Life Itself — Engrossing Tribute to an Influential Movie Critic
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 identify with the people, who are sharing the world with us — Roger Ebert (1942—2013).
Roger Ebert was the popular film critic, who stood at the end of movie machine for decades, decoding its messages in a vibrant manner. He lost his public battle with cancer on April 2013. Five months before the April, Ebert and Chicago film-maker Steve James sat down to collaborate on a plan for the feature-length documentary. When “Life Itself” (2014) released a year later in Sundance Film Festival, it also became a eulogy, where the screening was reportedly filled with weeping. Ebert may not be the great movie critic ever, but he is one of the most important and popular one. Every film critic can’t easily write the profound phrases that could be found in his review. His smart and easily accessible commentary on world movies invited us to look into movies through a different perspective.
His arrogant, ruthless reviews and passionate, incisive reviews were all a delight to read, even though we often contradict with his views. Some of the intelligent film-criticism, I possess came mostly from reading or hearing his views on great movies. Yet, one might have several reservations in watching this documentary. Anyone who’s familiar with the critic’s last eight years –during which a series of operations for thyroid cancer deprived him from the ability to eat, drink or speak – would be familiar with his humble determination to live the life to its fullest. A documentary depicting those declining but brave days could have easily got carried away and looks to reap enough melodrama. However, Steve James circumvents those pitfalls by alternating between Ebert’s medical treatment and colorful recollections of his youth.
The documentary tracks back to his Daily Illini days, a college newspaper, where he served as the editor during his years at the University of Illinois. At the age of 21, he has written mature editorials in support of civil rights movement. When he was handed the film critic job at Chicago Sun-Times he became the youngest film critic in the US. Ebert, himself describes his younger self as ‘showboat, tactless and egotistical’. He was a womanizer. A bartender fondly recalls that Ebert had the worst taste in woman. He recalls, “They were either gold diggers, opportunists or psychos”. He was an alcoholic until 1979.
The funnier part comes when the film talks about Ebert’s involvement in Russ Meyer’s boobs-and-babes epic “Beyond the Valley of Dolls” (1970). The insightful part is about how Ebert helped Martin Scorsese to redeem from a dark period of cocaine addiction by hosting a festival retrospective of Scorsese films. Ebert has also stayed with Chicago Sun-Times for more than four decades, even after winning the Pulitzer Prize. The best part of the film is the love-hate friendship, Ebert had with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel.
Director James brings out insider accounts about Ebert/Siskel rivalry on the TV shows “At the Movies” and “Sneak Previews”. Interviews with the TV shows’ producers and Siskel’s wife Marlene gradually reveal that at the root of this rivalry and arguments there had been immense affection and friendship. However, the greatest moments in the documentary are the romance that changed Ebert’s life. Ebert met his wife of 20 years, Chaz in an AA meeting. The footages where Chaz stays by Ebert’s bedside, while he is fighting for his health, were all so moving. Without glossing over their relationship, James presents a perfect portrait of true unconditional love.
Martin Scrosese, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog join in to provide their remembrances of Ebert. Though Ebert’s voice was silenced in 2006, instead of reeling with self-pity he gained new vigor in writing, in these 7 years. Through blogging and social media he constantly sent his valuable insights to a new generation of movie-lovers. Steve James’ “Life Itself” (2014) doesn’t just share Ebert’s love for movies. It is a lively portrait of a man who showed immense courage in the endgame of his life.