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Documentary 'Life Itself' Explores The Life And Impact Of Roger Ebert
Writing about Life Itself, the new documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, is a strange activity. Roger Ebert casts such an enormous shadow over any writing about the movies that one can feel intimidated to take on the task even with his untimely death last year.
Named after Ebert's memoir from 2011, Life Itself was sadly filmed towards the end of his life. By that point, Ebert had lost his lower jaw to cancer and the majority of the time spent with him in the present is either at the hospital or in a rehab center. These moments can be startling, James's camera can get intimately close to Ebert's face to show what is left of his mouth and an angrier, frustrated side of the usually-affable critic sometimes comes through. James uses a series of emailed questions to the bedridden Ebert as the basis of his inquiry.
Nominally a biography, Life Itself uses the Ebert's life as a framework for exploring the mythology of the most famous critic in America and the realities behind the myth. It's not surprising that it's mostly a rosy picture, given how generally beloved he was and the close involvement of Ebert and his wife Chaz on the project, but it's fascinating to see how contentious his relationship with Gene Siskel had been at times and how candid the film and its interview subjects can be about its subhect. Many of his friends, colleagues, and filmmakers he personally championed make appearances to say kind words about Ebert, including such luminaries as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, but those closest to him don't shy away from his known irascibility away from the public spotlight. In one contemporary moment, Ebert can be heard defiantly ignoring his wife Chaz and the nurses while bedridden, cranking up the Steely Dan like a teenager.
Life Itself also doesn't shy away from the fact that his television show with Gene Siskel was seen by some as a death knell for serious movie criticism (of which people seem to proclaim occurs every three years at this point). Shifting film discussion away from longform writing and into five-minute soundbites and a simple thumbs-up or -down, fellow critics including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss (who wrote an article in Film Comment about the issue) don't hold anything back on the issue.
No matter ones thoughts on the Siskel and Ebert television program, it is impossible to deny the impact it had on the culture of film criticism. And that is perhaps where Life Itself is at its most insightful, showing Ebert as a trendsetter and ahead of the curve amongst his set. Going back to his days as editor-in-chief of the school paper at the University of Illinois, his insights on the Civil Rights Movement in the tumultuous early-60s show a progressive mind unafraid to speak out. Towards the end of his life, and partly because of his illness and inability to speak, Ebert also became a quick adopter of the Internet. He became infamous for his ceaseless tweeting and his amazingly confessional blog that he wrote in until his last days. In a moment in the film that seems like a prophecy, Chaz and Roger are seen in the comforts of their living room catching a preview of the RogerEbert.com re-design. The site makes it easier for any reader to peruse his archive of thousands of movie reviews from his entire career, and having it launch shortly after his death only goes to show that Ebert is an inextricable part of film criticism and history.
Life Itself is now playing at theaters everywhere.