Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Life Itself

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 
"Life Itself" is a wonderful documentary about one of the movies' great heroes - film critic and writer Roger Ebert, who died from cancer in 2013. The film has been put together by Steve James, whose "Hoop Dreams" Ebert championed at the time of its release in 1994, and is made up of excerpts from the critic's book "Life Itself" as well as archival footage from his sparring with Gene Siskel and extremely candid sequences filmed in the hospital where Ebert received treatment in 2012.

As a critic, Ebert often brought elements of his personal life into his reviews, so I'll do the same here. Some people object to critics drawing upon their own personal experiences when reviewing something, whether it's a movie, record, book, piece of art, theatrical production, what-have-you. Frankly, I quickly tire of critics who do not bring a personal element to their work and have a hard time believing that anyone who spends their life writing criticism could be so detached.

Ebert was a long-time inspiration to me, even during his later years when I found myself disagreeing with his opinions more and more. And that's not to say that I was always on the same page with him all along. But for me to love a critic's work, I don't have to agree with him (well, at least some of the time, maybe). What I loved about Ebert's work (and J. Hoberman's and Glenn Kenny's and AO Scott's, etc.) is that he always brought a unique perspective to what he was writing about. He enabled you to discover things in a movie that you might not have seen. And his love for cinema was obvious and infectious. Growing up, I read his film review books cover to cover, inspiring myself to seek out all the pictures he reviewed, from the great ("Paris, Texas") to the truly awful ("The Lonely Lady").

In James' picture, Ebert is quoted as saying that the movies are an "empathy machine" that help viewers to better understand the world in which they live and the people accompanying them on their journey. Movies, much like any other type of art, are meant to challenge the way we see things and teach us a little something about what it means to be human.

"Life Itself" takes a warts-and-all approach. In other words, the film is not meant to canonize Ebert and, apparently, this approach was exactly what he wanted. In his early days, the critic - who started out as a newspaper man, writing an eloquent response to 1963's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and covering sports - was said to have been cocky. He loved to hold court at the local bars and didn't like people to challenge him.

As the years passed by and Ebert first battled alcoholism and then met the love of his life, Chaz, whom he married in the early 1990s, he became a kinder, gentler person. Toward the end of his life, he was known for his generosity, going out of his way to get the word out for small films and helping their makers earn a chance at the spotlight as well as being supportive to critic hopefuls, many of whom became contributors to his blog.

James interviews a number of filmmakers for the film, including Gregory Nava, Ramin Bahrani and Errol Morris. Comic relief comes in the form of Werner Herzog and a sequence dedicated to Ebert's work as the screenwriter for Russ Meyer's notorious cult classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," whereas an interview with Martin Scorsese takes a turn for the poignant.

At the center of the film is the love-hate relationship between Ebert and Siskel during the making of their nationally syndicated review show. This makes for more than a few hilarious clips of the two trading barbs. But what began as a competitive relationship eventually became a brotherly one, despite that the two men likely would never have admitted it.

The film's most difficult passages are those in the hospital, where we get no holds barred scenes of Ebert having his throat drained. The critic, who eventually lost his jaw to cancer, is clearly suffering during these scenes. Yet, Ebert wanted them included in the film, most likely due to his decision not to hide his illness as Siskel, who died after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor in 1999, did during his last year of life. The film argues that these painful moments we witness are part of life and that the film, which is, after all, titled "Life Itself," is meant to capture Ebert's entire experience.

If any topics are slighted, it's that of the brief feud between Ebert and Richard Corliss that followed after the latter panned Siskel and Ebert's thumbs-up-thumbs-down system in Film Comment. It's mentioned in the film and Corliss - along with Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (who also once slightly bemoaned Ebert's populist criticism) - makes a brief appearance for the seemingly sole purpose of showing that there was no love lost.

Otherwise, this is a powerful film about a great writer, a wonderful critic and a truly decent guy. The picture is also a testament to a time gone by as critics now struggle to find paid work. Here's a story about a guy who was at the right place at the right time, found an opportunity and impacted film criticism more so than any other writer of his generation.

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