Saturday, July 5, 2014

Life Itself


Grade: 87/A-

For most people who grew up watching or reading Roger Ebert’s work, it’s difficult to approach Steve James’s documentary Life Itself without emotional baggage. It’s even harder for people who developed an active interest in film and film criticism because of Ebert. An adaptation of Ebert’s memoir of the same name, Life Itself chronicles Ebert’s life and career, his passion for the movies, his populist approach to criticism and his battle with cancer. It’s a moving portrait of the critic, but it’s also a thoughtful one. It doesn’t excuse or overlook his shortcomings, but instead uses them to show him as an imperfect yet extraordinary man.

The film begins with Ebert’s famous quote that the a movie is “a machine that generates empathy.” After a brief overview of his youth and his beginnings as a newspaperman, Life Itself carefully balances his professional highs – writing Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, becoming the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the run of Siskel & Ebert – and his more complicated personal life, including his battles with alcoholism and his combatative relationship with his S&E partner Gene Siskel.

James, the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, is a master at taking years of footage and shaping it into a coherent and steady narrative. While he can’t quite match his source material, which is more exhaustive, has more room for tangents and anecdotes about his early years, and features Ebert’s indispensible voice, he can preserve the work’s pulse, its essential power. And while he retains some of Ebert’s voice, he also includes the voices of those who knew him best: his colleagues at the Chicago Sun-Times, the wife of the late Siskel, his drinking buddies, the filmmakers whose careers he helped (Werner Herzog) or outright made (Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani), and his family, all of which brings new perspective and keeps the film from being just a highlight reel of Ebert’s book.

They speak warmly about Ebert, about his rise to become America’s most beloved critic. Scorsese’s interview segments are particularly effective, as he admits that Siskel and Ebert’s support of his work helped him get through a number of personal and professional setbacks in the 80s. Lest the film come across merely as a fawning tribute, though, the subjects never hide that for his apparent jollity on television, he could be a petty man. The narrative of the Siskel and Ebert relationship is that for all of their arguments, they loved each other. The truth is more complicated, with their arguments sometimes veering towards outright meanness; Ebert himself is described as sometimes egotistical and petulant.

The film doesn’t totally dispense with Ebert skeptics, either. Both Richard Corliss (formerly of Film Comment) and Jonathan Rosenbaum (formerly of The Chicago Reader) show up to speak about their criticism of the duo. Corliss has softened on Ebert, but at the time he felt that the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down system on Siskel & Ebert reduced criticism to Good/Bad questions. Rosenbaum, a friend of Ebert but a frequent contrarian, holds that Siskel & Ebert fed into the Hollywood machine. Neither are able to fully flesh out their arguments, but they’re not entirely dismissed, either. Ebert’s response to Corliss in Film Comment best shows where the film’s head is at: yes, there were limits to how in-depth the show could get for the average consumer in two-minute bursts, but it made people interested in seeking out films they might not otherwise, and damn it, that mattered.

The film is at its best, however, when tying Ebert’s past experiences with his illness during the making of the film. James – whose Hoop Dreams was championed by Siskel and Ebert, effectively making his career – is granted unfettered access to Ebert’s time in the hospital. He ties interviews and archival material with footage of Ebert, robbed by cancer of his jaw, his ability to eat or speak, still smiling, still relentlessly enthusiastic about life and eager to write (the film shows him ready to review 56 Up, for example). There’s something unspeakably moving about watching Ebert refuse to have to get his throat drained of liquid until he can play Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” as it’s done, as if to underline that for all of the pain he’s going through, it’s worth being able to write, to watch movies, and to have a few extra days with his family.

Rather than softening the impact of those scenes, Ebert’s zest for life and forthcoming nature makes it all the more difficult to watch him in pain – by this point, James has turned him into the viewer’s avuncular, movie-loving friend. It’s even more powerful when Ebert’s wife, Chaz is involved. As James tells the story of their marriage, their comfort with and support for each other, their openness, he prepares us to watch the deepest point of their love, as Chaz patiently works with Ebert through his excruciating ordeal through medical rehabilitation and pushes him to go on. It’s in these scenes where Life Itself plays as a gentler but no less aching companion piece to Michael Haneke’s Amour, where the truest form of love is standing by someone’s side as they slip away.

Life Itself is not a comprehensive movie. It can’t do justice to his youth or his formative relationships with his parents. It doesn’t cover the days of Ebert & Roeper or Ebert’s abortive attempt to keep Ebert Presents At the Movies with Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky going. And while it does feature a few critics who followed in his footsteps, most notably the always wonderful A.O. Scott, it might have benefited from a few more critics he influences (Matt Singer would have been especially welcome).

It doesn’t matter. It’s simultaneously a movie for those who loved Ebert and, for those who didn’t, one of those “empathy machines” he most valued. What made Ebert’s death so moving wasn’t just his connection to movie lovers around the world, but his refusal to let his sickness silence him or keep him from his movie love, and, when the time came, his choice to go with grace. Life Itself is a tribute, a eulogy, and, like most of Ebert’s work, a guide. His reviews were a guide for people to see good movies. His movie, and his story, is a guide on how to live a good life.

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