shake our heads in wonder at his involvement with Russ Meyer and the making of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and observe the brotherly turmoil sewn with Gene Siskel over their years At the Movies (though a better name might have been At Each Other's' Throats). His life became a madcap comedy, but not before almost ending in tragedy.
The most moving piece of Roger's mortality comes at the ripe age of fifty with his marriage to Chaz. She came into his life (bringing kids and grandkids) and ushered out his loneliness forever more. In those agitating florescent-lit hospital days it's Chaz by his side, pushing him forward in physical therapy and literally keeping him alive. Theirs' emerges as one of the great onscreen love stories of our time. A line of realism is drawn and we se what so many scripted films lack: Taking another's burden upon your back to make their suffering your sacrifice. That's true love, no matter how many romantic pictures fool us into believing otherwise. It's only fitting that a film called Life Itself is able to move through so many of the cinematic genres. His life became romance.
The film also manages to incorporate sections from Ebert's other must-read, Awake in the Dark. Reviews of the greatest films he ever saw (from Bonnie and Clyde to The Tree of Life) are given significant screen time and the chapter devoted to the Cannes Film Festival is enough to make anyone want to add it to their life's itinerary if they have not yet been.
After a lifetime of film consumption and evaluation, Roger knew how to make a great one of his own. The most obvious sign was entrusting renowned documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) to direct it, though I'm still going to imagine what Werner Herzog's Life Itself would be like. At times Ebert plays a song from his iTunes as if jumping forward to post-production to lay down the film's soundtrack.He texts Steve after one day with sheer satisfaction that they did not shy away from showing Ebert's daily suction ritual.
The supporting cast includes Ebert's friends and colleagues, new and old, any with stories to tell. Fellow film critics and renowned filmmakers whose lives Ebert particularly touched (including Scorsese and Herzog) are interviewed. It is explored how a critic could maintain a relationship, let alone a friendship, with those whose work he had to "impartially" evaluate. We are seeing another version at that with critics reviewing Life Itself.
Is it possible for them to not favor a film about the poster child of their profession and a chief cineaste among us all? I do not know, but I cannot deny the film that this is, even if I was pre-programmed to love every second of it. Certainly I am partial and biased. Certainly I am not going to change that and become a robotic evaluator of films. There's a difference between an open mind and an open heart, but I prefer to listen to both when I watch a film and later when I write about it. Roger Ebert further opened both for me and I cannot imagine how Life Itself would not have the same effect on you. I doubt I will ever write another review as long as I live and not think about him.