Life Itself (2014)
Dir: Steve James
Roger Ebert – that towering personality who dominated popular film criticism for pretty much the entirety of its television heyday and beyond that into the early 21st century – gets the documentary treatment from fellow mid-Westerner Steve James in Life Itself. Friends, colleagues, filmmakers and family, along with Ebert himself, look back upon his life and legacy in this comprehensive, poignant and frequently funny film.
Adapted from Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, Life Itself traces Ebert’s life from childhood to his death in 2013. Every American Icon needs a worthy origin story, and Life Itself ably provides. A precocious child with a passion for the written word, Ebert’s gifts were encouraged by his immigrant parents who foresaw a better life for their son. Fun anecdotes from Ebert’s time as editor of his college newspaper, The Illini, foreshadowed his passion for journalism and eventual career path. His quick rise to Chicago Sun Times film critic in 1967 is crosscut with ribald tales of his drinking and carousing from those who knew him best during his barfly period. In his younger days Ebert consorted with ladies of the night – who knew?
The important milestones are covered as the film skips back and forth through time, to some past event and back again to Ebert in the months before his death. James narrates many sections of the film with passages from the novel, giving lyrical life to Ebert’s journey. As he does, a picture emerges of this great film crank – a bright cineaste whose tastes ran the gamut from trashy (he wrote the salacious Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Russ Meyer!) to cultured (he held Pauline Kael in the highest regard). Of particular note and reverence are Ebert’s interactions with Martin Scorsese and his professional and personal relationship with Gene Siskel. A large portion of the middle section details Siskel and Ebert’s ascendancy to the top of the critic heap, and their often contentious but ultimately loving relationship. Siskel’s sudden passing is heartrending in the film – one of those big moments that a documentary can so effectively portray when done well.
The real heart of the film, however, lies in the relationship between Roger and Chaz Ebert – his wife of 21 years. Chaz is a consistent presence in the latter day scenes, and she is revealed as a wellspring of love and hope for Ebert, especially as his health declines. These scenes are frank in the way they confront aging and sickness, and Ebert was clear that he didn’t want to hide the changes he was going through. It’s a given that Ebert would not have survived as long as he did or battle his illnesses so ferociously were Chaz not by his side.
As the final months of Ebert’s life ebb by, James elicits many strong responses from his subject, from his favourite spot in Chicago to his thoughts on aging. Ebert, with his ability to speak lost to the cancer, communicates through a computer and seems to maintain his sense of humour even in the face of adversity. James visits Ebert in the hospital rooms and rehabilitation centres that have become his life, and as Ebert’s health worsens the communications are relegated to emails which then slow to a trickle. Ebert’s final moments are recounted in a monologue that shows the power of film itself. As the man himself said: “And for me, the 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 to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Life Itself is exactly that – a rich, detailed portrait of a man whose readers and fans were legion. New nuggets and anecdotes are shared by friends lovingly reminiscing over fond memories of a friend. It’s fitting then that the movie ends with a montage from the public send off held in Chicago, “Roger Ebert: A Celebration of Life”. A life well lived and a legacy secured, we are now left with his words and this assured movie. It stands as a monument to who Roger Ebert was, and how he will be remembered. Two thumbs up.