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Josh Reviews Life Itself

August 13th, 2014

It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves movies not being taken by Life Itself, Steve James (Hoop Dreams)‘s biopic of film critic Roger Ebert.  The film opens with a delightful quote from Mr. Ebert, in which he remarks on the power of movies to help one understand a little bit more about different people in different situations, describing movies as a “machine that generates empathy.”   What a delightful and fascinating point of view.  I was already a fan of Mr. Ebert’s work going into this documentary, but that quote reinforced not only what a terrific writer Mr. Ebert was, but also what an insightful perspective he had on cinema, this art-form that so many of us love so much.  I love the movies, and I have never heard my love of the movies framed in this manner.  The moment I heard Mr. Ebert’s words I was in full agreement, nodding my head at the way he had pinpointed a very important idea.

Based somewhat on Mr. Ebert’s memoir of the same title, Life Itself traces the life and career of Roger Ebert.  We explore how he discovered writing and his love of journalism, his early days as movie critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, and of course the film digs deeply into his long, sometimes-turbulent partnership with rival Chicago film-critic Gene Siskel.  The film takes the time to dwell on some of Mr. Ebert’s many notable film reviews and to explore other aspects of his professional life, while also giving us insight into his personal life.  We hear some entertaining stories from his earlier, hard-partying days, learn about his journey into sobriety, and see his late-in-life marriage to the love of his life, Chaz.

All of this is fascinating stuff and wonderfully interesting and enjoyable to learn.  But what sets Life Itself apart from a more standard biographical film about this film critic is the incredible access Mr. James had to Mr. Ebert in the difficult last year-or-so of his life.  In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, and between 2003 and 2008, he underwent multiple surgeries in an effort to remove the cancer and repair the damaged tissue in his jaw.  Mr. Ebert, the famous television movie-reviewer, lost the power of speech entirely, and eventually his entire lower jaw had to be removed.  (I still vividly remember this shocking Esquire magazine photograph that revealed to the world Mr. Ebert’s new face.)  Mr. Ebert lived like that for many years, using a computer to communicate and continuing to write.  Indeed, Mr. Ebert developed an extraordinary web-presence and the movie-reviews he posted on his blog were must-reads for movie fans across the globe, including myself.

Mr. James spent a great deal of time with Mr. Ebert and his wife Chaz in 2012-13, and as a result fully half of this documentary film is focused on Mr. Ebert’s last year of life.  The film shifts back and forth between telling a piece of Mr. Ebert’s life story and then shifting back to 2012-13 as we discover in great detail the new reality of Mr. Ebert’s life.

Both aspects of the film are incredible.  Mr. Ebert led a remarkable life and I am sure there were many, many more stories that could have been told that did not make it into the film.  But I love what we got.  It’s delightful listening to many of Mr. Ebert’s old chums tell yarns about their dear friend.  (There is an incredible moment mid-film in which one of his colleagues, praising Roger as the preeminent American film critic of our time, leans forward and declares “Fuck Pauline Kael!”  I nearly fell off my seat!)

The film spends a great deal of time discussing “Siskel and Ebert,” and through an impressive array of interviews with both men’s colleagues, friends, and family, we get an extremely well-rounded picture of Siskel & Ebert’s complicated relationship.  I don’t know how Mr. James and his team got their hands on this footage, but in one of my favorite moments of the film we get to see the raw footage of Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel attempting to film a promo for their show.  They keep messing up, and as take follows take they begin to viciously snipe at one another.  It’s raw and honest and absolutely incredible footage.  The are a lot of sad moments in the film, but the one that most got to me was when Marlene Iglitzen, Gene Siskel’s widow, remarks that while Roger was alive it felt to her like a piece of Gene was still alive, too.

Getting back to the other half of the film, that which follows Mr. Ebert’s last year of life — This aspect of the film is absolutely extraordinary.  It is incredibly difficult to watch at times, as the film is pretty unflinching in its look into Mr. Ebert’s difficult medical condition.  (There’ s a striking moment early in the film in which Mr. Ebert rejoices at the cameras capturing a sight not usually seen on film: the nurses auctioning some sort of fluid out of what is left of his neck.)  Some of this is tough to watch, and it’s very sad to learn more about how these medical woes cut down this rambunctious, powerful TV personality.

But these sections of the film are also incredibly uplifting and life-affirming.  It is absolutely extraordinary to see how Mr. Ebert continued on for so many years in the face of these devastating medical issues.  Throughout the film, even in difficult moments, we see how Mr. Ebert maintained his zeal for life.  We see the way he reinvented himself as a blogger and the incredible joy he still got from his work, and how persistent he was in finding ways to continue his life’s work as a movie-reviewer.  And we see the amazing relationship he had with his wife Chaz, a woman with impressive reserves of strength and intelligence and good humor.  (The film is almost as enjoyable for what we learn about Chaz as it is for what we learn about Roger Ebert.)

I could easily imagine a man buckling under what Roger Ebert had to endure with his medical situation, but the Roger Ebert we spend time with in this film is still an intelligent, vibrant man full of life, despite his being unable to speak and mostly confined to a wheelchair.  It is tremendously impressive and life-affirming.

Life Itself is a wonderful film.  It’s a compelling human story, one that is only enriched by the love of cinema that is embedded in the film and in Mr. Ebert himself.  I loved the film for the many stories of Mr. Ebert’s reviews and his many connections to and opinions about films from over the years, and I also loved it for this window into the enduring spirit of these two remarkable people, Roger and Chaz Ebert.

Of course: thumbs up.

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