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Life Itself (2014)

| July 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

For those of us who write about film – spurred for this critic by a passion for the medium that oozes from my very pores – Roger Ebert was our great mentor, a poetic grandfatherly figure who seemed to simplify the art of simply being honest. For 46 years, Ebert wrote about movies in a way that made us appreciate them. He spoke in plain English, devoid of the snootiness and bitterness that pushed us away from many of his contemporaries. He had a love of movies that couldn’t be faked. Many of us came to know Ebert from his TV show “Siskel and Ebert” with fellow critic Gene Siskel. They were unflinchingly honest, scalding bad movies while praising the good ones. The great movies they carried on their shoulders. Their passion was infectious. They are the reason for the review that you are currently reading.

Ebert would turn his love of film into a metaphor for life. As the documentary Life Itself opens, we hear Ebert explain that “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 identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Life Itself (available on iTunes and VOD) examines the life of the world’s most famous critic for all its light and dark moments. This is not a sponge-cleaned prepackaged documentaries that glorifies Ebert as a product, but rather the bittersweet story of a kid who came from a small town in down-state Illinois, fell in love with journalism, developed a deep passion for the movies, and became famous by being lucky enough to talk about it on television. Somewhere in between he fought and won a battle over alcoholism; wrote the screenplay for a Russ Meyer movie; found a cure for his loneliness in his beloved wife Chazz (whom he met in AA), and won a Pulitzer Prize that he liked to lord over his television colleague Gene Siskel.

Directed by Steve james (whose Hoop Dreams was one of Ebert’s favorite films) the movie takes us through all the stages of Ebert’s life, from his lonely childhood, to his college years, to his budding early days as a cub reporter, to his many years on television and through the battle with cancer that claimed his life last year. Much of the film is narrated in Roger’s own words from passages from his memoir “Life Itself” and narrated by voice actor Stephen Stanton. The book was the work of a man who came to believe in full disclosure after the death of his co-host Gene Siskel in 1999. Ebert wasn’t told about Siskel’s illness for a long while and he was bitter about it. So, years later, when he became ill himself, he started a blog, from which he poured as much confessional as he could. He was part of the early development for this documentary, and he wanted nothing left out.

Ebert’s difficult final years aren’t glossed over. Between the interviews, his wife Chazz documented his difficult battle with cancer that, in 2006, robbed him of his lower jaw and his ability to speak. There is a difficult moment in which we see Ebert in extreme discomfort as his nurse attempts to adjust a tube in his throat. All the while, the light in Roger’s eyes still gleams, helped in no small part to his wife whose sunny disposition is not only infectious, but inspiring. James doesn’t shy away his camera away from Ebert’s disfigurement, his jaw which sling down. It’s hard not to be aghast by it at first, but his positive outlook makes you comfortable with him.

This was something Ebert was an expert in. Many of those of us who aspire to write about film gained out love of film from “Siskel and Ebert.” I was no different, seated in front of my television set every Saturday at 3pm listening to two guys argue and then praise great movies. In 1998, I began a personal correspondence with Roger Ebert in which he championed my ambition to become a professional critic. He and Siskel made you want to get involved in wrapping yourself up in great movies. For Ebert, it was part of his personality. He was positive, compassionate and often poetic about life in general. Life Itself shows us all the reasons that Ebert is so beloved, and why his passing leaves such a hole. He simply loved life itself.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2014) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary, Recent