Sunday, July 06, 2014

Life Itself / **** (R)

A documentary featuring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Marlene Iglitzen, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Gene Siskel, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Avy DuVernay
The voice of Roger Ebert: Stephen Stanton

Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films present a film by Steve James. Based on the memoir “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert. Running time: 115 min. Rated R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language).

I didn’t know I was a writer. I went to school to be an actor. I’d watched “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” on Saturday mornings as a kid. To me Roger Ebert was just a guy on TV who talked about movies, which I thought was pretty cool, but that was the end of it. Then when I was in college, an acting friend of mine turned me on to Roger’s written word. Suddenly I realized that not only was there more to movies than I’d ever imagined, but there was more to criticism.

Roger Ebert was like no other film critic on the planet. He even differed greatly from his TV partner Gene Siskel. With other critics, it always seemed as if they were performing a duty to their critical calling. With Roger, it was his pleasure. It was under this premise that I slowly realized that I was also a writer and a critic. It kind of goes in that order too, even though the majority of the writing both Ebert and I have performed in our lives has taken the form of movie criticism. This might state it correctly—writer (critic).

The new documentary by renowned documentary filmmaker Steve James—whose “Hoop Dreams” will go down as one of the greatest docs ever made—focuses a great deal on Roger Ebert the film critic, as it must, but it’s fascination is with Roger Ebert the person. Based on Ebert’s own memoir, “Life Itself” is an exploration of a life lived—not always well, but lived almost beyond measure.

James’ movie doesn’t delve quite as deeply into Ebert’s youth as the book does. This is a minor disappointment, since I found Ebert’s recollections of his own upbringing and early influences to be fascinating. Of course, they were also accompanied by his wonderful prose, which cannot be the substance of a film of any kind. Although, James does his best to work in as much of Ebert’s writings into the film as possible with a great deal of passages taken directly from the book and narrated with a spot on Ebert intonation by Stephen Stanton. It makes a difference to hear his words spoken as he would say them.

Despite any missing fragments from Ebert’s account, it’s important to note that the production began before Ebert’s death and was not intended originally as a eulogy for the venerated man. When Ebert’s death occurred during filming, his late life health problems probably came more to the forefront of James’ vision for the film. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have played much of a role had he not died. Ebert was very public with his health woes over the final years of his life. Because he was such a public personality, he may not have had much of a choice. The film also documents very clearly why Ebert was so determined to be up front with everyone, including the public, about his health condition. His longtime professional partner, Gene Siskel, had been very secretive about his illness, and it hit Ebert to the core. Ebert was determined not to have the same effect on others.

James shows us frankly the daily stresses of living with health issues. Ebert makes a point to express on screen how happy he is that they were able to film him having his lungs cleared out with suction. It ain’t pretty and neither was Ebert in his final years; although somehow the shock of seeing a man with his entire lower jaw removed is never unsettling here. That is a testament to the man himself, who exudes such a positive attitude about his situation, which could not have been as easy as he makes it look.

Personally, I was struck by the many testimonies presented by celebrities and news industry friends alike, who all speak of the man as if he were an ideal. Even when they speak of his arrogance and self-importance, they speak with reverence. The filmmaker Ramin Bahrani speaks of his introduction to Ebert. He’d made a movie outside the Hollywood system and wrote to Ebert on a whim, never expecting a response, to request that Ebert merely watch his movie. He was shocked when Ebert responded personally and immediately. His experience in reaching out to Ebert, a man who must’ve received countless requests for advice and guidance, was very similar to my own. I didn’t have a movie but a review I wished him to look over. His response, although brief, was personal and encouraging. His response to Bahrani’s film was that of exuberant support.

It is also interesting to see the responses of other notable film critics to Ebert’s work. A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss both contribute quite a bit to the doc, talking of how Ebert’s approach to film criticism and how making the general public aware of cinema as art on a much more massive level than had ever been done before had also mainstreamed criticism in a way that was not always beneficial to it’s purpose. The thumbs and the star ratings became an instant review format embraced by the mainstream, which sidestepped the nuances of the cinematic art form and of criticism in general. Ebert was well aware of this influence, but I think it can be said his positive impact on cinema was much greater than his negative.

One thing other critics criticized Ebert for was befriending the filmmakers. Martin Scorsese was on very friendly terms with Ebert and was invariably one of Ebert’s favorite filmmakers. Scorsese, an executive producer on this film, also appears to discuss how helpful a critic like Ebert was to his career. Not just for getting him noticed with his first film “Look Who’s Knocking at My Door?”, but also as inspirational support to continue to challenge himself through a tough period in the 80’s. He speaks of Ebert’s negative review of his sequel to “The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”. He says Ebert’s words hurt, but they weren’t cruel and could be used as guidance to avoid mistakes in the future.

Since appointing myself a movie critic years ago when I started sending e-mail reviews out to my close friends, I’ve often wondered just what the purpose of a critic really was. Many of my friends are artists, and coming from that circle, I know that criticism from an outside source is not something easily embraced. Ebert had a gift of making criticism seem like a natural everyday part of the Hollywood industry. He wrote in a conversational style that felt like a discussion you were having with a close friend. This is why he was so beloved, even by those who received the worst of his critical ire. He was a friend. It’s that simple. And you really couldn’t ask for a better friend. With Ebert’s pure enjoyment of all things in life, he was a friend that inspired all of those in his wide reach to better themselves, and the world is a better place for having him. Perhaps cinema was the best vehicle to bring such a person into so many lives, since everyone loves the movies.

“Life Itself” opened nationally on Friday in select theaters, and on several VOD and streaming platforms.It will air on CNN later this year.

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