Sunday, August 3, 2014

Life Itself Movie Review

I remember when I first aspired to a be a film critic back in college, my feelings about Siskel and Ebert centered on annoyance that critical opinions on cinema could be reduced to a few minutes of a TV segment and a binary “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” decision. They were hacks, I thought, and had no place in real discussion of criticism. At some point, however, I began to watch clips from their show for the entertainment value of their arguments. Eventually I started actually reading Ebert’s reviews.

I think I was drawn to him above other critics because in the late 90s when many websites were incoherent messes, his section of the Chicago Sun-Times website was organized and navigable. You could easily search his vast library of writing and he had two regular features on alternating Sundays that I loved: a Great Movies essay and the Movie Answer Man (I managed twice to get a question answered in that column). And then I slowly discovered in his writing that not only did he know what he was talking about, but he could write so eloquently on the movies. His reviews are the very essence of accessible. His approach was always humanistic and measured; his writing simple and direct. When I started writing reviews, I would go first to his review of a movie after I’d finished my own. I lost count of the number of times he made a similar point in one sentence where I took four.

There’s a through-line in his writing that suggests a deep love of movies. He was a man enamored with what they could teach us about ourselves and also others. And that feeling was always conveyed in his writing. I grew to deeply admire him and going to his site became a twice weekly ritual. When Ebert lost his physical ability to speak he started opening up his personal life a great deal in the form of his blog. His posts were fascinating reads for how personally expressive they were and for being full of interesting bits that allowed us entrance into his mind. Though I’d been reading his work for years, I didn’t know he was married until he started mentioning his loving wife Chaz. I assumed it was a recent marriage. I was wrong. They were married in the early 90s. But the post-cancer and post-surgery Ebert seemed a very different presence. He wanted to share himself with the world.

This may seem an odd way to open a review of Life Itself, the documentary film by Steve James based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name. James began the process with Roger and Chaz several months before Ebert’s death. So why did I choose to begin with my own personal story and connection to the subject of this film? Perhaps because, as the film never tires of pointing out via interviews with various friends and colleagues of his, Ebert was a great story teller and was always willing to devote time to those who wrote to him. Steve James himself benefited a great deal from the “Siskel & Ebert” show’s glowing review and promotion of his documentary Hoop Dreams. When I received a personal response from Ebert following an email I wrote looking for information and advice regarding a controversial film I showed as President of my college film society, I thought I was incredibly lucky and special. It turns out that’s just who he was. He took time for everyone. When I visited Chicago and went to the Sun-Times building I couldn’t get in or go upstairs but I bet if I’d run into him, he would have stopped for me if I wanted to ask questions. So it turns out I wasn’t special, but he certainly was.

James’ documentary is a special tribute to this man who changed quite a bit about film criticism and how we think about it. Essentially the film is a portrait of the man, his relationships and his influence. The same warmth exuded by Ebert in his writing and interactions with other people is present in the film. I used to take it for granted that Ebert’s opinion would always be there as a reference. I knew one day he would leave us, but I never imagined it would be so soon. It’s as if anyone who thinks seriously about cinema has been robbed of an essential voice that helped us feel humanity in the movies. I don’t think you can possibly help coming away from the experience of Life Itself without feeling wonder at his prolific work output and tremendous sadness at the silencing of his unique voice.

This moving film drummed up all these thoughts and emotions in me, feelings I haven’t focused on since the week of Roger’s death last year. For that and for not flinching from showing Roger at both his bravest and most vulnerable moments in his final days (for which, by the way, we should also be thankful to Roger and Chaz), we must be thankful. On TV we really only ever got to see Ebert the critic. Through this film we get to see Roger the human being – the man anyone who ever had any personal interaction with him, be it lifelong friendship, marriage, or a brief email connection knew. Mr. Ebert himself would have been proud of this documentary.

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