2014, d. David James (Hoop Dreams)
David's writeup of Life Itself is one of, if not the best review he has written for this site. It's a heartfelt reaction to this man, Roger Ebert, who we never met, but who we knew intimately through his writing. Ebert was, and remains, for David and myself and countless others, the inspiration for what we do, which is talk -- and think -- about movies in a way that engages the public, even if the public is only one other person.
David asked me after the film if it was a good documentary, pleading his own ignorance of documentaries and their form. I said, at the time, that I couldn't tell, basically because I was so emotionally invested in the subject matter from the get go I wasn't able to be objective. A good documentary, though, starts with a thesis, but will find the path that it does in spite of the thesis, not because of it, whether it backs it up or not. A documentary lives its life and unfolds as such upon the screen, and you can tell when a film is being dishonest in this regard. Life Itself began as a documentary on Roger Ebert's life, based of his similarly titled memoir, and very quickly turned into a chronicle of his remaining time on Earth. That fits the bill.
What documentaries can often do that makes them distasteful or unsavoury is deify their subjects, but director Steve James made it clear from the beginning that this film isn't his alone but a joint effort with Ebert himself, and Ebert would not permit such aggrandizing of his character. Ebert, we learn, was not a humble man, but he was confident of his place in the world, and that allowed him all the freedom and confidence to give his opinion and have it mean something. When Ebert injured himself, and later fell ill once again, he seemed uniquely proud to have James document it, and fearless to have every painful moment put on screen.
And it is painful. It's truly a film where I watch a loved one die before me. I grieved when Ebert passed away the first time, and I sobbed in the theatre when it inevitably happened again. Because for all his strength, there came a time where even he was too weak to face the camera, to put that face on screen. But he was also strong enough to make the decision that it was his time, something that his incredible wife Chaz would have refused had she known.
Between the in-the-moment events, James recalls Ebert's past as culled from his memoirs, interviews with his old editors and friends, pictures of his past life as a raconteur and roustabout, as a know-it-all and driven journalist, as a boob-man and a family man. Ebert's destiny may not have been writing about film directly, but he was headed for a Pulitzer one way or another, having started his own self-published and self-distributed rag at the age of 12... laser focused.
The highlights were naturally the Siskel years, Roger facing off against his appointed nemesis from across the street, and across the aisle. The two were born enemies, who became natural brothers, and shared a bond that was deeper than either of them truly cared to admit. There was passion in their shouting matches, their one-upsmanship, their put-downs, and such heartbreak (and a lesson so noted in how do deal with it) when Roger learned way too late that his polar opposite was closing in on death.
I was a rapt reader of RogerEbert.com in Eberts final years, his blog posts shining a light on his intelligence and world savvy in a way his reviews only so frequently implied. They also took us deep within Ebert's personal journey through his illnesses, his treatments, losing his jaw and his voice, but taking to technology to retain it, if not speak even louder than before. Life Itself takes us through this journey again, but instead of it being through Rogers eyes, it's through those that love him, friends, family, James, and Chaz most of all. It's a bright film filled with sadness, but inspiring and uplifting. It's an emotional piledriver, but one that feels rewarding all the same. Everyone in the audience held their thumb up for Roger at the end as they wiped away their tears with the other hand.
Graig and David Sometimes Disagree started out with bigger ambitions, but has settled into what it is because of life, itself. Would we like it to be more collaborative, more engaged, more back-and-forth? Certainly. We're not Gene and Roger, but when we get going, pulling apart a film the other liked, or just gushing together over a film we both loved (especially those films that get lambasted by the more mainstream reviewers) we can really have something unique to say (our back-of-the-streetcar post-mortem on Source Code was epic... if only we had something to record it on). We kind of wanted this blog to be a hybrid of At The Movies debate and Ebert's incredible archive of film analysis and love, fully aware that it would pale in comparison to both, like a pale imitation of a pale imitation. But Ebert, though departed, still sits firmly in the seat behind us every time we write (more thumbs down than thumbs up, I'm sure, but I'm still happy he's there). In the end, we may be writing for you, dear reader, but even more we're writing for each other, and, moreover, in Ebert's image, we're writing for ourselves. I miss Roger Ebert all the damn time. There's some great movie reviewers worth paying attention to out there still (Nathin Rabin, I'm looking at you), but few come close to Roger, and they all owe him a debt of gratitude for elevating the conversation.