[Review] - Life Itself

Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
Documentaries are hard things to review, for me at least. Unlike a traditional film, documentaries set out to tell a real story, and in the case of biographic documentaries, are less likely to follow the standard act structure or to follow any of the general rules of story telling that a reviewer can use as a guide post. So, it comes down to two things: did the film capture it's subject, and did it do so objectively? Is there an obvious bias? Is this as complete a story as could be told on this subject?

Life Itself is as complete a biography as a documentary could be, and it was so entirely by accident. Based on film critic Roger Ebert's published biography, it covers the usual ground of a biography, detailing his early life and rise up through his profession, detailing the personal struggles and successes that lead to his beings so heavily revered and respected. But director Steve James was able, thanks to a quirk of timing, to capture much more than that. While one strand of the film tells of Ebert's life, another captures his final months and weeks. And so Ebert's past is told in flashback, and his final reel is caught in action, resulting in as honest and complete retelling of an entire life as I have ever seen on film. It does not shy from the difficult or the undesirable, and is at times difficult to watch. And it is done in Ebert's own voice.

Hit the jump for the brief review.


For anyone who fails to understand the importance and influence of Roger Ebert, this film sets that record straight. Ebert loved movies. He respected filmmakers. And he believed that his opinion was valid. Not that it was right, but that a person, knowledgeable and articulate, should voice their opinion intelligently. And should that opinion help sway others, than it has been put to good use. For anyone who knew him simply from his thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews, those were barely even reviews. Ebert certainly didn't believe they were infallible. They were at best abstracts. He viewed his time on Siskel and Ebert (later Ebert and Roeper) as a way to introduce to as large an audience as possible films worth seeing. To give them the nudge in the right direction.

Life Itself begins near the end of Ebert's life, though no one knows it at the time, and returns to this period as it's foundation. Having entered the hospital with a fractured hip, James begins his involvement in Ebert's life as Ebert struggles with rehab. It is in these moments in 2012 and 2013 that the audience is given as unfettered a look at his condition as could be hoped, by Ebert's own wishes. As he says at one point, "it is not only your movie," to the director, and that sentiment is felt throughout the course of the film. This is no cherry picked walk down memory lane. This is a life unabashedly exposed. Be it the medial condition and treatments of his final weeks, or the hardships and arrogance of his youth. Nothing is exorcised in the name of vanity. Very much the opposite.

For me, the greatest challenge as a member of the audience was watching a man who lived by his words and made his living with his voice struggle when that was taken from him. The angry beating of pen to air, desperate of paper in hand so that he can write just a thought, is a paralyzing notion. This is all held in stark relief to the fact that Ebert narrates the film. Extracts taken from the audio book of his memoir provide a self guided tour of his life, augmented by the standard taking heads of friends and colleagues and rivals of the past. This means that Ebert is the first to expose his own weaknesses. Be it through the disembodied voice, an oddly poignant element considering that his body sits voiceless only a few frames away, or through the considerable archival footage of the man over the years. What you walk away from more than anything is how very much Ebert lived his life in front of the camera. For a man who dedicated his career to studying what was put to film, that seemed appropriate. And that ultimately, everything short of his final moments was captured there too seems fitting.

The public image of Ebert is not destroyed by this film; if anything it is enhanced. He was a man with an ego, and an arrogance that allowed him to back that up. He fought, and won out, and as time went on began to grow more humble. This is perhaps no better exemplified then in his relationship with Gene Siskel, with whom he will forever be associated. The vitriol they spewed at one another was practically comedic. The film does not hide the fact that these two men loathed each other, for a time. As time went one, and both men learned to live in the shadow of the other, they came to an understanding. The way the film lays it out, you can see the revelation of affection between them, an event that took years, in moments. It is moving, and sad that death was ultimately the precipitating factor. He was also a man of great passions, and not just for film. He was an alcoholic, a philanderer, and finally, eventually, a devoted husband and father. His wife Chaz is as much a voice in the film as Ebert is, and as strong a presence. You see her struggle as much as you see Ebert, as he reaches out to be understood she must watch and try to figure out what it is that he wants. As much as some movies might try to tell us otherwise, absolute love does not result in a universal language.

Ebert believed that film was an art form, not just a piece of pop culture trash. He believed that film had value. And he lived his life through them. At one point, someone comments that Ebert covered film for half the length the form existed, in the process, became as much a part of its history as those directors he was championing, those actors whose performances moved hi, and those films he valued above all others. There is a sequence in the film that speaks more to Ebert's impact than any other, when James speaks to several of the filmmakers whom Ebert "discovered." Those whose works were given real life by his attentions. Whose careers, they all agree, are owed to a man who used words and considerable knowledge to highlight value, regardless of context. There is a clip from At The Movies shown where he passionately defends a long forgotten film, because it is a children's movie and must be viewed in the context of others, and cannot be compared to the likes of Scarface or other offerings. That he saw value in something that others wrote off, because he understood that it occupied a space, and that the space was as important as the occupant.

With that in mind, Roger Ebert was a film critic. He liked going to the movies. He won the Pulitzer prize for doing so. That was his space. He himself, as this film goes to great measures to show, was human, with all the faults and tragedies that accompany such an existence. His space was in the audience, watching story unfold on the screen before him. That space was as important as the occupant. Movies made Roger Ebert, and Roger Ebert made movies. Both were better off with the other, and now that one is gone, the other has lost something it will never get back. Life Itself is a final, worthy memoriam, and the last great impact Ebert will have on the medium. His last movie was his own.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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