Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)
Based on Roger Ebert’s memoirs, Life Itself, this documentary was directed by Steve James, who directed Ebert’s favorite film of the 1990’s Hoop Dreams, is a naked portrayal of the film critic, the man, and the life of the most popular film critic of all time.
Presented for the first time at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Life Itself was also available in streaming for those who helped raise the necessary funds to finish the production of this feature. Filming began in 2012 and continued until the death of Ebert to be completed a short time after to get interviews with his friends, his wife Chaz Ebert, and fellow film critics.
All along the documentary Steve James’ camera catches the vulnerability of the sick man that Ebert was in his final days but at the same time we feel his passion and how his work was his fuel to get through life and all his condition. We see him interact with his computer, because since 2007 he is not able to talk, eat, and drink. A series of surgeries removed tumors from his jaw bone and let him with only a chin but no real mouth. Once we pass this vision, we discover how the fire was still burning in his eyes. His desire to live, to love, and to work on films was stronger than everything he had to live. This is a very saddening portrait but also one of the few times we see sickness on the screen. Until, his death his blog was his voice and he is still a great inspiration to all of us film writers out there. He brought movies to everyone and he believed that films, writers, viewers were all the same and he didn’t believe in popular cinema and sophisticated cinema either. He was honest enough to state that he didn’t understood all of Ingmar Bergman’s films elements and themes but he enjoyed them and wanted people to go to the movies.
The many interventions by Chaz, John McHugh, William Nack, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Rahmin Bahrani, Errol Morris, Marlene Iglitzen are all touching and help to dress the personality of the subject and I believe that the editing job and the interviews were mastered because James was able to get superb points of view. People are talking freely and they don’t seem to be hiding their sentiments or giving too much either. One of the most interesting part is about the relationship between Gene Siskel and Ebert. It is also a nice tribute to Siskel and we get a good impression of how they worked together and what each meant to the other one. Having never watched any of their show I started browsing YouTube to find some of their shows to get a glimpse of their talks. In a way, their collaboration brought cinema to the people of America. It also gave the respect to film criticism that it deserved. The interventions by A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum also give an interesting angle on this way of thinking about film criticism.
Despite my admiration for Roger Ebert and the sentiment that I connected with his writings and that I loved every book from him that I read, I think that Life Itself is a great film that speak about people and tell the life of a genuine persona. Even if I only knew the man from reading him I’m sure he would have loved it. So did I. Life Itself is a work of passion, love, and dedication to a man that was passionate, in love, and dedicated to his wife, his family, his friends, his craft and people.